Callisto Mc Nulty: Feminist Friendship and Humor Throughout the Struggle

Delphine et Carole

#DirectedbyWomen sought the opportunity to discuss with director Callisto Mc Nulty her award-winning documentary Delphine et Carole, insoumuses (2019), which portrayed the professional and personal friendship between French actress Delphine Seyrig (1931-1990), and Swiss vidéaste Carole Roussopoulos (1945-2009).  Seyrig dazzled the stage and screen during a career featuring works by Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett, New Wave film auteurs, and pioneering women filmmakers such as Chantal Akerman and Ülrike Ottinger.  Roussopoulos was one of the premier militant vidéastes in France who seized upon the new technology of video and documented many political and humanitarian struggles on the part of prostitutes, workers, feminists and militants alike.  Delphine et Carole has been featured in film festivals across the world and will soon come to the United States.  Through first-person interviews by Seyrig and Roussopoulos and archival footage, the documentary captures the post-1968 moment when the Women’s Liberation Movement burst onto the political scene.  Yet Mc Nulty never loses sight of her focus in the film, which allows these two remarkable women to recount their own experiences, especially their friendship and collaboration. Audiences will also revel in their humor, artistic play, and warmth in face of the struggles in which they participated with the utmost sense of commitment.  The timing of Mc Nulty’s documentary could not be better, what with the 50th anniversary of the French Women’s Liberation Movement in 2020.

GA: Where has Delphine et Carole has been screened—the different places, countries, and festivals?

CM:  The premier was at the Berlinale in Berlin; then it traveled to France, Switzerland, and Algeria.  It was very interesting, actually, to screen the film in the context of what’s happening right now in Algeria—there’s a kind of revolution going on—and to discuss the nature of feminism within the particular struggle that they’re living at the moment.  We screened the film in Doc Aviv in Tel Aviv, another interesting context and reception, and then in South Korea.  Most recently it was seen in Taiwan in the feminist film festival “Women Make Waves.” That was really amazing; the programming was really good.  Croatia as well. The film has also been to places where I haven’t traveled myself, like in India and Argentina. So they’re traveling a lot, Delphine and Carole [laughs].

GA: When people ask to program Delphine et Carole, is it usually for feminist film festivals or in feminist contexts? Or have contexts that don’t describe themselves feminist shown interest in the film?

CM: Yeah, many different contexts. So, as I said, in Taipei—Women Make Waves—that’s a feminist film festival, and then in a feminist film festival in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Créteil 1 The Créteil International Women’s Festival, one of the first film festivals to feature women’s films exclusively, established in 1978 by Jackie Buet. was a feminist film festival.  Generally, I think the programmers must be interested in feminist issues, even for festivals that aren’t necessarily feminist.  It’s quite varied, in a way.  What’s interesting is that in the different contexts—whether Maghrebi or Arab countries, France, or Asia—the questions and exchanges are quite similar in a way, and I think the film just resonates with something very universal through these two women, even if the context is very specific because it takes place in France during the 70s. When I made it, I didn’t think that it would travel as much, because I thought, maybe its interest is quite localized—in Europe, in France.  But apparently not. The film will also be screening in various art house cinemas in the US through UniFrance.  

GA: One of the things that came up with my colleagues who saw the film was that we all agreed that this was the perfect film to show students in the US if you were trying to reconstruct the context of the 1970s and the women’s movement and second wave feminism, and we thought that this was a perfect point of entry into that period and that movement of the time.  There’s a certain timeliness to Delphine and Carole and to your film in particular.  I’m curious that you’ve even suggested that there’s this universal—that the questions are the same, that the exchanges are similar from the Maghreb to South Korea, etc., but I was also thinking about the relevance of something that can on the other hand feel like a time capsule of the 70s, of their moment together.

CM: It’s very much second wave feminist issues, but they’re coming up again today.  It’s a time capsule of a very specific time, but it resonates a lot with what is happening right now, and I think that’s probably why it speaks so much to women—and men—but it’s mainly women who watch the film, more or less, all over the world.  It was interesting in some places where I showed the film because, for example, in Algeria and in South Korea, abortion hasn’t yet been legalized. So, of course the reception varies depending on where you show the film. In a way, it shows that feminism is a tool of vigilance that keeps your eyes open. What I find interesting is that there’s something very radical and creative about the way [Delphine and Carole] fought.  It mixes humor and creativity, and that’s something that perhaps we’re missing slightly today.  Gender studies is part of my formal education; it was amazing, and I enjoyed studying sociology from that perspective, but I also feel that sometimes it could get a bit dry. Deconstruction is important, but we also need construction and creation, and if we can, humor, which we can’t always have.  Humor, too, is a tool and a weapon. And I think they show it in a modest and humble way that can speak to a lot of women. That’s something that’s quite precious I think.

GA: When you were making the film, who were you imagining as your audience? Did you have an ideal audience? Did you have a sense of an audience you wanted to reach?

CM: I wanted it to be quite accessible without saying too much. I wanted to avoid voiceover or any explanatory commentary. In that way I’m very much in line with Carole’s vision as a director: I wanted Delphine and Carole to speak for themselves.  Of course, I could have started the film with SCUM Manifesto, and that was part of the initial plan because it’s the first work that featured both of them together, and as I had very few images of them together, it would have been powerful. But then I thought, it’s not very generous, and not all people would necessarily understand the sense of humor. You have to prepare people to think about something that’s very radical and to present Valerie Solanas’s thought in a way that allows it to be accepted and not heard as something hysterical or as the feminist killjoy…

GA: Right, the castrating bitch…

CM: Exactly, and so yes, I decided to contextualize things a bit—I wanted to give a good image of them, and I wanted the film to be generous in that way—generous in the images, because I also wanted to enjoy the pleasure of editing the film. I really enjoyed using, for example, the images of Peau d’Âne [Donkey Skin]2Jacques Demy, 1970. when she’s falling from the ceiling, and editing all these other glamorous images in relation to the images of the militant videos, the quality of which is a bit poorer and a bit drier in a way—the grayness of the image. It’s a way to understand both of these histories, the history of cinema and the history of video, and how it develops—regarding video, anyway—as a response to cinema and to television.

GA: One of the points of departure for the film project was Carole’s own film about Delphine, and there seemed to be an initiative to restore and re-release it, so I’m curious about the evolution of your relationship to Carole’s film, because ultimately Delphine et Carole isn’t Carole’s film—you’ve made this film completely your own. 

CM: Yeah, completely, because when I first started working on the project, which was about four years ago, the idea, which I discussed with the Centre3The Centre audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir, which Delphine Seyrig and Carole Roussopoulos co-founded with Ioana Wieder in 1982. and with Carole’s children, Alexandra and Geronimo, was to finish her work on Delphine. We started working on it, but there was something in the editing that wasn’t flowing, especially at the end. Carole worked on it while she was ill; it’s what kept her alive.  It was a very important project for her, so the last year of her life she was on her computer, always editing. We wanted to do something with it, and we started working with an editor—we even did screenings to see how we could do it. But we realized very quickly that it didn’t make any sense to finish her work. It was something ethical—none of this worked. We then met the producer of the film, Sophie de Hijes, who gave me confidence. It took a bit of time, but I started writing a proposal and talking to different people.  I discovered interviews of Carole filmed by different people, and that’s when it became clear that we had to include her voice in the story. Because funnily enough, the rough cut that she had done was entitled “Delphine par elle-même” (Delphine According To Herself).  It was quite funny—we discovered that through this portrait of Delphine, Carole was of course recounting herself.  And well, you’re always doing that when you’re doing a portrait of someone else. So we thought, why not reveal that presence even more, and do something about both of them? During the early stages of the editing, it was more about Delphine, sometimes told by Carole, so Delphine by Carole, and eventually it became Delphine and Carole because I wanted to talk about their relationship. There was something about the two working together that really inspired me. First of all, they were quite similar in their backgrounds—they were both quite charismatic women from wealthy backgrounds, but rebelled and gave voice to other women. But they were also complementary. Delphine probably had a bit more of an artistic vision—in SCUM Manifesto, the whole mise-en-scène is probably more Delphine than Carole—and Carole had her own powerful vision, her way of approaching people, of enabling others to speak. And I think in their vision together—Maso et Miso vont en bateau and SCUM Manifesto, for example, not to mention their activism—something sparked.

GA: It’s so interesting because when you think about stars and actresses, it’s such an individualistic way of looking at cultural production and artistic vision. After I watched your film at Créteil, I was thinking for the first time how Delphine and Carole became a real unit, a duo, as if they were two halves of this really interesting whole. And the sum is greater than the two parts, right?  As if, at certain moments, Delphine wasn’t Delphine without Carole. 

I’m curious about how you feel about Carole in front of the camera—I mean, she becomes a perfect subject in a way. She’s so natural!  That’s one of the surprises of the film, that Carole—whom, as you say, we never hear in voiceover in her films—is so ready for the camera, ready to be interviewed, and it’s a new presentation of her.

CM: Yeah, she was quite at ease in a way.  Although, as you say, I think—and even Godard, when he wrote a letter about her to the Cahiers du cinéma, said something along the lines of “I don’t know how she can need other people to do her films, she’s always hiding behind others.”  Maybe it’s also because she ended up revealing things when she speaks about the period, especially the 70s, it was such an important time for her, when she really constructed herself as a woman, and so she’s enthusiastic. You can feel it when she’s being filmed. But it’s true that it’s quite surprising how confident she is in front of the camera.

GA: Perhaps it’s a cliché to think of Delphine or Carole in front of or behind the camera, but at the same time, the film brings out really interesting things about them. You know, in my research on Delphine, particularly on the Insoumuses, it’s clear to me what Carole brought to Delphine’s life and how it redirected the course of it— in a way, Carole’s influence on Delphine. How would you would characterize Delphine’s influence on Carole’s life? Did Delphine lead her in a direction that was unexpected, or did they travel paths that happened to be the same?

CM: From what I’ve seen in all the images, I think that, as I’ve said before, what Delphine brought to Carole was maybe more of an artistic dimension. Before meeting Delphine, Carole’s work was primarily militant. If you look at her works before ‘74, which is when she met Delphine, although there’s something visually striking about her films like Munich, there’s definitely a vision. But this kind of performative dimension that you see, say, in SCUM Manifesto, that was very much connected to Delphine.  I’m not sure that Carole would have done that—I don’t know, I wasn’t there. Carole also said that Delphine had her own sense of humor, which was at the heart of the Maso et Miso vont en bateau. Beyond Delphine, it’s due to her collaboration with the Insoumuses that she did feminist works. Prior to that, Carole had documented other struggles— the Palestinian struggle, workers’ struggles, the Black Panther movement—she even taught them how to film video.

GA: Oh, she worked with the Black Panthers? I didn’t know that.

CM: In the 1970s, Carole was invited in Algiers to teach the Black Panthers and Eldridge Cleaver how to film with video and edit. They did a film together, but we don’t have the footage—it was lost. Yes, Carole was very much involved in anti-imperialist struggles as well.  But maybe feminism less so, until her encounter with Delphine, Ioana and Nadja and all that time.

GA: Delphine was certainly participating in all sorts of anti-imperialist struggles—Vietnam for one, Algeria, and so forth. 

CM: At the same time, Carole was more of a humanist with a radical left-wing dimension than a “leftist,” because she never belonged to any political party. She also never voted. So, they were part of these struggles, but always as kind of electrons—being slightly aside, on their own. 

GA: Ioana and Nadja, the two Insoumuses who are less known. How did you eventually focus on Delphine et Carole and not work on the entire collective (of four women)?

CM: Through the film, I did not aim at portraying 1970s feminist collectives in an exhaustive manner. It was really about Delphine et Carole because that was the starting point of Carole’s film project. It’s true that I really wanted, as Carole’s granddaughter and as a big fan of these two women, to concentrate on them, on the human and political intensity of their friendship. I wanted to hear their voice as well as possible because if not, it would have been diluted. I do mention Nadja and Ioana because they certainly have played their part.  I told this story of 1970s video activism and friendship through this specific angle, but there are so many angles, and I don’t think mine is more right than others, I just did mine…

GA: What’s the afterlife of the film for you? Do you see yourself following up on this film in particular or are you looking to other projects?

CM: I’m always working on other projects. For the past year and a half, I’ve been co-directing another film so I’m splitting up my time between going to festivals, accompanying the film and working on my projects. My other project derives out of an observation which is that women have all these questions about inequality and have worked on that a lot, but men tend to not do that work so much. And when I talk to friends, especially in my circle, so they are kind of quite privileged men, they never feel like they are socially assigned, constrained. They are completely free, emancipated from any kind of social categorization. They are just Matt and Martin, they are this, they are nothing more. And so we decided, with a friend of mine that also does video, to propose within the context of a documentary film that will have fictional male parts as well, a kind of training course, a feminist re-education course to a group of men who will accept to be part of this experiment. And the starting point of that training course will be SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas. So we will ask them to riff on extracts of SCUM Manifesto which deals a lot with patriarchal masculinity and to question that a bit. And about what their responsibilities are in the reproduction of norms and violence. That’s when there’s also a kind of more fictional part. What these guys don’t know is that all their actions and testimonies are being watched by a group of experts, who are looking at that and helping us, so me and Anne (the other director) to convert them to feminism. So we’re playing a bit with the image of a conspiracy theory that is often attached to gender studies in public debates and the media. In France, there’s a lot of that. When you talk about feminism, people tend to connect it a lot to this kind of gender theory where you have these missionary feminists trying to convert everyone and there’s a lot of conservatism. So that’s this next project, and then I have others.

GA: Do you do other kinds of art too, because something tells me that you’re not just making films, but that you do painting or other media?

CM: … I’m a curator as well, so I organized an exhibition last May in 2018 and published a book around it, gathering 30 artists around the idea of the bibelot, or the trinket.  The exhibition was about drawing attention to small scale artworks and objects, to everyday situations that don’t usually grab attention, that go unnoticed. And I have another project, as I was saying, I’m meeting the American artist Kiki Smith in New York. There’s a book that’s being published in France around her work and so I’m invited to interview her. So I’m kind of busy between the publishing project and the film. And I quite like that, having the freedom to do that. For now, it’s great.

GA: That sounds amazing.  I try not to emphasize that you are Carole’s granddaughter even though I’m sure that’s a really special connection and relationship. I also think of you as someone, if I understand correctly, who didn’t go to film school. Could we say that there’s Delphine in you too? Someone who’s interested in feminist and cultural studies, and then comes to filmmaking in your own way to document, represent and share stories of these incredible women, their work, their friendship, that it’s almost like this really interesting, hopeful side of a diptych with Sois Belle et Tais-Toi4Delphine Seyrig’s feature-length documentary about actresses, released in 1976..  When I was watching the California section of your film, I felt this continuity between your film and what they were doing with Sois Belle et Tais-Toi, where Delphine’s main questions were: if you were a boy, would you have made different choices?; have you experienced “relations chaleureuses” on set?; and so forth. But there’s this really interesting continuity. I see Delphine and Carole through you.

CM: It’s true, they both really inspire me. I’m glad that you said that because I think both of them are wonderful. It’s not so much about paying tribute because I feel like they’re so human. It’s not about living up to them, it’s just that they are very accessible, and one can relate to them. And I was very close to Carole, as well. I hadn’t really seen her work when I was younger, she died when I was nineteen. I spent all my holidays with her because my parents had me when they were very young, so they would send me to Switzerland during every holiday, even school holidays, to give them time to paint, so I was very close to Carole. I always saw her work out on the table, editing films until her death, so there was certainly a form of heritage that I had, and she was a very strong and opinionated woman. But I really discovered her work as a director afterwards, when I studied at St. Martin’s—cultural studies. For me, this film, and at the time I didn’t think of it, but it’s a way to work with her, to discover her more as a creator, and it was very moving for me to have this opportunity, to really dig into her work. Until then, I had a couple of films I knew, but it was more as my grandmother Carole, and then it became Carole, Carole Roussopoulos. On the other hand, the opposite happened with Delphine Seyrig because she was this kind of figure, quite a familiar figure because there were photos of her in Switzerland, I had this top that my grandmother gave me that used to belong to Delphine… So I had these objects, so she was around, but she was more a kind of celebrity in a way. And then I went to Duncan’s house5  Duncan Youngerman, Delphine Seyrig’s son. and I read all the letters, I saw all the interviews, and she suddenly became this very accessible person, almost like a friend. And she had this thing, I know you must know because you probably read all her letters and things for your research, but in the letters that she writes to her son, she’s amazing! She doesn’t even feel like a mother. She’s a friend, she gives advice, she’s very open, she really wants to help and understand what her son is going through. I really discovered a fascinating woman. If I had been living at the time, I would have been friends with her for sure. I kind of encountered both of them as you say, not as separate beings, but also in the context of this friendship, and I kind of got to hang out with them for like a year doing the editing of them and they gave me confidence. By doing the film, I gained that, but also they gave me energy. 

GA: Well, I think your film is a beautiful film and I felt like it had, as we say in English, just the right touch, and this equilibrium in the film where you really do let them speak for themselves. They are perfectly capable of doing so. And the way you put them in dialogue with each other because they’re not appearing on the screen together, right, they’re not shot together, but because of the editing, you really do get the sense of their togetherness and their relationship, and it’s beautiful!

CM: Yeah, that was really important. I think it was something that just helped them throughout the editing because as I said, at first, the editing was a little bit more Delphine by Carole and then Carole’s place in the film was bigger and bigger and we found the right equilibrium. As you said, for me it was the challenge of the film, to manage that. For me, it’s not so much of a problem that sometimes we focus a bit more on Delphine and then sometimes a bit more on Carole because anyway, I think the one informs the other and sheds light on the other and in the end, it feeds it. There’s not so many images that feature both of them, but it’s true, it’s a film that overcomes those images and manages to give us the sense of Delphine and Carole, together.

Callisto Mc Nulty
Callisto Mc Nulty [photo credit: Joffrey Speno]

Thank you to Neal Baker and Sarah Goodstein for transcribing the conversation.

Follow Callisto Mc Nulty on Facebook and Instagram. Visit Alva Film for more information about Delphine et Carole, insoumuses.

1. The Créteil International Women’s Festival, one of the first film festivals to feature women’s films exclusively, established in 1978 by Jackie Buet.
2. Jacques Demy, 1970.
3. The Centre audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir, which Delphine Seyrig and Carole Roussopoulos co-founded with Ioana Wieder in 1982.
4. Delphine Seyrig’s feature-length documentary about actresses, released in 1976.
5. Duncan Youngerman, Delphine Seyrig’s son.