Bay Area-based artist Lynn Hershman Leeson made her feature filmmaking debut at age 56 with 1997’s “Conceiving Ada,” a fascinating kind of sci-fi and art movie starring Tilda Swinton. But it was 20 years earlier that Leeson first picked up a camera.
In 1966, she started filming interviews with female artists. At the time, she had little idea what would become of the footage, but over the years, her collection grew until she had 40 years’ worth: 65 interviews, totaling some 125 hours.
Now, after four years’ worth of editing, the finished product — the 83-minute “!Women Art Revolution” — opens today in local theaters.
“I was just trying to make something coherent,” says Leeson. “I felt I would be too prejudiced, so I gave it to four different editors. One had it for six months. He was this very famous editor who won all these awards, and he said he couldn’t figure it out.”
Her funds ran out, so Leeson began editing herself. “It was probably the best thing that could have happened,” she says.
The film begins with the idea that female artists were never really given much of an outlet, and that most people today can’t name three female artists.
Among other stories, the film discusses artist Ana Mendieta, whose untimely death may not have been an accident, as well as Judy Chicago’s groundbreaking 1979 work “The Dinner Party,” which became the subject of a congressional debate in 1993.
Leeson thought long and hard about whether to include her own work in the film, including her creation “Roberta,” a fictitious person that existed only through photographs, credit cards, a driver’s license, and a bank account — “things I’d be arrested for today,” she laughs.
Eventually she decided she should.
“The film is not comprehensive, and it’s not encyclopedic,” she says. “The only way I could do it was to admit that this was a personal experience, rather than the entire movement.”
The director, whose other films include “Teknolust” (2002) and “Strange Culture” (2007) – both with Swinton – says she has rarely made any money on any of her art or films, and yet feels grateful that she continues working.
“I think things happen karmically. These things take care of you. If you’re supposed to do something, there’s a way to get it done,” she says.
With Miranda July, Yvonne Rainer, Judy Chicago
Written and directed by Lynn Hershman Leeson
Running time 1 hour 23 minutes
Note: Hershman will appear at San Francisco’s Lumiere Theatre after the 7:30 p.m. screening today and after 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. screenings Sunday. She’ll be at the Shattuck Theatre in Berkeley after 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. screenings Saturday and following afternoon sceenings Sunday.