It is June 2022. I am sitting in the middle row of a plush theater on the campus of Columbia University in New York City, surrounded by curators, collectors, scholars, artists, and educators gathered from diverse corners of the world. It is the final day of archival screenings at Women and the Silent Screen XI (WSSXI), a biannual conference organized under the auspices of Women and Film History International. The pianist flexes his hands while our hosts—Janes Gaines and Hilary Hallett—introduce a three-hour program composed of partially extant martial-art, espionage, and adventure films featuring gutsy female protagonists from Denmark, China, France, and the United States. I glimpse a technician near the edge of the stage helping Chonghwa Chung, lead researcher from the Korean film archive, set up for his presentation to follow the program. In the aisle behind me voices murmur in conversation, something about “queer kisses” in early cinema, and I briefly wonder if the representative from Women Make Movies whom I met in the elevator moments ago has found a good seat.1 The chatter fades. The pianist strikes an opening chord. And the atmosphere thickens with what I might call a joyful gravitas, a shared understanding that silent-era film history is happening now, that every such conference and every such screening participates in the tangle of criteria, polemics, habits, and perspectives that inform decisions about what gets valued, whose names will circulate, and which surviving reels will be restored for public consumption today.
This issue of Feminist Media Histories is the first of two (the second will be published in summer 2023) motivated by conversations, presentations, and projects that circulated at WSSXI.2 While the entries in this issue do not form an organized exploration of any one theme or object, together they provide evidence, examples, and stimuli for thinking about the production of film history in the present moment. The implications of this phrase deserve momentary elaboration, especially since “producing” is a variation of “doing,” a verb first employed in 2011 by the Women’s Film and Television History Network UK/Ireland for their inaugural conference, “Doing Women’s Film History.” I heartily agree with filmmaker Sally Potter, who applauds those organizers for “the use of the verb ‘to do’—thinking, watching, writing, acting, and listening all being seen as actions.”3 At the same time, I lean into the verb, “to produce,” with the intent of redistributing weight from a mode of “doing” too often presumed to govern the historian’s task: that is, “to recover.” Insofar as recovery refers to the process of regaining an absent or stolen thing (such as one’s phone), or of returning to a normative state (such as one’s health), then recovery always implies the existence of an a priori stable entity or identifiable phenomenon. By contrast, the verb “to produce” means “to bring into being or existence” or “to give rise to, bring about, effect, cause, make (an action, condition).”4 History is not something out there, patiently waiting to be retrieved or found. History is something one makes.
The energetic production of feminist and queer film histories over the past three decades is nothing short of astounding. It would be impossible to summarize the entanglement of ideas, perspectives, writing styles, research tools, imaginative leaps, viewing habits, sensory responses, libidinal investments, and professional practices that have emerged since 1999, the year Annette Förster and Eva Warth invited a group of feminist scholars to a workshop in Utrecht on “Gender and Silent Cinema.” Drawing momentum from the Utrecht event, Shelley Stamp and Amelie Hastie organized an open-call conference on Women and the Silent Screen that convened in the United States at Santa Cruz in 2001, thus mobilizing an international community and series of biannual WSS events that have persisted to date, now spanning eight countries and another nine cities: Montreal, Canada (2004); Guadalajara, Mexico (2006); Stockholm, Sweden (2008); Bologna, Italy (2010); Melbourne, Australia (2013); Pittsburgh, USA (2015); Shanghai, People’s Republic of China (2017); Amsterdam, Netherlands (2019); and New York, USA (2022). Significantly, these events foster participation by regional scholars as well as postgraduate and early career scholars to encourage new lines of research, an ethos reflected in the Women Film Pioneers Project (WFPP), an open access, multiauthored database hosted by Columbia University that the curators describe on its home page as “a scholarly resource exploring women’s global involvement in all levels of film production during the silent film era.”5 First launched in 2013, the WFPP now boasts over 300 profiles on individual female “pioneers” while also publishing “overview essays” on topics such as “Writing the History of Latin American Women Working in the Silent Film Industry,” “African American Women in the Silent Film Industry,” “Women as Camera Operators or ‘Cranks,’” “Shaping the Craft of Screenwriting,” and “French Film Colorists,” to name but a few.
In recent years, the WFPP formed a partnership with a group of computer scientists and researchers at Philipps-Universität Marburg in Germany, led by Sarah-Mai Dang. As Dang explains in her contribution to this issue, “The Women Film Pioneers Explorer: What Data Visualizations Can Tell Us about Women in Film History,” the group in Germany designed a freely accessible website that “explores” and visualizes WFPP data in an array of patterns. Dang wisely cautions that the knowledge supplied by any database is never neutral. It is “situated knowledge,” contingent on the information supplied by a given group in a specific space and time, in this case editorial criteria established by curators of the WFPP. Moreover, those criteria continually change and expand. With this caveat in mind, data visualizations offer powerful tools. Timeline visualizations, for instance, reveal data on historical figures in chronological order, while mapping techniques organize information according to the women’s geographical locations. My favorite may be the “cluster” button, which generates a spiraling diagram of all WFPP entries based on employment categories. Here the user will encounter well-known occupations such as producer, director, and scriptwriter as well as jobs that reveal “a more complex, collective conception of film production” such as projectionist, educator, costume designer, treasurer, musician, theater owner, secretary, and cofounder of film societies, to name but a few. “The display of the many diverse professions,” Dang writes, “makes it clear that film is not just a work of art, but also the result of collaborative work.”
The collaborative nature of film production—indeed the plural thinking necessary for any creative or critical project—defines Karen Pearlman’s contribution to these pages, which also represents the first video essay published by Feminist Media Histories. Drawing from her experience as a film director, Pearlman questions the critical habit that attributes authorship of any given film to any one individual or director. The point is neither surprising nor new; a distrust in the romantic mythos of the solitary, sovereign film auteur has distinguished feminist thinking for some time.6 But such thinking has done little to alter historiographical practice in the broader field, or in syllabus construction and festival programming. In her video essay produced for this issue, “Distributed Authorship: An et al. Proposal of Creative Practice, Cognition, and Feminist Film Histories,” Pearlman thus calls for direct action. She urges critics to include the phrase, “et al.” immediately after a director’s name when citing or listing a film. This deceptively simple proposal is provocative, shrewd—and actionable. Readers not yet convinced should watch her video essay carefully while also attending to Pearlman’s written preface, which illuminates this thinking through a discussion of her award-winning film, I Want to Make a Film about Women (Pearlman, et al., 2020). This creative documentary focuses on three female soviet constructivist artists—Esfir’ Shub, Varvara Stepanova, and Lilya Brik—whose collegial collaborations may very well model the sort of “distributed cognition” and ensemble thinking that Pearlman conceives as ubiquitous to filmmaking.
Pearlman’s conviction that creative and cognitive agency is dispersed across a film set, and that filmmaking involves complex and intricately networked relays between multiple people, technologies, and environments, makes good sense. It also strikes me as an apt description for the entangled energies and ideas that produce feminist historical knowledge. As Jane M. Gaines and Monica Dall’Asta observe elsewhere, feminist historians work “in constellation” with one another, a phrase that refers to their friendship, which is also an intellectual collaboration and a shared historical commitment.7 I am cognizant, in turn, that the intimate and affective attachments I have formed over the past two decades with a community of feminist, queer, antiracist and decolonial historians at WSS events has been essential to my personal and professional well-being. It is never a single presentation, however stunning, nor a business meeting, group lunch, or archival screening that sparks the imagination. It is rather the affective atmosphere of the collective, the thoughtful disagreements, debates, and positive feedback that accumulate over several (very long) days. The value of such spaces for feminists and other radicals whose work is inspired by the politics of collective action and heterogeneous, non-normative forms of being and belonging is inestimable. It provides, among other things, a respite from neoliberal academic and capitalist cultures hostile to any social unit larger than the individual actor, a logic that encourages a sharp demarcation of self and other.
In bringing these authors and this issue together, it felt essential to tackle head-on the hyperindividualism of academic work, and to honor the spirit of WSS by soliciting two conversations. In the first, London-based writer and freelance curator Pamela Hutchinson chats with historian Julie K. Allen about her English-language translation of The Silent Muse, the memoir of legendary Danish actress, director, and producer Asta Nielsen first published in 1945/46 but unavailable to English-language speakers until May 2022 (released just in time for circulation at WSSXI). “It’s a great moment for Asta,” Allen exclaims in “How Asta Nielsen Transformed the Screen,” reflecting on recent retrospectives where queer and feminist audiences gather to celebrate “Die Asta’s” penchant for flouting gender conventions, her status as a modern icon, and her conviction that women should influence every element of film production.
In a second conversation, “Doing ‘Applied Film History,’” Amsterdam-based writer and educator Kate Saccone talks with Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi, the dynamic and much-loved silent film curator at Eye Filmmuseum in the Netherlands. The reader will sense in these pages the joy Rongen-Kaynakçi takes in her varied curatorial activities, whether researching little known actresses such as “Little Chrysia,” Rosa Porten, Ellen Richter, and Valeria Creti, or facilitating Eye’s recent reconstruction of Just Around the Corner (1921), a New York–based melodrama directed and written by Frances Marion that she presented at WSSXI. The reader will also learn that curators today use social media such as Facebook, or communication platforms such as WhatsApp, to quickly test an idea with colleagues or identify unlabeled reels. Robust search engines such as Lantern and access to digitized historical sources from multiple corners of the world are also changing the way things get done. “I am happy to say that with women and silent cinema,” Rongen-Kaynakçi observes, “we have finally come to a place where from now on it will be difficult to say, ‘Oh we know nothing about this person.’ From now on, it will be, ‘We have not researched her yet.’”
It may be that the multiplication of historical sources available in the digital age also multiplies the questions asked: what nodes of contact, energies, or inflections do historical documents reveal or share? What stories might these referents enable about the past, and which referents might be missing altogether? Above all, who is telling or producing a given history—and how, and when? The capacity to juggle these many questions defines the most dynamic feminist work produced today, including essays here by Christine Gledhill and Jennifer Lynn Peterson. In “Research without Films: Dinah Shurey’s Networks and Intertexts,” Gledhill stresses the importance of approaching history as an entanglement of people, places, climate, legal imperatives, and political calculations. Although ostensibly a project designed to recover the work of British director and producer Dinah Shurey, Gledhill succinctly proclaims: “The goal is less the restoration of a forgotten woman filmmaker than insight into the ecological dynamics of the past—the lived experience of a career struggle—filtered through cultural changes, social and media events, conflicting industrial interests, and political calculations.” In like manner, Peterson examines the convergence of women’s auxiliary clubs in the United States, the early twentieth-century conservation movement, legal debates over land management, settler colonial dynamics, machinations of the lumber industry, endangered Redwood trees, film celebrities, white supremacist politics, and the prevalence of a pseudoscientific discourse on eugenics. Circulating around a nontheatrical 1919 “women’s redwood film” that is no longer extant, Peterson’s essay, “Scenes of Destruction and Beauty: Sponsored Film, Women Reformers, and the Save-the-Redwoods League,” clarifies the potency of an intersectional approach to film history that is also a history of environmentalism’s gendered and racialized past.
Taken together, the conversations and contributions gathered in this issue produce new histories. They do so by generating an “archive of practices,” to borrow from Debashree Mukherjee, “that offers new imaginations and possibilities for future thought and practice.”8 I like this phrase. It gets at a fundamental directive of feminist media historiography: the ongoing production of pasts otherwise ignored, undone, dispersed, or rendered opaque enables an alternative stance toward the future, one that occasionally even feels like hope. It might be good to end this prefatory note there. But as I recall the thickening joy connecting conferencegoers that final day at WSSXI, I’m inclined to believe that we come together for other reasons. Perhaps we produce new histories not in the name of a future whose version of justice we cannot yet know, but as a sign of our commitment to withstanding the precarity of this particular present.
I am not certain if Kiki Loveday was in the aisle behind me (I had seen her earlier that day), but any discussion of “queer kisses” likely refers to her award-winning essay, “The Kiss: Forgetting Film History,” Feminist Media Histories 8, no. 3 (2022): 178–215.
A third special issue dedicated to work on East Asian film histories initially presented at WSSXI will appear in 2024 in the pages of the Journal of Chinese Cinemas. I encourage the reader to experience these volumes as part of a larger conversation, an ongoing exchange that echoes the cross-regional, transnational, multigenerational, and interdisciplinary coalitions integral to the Women Film History International collective (WFHI) that now organizes Women and the Silent Screen events.
See Sally Potter, Foreword to Doing Women’s Film History: Reframing Cinemas, Past and Future, ed. Christine Gledhill and Julia Knight (Champagne: University of Illinois Press, 2015), n.p. For a detailed overview of the UK/Ireland–based collective and their interrelationship with WSS, see Christine Gledhill, Rona Murray, and Emma Sandon, “Doing Women’s Film and Television History: The Women’s Film and Television History Network UK/Ireland,” Screen 60, no. 3 (2018): 483–491.
These definitions derive from the Oxford English Dictionary.
https://wfpp.columbia.edu, accessed February 15, 2023.
To cite but one example, consider Jane Gaines’s argument in “Of Cabbages and Authors,” published over twenty years ago, which expands the queer undermining of film authorship articulated by Richard Dyer: “If believing in authorship (in film) means believing that only one person makes a film, that that person is the director, that the film expresses his/her inner personality, that this can be understood apart from the industrial circumstances and semiotic codes within which it is made, then I have never believed in authorship.” See Jane Gaines, “Of Cabbages and Authors,” in A Feminist Reader in Early Cinema, ed. Jennifer M. Bean and Diane Negra (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), 88.
See Monica Dall’Asta and Jane M. Gaines, “Constellations: Past Meets Present in Feminist Film History,” Prologue to Doing Women’s Film History, 13–25.
I cannot recommend Mukherjee’s study highly enough. See Debashree Mukherjee, Bombay Hustle: Making Movies in a Colonial City (New York: University of Columbia Press, 2020), 37.