“Sisters With Transistors” is the debut feature from French American director Lisa Rovner. The film was part of the official selection at this year’s Sheffield Documentary Film Festival as well as being part of the official selection at the SXSW Film Festival. The documentary tells the untold story of electronic music’s female pioneers, remarkable composers who embraced machines and their liberating technologies to utterly transform how we produce and listen to music today.
Narrated by Laurie Anderson, “Sisters With Transistors” is a wonderful journey through the evolution of electronic music, and is an absolute delight to watch. ITOL editor Bianca Garner managed to catch up with the film’s director to talk about the world of electronic music and female composers, as well as Lisa’s influences and what drew her to tell this story.
Bianca: Hello Lisa, thank you so much for joining me today. I just want to say how much I enjoyed your documentary “Sisters With Transistors”. It was truly eye-opening, or rather should I say ‘ear-opening’. I never knew about these talented female composers, it was like discovering a hidden world. It was so rich and full of detail, and truly absorbing. I’m so excited to talk to you about it.
Lisa: Thank you, me too!
Bianca: Firstly, would you mind introducing yourself to our readers, and telling us what “Sisters With Transistors” is all about?
Lisa: Introduce myself? It’s difficult, I’m not a one-trick pony. I’m French American, now living in London. I grew up in the States, and studied political science at McGill in Canada. My interest in confronting History with a capital ‘H’ with Herstory comes from there. After college, I lived in NYC and worked in the art world, as a gallerist and then as an artist assistant.
My first film, “Somewhere you can Find me” was a remake of a scène from Godard’s ‘One plus One’, a film I discovered while working in a small video rental shop to make some extra cash. It was great, I’d get paid to watch films and their special bonus, it’s how I got my film education. I then moved to Paris, at the time I was very interested in mass media as a medium and curatorial space and had a stint working in advertising all the while writing for art and culture magazines.
“Sisters with Transistors” is my first feature documentary. When I discovered electronic music’s female pioneers, I just knew it would make a great film…. It’s more than just the history of a music genre, it’s the story of how we hear and the critical role female pioneers play in that story.
Bianca: It’s interesting that you mentioned concentrating on ‘Herstory’ rather than the ‘History’, why do you think women composers have been ignored by the history books and to some extent are still being overlooked?
Lisa: I think it’s the oversimplification in the way we tell stories, our longing for a generally white male hero that has led to the erasure of our subjects. The myth of the lone male genius has been so destructive to our understanding of history. People need to understand that history is not a science, it’s an art. We writers and filmmakers need to think more about how we construct narratives, we need to be more inclusive, too many voices have been silenced for too long.
Bianca: I completely agree with you. There’s not really one reason, it’s a combination of different aspects. Our whole attitude towards how we recount history needs to change. I think we do need to go back and discover the people who have fallen between the lines of the history books.
Lisa: Storytelling has always been a part of liberation, breaking silences creates a new reality.
“I want people to walk away and ask more questions. I want people to keep digging up this history, this is in no way the definitive history, there is no definitive history!”
Bianca: What I love about “Sisters With Transistors” is that it’s not structured and presented to us in the traditional ‘talking heads’ style of documentary filmmaking. You allow the imagery and the sound to tell the story. Was that something that you planned from the very beginning or did it evolve naturally over the course of making the film?
Lisa: It was my intention from the start. I wanted to move away from the traditional ‘talking heads’ style of documentary, I wanted the film to reflect that radical nature of the subject. I thought of this film as an oral history that moves. There’s something so transporting about sticking within the world of archives.
Bianca: I love how the film has that flowing energy to it, and the combination of beautiful, unusual music and visual imagery. Where did you find the archive footage?
Lisa: The archive footage came from a range of different sources. It was super challenging but also so rewarding. Some of it came from the women themselves, others from their families, friends and trusts. I found stuff in universities, broadcasters such as BBC, ITV and the French equivalent INA. And then the more illustrative archive I found in independent archive libraries, such as Kino Library in London.
“When I discovered electronic music’s female pioneers, I just knew it would make a great film…. It’s more than just the history of a music genre, it’s the story of how we hear and the critical role female pioneers play in that story. “
Bianca: What is about documentary filmmaking that you find so appealing?
Lisa: I loved working with archive, as a material. And then of course, it’s thrilling going deep into a subject, it’s like falling in love. And then the documentary film community, they are a caring bunch who recognize you can change the world with film. It’s good to be around people like that. That said, I’m currently writing fiction. I can’t wait to explore that process.
Bianca: What was the process of selecting the music for the film, were there any pieces that you had to leave out because they didn’t fit into the film?
Lisa: I worked with some fantastic editors, (filmmaking is such a collaborative process), who were really good with sound. We chose compositions that reflected the subject’s body of work, that represented who they were and what they pioneered.
Bianca: How have viewers responded to “Sister With Transistors”? And, what do you want viewers to take away from your film?
Lisa: It’s such a strange time to release a film, due to COVID-19 our premieres at SXSW and CPH:DOX were cancelled so I have yet to share the film with an audience. That said, the response to the film and engagement on social media is keeping my spirits up. I’ve never been much of a social media person, I saw it as another form of passive consumption, of ugly one up manship but I’m starting to really value its power to get the word out. And I’m not just talking about my film. I feel so inspired by how organizations such as Black Lives Matter have used social media to share information about how to act in these desperate times.
In terms of what I want people to take away? I want people to walk away and ask more questions. I want people to keep digging up this history, this is in no way the definitive history, there is no definitive history! This is just the beginning of a long process of rediscovery and retelling.
Bianca: Are there any female filmmakers who you regard as inspiration or whose work that you admire?
Lisa: There are so many to admire! I’ve always been inspired by the experimental work of Maya Deren, Shirley Clarke (who is in the film), Carolee Schneeman, Chantal Akerman, Martha Rosler. As for contemporary filmmakers Cecile Sciama’s ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is one of my favorite recent films, as well as Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s ‘Mustang’, and Andrea Arnold’ “American Honey”. Agnes Varda’s film ‘Vagabond’ is one of my all time favorites.
And then there are those filmmakers whose films I have yet to see but can’t wait to discover like Brett Story’s ‘The Hottest August.” I could go on and on!!! A filmmaker I discovered very recently was the political activist filmmaker Sarah Maldoror whose film “Sambizanga” from 1972, is likely the first feature to have been directed by a woman in Sub-Saharan Africa. I attended a zoom conference about her over lockdown hosted by Another Gaze, I’d love to make a documentary about her…
“Sisters With Transistors” is to be screened in Sheffield in Autumn, and online on Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects in parallel. To find out more about “Sisters With Transistors” you can click here. Please follow on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.