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…

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/)