Introducing the Women's Film History Network

This Workshop is one of series organized by the British-based Women's Film History Network - UK/Ireland which has won modest Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funding to set the Network up. The aim of the Workshops is to establish the remit of the Network, a sustainable mode of organization and a brief for future construction of an on-line centre where researchers can share findings and resources which will also function as a gateway to relevant archives and special collections.

In establishing the network, the British initiative faces a number of compelling questions. First what does it mean to put “women” in front of film history and, indeed, in front of history itself? Thus the Network’s first Workshop brought together feminist film historians with specialists in women’s history to investigate what we can learn from each other. Crucially we asked whether women’s film history is a matter of filling gaps in an already established history of male inventors, moguls, and great artists, or whether posing questions of gender changes the way we do film history and therefore that history itself. Second we asked, is film history only about film? Given that many women became involved in filmmaking through working in other media—as writers of adapted material or as scenario- and screenwriters, as designers and costumiers, as theatrical performers and music-hall entertainers, as journalists, critics, fans and social campaigners, and latterly in the many roles offered by television—the first Workshop joined with experts in literary, theatrical and publishing history to examine some of the issues raised for women’s film history by the relationship between different arts and media.

The third question, which motivates this Workshop, asked what it means to put “British” in front of film history. Practically, we needed a term that would encompass England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic—hence the somewhat awkward UK/Ireland tag in the Network title—only to find later that the AHRC defines southern Ireland as Europe, with a knock-on budgetary effect.

Nationality, however, raises wider questions about how to assign national identity, particularly when film workers so frequently cross national borders. Given the early internationalism of the film industry, the overwhelming presence of American films on British and Irish screens, and more recently the intensification of cross-national co-production consequent on globalization and increasing trans-national circulation through digital technologies, the question arises whether the organization of film histories in national boxes impedes research and is any longer intellectually viable. In particular, in the creation of national archives and the writing of national film histories, does “nation” obscure questions of gender? On a practical level, we need to develop research methodologies, connect resources in different national archives and develop new ways of organizing findings to enable us to research, interpret and write border-crossing, trans-nationally interconnected histories. It was with these questions in mind that the Workshop brought together American, British and European film scholars, archivists, library managers and digital designers to explore the research issues involved in “trans-nationalizing women’s film history.”

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