Welcome to Auteuse Theory

Welcome to Auteuse Theory. The purpose of this blog is to allow us to think about and write about a range of films made by women, from silent re-discoveries to the latest releases, from activist documentaries to mainstream Hollywood features, taking in examples from across the globe, whether famous or obscure. We have no desire to force ham-fisted links between very different films and very different filmmakers, to insist that they fit some pre-designated template of women’s cinema. Quite the opposite; we want to explore the diversity of forms taken by women’s filmmaking across different nations and eras. So why focus on women as a separate category at all? Why isolate their films from those of their male peers and think about them as some kind of exceptional or special case? Well, there’s still the matter of persistent inequality of opportunity within certain key authorial roles in the film industries. We all know the stats: even now, post-Bigelow Oscar win, women only constitute 10% of directors globally, and 15% of screenwriters. This is an improvement on previous years but it’s still (obviously!) a very minor proportion of the whole. As the British director Lynne Ramsay has commented, it’s ‘a bit like a country not being filmed – and that country not having a voice. It really does matter.’ And although we are very reluctant to make simple equations between the fact of there being a woman being at the helm of a film and that film offering a more complex picture of femininity (there have always been battalions of male directors who are very good at telling female-focussed stories), there is nonetheless plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that this is often true.

Our main subject is film but we will inevitably make forays into television and other media from time to time. We will be focussing predominantly on films directed by women, but we’re also interested in including films which demonstrate female authorship in other ways (writing, producing or performance). And we won’t be thinking about those films solely as women’s films. We don’t want to ghettoise them, so we’ll be connecting them to the time and place of their production, or their place within a genre or a movement, as much as we connect them to each other. There will be no rhyme or reason to the films that we discuss or the order in which they appear, instead we’ll be hoping for serendipitous connections, unexpected correspondences, sharp contrasts, strange juxtapositions; in other words, a blog that aims to be perpetually different and surprising. Most of the writing will be undertaken by the two main authors but interspersed with guest reviews from others who will each bring a fresh perspective.

And, finally, why the title Auteuse Theory? We were scouting around for a name that indicated a response to the old-fashioned auteur theory, and its insistence on ‘virility’ as a marker of directorial quality (all that Hawks and Ford worship). Women hadn’t only been marginalised in the making of films but the select few who had managed to break through were often given short shrift in the founding critical histories of film (with the exception of the highly problematic case of Leni Riefenstahl), until feminist scholars put Arzner, Weber, Guy-Blache, Lupino and Varda back into the picture. And this work of excavation and rediscovery continues – see the Women Film Pioneers and Women and Silent British Cinema websites for ongoing examples. We are aware of the problems of using the French feminised form of a professional name, drawing a gendered distinction between male and female practitioners (just as some publications reject the word actress in favour of actor for both men and women), but in the spirit of subversion, we wanted to occupy and feminise a word - auteur - which still sits at the heart of so much film scholarship and film appreciation. And although the blog is called Auteuse Theory, it might be more appropriate to think in terms of 'theories', the more intellectually generous plural form. These are some theories and thoughts and ideas arising from watching these films made by women. We hope you enjoy reading them…

Friday, 22 August 2014

Female authorship and the rape-revenge narrative: Ida Lupino’s 'Outrage' (1950)


The present review focuses on Ida Lupino’s film Outrage starring Mala Powers as Ann Walton, the victim of a brutal sexual assault. As a pre-1970s rape-revenge film it barely foreshadows the developments that were to surface with the arrival of second-wave feminism. Yet its feminist potential has been largely undervalued due to the tendency in the narrative to pathologise the rape victim and her reliance on Rev. Bruce Ferguson (Todd Andrews) to defend her in front of the authorities as well as to ensure her social rehabilitation.

However, Pam Cook’s statement that the film “seems to embody the fluctuating, unsettled nature of th[e] boundary” between classicism and post-classicism in Hollywood (156) hints at the film’s ideological ambiguity, which was also detected by Claire Johnston in relation to Lupino’s oeuvre (38). Having this as a starting point I would like to provide a brief analysis of the way the rape-revenge narrative functions in Outrage to destabilize, even if temporarily, the wider patriarchal ideological context.

The title sequence of the film starts with a high angle shot of a street at night and a woman running, trying to escape an unknown as yet to the audience threat. The film’s title enlarges on screen while the image of the woman staggering is still in the background. This poignant opening leaves no room for doubt as to the certainty of the crime and the film’s condemning attitude towards it.

Subsequently, the narrative resumes a conventional chronological sequence by introducing Ann’s character, running to the canteen outside her work. The man working at the canteen flirts with her but she does not respond. She goes to meet her boyfriend and he announces his promotion and asks her to marry him. He tells her that she can now quit her job since he will be able to support her. She happily accepts and they make plans for announcing their decision to her parents. It is important to note that until this point the couple seems to be on an equal plane in terms of the power hierarchies in their relationship and the rape follows Ann’s relinquishment of her independence. Generally women in films at the time are usually punished for transgressing the traditional norms that prescribe their place in the domestic sphere. It is therefore noteworthy that the moment Ann loses that equality with her partner she is immediately afterwards sexually assaulted, which results in a literal violation of her subjectivity and effectively undermines her place in society.

The actual rape, in accordance with censorship restrictions, is not shown. Yet the scene leading up to it successfully conveys the heroine’s psychological turmoil. It starts with an intercutting of shots of Ann leaving the office and the canteen owner closing up, a technique that gradually increases psychological tension and creates suspense. A close-up shot of the man reveals a scar on his neck, a key feature in the identification of the rapist. The camera then cuts to Ann coming out of the building skipping on her way home after her last day at work. The man shuts his canteen and follows her shouting “Hey beautiful!” to which she does not respond. He persists, lurking in a predatory manner, trying to call her over repeatedly. The pace quickens and eventually Ann reaches a parking lot and tries to call for attention by pressing the horn of a lorry. Her last effort to evade her pursuer is unsuccessful as she stumbles and falls in a semi-conscious state. Through a point of view shot of the man his face remains hidden. However, his scar is visible and as he approaches, the image gets increasingly blurry indicating Ann’s loss of consciousness. The camera moves quickly away and upwards revealing a neighbor coming to check out the noise. Failing to see anything, he goes back in and the camera fades to black.

In the next shot, Ann is seen staggering to her house and the non-diegetic solemn music accentuates the tragic incident that has just occurred. The whole scene of Ann’s pursuit and the off-screen rape starts 9 minutes into the film and lasts for about 5 minutes. The remaining 60 minutes of the film deal with the aftermath and the process of Ann’s recuperation and re-integration in society. She arrives home in deep shock, unable to respond to her mother’s worried inquiries. In the next scene the police come to speak to her and she has a nervous breakdown. Ann’s father says to the policeman: “Tonight my daughter was brutally attacked. Why don’t you do something about preventing crimes like this?” and he adds: “Is this why you raise a daughter? Is this what you love and sacrifice for? What kind of times are these that such things can happen? Only this morning she was carefree and happy and now…”. This poignant speech shows his devastation as he comments on the larger social issue of the threat women face. It also expresses the gravity of the issue even if it remains unspoken, as the word rape is never mentioned throughout the film. Simultaneously it foreshadows the difficulty in overcoming this trauma, which usually involved killing the perpetrator after the victim was already dead.

Therefore the importance of this film lies in focusing on the process of surviving this traumatic experience. Shortly after her rape, Ann tries to resume her normal routine but she quickly perceives that the way other people see her has changed drastically and she is primarily defined as the victim of a sexual crime. Jim provides a solution to move away and start a new life, but she rejects his proposal and breaks off the engagement. In order to restore her violated subjectivity she runs away so as to be around people that do not know anything about her, which is achieved in the small farming community she finds refuge. Also the rejection of her father’s and her fiancé’s protection and assistance in her recovery indicates her need to regain agency and take control.

Bruce plays a huge part in Ann’s recuperation firstly due to his discreet attitude. He gradually gains her trust, which is highlighted in the scene at the countryside where he tells her about his past. He says, “We all go through dark times” explaining that after the war he lost his faith. It is possible to detect a potential parallel that is created here between the traumatic experiences of war and rape. Both characters have had a profound identity shock, which puts them on an equal plane and allows them to connect. The insinuation regarding the similarity of their experience further emphasizes the severity of rape as a crime or as an act of “political terrorism” (Morgan 135), which is of course equally applicable to war.
Yet I would argue that the revenge part of the narrative is the most ideologically transgressive aspect in the film. It is a case of “displaced revenge” since the heroine takes her revenge on another man and not the actual rapist (Read 95). 54 minutes into the film, and after Ann has slowly begun the process of recuperation, there is the scene of the dance during which Frank (Jerry Paris), approaches her romantically. When she refuses his advances he becomes even more determined to woo her. She repeatedly tells him to leave her alone but he ignores this adding that he doesn’t want to hurt her but only to kiss her. When she runs off once more, he grabs her and she falls back. As he approaches and continues talking to her, there is a close-up on his mouth and neck. At this point there is a short sequence of alternating point of view shots between Frank’s and the rapist’s necks. The camera then cuts to Ann’s terrified face as she reaches out, grabs a wrench and hits Frank over the head. Here the film offers the most usefully ambiguous for a feminist reading opportunity, since it is insinuated that there is a thin line between an overly keen suitor and a rapist. Therefore the film creates, even if temporarily, an uncomfortable equation between a sociopath and an otherwise ‘innocent’ man.

However, the aftermath of Ann’s ‘revenge’ functions to re-establish the shaken patriarchal values in the film, since Ann is apprehended for the attack on Frank and she is only exonerated after Bruce says that her act was caused by “temporary insanity”. She is examined by a psychiatrist and is subsequently put under Bruce’s supervision to ensure she rehabilitates in society. Moreover, the characterization of the rapist as “a neurotic” not only eliminates responsibility for his action, but it also creates a safe distinction between him and other male characters. Thus any subversive elements in the ideological fabric of the film are safely ironed out in the end, but their inclusion, in view of the film’s production context in post-war America, is important nonetheless.

Consequently, even if Outrage may not explicitly set out to tell a feminist story (Read 77), there are a number of elements inserted into the film, which make a feminist reading possible. This review emphasizes its uniqueness as a female-authored pre-1970s rape-revenge film in presenting the possibility for such a feminist reading.


Cook, Pam. “No fixed address: the women’s picture from Outrage to Blue Steel.” Screening the Past: Memory and Nostalgia in Cinema. London: Routledge, 2005. 146-64.
Johnston, Claire. “Women's Cinema As Counter-Cinema.” Notes on Women's Cinema. Screen (Pamphlet 2): 24-31.
Morgan, Robin. “Theory and Practice: Pornography and Rape.” Take Back the Night: Women on Pornography. Ed. Laura Lederer. New York: William Morrow, 1980. 134-40.
Read, Jacinda. The New Avengers: Feminism, Femininity and the Rape-revenge Cycle. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2000.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Phantom Lady: Joan Harrison (26 June 1907 – 14 August 1994)

2014 marks both the 20th anniversary of Hollywood producer Joan Harrison’s death and the 70th anniversary of her first and most celebrated production Phantom Lady (1944). This blog reveals the parallels between the protean female producer and the resilient heroines in her mystery films, and asks what it might tell us about women’s roles in wartime Hollywood and beyond.
In an October 1945 Chicago Tribune article on Hollywood producer Joan Harrison titled “Glamour Galvanic,” noted film critic Hedda Hopper describes her as “a 33 year-old, golden-haired ball of fire with a temper of a tarantula, the purring persuasiveness of a female archangel, the capacity for work of a family of beavers, and the sex appeal of a No. 1 glamour girl.” Hopper’s characterization of “Hollywood’s most successful lady” as a hybrid creature—simultaneously aggressive spider woman and ethereal innocent, desirable pinup and desiring predator—reveals much of the simultaneous liberations and limitations facing women working in wartime and postwar Hollywood.  In the immediate postwar context of October 1945 Harrison— a former protégé of Alfred Hitchcock who had worked her way up from his secretary in London in 1933 to his assistant and scriptwriter in Hollywood in the early 1940s— reflected on a career as Universal’s first female producer that had lasted only 18 months. In this time she had transformed from heroine to femme fatale in the eyes of Universal’s executives, as both her own and her onscreen alter-egos’ syntheses of multiple femininities and skills for masquerade became undesirable within the “boys’ club” of Hollywood following the war.

Joan Harrison in the cutting room
In mid-1943, Universal had appointed “Hitchcock alumna” Harrison to produce mystery films “from the woman’s angle.” As Barbara Berch of the New York Times explained, her gender and her experience with the “master of horror” put her in a unique position to bring a profitable female perspective to the burgeoning horror and mystery market. Harrison’s appointment is a clear example of Hollywood bringing in female expertise in order to target a newly realized female audience for horror and crime films during the war. These gendered shifts in wartime audiences and the resultant changes to Hollywood’s production strategies are discussed in my forthcoming monograph for Rutgers University Press, Phantom Ladies: Hollywood Horror and the Home Front, which, as you can see, takes its name from Harrison’s film.  Harrison chose Cornell Woolrich’s (under the pseudonym William Irish) crime novel Phantom Lady (1942) as her first project, but significantly reconstructed the source material to privilege a female protagonist’s point of view. In the novel the secretary Carol “Kansas” Richman is a marginal figure—only the suspect’s girlfriend, not his work colleague. In the film, however, she takes on the traditionally male investigator’s role. Like Harrison, Kansas transcends her role as secretary to excel in the perceived male world of mystery and terror because of, rather than in spite of, her gender.
In Phantom Lady, Kansas (Ella Raines) swaps secretarial duties for hard-boiled detective work when her boss, Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis), a civil engineer, is sentenced to death for murdering his wife. She sets out to track down his alibi—the eponymous woman with whom he shared the night in question but did not exchange names. Mysteriously no one remembers the “phantom lady” despite the elaborate hat that she wore, which seemed to get her noticed at the bar where she met Scott and the show she attended with him. Kansas is plunged into a corrupt New York underworld of lies, payoffs, betrayal, and murder. In the film’s most celebrated and controversial jazz club scene—respected critics James and Manny Farber loved this “orgiastic” sequence, whilst the Production Code Administration, Hollywood’s internal content regulator, feared its “offensive sex suggestiveness”—Kansas masquerades as a “hep kitten” called Jeannie to seduce a lascivious drummer and key witness, Cliff (Elisha Cook Jr.). This frenetic montage sequence utilizes disorienting camera angles and close-ups as it cuts between the musicians performing and Kansas dancing, pouring liquor, kissing Cliff, and applying makeup. It culminates in a frenzied drum solo that cuts back and forth between Cliff’s increasingly sweaty, manic face and Kansas’s feigned ecstatic expression (see below):
This scene is typically attributed solely to director Robert Siodmak—with whom Harrison, and Raines, would collaborate on her next and final film for Universal, The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945)—but for me it is the embodiment of Harrison’s quest to capture the complexities and contradictions of women’s wartime experiences and expectations. The scene perfectly captures Kansas’s skill for masquerade but also the multiple pressures placed upon women on the American home front. The spectator appropriates Cliff’s point of view as he scans her legs adorned in fishnet stockings, but unlike Cliff, the spectator is aware that this is an elaborate ruse to entrap the predictable drummer. Harrison herself was well aware of the advantages her sexuality might offer in the male-dominated world of Hollywood. In an article on Phantom Lady in Time magazine, she differentiated herself from other producers by saying “I use my sex,” even exploiting “some leg art” in her studio publicity photographs. The article continues, “Besides using a pair of ah-inspiring legs, she also uses a mind trained at the Sorbonne, Oxford, and by England’s shrewdest director.” Like Kansas, Harrison suggest she was able to get ahead by manipulating the male gaze.
Phantom Lady was, on the whole, a critical and box-office success and afforded Harrison more power in wartime Hollywood. However, as the war came to a close these powers were retracted and her image as an assertive, independent woman became increasingly policed and tamed by critics and studio publicists who claimed, for example, that despite her reputation as a “stormy petrel”, her biggest fear was running out of butter at dinner parties. Like her films, which celebrate wartime career women’s abilities to synthesize the twin demands of desirability and productivity, the appeal of the “galvanic” Harrison was seen as increasingly redundant following the war, as men returned to reclaim their roles and restore women’s central productive roles of housekeeping and childbirth. Harrison quit Universal in 1945 after the studio refused to back her in a long-running battle with the Production Code Administration over The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry. The film’s morally ambiguous ending was seen as unpalatable for immediate postwar audiences and the studio’s acquiescence to a tacked-on “dream ending” brought Harrison’s Universal career to a strange but certainly not dream end.
Tim Snelson, lecturer in media history at University of East Anglia. He has a forthcoming monograph tilted Phantom Ladies: Hollywood Horror and the Home Front published with Rutgers University Press to be published in October 2014.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Identifying the experiences of Frances, Ivy, Nora and ... many other women in the first generation of British cine-clubs


Sally Sallies Forth (1929), heralded at the time as the first amateur film produced wholly and exclusively by women, the IAC film collection, held at the East Anglian Film Archive. To see the whole film go to http://www.eafa.org.uk/catalogue/3823

In recent years the involvement of women in amateur film-making has attracted the attention of a number of scholars and film archivists.  As far as the involvement of British women in amateur film production is concerned, valuable work has been performed in identifying individual women amateur film-makers in the 1920s and 1930s.  This scholarly work usually makes use of home movies, highlights the work of individuals and focuses attention on the person in possession of the camera, identifying in the process films produced by women as important historical records in their own right.  However, the focus on female film-makers also overlooks the experiences of many women who engaged with film production in the collaborative environment of Britain's inter-war cine-clubs, particularly in the production of amateur fiction films in the cine-club studio environment.
Cine-clubs emerged in Britain as sites for an amateur engagement with film production, distribution and exhibition from the mid-1920s.  Still relatively unexplored as a collective form of leisure, reports submitted by cine-clubs to amateur film-making magazines in the 1930s indicate that these clubs offered women opportunities to engage with film culture as film-making democratised, even though the contributions women made to club life were only very rarely acknowledged by editorial decisions taken in the production of these magazines.
Although the participation of women in cine-clubs was largely ignored by these magazines, the very same magazines often included still photographs of cine-club productions.  These photographs not only indicate that women took part in film production but that they often did so in productive roles which did not involve filming.  Notably, stills published in these magazines indicate that much of their activity was engaged in jobs and roles that frequently went unrecorded.  Unlikely to be credited on screen, recorded or valorised in amateur film magazines, this activity falls into what has been referred to in the commercial environment as the invisible labour of women. 
In April 2014, I presented a paper, 'Sally Sallies Forth: The involvement of women in the first generation of British cine-clubs', at the second international conference of the Women's Film and Television History Network - UK/ Ireland.  Using information I had accumulated over the last five years about the involvement of women in the first generation of British cine-clubs, I appraised the activities of women in the collaborative environment of the London Amateur Cinematographers' Association ("London ACA"), one of the first British inter-war cine-clubs. 
My paper identified in this inter-war middle class association an environment that offered women an interaction with film culture and film production.  It also identified a clear contradiction between the culture of the London ACA, which encouraged individuals irrespective of gender to develop skills and an understanding of all aspects of film production, and the opportunities open to women in the production environment.  Although it is clear that women in the London ACA were not restricted in any formal way from participating in the club's activities including film production, it is nevertheless apparent from my research that the production culture in the cine-club might have prevented them from participating on an equal basis in film production.  While it is difficult to detect "formal gendered pathways" as well as "more informal mechanisms, habits and working practices" in a leisure environment in the same way that Vicky Ball and Melanie Bell have been able to in the organisation of labour in film and television industries, it is notable that the experiences of women in the production environment of the London ACA were different to men.  Women in the London ACA only very rarely moved across different production roles.  This contrasts starkly with the experiences enjoyed by men in the club.  Drawing on information I had pieced together about the experiences of Frances Lascot, Ivy Low and Nora Pfeil, my paper speculated on the networks that existed in the London ACA, the opportunities available to individuals and the informal gendered pathways that existed in the club.  I observed, as in the case of Sally Sallies Forth, that it was possible for women in the London ACA to control productions and to undertake a variety of production roles but, unless a woman was able to break into male social networks, to do so required determination, finances and an ability to construct her own networks in the club.


Monday, 2 June 2014

Three Lives by Kate Millett: A Women's Liberation Production



Featuring……… Mallory Millett-Jones
                            Lillian Shreve
                            Robin Mide
Co-directors…………. Louva Irvine
                                    Susan Kleckner
                                    Robin Mide
Production…………… Louva Irvine
                                     Susan Kleckner
                                     Bici Forbes
Sound and …… Mallory Millett-Jones
Lighting………  Jean Carballo          
                          Susan Kleckner
Camera………. Leonore Bode
Camera ……… Gloria Stein
Sound………… Lisa Shreve
Production …… Louva Irvine
Editors………… Ann Sheppard
                           Ellen Adams

In the early 1970s, the feminist activist and author of Sexual Politics (1970), Kate Millett, collaborated with a group of women filmmakers to make a movie about women’s liberation. Writing in her 1975 autobiography, Flying, Millett explained that making the film was her way of counter-acting the ‘ego-tripping’ she feared in the wake of the success of her bestselling feminist thesis; using her new-found wealth she hoped to ‘multiply my accidental good fortune, share it, make something for all women.’ The result, Three Lives, featured her younger sister Mallory Millett-Jones; Lillian Shreve, mother of the film’s sound recordist; and Robin Mide, one of the film’s co-directors.

Three Lives can be considered part of the wave of non-fiction films that emerged at the initial intersection between the women’s liberation movement and underground filmmaking of the era: The Woman’s Film (San Francisco Newsreel, 1971), Growing Up Female (Jim Klein and Julia Reichert, 1971) and It Happens to Us (Amalie Rothschild, 1972). In 1972 an interview, co-director Louva Irvine recalled that Millett had been inspired by the independent filmmaker Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason (1967). Like Portrait of Jason, Three Lives appropriates the sixties’ cinéma vérité aesthetic and the format of the portrait film, but with an end to visually convey the experience of a feminist consciousness-raising session. Since the late 1960s, consciousness-raising groups had become the driving force behind the growing women’s movement and helped set the agenda for feminist activism and theorising. Three Lives can therefore be seen as an cinematic extension of their cell division-like proliferation: its three subjects testify, rap and reflect on their lives as women and their experiences as girls, lovers, wives, mothers, workers and artists. ‘I’ll bet that’s the first time a lot of guys had to sit and listen uninterruptedly to women’, a female film student reportedly remarked following a screening in 1972, ‘I wonder what it means to them to listen to women without having the chance to butt in and have their say!’ (from Julia Lesage’s  ‘The Political Aesthetics of Feminist Documentary Film’, 1978).

The film’s collective production methods similarly reflected the emotional instensity of the CR group. Despite not having a clear idea of what working as a collective might mean, Millett has said that at the time, ‘it was my dream to be peers, artists together’ (Flying, 163). For her, ‘the movie will always be the shooting, never that thing on the screen which I made, editing it alone. It will be what we endured together making it, our orgies of recrimmination and recreation’ (167). In a 1972 Filmmaker’s Newsletter interview, co-director Susan Klechner described the successes of this method, in which the group would ‘unite to the point where there would be a huge amount of energy and that would be the creative force. […Where] everybody is connected to the person who is talking about her life. That’s when the film becomes powerful’ (32). However, the process also entailed its fair share of strife; at one point in Flying, Millett described ‘the company’ as ‘a nest of oppressed women screaming at me like machine guns’ (163).

The film opened at the Bleecker Street Cinema in New York on 4th November 1971 and was met with mixed reviews from the feminist and mainstream press. New York Times critic Vincent Canby called it ‘a moving, proud, calm, aggressively self-contained documentary feature’ that could not have been made without its all-female crew. On the other hand, Ruth McCormick, writing in the left-leaning film journal Cineaste in 1972, remarked that more militant feminists would be dissapointed by the absence of Millett’s more radical political perspective and the lack of explicitly feminist analysis in the film. Although she continued to work with film intermittently throughout her carrer, Millett revealed in a 1974 interview with French film magazine Cinéma that despite the film’s successes, she belived she was more likely to reach a wider audience through her writing. Nonetheless, feminist film critics such as Julia Lesage have heraled the film an important part of the ‘establish[ment] and valoriz[ation] a new order of cinematic iconography, connotation, and a range of subject matter in the portrayal of women’s lives’ and a key tool for women’s ‘subcultural resistance’.


Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Louisa Wei's Golden Gate Girls and the (re)discovery of Esther Eng


One of the highlights of the 'Doing Women's Film and Television History' conference in Norwich last month was the chance to see S. Louisa Wei's beguiling documentary on a women director I'd never even heard of before, the Chinese American film pioneer Esther Eng. Eng made a number of films in America, China, Hong Kong and Hawaii from the 1930s to the early 1960s before switching careers altogether and becoming a celebrated New York restaurateur. Wei carefully contextualises Eng's life and career in terms of Sino-American relations and the upheavals created by global conflict but also on a more personal level as an openly gay woman and one of a very limited number of female directors working at that time. Wei cleverly and subtly interweaves Eng's story with those of actress Anna May Wong, another Chinese American woman trying to carve out a successful career in film, and also Dorothy Arzner, the only other women director working in feature film in the US at the same time, and another out lesbian; Wei finds some fascinating parallels between their cool mannish styles of dress. The film is gorgeously illustrated throughout with stunning black and white photographs of Eng and her associates, many of them found in a box left for the refuse collector which was then reclaimed from the dustbin of history by a canny passerby. These still pictures of Eng are complemented and commented on by Eng's surviving relatives and friends, tracked down by Wei, and they help to round out the portrait of Eng not only as a filmmaker but as a kind, compassionate, clever woman. The fascinating interviews and the plenitude of stills partially compensates for the fact that many of Eng's films are lost, like the intriguing-sounding It's a Woman's World (1939) in which all the characters on screen are female (rather like Cukor's more familiar variation on the same theme The Women, also from 1939) or the evocatively-titled melodrama A Night of Romance, a Lifetime of Regret (1938). One film of hers still extant is Golden Gate Girl (1941), a Cantonese-language film made and set in San Francisco which boasts the first screen appearance of Bruce Lee as the heroine's chubby-cheeked baby.

So we may not have all her films to look at but what we do have, in the shape of Wei's documentary, is a renewed awareness of Esther Eng's significance as a remarkable woman filmmaker who had a truly transnational career and who deserves to be much better known and more widely recognised as a film pioneer.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Women Directors – Who’s Calling the Shots? A Report by Directors UK

This report from Directors UK, out last week, made some interesting observations about the startling underrepresentation of women directors in contemporary British television. As the report point out, 'despite women representing almost 30% of the TV and film directing workforce, attitudes within the media industry are preventing women from reaching their full potential'.

These were their key findings about why it's happening:
  • Decisions on hiring are influenced by the opinions (or perceived opinions) of commissioners, in a risk-averse culture that keeps hiring the same directors.
  • Production executives responsible for hiring are unaware of low figures for women directors.
  • There is no uniform or consistent monitoring of the freelance workforce throughout the industry.
  • Beyond a trusted few, there is a lack of awareness of a large number of highly qualified and experienced women drama directors.
  • Gender stereotyping is prevalent when hiring in specific genres in drama, factual and comedy.
And their main recommendation to counteract this bias was to set 'a minimum 30% target for women directors across all broadcasters’ programming output, to be achieved in 2017'. It will be interesting to see what comes of that recommendation and of the report's finding in general. But, as Directors UK point out, it is clear that 'the current situation is not balanced if 30% of our membership is not accessing 30% of the work.'

New infographic on women directors at Cannes over the last decade: 'No Cannes Do'

This comes courtesy of Melissa Silverstein of 'Women and Hollywood' (http://blogs.indiewire.com/womenandhollywood/)