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/)