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5 Highlights from Women Film Pioneers Project: African-American Women in Silent Film, Women Camera Operators and More

Indiewire By Indiewire | Indiewire October 15, 2013 at 12:19PM

Last week, we wrote about Columbia University Libraries' newly launched Women Film Pioneers Project, a compendium of film resources and material seeking to reverse the historical fallacy that the film production process is and always has been male-dominated. Here are some highlights from the project.
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Last week, we wrote about Columbia University Libraries' newly launched Women Film Pioneers Project, a compendium of film resources and material seeking to reverse the historical fallacy that the film production process is and always has been male-dominated. 

Edited by Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal and Monica Dall’Asta, the WFPP strives to illuminate historical fact in order to glorify the lost female filmmaking history of the silent era -- specifically, that women "were not just actresses," and were involved in all aspects of the silent-era film industry, from camera operators to scenario writers to directors and producers. The online resource features a searchable, alphabetical database of women who worked in various aspects of the film industry during the silent-film era. It's such an important project that we decided to dig deeper into the online resource and share some highlights.

Here are 5 highlights from the WFPP (with information excerpted from WFPP):

1. African-American Women worked in the silent film industry.

"During the silent era there does not appear to have been much serious thought given to the question of why there might or might not be women working as motion picture camera operators. The handful who did do this work kept a very low profile, and, as a consequence, many in the commercial industry may have thought that there was just no such thing as a female camera operator at all. Even one of the most well-connected women in the industry couldn't think of one. Powerful executive producer and screenwriter June Mathis, when asked in 1925 to reflect on women’s contributions said she could think of cases in which a woman worked as a cutter or a title writer but had yet to find a woman 'turning a camera crank.' There were, however, a handful of women who despite the skepticism and even hostility they must have encountered on the set, did operate the heavy 35mm motion picture camera and mastered the new technology despite cultural expectations." Read the full essay about Women as Camera Operators or 'Cranks.'

3. Latin American women were quite active in the early days of film.

The historiography of silent cinema in Latin America tells a story of good fortune in the face of adversity, enterprising individuals, and collective frustrations. Until recently women were virtually absent from published histories, however; this omission from the major works in Latin American film historiography is evidence of the way in which women’s work has been made invisible in the main tradition. Thanks to the interest and persistence of a number of film scholars, however, we can now celebrate the names of the Latin American women who made significant contributions to silent film in producing, screenwriting, acting, editing, and directing, as well as in film journalism and motion picture exhibition. Read the full essay, Writing the History of Latin American Women Working in the Silent Film Industry.

4. Editing was once considered women's work.

"In 1926, the Los Angeles Times informed readers that "one of the most important positions in the motion-picture industry is held almost entirely by women" whose job it was to assemble "thousands of feet of film so that it tells an interesting story in the most straightforward manner." Assembling reels and cutting negatives was tedious work that often fell to young working-class women. However, out of the ranks of these film joiners and negative cutters emerged a handful of women who would help to develop the editing techniques that would become the hallmark of Hollywood's visual style."

The WFPP lists female film editors from the silent-film era here. The list includes multi-hyphenates such as Dorothy Arzner, who was a director, editor, film cutter and screenwriter. In fact, most editors also had other jobs on a film as well. Read the full essay, Cutting Women: Margaret Booth and Hollywood's Pioneering Female Film Editors.

5. Women were film exhibitors.

"By operating traveling movie shows, managing nickelodeons and neighborhood theatres, playing musical accompaniments to films, selling tickets, and singing illustrated songs, thousands of pioneering women, long neglected in published histories, made vital contributions to the development of film exhibition throughout the silent film era. How did female exhibitors gain a foothold in the business in the first thirty years of film history, and why were all but the ubiquitous girl at the box office marginalized? Professionalization, at least in the US film industry, was a gendered process that negatively affected women, and eventually created a masculinized industry. Despite their eviction from picture palace management, women would nevertheless continue to work in all areas of theatres and would remain important as small town and rural exhibitors throughout Hollywood history." Read the full essay on Exhibiting Women: Gender, Showmanship and the Professionalization of Film Exhibition in the United States, 1900-1930.

This article is related to: Women Directors, Women's issues, Women, Women Film Pioneers Project, Silent film, African American