Lois Weber directing a scene from The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916).
Lois Weber (left) directing a scene from The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916).

By Anna Weinstein.

Released in May 2017, Early Women Filmmakers: An International Anthology includes nearly eleven hours of material and highlights the work of fourteen groundbreaking women filmmakers, dating back to 1902. This DVD collection offers a historical and critical study of the women who helped to shape cinema.

The early decades of filmmaking were a time when women were not only active participants in filmmaking but were actually leading the way. They were innovative, both technically and stylistically, making bold choices in terms of genre, narrative structure, and aesthetics. The work of directors such as Alice Guy Blaché, Lois Weber, and Mabel Normand is exposed and examined in this collection, revealing their daring approaches to early cinematic presentation and their influences on future generations of filmmakers.

Anna Weinstein discussed the anthology with Women Film Pioneers Project Manager Kate Saccone.

What an inspiring collection. Could you tell us about the origins of the Women’s Film Pioneers Project (WFPP)? When did you begin working on the project?

Early Women 01WFPP is the brainchild of Professor Jane Gaines (Columbia University). Conceptually, it’s actually been around since 1993 and was originally conceived of as a multi-volume book set that would contain scholarship – career profiles and national/thematic overview essays – on women in early cinema. However, when Jane came to Columbia, she partnered with the university’s Center for Digital Research and Scholarship, and WFPP became an online-only resource instead. We had the public launch of the website in the fall of 2013 with two film programs at the Museum of Modern Art. I first became involved with WFPP as a graduate student at Columbia in 2011 and then became Project Manager after I graduated in 2013.

How long was the Early Women Filmmakers DVD anthology in the works?

The Early Women Filmmakers DVD/Blu-ray anthology is not connected with WFPP, but it does share the goal of bringing visibility to early female filmmakers. Any project like this anthology, which I joined toward the end of production so I can’t speak to its origins, takes a while to complete since it’s a collaboration between various film archives around the world, organizations, and individuals – curators, distributors, video editors, musicians, and others.

This is a fascinating examination of what it was like to be a woman director in the early days of cinema. What would you say is most important for us to know about these filmmakers?

Early Women Filmmakers features some important silent-era filmmakers that everyone should know about, like Alice Guy Blaché, Lois Weber, Germaine Dulac, Olga Preobrazhenskaya, Lotte Reiniger, and Dorothy Arzner. As simple as it sounds, an important thing to know about these women – and the many others not featured in the set, like Marion E. Wong or Elvira Notari – is that they are all part of our global cinematic history in spite of the fact that they have often been marginalized from standard film histories and canons.

What is an example of how these women were trailblazing narratively – how their work was innovative and ended up influencing narrative screen storytelling?

Suspense (1919), directed by Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley
Suspense (1919), directed by Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley

Lois Weber is an early filmmaker who was quite innovative and influential. Take, for example, Suspense (1913), a film featured in Early Women Filmmakers that she made with her husband Phillips Smalley. It’s a sophisticated thriller that anticipates different narrative and aesthetic tropes used by subsequent suspense stories. Suspense is about a tramp breaking into a house while a woman is home alone. In terms of creating tension and visualizing this threat – of intrusion and violence – to the safety of the home and female space, Weber and Smalley use all kinds of devices, from crosscutting and a triple-split screen to the use of dramatic camera angles. It’s a confident film that takes a familiar storyline and innovates it in fascinating ways, delivering a real emotional punch.

These women were also trailblazing in their industry savvy. Could you tell us about women filmmakers who had their own production companies? How did that work in the formative years of cinema?

Many of the women included in this anthology formed their own production companies at some point in their careers. Of course, this phenomenon did not always mean total creative or financial control on the part of the woman, but illuminates the varied negotiations for artistic freedom that were prevalent in the silent era and in the following decades. In some cases, this career move allowed a woman to make the films that she wanted to make; and in other cases, it seems like a studio was capitalizing on a star’s name. Often, these companies were formed in collaboration with a man (a husband or business partner), but not always. Some women, like Alice Guy Blaché at Solax, wielded a tremendous amount of control at their company; while others, like Mabel Normand and her Mabel Normand Feature Film Company, can be understood in quasi-independent terms.

Le Roi des Aulnea by Marie-Louis Iribe
Le Roi des Aulnea by Marie-Louis Iribe

I’d urge anyone interested in this topic to check out Karen Ward Mahar’s book Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood (Johns Hopkins, 2006). She goes into great detail (more so than I could in my essay for the anthology) on the formation of many different silent-era production companies that involved women in one way or another in the United States.

It’s particularly interesting to learn about some of the husband-wife collaborations – both in the cases where the wife became the more dominant partner, and also in the cases where the wife was overshadowed. Can you give us a few examples of these partnerships?

In terms of the women featured in this anthology, there are quite a few husband/wife partnerships, including Alice Guy Blaché and Herbert Blaché, Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley, Claire Parker and Alexandre Alexeieff, Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid, and Lotte Reiniger and Carl Koch.

In many ways, this type of collaboration made things easier for these female filmmakers as professional women in 20th century society, but directors like Weber, Guy Blaché, Deren, and Reiniger certainly emerged as the dominant member in these partnerships and are often the ones credited with the work. Obviously, in many cases, it can be difficult to discern who did what in a collaboration – especially in early cinema – and sometimes the woman’s contribution can be overlooked. For example, Parker’s role as a director/animator often seems to be eclipsed by her more well-known husband.

You talk in your essay about women’s creative agency and authorship. How would you describe what filmmakers like Germaine Dulac, Maya Deren, and Dorothy Arzner were up against in terms of creative freedom in filmmaking and marketing their films accurately?

La Cigarette (1919) by Germaine Dulac
La Cigarette (1919) by Germaine Dulac

Obviously, questions of creative agency and authorship are complicated and can be approached from many different angles depending on the filmmaker. Maya Deren, Germaine Dulac, and Dorothy Arzner are certainly fascinating examples of the different ways women have worked to carve out a space for themselves as filmmakers. Both Dulac and Deren actively wrote about film, and in their writings we get a sense of their individual approaches to the cinematic medium and what they hoped to achieve in their own filmmaking on aesthetic, theoretical, and creative levels.

In the case of Dulac, Tami Williams’ excellent book Germaine Dulac: A Cinema of Sensations (Illinois, 2014) highlights how the French filmmaker was always striving for greater creative freedom in her career through her various projects/collaborations, negotiating a place for herself as a filmmaker, critic, and activist amid changing social and industrial circumstances. For instance, her decision to work with the independent production company Film d’art on La Cigarette (1919) and La Souriante Mme. Beudet (1922) – both included in Early Women Filmmakers – can be seen as part of this career-long struggle for greater creative autonomy by actively seeking out producers who were supportive of her aesthetic and theoretical ideas. Williams highlights that while World War I offered Dulac, and many other women, increased autonomy in the workforce, the filmmaker still faced challenges to her creative agency. For example, the Napoleonic code in France necessitated the involvement of her husband in the formation of her first film company, Les Films DH, in 1916.

Interested readers should check out existing scholarship on these specific filmmakers, such as Williams’ book, Sarah Keller’s Maya Deren: Incomplete Control (Columbia, 2014) and Judith Mayne’s work on Arzner. Across these resources (and many others), there’s great insight into the complexities of each woman’s career as a creative individual working in distinct historical and industrial contexts.

I appreciate you taking the time to share your insights about these women and this project. Any final takeaways for our readers?

I think the Early Women Filmmakers anthology, while a small sample of filmmakers and films, does a good job of highlighting the diversity of these specific women’s cinematic output. There’s a wide range in terms of themes, genres, aesthetic approaches, and even quality.

As a final plug for The Women Film Pioneers Project, I’d like to just say that we’re always expanding as historians, and archivists continue to make discoveries and produce more scholarship on female filmmakers in early cinema. On a regular basis, we add new career profiles (most recently, we published a piece on British scenarist Lydia Hayward) and overview essays (for example, on female screenwriters in Hollywood) and I hope readers continue to check out the resource!

Early Women Filmmakers: An International Anthology is produced by Blackhawk Films and distributed by Flicker Alley. It is available for purchase online at www.flickeralley.com.

Anna Weinstein is a frequent contributor to Film International. The first three books in her Focal Press | Routledge book series, PERFORM, were published in February 2017. The series includes the volumes Directing for the Screen and Writing for the Screen.

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