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Seminal Feminist Film 'Girlfriends' To Screen At The Hammer Saturday

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You may not have heard of it, but Girlfriends caused a sensation when it was first released in 1978.

Director Claudia Weill's debut feature, which is considered a classic of second-wave feminism, won awards at international film festivals and was nominated for Golden Globe and BAFTA awards. Two years later, Stanley Kubrick called it "one of the very rare American films that I would compare with the serious, intelligent, sensitive writing and filmmaking that you find in the best directors in Europe," according to the L.A. Times. In 2014, The Week dubbed it "the most influential film about female friendship you’ve never heard of."

Girlfriends, according to The Women's Companion to International Film, "made a mainstream impact partly because of its fresh and engaging quality, and partly because it appeared at exactly the right moment as one of the earliest of recent American films addressing feminist issues."

The film has become a cult classic of sorts, inspiring generations of female filmmakers. The film's protagonist Susan Weinblatt, who the New Yorker's Richard Brody characterized as "a little bit of a young female Woody Allen," is a young, would-be art photographer living in New York City, not unlike the heroines currently having a moment on the big and small screen today.

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Weill told LAist that part of what made the film so feminist in nature was its protagonist, and how she interacted with the world. "The protagonist is what in my day was the Rhoda lineage—the girl who's either very funny or not conventionally pretty, the side kick," Weill explained. "She's not the blonde girl, or the girl who gets married. She's not usually the protagonist; she's the "other" girl. She might be ‘ethnic’, read Jewish, but she's concerned with forging her path in the world, maybe being an artist. So right away, it was about a woman whose identity is not in relation to a man, or a conventional set of values."

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The film has had a resurgence in the past few years, as prominent female filmmakers like Greta Gerwig and Lena Dunham cite it as seminal to their own work. Dunham first saw the film after making her own debut feature, Tiny Furniture. "Several friends had alerted me to the film and its parallels to my work and I found it utterly stunning," wrote Dunham in an email to the L.A. Times in 2011. "It felt eerie, in the true sense of the word, how familiar this film was to me even though I had never actually seen it."

"I almost thought, 'Have I seen this and been gently ripping it off for the last five years?'" Dunham asked herself. "Claudia was in-house [at the screening Dunham attended] and I bum-rushed her afterward, basically shouting, 'I feel your feelings!'" Weill would go on to direct episodes of Dunham's (then forthcoming) show Girls.

Weill was in her late twenties when she began work on Girlfriends, which took "three or four years" to complete. The film originally grew out of a planned documentary on growing up Jewish in New York, according to Weill. At the time, she was freelancing as a documentary camerawoman. "I was supporting myself by doing other work and I was able to make the film because of grants," Weill told LAist. "The entire budget for the film was $138,000."

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"When I was making it, we would take the subway to location. Or somebody's mom would send sandwiches. It was very bare bones," Weill recalled. "There weren't any independent features yet in New York, aside from [John] Cassavetes. Everybody was sort of wildly excited, because we were making a feature that wasn't through a studio or Hollywood. But there was no model for what we were doing."

Here's a clip from the film, with commentary from the New Yorker's Richard Brody:

"Girlfriends" will screen at the Hammer Museum at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, February 11. Advance tickets are available online for $10.