«For the next hundred years we’d be better off just listening»

Feminism is a young movement, and in that sense it has been fairly effective. But despite all the achievements and the urgent needs it addresses, the term itself somehow remains unpopular. Filmmaker Katharina Mückstein, who has experienced academic feminism as a formative school of thought, feels there is insufficient scientific expertise in a public debate that has become highly emotional. Her documentary FEMINISM WTF provides impulses for consideration – across a spectrum of shimmering colours – intended to move this urgent debate towards greater objectivity.
Radical feminism, liberal feminism, anarchist feminism, etc, etc. Nikita Dhawan, one of your interview partners in FEMINISM WTF, cites numerous ways that feminism manifests itself and says she could list many more. What was your perspective when you directed your cinematic gaze on this broad topic?
In the initial phase, my main motivation was to respond to the situation whereby feminist topics are usually dealt with in the media without any expertise. It seemed to me that for any topic with a feminist element, a personal opinion was generally felt to be enough; expert knowledge is never sought and consequently never finds its way into broader society. Before studying film, I studied gender studies and philosophy – and the word "mind-blowing" seems the best way to describe that experience; I was overwhelmed by the realization that so many schools of thought and political positions come together in academic feminism. It was only during this period that I really experienced the concept of dialectical thinking. Which made the contradiction of how feminism is discussed in society, namely as a straightforward ideology, all the more striking. Concealed in the way feminism is talked about is an inherent anti-feminist stance.
You have adopted the talking heads style for FEMINISM WTF. Did you consider any other approaches to the format? Did this classical approach imply straight away that a very pointed formal setting had to be developed?
The experts who make statements in FEMINISM WTF are talking in a highly focused fashion. I wanted to find people who were willing to talk about their academic approach and the knowledge they have acquired through their research in a way that is easy for everyone to understand. My main goal was to make a film that gives the audience as much to take away with them as possible. So I didn't want to experiment with the form of speaking per se; instead, I looked for a very concentrated setting that would add something to the film on a symbolic level. That was the background to the decision to shoot the film in abandoned capitalist architecture. I think the subversive element of feminist ideas is that feminist activism often feeds on what patriarchal society leaves behind. I liked the idea of going into a building constructed from of the patriarchal-capitalist idea of exploiting people and their labor. We take what’s been left behind there and make a film out of it. Together with the set designers, the idea came about that everything should look like candy wrapping, as packaging for subversive content. That’s the background to the creation of the monochrome sets.
Which scientific fields do you want to draw upon in uniting different points of view?
In the choice of interview partners it was clear that I wanted to see a reflection of my intersectional approach, so the speakers represent different categories of discrimination. I believe that in the feminist sciences in particular there is a very strong reflection of the position from which, and on the basis of which experience, the science is produced. In my approach, it is clear that feminism is not only about gender but also about other categories of discrimination, such as race, ethnicity, class and sexual orientation. I initially wanted to make the film in English, and I started my first shooting block with an Australian professor. When the pandemic broke out it became obvious that we couldn’t bring people from English-speaking countries to Vienna, so we recast the film with German-speaking interviewees. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise; it was an opportunity to discover a lot of people in German-speaking territories and to move away from the idea that I needed big American stars to make a movie people would watch. The idea that the fame attached to a person counts more than the content they convey was actually pretty unfeminist.
The thematic issues are structured with scenic/dance elements. One of the central statements is: All knowledge is embodied knowledge. Are these performative elements rooted in an intention to give space and visibility to physicality?
If you look at feminism as a social movement, it feeds on very different levels. The most private and intimate of these concerns sexuality and the body. Then there is a step outwards that makes us political beings, by which I mean activism and attitude. Then there is the level associated with factual politics and policy-making, and then the academic level. On all these levels, a perception develops of how we live together. There are body performative sequences in the film that I developed in partnership with the performers, always paying attention to what they wanted to do and reveal of themselves in front of the camera. We also did the Walk of Privilege – a kind of social experiment that shows there are privileges bound up with the body and how you are seen in society.
There are many quotations, some of them in writing: in combination with the interview situations, language has a very important function here. Does the word play a major role in the film's objective?
Language is a highly contested area when it comes to gender equality. It’s very obvious that language shapes the perception and shaping of reality. Passing on the feminist word is the basic aim of this film. Three quotes in the film are from Audre Lorde, bell hooks and Alok Vaid-Menon; I hope people who see the film feel inspired to engage further, perhaps in depth, with these personalities. At some point I asked myself whether I also needed a historical approach to the film. Should I explain the history of ideas behind what we are discussing today about feminist issues? But I always ended up at the point where I wanted to make a film that was forward-looking. I didn't want to make a film that responded to the anti-feminist ideologies we have internalized so much. I didn't want to say anything about what I want to leave in the past. The feminist word should be the focus; we know far too much about everything else anyway.
How did the title FEMINISM WTF come about, especially the final abbreviation of "What the f***"?
The film title FEMINISM WTF may be partly a reflection of how angry I was when I started writing the film. I was asking myself how much longer we would have to perform educational work before we could read a reasonable, sophisticated expert opinion on a feminist topic in a mainstream newspaper, rather than polemics. It is particularly apparent from current discussions that we’re going round in cycles of outrage, and far too little attention is given to the question of how we can move forward as a society, because far too little of the existing expertise is drawn upon. Feminist knowledge is far too often suppressed. This anger and the feeling "What the f*** – What is that?" prompted me to work with this title from the beginning, and it ended up being used until the film reached the cinema.
At the end of the conversations you ask your interview partners about their vision of the future 100 years from now. Where could/should things go in a short to medium-term perspective?
My greatest personal wish for the development of the world would be for us to remember that "care" – i.e. caring for ourselves and the planet – is the most important human value. A patriarchal capitalist ideology has brought us to where we are now. We have forgotten to care for each other, and for the weakest and the most vulnerable, and to care for our habitat – and consequently we have developed in a direction that means we can’t survive. Feminism and feminist expertise are required to find a solution to the major issues of our day. Topics such as ecology, social justice, questioning capitalism as a superordinate system, patriarchy and gender justice can’t be considered in isolation; they’re all very closely intertwined.
Which input also steered you in a new direction of thought?
I can't exempt myself from what I've already said about the experts. My areas of interest are very much influenced by who I am and how I confront the world. I am a white, privileged, educated European; for a long time, my feminist knowledge was very much reduced to who I am myself. As Paula Villa-Braslavsky says in the film: Feminism also means keeping your mouth shut and listening and hearing the positions of people who have had a different experience than myself. For me, the fields I can learn most from are trans studies and postcolonial feminism. In other words, perspectives demanding that gender in its diversity should be recognized as normality, and perspectives that criticize a Eurocentric view of the world and remind us that the brutal history of European colonial policy is the basis of where the world stands today, socially and economically. It was staggering for me, for example, to perceive the great thinkers of the European Enlightenment through the lens of postcolonial critique. These men talked about freedom but only with reference to themselves. Women and people of color were excluded. So I believe it is absolutely crucial to dismantle this self-centered perspective in Europe, and for the next hundred years we’d be better off just listening.
Interview: Karin Schiefer
January 2023

«I didn't want to make a film that responded to the anti-feminist ideologies we have internalized so much. I didn't want to say anything about what I want to leave in the past.»