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Camera Obscura 18.2 (2003) 70-97

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No Woman Is an Object:
Realizing the Feminist Collaborative Video

Alexandra Juhasz

RELEASED: Five Short Videos about Women and Prison (2000) width="72" height="48" />
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Figure 1
Video animation still by Joe Saito from RELEASED: Five Short Videos about Women and Prison (2000)

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No woman is filmed as an object; everyone is a subject who combines and presents physical, emotional, intellectual, and political selves.
—Julia Lesage, "The Political Aesthetics of the Feminist Documentary Film"

Feminist Collaborative Video

Feminist video does collectivity exceedingly well. 1 Certainly other politicized cultural movements and individuals work through this method, and, of course, feminists also produce work in collaboration in film and other media (as Julia Lesage testifies above). However, I assert that there is a profound natural mechanics to women's work in video that makes the medium's method, theory, and theme the interactive and politicized subjectification of the female sex. Film and patriarchy share the project of women's objectification—they make victims. Video and feminism see women as complex, worthy selves—they produce subjects. In [End Page 71] feminist collaborative video, the medium (inexpensive, debased, nonprofessional), the message (woman, as subject, needs to be constructed), and the ideology (the personal is the political; process over product) align into a near-perfect praxis. I should know: as producer and advocate of a great many such projects, I have found a beauty, synchronicity, and power in the process of making and screening feminist collaborative video that is, in these moments at least, almost emancipatory. And thus, this warning: though it is always postulated as an ideal, there is little writing about the realized feminist collaborative video. Here I will look at RELEASED: Five Short Videos about Women and Prison (a project I produced in 2000) to trouble, and sometimes celebrate, the neat alignment between video, subjectivity, collectivity, and feminism.

Setting the Scene(s)

The scene of class domination is the same as the scene of voyeurism, both depending on an unspoken desire of the object of the bourgeois subject's knowledge repossessing her power in difference.
—Lauren Rabinowitz, They Must Be Represented: The Politics of Documentary
The art of punishing then must rest on a whole technology of representation. The undertaking can succeed only if it forms part of a natural mechanics.
—Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison

The classic victim documentary scene, like that of voyeurism or class domination, demands (at least) two players, separated by power but drawn by desire, who agree to engage together in an art of punishing that reenacts the object's previous victimization through a procedure of representation. Produced with the intention to reveal and heal injustice and pain, such performances serve primarily to cement the systems of domination, suffering, and pleasure that form the natural mechanics of both the original punishment and its depiction. In this way, the documentary [End Page 72] exchange is also like the prison. Both systems weaken some and strengthen others, using technologies of vision and distance, all the while buttressing hegemonic power. In both the prison and the documentary, the one charged with vision wields power. Distance and difference, in both scenes, force or coerce silence and testimony in turn. Class, race, and gender relations structure these interactions and are thereby solidified. And, by maintaining the classic position of subject/object, the victim documentary also necessarily reestablishes the inside/outside binarism that is not merely metaphoric but definitive of imprisonment.

Are there alternatives to restaging victimhood in prison, documentary, and similar theaters of punishment? As a feminist documentary scholar and video maker, I felt this as an overriding concern in producing the activist art video RELEASED. Given that female inmates of American prisons are victims of state, social, and ideological systems (not only incarceration but also welfare, racism, sexism, and physical, emotional, or drug abuse) that punish them for their usually victimless crimes; given that a special condition of their punishment is a near blackout of portrayals of their pain and suffering in...