Delphine Seyrig, or Artist as Producer and Feminist Activist at the “Defiant Muses” exhibition (Kunsthalle Wien, 7 April – 4 September, 2022)

23 March 2023 - no responses

Author: Vesna Vuković

Micha Dell-Prane: Delphine Seyrig and Ioana Wieder holding a camera during a demonstration, 1976, courtesy Centre audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir, © Micha Dell-Prane

In the decade survey asking critics to name the greatest films of all time, which is organized by Sight and Sound, the magazine of the British Film Institute, from 1952 on every second year in the decade, last year it was “Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” by Chantal Akerman. It was not until 2022 that we witnessed a female film-maker being named the greatest of all time. Akerman’s first feature (she was 25 when she filmed it) was heralded by Le Monde as early as in 1976 as “the first masterpiece of the feminine in the history of cinema”. It is not just its experimental modus, but also its very content that raised the film to cult status. We follow the daily routine of a middle-aged housewife, single mother, widow and sex worker Jeanne Dielman over the course of three days. Jeanne cooks, feed her son, washes the dishes, make beds, cleans the bathroom, does all the housework, and has sex with male clients for her own and her son’s subsistence. The film has provoked debate over the decades, which still, nearly 50 years later, resonate in feminist clashes over sex work.

Protagonist is played by Delphine Seyrig, an iconic actress of French auteur cinema, with international fame, who collaborated with the most prominent directors, such as Resnais (his “Last Year in Marienbad” made her internationally celebrated), Truffaut, Buñuel, Zinnemann, Losey, and later Marguerite Duras, Agnès Varda and Ulrike Ottinger. Delphine Seyrig is very well known as an iconic actress, but what is mostly neglected is the fact that she was an active feminist organizer and filmmaker as well. It is this aspect of her life that was the starting point of the “Defiant Muses. Delphine Seyrig and the Feminist Video Collectives of 1970s and 1980s France“ exhibition, curated by Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez and Giovanna Zapperi. The exhibition opened at the Lille Métropole Musée d’art moderne, d’art contemporain et d’art brut and in Madrid’s Reina Sofia in 2019, and this summer (2022) moved to the Kunsthalle Wien, where I finally managed to visit it. It was an exceptional exhibition experience.

Starting from a personal trajectory, exhibition is anything but monographic. Beyond Seyrig’s exceptional persona as an “iconic” actress, it seeks to make connections and parallelisms between the history of cinema, the beginnings of video, and the history of women organizing and feminism in France. It is the latter that has been revisited, and not merely included in the exhibition as a background: “As opposed to a legacy centered on a theoretical body of work involving the fields of psychoanalysis, philosophy, and writing (the ‘écriture féminine’) the exhibition focuses on an alternative history in which media practices, activism, and visual culture take the leading role,” emphasize curators Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez and Giovanna Zapperi.[1]

The exhibition starts with Seyrig’s professional trajectory as an actress, written and framed in a construct of femininity and its role in the film industry. In 1970s Seyrig began to collaborate with female directors such as Ulrike Ottinger, Marguerite Duras, Agnès Varda and Chantal Akermann. These experiences completely changed her attitude and politicized her. As she recollects, commenting on filming Jeanne Dilman, “It’s not just being an actress, but acting within a context that means something to me personally. This never happened to me before […] But now I feel I don’t have to hide behind a mask, I can be my own size. It changes acting into action, what it was meant to be.“[2] We follow how Seyrig becomes aware of the power and labour relations in the film industry and how they shaped her actress’s status as well. Even her own privileged position, her background, her reputation and place in society, became a point of self-reflection and a political position from which to give voice to those who cannot be heard. In 1971, she signed the  Manifesto of the 343, a list of women who had an abortion, which was illegal in France until 1975.

Carole Roussopoulos: Delphine Seyrig and Viva during the shooting of Sois belle et tais-toi! [Be Pretty and Shut Up!], 1975, courtesy Seyrig Archives, © Alexandra & Géronimo Roussopoulos

In 1974 Seyrig met Carole Roussopoulos (the second French director to acquire a Sony Portapak, after Jean-Luc Godard, as we find out), who was already filming and teaching with her husband in their apartment, and started making videos. In 1975 two of them joined forces with Ioana Wieder and formed Les Insoumuses (or, The Resistant Muses) collective, which produced videos as tools of political activism and means of emancipation. The exhibition is largely built around a large network of struggles and alliances in which the collective was involved during the 1970s. Bringing together videos and films, artworks, photographs, and archival documents – a complex constellation organized in in thematic sections, or rather political issues raised at that historical moment – it develops a complex narrative of the struggles around sexuality, reproductive work and reproductive rights, sex work, women in the film industry, LGBTQ subjectivities, racism, torture of political prisoners, hand in hand with struggles against imperialism and capitalism.

This archival structure of the exhibition offers an opportunity to sit down, watch films, browse through the documents, and be caught by it, it draws parallels not just between here and elsewhere, but also between then and now, and opens many important questions for today. So, it makes this peculiar archive active in the present. I spent hours there, immersed in the stories, discovering connections, and becoming more and more surprised about how neglected this truly heroic history of women’s activism has been. Thanks to the Centre Audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir, which was created in 1982 in Paris by Carole Roussopoulos, Delphine Seyrig and Ioana Wieder as a pioneering institution for production, distribution, and conservation of video related to feminist struggles, and which is still active and relevant as activist organisation, we can be told this history today: a history of collective videos, feminist internationalist audiovisual media and feminist subjectivation in film production. Of course,  thanks to the huge archival, research and sharp interpretative work of its curators, Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez and Giovanna Zapperi.

Another major emphasis of the exhibition, organized in a separate chapter, focuses on international networks, in which Les Insoumuses were involved. We follow Seyrig as an active  member of the international committee demanding the liberation of Inês Etienne Romeu, a Brazilian political prisoner who had been incarcerated in 1971 and tortured for one hundred days (documented in her first video, Inês, 1974), her involvement in protests against the Vietnam War or in support of political prisoners in Germany (members of the Rote Armee Fraktion in Stammheim Prison in Stuttgart), in Spain, and in the USA, her support for the Palestinian cause, or for the Movement of Black Women in France. We follow Roussopoulos as she formed relationships with members of the Black Panther Party, and supported the struggles of France’s postcolonial and migrant population – to mention just a few points in this tremendous international feminist network, which unfolds in videos and documents, depicting an era of feminist and decolonial struggles, both in their necessary international politics. For Les Insoumuses, as we discover through the exhibition, this international dimension has been inseparable from their feminism, as highly engaged in building political alliances with anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist struggles. This is, in brief, its political lesson: How video could make more alliances, more solidarity and more action in feminist issues, connecting political movements of the time.

Cathy Bernheim: Delphine Seyrig holding a camera in the shooting of Où est-ce qu’on se “mai”? [Where should we go (to stand up for our rights)?], filmed during the May 1 demonstration in Paris, 1976 (detail), courtesy Cathy Bernheim


[1] Petrešin-Bachelez, Nataša and Zapperi, Giovanna, “Defiant Muses: An Introduction”, Defiant Muses: Delphine Seyrig and the Feminist Video Collectives in France in the 1970s and 1980s, exhibition catalogue, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, 2019, p. 16

[2] Kinder, Marsha, “Reflections on Jeanne Dielman,” Film Quarterly 30, no. 4, 1977. Quoted from:

Defiant Muses: Delphine Seyrig and the Feminist Video Collectives in France in the 1970s and 1980s, exhibition catalogue, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, 2019, p. 19

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