Experimental Film Series Part 1 : Pioneers
By Caitlin Díaz
I was 16 at the time and had not yet ventured into the realm of avant-garde and experimental cinema and video art. My progression as a filmmaker went as follows: Borrow my parents’ video camera, make short films with my friends, grow frustrated with having to shoot sequentially, teach myself how to edit using two VCRs. Finally, I was able to enroll in a high school media class which gave me access to gear and Final Cut Pro. I learned the basics and manipulated them to extremes. Layering one image over another, mis-matching sound design, skewing hues and tones before I even understood what color correction really was. I loved it all and would spend hours in a dark edit bay, cutting and rearranging narratives.
Friends and family would ask what I wanted to do when I graduated and I said I wanted to make movies. But what kind of movies? I never knew how to describe the type of films I wanted to create until I saw Holy Mountain and Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome at a party in college. While studying at FAMU a couple years later, my Czech film history professor introduced us to Daisies and my mind was blown a thousand times over. I now had an answer to that burning question, but how can one generalize such a rich and varied style? Experimental film is such a freeing world to inhabit. I love the purity of curiosity, the playfulness of technique, of having an idea and not knowing where it will take you.
I’ve come to realize that I don’t need to classify my films as any specific genre. A filmmaker can exist between and within realms, taking and applying the techniques and style they see fit. This three-part series aims to inspire, explore, discover and challenge the criteria which constitutes film.
Here is a short list of some of the pioneers of experimental cinema. If you know other female filmmakers that should be on this list, please respond in the comments. We would love for this list to grow to reflect all countries, cultures and backgrounds.
1. Germaine Dulac
She began her career as a journalist, writing for feminist publications La Française and La Fronde in the early 1900s. She became interested in filmmaking through her friend actress Stacia Napierkowska. After traveling and learning more about the filmmaking process, she returned to France and opened her own production company D.H. Films. She wrote and directed a number of narrative films which then led her to create the first impressionist film, La Souriante Madame Beudet (1922/23) and the first surrealist film La Coquille et le Clergyman (1928). Both of these were released before Un Chien Andalou (1929) by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, which is usually cited as the first surrealist film. Her impressionist shorts inspired the Cinéma pur (Pure Cinema) movement, as she expressed her goal always as “‘pure’ cinema, free from any influence from literature, the stage, or even the other visual arts.”
2. Mary Ellen Bute
Bute studied painting, stage lighting and color organs in Texas, then continuing her studies at Yale. The technique of ‘light painting’ intrigued her and the abstract films of Oskar Fischinger provided inspiration. All of these influences made their way into her short, abstract, musical films which she called “Seeing Sound.” In the 1930s, her films would screen before features at Radio City Music Hall. She was a founding member of Women's Independent Film Exchange. The Center for Visual Music lists an upcoming retrospective this February 2018 in Bute’s hometown of Houston, TX.
3. Marie Menken
Born in Brooklyn, NY to immigrant parents from Lithuanian, Menken studied painting at New York School of Fine and Industrial Arts as well as the Art Students League of New York. During her early career as a painter, she incorporated various reflective materials in her work. Her playfulness with light later translates to her film work, where she experimented with collage, animation and stop-motion techniques.
4. Sara Kathryn Arledge
Arlege was born in Mojave, California and also began her career as an artist with painting.Her technique involved painting onto glass slides, then creating “glass sandwiches” of multiple slides and additional drawings. This delicate and layered approach, which she then photographed onto film, made up a series of work that’s referred to as ‘stabile color films.’ Introspection was the first abstract dance film in the US, alongside Maya Deren’s films, these women pioneered the film movement ‘cine-dance.’ 16mm prints of her films are available to rent via Canyon Cinema.
5. Storm de Hirsch
A poet and filmmaker, de Hirsch used direct filmmaking techniques such as etching and painting to find a new language for her poetry. She became very active in the NYC independent and underground film community, and was one of founding members of the Film-Makers’ Cooporative, alongside Shirley Clarke. From an interview with Jonas Mekas:
6. Maya Deren
Born in Kyiv (present-day Ukraine), her family fled the USSR in 1922 due to anti-Semitic programs and moved to Syracuse, New York. She studied at Syracuse university, then NYU where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in literature. She worked as a freelance photographer, then later worked with choreographer Katherine Dunham, traveling with her dance company throughout the country. She ended up in California where she met Alexandr Hammid and found a love for filmmaking. She bought herself a 16mm Bolex which she used to make her first film, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), a collaboration with Hammid. The dream-like editing of the film, coupled with the enigmatic representation of a woman and domesticity set the tone for her future films and explorations. She continued making surreal, stream-of-conscious type films with the help of only one other person, Hella Heyman. She later shifted her interest to ethnographic filmmaking and in 1947 traveled to Haiti to explore her long-time interest in Hatian dance. Her film, Meditation on Violence (1948) is the result of that trip.
7. Shirley Clarke
Born into a wealthy immigrant family in New York, she began her career as a dancer and was very active in the New York avant-garde modern dance movement. When she didn’t find success through choreography, she decided to pursue film. She studied under Hans Richter and became involved in the NYC independent film scene. Her film Skyscraper (1959) was nominated for an Academy Award, solidifying her place in American Cinema. In 1962, she co-founded The Film-Makers’ Cooperative. Her films The Connection (1961) and The Cool World (1964) are landmarks of the American New Wave and garnered her attention internationally. Later on in her career, Roger Corman asked her to work with him, but she quickly realized that he didn’t respect her as a filmmaker:
8. Vera Chytilova
Born in Ostrava, Czechoslovakia, she studied philosophy and architecture. After working as a fashion model and photo retoucher, she decided to pursue filmmaking. She was accepted into the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU) at age 28, and studied under director Otakar Vávra. A pioneer of the Czech cinema, her most well-known film Sedmikrásky (Daisies) was extremely controversial when released and resulted the government banning her from filmmaking because of the amount of food wasted in the film.
She continued making films, pushing the limits of what the government would allow and even resorted to directing commercials under her husband’s name. She later returned FAMU to teach directing.
9. Chick Strand
Born Mildred D. Totman, her father nicknamed her ‘Chick.’ Her work blended documentary with avant-garde technique. She co-founded Canyon Cinema with Bruce Baillie in 1961 in an effort to screen more independent experimental, documentary and narrative films. After studying ethnography at UCLA, her work focused on the communities and people she encountered while splitting her time between California and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
10. Barbara Hammer
Born in Hollywood, California, she grew up around the film industry. While studying at San Francisco State University, she discovered Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon which inspired her to begin making films about her personal life. Considered the pioneer of queer cinema, her work explores and challenges gender roles, lesbian eroticism through a female gaze and intimate relationships. Her film Dyketactics (1974) celebrated female sexuality while challenging how we view the female figure in a heteronormative society.
There is currently a retrospective of her work in New York City that closes January 28, 2018: https://www.leslielohman.org/project/barbara-hammer-evidentiary-bodies-2/
11. Pola Weiss
Born in Mexico City, Weiss’ work merged dance and video into what is now referred to as screen dance. She studied at UNAM and was the first to graduate with a thesis in video. She met Nam June Paik and was inspired to create her first video art piece, Flor cósmica (1977). She continued to explore the realm of video art, using television feedback and dance in her work. Although video art had existed in Europe for over a decade, it was still unexplored in Mexico, thus making her a pioneer in her country. She also produced work for public television known as arTV in Mexico where she was able to reach a large audience outside of the traditional art world.
12. Trinh T. Minh-Ha
Born in Hanoi, Vietnam, Minh-Ha was raised in South Vietnam during the Vietnam war, where she studied piano and music composition. In 1970, she migrated to the US where she continued her studied in music composition, ethnomusicology, and French literature and received her PhD. She works in both literary theory and film, expressing that they are not far removed from one another.
13. Ximena Cuevas
Daughter of painter José Luis Cuevas, she made her mark on the art world through film and video. The Mexican government recognizes her films and video works as major contributions to the culture. Cuevas' work dissects Mexican social customs, beauty standards and lesbian identity. She describes her work as the medias mentiras (half lies) of Mexican culture and collective conscious.
Caitlin Díaz (@shinykid) is an artist, filmmaker, colorist and archivist from the Rio Grande Valley, Texas. She currently lives in Los Angeles, California where she works as a film editor and colorist. Her films explore the human psyche and the processes that surround individual experience. Memory (both real and imagined), land (borders) and female intuition are running themes throughout her work. By combining analog, digital and direct filmmaking techniques, her filmic language celebrates the past while pushing the technical and theoretical boundaries of the present.
2015, 16mm transferred to digital, 5:14, color, sound
2016, 35mm & Super8mm transferred to digital, 5:44, color, sound
2017, 16mm, 4:43, black & white, sound