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CPH:DOX 2020

Review: Sisters with Transistors

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- It’s synthesiser galore in Lisa Rovner’s proper hit of a documentary, awarded a NEXT:WAVE Special Mention at CPH:DOX

Review: Sisters with Transistors
Maryanne Amacher in Sisters with Transistors

Awarded a NEXT:WAVE Special Mention at the Copenhagen-based CPH:DOX Festival, following its first showing at SXSW, with both events held online this year due to the COVID-19 emergency, Lisa Rovner’s entertaining Sisters with Transistors does what every good documentary, or make that film, always should: it takes a previously little-known story and proves that the world really needed to hear it. Although in this case, “stories” could be a more appropriate description, as the French-American filmmaker showcases the work of pioneering composers of electronic music. They are all female and all forgotten, even despite the work that pretty much speaks for itself.

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Through archive footage nicely juxtaposed with some new commentaries, not to mention their very own compositions, Rovner actually manages to capture the allure of that uncharted – at least at a certain time – musical territory. While highly informative, at its best moments, her film is also, to borrow that dreaded adjective, rather oneiric, as she makes sure that it’s the music and the feelings it can evoke that always come first, way before any facts she deems it important to mention. “This is the story of women who hear music in their heads,” announces Laurie Anderson at the beginning, invited to voice the narration, but luckily it does make it out of there, too, if only to really confuse David Letterman after Suzanne Ciani went on his show in 1980. This “electronic wizard” was also behind the special effects on the disco version of Star Wars (aka Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk), in case anyone is looking for some kind of alternative pandemic playlist right now.

And so Ciani, Pauline Oliveros, Daphne Oram, Laurie Spiegel and others invite us to learn to stop worrying and love the tune-making machines, sharing their secrets while revelling in the DIY aspect of electronic music (considered “diabolical” in France, it turns out) that afforded them much greater freedom. They were perfectly aware that, at the end of the day, that do-it-yourself attitude sometimes means simply “that there are certain barriers in place that don’t allow you to do anything”, as one of them puts it, and that bypassing all of the existing gate-keepers doesn’t automatically grant you recognition.

It’s hard to shake the sense of injustice upon discovering these female masterminds who, once the world finally caught up with their crazy creations, were way too often just tossed to one side. They probably still are, too, whatever their chosen genre, as in the film industry alone, the likes of Joker’s Hildur Ingveldardóttir Guðnadóttir seem to stick out like a sore thumb. But Rovner makes sure that such a realisation is also accompanied by the excitement of discovery and fun, both very much in sync with her no-nonsense protagonists and one especially resilient partygoer, shown still getting down to the beat come sunrise, even though at that time it is indeed playing mostly inside her head. “I will keep on dancing forever,” she says. “At least until I remember where I put my car.”

Written by Lisa Rovner, Sisters with Transistors was produced by Anna Lena Vaney for France’s Anna Lena Films (which is also handling the sales) and Marcus Werner Hed.

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