A report on the 2023 International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) Symposium held in Mexico City. The symposium’s theme was “Women, Cinema, and Film Archives,” and the event included presentations by archivists, curators, and scholars on women’s leadership in international film archives, the history of women’s participation in FIAF, and current initiatives in feminist archiving and curation. Still, much work remains to be done. We must ask broader questions about how gender has informed collecting, curating, and cataloging practices; how gender shapes women’s ideas about their own labor; and how histories of cinema are transformed by including women’s work at all levels as filmmakers, film laborers, and film archivists.

“Nothing is done without us.” With these first words, Mariana Gándara, coordinator of the FIAF Scientific Committee, opened the 2023 International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) Symposium devoted to “Women, Cinema, and Film Archives.” This year’s theme elicited the greatest number of paper proposals of any topic in FIAF’s history, she told the audience, an index of the wealth of thinking already underway about women, cinema, and archives, as well as the enormity of work that lies ahead.

The symposium’s inaugural panel began with a stark statistic: only 1 percent of filmmakers whose work is collected in FIAF archives worldwide identify as women. Panelists agreed that women almost certainly participated in a much larger proportion of this work than has been officially documented—nothing gets done without us—but their presence and their creative labor has simply not been registered in archive catalogs. A host of unnamed and invisible women are “trapped in our databases,” panelists said, and need to be made more visible and accessible.

This grim reality becomes all the more poignant when we take stock of the instrumental role that women have historically played in film archiving, preservation, and curation—a rich legacy celebrated across the symposium. Iris Barry and Lotte Eisner were present at the dinner meeting when FIAF itself was first conceived in 1938. Elena Sánchez Valenzuela, whose image graced the cover of the symposium’s program, created Mexico’s Cineteca Nacionale. Presenters celebrated Lodoletta Lupo, the first female conservator of Italy’s Cineteca Nazionale, Marie Epstein’s work at the Cinématheque Française, and the many women who have headed the Cinemateca de Bogatá and Brasil’s Cinemateca do MAM over the years.

Despite the profound impact of women’s leadership curating key international film archives, the field of archiving remains male-dominated. Christophe Dupin and Barbara Robbrecht of the Belgian Film Archive presented a statistical analysis that revealed deep gender inequities in the very organization sponsoring the symposium: members who identify as women remain a clear minority in both FIAF membership and annual conference participants, including the 2023 symposium; only one fourth of honorary FIAF memberships have been awarded to women; FIAF has had a female president for only 20 percent of its history; and FIAF’s Journal of Film Preservation has had largely male editorial leadership while female authors are significantly outnumbered by their male counterparts.

How to curate a history that has not been seen or told? How to unearth those “trapped in databases”? What are the principles of feminist curation? One challenge, noted by film historian Chiara Tognolotti, involves chronicling the work of women who underplay their own contributions to film archiving and film history, such as Marie Epstein, who preferred to present herself as someone who supported exceptional men like her brother, filmmaker Jean Epstein, or Cinémathèque Française head Henri Langlois. Because Epstein trivialized her own role at the Cinémathèque, Tognolotti says, we must read between the lines to find evidence of her labor in the traces she left behind. Chronicling the extraordinary work done by pioneering Italian archivist Lodoletta Lupo, Valentina Rossetto, archivist at Rome’s Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, noted significant variance between evidence of Lupo’s accomplishments that can be found in official records and what former colleagues actually remembered about Lupo’s work—many recalled her much more active leadership at the Cineteca Nazionale than is reflected in archival documents. Oral history is thus a vital method of tracing women’s film work hidden from official view, as Gerdien Smit emphasized in her presentation on the long-standing Dutch feminist film collective, Cinemien. Reading against the grain of official records—or overly modest self-presentations—becomes an essential task for feminist historians.

Another challenge for contemporary curators and historians surrounds what materials actually get collected in archives—or not collected in archives—in the first place. Collections curated outside of accredited institutions, held in family homes and private residences, become especially significant when tracing feminist histories of cinema, for so many registers of women’s creative labor reside beyond formal archives and libraries. Many female filmmakers have had to operate outside of or parallel to institutional spaces, curating their own histories and legacies, as several conference presentations emphasized. Argentinian filmmaker María Luisa Bemberg compiled and maintained an extensive record of her career, then donated these materials shortly before her death in 1995. Taiwanese filmmaker Mimi Lee kept personal prints of each of her films, along with other records related to her career, then donated them to the Taiwan Film Institute. Material on South Korea’s first female filmmaker, Park Nam-ok, was held by family members in an unofficial archive. Records of the Uruguayan feminist film collective, Girasolas, are kept in the Berlin apartment of one of its former members living in exile. So much evidence of women’s work is “forgotten in private spaces,” as film historian Lorena Cervera Ferrer noted in her talk on Venezuelan feminist film collectives. Lebanese filmmaker Jocelyne Saab faced a different hurdle, according to historian Mathilde Rouxel, for she owned no digital copies of her films and had only poor-quality DVDs. Restoring and curating Saab’s body of work thus presented a significant challenge, as Rouxel outlines elsewhere in this issue.

An entire panel was devoted to Jenni Olson’s career as “filmmaker, collector, archivist,” featuring May Hong HaDuong and Todd Wiener of the UCLA Film Archive (which had originally acquired Olson’s collection), Haden Guest of the Harvard Film Archive (which later purchased Olson’s collection), and Sanchai Chotirosseranee of the Thai Film Archive (himself inspired by Olson’s collection). HaDuong cast Olson as an archivist without a degree or formal training, someone whose extensive library of LGBTQ-themed trailers, orphan films, and forgotten reels became an essential curated repository of queer culture and queer history.

Curators and historians must also consider all of the modes in which women work in and around movie culture: we must consider student films, as Elisa Joachim stressed, commissioned films, as Seraina Winzeler emphasized, and amateur films and home movies, as Sarah Arnold and Kassandra O’Connell demonstrated in their fascinating presentation on Irish amateur filmmaker Sister Maureen MacMahon. We must consider the labor of below-the-line movie workers like that of the Japanese hairdressers chronicled by Mika Tomita or the French lab workers profiled by Li-Chen Kuo. Akporherhe Justina Omojevwe, of the National Film Archive of Nigeria, reminded us that government-sponsored educational films also have much to tell us about female audiences.

Several presentations highlighted contemporary curatorial projects, illuminating novel means of retelling cinema’s histories in ways that showcase women’s work and feminist practices. Jessica Niebel noted that the Academy Museum’s upcoming exhibit on “Color in Motion” will include recognition of the work of early colorists Élisabeth and Berthe Thuillier, color consultant Natalie Kalmus, the women who staffed Disney’s “Ink and Paint” department, and the “leader ladies” used to set color timing on film prints. Sungji Oh, head of the Cinematheque at the Korean Film Archive, described her work curating an interactive exhibit on Korean female filmmakers. Chun-chi Wang of the Taiwan Film Archive presented that organization’s online exhibit created to honor filmmaker Mimi Lee.

The FIAF symposium offered abundant, joyous, and diverse evidence of the pivotal roles women have played in filmmaking, film archiving, film curating, and film history across varied global contexts and historical moments. It was fascinating to learn about so many filmmakers and filmmaking collectives. It was inspiring to be reminded that women have been instrumental figures in so many cinema archives worldwide, even FIAF itself. But with papers devoted largely to individual case studies—an Irish nun who made amateur movies, a feminist collective in Venezuela, a queer curator/collector—there was little sense of how these singular stories might disrupt or contest conventional histories of cinema, histories that all too often center male creative geniuses, as we know.

It is simply not enough to locate women in histories of cinema, to identify women working in archival spaces, or to unearth work by women held in archival collections. While every discovery is worthy of celebration, proclaiming, in effect, “I found a woman!” is only the first step in a disruptive feminist historical practice. Yes, we are there. We have been there all along. Hidden, perhaps, but there. We will always find women wherever we look, for as Mariana Gándara reminded us, “nothing is done without us.” But if we simply point out the women we find, if we simply present evidence of their achievements, we risk continuing to relegate women and women’s work to the margins of film history, as isolated iconoclasts set apart from the main historical narratives. The real task is to connect the women we find to larger histories, to curate feminist histories that reimagine not only cinema’s past, but the key role that gender has played in both cinema’s history and how that history gets told. We must ask broader questions about how gender has informed collecting, curating, and cataloging practices, how gender shapes women’s ideas about their own labor, how histories of cinema are transformed by including women’s work at all levels as filmmakers, film laborers, and film archivists. That essential work of feminist curation lies ahead.