Do You Know These 9 Mysterious Women Who Shaped The Film Industry?
Foreword and Curation from Up-and-Coming Filmmaker & Actress, Jemma Moore.
In an industry of so-called open minded liberalists and creatives claiming to be bringing about gender equality in filmmaking, in 2016 we are still yet to see the fruition of these promises in any stable development, let alone concrete change. Just to put this stagnant position of the female filmmaker into perspective, did you know that in the entire 88 year history of The Oscars not a single female cinematographer has ever been nominated?
In my recent research, I read to my surprise that before the nineties ‘more women were employed across the board in the film industry than they are now’ (Stamp, 2016). So who are these women? Where are their achievements being celebrated?
As an independent female filmmaker, I aim to materialise this change in the way that Lexi Alexander describes as ‘sincere’ when discussing how women in Hollywood are treated (IndieWire, 2014). Therefore, I believe it is necessary we look back to these amazing women who have shaped our industry from the dawn of cinema to present day in order rekindle that motivation, to be inspired and actively resist rigid, insincere social attitudes.
Alice Guy-Blaché (1873-1968)
Impossible not to be mentioned here, Alice Guy-Blaché was the first female director in the history of film. A pioneer of early French cinema, she also directed the first narrative film in history at the tender age of 23 called LA FEE AUX CHOUX (April, 1896). Filmed on 60mm, it's a surreal minute long film about a fairy that grows children in her cabbage patch. As an advocate for women in film, but also aware the gender inequalities of her era, Guy-Blaché pushed to ensure strong female roles featured in all her films. Furthermore, she championed women as filmmakers who are capable of greatness, and equal in talent to their male counterparts.
Guy-Blaché's career lasted 25 years, during which she was part of approximately one thousand films for which she either wrote, directed and/or produced. A pioneer of working with sound in film she developed “the System [that] used a vertical-cut disc synchronized to the film to join the sound with the picture. Her creativity made her innovative. She would use special effects to bring her fiction works to life using double exposure masking techniques or even running the film backwards to tell her stories. Her inventive films made her realise the vast marketability of the cameras, even though Gaumont dismissed the invention. Crowds came demanding the camera once they saw her work. Her imagination opened a world of cinematic possibilities. ” (Solska, 2011) Although apparently written out of most film history, it has also been rumoured that she invented 'Filming on Location' in 1906, during the production of THE LIFE OF CHRIST where a scene with over three hundred extras was one of the first ever close-ups. We all have a lot to thank her for.
Films of Alice Guy-Blaché’s to watch: A Child’s Sacrifice (1910), Her Father’s Sin (1910), A Midnight Visitor (1911), A Terrible Lesson (1912), Hubby Does the Washing (1912), The Reformation of Mary (1912), The Blood Stain (1912), The Woman behind the Man (1912), A Terrible Night (1913), The Little Hunchback (1913), The Monster and the Girl (1914), The Vampire (1915), Vampire (1920), Tarnished Reputations (1920).
Ida Lupino (1918-1995)
Born in London, Herne Hill, Ida Lupino initially started out as a singer and later grew her career as an American actress before becoming a pioneering director and producer alongside Dorothy Arzner. Together, they were the only two women to take on this working role within the Hollywood system since the beginning of film censorship in the 1930s. Lupino was the first Anglo-American woman to direct a Film Noir, entitled 'Outrage' (1950). Alongside this, she was a trailblazer who co-wrote and co-produced several social-message films focusing on gendered topics such as rape and abortion. She was revolutionary for addressing topics that were and still are rarely, if ever, fully discussed in mainstream Hollywood cinema.
Recommended films to watch: Not Wanted (1949), Never Fear (1949), Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1951), She was uncredited on a film called On Dangerous Ground (1951), Hitch-Hiker in 1953, The Bigamist 1953 and her final film, The Trouble with Angels (1966).
Trinh T. Minh-ha (1952- )
Born in Hanoi, Vietnam, Trinh T. Minh-ha has trained as a music composer and received two Masters degrees and a Ph.D from University of Illinois, Champaign – Urbana. She is a feminist, post-colonial theorist and an independent filmmaker known all around the world. She lecturers on third cinema, film theory and aesthetics, the voice in social and creative contexts, the autobiographical, cultural politics, contemporary critical theory and arts, post-colonialism and most notably, gender politics. She has published eight books, presented two large-scale multimedia installations and six feature-length films. She is a woman who knows no bounds, and is constantly challenging conventions, boundaries and categorisation.
To Watch: Reassemblage (1982), Naked Spaces (1985), Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989), Shoot for the Contents (1991), A Tale of Love (1996), The Fourth Dimension (2001), and Night Passage (2004).
Pratibha Parmar (1955 - )
Pratibha Parmar is a British filmmaker renowned globally for her passion and dedication to changing the mainstream landscape and its view on feminism, sexuality, race and cultural oppression. Her work celebrates reversing the gaze and through the rich visual aesthetics of film and creative storytelling, her films articulate the personal realities and responsibilities that filmmakers have to their backgrounds.
In filmmaking, Parmar began by aiming to shake people’s expectations and challenge the way we perceive women and people who are not represented in a realistic light in mainstream cinema. She works actively still with Women in Film & TV as she believes it is essential for women’s voices need to be heard in cinema; consciousnesses still need to be raised in order to allow creativity to expand. In an interview Parmar claims “I think that toxic masculinity is globally on the rise, civil society somehow managed to contain some of that… actually, I’m not sure if it was a containment or if it was hidden, and now, because we have social media and because so many more people are willing to speak out about violence against women, it is much more out in the open… women’s bodies are under attack all over the world and that, rather than feminism becoming a thing of the past it is ever more pertinent than ever before.” (Haq, 2016) She worked from the bottom up with a bottom line, a voice to power and with or without funding, she continues to push for reality on screen.
Films to watch: Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth (2013), Nina’s Heavenly Delights (2006), A Place of Rage (1991), Warrior Marks (1993), Jodie and Icon (1996), Flesh and Paper (1990), June Jordan: Wrong is not My Name (2012), Wavelengths (1997).
Tracey Moffatt (1960 - )
Tracey Moffatt is an Australian born artist, specialising in the mediums of both photography and film. She was one of the first female filmmakers to use the technique of reversing the gaze. Her work addresses issues on sexuality, history, representation and race, focusing primarily on how Aboriginal people are represented negatively in film history thus far. For example, her film 'Nice Coloured Girls' (1986) ‘makes into visual images what postcolonial critics have theorized since Edward Said’s path-breaking Orientalism … Moffatt builds on the trope of the explorer penetrating the virgin land, which reflects the white male unconscious’ (Levitin, Plessis, and Raoul, 2003, pp. 22-23).
Films to watch: Night Cries - A Rural Tragedy (1990), Bedevil (1993), Nice Coloured Girls (1987), Heaven (1997), A Change of Face (1988), It’s Up to You (1989).
Lois Weber (1879-1939)
Lois Weber is claimed to be ‘the most successful of all the women directors in the first quarter of the 20th century and, at the time, was placed alongside the likes of D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille as the major innovative forces in filmmaking’ (Beauchamp, 2015). She was notably one of the earliest ‘auteurs’ along with Guy-Blaché. Weber wrote and directed around two hundred films, forty of them being features. Weber used film as a way to express her ideals and challenge many rigid beliefs and social inequalities; her narratives addressed the subjects of women’s role in society, abortion, birth control and opposed censorship and the death penalty. She was always moving forward and pushing her audiences with her, explaining: ‘I’ll never be convinced that the general public does not want serious entertainment rather that frivolous… If I can sow a few helpless seeds in my pictures, which will appeal to some man or woman in my audience, I shall be satisfied. That is why I want to go on with this work, I want to present my ideas and again, that is the reason I cannot be happy to direct someone else’s story - that would only be half a creation’ (The Muse of the Reel by. Airline, 1921, p.105).
In 1916 Lois Weber was the highest paid director at the time being critically acclaimed and a huge commercial success. She is a huge reminder that although one may feel isolated at times and silenced in this industry, keep packing a punch and working towards your ideals no matter the obstacles.
Films to watch: Hypocrites (1915), Where are my Children? (1916), The Blot (1921), Suspense (1913), Too Wise Wives (1921), A Chapter in Her Life (1923).
Brianne Murphy (1933-2003)
Brianne Murphy started out as an actress and then a stills photographer for a travelling circus. She moved on to become the first female director of photography invited to join the American Society of Cinematographers and was the only female on there for 15 years. She was there the first to be recognised. She won a daytime Emmy award and was nominated for prime-time Emmy nominations for outstanding cinematography.
She was self taught technically and progressive with her developing skill set winning the Academy Award: Scientific and Engineering Award Plaque. Murphy co-designed with Donald Schisler in 1982 the MISI camera insert car and process trailer, a vehicle designed to protect film technicians whilst shooting close-ups of moving vehicles. In 1973 she joined the cinematographers guild being the first female DOP in the Hollywood Local. In 1980 (not so long ago) she became the first female DOP ever on a studio feature. An outstanding woman.
To Watch: Fatso (1980), Nice Dreams (1981), To Die, To Sleep (1994), Kung Fu: The Next Generation (1987), Little House on the Prairie (1981-1982), Trapper John, M.D. (1981), Highway to Heaven (1984-1987), Father Murphy (1981) and In the Heat of the Night (1988).
Euzhan Palcy (1958 - )
Euzhan Palcy became the first black woman to direct a Hollywood studio film - A Dry White Season (1989). She taught herself from a young age on the French-Caribbean island of Martinique to use a 16mm camera, making a short film for her local television station. Whilst Palcy was studying Film and Literature in Paris at the age of 20 she, by chance, made a connection with François Truffaut, who became her mentor and support in the industry. Working always with a two week rehearsal period before filming, to create realism Palcy worked with non-actors. She is also notably the only female film director to have worked with Marlon Brando, who had been in retirement for nine years. Whilst filming they locked horns and disagreed on many takes although Palcy continued to be supported by her studio, in the end her and Brando formed a friendship and he worked for free and donated his salary to anti-apartheid groups (Greenberg, 2015). She was the first black director (male or female) to direct an actor to an oscar nomination (Verhoeven et al., 2016).
To Watch: The Killing Yard (2001), Ruby Bridges (1998), A Dry White Season (1989), Sugar Cane Alley (1983).
Tazuko Sakano (1904-1975)
Tazuko Sakano is credited as the first female director in Japan starting out as an editor, assistant director, continuity editor, screenplay editor, and art director to Mizoguchi Kenji. The war made possible Sakano's career in directing, when she identified herself with the policies of colonialism in order to get ahead. The social norms of women’s professions and creativity were so limiting that reinforcing colonial discourse was one of few ways for Tazuko to stay in the industry (Hikari H. Hori, 2005). Sakane Tazuko made one feature in 1936 'Hatsu Sugata' - however no prints of the film exist. ‘It was based on Kosugi Tengai’s debut novel of the same name – the naturalistic style and subject matter of which were heavily influence by the works of Emile Zola – and focused on a lowly geisha, the illegitimate child of a promiscuous aristocrat, and her relationships with several men of various different classes and professions’ (Stevens et al., 2015). She also said to have worked on ten documentaries focusing on conditions in war torn Northeastern China. Sakano was not seen as a notable success in her career retiring at the age of 46 finding herself restricted and silenced by her industry.
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Parmar, Pratibha, “Black Feminism: The Politics of Articulation,” in Identity: Community, culture, difference, ed. Jonathan Rutherford (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1990) pp. 115-16.
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