Regrouping: Re-evaluating a Lost Feminist Classic

Feature by Rachel Bowles | 01 Jul 2016

At this year's Edinburgh Film Festival, Lizzie Borden presented her 1976 debut Regrouping for just its fifth screening; the visionary director was in attendance to discuss the film's place in feminism's past, present and future

“This film began as an agreement, an attempt at collusion: I would work with their group; they would look over the footage I shot; they could criticize and make suggestions – they would have final say as to what was used in the film. Gradually the terms of the film changed: they began to drift away; more and more, it became my film; I was using them as raw material; they were no longer active participants; I brought in others, I shifted plot, I introduced characters. They are, in effect, pushed out of the film. The film ended, then, as a manipulation, a subjective statement. It was, I suppose, what I had wanted all along.”

This is the title card of visionary feminist film director Lizzie Borden’s first film Regrouping (1976). It’s a brutally honest, self-reflexive statement which both sets the tone for the film’s exhaustively questioning, self-examining nature and acts as an explanation for why this extraordinary artefact of feminist cinema, so much a product of its time and yet still so relevant, is rarely seen or heard of today.

Borden began filming with a small feminist group of four white middle class women in New York in the 1970s, their names redacted from the project’s credits by the time the film was in post-production. The surviving three women (one had died during the filming process) picketed Regrouping’s only screenings in New York's Anthology Film Archives, and Edinburgh International Film Festival, in 1976.

Unable to disagree with the women’s concerns (Borden agrees wholeheartedly that this film is a “manipulation” – how can film not be?) she literally put the film away in her closet where it stayed for 40 years. In an act of poetic temporal symmetry, four decades on Regrouping enjoys only its fourth and fifth set of public screenings ever at Anthology, and at EIFF, as part of the Black Box retrospective of avant-garde and feminist filmmaking of the 1970s in partnership with LUX. So why now?

Memories of Regrouping

“I really didn't remember [Regrouping] from forty years ago, my memory faded but there was a paragraph in the book Chick Flicks by B. Ruby Rich that makes an account of it. But I really had brought this out for several reasons, one is the American Film Institute had made an exhaustive study of all films and they wanted to know about Regrouping so I had to acknowledge that this film existed.

"And their account was not critical, it was just descriptive so I thought, 'OK, it is time to look at this film.' It came at the same time that the Anthology was making a 35mm restoration of (Borden's 1983 feminist sci-fi drama) Born in Flames so I thought I'd show Regrouping at the Anthology, then Edinburgh came up as it happened to be the 40th anniversary and Kim [LUX curator Kim Knowles] was looking at it. I thought this was so interesting, how the timing seems somehow circular.

"I was so honoured to be invited [to the EIFF] but I also wanted to listen to what people had to say. I wanted to hear responses to it and see the audience’s reaction and see if it had significance, and if so, what kind of significance. It's really helped make a difference [to me] in regards to what to do with the film. No DVD exists and so part of me would actually at this point consider keeping this film alive, especially in terms of keeping it accessible in academic or film school circles."

It’s not exactly clear what the original group’s objection to the film was (and is to this day). During the post-screening conversation, within our own makeshift EIFF grouping of feminists, we suggest that beyond personal contrivances, perhaps the women do not want to appear vulnerable; they want to represent an ideal feminist group, an impossible dream and something repeatedly problematised by a film maker like Borden, who never allows Regrouping to shy away from examining difficult, self-reflexive questions.

"How do I describe this?"

For Borden herself, and her own conscience and confidence, it helped viewing the film through the eyes of Edinburgh’s audience, whose members ranged from very young feminists (one of which approached Borden crying as the film had moved her so deeply) to the seasoned and accomplished such as Perestroika director Sarah Turner, and the academic feminist heavyweight Laura Mulvey.

Borden says: “What was hard for me when I first saw Regrouping after taking it out of the closet was the question, 'How do I describe this entity?' So seeing and hearing the audience, this helps me figure out how you talk about it, it helps me see what it was and what it is.

"The reason I put the film away was it was too tangled up in my experience and now it's not personal anymore, other than the fact that I still do respect the women who were involved. When I've written to them to try and keep them abreast of what's happening with the film, they don't want a dialogue. I wish I could say, 'It’s not really about you anymore. You are a part of something, I always meant for the film to be about groupings, it's not just about your group, it is part of a meditation about groupings and it's about the workings of a group.'”

'A film about how feminist groups can work'

This gets to the heart of Regrouping; it is not only about a small feminist group that Borden eventually replaces with a larger intersectional collective, which is at least cohesive and working together in the last scenes of the film. It’s about how feminist groups can work, if at all, and it demands questions. How can we criticise each other and ourselves, constantly examining our feminism, our experiences and our actions without undermining each other? How can we work in a collective without denying the individual?

These are the concerns that Borden ingeniously addresses with Regrouping’s aesthetics. Images are often separated from their soundtrack and occasionally loop up; disjointed arguments are shown. The texture and phantasmagorical tactility of 16mm black and white images are set against multiple soundtracks of female utterance, sometimes also repeated mantra-like later in the film; for example, "I want to talk to other women..." runs simultaneously with "Some of us feel alone, dissatisfied, each of us like an outsider, scared of the myth of unity."

As well as being visually and aurally pleasurable, it has the important function of allowing the text a polyphonic quality, and any emerging meta-narrative or didacticism is allowed to be undermined. One can focus on the images and subconsciously uptake the aural and oral, or just one of the voices, or the voices can be set against each other to devalue or problematise one another. Elsewhere in the film, the textual contrast is held in the fragmented disjoint between image and sound; recordings of a women being interviewed are set against a reading of a letter that describes the female reader’s joy on beholding those images.

[A still from Regrouping]

Mulvey’s comments in the post-screening discussion on the layering of these “tactile textures” is telling. In Regrouping, Borden puts the female gaze and pleasure to the fore, in a medium where women’s gazing and pleasure is often alienated, vilified, or at the very least, filtered through a cis-het objectifying male gaze. Mulvey is best known for conceptualising her theory of the voyeuristic “male gaze” in her feminist psychoanalytic urtext Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema published in 1975, during Regrouping’s filming and only a year before its first screening.

“Hearing Laura speak about Regrouping," says Borden, "hearing the dialogue with Laura and the audience, it was just so interesting, like, 'Wow!' I had this amazing conversation with her where we were talking about how she had made the most iconic statement in the world about the female gaze. She is so modest. Laura said: 'That was nothing, I was being oversimplistic... what a simple and obvious thing to say,' but she revolutionised everything.”

(Continues below)

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Crucially, Mulvey’s revolutionary theory was reflected in the work of filmmakers like Borden who revolutionised cinema by filming female pleasure through the female gaze. Regrouping’s original group contained one lesbian, and the others – in their quest for a fully realised feminism – experimented with their sexuality with each other. Borden represents this in the film with exquisitely shot lesbian sex scenes (between two friends outside of the group) rare in their day for their existence, and rare now in terms of a triumph of the female gaze.

Borden’s scenes are at once explicitly sexual, yet lyrical, emotional and sensuous. The women’s faces are largely ignored, not in the typical disembodying of women in Hollywood and mainstream porn, but so that these women could stand in for any real lesbian/female desire and represent that on screen with as much resistance to patriarchal objectification as possible.

Borden on modern feminism

Ultimately for Borden, the most important issue that Regrouping brings to the fore is how feminist groups function today and how, despite the huge dissemination of feminist debate that can be achieved through online communities and publications, the importance of meeting as women and feminists face to face remains.

She is impressed with “the seriousness of European feminists” and their reception and critical engagement with Regrouping (in the US, the film’s screenings were largely attended only by academics and film students). “The idea of women that actually grapple with [feminist] issues made me realise the value of this film and the dialogue created around the film... Women have a great deal of power talking to each other through social media, but they are all having a dialogue only in cyberspace.

"It reaches a huge group but they're not having a dialogue with each other in the same room... Is there actually a difference when you’re in the same room, exchanging ideas? Actual physical bodies who are in the same physical presence? You don't really fight it out online, you can but it's just a sally of words.

"Somehow when you're in the same room having to confront another woman – something that is always difficult [within feminism], how do you disagree with other women? How do you get mad at another woman? How do you have arguments with another woman and both emerge stronger?"

Regrouping screened at the 2016 Edinburgh International Film Festival