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Women Filmmakers and Directors by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

Here’s a concise essay on the history of women directors in the cinema by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster.

You can click this link, or read the complete essay on this page.

“The history of women filmmakers is a rich and fertile body of knowledge that has been largely ignored, until recently, by mainstream film historians. Nevertheless, women were very much involved in the creation of the visual art form known as motion pictures from its beginnings until the present. In fact, women were at one time far more prominent in film production circles than they are now. In the early days of film, women such as Alice Guy, Gene Gauntier, Hanna Henning, Ida May Park, Olga Preobrazhenskaya, Nell Shipman, Ruth Stonehouse, Lucille McVey Drew, Elvira Notari, Lois Weber, Dorothy Arzner, Germaine Dulac, Marie Epstein, Grace Cunard, and many others were involved in creating the new visual format. Unfortunately, when the first surveys of film history were written, and when the first pantheons of directors and major players were drawn up, most of the accomplishments of women directors, producers, and scenarists were overlooked. Even feminists tended to believe that there simply were no women involved in the production end of early films; women were viewed as objects of a voyeuristic “male gaze,” in films that were supposedly all directed and created by men.

Women were written out of history as active participants in the production and creation of film, film movements, special effects, the star system, the studio system, independent and experimental forms, and genres. It seems as if historians were primarily interested in women in front of the camera as actors and sex objects. Creative women, however, were very much participants in the history of filmmaking. For example, Alice Guy, a French woman director, is generally credited as having directed the first “narrative” film. Her film, La Fée aux choux (1896), is in many ways a film like that of her male contemporaries; it tells the story of a fairy tale in which a woman who cannot bear children creates them in a cabbage patch. Guy was instrumental in the development of such early pioneering techniques as special effects (masking, superimposition, and other in-camera effects). She was also very much a pioneer of the very first genre vehicles, yet Alice Guy is rarely cited as the originator of these genres. The hundreds of films she directed include everything from melodramas to gangster films, horror films, fairy tales, and even short music films featuring famous opera singers—forerunners to today’s music videos.

It is hard to overestimate the talented contributions of this pioneering woman director who worked in early primitive color techniques such as handed painting and stamping and also created some of the first examples of sound films, recorded on wax cylinders. And Alice Guy was not by any means the only woman producer/writer/director to contribute to the development of the film form. Internationally, many other women, most of whom are barely remembered today, were also prominent in silent-film production. For example, in Australia, the McDonagh sisters (Paulette, Phyllis, and Isobel) taught themselves filmmaking from the vantage point of actresses. Their early films were only recently “rediscovered” and written back into Australian film history. Hanna Henning, a German director who made many silent films, awaits rediscovery, as does Ida May Park, an American director who made scores of films in the silent-film period. The years have been a bit kinder to Lois Weber, Cleo Madison, Dorothy Davenport Reid, and Dorothy Arzner, all of whom have had their films survive and who have been rediscovered and celebrated in film festivals and archival retrospectives such as those at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the American Museum of the Moving Picture in Astoria.

Women directors thrived during a short period in the beginning of filmmaking production, especially in the teens and early 1920s. In this period, before film directing was seen as primarily a “masculine” occupation, women directors were numerous and busy. This period is well covered by Anthony Slide in his book, Early Women Directors. So many women were active in film production: Julia Crawford Ivers, Nell Shipman, Ruth Stonehouse, Lottie Lyell, Musidora, Margery Wilson, and many others. Many women were employed at the Universal Studios, where Carl Laemmle was not averse to hiring women as directors. Women were also highly active in this period as screenwriters.

Many women directors of color worked outside the studio system as independent producer/directors. African American women directors such as Eloice Gist and Zora Neale Hurston developed and introduced the independent personal film. Gist was a preacher who wrote, produced, directed, and self-distributed her own films; she lectured with them as she went from town to town, speaking with films such as her Hellbound Train, which depicted the narratives of figures bound for hell because of various moral trespasses. Zora Neale Hurston, as many now know, pioneered the ethnographic film that featured the insider informant. Hurston’s films were ahead of their time in that she understood the value of herself as an insider informant in the stories she told about the African American community.

Beyond the United States, women were instrumental in pioneering schools of film. Women such as French filmmakers Germaine Dulac and Marie Epstein were groundbreakers in the experimentation with film. Dulac is now finally hailed as one of the champions of the experimental French film. She was loosely associated with the Surrealists, the Impressionists, and the poetic realists. Her films are currently championed and lionized as part of a canon of important experimental films that challenged the borders of poetic filmic expression. Epstein is also being reconfigured into the landscape of film history. Her pioneering and mastery of poetic realism, combined with her narrative techniques, are finally being included in film history.

Agnès Varda, the Belgian woman director who helped pioneer the New Wave, is also finally being credited for her contribution to the development of the new school of filmmaking previously only attributed to directors such as François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and other male directors. In Italy, as Giuliana Bruno uncovered, the early silent filmmaker Elvira Notari was already beginning to embrace the artistic precepts behind Neorealism, a school of film that arose in Italy many years after her death.

By the 1930s there were fewer and fewer women directors. Film was beginning to be viewed as an art form and as a powerful medium in the marketplace. Many women directors left the field when it was clear that society no longer approved of women working in such a high-profile job that clearly indicated power in the public sphere. Among the exceptions were German director Leni Riefenstahl, who is universally credited with pioneering the documentary form and the technique of propaganda. Dorothy Arzner, a lesbian filmmaker, was one of the few prominent women directors in the 1930s. Mary Field is credited with pioneering the British nature film at about this time. Mary Ellen Bute was one of the pioneers of the experimental film in the United States. Her use of oscillated light to form patterns choreographed to music was far ahead of its time.

The 1940s were a fertile time for experimental women filmmakers. In this era, Maya Deren and Marie Menken introduced many of the ideas and forms of experimental avant-garde cinema. In Britain, Joy Batchelor created animated films. In France, Jacqueline Audry directed glossy studio-produced films. In the Soviet Union, Wanda Jakubowska pioneered many of the Soviet ideals of the social document film. In Mexico, Matilde Landeta fought to direct her own productions after having served as an assistant director for many, many years. She managed to direct a few of her own projects despite the sexism of the industry.

In the 1950s, Ida Lupino claimed that she did her work simply because there was no one else available, but the passion of her efforts belies such modesty. She tackled controversial subject matter and invented many of the techniques and themes associated with film noir. In the 1960s many women directed personal experimental films. Mai Zetterling, for example, began as an actress, but soon tired of working within the confines of a male-dominated system, and created her own visions of the world. Sara Aldrege was another important innovator in experimental film. One of the greatest of the experimental directors of the 1960s, Carolee Schneemann deals with issues of sexuality, power, and gender, as does Barbara Hammer, who began working as a director in the early 1970s. The multiplicity of visions among women directors is startling; it forces us to look at ourselves as women, and as members of society, in a series of entirely new and enlightening ways.

In the 1970s, 1980s, and the 1990s, there has been an international rise in the number of women filmmakers, both independent and studio directors. Women have been prominent as filmmakers in both developed and developing countries. Despite the rise in the number of women filmmakers, the auteur film director continues to be thought of as male. Despite women’s contributions to the development of the art form and many of its pivotal movements (from Surrealism to New Wave to documentary and the personal film), women filmmakers continue to be marginalized in dominant discourse. Women filmmakers, through their exclusion from history books, have been denied a sisterhood. Each generation of women filmmakers stands apart from its earlier predecessors. Remedying the paucity of scholarship on women directors is compounded by an unavailability of many of the films made by women in the early days of cinema, many of which have been lost, neglected, or destroyed. Film scholars have produced a remarkably persuasive body of film criticism that begins the belated recognition process of women film directors and their achievements.

Despite a clear lineage, women filmmakers have managed to be influenced by one another, even if they have been marginalized or excluded from film scholarship. Barbara Hammer and several women directors credit, for example, the work of Maya Deren, whose experimental films were profoundly personal and expressed a female camera-eye. Diana Barrie claims she was most influenced by Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon. Alice Guy was a mentor and influence on Lois Weber, who followed in her footsteps to produce, write, and direct her own material. Weber, in turn, had a profound effect upon the career of Dorothy Arzner, who had a successful directorial career within the confines of the studio system of Hollywood in the 1930s.

Dorothy Arzner, however, admitted she stifled her criticism of other filmmaker’s studio projects. As the only woman director in the studio system, she felt she “ought not complain,” and yet she carefully maintained that no obstacles were put in her way by men in the business. Elinor Glyn, the famous author and early filmmaker, seemingly did not recognize the clearly sexist critical lambasting she received for her adroit and sharply observed comedy, Knowing Men. Ida May Park, another woman among many who directed in the 1920s, refused her first job directing, thinking it an unfeminine job. Even contemporary women directors find the notion of a feminist approach to filmmaking incompatible with their need for acceptance in the industry. The late Shirley Clarke refused invitations to women’s film festivals, even if she agreed that women directors should be recognized. French filmmaker Diane Kurys finds the idea of women’s cinema “negative, dangerous, and reductive,” at the same time claiming, “I am a feminist because I am a woman, I can’t help it.”

Other women directors make absolutely no excuses for their feminism. Carolee Schneemann, Yvonne Rainer, and Barbara Hammer, for example, make films that deal directly and uncompromisingly with issues of sexuality, power, and gender. Donna Deitch was primarily motivated to make Desert Hearts because she saw a lack of films—especially commercial films—that center around a lesbian relationship. Hammer was drawn to experimental formalist filmmaking precisely because it did not seem to be (yet) the exclusive domain of men.

Some women directors wish to make films that employ newly defined heroines or that reverse gender expectations. Sally Potter’s The Gold Diggers is a case in point. Michelle Citron’s Daughter Rite consists of a narrative about two sisters and their mother and ignores the trappings of heroism. Doris Dörrie’s film Men . . . is an attempt to see men as comic gender reversals of the mythic Marilyn Monroe type. Social concerns are also prevalent in the films and voices of women directors. Barbara Kopple’s American Dream covers union battles. Marguerite Duras, a French critic and writer, and Trinh T. Minh-ha, a Vietnamese deconstructionist critic and documentarian, are centrally concerned with deprivileging the screen from its power to distort social reality. Trinh T. Minh-ha questions the ability of the image itself as a historicist account of truth. Clearly then, women directors are often compelled to redefine the boundaries of cinema.

Women directors face a lack of support not only as a result of their gender, but also because they have a remarkable tendency to choose “controversial” or “difficult” subject matter. Shirley Clarke had enormous difficulties funding The Cool World, an early 1960s experimental film (shot in 35mm) about racism and drug dependency. British feature director Muriel Box faced similar difficulties proving herself in a male-dominated industry. Jodie Foster and Penny Marshall stand as proof that some women manage to find funding and support from Hollywood executives, but both have had to use their acting as leverage in the decision-making process.

Racism in Hollywood is a problem only compounded by sexism against women of color. The new African American “wave” of feature filmmaking is predominated by men such as Spike Lee and John Singleton. African American women directors such as Julie Dash, Kathleen Collins, Alile Sharon Larkin, and Barbara McCullough have so far not been offered lucrative package deals by industry executives. Similarly, Asian American women directors have had major difficulties finding funding and distribution. Christine Choy faced enormous interference and lack of support in the production of her film Who Killed Vincent Chin?, a film about violence and racism directed against Asian Americans. Kathleen Collins spent more than a year trying to fund her film Women, Sisters, and Friends.

Julie Dash continues to have to search aggressively for funding, even after the critical success of her Afrocentric Daughters of the Dust. Claire Denis was forced to face humiliation and scorn when attempting to finance her independent feature Chocolat, a film that directly attacks African colonization. Similarly, Ann Hui’s Boat People, a critically successful film that documents the harsh realities of Vietnamese refugees, clearly deserves wider distribution. Distribution and finance remain as formidable barriers that independent filmmakers find themselves up against. An unbelievable amount of hardship seems to have been suffered by women directors, yet an unrivaled degree of perseverance seems to be a common factor in many of their experiences. Early pioneering film director Dorothy Davenport Reid faced the resentment of her male colleagues as she struggled to create her own cinematic visions of the woman’s plight in American society. Yet Reid went on to make a series of intensely personal films that argued against drug addiction, prostitution, and sexism.

Yvonne Rainer managed to fund a film about menopause, Privilege, despite its supposedly taboo subject matter, because of an incredibly loyal following and an intense determination to make the film. For all of these women, the need to make films is a fierce desire they must simply obey, no matter the cost.

Whether working in the industry or making films with the aid of grants and personal financial subsidies, women filmmakers have helped to shape the world of film as it is today. Some women film practitioners see themselves as harbingers of change, instructional forces, barometers of social reintegration; other women see themselves as workers within a tradition that they attempt to subvert from within. The immense contribution made by these women is a legacy that is rich in personal insight, hard work, careful study, and often sacrifice to achieve the aims they held for their creative endeavors.”

Compelling reading! From Alice Guy to Maya Deren to Kathryn Bigelow and all the stops inbetween, women have made immeasurable contributions to the cinema since the dawn of the medium.

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Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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