Preserving the Cultural Legacy of Women in Film: A Conversation with Barbara Moss

By Terisa Thurman

In the early 1990’s, Barbara Moss, a documentary filmmaker, approached her colleagues on the NYWIFT Board of Directors to gain their support in saving films made by women  works often overlooked due to gender, class, race of the filmmaker and/or subject matter and point of view.

In the pitch that would lead to the establishment of NYWIFT’s Women’s Film Preservation Fund (WFPF) in 1995, Barbara wore white gloves and held up a 35 mm film canister. She opened it before the Board and pulled out a decrepit ribbon of film which then disintegrated before their eyes. “Ladies, this is what’s happening to our history,” she warned.

Since then the WFPF has gained the support of The Film Foundation, an endeavor founded by Martin Scorsese; The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences; and prestigious museums such as the Museum of Modern Art and The Whitney, to name a few. Supporters also include several of Hollywood’s elite who have thrust the WFPF’s mission onto the entertainment industry’s radar and helped it survive.

The following is an abridged conversation with Barbara Moss at her home in the Flatiron District.

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NYWIFT WFPF Founder Barbara Moss

How did you get the idea for the fund?

The inception for the preservation fund goes back to my days as a film student. I was in a film school (Boston University film program) and I sensed that there was a lot to be desired.

I remember near the end of the semester I raised my hand and asked the professor, “I’m a little disturbed that of all the directors that we have learned about, there’ve been only three women mentioned. Surely, there have to be more women that have import to us who want to pursue this industry.”

And the professor was really dismissive and saying, “Well you’ve learned about these three and…” you know. “But,” I said, “well, there has to be more.”

Anyway, move the clock ahead to when I’m a young filmmaker and my husband and I started researching our idea for a film. And it was the late seventies, early eighties and we were trying to raise money for a social historical documentary.

Why that’s important to the preservation fund is [that] it is the telling of the story of one of the most important American films that was banned in the United States…Salt of the Earth was banned in 1954 during the height of the McCarthy era the Blacklist.

We then made a film about that film, [A Crime to Fit the Punishment (1982)], and I got permission to use what’s called a lavender. In the 1950s a black and white internegative was called lavender because it looked a little purple. And they gave us permission to use, from the original negative, clips of that film.

 

I was standing in a lab, holding that negative and realizing, my God if I sneeze, I destroy history.

 

So that’s another stepping stone towards the Preservation Fund with a moment of epiphany as I was working my way through filmmaking and television and learning more about women filmmakers who I admired.

 

Then I started thinking, “who is saving these films?” So I did spend a year and a half of my own time calling up archivists, librarians, film scholars, all over this country. Then I started doing global research, internationally. And it dawned on me that nobody, no organization in the world was raising money to save films for women. Nobody.

 

How did you keep the momentum going?

 

I decided to reach out to some other women who could help our cause and one of them was Mary Lea Bandy who was the film curator at the Museum of Modern Art. And people said to me, “Oh you’ll never get to see her.”

 

She was absolutely the reason that I had the courage to believe in this. When I finally went to see her it was in her office at the Museum of Modern Art. She looked at me over her big glasses and said, “Barbara this is one of the most original, important ideas I’ve heard in a long time. Let’s do it!” …And I said, “Okay, we got to get an organization behind us. New York Women in Film and Television seems a natural fit.”

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Mary Lea Bandy in 2006 (© Paul Hawthorne / Getty Images)

What do you think is biggest accomplishment for the WFPF?

Hands down the biggest accomplishment: the women in 1994 saw the value of its inception. So the biggest accomplishment is creating its vision and setting a standard for a mission that no one else in the world had done.

I have to say [another] one of the things that the [WFPF] has done is that we’ve always been sensitive to representation of all voices…making sure early on that we started to honor diverse voices, women of color, women of all ages. I think we were leading fighting against ageism and honoring women who were older in the industry or certainly women of color. So I think we’ve been at the forefront not just [for] women but for women globally.

 

 

Is there any topic or subject matter from these older films that blew you away?

 

I got a call from a fabulous woman from the University of Mississippi and she said we have a collection from an amateur filmmaker that we think should be considered. And they sent me footage here, and I sat in this house looking at the silent films of sharecroppers in the 1930s. No soundtrack but the images were haunting. The faces, the moments, you could just feel it. And it turns out, after we preserved it, Marty Scorsese used it in one of his PBS specials on the history of the blues and jazz. So we have preserved footage that is now used in other filmmakers’ work.

 

And one of the first films that we did put money towards with the Library of Congress, that film still brings chills to me and it is a film by Lois Weber [Where Are My Children (1916)]. It is about birth control, abortion, eugenics. It was very controversial. I think it was banned in some states also. And that film always stood out as a shocker to me. Who knew?

 

Join NYWIFT’s Women’s Film Preservation Fund at the Museum of the Moving Image (MOMI) on Saturday, September 24th for Visions: TV Dramas by Maya Angelou and Momoko Iko. It is a screening of two short dramas by Angelou and Iko, The Tapestry and Circles, which originally aired as part of PBS’ pioneering Visions series (1976-1980) and were recently preserved by the WFPF. Tickets are available online at www.nywift.org.

 

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