Between Us We Have a Memory

Sarah Wood and Selina Robertson, 18 July, 2022

Projectionism is a new film by artist filmmaker Sarah Wood, made in response to an open call for cinemagoing memories from the cinema workers, makers and thinkers who keep film culture alive and well despite the challenges of the times. You can watch it on the Cinema of Ideas for free until 26 July, alongside a live discussion with Sarah Wood about the making of the film at 5:30pm on Tuesday 19 July.

In this blog, Sarah is joined by her friend and Club des Femmes co-founder Selina Robertson to discuss the emergence of the project, the importance of archival work, and their hopes for cinema’s future.

Q: Selina

Do you remember when and why we started sharing our memories of the first films we went to see?

A: Sarah

It feels like a very long time ago already, but during the first COVID lockdown when the world was shockingly, suddenly stilled I remember I was trying my hardest to forget the global pandemic and focus my attention on a film commission for Kettle’s Yard gallery. It was almost impossible. The world was so uncertain that it was hard to imagine how or when we would all again be able to stand side by side in a space and share any form of culture. In front of me on my computer was an unfinished film sequence. Somewhere across town was the empty space of the gallery. At that time, the journey between the two felt like an epic impossibility.

To honour what I had up until that point always taken for granted, I started writing down recollections of art I’d seen across the course of my life as the memories surfaced. It was salutory, a revelation of the specific way art galleries operate as spaces for ideas, for imagination, underpinning how we connect as societies.

Then I began to think about cinema. Much as I appreciated the TV narratives that sustained us during quarantine, I also resented how the scale of everything from work to shopping to human interaction to entertainment had been reduced to the (same) frame of a computer screen. I missed the scale of the image and the thought and feeling that scale enables.

That’s when you and I spoke. It’s hard to remember now just how isolated we all were from each other then, and how hard it was for us to speak on the phone and realise in an instant what that separation meant. To overcome that distance I wondered whether you and I should start writing down and sharing our memories of cinema as a kind of act of solidarity. Cinema had brought us together as friends. It felt like now it was time for us to be friends to cinema: something we could share even when we were apart.

We’ve both always loved Ian Breakwell and Paul Hammond’s wonderful 1990 book Seeing in the Dark: A Compendium of Cinemagoing where they assembled people’s recollections of going to the cinema. It’s been a perennial source of inspiration. The idea of cinema memories had been important to both of us in the work we’d done separately on various archive projects but also together – since we started Club des Femmes we’d always been backward-looking and inclusive in the way we framed ideas in the present. We both know how complicated memory is and how excluding the narration of history can be. I think our work together has done a lot to unpick that.

But it’s making me laugh to myself now because you ask do I remember when and why we started doing this and I can feel how rubbish the idea of any accuracy in memory is. I think this is how this project started but as we all know memories are slippery and that’s just how I’m remembering it today.

I do know that what was moving about the contributions that came in from the open call is how poignant and particular the accounts often were. Memories surface to teach us what we need to know to survive in the present. I wonder if we asked the same question of the same people in a year’s time whether different memories would surface, triggered by the world as it will be in that future. Who knows! It was certainly very moving to experience the open generosity, the sharing that made this project come together as the world tentatively began to open up.

Q: Sarah

You’re currently researching the history of the Rio cinema in Dalston. It has a wonderful legacy which you’ve been bringing to light and reanimating with screenings and discussions. What do you think is the importance of sharing this work? We often imagine that film itself is a form of mediated memory so I’m wondering what the action of sharing cinema memories gifts us differently.

A: Selina

Remember, we began this feminist archival work at the Rio in 2012 when Club des Femmes presented a late-night screening of Tatjana Turanskyj’s film Eine Flexible Frau (2010). I recollect we had horrible technical problems on the night! Before the screening, we had Sadie Lee’s band Spinster perform live on the stage and Camille, the lovely Rio projectionist, had to run around the cinema, up and down the stairs, to do all the tech to make it happen. The whole event was quite chaotic, some audience members left, most stayed. Do you remember we got that angry message from ‘Sheila from Battersea’ who travelled all the way to Hackney to watch the film, only to experience such unprofessionalism and anarchy! I remember sitting at the back of the circle bar as the film started (about an hour late) and thinking ‘Oh no! Camille has forgotten to put the subtitles on, quick … I need to tell him!’

The reason I’m telling you about my memories from that night is because it’s these stories that circulate around film screenings and events, essentially film programmers and audiences’ cinema memories that I’ve been excavating as part of my research at the Rio.  I’m interested in the lived experiences and archives of memories of feminist film programming and curation, women’s cinemagoing cultures of the 1980s that have remained on the periphery of film history, lost to the historical archive. From a personal perspective, I’ve been compelled to explore this archive because I wanted to find out more about Club des Femmes’ pre-history in London, as well as my own history as a feminist and film programmer. Who were our predecessors at the Rio? How did they go about programming feminist and queer film seasons and events? What were their programming passions? What audiences came? How did they work together? What were the debates at the time? I want to know about the late night parties, lesbian melodramas and quarrels too!

When we practice feminist film history (as opposed to writing it) something magical, unexpected in its ‘liveness’ happens, when people come together to share memories and experiences of cinema’s past. Often one person’s memory or forgetfulness prompts another person to respond, and when this is enacted in a public space, like the cinema, often incredible intergenerational and intersectional discussions can take place about the specificities of feminist film history. Embodied memory as feminist knowledge in the archive becomes a resource for today. This is how feminism and cinema memory comes together, how it is written and felt as an experience of the present. We need to be careful, because this is an ephemeral, fragile history that we need to pass along, or ‘gift’ (as you write) through a collective cultural of practice of memory work, as a tool of activism and archiving. Cultural memory is a beautiful resource to activate film histories that have been forgotten or ignored because of the operations of history and the power of the archive to suppress marginalised voices. Gifting is such a good word, because it conjures up ideas about caring for and about archives, passing feminist knowledge on, as an act of reciprocity. It reminds me that we need to keep looking after our archives, our cinema memories and experiences of film culture. They are delicate, mercurial but also embodied, resilient and imaginative when we need them to be, if we just slow down and listen. Their material existence relies upon our maintenance, support structures and cultural activation.

Q: Selina

I was deeply moved when I watched Projectionism, the essay film you made for The Cinema of Ideas. You take us on a cinematic travelogue, mining cinema’s histories through the prism of our contributors’ cinema memory accounts. I am interested in your process. How did you find this film’s contours and shapes? Also: please can you tell us about your first memory of going to the cinema!

A: Sarah

That’s very interesting that your Rio research was born of the memory/trauma of a film show going wrong! Cinema presents itself as a smooth-functioning art-form for the mechanised age but behind the scenes it’s often fairly frantic and very human.

What was moving about this project was comparing the abstract dreamy notions of cinema that contributors shared with more concrete memories of physically watching the moving image. As much as someone might describe being transported by the mystery of Vertigo, for instance, they also remembered the smell of the popcorn or the uncomfortable seat they chose or the stranger who fell asleep next to them.

On one hand thought, imagination, vision, on the other embodiment. Cinema, it seems, exists somewhere in between the two.

I think it was understanding this that gave me the clue for how to make the film. I knew visually this had to be a film about how cinema is framed by architectural space and also by the sometimes curious rituals that define cinemagoing. It was a magnificent gift to be able to use some of the wonderful films that the East Anglian Film Archive preserve to articulate a sense of this history.

I was also surprised to find an archive of my own that I could deploy. I’d recorded footage in the weeks before The Arts Cinema in Cambridge closed twenty years ago and hadn’t looked at it since. Watching it again was deeply moving. Partly because as soon as I did I remembered the day’s filming in a way I’d completely forgotten, but also because it itemised all the elements that go into the realisation of a film on screen. I’d recorded this footage lovingly with an idea of posterity and now here I was watching it, in posterity! Deploying this footage now for Projectionism countered any sense of loss. Instead it allowed that historical past to enter into the forward-motion of time once again. The film became a kind of living archive – a hopeful form, articulating continuum for a disrupted age.

Funnily enough you also ask about my own first experience of cinema and it maybe comes as no surprise that my first attempt to go to the cinema was a thwarted one, one where as a small child I was withheld from seeing the film on screen. The film I was supposed to see was the ballet-film Tales of Beatrix Potter. I was a bookish child. In the queue I was beside myself with excitement that I’d see the characters from Beatrix Potter’s books come to life on screen. But I didn’t. The screening sold out before our eyes. I can remember the HOUSE FULL sign being placed in front of us. I can remember the people in front of the sign shuffling into the box office. I remember the feeling of terrible injustice!

It was a few years before I finally saw a film in the cinema so the idea of cinema formed in my imagination long before I experienced the reality. And what was that reality? The Land That Time Forgot – a film where all time frames collapse. U-boats, neanderthals, dinosaurs, WW1 soldiers. For me that’s cinema. A space of renewal, a space to think the unthinkable.

Q: Sarah

In the spirit of forward-motion I was wondering if you have any guesses about how the strange experience of the pandemic will affect the cinema that comes after it? I read an open letter that Apichatpong Weerasethakul wrote at the beginning of the pandemic when the human world was almost silent. He wondered whether that quiet, stilled time would breed a generation of filmmakers who would make slow contemplative cinema designed for audiences who had learnt to look at the world differently. What do you think this time will bring?

A: Selina

What a mind-expanding question! I love it, and of course, Apichatpong’s films too! I think for me, living through the pandemic, and experiencing the culture shock of cinemas being forced to close because they were too dangerous to be in, made me re-evaluate what the experience of cinema and cinemagoing has meant to me. It has been a picture palace of dreams, fantasies and nightmares, but also a contemplative space to think, feel and connect with others. When this was taken away, it was like a thunderbolt happened. I slipped into a fog of COVID time, a liminal space of days and weeks when I remember I also became invested in the idea of slowing down, daily repetitious tasks and self-reflection. As I write this, I am living in a new slow time because I have COVID, the lethargy and feeling of retreat in my body is quite something! I know that when Club des Femmes returned to the Rio in June 2021 to present ‘Lesbian Camp: Yes It’s F**cking Political!’, it wasn’t so much the films that we were screening (even though we did programme one of my all-time greats: Pumping Iron II: The Women), it was realising the value of film culture and cinema spaces, that ephemeral experience when bodies are squished together in the dark, watching films, laughing, crying, talking, just living again.

To finally answer your question, when I think of what a (post) COVID pensive, self-reflexive audience might look like, I imagine a new type of spectatorship, a pensive spectator. Laura Mulvey has written about this in relation to Riddles of the Sphinx, a film she made with Peter Wollen in 1977. How they were committed to slowness and extended shots as a counter to traditional cinematic editing conventions but also as an investigation into what women’s filmmaking might be like. As you wrote, cinema continues to be a space for renewal, so I want this new cinema space to be one where the ambition of political feminist and queer cinema rises up to captivate audiences, and of course to change the world.

Now let’s plan when we can meet up and go to the cinema again!


Projectionism will stream exclusively on the Cinema of Ideas until 26 July, when it will become available for cinemas to book for in-venue or online screenings.

If you are interested in screening the film, please get in touch.