Director: Hrafnhildur Gunnarsdóttir
Featuring: Woody Vasulka and Steina Vasulka
Words – Natalie Mills
“They’re the shoulders that most video art has stood on.”
An introduction to the weird and wonderful world of video art, this quirky documentary centres on Steina and Woody Vasulka.
A pair of pioneering video artists, who were prominent in the 60s and 70s, they’re introduced as “two of the most important artists of the 21st century”. The Vasulkas inhabited a world where Patti Smith was new in town, Andy Warhol was getting hit on by all genders, and Salvador Dali just casually turned up to theatre performances. The Vasulka Effect feels like part time-capsule, part art history lesson, part reality TV show.
Prepare to feel like you were born in the wrong decade, and to learn that most art repurposes other art. As a (slightly bitter) ex-art student, I connected to Steina’s observation that “humans are more interested in archived, past art than anything that’s happening now”. Indeed, we see the Vasulkas painstakingly archiving their huge body of work, explaining how it’s “now seen as historical and important”.
As someone who “made films” for a bit, it was amazing to be introduced to Woody and Steina. I was reminded of the gut-punch you get as a student, when you think you’ve had a new and interesting idea, that someone back from the 60s or 70s has been doing it for decades. Their work, featuring multi-screen installations, Fantasia-like electronic waves, and image distortion similar to today’s “glitch art”, has aged remarkably well.
Here, the vintage monitors and lo-fi aesthetic you see in many of today’s exhibitions are no stylistic choice. They were being used for the first time. They were fascinated by the mixture between art and technology in a way none of their contemporaries were exploring. Their works weren’t about anything – they were “just like a feeling”. If someone scoffed “But you’re just playing”, they took it as a compliment. Purity, no bullshit needed.
The film gives a vaguely chronological history of the two artists, interspersing archive footage with them bickering cutely in the present day. After getting to know their beginnings – him a Czech film student, her a chamber musician from Iceland – we hear how they ended up living in a loft “in this new thing called Soho”. They lived the kind of free, magical life every art student dreams of (before we inevitably end up in marketing).
There’s a lot of great footage from the 60s; you wonder how Boomers dare criticise anything with all this mad stuff going on in their day. The Vasulkas reminisce about parties, saying “We couldn’t even go to bed, the house was full of people” and “What was this orgy here?” like they’re discussing breakfast.
Surrounded by drag shows, contacted by people “dying to do pornography”, and even noticed by the FBI, they belonged to a community desperate to push boundaries. The Vasulka Effect sometimes feels like a showreel of famous names, but it helps hit home their influence. The couple set up The Kitchen in New York in 1971, as a “home for the homeless, or artists across disciplines”. Still an iconic performance space now, nobody needed an invite – people would just come to them to volunteer their time. Talking Heads, Phillip Glass and Laurie Anderson were all Kitchen alumni, alongside artists like Cindy Sherman. “If you believe in electronic music, this is the place” … is it possible to get FOMO 50 years too late?
Living out their twilight years surrounded by obsolete video equipment and debt, in the strangest house you can imagine, the Vasulkas feel like characters in some surreal indie sitcom. You half expect Louis Theroux to walk in at any time. There’s something very open and honest about Woody and Steina – they were so ahead of their time; you get the feeling that they’ve barely had to change their lifestyle in decades.
Their love for analogue tech is charming, cooing “This was an important machine” and “This beautiful turntable” as they wistfully handle old equipment. They seem nostalgic for their past, and you feel nostalgic for it too. From Vaporwave to Stranger Things, my generation is obsessed with old school formats. While at university, it was cool to make films that looked like shitty VHS tapes. I can only assume that it’ll one day be cool to make art about looping DVD menus and the iPod click sound. With the growth of YouTube, obscure, vintage films are now easy to ‘discover’.
Many artists never get discovered the first time around, so it’s a real happy ending to watch Steina and Woody get rediscovered in the 2010s. Despite initial distrust of an interested art dealer, “God spare me this” moans Woody, they cooperate to archive their work and create The Vasulka Chamber. It’s wonderful to see their art being appreciated in Iceland’s National Gallery, where their multi-media installations look fresh as ever.
As the Vasulkas recreate their first meeting in a Prague dorm, and share their first words of “Marry me, get me out of here”, you realise The Vasulka Effect is also a love story. I can’t imagine how hard it was to make their relationship work, being partners in both your personal and ‘art’ lives, in a foreign country in your second language. Their archive is testament to their love of video, and how it can be preserved for everyone.
“We’re showing up in the art magazines” they observe, still humble and playful, as though they don’t realise how important they are.
Director: Francis Lee
Starring: Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Jones, James McArdle, Fiona Shaw, Claire Rushbrook, Alec Secareanu, Sarah White
Words – Denise Hobart
Ammonite imagines a passionate love affair between the self-taught pioneering palaeontologist Mary Anning and her friend Charlotte Murchison. Anning’s early nineteenth century achievements were largely obscured, or credited to men, due largely to her sex and poor background. The film is a fictionalised, measured and absorbing exploration of female working class repression and its effect on recognition, confidence and freedom of expression.
We find Kate Winslet’s isolated Mary in a blustery Lyme Regis some years after her most celebrated find has been sold for living expenses and is now displayed in the British Museum. Mary has more in common in appearance with the cleaner at the museum who is barked orders to by an unseen man to make way for her find, than that which a scientist of her accomplishments could expect. Mary’s hand-written label on her fossil find is unceremoniously discarded, to be replaced by that of the wealthy man presenting it, but the filth of the work undertaken to discover and house these prizes credited to men are etched in the women’s fingernails and their worn, dirty clothing.
Mary is living with her gruff, emotionally distant but ever watchful mother and it is a workhorse existence: cold winter nights, early rising to catch the tide and risk injury in landslides in the hunt for fossils through grime, wind and rain, then a return home to domestic and fossil shopkeeping chores. Rare free moments are dedicated to technical drawing, working by candlelight long into the night.
Into this routine barges the wealthy, entitled geologist Roderick Murchison, keen to learn from Mary and bringing in tow his silent and fragile younger wife, Saoirse Ronan’s Charlotte. Murchison’s wishes are indulged not out of a desire to share her knowledge – Mary has long since been disillusioned at her exclusion and treatment at the hands of what she terms as the men’s club in London – but due to the much-needed crumb of his wealth that Roderick offers her. Murchison further takes advantage of his financial position when, unwilling to deal personally with his wife’s grief at an unspoken but hinted at loss dismissed by him as melancholia, he leaves her in Lyme Regis to continue overseas alone. Anticipating picking up his fully restored wife once a bit of sea air via daily walks observing Mary has knocked the cheerfulness stuffing back into her, Murchison instead leaves Charlotte to fall seriously ill, requiring the constant care and attention of Mary.
Director Francis Lee creates an amazing sense of place and personal belonging throughout the film. Lyme Regis and the Dorset coastline make for a stunning location but it would be easy to be overwhelmed by its film history, the ghosts of The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Persuasion jostling for space on the Cobb. Instead, there is a sense with Stephane Fontaine’s cinematography that you are viewing the place with fresh eyes and that Winslet’s Mary is part of the fabric of her surroundings, ingrained as it is in her hands, her clothes and daily life. Images and sounds of spring see in Charlotte’s recovery and an awakening of sorts begins as the women gradually find solace, an uneasy understanding and passion with each other. The sound design creates a believably authentic sense of atmosphere, a lack of intrusive music giving way instead to a constant scratching at fossils, waves on the shoreline, the crunch of boots on the pebble beach and comfortable silences.
The central performances from Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan are the heart of the film and they work assuredly together to steadily create a truthful connection of their characters. Gemma Jones as Molly, a very different type of mother to Winslet than her Mrs Dashwood in 1995’s Sense and Sensibility, is wonderful at the centre of some of the most moving scenes as we come to understand more about this seemingly cold matriarch.
The film’s narrative slightly loses its balance towards the end and it somewhat misrepresents the real Charlotte Murchison in terms of age and accomplishment (she had a good decade on Anning and is credited with being instrumental in encouraging her husband’s interest in geology rather than he in hers).
Ammonite is a thoroughly absorbing watch, especially for its central and supporting performances and the evocative sense of place and time. Ultimately, it is not Mary’s sexuality or even her sex that is the chief hinderance to her happiness and progress but her social class. It is the gulf between the two women caused by this difference that becomes the biggest challenge to their understanding of each other.
Featuring a selection of highly anticipated films, the 2020 BFI Film Festival presented online premieres as well as screenings in cinemas around the UK.
See our look at some of the films featured at this year’s festival
– click on the film title to see our review.
An absorbing watch, with standout central performances and an evocative sense of place and time.
A coldly pristine examination of violence and identity, POSSESSOR tells its story with slick confidence, featuring excellent performances and an arresting visual palette.
Relic blends the haunted house with body horror, in an unnerving story that gradually builds to a tense and emotional climax that stays with you long after the film is over.
Though not a biopic in the traditional sense, with a compelling performance in the title role the film captures the spooky, dreamlike atmosphere of Jackson’s writing.
BFI Film Festival 2020 trailer
Director: Brandon Cronenberg
Starring: Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tuppence Middleton, Sean Bean
Words – Nathan Scatcherd
Considering his lineage, it’s no surprise that Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor adheres to certain adjectives: nightmarish; gruesome; visceral and yet strangely delicate, its explosions of violence and corporeal horror all the more unsettling for their intimacy. A coldly pristine examination of violence and identity which cribs perhaps too liberally from the senior Cronenberg’s work, Possessor nonetheless tells its story with slick confidence, featuring excellent performances and an arresting visual palette.
Andrea Riseborough is Tas, an assassin who gains access to her targets through possessing the bodies of those closest to them. Working under her enigmatic handler (Leigh), Tas is assigned a job which involves her possessing the body of a young man (Abbott) in order to take out his girlfriend and her mega-rich corporation-owning father (Bean, playing a complete bastard and obviously having some fun with it).
What follows is an insight into an apparently long-brewing personal disintegration; Tas regularly becomes other people and, as such, gradually struggles to be herself. She rehearses how to engage in small talk with her husband and young son; she obsessively analyses her target’s speech patterns ahead of the possession, to more effectively ‘be’ them for a while. Identity is an unstable, slippery, easily fractured thing, and as various complications arise on the job, Tas and the man she has possessed begin to battle for psychic dominance.
Much of the film is a two-hander between Riseborough and Abbott, and both are excellent, conveying much with a change of posture or rearrangement of facial expression. As the film is increasingly swallowed in gory sci-fi horror weirdness, their performances elevate too, becoming all the more unhinged and manic. The cast is fairly small and not a single bad performance is given, but the two principle leads are particularly deserving of attention here.
Possessor skilfully creates an air of seething tension and dread, occasionally punctuated by wince-inducing violence and sequences of fleshy, hallucinogenic horror which feel ripped straight from Videodrome. This is perhaps the film’s biggest issue; as entertaining and well-crafted as Possessor is, watching the film I ultimately couldn’t escape a nagging sense that it is – stylistically and thematically – very similar to the output of the elder Cronenberg. It’s like watching an excellent tribute band who has meticulously studied every facet of their inspiration’s work… but they’re still not quite the real thing. Perhaps, considering the film’s plot, this is appropriate; the spirit or psyche of the father working through the son.
Highfalutin conjecture aside, Possessor is solid, creepy, beautifully composed but ultimately unsurprising. It’s certainly worth the time of any self-confessed body horror/dark sci-fi fan (and no doubt someone’s eventual gateway into said interests), but offers little in the way of surprises. This year, maybe that’s actually something to be thankful for.
Director: Josephine Decker
Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Odessa Young, Michael Stuhlbarg, Logan Lerman, Victoria Pedretti
Words – Carly Stevenson
The first thing to note about Shirley is that it is not a biopic. At least not in the traditional sense. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Susan Scarf Merrell, Shirley focuses on a fictitious scenario involving American novelist Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and a young couple named Fred and Rosie Nemser (Odessa Young and Logan Lerman).
The premise is as follows: Shirley’s husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg) invites the Nemsers to stay in their home for a short period while Fred settles into his new teaching post at Bennington College, where Stanley works as a professor.
The film opens with a shot of Rose reading Jackson’s notorious short story ‘The Lottery’ on the train journey to Vermont. Aroused by the macabre tale of civic barbarism, Rose initiates a bathroom rendezvous with Fred. A signal that, beneath her veneer of politeness, Rose is not a conservative housewife. Their fervent lovemaking serves as a sharp contrast to the sterility of Shirley and Stanley’s relationship. Plagued with bouts of depression and writer’s block, Shirley spends hours in bed chain-smoking while Stanley openly pursues other women. He looks after Shirley when she takes a bad turn, but he also infantilises her and relentlessly critiques her work.
Throughout the film, Shirley is presented as co-dependent and volatile. Her only sources of excitement seem to be drinking excessively and misbehaving at social gatherings. At first, Shirley is hostile towards the Nemsers and she conspires with Stanley to make their lives difficult. However, as time passes, she comes to rely on Rose and the two women form an unlikely attachment. Intrigued by Shirley’s writing process, Rose attempts to help Shirley research her new novel, which is inspired by the disappearance of a local girl.
Shirley is set almost entirely within the domestic sphere. There are a few woodland and campus scenes, but for the most part, we are confined inside the house. This location clearly reflects the stifling expectations imposed upon women during this period. Like Shirley and Rose, the audience are hemmed in and forced to endure the monotonous scenery.
Elisabeth Moss gives a compelling performance in the title role. Even when Shirley behaves in a way that is manipulative and callous, we never lose sight of her vulnerability. What is less compelling is the ways in which the film leans into stereotypical notions of neurotic female genius. For some, the name Shirley Jackson is synonymous with the idea of morbid and ‘unhinged’ female creativity (see also: Jackson’s contemporary, Sylvia Plath). It is true that Jackson was reclusive (the word we often give to people who don’t suffer fools gladly); it is also true that she struggled with mental ill health; but she also raised four children whilst earning a living as a prolific writer – a feat that is curiously missing from this portrait.
Nevertheless, the film captures the spooky, dreamlike atmosphere of Jackson’s writing well. Rose resembles the haunted women of Jackson’s novels and her crisis at the end of the film is presented as a kind of epiphany rather than a tragic spiral into ‘madness’. In very different ways, both Shirley and Rose eschew the rigid gender expectations of the time and emerge with a greater sense of their own agency.
Director: Natalie Erika James
Starring: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote
Words – Daniel McMonagle
Nothing is more harrowing than experiencing the death of the ones we love. Relic, the feature debut of Australian-Japanese director Natalie Erika James, blends a haunted house story with body horror to delve into themes of death and decay.
Relic follows a mother and daughter, Kay (Emily Mortimer) and Sam (Bella Heathcote), who set out to take care of Kay’s mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) in her countryside home. At first, Edna is nowhere to be found and Kay and Sam gradually realise that something is very wrong with her. The house has become dilapidated, walls are leaking and rotting, alarming post-it notes are scattered around the house and ominous pounding noises can be heard through the walls.
After a failed search party, Edna finally appears, but she is unable to explain where she has been or why she has suddenly developed a mysterious mark on her chest that starts to grow and spread to the rest of her body. From this point, we are slowly immersed in a world of portentous shapes, creeping mould spores and images of decomposition.
Robyn Nevin expertly performs Edna’s transformation from frightened and confused elderly woman into a violent and unpredictable creature who seems to possess unnatural physical strength. Sam is a warm and likeable character and Bella Heathcote gives a compelling performance as Edna’s grief-stricken granddaughter, but it is Emily Mortimer as Kay who stands out. Mortimer’s performance accurately captures the distressing emotions felt by anyone who has had to witness a loved one become a stranger.
Relic is a slow-paced, unnerving mood piece that gradually builds to a tense and emotional climax. The art and production design are a worthy highlight: grotty interiors mixed with eerie diegetic sounds evoke a nauseating sense of place that oozes gothic atmosphere. Edna’s home doesn’t make geographical sense and the hidden corridors, contracting walls and creaky rooms create a pervading sense of claustrophobia throughout. Water constantly leaks and drips, the walls bang and fold into themselves and black mould spreads rapidly as Edna’s condition worsens. The cluttered, volatile and darkening house serves as a visual metaphor for Edna’s deteriorating mind.
There are echoes of Hereditary (which was released whilst Relic was being written) in this intergenerational horror. The film also shares similar themes with The Babadook – in particular, the way in which mental illness is depicted as a type of possession. Moreover, there are echoes of David Cronenberg’s early body horror films, particularly The Brood.
Relic is ultimately an exploration of what we inherit from our families and how we process grief, a metaphor for diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. The bond between the three generations of women make the ending unusual for a horror film as it moves from terror to empathy, climaxing with a final scene that stays with you long after the film is over.
The BFI Film Festival is the UK’s premiere platform for welcoming international storytellers, featuring a selection of highly anticipated films.
Taking place October 7th – 18th, this year’s festival will be its most accessible ever, presenting over 50 online premieres as well as screenings in cinemas around the UK, offering audiences a unique chance to engage with the festival in different ways.
See the cinemas across the UK taking part in this year’s festival here:
With some truly standout films coming in 2020, see our pick of 5 films to see at the festival and beyond…
The latest feature from Brandon Cronenberg (son of revered director David Cronenberg), Possessor is a sci-fi horror-thriller which garnered widespread praise at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Following the elite, corporate assassin Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), as brain-implant technology allows her to take control of other people’s bodies to execute high profile targets.
While she holds a special gift for the work, her experiences have caused a dramatic change in her, and as her mental strain intensifies, she begins to lose control, as she soon finds herself trapped in the mind of a man whose identity threatens to obliterate her own.
From director Chloe Zhao, whose feature film The Rider stood out as one of the best films of 2018, Nomadland explores life outside conventional society.
Following the economic collapse of a company town in rural Nevada, Fern (Frances McDormand) packs her van and sets off on the road exploring life through the vast landscape of the American West.
Adapted from the 2017 non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder – Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, the film features real nomads Linda May, Swankie, and Bob Wells as Fern’s mentors and comrades in her exploration of the vast expanse of the Western United States.
Director Bassam Tariq’s debut fiction feature, stars Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler, Star Wars: Rogue One), drawing from his own musical background and British-Pakistani roots to deliver a personal performance in a film about a fierce MC on the cusp of a major tour and commercial success, whose dreams of global fame are cut-down by an autoimmune disease.
A sharp examination of cultural heritage, identity politics, family and the impact of physical illness, Mogul Mowgli is an honest evocation of the British-Asian experience.
The Opening Film for this year’s BFI Film Festival, ‘Mangrove’ from Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave, Widows, Shame) is the true story of the Mangrove 9, a group of Black activists who were arrested for leading the protest and changed British history by taking a stand against racial discrimination.
The Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill doubled as a community centre for Black Londoners, as police brutality and harassment intensified, the Mangrove also became a site of resistance, leading to a historic protest against police harassment.
‘Mangrove’ is one of five Small Axe films by Steve McQueen.
From Francis Lee, director of the phenomenal God’s Own Country, Ammonite is the Closing Film for this year’s BFI Film Festival.
In the 1840s, acclaimed palaeontologist Mary Anning works alone on the wild and brutal Southern English coastline of Lyme Regis.
As Mary is entrusted to care for a young woman dealing with a personal tragedy, she clashes with her unwanted guest, as the two women inhabit utterly different worlds.
Yet despite the differences in their social spheres and personalities, the two discover they can each offer what the other has been searching for, as they develop an intense relationship altering both of their lives forever.
See the full programme and browse through this year’s feature films here:
screening details can be found on each title page.
The entire BFI Film Festival Short Film Programme will be free to watch on BFI Player, you can see the programme here:
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: John David Washington, Elizabeth Debicki, Robert Pattinson, Kenneth Branagh, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Michael Caine, Clémence Poésy, Fiona Dourif, Himesh Patel
Words – Daniel McMonagle
2020 has been one of the cruellest years for cinema on record. Unlike many films rescheduled, shelved and sold off to streaming services, the latest feature from Christopher Nolan is too big and expensive to go straight into the digital land of video on demand. With the ongoing pandemic, Tenet has been seen as the film to save the reopening of cinemas…
Fortunately, Tenet exceeds expectations and delivers everything audiences could want from a film of this magnitude. Returning collaborators such as cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema and production designer Nathan Crowley have crafted what looks and sounds like the most “Nolan” film experience yet. With bombastic scenes running back and forth, we follow the unnamed protagonist played very charismatically by John David Washington, accompanied by Robert Pattinson and Elizabeth Debicki, as they try to prevent the start of World War 3 by a Russian Oligarch played with absolute venom by Kenneth Brannagh.
Time has always been one of the principle themes of Nolan’s films. With Tenet, he explores the concept of time running back and forth on itself as the protagonist is thrust into a world where the future can communicate with the past. Like a lot of key time travel plots, the characters get to explore past events they previously experienced. Reverse footage never looked so exciting than it does here as explosions invert and bullets fly back whilst character motivations and plot twists are unveiled in a non-linear fashion due to the nature of time travel.
Nolan’s films have often been criticised for their heavy reliance on exposition. However, Tenet is actually less exposition-heavy than its closest relative film Inception. We are thrust into events along with the characters and are forced to pick things up as the plot charges along. Razor sharp editing and a propulsive score by Ludwig Goransson ensure a relentlessly up-tempo pace.
Nolan has always expressed an interest in the Bond movies, and we have previously seen hints of this with Inception and the Dark Knight trilogy. Tenet is as close to a Nolan ‘Bond movie’ as we’re ever likely to get, he has taken everything that’s great about James Bond such as globetrotting exotic locations, high stakes plotting and action scenes and given them a science fiction twist. The film is set against the backdrop of some truly outstanding scenery that IMAX takes maximum advantage of. As far as the action scenes play out, this is Nolan’s best work yet. Tenet is full of shoot outs, chases and espionage, all helped by a complete reliance on practical effects.
On first viewing, the plot may seem convoluted and, at times, difficult to follow. However, Tenet is undoubtedly the best movie-going experience of the year that demands multiple viewings.
Director: Lisa Rovner
Narrated By: Laurie Anderson
Words – Natalie Mills
“This is the story of women who hear music in their head. Of radical sounds where there was once silence.”
A full sensory experience, Sisters with Transistors tells the stories of ten women, and how each shaped the future of electronic music, fittingly narrated by Laurie Anderson – composer of the avant-garde classic O Superman.
Our eyes are treated to some incredible analogue technology; the knobs, tape reels and computer screens that make up these women’s worlds, while we’re also shown the workings of their instrumentation. We’re awarded a mind-blowing soundtrack; from Clara Rockmore playing a theremin as gracefully as a violin, to Delia Derbyshire’s creation of the Dr Who theme, and Suzanne Ciani unleashing her synths on The David Letterman Show.
As a woman working in tech, the daughter of a “lady pianist”, and a fan of Fever Ray, I was touched by the film’s subject, being drawn to how electronic music allows you to become faceless. There is much to sit back, listen to and enjoy in Sisters with Transistors, but you’re left with a sense of injustice.
Archive footage, including experimental music videos and old BBC broadcasts, is cut together with contemporary interviews with surviving musicians. It’s as though we’re being told a secret history, and you feel sad for not recognising some of these extraordinary women’s names. The film opens with the voiceover, “The history of women has been a story of silence” and by the end, you understand exactly how electronic music can be used as a tool for female empowerment.
Despite each of the ten composers’ stories being very different – from mathematicians and sound engineers, through to artists and classical musicians – they’re universally drawn to the DIY aspect of electronic music. Being the undeniable sole creator, they have total control over everything they produce.
“The machine doesn’t write the music. You tell the machine what to do and the machine is an extension of you”, explains Laurie Spiegel, creator of Music Mouse software for Mac. She recalls of how she was told she couldn’t become a composer – “Composers were old dead white men”. The pioneers in Sisters with Transistors share of how they were underestimated or ignored, with French composer Eliane Radigue even telling how someone said it was good to have her in the studio because “she smelt nice”. It’s disheartening, and seems a world away from a scene where artists of today like Grimes have space to thrive.
We’re shown of how historically, people were suspicious of electronic music, whatever your gender. It was considered “diabolical” in France, and music made using computers was snubbed by counterculture as belonging to the realm of banks and offices. Bebe Barron’s (together with husband Louis) unearthly score for 1956’s Forbidden Planet was credited as “Electronic Tonalities”, as it wasn’t considered music.
Some of the standout footage is the oldest; seeing equipment being used “creatively” for the first time. We witness Daphne Oram, a sound engineer during WW2 and one of the founders of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, drawing onto magnetic tape to create sound. We meet mathematician Delia Derbyshire, who arranged the Dr Who theme in 1963, educating BBC viewers on sound wave shapes. She was presented in the guise of a teacher, more than as a creative force. Her iconic sounds did a lot to dispel distaste for electronic music. Despite influencing artists such as Aphex Twin and the Chemical Brothers, she died “unsung” and burnt out.
Inspired by the eerie wails of air raid sirens (still holding a feeling of mystery on how they produce their sound), these British women were convinced that electronic music was the sound of the future. After all, many of the first computer coders were women, as it was considered barely a step above typing, but then as coding became more valued, it became seen more as a “male” role.
“Outspoken gay feminist” Pauline Olivernos felt wildly ahead of her time; we see her and her friends even create sounds using bathtubs and cardboard tubes. There’s a real sense that electronic music is for everyone. Her article “And Don’t Call Them “Lady” Composers” is still a fascinating, angry read.
Enigmatic sound artist Maryanne Amacher’s house is packed full of wires and technology – “it was in breathtakingly bad condition” someone comments. An absolute rejection of the homemaker stereotype, she seems focused on nothing but the overwhelming noises she’s creating in her space.
Fearless, charismatic Suzanne Ciani explains, “I play the synthesizer in the same way somebody else would play the cello”. Teaming up with the female writer of The Incredible Shrinking Woman, she created its entire soundtrack. Ciani reminded me a lot of my mother – beaming over a keyboard, charming everyone within a mile’s radius with sound.
Whether it was creating compositions for “helping people”, or making listeners experience an altered state through strange frequencies, Sisters with Transistors makes for some great playlist inspiration. Even if electronic music isn’t your cup of tea, the technology, equipment and processes used are amazing to behold. It’s impossible to cram in everything about these ten composers into one film, and it’s similarly difficult to fit everything into just one review.
Whether you’re interested in technology, feminism or electro (or even none of the above), Sisters with Transistors is a must-watch addition to music history. You’ll be desperate to stroke a synth afterwards.
clip from Forbidden Planet (1956)
– reveal of the monster from the Id.
Score composed by Bebe and Louis Barro