Trans-nationalizing Women’s Film History: Report on WFHN – UK/Ireland Workshop 2 co-organised with Columbia University
by Christine Gledhill
Workshop 3 on “Trans-nationalizing Women’s Film History” was co-organized by the Women’s Film History Network—UK/Ireland and the Columbia University Seminar as part of a larger weekend event held in March 2010.1 This included public screenings of newly restored women’s films at MOMA, a graduate conference, and a concluding review of the Alice Guy Blaché retrospective held earlier at the Whitney Museum. The Workshop was one of series organized by the British-based Network 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 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. However, nationality 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-
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A central issue underpinning the ambition to trans-nationalize women’s film history was posed at the start by Monica Dall’Asta, who pointed out the distinction between a transnational film history focused on global economics and the construction of the Women Film Pioneers Project in terms of biography. To bring about a convergence between women’s career biographies and the subjective dimension these imply with the apparently objective nature of economic history will, she suggested, change the co-ordinates of film history itself. For as a number of the following papers show, the very endeavor to research the history a woman’s film career requires conceiving the film industry and its practices differently.
Histories of early film, as Bryony Dixon pointed out, are bedeviled by the absence of full credits, raising problems for the historian of male and female filmmakers alike. Women, as Monica Dall’Asta and Jane Gaines demonstrated, were involved in film production in big numbers in roles we never imagined we’d find them performing. But film criticism’s later focus on “authorship,” privileging the—usually male—director, has contributed to the obscurity of women in film history. However, raising gender questions reorients film history towards what Monica Dall’Asta called the less “heroic” roles, recognizing the diversity of largely unrecorded practices undertaken by both men and women.
Women’s obscurity is intensified, as Jane Gaines suggested, by the frequent familial or couple mode of production in which the woman’s contribution is unacknowledged. Moreover migration across national borders further dislocates career histories and women’s tendency to change names obscures the continuity of their careers. Piecing together women’s biographies, then, requires recognition of the collaborative processes involved in cinema and their extension beyond the studios. Thus the convergence of a transnational perspective and women’s film history refocuses the importance of distribution and publicity, here exemplified by women who performed as international distributors, publicists and journalists, mediating between abroad and home. It similarly raises questions about the transnational role of actresses, scriptwriters and designers with skills to sell across national boundaries. Such avenues of investigation rely not only on studio and cinema managers’ financial records or on the trade press, but on sources outwith the film industry such as shipping lists, census records, birth, death and marriage certificates, biographies and autobiographies, fan magazines and so on.
If such roles have been marginalized in standard film histories, involvement in film production had its own “heroic” aura, soon crystallized in the aspirational image offered by Hollywood of transnational class and ethnic mobility, along with an aura of feminine modernity. As a route into a world of performative invention, involvement in filmmaking provided women a space of self-making and re-making. Crossing national boundaries and shifting between acting and producing roles offered an exit from the constraints—but also, as Ruth Barton suggested of Irish actresses in Hollywood, the securities—of home and its customary practices. In particular the female film worker—and especially the actress abroad—contends with the cultural stereotypes expected of her nationality and gender, including ethnic body types, fashions in beauty, and differences between national acting styles. In this respect “nationality” itself both travels with the migrant and is “in place” at the migrant’s destination. The experience of trans-nationalism, then, rather than defining a unitary identity or product, initiates cross- or inter-cultural clashes, encounters and negotiations.
If trans-nationalizing women’s film history potentially reorganizes film history itself, it also raises questions about the division, commonly assumed in feminist criticism, between women behind and in front of the camera, and the equally common expectation that if men too frequently control the latter, women’s access to production will produce more women-friendly films. As shown by Sue Harper in the Network’s first Workshop and Mark Cooper in this one, women’s access to production as well as the history of gendered representations and genres must be analysed within broader social and industrial conditions —a point at which histories of women as filmmakers and feminist criticism of representation may diverge. In his study of Universal’s prominent deployment in the early 1910s of women as directors, screenwriters and Universal City “officials” and the later withdrawal of such openings, Mark Cooper demonstrated that gender is not always a deliberately discriminatory tool, but rather becomes a salient factor within the convergence and divergence of a range of economic, social and market forces, including the rise and fall of film genres and their gendered associations.
Elaine Burrows argued a similar approach to the role of archiving and cataloguing, practices, often held to task for their apparent relegation of work by women. The formulation of Britain’s National Film and Television Archive’s acquisition and preservation policy, she shows, was both a product of its times—“women” as an acquisition category did not yet exist—but at the same time, acknowledging that research and public interests change, it sought to ameliorate the inevitability of selection through a system of committees and self-conscious questioning of choices. Such archival sensitivity to the processes of history-making allows response to the later impact of feminist film theory and its introduction of the category of “women” into film history. Equally, while emphasizing its national remit, the NFVTA’s attempt to represent other national cinemas in its collections, makes it possible for future generations to examine cross-national interactions and influences.
If Jane Gaines and Monica Dall’Asta demonstrates the extraordinarily transnational careers of a numerous pioneer women, Mark Cooper and Elaine Burrows both pointed to the contingency of local economic circumstances and cultural values. Transnational research, then, must not only investigate, as Clare Watson suggested, the way women’s work in the film industry has been regulated in specific countries, but also, following Ruth Barton, examine what women in traveling bring with them from their cultural backgrounds and experiences. One route into this broader cultural context, as Antonia Lant demonstrated in introducing her edited collection, Red Velvet Seat, lies in widening the parameters of women’s film history to include women’s responses to cinema found in their critical and journalistic writings or radio—and latter television—broadcasts. Such investigation refuses to site a film’s historical significance in a textual reading performed from present perspectives nor simply a reflection of its conditions of production. Rather, broadening the conception of the public sphere, it opens up the social history of cinema as it circulates through women’s networks, both national and international, and so into a history of inter-subjective exchange, public discourse and memory construction. Such an approach draws on a different range of sources, including international publications and the records of international policy groups. However, as Antonia Lant warned, we need to recognize the limitations of the English language base which facilitates such discursive networks and prepare to engage with the histories of “majority world” cultures—a project begun at this weekend event by the graduate students’ conference on the politics of researching in Asian, Russian, Brazilian as well as European archives.
Women’s networks may have more practice-based outcomes, as Emma Sandon’s discussion of colonial women’s use of cinematography in Africa demonstrated. Empire not only demands trans-nationalizing the notion of a “national” cinema beyond its geographic borders, but extends the conception of cinema beyond the dominance of the fiction feature film to documentary, educational films, amateur filmmaking and the home movie—areas of discursive filmmaking more readily available to women. As in the stories of women film pioneers traveling between different national film outfits, those of the colonial women filmmakers suggest two distinctive trends: one embracing cinema and its story potential as a process of modernist, adventurously fantasizing self-making, and a second, more socially reformist and educational in intent.
It is noticeable that the move to recover women’s film history, infused, perhaps, with the spirit of archeological adventure, has focused on the “pioneer” silent period. And yet the notion of “women’s cinema” was first posed by the 1970s women’s movement and developed through women’s cooperatives and independent initiatives. Both their films—often on VHS, an endangered medium—and the materials necessary for recent and future histories are fast disappearing as attics and cupboards are cleared and memories fade before oral histories are collected. Initiatives to lay the groundwork of future histories exist, most notably for the independent or avant-garde sector. But, while the major achievement of feminist film scholarship has been the incorporation of its theories of spectatorship and representation into teaching mainstream narrative cinema, it has so far paid little attention to women’s film history after 1930, whether independent or mainstream. And with the disappearance of the supporting networks of women’s film collectives and study groups, the category, “women’s cinema,” which generated such engaging film seasons and festivals of the 1970s and 80s, ceases to be a relevant programming or—as Bette Gordon described of her experience pitching to present-day producers—production category. In this “post-feminist” context, Rosanna Maule’s projected “multi-media platform” raises the possibility of using digital, inter-active media to reanimate women’s discursive circuits around cinema of the kind Antonia Lant recorded in the writings of earlier generations.
If second wave feminism introduced “women” as a specific category now demanding its place in the organization of film history, the question remains as to how women’s films might qualify for archival preservation and commercial distribution. As Drake Stutesman argued, scarcity of resources and market demands favor established criteria of worth, skewing film history not only through what is made accessible but through what is rejected. To contest such neglect getting women’s films shown is vital. For by building audiences and contributing to dialogue between generations, repeated viewings enable hitherto unheralded films to accumulate value, thereby justifying their market costs. The Workshop’s second day focused more closely on practical solutions to the questions raised by this circular relationship between archiving, distribution, audience building, and the construction of history.
In considering the problems of classification, Nancy Friedman stressed the importance to the development of a resource such as the FIAF National Treasures Database of collaboration between archival and database cataloguers and researchers, particularly if basic credit and cast information is to expand to allow searches by gender or nationality. If cost limits what can be achieved by the cataloguer, it impacts even more forcibly in the field of preservation. Here, as Kim Tomadjoglou showed, cost, technology and historiographic issues intertwine, for technology not only constantly outstrips current facilities, but renders past viewing machines and distribution formats obsolete. In concert with others speaking to this issue, she warns that digitization is not a panacea. While it contributes to the production of more viewable and therefore distributable copies, its technology also loses dimensions that are important to a film’s original condition and therefore to historical understanding. At the same time preservation of source materials must be distinguished from restoration which effectively creates a new work. In so far as film history engages with style, digital restoration may well construe as mistakes what was part of a film’s conformity to a different aesthetic look and meaning. Nevertheless the access to a wider market made possible by DVD and Blue-Ray is crucial to arguments for public funding to continue preservation.
However, while digitization and the worldwide web potentially offer huge increases in access, and promise to make women’s film history truly transnational, the national box intervenes through copyright controls, so, as Bryony Dixon warned, on-line materials travel internationally with some difficulty. In this respect the Centre for Digital Research and Scholarship at Columbia University suggests a model for collaboration between film historians, their University IT departments and Library Collections in order to chip away at some of the copyright and technical problems.
Beyond university resources, the example of Bildwechsel (Image Change), introduced by Eva Kietzmann and Jenni Ramme, suggests what can be done through more informal trans-national circuits. This German-led voluntary organization, with affiliated groupings in Warsaw and Glasgow, archives, promotes activity around, and stages screenings of women’s, gay, lesbian and transgender independent media production. Their remarkable 30-year existence has continued the voluntary practices and personal investments of time and expense associated with the women’s collectives and workshops of the 1970s. Like Bildwechsel, Rosanna Maul’s project proposes to draw women filmmakers and their works together with film historians, critics and audiences in a mutually engaged network. Using digital facilities and the worldwide web, and the project seeks to provide a forum in which women become their own archivists and historians, while extending earlier public discourse on women and cinema recorded in Red Velvet Seat. In Britain, however, the institutionalization of the voluntary sector has now seen cultural bodies such as repertory theatres pressurized by government funding regimes, which, as Laraine Porter argued, no longer count “women” nor film history itself as social priorities, a situation exacerbated by the lack of women’s film history in the film studies curriculum. The subsidized repertory theatres need therefore to be reclaimed for public events capable of reconnecting with the women’s audience which exhibitors fail to understand (witness the surprise in the UK at the run-away success of Mamma Mia), and to re-establish “women’s cinema” as a focus for audience engagement and public discussion.
However, the reiteration in various workshop sessions of current negative responses to “women” as a funding, programming or historiographic category suggests a need to rethink how, within a gender revised film history, the work we would want to foreground is to appear. If women’s film history has manifested two distinctly different meanings of cinema for women—one as an adventurous, fantasist, or iconoclastic route to self-making, the other more soberly reformist and educational—then, Laraine Porter suggested (in concert with Bette Gordon’s comments on the changing conditions of women’s production), women’s programming needs to respond to the central place of entertainment in the post-feminist cultural landscape. Moreover, if doing women’s film history changes film history for men, the concept of a women’s audience may need adapting too. The question, then remains as to what “women’s cinema” can mean in today’s mass-mediated world. How far does it represent an exclusionary cultural space limited to women; how far must it be confined to private downloading from the internet; how far can it claim the place in mainstream theatres that is essential to public visibility and the shifting of gendered boundaries of film entertainments.
While exploring the transnational wanderings of many women involved in a variety of roles in and around filmmaking, these debates suggest that the ‘national’ remains a factor in the historical understanding of the products of women’s film activity. Moreover, differences in the conditions of cultural advocacy in different countries need recognition in any attempt at transnational networking. Nevertheless, the new opportunities offered by digital technology and the internet for cross-national sharing of research findings and resources, as well as the need for interconnection between archivists, researchers, and audiences, call for collaboration across national, professional and disciplinary boundaries. If history is no longer conceived as a set of fixed facts confined within national boxes but requires comparative cross-national study, and history-making is recognized as an ongoing process in which the present dialogues with the past and cultural values are open to change, then the project of women’s film history shifts focus from “archive” or “catalogue,” conceived as place or receptacle to archiving as a set of active, interventionist research practices in which we all participate.