Interview with So Mayer and Corinn Columpar, Editors of Mothers of Invention: Film, Media, and Caregiving Labor
I really enjoyed the blend of analysis and storytelling you feature in your edited collection Mothers of Invention: Film, Media, and Caregiving Labor. How did the project come about?
So: The project had three sources: our history of collaboration on feminist film studies with a shared expansive view of media-making practices; my involvement with the co-founding of Raising Films, the UK-based organization for parents and carers working in the screen sector; and Corinn becoming a parent—all three sources, and their constellation, are palpable in the essays in the collection. At an interpersonal level, the book project was a commitment to continuing and enlarging our shared story that traces our paths as scholars and friends in the international film and media studies community.
When we first announced the call for papers (via a WordPress blog with images from some of our favorite films!), we had no idea who might submit and what kind of proposals we would receive, and it was exhilarating and exciting to realize that a topic that felt intimate and exposing, to a certain extent, made such a palpable connection with scholars and makers internationally, who shared so much thinking and feeling in response. That blending of analysis and storytelling that you name is probably one of my favorite aspects of the collection: every essay has an incredible level of perception and argumentation, profoundly informed and shaped by the urgent personal and collective stakes of caregiving. It’s been a privilege to work as co-editors with the writers who have opened up these incredible and unusual modes of scholarly writing and community-building with us.
Corinn: So describes the origins of the project perfectly, but I will add that as excited as I was when we were getting started, I was also intimidated. Because of all the incredible work they were doing with Raising Films, So came to this project with a tremendous amount of knowledge about the experience of carers in the film and media industries and a long history of advocacy on behalf of those carers. I, in contrast, came to Mothers of Invention as a feminist scholar whose life had just been turned upside down by having a baby and taking on a large administrative position at University of Toronto (in one of the strangest coincidences of my life, I found out I was pregnant nine days after accepting that position!). As a result, I felt overextended in multiple directions and almost too close to the topic to get a handle on it. In response, when conceiving my contribution to the collection, I had no choice but to start with my own experience in an effort to write my way through it. What proved fascinating to both So and me is how many other contributors did the same; as the essays rolled in, it became clear that this topic inspired, and in some cases required, a different way of writing, one that feels to me profoundly feminist in its imbrication of the personal and the theoretical. Like So, I feel really lucky to have found myself in conversation with so many other people whose investment in issues related to caregiving and media is multivalent—and I’m so pleased you see it as a strength of the book!
I love Mothers of Invention as a title for a book that provides insight on the intersections between film, feminism, and the experience of raising new generations—of children, of artists, of scholars. Can you talk about the title’s origin and the layers you see it bringing to your topic?
So: It’s a pretty rock n’ roll title! We share it, of course, with an experimental and innovative band, one led by a parent of four, no less. Perhaps more aligned with our project, it’s interesting to see that it’s been recently adopted as the name of a high-profile podcast on feminist solutions to climate change produced by Thimali Kodikara for Doc Society; there’s something in the phrase that’s about recognition of mothering as an activist and creative practice, a source of solutions due to the pressing nature of caregiving labor. The first bit of the proverb is the word “necessity,” and that’s definitely something that runs throughout the book. While we’re proud to join the small and excellent list of scholarly books that look, importantly, at representations of mothering on screen, we wanted to make the link with parenting off-screen, both as work itself and as part of the labor conditions in the screen industries, exploring the ways in which complex on-screen representations are driven and shaped by the space made by parents making media. Relatedly, we wanted to model that connection between practice and content through the practicalities of making the book, which did require some invention in terms of developing practices of care while working with contributors who are, predominantly, working moms, working and homeschooling for the final stretch of the editorial process!
In my memory, Corinn and I came up with the title at her house, during my visit to Toronto when we first planned the book as part of the necessity of finding ways to continue connecting profoundly over our transatlantic distance and busy workloads. From working on our previous collection There She Goes, we knew that we needed a dynamic title with strong and broad cultural connotations that would catch contributors’ and readers’ ears, while also summing up what we were arguing for. Mothers of Invention deliberately contradicts the lingering condemnatory sense of “the pram in the hallway” as something that limits creativity and scholarship, but the book also challenges the ways in which a sexist, racist culture makes mothers’ invention—in the non-creative sense of finding additional time, resources, and understanding—a necessity, instead of supporting and hailing their depths of ingenuity, compassion and brilliance. It’s one thing if you’re an all-cis-male band, apparently, to be hailed as mothers of invention; but another if you are actually a mother!
Corinn: One more thing I’ll mention is that the idea of “mothers of invention” has a particular resonance in the history of cinema, given that Agnès Varda is widely known as “the mother of the French New Wave” (even though she was a contemporary of her male colleagues), and as Elinor Cleghorn discusses in her essay “From (An)other Mother,” Maya Deren is often called “the mother of the avant-garde.” One of multiple things that our book attempts to do is connect the legacy of these two trailblazing mothers to that of so many other mothers, be they literal or symbolic, who are likewise engaged in acts of (re)invention. We hope the title gestures toward this genealogical project as well.
There She Goes: Feminist Filmmaking and Beyond, the collection you co-edited in 2009, was a major touchstone for me as I wrote my dissertation on feminist filmmaking, so it’s a real treat to interview you now. What did you learn from working on There She Goes, and how did it shape your collaboration on Mothers of Invention?
Corinn: We learned so many things from There She Goes, particularly about how to work with each other—and with others besides—in a way that is both supportive and capable of pushing our scholarship in terms of its critical possibilities. The thing I remember most vividly about producing There She Goes is the fact that we did so much of our collaborative work sitting across from each other at my dining room table in a single two-week stretch. So was living in London by this point, but came to Toronto, where I live, for an extended stay. During that time, we worked together every day, drafting our introduction and discussing in detail each chapter in the collection in order to generate feedback for our contributors. Through this process we forged an approach that was grounded in ongoing collaboration rather than a simple division of labor. We also figured out how to begin honing a voice that is reflective of that collaboration. Left to our own devices, So and I work quite differently: So thinks and writes in expansive lateral networks, while I tend to be more linear and focused. When collaborating we have to balance those two tendencies, and the result is work that is markedly different, I think, from the work we produce on our own.
When working on Mothers of Invention, the kind of in-person collaboration described above was impossible for multiple reasons, but by that point we had a good handle on the other person’s workflow and thought process. As a result, we were able to recreate, more or less, the dynamic that emerged in-person, even though we were doing everything with an ocean and a serious time difference between us.
One other thing I think we learned with There She Goes is that the more communicative editors are with contributors, the more invested everyone feels in a collection. As a result, with Mothers of Invention, we made a point of sending out emails to our contributors whenever anything, be it big or small, happened with its development. Doing so really helped us put into practice the priorities of the volume in general: it allowed us to cultivate a sense of community and an ethos of care in the volume’s production.
So: It’s been a thrill to follow the scholarly work of the contributors to There She Goes, many of whom were emerging scholars when they contributed, and to feel part of a community of thinkers and writers going out into the conversation. It’s been a privilege to go on that route with the contributors to Mothers of Invention just in the time the book has been in development—we can’t wait to see what continues to grow from this community!
When There She Goes was published, there were very few books that discussed feminist filmmaking as their main focus. Have you seen a shift in scholarship that addresses women behind the camera since then?
Corinn: The main shift I’ve observed is related not so much to how many books there are, but rather to the kinds of feminist filmmaking, and feminist filmmakers, that get discussed in those books. One thing we were responding to with There She Goes was the fact that much of the work on feminist filmmaking that contributed to our intellectual formation was auteurist in approach (or in aspiration) and focused on canonized filmmakers like Maya Deren, Yvonne Rainer, Chantal Akerman, and Agnès Varda. We wanted to create space to consider politically engaged filmmakers who fall outside of any canon, be it because they don’t have a sizable body of film work under their belt or because they are working in a more populist, as opposed to experimental, mode, or for whatever other reason. That’s why we wanted to include discussion of people like Cindy Sherman, Miranda July, and Samira Makhmalbaf alongside more frequently discussed figures like Jane Campion and Sally Potter. And on this count There She Goes is in good company: so many relatively recent publications have taken this project much further, producing a vital understanding of feminist film culture that is transnational and extremely varied, both aesthetically and politically. Patricia White’s Women’s Cinema, World Cinema (2015); Linda Badley, Claire Perkins, and Michele Schreiber’s Indie Reframed (2016); Deborah Martin and Deborah Shaw’s Latin American Women Filmmakers (2017); and So’s Political Animals (2015) all come to mind as particularly accomplished examples.
So: Edinburgh University Press’ Visionaries series (open access) shows that the auteurist model Corinn describes can be made more inclusive and reflective, with complex theoretical monographs on a fascinating international range of women filmmakers. It’s also been exciting to see research like Melanie Bell’s Movie Workers: The Women Who Made British Cinema, a below-the-line history, Frances Galt’s Women’s Activism Behind the Screens, which looks at feminist work in the technical crew union for the screen industries; these books, both from 2021, offer a richly nuanced, archivally-sourced perspective at the juncture of feminist film and labor histories. The number of documentaries about women filmmakers has also increased and gained in range—we cite Hepi Mita’s Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen in the introduction. Docs, retrospectives, restorations, podcasts, and databases as well as books are all contributing to the broad spectrum of scholarship and research that is putting women filmmakers back into film history; it’s a collective effort and virtuous cycle, as a project like Women Film Pioneers shows.
You’re both scholars and film critics with impressive oeuvres that argue for the value of women’s vision and voices behind the camera. What role do you think scholarship and criticism play in enriching audiences’ interactions with the moving images we consume?
So: I think that media literacy, in all its forms, is essential! It’s enriching, in terms of spectatorial pleasures, to read a nuanced review that can point to how a work is achieving its effects, or an historical account of production, or an essay or book that gives us different tools and frames with which to see, hear and feel. Good writing and thinking that thinks from and with audiences creates a community in which we can share ideas and good practice, hopefully inspiring people to make their own work, whether it’s in the form of film, or their own critical or research-based writing.
Without knowing how media is made, can we really fully understand how it works and affects us? Working with Raising Films has also really brought home to me how little traditional film studies attends to production, and particularly labor practices—although people are definitely more aware now, through online reporting of everything from #MeToo to #DisneyMustPay. Media literacy gives us the tools to hold the industry accountable, and enjoy, in a multi-faceted way, what we’re watching and listening to.
Corinn: As a teacher, I spend so much of my time getting students to think about and to think with scholarship and criticism so that they can more fully appreciate the media they consume, and this strikes me as a particularly pressing agenda when it comes to the study of feminist film and media culture. I’ve been teaching a variety of courses dedicated to that topic for over 25 years, and in that time period there have been considerable ebbs and flows in terms of student interest. Happily, in our current historical moment, students are as hungry as ever to engage with work that helps them understand moving images, particularly the way those moving images not only capture the politics that inform their production, but also contribute to political debate and action.
For example, the last time I offered my course Feminist Approaches to Cinema, there was a huge demand for it on the part of students who were galvanized by #MeToo, #TimesUp, and the #BlackLivesMatter movement and wanted desperately to deepen their engagement with the issues these movements address. I suspect that appetite will only continue to increase in the face of ongoing phenomena like the rise of authoritarianism, the dismantling of abortion rights, and the escalation of the climate crisis. As dismal as this prediction sounds, what I am trying to get at is the fact that these days I see a lot of students seizing upon the critical study of film and media as an opportunity to engage with the social world. When they’re doing so, many of the issues So mentions—labor, industry accountability, the production of meaning, affect, and pleasure—are all squarely on the table, which is really encouraging.
As you mention in your introduction, COVID-19 brought to the forefront just how difficult, time-consuming, and undervalued caregiving is. How do you think the film industry will evolve in its ability to support caregivers as the pandemic wanes and we return to some new version of “normal”?
So: Raising Films did some research on the impact of COVID-19 for parents and carers in the UK screen industries, and with our community’s insights, we created some tools and resources for the industry to evolve in its ability to support all workers, especially those who have been historically excluded, including caregivers and those with caring needs. We called the resource “How We Work Now” because we already see those practices being implemented by parent/carer workers, mostly on small-/micro-budget productions.
We know it’s possible to have production schedules that are not destructive to all participants’ mental and physical health, we know it’s possible to budget for childcare and access, we know it’s possible to advertise and create jobs and roles fairly—and we know that everything we’re recommending costs money and requires thought. We also know that the money and thought are repaid exponentially by alleviating burnout and attrition and increasing the labor pool and creative community.
But it seems like a short-termist rush to return to “normal,” not least driven by streaming services’ content push, is overriding the potential for change arising from the awareness that the industry is broken, as it has also overridden so many issues of racial, gendered, economic, and geographical inequality that have been highlighted by, but pre-existed, the pandemic.
It’s possible (and I hope probable) that the drive to unionize and take collective action on working conditions, wages, and safety at work seen at Amazon and Starbucks will expand into the most precarious areas of the film industry. It’s only through collective action that the industry, like all industries, will change. We hope that some of the ideas and voices in the book can play a role in amplifying and supporting that change.
Corinn: I agree that the rush to return to normal could be a real setback, but there is also evidence of pressure being put on the film and television industries, even in Hollywood, that could result in significant change. I’ve been very inspired by a recently established Instagram account called IATSE Stories, which grew out of the frustration of a lighting technician named Ben Gottlieb, who posted on Instagram when he was asked to return to unsustainable, pre-pandemic working hours in the wake of relaxed restrictions on film production. After thousands of people responded to the post, an account was set up to collate stories of overwork from other, mostly below-the-line, workers. While some of them are caregivers, many are not, which points to the fact that activism around the issue of working conditions presents opportunities for not only grassroots organizing but also coalition building. Another source of inspiration that comes to mind on this count is Marielle Heller’s commitment to a family-friendly production schedule during the making of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. While this is a pre-pandemic example of change, what it shows is that it is possible, with strong and uncompromising leadership, to create working conditions that cast and crew members are typically—now more than ever, as evidenced by IATSE Stories—eager to embrace.
Both of you take your scholarship beyond the page. So, you are the co-founder of the activist organization Raising Films, and you, Corinn, are a professor at the Cinema Studies Institute at the University of Toronto. How do you see your publications as influencing other aspects of your professional life and vice versa?
Corinn: In general, there is a great deal of exchange between my scholarship and teaching. I regularly teach courses at U of T on film and media as they relate to feminism, performance, and embodiment, and those courses come to serve as an incubator for interests and a vital—as in, important and alive—site for testing ideas. In the case of Mothers of Invention, however, something else has been going on as well.
I have a colleague who once told me that she came to regard her students differently after becoming a parent; even when she was disappointed or frustrated by some aspect of a student’s performance in her course, she would think to herself, “this is someone’s child,” and she would suddenly have access to a degree of compassion that can be hard to muster in the midst of a taxing semester and a heavy teaching load. While I don’t think having a baby flipped that same switch in me, working on Mothers of Invention did; it’s pushed me to think about, and to try to act on, what it would mean to make care a central tenet in the classroom or, for that matter, in an academic department. Going beyond the idea of the classroom as a “safe space,” how can we acknowledge and value the multidimensional nature of people—their identities, their experiences, their abilities, their responsibilities—while also promoting academic work as not only a collective but also a collectivist project? Of course, the pandemic has also forced us to think carefully about these issues, and to practice compassion with our students, our colleagues, and ourselves in the process, so the publication of Mothers of Invention feels very timely.
So: Having trained as an academic, the more radical forms of pedagogy—for example, bell hooks’ work—remain the bedrock for my organizing and my creative practice; the idea that scholarship is about transmission and activation, not gatekeeping, is at the forefront of how I engage. Raising Films was, in part, a way to translate research by scholars like Tamsyn Dent, Natalie Wreyford, and others on mothers working in the UK film industry into action, through the medium of dissemination and democratization, building an informed community that includes researchers, practitioners, organizers, and policymakers—a collectivist project, as Corinn says, because it is more engaging, more profoundly satisfying, and more multidimensional to work that way. Maybe because I’m the first generation in my family to attend university, I love the idea that scholarship is (or can be) solidarity, connected to the world as a labor practice and as a way of being.
What advice do you have for filmmakers and scholars who are struggling to juggle caregiving with their professional and activist aspirations?
Corinn: I wish I could say something about integrating the various components of one’s life in the name of becoming a fully realized person, but truthfully, for me, insisting on firm boundaries between those components has been my single most valuable survival skill. As the pandemic has proven for many of us, removing those boundaries really just means working constantly. As a result, I protect my caregiving time as vigilantly as possible. And those firm boundaries don’t just apply to time—they also apply to head space. Right after I had my daughter, Harper, I spent time with her worrying about work I wasn’t doing, and I spent time at work thinking about and missing her. It has only been with practice that I’ve been able to ensure that my mind and body are in the same place, at least most of the time.
Finally, I would recommend seeking out others who are doing the same juggling act. Because no one in my department was in the same boat when Harper was born, I felt extremely isolated—and then I felt very ashamed by all the ways being a mother made it impossible to do my job the way I used to. But when So and I started working on Mothers of Invention—and particularly when I read Claire Perkins’s contribution, “Watching while a Mother”—I came to realize I wasn’t alone, and it made all the difference. My most sincere hope is that Mothers of Invention can serve the same function in the lives of its readers and can help normalize the challenges parenting scholars, makers, and activists face in terms of things like time management and professional flexibility.
So: I’ve learned a huge amount from working alongside, listening to, and sharing space with parents and caregivers about breaking the silence that Eurowestern culture seems to demand around giving and receiving care—both the cost of breaking it, and the benefits. Working on care-led scholarly, creative, and activist projects—rather than “fitting in” care around what’s seen as socially valorized work—has grown my skills as a thinker, doer, and carer. So for me, I’d say it’s breaking through the silence to talk about our care needs, not just once a project has gotten going, but in the planning stages; even making them part of the project itself. That’s one reason we are so thrilled to have reflective essays and interviews with filmmakers in the collection—Kristy Guevara-Flanagan and Irene Lusztig, Jules Koostachin and Loira Limbal—as they provide such strong arguments for just how generative and creative care-led practices can be.
What new projects are you working on that you’re particularly excited about?
So: I’m taking queer feminist film studies to the BBC airwaves! Listen out for The Film We Can’t See in July 2022, a podcast available via the BBC Sounds. It’s written and produced by Adam Zmith, and I worked with him on the story and research, playing a version of myself as a film critic, curator, and archivist who accompanies Adam on his journey to find out more about some mysterious acetate records that seem to be somehow associated with Sergei Eisenstein. We learn about the feminist, queer, and anti-racist artists of the Modernist era, ponder why their thrilling films are so hard to see (spoiler: global censorship and fascisms!), and imagine a groundbreaking queer, Communist, sex-positive 1930s film that could have been… and we even arrange a protest. It’s been an amazing experiment in combining analysis and storytelling, hopefully for an audience that might never have picked up an academic book on silent cinema. Of course, there will be some reading and viewing lists to accompany it that will enable listeners to follow up with the dazzling scholarship we’ve been drawing on.
Corinn: Following from my last answer, one of ways I’ve adapted to the changes in my schedule since having a child is by devoting more and more time to television; on any given night, it’s much easier to fit in a 30-minute or hour-long episode of a TV series than a feature-length film. So, with my next project, I am continuing to make my way through the CW catalog! After writing about Jennie Snyder Urman’s Jane the Virgin in my contribution to Mothers of Invention, I plan to turn my attention to Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend in the hopes of producing a short monograph about it. I am not sure yet how the CW came to be home to two of the most audacious, clever, trailblazing, and feminist television shows in recent years, but my plan is find out and write all about it.
Buy Mothers of Invention here for US readers and here for UK readers. Learn more about So’s work by visiting their Linktree and Twitter, as well as the Twitter for Raising Films. Catch up with Corinn’s work by visiting her faculty webpage. Connect with Alexandra by visiting her profile.