Julia Lesage



Julia Lesage is an acclaimed filmmaker and academic, renowned for both her remarkable videography and for her pioneering feminist scholarship. She earned her PhD in Comparative Literature from Indiana University, Bloomington in 1976, writing her dissertation on Brechtian theory in the films of Jean-Luc Godard. She was hired at the University of Illinois, Chicago, where she helped organize a Women’s Studies program, as well as one of the United States’ first women’s film festivals, Films by Women – Chicago ’74. 

She held teaching positions at several schools – an outspoken Marxist, Lesage became a target for reactionary university administrators – before settling at the University of Oregon in 1992, where she is currently a Professor Emeritus. In 1974, she co-founded the journal Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, for which she has served as co-editor since its inception. A prolific and hugely influential writer, she has published widely on a broad range of topics in film, literature, and media, including such important and influential essays as “The Feminist Documentary – Politics and Aesthetics” (1984), “Women Make Media: Three Modes of Production” (1990), and “Women’s Fragmented Consciousness in Feminist Experimental Autobiographical Video” (1999). 

Lesage’s scholarship is closely tied to her work in documentary and experimental video, which similarly applies a feminist critical lens to issues of import to women, to people of color, to the working class, and to poor people. She has worked in Latin America and closer to home in the United States, including two documentaries made about students on the University of Oregon campus. She turned to video at the dawn of VHS, when video equipment – editing facilities in particular – was suddenly much more accessible, and much less expensive.

In 1981-1982, Lesage and Carole Isaacs traveled to Nicaragua for the first of several videos that Lesage would shoot in the country, Las Nicas. Lesage’s Nicaraguan videos would focus largely on the experiences and perspectives of the country’s women. Her next video, Home Life, looks at life in the city of Estelí through the eyes of the Diaz family and their guest, Seattle-based minister Randall Mullins. Future Nicaragua-based productions include Postcards from Nicaragua (1985), Lamento (1986), La Escuela (1986), Parque Wilfredo Valenzuela (1986), El Crucero (1987), and Mensajeros (1987). 

The powerful Lamento uses a Sandin image processor to abstract images of grieving mothers speaking about their sons and daughters, the fallen heroes and martyrs of Estelí. El Crucero examines life and politics on a coffee plantation, organized into four “movements,” each of which adopts a different documentary style. Mensajeros (Troubadours) presents a musical performance by Groupo Camayoc, a traditional Nicaraguan folk band. 

In Plain English: Students Speak Out (1992) asks University of Oregon students of color to discuss how race has affected their experiences on and off campus. The video screened widely around the country, quickly becoming an important resource for educators and institutions. In the 2014 essay “Perpetual Subversion,” Lesage reflected on the video, emphasizing the need for subjects to have agency in telling their own stories and the power and eloquence of their voices: 

In Plain English is a talking heads tape. Visually, I framed the students as authorities, as intellectuals who’ve thought a lot about the university structure, and I placed a primacy on their voices. They were given the chance to prepare what they wanted to say and how they wanted to dress. They and I saw their performance in this tape as a public event. In their verbal style, the students are authoritative and articulate. 

In 2002, Lesage collaborated with Abby L. Ferber, Debbie Storrs, and Donna Wong to publish Making a Difference: University Students of Color Speak Out, a book expanding on the ideas and impulses behind the video. As with the video, the book asks students to speak directly about their experiences. The book quickly became a standard text for educators. 

Lesage followed that with the similarly-structured 1995 video Getting Around, in which students with disabilities on the University of Oregon campus spoke about their lives, focusing on everyday experiences “so as to make aspects of ‘disability’ that are relatively invisible into something distinct, something that could be publicly discussed.” 


Selected Videography:

Las Nicas: English Version (1982), Spanish Version (1987)

Home Life (1984)

Postcards from Nicaragua (1985)

Lamento (1986)

La Escuela (1986)

Parque Wilfredo Valenzuela (1986)

El Crucero: English Version (1987), Spanish Version (1987)

Mensajeros (1987)

Troubadours (1989)

In Plain English (1992)

Getting Around (1995)

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