120 years of Women in Film
Little did I know, when I arrived at the University of East Anglia’s ‘Doing Women’s Film History’ conference in April 2014 that it would change the course of my life.
At that time I was busy promoting Celluloid Ceiling: Women Film Directors Breaking Through (Supernova Books, 2014) a book in which I had contributed a chapter about the UK film and television industry. I had mistakenly responded to an advert looking for women
who could write about directors in the UK – and found that I had accidently stumbled into the world of publishing. My perspective was that as a new mother I could never imagine combining directing with bringing up my son. I wanted to hear how other women had tackled this challenge and under the guise of ‘research’ interviewed a fascinating array of successful women working in television and film for that book.
At the UEA conference I took the opportunity to sneak into the back of one of the lecture theatres and listen to some of the presentations. One of the speakers, Bryony Dixon was talking about women in the early days of cinema – and I thought, ‘How remarkable. I didn’t know that there were any women in the early days of cinema. In fact – and I’m a little embarrassed to admit this now – I had assumed that women didn’t make movies until maybe around the 1980s with the coming of second wave feminism, Jane Campion, and movies like Nancy Meyers’ Baby Boom (1987).
Certainly by the time I had gone to film school (in 2010) and was learning about cinema history – which featured no women at all – I felt that I, and the other women on the course, were very much ‘pioneers.’ When I became a mother and was feeding my baby on set whilst directing several people remarked that they thought I was probably ‘the first’ director to breastfeed a baby on set. Now that I have learnt so much more about film history – and the rich role that women have played in shaping the world of cinema right from the beginning – I now know that the history of women making films starts in 1896 with Alice Guy-Blaché’s Cabbage Fairy. I write this in 2016; women have been making movies for 120 years. I’m pretty sure in that time many, many women have had children, cared for them on set, and got on with the work in hand.
Back in the lecture theatre at UEA what I was hearing was a revelation. Women had been directors, producers, script writers, designers and camera operators among many other jobs. They were and still are the main ticket buyers for movies. Women became film reviewers and critics, distributors and cinema owners. They emulated their favourite actresses creating a lucrative market for clothes and hair-styles.
Shortly after leaving that lecture I discovered the incredible resource that is the Women Film Pioneers Project (set up by Columbia University) and sent a one-page synopsis to the publishers I had worked with previously. I wanted to join in the work celebrating women’s contribution to cinema, with a book which would be accessible to a non-academic audience as well as setting a challenge to cultural commentators. It had to be more than a book – it had to be a call to arms.
The resulting book is a collaboration and a labour of love, including contributions from Professor Shelley Stamp on the role of critics and reviewers and Aimee Dixon on female African-American film-makers (including Zora Neale Hurston and Eslanda Goode Robeson). Film expert and archivist Kevin Brownlow contributed a transcript from what we think is the very last interview ever conducted with Dorothy Arzner. Ellen Cheshire explores possible contenders for the earliest female cinematographer and comes up with some amazing new finds.
What’s bold and unusual about the book is that we then skip about 100 years and come right up to date! Maria Giese writes about gender inequality in Hollywood TODAY, and the current investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union. This raises the question again – when will women’s creative achievements be properly acknowledged by mainstream media? When will women directors cease to be referred to as ‘pioneers’?
One key chapter in the book – written by director Karen Day – explores the creative career of Nell Shipman – one of the first people to go and set up her own independent movie studios. It’s touching to read Karen Day’s personal voice as a film-maker and her journey to making a wonderful documentary about Nell and women directors’ voices past and present (you can see a link to the trailer here). The sixty-minute documentary is really very special and I’m delighted that we’ll have the chance to screen it at this upcoming event at the Cinema Museum on 19th October. I was so thrilled that we got the UK rights to screen the movie that I’ve been visiting local schools and screening the movie and using it as a springboard to discuss ‘Who makes the films that you watch?’ with teenagers. It’s been fascinating to hear their range of preconceptions about what a ‘director’ does and what they look like. ‘We’ve never heard of a female director,’ one young student said to me, ‘What do they look like?’ It’s very satisfying to answer – ‘They look like me’.
Now the reviews of the book are out and invitations for media interviews have begun, I feel proud to have initiated this project. This book has given me the opportunity to be a part of a cultural conversation about gender inequality – both past and present. My work as a filmmaker sits within a different context. When I’m directing the Worthing WOW Festival and making film trailers I know that I come from a long history of women ‘calling the shots.’ This empowers me to feel I’ve taken the right path and gives me the freedom to feel that I have the right to call ‘Action!’
And to think that this all came from a chance visit to the lecture theatre two years ago. When I recently met with Bryony Dixon (Head Curator, BFI), I mentioned that without hearing her talk at UEA this book would not have come about. She paused and said, ‘It’s nice to know that somebody is listening.’
Melody Bridges is an award-winning writer-director with over fifteen years’ experience in theatre, television and film. She has directed numerous television series and stage shows, and has written for both stage and screen. Bridges lectures regularly on literature as well as Women in Media. She contributed to the book ‘Celluloid Ceiling: Women Film Directors Breaking Through’ eds. Gabrielle Kelly and Cheryl Robson, and is the co-editor of the recently published ‘Silent Women: Pioneers of Cinema.’ She supports emerging writers’ and creatives through a number of initiatives including running an annual arts festival in Sussex called Worthing WOW for which she is Artistic Director. WOW recently hosted 120 Films in Sussex, further information here: 120 Years of Film in Sussex.