Whether behind the scenes, on the scene or in the scene, women pioneers in film have been shaping the film industry since the beginning. Did you know? The first film editors (back in film cutting days) were often women. In honour of Women’s History Month, here are some of the (still largely) untold stories of women pioneers in film.
Even before women had the right to vote, Alice Guy-Blaché was directing films and blazing a trail. In her life and in her movies, she was expressing the female perspective, desires, drives and self-determination. From 1896 to 1906 Alice was likely the only woman film director in the world. She is now known as the “first female filmmaker in history” and in 1911, The Moving Picture News wrote that she was a “fine example of what a woman can do if given a square chance in life.”
Alice Guy-Blaché’s first film is thought to be “La Fée aux Choux” (“The Cabbage Fairy”) (1896). It’s a one-minute pantomime featuring a smiling young woman who plucks naked babies out of a cabbage patch. And it’s the first narrative film in history. Because the original film has been lost, some historians believe that Guy-Blaché’s first effort was in fact “Sage-Femme de Première Classe” (“First Class Midwife”) (1902). This was a remake about a young couple who go shopping for a baby and Guy-Blaché plays the husband.
In 1910, Alice formed the Solax Company and began making her own movies. She was so successful with that that in 1912, she built her own state-of-the-art studio in New Jersey. (She was the first female majority owner of a film studio!) There, she went on to create a prolific amount of films, including the feminist cowboy film “Two Little Rangers” featuring two gun-toting heroines. Although her lifetime success was perhaps short-lived by rapid changes in the movie industry at the time she started her studio, Guy-Blaché directed and produced over 1000 films, including 600 silent films and 150 short films with sound, as well as 22 feature-length films. One of the last films Alice made is “The Great Adventure”, also known as “Her Great Adventure” (1918).
Director Pamela B. Green created a tribute film about pioneer filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché: Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (2018).
Cléo de Verberena
Cléo de Verberena was the first woman to recognize herself and to be recognized as a film director in Brazil. She was the protagonist and director of the silent feature film: O Mistério do Dominó Preto “The Mystery of the Black Domino” (1931), which was based on the story of the same name by Aristides Rabello.
Agnès Varda’s pioneering work was central to the development of the French New Wave film movement in the 1950s and 60s (as the first person to reimagine film conventions, and the only woman director to be associated with this movement). She was a director and writer known for films such as Vagabond (1985), Faces, Places (2017) and Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962). Varda often blurred the boundaries of fiction and nonfiction, and defied gender norms.
In the article, Agnès Varda: The Filmmaker as Rigorous Friend, A.O. Scott writes:
“Women who make their mark behind the camera, as agents rather than objects of its gaze, tend to be seen as anomalies and alibis, special cases rather than central figures. Their existence can be cited as an exception to the sexism that ensures their scarcity, and the master narratives that treat their stories as more than footnotes or sidebars have yet to be written. Varda’s work might be the place to start. Not only because of her feminism — which was consistent and complicated, unmistakable and impossible to circumscribe — but also because of her individuality.”
Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Academy Award. She won Best Supporting Actress for her role as “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind (1939). The daughter of two former slaves, she gave a gracious speech about her win: “I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope that I shall always be a credit to my race and the motion picture industry.”
Safi Faye was the first Sub-Saharan African woman to direct a commercially distributed feature film, Kaddu Beykat (1975). In her work as a director and ethnologist, she has directed several documentary and fiction films focusing on rural life in Senegal.
Jane Campion is the first and only (as of yet) female filmmaker to receive the Palme d’Or, which she received for the acclaimed film The Piano (1993). She is the second of five women ever nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director. About rewatching her film The Piano, she has said: “I really felt excited by it. I thought, my God, this is a film told from a female point of view and nowadays that’s still so rare. Even when a story appears to be from a female point of view, it’s often an apology for it.” Campion has been and continues to be fearless about championing the unconventional in her work. Her latest movie, The Power of the Dog (2021) is now in post-production.
Kathleen Kennedy has been called the most powerful woman in Hollywood. After more than three decades producing some of the most well-loved and successful movies of our time, including E.T., Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List, George Lucas chose Kennedy to head Lucasfilm. Now, almost another decade later, she continues to pave the way for women and minorities in film. The most successful new Star Wars films have featured a female lead. And The Mandalorian features the incredible work of directors Deborah Chow and Bryce Dallas Howard, to name a few.
Perhaps best known as the creator, head writer, and star of Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge was also the showrunner and executive producer of the first series of Killing Eve (2018). If you haven’t seen the opening of Killing Eve, we highly recommend you have a gander. It’s such a brilliant, well-written scene, and not a word is exchanged. This is the work of Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Throughout her body of work, it is clear that she has focused on portraying strong women, the type of women who defy stereotypes and almost do and say the opposite of what you’d traditionally expect. Even so, Phoebe seems to have the exact recipe for writing an easily loveable character.
About the rage that motivates her, she says:
“But mainly I rage at myself for my own ability to let things slide because I’d rather be ‘nice’ than stand up for myself in an uncomfortable situation. My characters have streaks of fearlessness. I get a rush writing women who don’t care what you think. Probably to help me grow into being one.”
Here are a few more women in film to look up, read about and get inspired: Germaine Dulac, Chantal Akerman, Adélia Sampaio, Lucrecia Martel, Anna Muylaert, Greta Gerwig, Michaela Coel, Geena Davis, Petra Costa …
For more information and stories about Women Pioneers in Film, and to watch some films created by these pioneers, visit the Women Film Pioneers Project, or follow them on facebook here. Or check out Women and Hollywood – Educates, Advocates, and Agitates for Gender Diversity and Inclusion in Hollywood and the Global Film Industry. Other groups raising up, empowering and advocating for women in film are womeninfilm.org, and in Canada, womeninfilm.ca.