Intro to [Women and] Film
by Adina Glickstein
Engaging with film history as a young woman can often feel incredibly lonely. It feels easy --- almost natural --- to get lost in a deluge of creators and critics whose voices, both literally and metaphorically, bear so little resemblance to my own. While a small cadre of female directors is finally beginning to gain prominence in Hollywood, most appraisals of film history make only limited note of women’s contributions. Even the “Introduction to Film” course at my left-leaning New York City women’s college entirely excluded women from the syllabus: while my professor assured the class that historically significant female directors did, in fact, exist, apparently none of them were noteworthy enough to warrant our study. Men are typically credited as the prominent luminaries of film history, and it isn’t considered sexist to believe so, provided the belief is accompanied by the justification that this trend is, in itself, a result of women’s marginalization. However, this line of thinking erases the numerous meaningful contributions women have made to film history --- contributions that represent an incredible ability to overcome the hardships of an industry that regularly scorned and attempted to expunge their art. It’s time to stop excusing accounts of film history that overlook the developments pioneered by the women who persevered: time to construct an alternative “introduction to film” that emphasizes the history of women and cinema so often obscured or forgotten.
Workers Leaving the Factory (1895), dir. Auguste and Louis Lumière
Although the earliest ever films --- the “actualities” of the Lumière Brothers, short documentary-adjacent depictions of everyday phenomena --- were created by men, women played a surprisingly central role in cinema’s beginning. Workers Leaving the Factory, one of the first Lumière films to attain public exhibition, features the real-life employees of the Lumière Factory --- mostly women --- flowing through the factory gates after a day of work. While the Lumière Brothers enjoy historical recognition as the “fathers of cinema,” the contribution made by their factory workers is less often discussed. The Lumière Factory manufactured photographic plates, a crucial ingredient of the cinématographe, the early film camera on which Workers Leaving the Factory was shot. Although the Lumière Brothers screened this film primarily to draw attention to their novel technology, it simultaneously situates working-class women at the genesis of film history.
Alice Guy-Blaché (1873-1968)
A year after the Lumière Brothers debuted their first actualities, Alice Guy-Blaché, formerly a secretary to Lumière competitor Léon Gaumont, directed La Fée aux Choux, the first-ever narrative fiction film. Clocking in at exactly one minute, the film, which adapts a French fairy-tale, is comprised of a single fixed shot depicting a laughing fairy as she gaily pulls babies out of cabbages. After making La Fée aux Choux, Guy-Blaché gained status at the Gaumont studio, before establishing a studio of her own. By the time of her death in 1968, she had made over 1,000 films.
La Fée aux Choux (1896) dir. Alice Guy-Blaché
Fellow Citizens in North (1941) dir. Tazuko Sakane
Often identified as one of Japan’s earliest female directors, Tazuko Sakane ascended the ranks of Kyoto’s studio system, only to have her work dismissed and derided due to her male contemporaries’ conviction that her “feminine sensibilities” tainted her filmmaking. In 1941, Sakane made her first documentary, Fellow Citizens in North (1941), detailing the lives of the Ainu, an indigenous group in northern Japan. The documentary, which paid special attention to the lives of Ainu women, was initially denied release --- the studio was dismayed by Sakane’s celebration of indigenous culture, far from the homogenizing propaganda they had hoped she would produce in the wake of the Sino-Japanese war. Sakane was forced to re-shoot and re-edit parts of the film in order to make it more consistent with the nationalist message the studio had hoped for. Robbed of creative control, Sakane eventually released a final product bearing little resemblance to her original film. The end result was rife with inconsistencies after being forcibly reworked --- and rather than acknowledging this, the studio executives blamed the reworked film’s poor execution on Sakane’s gender.
Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), dir. Maya Deren
In 1943, Maya Deren’s father died of a heart attack, leaving her with enough inheritance to afford a used 16mm Bolex camera, which she used to shoot her best-known (and arguably most influential) film, Meshes of the Afternoon. Meshes, heavily influenced by the surreal, centers on a woman who falls asleep in her apartment one afternoon, tumbling into a dreamlike state where she is repeatedly confronted with other forms of herself, all played by Deren. Rather than constructing a narrative from linear events, Deren propels her protagonist through a series of trancelike encounters that project her unconscious mind onto the world around her, forming a halting, ambiguous chain of symbols that attempt illustrate the indescribable nuances of internal emotion. Later collaborating with artists ranging from Katherine Dunham to Marcel Duchamp, Deren’s formal experimentation transcended the boundaries that the traditional studio system imposed on American cinema, strengthening the proposition that film belongs among the ranks of fine art.
Director Agnes Varda
As France grappled for stability following the political unrest of May ‘68, Agnès Varda became situated among a growing set of French intellectuals looking towards the United States for proof that political dissent could successfully effect change. Varda began commuting to Oakland from her Los Angeles home to film demonstrations by the Black Panthers, eventually culminating in a 28-minute documentary about the group. The resulting film focuses primarily on a rally to free Black Panthers co-founder Huey P. Newton. Stylistically, the documentary falls somewhere within the tradition of cinema verité; Varda’s presence is felt fairly minimally throughout the film, in stark contrast to her later documentaries, like The Gleaners and I (2000), where she appears both in front of and behind the camera. It seems that the director chose to downplay her own role in Black Panthers, all but erasing it except for occasional voice-over commentary to explain the pieces that might feel unfamiliar to her French audience. Instead, Varda allows speakers from within the Panthers, ranging from Stokely Carmichael to Newton himself, to anchor the film with their own messages --- effectively anticipating one of the core principles of allyship in contemporary intersectional feminism: white women, step back and listen.
Black Panthers (1968) dir. Agnès Varda
Director Chantal Akerman
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) dir. Chantal Akerman
By the mid-1970s, a tradition of feminist film theory had begun to emerge within academia. Akerman’s magnum opus, Jeanne Dielman, came out in 1975, the same year that Laura Mulvey published “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” an essay defining the cinematic “male gaze,” a trend rooted into cinema history rendering on-screen women the passive objects of male pleasure. Jeanne Dielman aggressively resists this “male gaze”: clocking in at over three hours, the film is shot in a series of long takes meant to approximate real time. Their subject matter? A widowed housewife, portrayed by the singular Delphine Seyrig, goes about her menial everyday chores: cooking, eating dinner with her teenage son, taking a bath. The banality is only occasionally interrupted as she invites men into her home and sleeps with them for money; the act itself is rarely pictured, and when it is, it remains remarkably unsexualized, resisting the male gaze as Seyrig is never reduced to a passive recipient of men's desire. Akerman’s film offered a new blueprint for cinematic portrayals of women, positing that every aspect of female life warrants cinematic representation.
Sink or Swim (1980) dir. Su Friedrich
Su Friedrich, an American experimental filmmaker, pioneered the film essay with her autobiographical Sink or Swim, a collection of 26 short segments corresponding to the letters of the alphabet. Narratively ambiguous and oftentimes offering uncertain connections between text and image, Sink or Swim seems to be working in the avant-garde tradition that Maya Deren helped to originate. The film presents a journey through Friedrich’s arduous childhood, addressing the trauma that resulted from the rigid gender roles and family mores of the 1950s, the time of her upbringing. Friedrich’s films are set apart by their incredible formal precision: Sink or Swim took three years to make. The videos that comprise each segment come from meticulously-curated home movies, found footage, and original film, carefully selected to illustrate certain passages in the voice-over text without necessarily stabilizing their meaning or foreclosing interpretation.
Damned if you Don't (1987) dir. Su Friedrich
Director Julie Dash
In 1991, Julie Dash became the first African-American woman to direct a film in general theatrical release with her seminal Daughters of the Dust. Looking back at the onset of the 20th century, Dash’s film recalls the story of the Pezant family, hailing from the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia, as they prepare to move to the American North. While the film addresses the Great Migration, it never directly retells historical events --- instead, it emphasizes the poetic intricacies of family history, tracking how generational links morph and reappear in the face of changing times. The film is narrated by the Pezant family’s oldest and youngest members: Nana, the matriarch, and an apparition known only as Unborn Child. Nana urges her family to stay on the island, clutching at tradition as she fears the loss of identity that migrating threatens to bring --- a hesitancy familiar to the older generations who have endured unspeakable historical trauma. Unborn Child, on the other hand, is fixated hopefully on the future. Torn between the two outlooks, the family’s negotiation with impending change is figured as a dance, mirrored by the film’s fluttering pastel imagery. With Daughters of the Dust, Dash helped to build a tradition of poetic narrative cinema that offered broader possibilities for representing the personal implications of historical trauma than traditional historical fiction.
Daughters of the Dust (1991) dir. Julie Dash
by Adina Glickstein
Adina Glickstein hails from Colorado, where her social capital was vastly underestimated by virtually all of her high school peers. She stuck it to them by moving to New York City to study film at Barnard College, where she discovered Chantal Akerman’s News from Home, inciting an intense love affair with 1970s cinema. Adina can usually be found at one of the city’s numerous repertory movie theaters, or in her apartment editing film in her pajamas with a Cassavetes movie playing in the background.
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