‘WHAT THE WOMEN’S FILM AND TELEVISION HISTORY
NETWORK – UK / IRELAND MEANS TO ME‘
by Christine Gledhill
I came to film studies and feminism at more or less the same time, so when I joined BFI Education in 1975, one of the first things I did with colleagues Nicky North and Angela Martin was start looking for women in film production to feature in the BFI’s film extract collection and study guide programme. This, however, soon got overtaken by developments in film theory and feminism’s consequent encounter with cine-psychoanalysis. Concentrating on the organisation of the female image to serve the needs of the male psyche, feminist film theory argued the failure of the spectacular image of woman to represent women.
Women behind the camera were largely forgotten until a new kind of film history, prompted in part by the annual Silent Film Festivals held in Pordenone and focused on the cultural relation of cinema to modernity, reposed the question of women. This led to the inception of the international Women Film Pioneers, project which after more than a decade gathering research and investigating the most productive format for publication, has now gone on-line with a wonderful digital database.
Women Film Pioneers is supported by the biennial Women and the Silent Screen conferences, at the third of which, held in Montreal in 2004, I caught up with the initiative. Noticeably few contributions came from Britain, so through a collaboration with colleagues from Pordenone, the British Silent Cinema Festival and BFI Education, a Saturday event was set up at the NFT. To our delight over 80 participants turned up and an enthusiastic demand voiced for more work and in particular a database through which research would be collected and shared.
How to progress this was the next question, not only in terms of technical know-how, but in terms of the conceptual framework which would underpin the purpose, structure and contents of any database. We did not, for instance, want to simply add missing women’s names to the traditional history, as if all that was required was to fill gaps. In order to address the absence of women from the historical record it is necessary to change the way we think about history, not only what counts as important but ways of doing it.
To reinvent the way we do and promote film history from a gendered perspective required the input not only of feminist film historians, but also of archivists, librarians and website designers. And of course money was crucial to the work that was needed to develop both material infrastructure and the thinking that would inform it. So a successful bid was made to the AHRC for Network funding, and, through a series of four Workshops and ancillary meetings, the Network was born, focusing women’s work in and around British and Irish cinema from their earliest days to the recent present and expanding its remit to include television. In the meantime, two of our members, Nathalie Morris and Clare Watson, made a fantastic start by setting up the Women and Silent British Cinema website.
Individuals, however, have busy lives to lead, and a website requires not only weekly attention, but a community of users and events, to share contents, enter into discussion and debate, recruit new contributors, and enable the work of women’s film history in Britain, Ireland and beyond to make a difference.
In the first instance that difference will impact on how we understand cinema, its history, and the contribution made to its development by women. This requires shifting conceptions of what counts as both historically and cinematically significant–not only in terms of films produced but also considering the range of activities involved in production and the diversity of materials in which we can find evidence of women’s work: diaries, scrapbooks, novels, memoires and so on. This in turn enlarges our understanding of what cinema can do and be. Thinking about how women have laboured, unrecognised in collaborative partnerships, or in areas of filmmaking least honoured–e.g. scriptwriting, costume designing, set dressing, editing, lab processing–enlarges both our experience of film and our understanding of the range of practices and materials it comprises, whether undertaken by women or men.
Accessing and making visible women’s activity in the past also creates a new community, connecting them with our present, asking of us historical understanding of emergent ideas about gender as well as of the negotiations required by women to hold their own in a male dominated world. Equally, connecting their lives and experiences to our own illuminates issues and possibilities for us not available in their own times.
Finally, making visible, rediscovering, hopefully one day preserving and circulating women’s films and television programmes, past and future, impacts on the cultural canon, enlarging the range of work available for programming and teaching, and potentially inspiring new generations of young women to become film or television makers and expanding the imaginative pool for audiences to draw on.