Grandma’s Grammar traces the persistence of the figure of the grandmother as locus of feminist historicity in non-fiction film, considering the grandmother as cinematic medium and privileged subject for modelling alternative modes of storytelling, inter-generational genealogies, and archives of memory and lived experience. Drawing together works by Jean-Pierre Bekolo, Tânia Dinis, Katsuhiko Fukuda, Barbara Hammer, Utako Koguchi, Cecilia Mangini, Gunvor Nelson, Margaret Rorison, Chiemi Shimada, Emilija Škarnulytė, Khady & Mariama Sylla, Ana Elena Tejera and Naomi Uman, the grandmother comes into view as nexus and prism of cinematic possibility, sodality and solidarity, and an ethics of kinship within, and beyond, relation. 

Grandma’s Grammar is curated by Elena Gorfinkel. 


Grandma’s Grammar

By Elena Gorfinkel

“Truth is when it is itself no longer. Diseuse, Thought-Woman, Spider Woman, griotte, storytalker, fortune-teller, witch. If you have the patience to listen, she will take delight in relating it to you. An entire history, an entire vision of the world, a lifetime story. Mother always has a mother.”  

Trinh T. Minh-ha, “Grandma’s Story” in Woman, Native, Other

In Jean-Pierre Bekolo’s Grandma’s Grammar, the film from which this programme draws its title and inspiration, Djibril Diop Mambety mobilises the animating spirit of the African grandmother as an agent of cinematic possibility and source of alternative modes of storytelling, both for his cinema, and implicitly, for a cinema to come. Grandma, as he suggests in the enunciated play on the slippage between grand-mère and grammaire, invites a way of narrating “differently each time,” although she occasionally appears as Grammar, lapsing into the conventionality and repetition of Western modes of storytelling. Mambety commits to grandmother’s injunction to “bash Grammar,” and to constantly “reinvent her stories… to ensure her perpetuity.” Mambety’s provocation is taken here as a point of stimulation, as well as conceptual departure, through a counterfactual: what if cinematic language begins with the grandmother? For Mambety, grandmother was there at the beginning of his cinema, but one could take his assertion further, to see grandmother there at the beginning of cinema, tout court, a figure of immense perspectival potential.

The mother’s mother also emerged in the wake of many movements of feminist non-fiction filmmaking, broadly defined, she the fertile ground of imagining a new kind of politics that drew on the knowledges derived from family histories and intergenerational subjectivity. In particular, the films of second wave feminist documentary that sought the grandmother as episteme and presence were anchored in her genealogical capacities, to materialise history as lived, relayed, told and retold. Indeed, who else gives the mother life and possibility, portending the vista of other histories, signalling the generativity of generation, within but also beyond family, than the mother’s mother, the woman and women who came before you? The grandmother is often present in feminist non-fiction film’s narratives of self-articulation and social structuration, even when occupying the background or resting in a corner just out of frame. A measure of a certain generative distance, she offers a portal to family histories and cultural and political exigencies through other means.

“Mother always has a mother,” Trinh T. Minh-ha declares, relaying how the grandmother as purveyor of oral tradition, transmitter of a “lifetime story,” requires listeners, keepers, and disseminators beyond her. The grandmother’s munificent presence in the non-fiction cinema of women filmmakers across distinct geopolitical contexts attests to her persistence as a figure of feminist historicity; “the first before the first,” to revise Siegfried Kracauer’s formulation concerning the philosophy of history. The “cinema of the grandmother” stands for not one but a multiplicity of transhistorical constellations and correlations between women and across generations. Not least, the grandmother speaks at the limit of what cinema’s narrativity, its many grammars, can convey.

The feminist impulse to navigate a history beyond oneself has often reached for the grandmother as simultaneously an ancestral figure, a fount of historicity, a medium of perception, and a disposition of continuation. Through her, the cobblestones on the path toward historical continuity could be cemented, and a desire for solidarity across the gaping breaches of historical time, lived experience, and ideological divergence could be articulated. The grandmother’s very existence worries the limits of how one might have lived, what one might have or could have known, or how one might have perceived a world. Grandmothers populate the body of non-fiction and experimental cinemas, and this film programme aims to point at the diversity of their appearance in historical and contemporary film practices. They are multiplicitous subjects, archives, and prisms for modes of sodality, solidarity and kinship. They are privileged subjects for the work of testimony, the construction of history, and of the lineage of women’s lived experience. The grandmother bears a capacity to stand for a lived relation to the filmmaker (Une simple parole, The Sleeping Flower, A Love Song in Spanish), as well as something identificatory or projective beyond that lived or kin relation (Maria’s Days, Unnamed Film, Kalendar), and a genealogy at odds with received histories, an agent of counter-historical force (The Grasscutter’s Tale). And further the grandmother models alternative modes of perception, of thinking and feeling across alterity and horizons of historical experience (Optic Nerve, Aldona, Red Shift).

Grandmothers have long been feminist filmic resources, a way to think laterally across generations, articulating a relationship to past traditions and temporalities, to social rituals, the historicity of gender and of patriarchy’s demands, and the witnessing of historical trauma and oppression. In this the grandmother also operates as a very specific proxy for the thickness and entanglement of any given story of lineage, inheritance, or the bequeathing of storytelling itself. What is narrated by the grandmother? And what does grandmother refuse to narrate? Such questions have long animated feminist historiography and theories of gendered and raced subjectivity, especially as the oral traditions and embodied knowledges transmitted across generations have sustained alternative narrations of history and History.

One of feminist history’s desires, untold, is the desire for the grandmother.

Revised, expanded extract from Elena Gorfinkel, “Cinema of the Grandmother,” in E. Balsom and H. Peleg eds. Feminist Worldmaking and the Moving Image. MIT Press, 2022.