Over six years, from 2013 to 2019, the Toronto-based online film magazine cléo (cleojournal.com) published 19 issues featuring 180 articles, of which 130 pieces were by women and non-binary folks. Named for the protagonist of Agnès Varda’s Cléo de cinq à sept (1962), who comes to self-realization through the observation and mastering of her space, cléo was formed as a space for emerging and established writers to address issues of film and feminisms.
Due to provincewide budget cuts, the Ontario Arts Council grant that funded cléo for three years was recently suspended indefinitely. With this major loss of support the editors of cléo decided to call the latest issue their last. The magazine’s archives will remain online, and the editors will soon be publishing a best-of print issue made possible thanks to a generous donation from director Barry Jenkins (Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk).
To mark the publication’s closing, and its critical impact on film discourse in Canada and beyond, The Globe and Mail presents an abridged oral history of cléo, in the words of the writers and editors who brought it to life:
Mallory Andrews (senior editor, 2013-18, managing editor, 2018-present): I remember being fresh out of the University of Toronto’s Cinema Studies graduate program having no idea what I was going to do with that degree, but knowing I wanted to continue writing about film somehow. I had zero professional experience as a writer outside academia and almost no knowledge of the freelance industry. Kiva Reardon and I were part of the same graduate cohort, and in November, 2012, she sent me and a coterie of other female writers and academics an intriguing e-mail with the subject line “a semi-formed idea.” The semi-formed part turned out to be a misnomer: In the e-mail, she detailed an impressively fleshed out concept for an online film publication produced in the style of an academic journal that would create a space for women and non-binary writers to explore a wide range of films from all over the world through perspectives that most interested them.
Kiva Reardon (founding editor): I didn’t know what to expect when we published our first issue in 2013, on the theme of FLESH. We were excited – and, based on the e-mails from the time that I’ve been nostalgically rereading, most of us were nervous. Some of us had never written before, and none of us had ever worked as editors. But we felt we were doing something exciting that we believed in. As to how others would respond to it … I hadn’t a clue.
Andrews: From the beginning, it wasn’t about defining a capital "F" “Feminism” but about fostering the co-existence of a range of intersectional feminisms, which was a conversation that hadn’t really been had in mainstream film and culture discourse at the time. Replying to that first e-mail was a no-brainer, for me and others on our original editorial team: Julia Cooper (former managing editor), Eleni Deacon and Lindsay Jensen. (Other editorial voices over the years include Lydia Ogwang and Chelsea Phillips-Carr, and copy editors Jovana Jankovic and Joelle Levesque.) It would be hard work and a huge commitment, but who could resist such a bravely utopian feminist vision?
Reardon: I had only been writing professionally for a short time and though I had long said I was a feminist, I had never written anything explicitly under that “label.” This added another layer of trepidation that had to be pushed through, but pushing through it felt right. I had strep throat in April, 2013, and through a fog of fever e-mailed the group to say I’d hit publish on our WordPress site (built through help from more tech-savvy friends and watching a lot of YouTube tutorials). I thought a few people might take notice, but soon on Twitter responses started rolling in. Young writers and other feminists took note – more importantly, they liked the idea of what we were trying to do. They, too, saw the same gaps that we did and felt the same frustrations. This recognition – that we weren’t the only ones who were frustrated – was so encouraging. We weren’t making it up.
Calina Ellwand (contributor, grant officer, 2014-present): We aimed high with our first effort at a grant in 2014 – well, Canada Council for the Arts high. It was our first time formalizing aspects of our work that had been scrappy and intuitive; a budget was produced alongside a writer’s agreement and social-media statistics. But the application was not successful. We were rejected, in part, because we could not pay our writers, which was exactly why we needed the grant in the first place. The world of arts grants felt impenetrable. Thanks to a big fundraising push and generous readers, we were able to produce an issue where writers and cover artists were paid.
Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite (editor, 2015-17): I loved that cléo gave equal weight to analyzing experimental shorts, cult classics, blockbusters and more. One of my favourite issues is SOFT, because I got to edit pieces on such differing takes on the theme: Debbie Frempong on the use of soft lighting in Andrew Dosunmu’s Mother of George (2013) and Jaime Chu on soft intimacies in the films of Jane Campion. It seemed impossible that people would want to write for us, on their own time, and yet their approaches to the themes made me see films in new light with every pitch I saw.
Cathleen Evans (web editor, 2016-present): I came to cléo as a fan. The first article I read was Mallory’s piece on Tampopo in the 2014 CRAVE issue; it made me aware of a feminist film community in Canada that felt both accessible and exciting. In that same spirit, I’ve always loved spotting a cléo tote bag out in the wild. Often it comes with a nod of acknowledgement that is indicative of the specific kinship that cléo has fostered. Our readership showed up for us in so many ways.
Aggarwal-Schifellite: The art of cléo is another example of the strength and power of the journal’s community reach. The editorial board would blue-sky pitch artists for our covers, fairly certain they would say no. But mostly, they would say yes. Their work (all by women, based in Toronto and globally, include: Winnie Truong, Amrit Brar, Lola Landrick, Soraya Gilanni Viljoen, Jocelyn Reynolds, Emily May Rose, Alejandra Espino, Angela Lewis, Chloe Cushman, Laura Pitt and Heidi Cho) made the words of the issue sing; I still remember how excited I was when Hatecopy (Maria Qamar) agreed to create the cover art for our comedy issue, LOL!, which remains one of my favourites to this day.
Kathleen Kampeas-Rittenhouse (senior editor, 2016-present): I’d moved to Toronto from Montreal a few years earlier, and being welcomed into a feminist community within the arts scene was a crucial turning point in how I related to the city. Because of cléo’s shoestring budget, a lot of our day-to-day functioning was fairly DIY and informal, which meant there was always a warm, grass-rootsy vibe to the work.
Ellwand: We tried for a more modest Ontario Arts Council (OAC) grant in 2016. When we received the letter in the mail awarding us our first government grant of $10,000, I was elated and relieved. Cléo would finally have some stability and editors would be paid – albeit a pittance – for the very demanding work of putting together three issues a year.
Michelle Kay (senior editor, 2018-present): I first heard of cléo from a call for pitches a friend sent me. It was for the RISK issue, and I wrote an article about Anna May Wong. One of my favourite memories was the launch party for the #CanCon issue. It was in January, and unfortunately for us there was a snowstorm the evening of the party. We had made all of these preparations and were nervous that people wouldn’t show up because of the weather. But they still came, and we had a great time celebrating with our community. It made me realize how dedicated the cléo family is and how much we supported each other.
Kampeas-Rittenhouse: Our meetings were held all over the city wherever we could find a space with WiFi (and sometimes without): our small living rooms, the offices of our day jobs after hours, the TIFF lounge, libraries, the occasional park. One of my favourite memories is of cradling our PR and events co-ordinator’s roommate’s iguana while the team made our way through a typical meeting: troubleshooting first drafts; brainstorming interviews and cover artists; gathering info for a grant proposal (spoiler: the funding fell through).
Ellwand: We would go on to receive two more grants from the OAC until we got word earlier this year, shortly before the deadline, that this grant to publishing projects had been cut by the Doug Ford government.
Kampeas-Rittenhouse: The cléo community extended far beyond our small group – you can see it in the relationships we built with emerging writers and visual artists, in the women and non-binary members of the film industry we interviewed and profiled, in the feminist events we programmed and spoke at and sponsored, and of course in the readers from all over the world who found us.
Kay: I’m still in awe of cléo’s global reach and our fervent readers. Cléo clearly filled a void in film and arts coverage, and I’m happy we were able to shine a bigger light on intersectional feminist film. I’m proud of us for creating a widely read journal using what little resources we had. While it’s sad to no longer continue cléo, I’m certain what we started will live on and inspire others.
Evans: I keep rereading Kiva’s interview with Agnès Varda. At the very end, Varda says: “On a passé un bon moment. On a parlé du cinéma, vraiment, comme j’aime.” It can be applied so well to what we did with cléo; we really talked about film – and it was really hard, but more often it was really fun.
These interviews have been edited and condensed.
To read cléo’s final issue and archives, visit cleojournal.com