Social networking sites and ability to take moving pictures on our telephones may help us believe we get it out there, but they will never take the place of the work and organisation needed to raise the money to script, edit and distribute our own films. Judy Mazonowicz describes here how the Women's IndependenT Cinema House (WITCH) made this process a reality for women in Liverpool.
The Herstory of WITCH
It was 1980, I was 22, and I took my first job after having my son Kolin as a single parent. The job was under a temporary employment scheme, (STEP) Skills, Training and Enterprise Programme and I was to be an administrative worker for MVCU- Merseyside Visual Communications Unit, which was the brainchild of Colin Wilkinson. Most people knew the project as the Open Eye Gallery on the ground floor of a three story building on the corner of Whitechapel and very close to News from Nowhere.
The floors above the gallery housed three photography darkrooms, studios, professional film and VHS video equipment, a sound studio, the people who knew how to use all the above and the Café next to the Gallery.
My responsibility was to meet and greet or take phone calls from people wanting to book equipment, dark rooms or attend workshops on how to use them. I also handled some mail.
My first day I walked into a room full of dust and an electric typewriter on the floor as there was no furniture. The whole building was being worked on by a work gang of YOPS (Youth Opportunity Scheme) ridding it of dry rot and preparing offices for what were to become an animation studio and a Liverpool photography archive.
Working in dust and noise over the year the office became functional and I had a desk with a switchboard. Soon the photography archivers started, again under a STEP scheme and I joined their group for induction into photography, film and video workshops. Sally Evans from Brighton who had attended consciousness raising sessions was part of this group and we became friends.
Every other Wednesday evening the Gallery became a cinema as Another View Film Society screened alternative/independent film. Art house or documentary and, leading up to the revolution in Poland, a Polish season, Another View certainly had its finger on the pulse of change.
Sally Evans, myself and a friend Steph Bunn, who was teaching in Kirkby College at the time, decided to apply to Merseyside Arts for the funding.
We met in my flat during the evening. Having chosen to be a single parent I didn't have any free childcare so this just seemed sensible. Trying to find a name for the group proved to be very difficult and took up the most of our meeting one Wednesday evening. I will never forget the looks on the guys faces from film and video when we came in the next day with the name WITCH – Women's IndependenT Cinema House – “Oh no! You're not going to be one of those feminist groups are you?” We chose films we found from feminist distribution groups such as Circles and Cinema of Women (COW) built up a screening programme with a budget to be submitted for funding from Merseyside Arts. It was suggested that the programme would stand a lot better if we invited some of the film-makers to talk with their work.
Looking back I can see now that this was the first step for local women to be inspired to claim the means of production.
We advertised in Spare Rib, produced fliers and put them up by hand around town, up and down Smithdown Road, Lark Lane, community centres, pubs etc. Each screening evening we set out chairs beforehand and put them away at the end of the night. The film department (Doug and Chris) taught us how to project, change reels etc.
Very quickly we were screening films to 60 people at a time, running women only photography workshops, and slowly we were able to raise funding for women only video making weekends.
Crèche's were paid for by Merseyside Arts in our grant applications and run by a wonderful men only organisation called “Crèche's Against Sexism”. I thank them still, you know who you are.
Wednesdays were still our night and the weeks we didn't have a screening we held meetings. After a couple of years we had raised some very little to pay wages apart from women who came from London to run workshops or speak to their films.
We were members of the National Women's Film and Television Network (still going, I heard something on the radio the other day).
One of our big achievements was to get a a 16mm film workshop funded and contacted the National Film and Television School for our facilitators. We met working female film-makers and learnt how to use professional equipment and produced alongside them.
By this time many women were coming to our meetings as they could become WITCH members and the meetings were open. Those with more experience were sometimes paid to run weekend workshops but we did not have any administrative fees for at least three years.
We were commissioned around this time by Laura Campbell of the Co-operative Development Association (CDA) to make a video which we called “You'll Never Work Alone”; I believe this was our first commissioned piece that paid wages to our technicians.
During the early 1980's many cities across Britain had Independent Film- makers working in workshops, Amber (Newcastle) Four Corners (Bristol) etc. were looking towards the launch of Channel 4 and negotiating with the ACTT (Association and Cinema and Television Technicians union) as regards opening up the very tight restrictions regulating broadcast production.
The agreement reached was broadly that if a workshop had permanent funding for four workers to work in the community at a rate comparable but not as much as standard union rates shot the material then this could be broadcast. This agreement (The Workshop Declaration) took a long time to structure and dynamic. Possibly the forerunner of reality TV. Open Eye Film and Video had been given the right to work under The Declaration as they had reached the funding level and their ethos to give the people of Liverpool access to the means of production was in line with the agreement.
When four of us (by this time we were working with Harriet Wistrich) went to Keva Coombes, leader of Merseyside County Council, we were going to ask for the wages for two workers. On the way in though, we were offered tea by my friend Theresa. I hadn't seen her since the early 70s. When she heard we were applying for two workers she advised to ask for four because Keva always halved every application. We asked for four with the Workshop Declaration in mind and were funded for four workers for three years!
Steph did not want to work full time, Sally was now working for News From Nowhere so Harriet and I took two posts and we advertised, the other two posts.
Barbara Phillips and Ann Carney who had produced radio programmes with Ariel Trust shared the two posts with Steph.
Very quickly we realised that black women needed their own section of the organisation and quickly became Black WITCH. They worked alongside us running workshops and producing their own films and videos. We were all very politicised. Merseyside Trades Union, Community and Unemployed Resource Centre (MTUCURC) was a thriving hub of action and community. Our films were now being shown there, International Women's Day was being celebrated (certainly by us!) and the Flying Picket had great bands on every week.
Whew! Thinking about the political climate makes me want to shudder. With Thatcher in power, the miners strike, riots and the women's movement seeming to have decided that to be a true feminist one had to be a lesbian it felt like the whole of the left was at war. Harriet Wistrich moved on and another women only job was advertised and became a job share between animator Aine Whitehead and photographer/DJ Pip Nichols. Both of whom had been coming to WITCH meetings for some time and putting in many voluntary hours as well as small amounts of paid freelance work. We produced films and video's with groups of women and distributed them around the country.
Titles such as The Capenhurst Connection -about the links in the nuclear chain – the journey from the illegal mining of the ore in Namibia to its processing and British Nuclear Fuel plants at Springfields and Capenhurst and took the perspective or Merseyside Women for Peace.
That Time of the Month – Four girls from Vauxhall act out scenes of girls learning about periods. To promote discussion in schools and youth clubs.
They Don't Get a Chance – A Tribute to Black Women – The first production by Black Witch aimed at schools and universities because of the major part they play in the formation of public opinion and attitude, to challenge the practise which generally ignores or misrepresents the reality of black women's existence. Made in conjunction with the CRC, Liverpool Black Sisters and individual members of the community. ELLA – A video about Marcia Davies, the main person behind Catalyst Productions and the making of ELLA – a black version of the fairy story Cinderella.
There was more but I am not sure if we have room here to mention them all. My highpoint was being given £10k to research a documentary about Irish women having to come to Liverpool to access abortions for the Monday 11 o'clock People to People slot. I needed an extension on the time-scale for delivering the research due to and accident at home. By the time the script was looked at the programme had been cancelled.
Over the years I had become very active and sometimes chair of Open Eye Management Council which saw Colin Wilkinson leave and other administrators take his place.
As time went on, and the building under notice of demolition, the Liverpool Independent Film and Video sector had grown to include ourselves and Liverpool Community Productions Group (now First Take) and needed re-housing. A coalition was formed calling itself Communications Arts Trust (CAT) which raised enough money to buy and make watertight a big building in Bold Street. The Open Eye Gallery and News from Nowhere moved into the ground floor, after the first year it looked as though we would be able to house a wonderful community orientated communications unit with local people on union rates of pay worthy of the 1990s. [and] With the stress of the time and funding becoming scarce, some of us chose to take redundancy, leaving Black Witch and First Take to carry on the sector.
Funding bodies chose to put their money into another non unionised film organisation called Moviola and created very a different building – FACT.
It's very heartening that First Take are still in existence; Black WITCH lasted until just about three years ago. In a time of constant cuts in all arts organisations I now appreciate more the support Liverpool City Council, Merseyside County Council, Merseyside Arts and C4 put into allowing women, black women, trades unions and community groups the means of producing work which allowed us to speak for ourselves.
Social networking sites and ability to take moving pictures on our telephones may help us believe we get it out there but they will never take the place of the work and organisation needed to raise the money to, script, edit and distribute our own films saying what needs to be said over and over again it seems. Nor the feeling of satisfaction of completing a film or video from scratch then distribute it. Still only very few of us have the means of production of meaningful work. Many thanks to all WITCH members, those who worked for Open Eye, Community Productions Group, News from Nowhere and CAT.