Elspeth Vischer is a filmmaker and researcher based in Belfast in the North of Ireland. She is the director of the production company Vish Films Ltd and her work has a specialized focus in experimental and non-fiction traditions. Much of her work challenges hegemonic ideas and presents queer and feminist narratives that counter perceptions of binary politics in the North of Ireland.
At this year’s RVK Feminist Film Festival, Tara Karajica talked to Elspeth Vischer about her film “Let Us Be Seen,” feminism and film and what she is up to next.
What made you want to become a filmmaker?
Elspeth Vischer: In school, I always loved Art and Literature but we didn’t have a Film department or anything. I moved to Bristol when I was eighteen and went to study Film and English. Here, I became really invested in how poetry and ideas I loved on the page could be transformed into moving image to tell stories in a different way. Having the opportunity to direct short films at this young age in a really cool artistic city was a great start.
How did Let Us Be Seen come about?
E.V.: Let Us Be Seen was a film I wanted to make since 2017, when I moved back to Belfast, where I grew up and got involved in feminist activism and the Repeal movement in Ireland. It seemed as time went on that there was a lot of attention on Dublin and pro-choice activism there, but the North was not being seen on screen. I ended up making the film as part of a creative-practice PhD at Queen’s University because I wanted to research how grassroots feminism operated in Belfast. The idea was borne of me standing around with a camera at protests wanting to document events as they happened.
The film explores grassroots feminism in Northern Ireland and you feature activists, artists, educators. Can you elaborate on that?
E.V.: There’s a lot of crossovers between artists, activists and educators and having them all together in one film was a way to explore the nexus and what it means to work in the grassroots in Belfast. I wanted to work with people from as many perspectives as possible and gather experiences on screen in a way that was intersectional in practice. Filming between 2019 and 2021, when there was no functioning government in Northern Ireland, and then the Covid 19 pandemic meant that people’s perspectives have real historical insight even just a couple of years on. On 21 October 2019, abortion was decriminalized and same-sex marriages legalized in the North via Westminster ruling and this was a synecdoche for me in the film – as the issue of bodily autonomy and all the ramifications of this, is central to grassroots work being done in Belfast.
How is, according to you, feminism different now as opposed to the first waves thereof? Do you think feminism still has a negative connotation?
E.V.: I think there are important lessons and ideas we take from past feminists and learn from. I am very interested in how subjective and nuanced ideas of intersectional feminism can be from person to person. This is something that comes across in the final minutes of Let Us Be Seen, when everyone expresses their ideas of socialist feminism, intersectional feminism, and what these ideas mean in practice for their lives. I do think as right-wing extremism continues to gain traction in global politics, the word feminism becomes ever-more weaponized and this manifests often as day-to-day negative connotations of the word, that are completely detached from the reality of feminists I know and work with and what feminism means to them. People like Bell Hooks and Angela Davis as well as Bernadette Devlin McAliskey – who is in the film – continue to inspire me as they were there working in previous generations, but continue to shape ideas and take a keen interest in young people and how ideas have transformed over time. Always learning from each other is key.
What kind of impact do you think the film will/can have?
E.V.: I think the main impact of the film has been to start really interesting conversations. I have been lucky enough to screen it in a few different places and I think it has resonated with people in England, Canada and Italy despite being so local in focus. Especially given the global media attention on the USA with the overturn of Roe Versus Wade, it seems many people are all too aware of how easily our bodily freedoms can be revoked and being able to discuss these with international audiences has been really impactful on me personally, and I hope in turn the issues discussed in the film have had a positive impact on them. I think there is a real sense of joy in people’s work that hopefully comes across in the film despite the serious subject matter and this can resonate with audiences.
How does your feminism inform your filmmaking?
E.V.: My feminism informs everything I do and definitely my filmmaking. It is there in every idea and I try to adopt a feminism way of working which aims to dismantle traditional power hierarchies on set and work with individuals collectively to bring ideas to life on screen. Also, in the stories I am interested in working with people on, these tend to be counter-hegemonic in nature and call to question why representations of certain groups in our society are so absent from mainstream media. This often consists therefore of feminist and queer stories.
Can you talk about the shooting process?
E.V.: The shooting process was quite protracted due to different lockdowns in the North of Ireland. I began filming myself ad-hoc in 2019 and then when I was able to work with a small crew, between strict lockdowns in 2020 we were able to organize and film around twenty interviews with thirty-three individuals in total. Part of the process was to meet and discuss the film carefully with everyone before filming them. It involved a lot of compromising as there were no public events, gatherings or people working in offices to film at this time. This made the shooting process one of renegotiation and we often filmed in gardens, houses and theater spaces where we could practice social distancing safely. I am very proud of how much we were able to film and creatively using amazing artists graphic art as B roll was one major positive to come out of the limitations of making this during the pandemic.
Can you elaborate on the title?
E.V.: The title is meant to invoke a unifying rally cry, like a chant at a protest. It is a demand to be seen and heard by those who often aren’t, namely feminists. When Katie Richardson created the soundtrack with the amazing ‘Let Us Be Seen!’ sonic refrain, this perfectly incapsulated the title for me – one that engages and encourages us to join in and make our collective voices heard as we are seen on screen.
In your opinion, what kind of feminism do we need in film today?
E.V.: I think we need a feminism that is constantly learning, evolving and including everyone in its journey. As I’ve mentioned, for me, this means intersectionality and elements of socialism that encompass collectivity and creativity.
What about feminist film festivals?
E.V.: I was delighted that Let Us Be Seen was included in the RVK Feminist Film Festival and hope that others may also want to screen it. I have also applied to present at a couple of feminist conferences in 2023, so hopefully that might happen as well.
What is your take on women in film today?
E.V.: Just that there is so much amazing work being made by women and non-binary people and I am delighted to see it. I’ve been lucky enough to attend workshops and work with some amazing women and non-binary people over the past few years and long may it continue! Making our cast, crews and therefore audiences as diverse as possible is the best way to make films that really have something to say and engage people.
Do you have a favorite female filmmaker and a favorite film by a female filmmaker?
E.V.: I have loads! It’s tough to narrow it down. I love Helke Misselwitz, Kim Longinotto, Věra Chytilová and Agnès Varda as well as the likes of Barbara Hammer and Cheryl Dunye. One of my all-time favorite films that I return to time after time is Vagabond by Agnès Varda.
What are your next projects?
E.V.: I’ve been doing a short archive-based project with Emma Campbell of Alliance for Choice Belfast and have a couple of short documentaries in the pipeline for 2023. One is NI Screen-funded and will involve working with retired nurses. The other will hopefully be working with the LGBTQIA+ Heritage Project NI, for whom I have volunteered with over the past couple of years and be engaging with female and non-binary queer stories from different generations. So, there’s lots to look forward to for the year ahead!
Photo credits: Courtesy of Elspeth Vischer.
This interview was conducted remotely at the 2023 RVK Feminist Film Festival.