Scholars & Feminists and Women & Film
by Dimitra Kessenides
Women and film. Someday it won't have to be a topic for hot debate and
special magazine covers. But for now, there is still the need to
discuss -- and Barnard College's 23rd annual "The Scholar and The
Feminist Conference" broached the issue from a number of
perspectives and angles, offering academics, critics, filmmakers,
students and all interested parties a forum for discussion.
For those in this year's 260-strong audience, there was plenty to
digest, from the history of feminist theory, to movies women love, to
making documentaries and low-budget films, to the highs and lows of
making films. Image Makers: Women and the Practice of Filmmaking"
capped off the day's events, with a panel of filmmakers, producers and
distributors, including Su Friedrich ("Rules of the Road," "Hide And
Seek"), Deborah Dickson ("Frances Steloff: Memoirs of a Bookseller" and
"Abortion: Desperate Choices"), Leslie Harris ("Just Another Girl on the
IRT"), Joan Micklin Silver ("Hester Street", "Crossing Delancey"), Linda
Yellen ("Chantilly Lace," "Playing For Time"), and Debra Zimmerman,
executive director of the New York based distributor Women Make Movies.
The more practical and useful information on the craft of making movies
emerged from this discussion, as the panelists touched on the high-
points and low-points of their experiences, where they see the most
opportunities for women, and how much they think about their audience
when making a film.
The afternoon was full of lively discussion among the panelists, and on
one basic point most concurred: despite the strides made by women, there
still is a way to go. Debra Zimmerman related statistics (released by
the Directors Guild of America) supporting the point -- in 1996, there
was a slight decrease in the number of hours worked by women in film
(also, she noted, women comprised only 9 percent of those working in
film-related areas in 1996, an increase of just 1 percent since 1990).
"From Hollywood to the indies, even in that world, the situation isn't
much better," Zimmerman lamented. "There were maybe two female directors
represented in the New York Film Festival [last fall], and maybe three
female directors of feature-length films in this year's New Directors
New Films series."
After a brief introduction by Barnard College President Judith Shapiro,
the morning plenary panel began: "Images: Representations of Women In
Film" presented four perspectives, two academic and two critical, on
women in front of the camera, and even ones behind the camera or in
front of the screen. On their own, each of the four offerings were
insightful, but the panelists comments rarely converged. The academic
perspectives proved somewhat too academic for this listener -- I found
myself wondering how the discussion at hand would effect female viewers
or how theories would impact on women filmmakers.
Patricia White of Swarthmore College peppered her discussion about the
forums available for women-centered movies (like the upcoming New York
Women's Film Festival) and pointed to works she believes will contribute
to the scholarship of women in film, notably Carine Adler's
soon-to-be-released "Under The Skin" -- "a harrowing film that I think
will be talked about," said White. "If we don't write about [feminist
film theory] as academics, the [issue] will just disappear," she
On to a less daunting discussion, New York Daily News film critic Jami
Bernard, with the slightest hint of sarcasm, described some of the men
that women have found irresistible in the movies: Rhett Butler - "a
gambler, sexually unfaithful, a drunk and a good-time Charlier;" Max
DeWinter - "a cold, aloof man who infantilizes women, turning on them
with rages; and Harry Tasker of "True Lies", who does all kinds of bad
things to the dull, homey wife played by Jamie Lee Curtis, only to
transform her in the end to a sexy, exciting, adventurous partner. The
rather depressing list of testosterone begs the question -- What does
this tell us about those making movies and what they think women want?
Lesbians in film was the topic at hand for Georgetown University's
Suzanna Danuta Walters, who touched on the ways lesbians have (or
haven't) been portrayed: a willful invisibility of lesbians, or the
often outlandish stereotypes, or coded depictions of lesbians in pre-gay
liberation cinema. There are more of the incidental lesbian characters
in movies today, Walters noted, like the Swoosie Kurtz-Kelly Preston
characters in "Citizen Ruth," or the lesbian daughter in "First Wives
Club." Kevin Smith's "Chasing Amy" and the neo-noir thriller "Bound"
didn't escape Walters examination, given the centrality of lesbianism to
the films. Both works point up the current "cinematic hipness" of
lesbianism, and both, Walters said, contribute to a "narrowing of
lesbian culture and politics." And both avoided the traditional endings
for lesbians (or gays) in film: the characters aren't killed off,
they're not rescued by men, they're not hyper- or desexualized, and
they're not redeemed by heterosexuality.
Afternoon break-out sessions included topics like The Making of
Documentaries, How To Make A Low-Budget Feature Film, Costuming And The
Construction of Gender In Film, and Women In Avant -Garde Film. I sat
in on the documentary film session, led by Deirdre Boyle of The New
School's graduate media studies program. Boyle's history of female
documentarians pointed up the historic place women hold in the medium,
from Esther Shov in the 1920's, to Lenny Riefenstahl's "Triumph Of The
Will" in the '30's, to Margaret Mead, Helen Levitt and Hope
Dryden. It was in the '70's that much of the ground-breaking work
emerged, noted Boyle, given the availability of less expensive
technologies and equipment -- the use of 16 mm and video took off in
this decade. And the social movements and issues involving and affecting
women resulted in an important body of work that examined women and
labor, family politics, and issues of health and sexuality. Documentary
filmmakers Martha Sandlin and Judith Helfand rounded out the session.
Both talked about their experiences making documentaries, and clips of
their work were screened (from Sandlin's "Indian Outlaws And Angie
Debow," one of PBS's American Experience episodes, and Helfands' "A
Healthy Baby Girl" which aired on PBS's POV series).
[Dimitra Kessenides is a freelance journalist and the coordinator of the
Thessaloniki USA 1998 festival of Greek and Balkan films, to be held the
first week of June in New York City.]