What Could Abolitionist Feminist Cinema Be?

by: , October 5, 2020

The Movement 4 Black Lives has incited me to demand more from myself as a filmmaker. I am a white person writing this article from a historically Black neighbourhood in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Today I am writing not only under COVID-19 Stay-At-Home orders, but also a police-enforced city-wide curfew and martial law under the National Guard. I write this after being in the streets protesting alongside thousands who can no longer bear these injustices. The smell of tear gas lingers in our apartment from the armoured vehicles occupying our street following protests seeking justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and numerous other Black people. I seek to build a new world. As Eva Boodman argues,

What abolitionists can offer in the face of COVID-19—beyond the more mainstream discussions of an economic downturn and the scarcity, mismanagement, and maldistribution of medical resources—is a framework that underlines the racial and class dynamics of state-engineered neglect that are only exacerbated by COVID-19. (Boodman 2020) 

In this context, the question that is foremost on my mind is: How can we have an actual and sustained feminist abolitionist cinema? What aspects of current cinema support white supremacy, sexism, classism, ableism, and ongoing settler colonialism? (I’m sitting here in unceded Lenapahoking land). What elements of cinema and exposition/distribution do we have the opportunity to change, and how can we collectively insist on those improvements? Who is funding films and festivals? If film events are institutionally funded, what messages are the granting organisations imposing on the recipients, such as the Israeli Film Board? Filmmaking is naturally a collaborative enterprise—at every step in the process there is a site for asking who/what is being served by this film. 

I don’t have fully formed answers to these questions, but I have been looking to abolition movements for guidance. The Movement 4 Black Lives states that ‘The current systems we live inside of need to be radically transformed, which includes a realignment of global power’. (M4BL 2020) Cinema is a powerful cultural component of our world, so I have been thinking about how to do cinema in a liberatory way. 

First, filmmakers living in current and former empires would have to relinquish any profit derived from films as reparations to those they exploit/colonise, for example to Black communities in the United States. Also, the work involved in abolitionist cinema would be done by and paid well to women who’ve been harmed by white supremacy.

At every step in the filmmaking and exhibiting process, abolitionist feminist cinema would have to try to identify and clearly name the population-level controls that are at work (Boodman 2020), and oppose them in practice. When films address topics that are actually extractive narratives (such as documentaries), the stories would have to be produced by and centre the people with lived experience of those conditions, with the stated goal of directing resources to those in need in the film. 

Film content is increasingly being put online, but internet access is not available to everyone, and is especially difficult right now during COVID-19 as public libraries and internet cafes are closed. People using phones have to pay for bandwidth if they are able to access the internet that way. Abolitionist cinema should be free to access, and any profit should be used to create more viewing opportunities for film–collective and personal.

Festivals must promote and adhere to accessibility guidelines for which the disability community has laboured for decades. Physical festivals would have to be reimagined, led by audience members with direct experience of what they need for their cinema experience. Every online and physical venue must clearly state that the festival or VOD service will not accept films without all accessibility elements (captions/subtitles/audio description). The burden of accessibility must be with the filmmakers. Captioning/subtitles are not cost-prohibitive, they are required steps in making feminist films, because inaccessible film reproduces structures of domination. 

I draw inspiration from the Abolition Journal’s manifesto:

Instead of assuming one homogenous subject as our audience (e.g. ‘abolitionists of the world unite!’), we write for multiple, contingent, ambivalent subjectivities—for people coming from different places, living and struggling in different circumstances, and in the process of figuring out who we are and untangling these knots to fight for a more just and liberated world. With Fanon, we are ‘endlessly creating’ ourselves. Abolitionist politics is not about what is possible, but about making the impossible a reality. (Abolition Journal 2019)

As filmmakers, we are magnificently positioned to imagine social transformation well beyond policy changes and toward revolutionary abolitionism. Let’s make it so. 

If you can, please donate to The Philadelphia Community Bail Fund: We post bail for as many of our neighbours as we can:



Abolition Journal (2019), ‘ Manifesto For Abolition’, Abolition Journal, https://abolitionjournal.org/frontpage/ (last accessed 10 June 2020). 

Boodman, Eva (2020), ‘COVID-19, ‘Biopolitics and Abolitionist Care Beyond Security and Containment’, Abolition Journal, 8 May 2020, https://abolitionjournal.org/covid-19-biopolitics-and-abolitionist-care-beyond-security-and-containment/ (last accessed 10 June 2020).

‘Movement 4 Black Lives’ (2020), ‘Who We Are’, M4BL, https://m4bl.org/about-us/ (last accessed 10 June 2020).

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