Ruth Lingford is a London-born filmmaker and animator. She has a history in occupational therapy. She has taught as a lecturer at the Royal College of Art and has been based at Harvard University since 2005. Her films include themes of women’s perspectives, sexuality, and how they tie into aspects of society such as war, violence, and capitalism. Some of her works bring unique perspectives of established writing or lore; for example, Pleasures of War brings eroticism into the Biblical Book of Judith. Others, such as What She Wants elaborates upon Foucauldian theory of sexuality. Lingford’s films portray human sexuality as ever-present in all aspects of life, as well as the complicated relationship women in particular have with sexuality, and society by extension. As an animator, Lingford represents a less popular medium than traditional film, and visually has a unique outlook and direction.
Marisa Lai: How did you initially get into filmmaking/animation? What made you want to pursue film?
Ruth Lingford: I always loved drawing from being really young, and after high school I went to Art School for a year, but didn't feel confident and competitive enough to continue. In my memory (this was 1971 or so) only the prettiest girls got into the degree course to do Painting. There's no way of knowing whether this was a correct impression, but in those days it was absolutely commonplace for the male tutors to sleep with the female students. Anyway, much later, in my mid-thirties, I went back to Art School, and discovered animation by accident. Seeing my drawings move for the first time was a Road to Damascus experience - I suddenly realized what I wanted to do when I grew up! Animation offered me a language to say things I wanted/needed to say.
ML: How does the animation medium differ from other forms of film for you as a woman animator?
RL: Animation always seemed less intimidating to me than live-action film making, maybe because of its craft connotations. I used to knit, and the dogged repetition of knitting is a little similar to animation. I think women have been innovators in animation, pioneering the genres of introspective animation, and animation about the body.
ML: Do you consider your films to be experimental? How would you define experimental film?
RL: I have never thought of myself as making "experimental" films, at least in a formal sense. Maybe I have tried to deal with subjects and themes that haven't often been tackled in animation.
ML: What or who do you cite as influences or sources of inspiration?
RL: When I first started animating, a teacher showed me films by Jayne Parker (a British experimental filmmaker) and I was really inspired by her roughly drawn and violent film I Cat.
ML: What does “feminism” mean to you? Do you create with the intent of making feminist films?
RL: I come from two generations of feminists before me. I can quote my great-aunt, Rebecca West: “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.”
For me, being a feminist does not mean that I think women are morally better than men. I tried to explore the theme of female violence a little in Pleasures of War. I make feminist films in that I portray the world through my own eyes and I am a woman.
ML: I find Pleasures of War interesting in that there is conversation of women’s sexuality and how it manifests into power and violence. Many argue that violence and war are aligned with masculinity. How do you respond to this idea of gendered power, or the thought that Judith has adopted masculinity to become empowered?
RL: Someone once said "If you think that women are non-violent, ask any child." And I discovered unpleasant things about my capacity of for rage after having children!
In Pleasures of War, Judith is a heroine who saves her city by her act of violence, but she tunes into her own inner violence and gets erotic enjoyment from killing Holofernes. It maybe relates to the role-switching that can happen during sex, where we can tune into the experience of the other gender, but she has reserves of sadism of her own.
Pleasures of War (1998)
ML: Little Deaths includes people of all genders, and not just women. I personally feel that the whole concept of sexuality is often feminized, but here you show that orgasm is abstract and hard to describe in words, regardless of gender. Was this normalization of sex beyond gender intentional? Where do men stand with their sexuality compared to where women stand?
RL: Little Deaths was a fascinating film to research. I have hours of interviews that couldn't be used in the film, but that have expanded my understanding. Maybe most interesting was a conversation with a male to female post-op transsexual friend, who had been bisexual before and after transitioning (a true quadrisexual, I guess). Her insights into the difference between the male and female experience of sex was related to the presence or absence of testosterone in the body.
Another thing I understood better after the conversations for the film was the effect of pornography on the young male psyche - I heard about a tragic sense of depersonalisation and disappointment with the real that was directly related to porn use. But overall, I think men and women have more in common in their experience than people seem to think.
ML: It’s interesting to note similarities in experience between genders. For example, the concept of the gaze is heavily debated: does it belong to men and masculinity, or does the female gaze exist? If so, what does it look like?
RL: I think the female gaze is becoming more visible in films by women directors. I love Beau Travail by Claire Denis, especially the group ironing scene. We are maybe as vulnerable to visual pleasure as men, but the images that appeal to us may be a bit different. And of course there is a lot of mobility in the gaze, in that we tend to identify fluidly with both male and female figures in a film or picture.
ML: What She Wants depicts bombardment of sex in advertisement and the space around and the simultaneous desire and self-denial. From 1994 to the present, do you feel as if this “shopping for sex” has changed at all? Has it gotten even more blatant? Is it exactly the same as it was?
RL: What She Wants was inspired by reading Foucault's History of Sexuality. He talks about the way capitalism colonizes and parasitizes our sexuality. I think it's as true as ever.
What She Wants (1994)
ML: Thank you so much for your thoughtful responses to my questions and your eager participation with this project. While this exchange was brief and I would like to ask you more, we are grateful for the time you have already given us!
Marisa Lai is an undergraduate at UC Davis studying Cinema & Digital Media and Gender Studies. She is passionate about media theory and media literacy, and believes that progressive film, digital media, and interactive media are key to education, activism, and liberation. This brief interview was arranged under a tight schedule and conducted through email from Davis to the Boston area in November 2018.