History in the making: Perseverance, preservation, and preserves

Before the 99 percent, there was the 50 percent. Protesters chanted and blew whistles outside the Whitney Museum, and painted “50% “on raw eggs surreptitiously left inside the galleries. The cause? Women artists’ under-representation in the Whitney’s annual exhibition.

The year was 1970, and alongside anti-war and black power demonstrations, the nascent feminist art movement was attempting to shake up the male-dominated art world. Artist Lynn Hershman-Leeson began filming fellow activists— an endeavor she continued for the next 40 years, resulting in the film, !Women Art Revolution, which screens on Saturday at 12:45pm during the Virginia Film Festival, one of several festival documentaries about the impact of art making.

Although uneven, !Women Art Revolution offers a fascinating combination of interviews, newsreel footage, and images of artwork by women who should be household names but aren’t: Howardena Pindell, Martha Rosler, Ana Mendieta, etc. Particularly noteworthy are Hershman-Leeson’s interviews with the same women artists at different points in their careers (sometimes 10 years apart), as they reflect on their activism and its influence on their work.

The film is a testament to the power of political art. Today it’s hard to believe, but when Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party” premiered in 1979, it sent male Congress members into apoplectic outrage over its celebration of female genitalia. A must-see despite its flaws, !Women Art Revolution illuminates a little-known and  important chapter of recent art history. A panel discussion with Carmenita Higginbotham and Jennifer Hoyt Tidwell, among others, follows the Saturday screening.

Congress appears in a better light in These Amazing Shadows, which provides an overview of the National Film Registry, established in 1988 to counter Ted Turner’s colorization of black-and-white classics. Screening on Thursday at 7:45pm, the documentary goes inside the government’s film preservation facility in Culpeper and explains how and why films are selected for the Registry. It persuasively argues that film is an art form that provides unique historical insights, but the project strays in interviewing film insiders about favorite movies. Also, the sweeping score recalls those irritating “Oscar Night” orchestral interludes.

A different kind of film about “making,” El Bulli, which screens on Sunday at 6:45pm, reveals the intense research and testing behind the culinary artworks created by Spain’s famed but now closed El Bulli restaurant. The camerawork is raw, but the Zen-like pace is seductive.

Although not art films per se, these three films document different impacts of art making.
These Amazing Shadows screens at 7:45, November 3, at Regal 3 on the Downtown Mall, !Women Art Revolution screens at 12:45pm,  November 5, at Regal 3; and El Bulli screens at 6:45pm, November 6, at Vinegar Hill Theatre. For more information, contact the Virginia Film Festival, 924-3376 or visit http://www.virginiafilmfestival.org.