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…

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’.