A general misapprehension of what filmmakers do and how films are made has obscured the creative and cognitive complexity of the work women have been doing in film for over one hundred years. Using clips from the multi-award-winning short documentary I Want to Make a Film about Women (Pearlman et al. 2020), the video essay Distributed Authorship: An et al. Proposal of Creative Practice, Cognition, and Feminist Film Histories argues that filmmaking is an instance of “distributed cognition” and offers a provocation about the mythologizing of film authors. It then proposes a small, very small, but significant, very significant, adjustment to the stories we tell about filmmakers. I call this adjustment “et al.” and suggest that these five characters and a space are shorthand for an urgently needed change to understandings of collaboration, creativity, and cognition.
A general misapprehension of what filmmakers do and how films are made has obscured the creative and cognitive complexity of the work women have been doing in film for over one hundred years. Using clips from the multi-award-winning short documentary I Want to Make a Film about Women (Pearlman et al. 2020), the video essay “Distributed Authorship: An et al. Proposal of Creative Practice, Cognition, and Feminist Film Histories” argues that filmmaking is an instance of “distributed cognition” and offers a provocation about the mythologizing of film authors.1 It then proposes a small, very small, but significant—very significant—adjustment to the stories we tell about filmmakers. I call this adjustment “et al.” and suggest that these five characters and a space are shorthand for an urgently needed change to understandings of collaboration, creativity, and cognition.
In this creator’s statement, I begin with a brief discussion of the distributed cognition and creative practice framework as an incursion into authorship studies. I then consider how I Want to Make a Film about Women uses the framework to revise historical assessments of its protagonist, filmmaker Ėsfir’ Shub (1894–1959).
Distributed Cognition and Creative Practice
Distributed cognition postulates that the work of the mind is not a solitary act. Rather, complex cognitive processes are, as cognitive philosopher John Sutton notes, distributed across brains, bodies, and “material, symbolic, technological, and cultural artifacts and objects as well as other people.”2 In other words, thinking, especially thinking creatively, is not the province of a lone genius, but is socially and technologically distributed among multiple agents. Filmmaking is a perfect example. It activates the expertise of multiple collaborators in “flexible, real-time engagements with the shifting, tricksy, physical and social environments.”3
It bears stressing that distributed cognition can augment the work of feminist film historians. It provides a way to notice and value the kinds of creative cognizing occurring in filmmaking practices that are rarely documented in writing. The framework offers a way to apprehend and acknowledge the vital actions of embodied, embedded, and enactive filmmaking processes, the “real features of film making practice that might otherwise remain invisible.”4
Creative documentary filmmaking can also “get at…what can neither be said in numbers nor disclosed in literal text.”5 It can visually and aurally reveal moments in motion that would evaporate when laboriously described with words on a page, or which would lose their context-dependent improvisational spark if introduced in a lab. When using creative documentary practice to study historical women filmmakers, I can speculate about their undocumented actions and make a grounded claim, for example, that women’s work as editors generated new ideas, even if we don’t know exactly who said what on the day, in the room. I assert this claim based on years of experience in editing. I know what happens in the room.6
Conversely, having worked as a director I also have accrued experience of the enactive cognizing and “participatory sense making” that directors do with other members of the crew—cinematographers and designers, for example.7 I cannot shoot or design, so I know just how much a director relies on the creative and intellectual engagement of people who can. Of this fundamental principle there can be no doubt: the thinking that shapes any film is distributed among multiple agents.
I Want to Make a Film about Women
I Want to Make a Film about Women is a short documentary about the work and creative context of Soviet filmmaker Ėsfir’ Shub (1894–1959). The title comes from an article written by Shub in 1933, who, after making many highly lauded and successful documentaries, was struggling to find work in the Stalin-controlled film industry. Shub was a pioneer in documentary remix filmmaking. She made the first documentary ever to have a synchronized sound interview. She invented the character-driven documentary as a form.8 However, perhaps because she was “actively rejecting the notion of the artist as Romantic, solitary genius," Shub was mostly left out of historical accounts of the Soviet montage era in favor of the men she mentored and taught.9
In line with Shub’s rejection of the notion of sole auteur, and the revisionist method of film historiography I am proposing, I Want to Make a Film about Women isn’t just about Shub. It is about a creative community of women. Here is the film’s logline:
I Want to Make a Film about Women is a queer, speculative, documentary love letter to Soviet constructivist women.
To unpack a few of the words in that one-line synopsis:
“Queer” refers to content (yes, there is a kiss, more on that later) but it also refers to form and function. Insofar as “queering” means disrupting normative systems, I am, in this film, queering documentary form and also queering film history.
“Speculative” when positioned next to “documentary” could be understood as queering documentary. It is a disruptive idea about a form that is generally assumed to record actualities rather than invent. However, a broader view of documentary allows for what documentary scholar Ilona Hongisto calls “strategies with which documentaries participate in reality as process.”10 The challenge I set myself was to “engage in a productive dialogue” with women who were known to have been present, and influential, but whose thoughts and interactions were not recorded.11 This speculative “dialogue” is grounded in the distributed cognition and creative practice framework described above, and in watching Shub’s films, reading everything I could find by or about Shub available in English, learning (some) Russian, and traveling to Moscow to spend time in archives as well as the film school where she taught, the cinema museum that largely ignores her, the architecture she might have navigated, and the traces of the culture in which she worked.
“Love letter.” As renowned feminist film historian Shelly Stamp reminds us, “We must acknowledge our libidinal investments…appreciate our emotional response as historians.”12 Mine are on the screen.
“Soviet constructivist women.” Constructivism was a flourishing and highly influential movement in art, design, film, literature, architecture, and thinking in the emergent Soviet Union from roughly 1915 to 1925. Three things about this movement energized the making of I Want to Make a Film about Women. First the aesthetic, which remains fresh and compelling to this day. Then the philosophy of “materialism and experimental cognition,” which understands materials and material culture to be part of mind, and cognition to be what leading constructivist artist Varvara Stepanova called “active thinking” with materials and the world.13 Finally, the women, who were present, creative, influential, and engaged with their male peers as equal progenitors of the movement but who are much less present in the histories.14
I Want to Make a Film about Women proceeds from the fact that three key women in the movement—Ėsfir’ Shub, Varvara Stepanova, and Lilya Brik—all knew each other and spent time in each other’s homes/workshops. The film speculates on what they said, did, and might have created had it not been for Stalin’s suppression. Links to this film, and to its companion films Woman with an Editing Bench and After the Facts, are included below.
How Shall I Do This?
I Want to Make a Film about Women and this video essay, “Distributed Authorship,” both start as a traditional documentary might—with historical footage, historically accurate reenactment, and quotations with citations (see figure 1).
However, I am mindful that “telling a story differently rather than telling a different story has become a primary goal in the field of feminist film historiography.”15 In the film, I therefore quickly switch to a “subjective, personal approach to the past including speculation and imagination—methods central to feminist historians who strongly oppose the concept of objective history.”16 I ask, in a voice-over: “How shall I do this?”
Once I slip into subjective mode, a tension emerges between the voice-over and the visible. Everything I say is factual. Everything visible is fictive. The rhythms of the juxtapositions have been designed to raise questions about what can be factually known and how we can include known unknowns in the telling of the story.
An example of something factually known: after the Russian revolution, when the state turned former aristocrats’ mansions into multifamily living spaces, it was not unusual to share a kitchen (see figure 2). It is also factually known that while Shub, Stepanova, and Brik did not actually share a kitchen, they all blurred the relationship between domestic space and professional space. Like everyone working in creative industries in the Soviet Union at the time, these women practiced ingenious methods of turning domestic tools into creative tools. These historical facts informed the construction of the set and the film’s story structure. Over five scenes (which we call “Reels”) the film gazes into a communal kitchen and watches creative women transform it into a workshop, then a stage set, then a dance film, all while juggling noisy men and the wolves of history.
Each Reel begins with a close-up of Shub that tilts down to see what work she is doing with her hands. In Reel One, she is using a device to peel potatoes (see figure 3). In Reel 2, she uses the same circular motion, and a similarly shaped device to rewind film (see figure 4). The motion and the shape of the objects create a direct comparison between domestic labor and filmmaking labor, implying they are both creative.
This comparison is playful, but my voice-over asserts facts. In Reel One I quote Svetlana Alexievich: “We lived in our kitchens. The whole country lived in their kitchens”17 (see figures 5 and 6). That is a fact. Alexievich did write that. But the facts are not always about the film’s subjects. Sometimes they are about me, my hopes, fears, desires, and questions about how I should tell this story. In Reel Two I say: “We know Shub had editing gear in her kitchen, so I’ve replaced the potato peeler. I’ve also gone ahead and replaced the washing basin with a photo developing basin. Everything happened in kitchens” (see figures 7 and 8).
Body to Body—Embodied Cognizing and a Kiss
While in Moscow I met a film historian and a curator who each asked me if Shub was gay. There was a disapproving tone in these older men’s voices, and it felt like they were looking for justification for why they had not given her attention. Some months later I was at a women’s film history conference and young women scholars asked me if Shub was gay. In their voices I heard hope, pride, a desire to claim and celebrate.
So, there is a kiss (see figures 9 and 10). Romantic and sensual, but also playful and, ultimately, casual. It just happens and goes unremarked by the characters. The voice-over refers obliquely to my experience with historians and scholars and queries not the kissing but the historiography, saying: “People often ask me if Shub was gay, but the question is kind of anachronistic, and I wonder: why is that what history wants to know?”
The kiss happens, but Shub doesn’t dwell on it and neither do I. Shub moves on to help Stepanova with her set design. I move on to think about how creativity emerges. As Stepanova and Shub huddle, intimately close, over their work (see figure 11), I elide the kiss with collegial collaboration and embodied cognition, saying: “These friends, they were physical with each other, but I think in a different way than we label it now. Maybe body to body was a way for them to communicate. Create.”
Through this elision I am asking you, the viewer, to do the work, to make the inferences. I am juxtaposing an image and an idea and asking you to make of it what you will. To play with it. To think it through. To do anything but ignore the possibilities. This is the historiographic method of I Want to Make a Film about Women, and of creative practice scholarship more broadly.
I don’t know what Shub and her colleagues would have made of I Want to Make a Film about Women. That is unknowable. I do know that Shub was not averse to using the affordances of cinema, especially editing, to revise history. Her most famous film, The Fall of the Roman Dynasty (1927), is a revisionist history that turns the home movies of the czar into agitprop for the revolution. As such, when I use editing to revise the history of cinema that has obscured her, I am enacting ideas I have accrued through my study of hers. I am also confident that Shub understood ideas generation as distributed. She does not use that exact word, but when, for example, she writes things like “the theme emerged out of the footage,” she is recognizing that the ideas do not spring fully formed from her head.18 Rather, together she and the filmed materials (and, implicitly, whoever filmed those materials) generate ideas.
Shub’s understanding of authorship is extended in this way. As Martin Stollery points out, “Her filmmaking career can be understood in terms of an attempt to formulate a new, less individualised approach to film production and her memoirs can be seen as applying a similar approach to the writing of film history.”19 My “et al.” proposal in the “Distributed Authorship” video essay aligns with this “less individualised” approach to production. However, it also aims to shift “less individualised” to a more central position in film history by changing how we think about the creative practice of making films. “By developing, embodying, enacting and observing creative processes of filmmaking, I am working on how we might understand and name this fluid, uncredited, creative and intellectual work.”20
The “et al.” system is not intended to diminish the work of directors. Rather, it aims to provide a more accurate understanding of how the director’s leadership, artistry, and individual abilities are entangled with those of the creative team. I do not, in the video essay, suggest how much credit any member of the team should receive. In my experience, there is-no single reliable answer to that question, and I think it is the wrong question in the first place. I am more interested in asking—and embodying—how creative ideas are generated in distributed cognitive systems. It is because of my embodied experience of making films that I can confidently say: “Authorship is not in a single head. It is led, in a film, by a director, who is the first author. The ‘et al.’ is fluid, wide ranging, responsive and vital.”21
I Want to Make a Film about Women is the third in a trilogy of films about Soviet women filmmakers.
Woman with an Editing Bench (2016), a biopic about Elizaveta Svilova, is distributed by Ronin Films and available on Kanopy and Vimeo-on-demand: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/womanwithaneditingbench.
After the Facts (2018), a short archival remix documentary, is a permanent resource on the Columbia University Women Film Pioneers Project database where it is available for free online: https://wfpp.columbia.edu/2020/03/16/after-the-facts/.
I want to make a film about women, a queer, speculative, documentary love-letter to Russian constructivist women is available here: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/afilmaboutwomen
My thanks to Jennifer M. Bean for her editorial insights, provocations, and expertise, and to all of the attendees and organizers of the Women in Silent Screen Conference at Columbia University, 2022, for their collegiality, energy, and creativity in approaching film histories.
This work was supported by Macquarie University under a Macquarie University Research Seeding Grant (2022) and Outside Studies Program (2023).
Karen Pearlman et al., I Want to Make a Film about Women, 2020. www.imdb.com/title/tt11044474/.
John Sutton, “Material Agency, Skills, and History: Distributed Cognition and the Archaeology of Memory,” in Material Agency: Towards a Non-Anthropocentric Approach, ed. C. Knappett and L. Malafouris (New York: Springer, 2008), 37–55.
John Sutton, “Batting, Habit, and Memory: The Embodied Mind and the Nature of Skill,” Sport in Society 10, no. 5 (2007): 763–86, at 778.
Karen Pearlman and John Sutton, “Reframing the Director: Distributed Creativity in Film Making Practice,” in A Companion to Motion Pictures and Public Value, ed. Mette Hjort and Ted Nannicelli (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2022), 93.
Elliot W. Eisner, “The New Frontier in Qualitative Research Methodology,” Qualitative Inquiry 3, no. 3 (1997): 259–73, at 264.
For more on what happens in the room, and the mind of an editor see Karen Pearlman, Cutting Rhythms: Intuitive Film Editing (Routledge) 2016; Karen Pearlman, “On Rhythm in Film Editing,” in The Palgrave Handbook of the Philosophy of Film and Motion Pictures, ed. Noël Carroll, Laura T. Di Summa, and Shawn Loht (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), 143–64; Karen Pearlman, John MacKay, and John Sutton, “Creative Editing: Svilova and Vertov’s Distributed Cognition,” Apparatus: Film, Media, and Digital Cultures of Central and Eastern Europe, no. 6 (August 10, 2018), www.apparatusjournal.net/index.php/apparatus/article/view/122/306; Karen Pearlman and Jane Gaines. “After the Facts—These Edits Are My Thoughts,” [In]Transition 6, no. 4 (2019): 1–7.
Hanne De Jaegher and Ezequiel Di Paolo, “Participatory Sense-Making: An Enactive Approach to Social Cognition,” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 6, no. 4 (December 2007): 485–507.
See Anastasia Kostina and Liubov Dyshluk, “Esfir Shub: Selected Writings,” Feminist Media Histories 2, no. 3 (2016): 11–28.
I borrow the quoted phrase from Martin Stollery, “Eisenstein, Shub, and The Gender of the Author as Producer,” Film History 14 (2002): 94. On the processes whereby Shub has been elided from canonical histories, see Lilya Kaganovsky, “Film Editing as Women’s Work: Ėsfir’ Shub, Elizaveta Svilova, and the Culture of Soviet Montage,” Apparatus: Film, Media, and Digital Cultures of Central and Eastern Europe, no. 6 (2018).
Ilona Hongisto, Soul of the Documentary (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2016), 94.
Hongisto, Soul of the Documentary, 94.
Shelley Stamp, “Feminist Media Historiography and the Work Ahead,” Screening the Past, 2015.
Varvara F. Stepanova, “The General Theory of Constructivism,” in The Future Is Our Only Goal, ed Aleksandr Lavrent’yev and Angela Völker (Munich: Prestel, 1991), 174.
Ekaterina Dyogot, “Creative Women, Creative Men, and Paradigms of Creativity: Why Have There Been Great Women Artists?” in Amazons of the Avant-Garde, ed. John E. Bowlt and Matthew Drutt (New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 1999), 107.
Sarah-Mai Dang, “Unknowable Facts and Digital Databases: Reflections on the Women Film Pioneers Project and Women in Film History,” Digital Humanities Quarterly 14, no. 4 (2020): 3.
Dang, “Unknowable Facts and Digital Databases,” 2.
Svetlana Aleksievich, Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets (New York: Random House, 2017).
As quoted in Kostina and Dyshluk, “Esfir Shub: Selected Writings,” 19.
Stollery, “Eisenstein, Shub, and the Gender of the Author as Producer,” 96.
Karen Pearlman, “Distributed Authorship: An ‘et al,’ Proposal of Creative Practice, Cognition, and Feminist Film Histories,” Feminist Media Histories 9, no. 2 (2023).
Pearlman, “Distributed Authorship.”