By Terisa Thurman
The NYWIFT Women’s Film Preservation Fund (WFPF) has preserved over 150 films by American women (or made in the U.S. by women from abroad) in which women have played key creative roles behind the camera. These include works by early feminists, women of color, social activists and artists, ranging from early film pioneers Lois Weber and Alice Guy Blachè; experimental filmmaker Maya Deren; and animator Mary Ellen Bute; to feature director Julie Dash; director and cinematographer Jessie Maple, documentarians Trinh T. Minh-ha and Barbara Kopple; and more.
To introduce the body of work we have preserved, we will post articles from time to time on selected titles in the collection introduced from the various points of view of WFPF members and others familiar with the its work.
We present this first installment in honor of Women’s History Month.
As an experimental filmmaker with a thirst for non-traditional film, Ina Archer has been drawn to preserving rare films with NYWIFT’s Women’s Preservation Fund for nearly 20 years. She became involved with WFPF in 1999, eventually becoming co-chair, a position that she held until last summer when she dedicated her time to pursue an advanced degree in film preservation.
Although Ina will soon move to D.C. to join the Smithsonian’s Museum of African American History and Culture as a media preservationist, she is still advocating for the WFPF’s collection to give context to lesser known but no less important bodies of work in order to attain what every film needs: an audience. “The films that need us are often smaller scale but those are the ones that really need protection. They show the history of women’s involvement in film,” she said of the works that the WFPF has preserved.
Below is Ina’s list of her top five essential titles from the WFPF collection.
THE “MOVIE QUEEN” FILMS (1939)
Boston-based itinerant filmmaker Margaret Cram (Margaret Cram Showalter) traveled to towns in New England making “Movie Queen” films. Local townspeople were cast in the films that document a movie queen on a return visit to her hometown as the whole town shows up to welcome her. The film then follows her visits to local stores whose owners invite her to admire their merchandise.
Some have speculated that merchants were asked to pay the filmmaker a small fee to be included in the film, possibly the first example of “product placement.” Cram’s movies all include a scene in which the movie queen is kidnapped (with the local dignitaries playing the roles of kidnappers) and then rescued by a handsome hero.
THE STUDENT NURSES (1970)
Filmmaker Stephanie Rothman was the first director to be contracted under Exploitation producer Roger Corman’s production company, New World Pictures, formed in 1970. Rothman was also the first of a small handful of women to work behind the camera for Corman.
This first production was Student Nurses, which Rothman also co-produced and co-wrote with her husband, Charles Swartz. Working under particular constraints of the Exploitation genre, Rothman found ways to address inequality through incorporating issues of immigration, poverty and reproductive rights into the story, making this work unique in the catalogue of American feminist film.
This hard-hitting, slice-of-life urban drama is widely cited as the first independent feature directed by an African-American woman in the post-civil rights era.
Shot on 16mm on the streets of Harlem, director Jessie Maple’s unflinching look at struggle and resilience in the inner city was made on a budget of just $12,000.
IMAGINATION (1948) and NEW SENSATIONS IN SOUND (1949)
Pioneering filmmaker Mary Ellen Bute influenced generations of film artists with her abstract animation in the 1930s and inventive electronic imagery in the 1950s. Imagination (produced by the Steve Allen Show), interprets a King Sisters song; and New Sensations in Sound was created for RCA Victor.
DIRTY GERTIE FROM HARLEM USA (1946)
Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A. features a woman of color in its lead role. The piece is considered a race film, which is a genre of low budget, independently produced films with all-black casts that were created solely for exhibition in racially segregated theaters. The film’s director, Spencer Williams, was best known for playing Andy in the Amos ‘n Andy television show and for the directing the 1941 film The Blood of Jesus. Williams was a pioneer African-American film producer and director. With his own film projector, Williams began traveling in the southern US, showing his films to audiences there.
Learn more about the Women’s Film Preservation Fund (WFPF).