News from the Women Film Pioneers Project
at Columbia University, New York
by Christine Gledhill
‘Women Film Pioneers’ international database, covering women working across the world in silent cinema — an eagerly anticipated initiative but arduous in the making — is now up and running, housed at Columbia University in New York, where it is curated by director, Jane Gaines, manager, Kate Saccone, and a group of dedicated graduate student researchers. It was officially launched at the Museum of Modern Art in October 2013 as part of the Museum’s ‘To Save and Project’ film festival and is proving highly successful, growing both in numbers of women recorded and numbers of users.
Some of WFPP dedicated graduate student researchers at work!
The database is easy to use. The home page greets you with a clip from the current ‘Featured Video;’ an introduction to a ‘Featured Pioneer’; a ‘News’ column; and, most importantly, an ‘Invitation to Contribute’.
Tap on ‘Pioneers’ and you are greeted by an alphabetical, largely pictured selection of women film pioneers. Search tabs enable you to browse through women listed alphabetically; or by geography–from Argentina to USA; or by occupation, including, along with the ones you’d expect, Accountants, Acting Teachers, Animal Trainers, Booking Clerks, Carpenters, Censors, Film Critics, Seamstresses, Set Decorators, Title Writers and so on.
Or you can tap into a series of ‘Overviews’, offering accessible guides to a diversity of questions and issues raised by the history of women’s participation in and around cinema in its early years. A growing listing of resources offers bibliographies, archival information, DVD/VHS listings, links to other silent cinema sites, as well as lists of known but as yet unresearched women filmmakers.
The number of hits recorded by Columbia University’s Centre for Digital Research and Scholarship (which hosts the database) is on average an encouraging 4,000 a month, demonstrating both the broad interest in women’s filmmaking and the wide outreach of the WFPP initiative. All this is inspiring news for the Women’s Film and TV History Network-UK/Ireland. Equally encouraging is the warm response to the WFPP website from a number of newspapers and journals–for example:
- Indiewire: ‘5 Highlights from Women Film Pioneers Project: African-American Women in Silent Film, Women Camera Operators and More‘ (10/15/13).
- Huffington Post: ‘5 Awesome Things We Learned About Female Pioneers In Film‘ (10/14/13).
- New York Magazine: ‘Just Spend the Rest of Your Day Perusing These Biographies of Women in Early Film‘ (10/11/14).
While these positive reviews help spread the word about the WFPP database as well as encouraging wider interest in women filmmakers, the website itself has received affirmative reports from two peer reviewers, which means that its managing team are now able seek further funding to pay for stills and translations, and so extend and enrich the site further.
Representing Women Film Pioneers from UK/Ireland
Currently 19 women are represented from England, one each from Ireland and Scotland and none from Wales. A few more entries are in preparation, but we have a long list of women waiting for volunteers to get researching. This is to be found on the website of Women’s Film and TV History Network-UK/Ireland.
The Network encourages anyone interested to check the WFTHN website listing so as to avoid overlaps, and, if needed, contact one of the Steering Group members to get advice on how to go about researching filmmakers.
The Women Film Pioneers website provides guidance about how to contribute new entries by contacting the editorial team at firstname.lastname@example.org for further instructions on the process. Additionally Guidelines are located on the WFPP website “About” page.
The Women Film Pioneers Project is now expanding to include more Overview Essays. These are edited by Sofia Bull, Monica Dall’Asta and Jane Gaines, and are peer-reviewed. The editors seek short or long overview essays on the model of existing essays to be found on the website. For example, “French Film Colorists,” “Writing the History of Latin American Women in the Silent Era,” “The Absence of Canadian Women in the Silent Film Industry,” and “Women Camera Operators or ‘Cranks.’”
A Columbia graduate will work over the summer on acquiring movie clips to supplement pioneer biographies, and work will commence to develop and keep updated information about DVD availability–no small task.
Future Prospects: Women and Sound?
The Project is also considering expansion to include women working in sound cinema, both to follow up those pioneers whose careers continued into the sound era, and to bring women’s film history up-to-date. More news as to whether this development takes off will be announced in 2015, so keep a look-out! But it is an initiative the British/Irish WFTHN is keen to see happen. As a start we would be glad to hear from any WFTHN members who would like to set up a ‘Women and British Sound Cinema’ website to parallel the current and delightful ‘Women and Silent British Cinema‘ site.
In the meantime a question to ponder: when do women filmmakers cease to be ‘pioneers’–perhaps never?