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  • Writer's pictureCarrie Specht

"Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers" at the Egyptian

Co-presented by Kino Lorber and the Library of Congress, the American Cinematheque is presenting "Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers" July 27 through the 29 at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.

Not many people realize it, but in the early days of cinema, before and after the turn of the century, woman directors were not uncommon. It's true. Some even worked for major studios. And some went so far as to establish their own companies. Women were hugely influential in shaping the language of cinema, particularly as the industry moved from short films to features, and from silence into sound. In every genre (even westerns), the films of the early female filmmakers are visually compelling, full of feeling and even controversial. The American Cinematheque now presents these ambitious works from the golden age of women directors in a time that places an emphasis on what is lost by the lamentable marginalization of women within the film industry.

The first recorded female director, Alice Guy-Blaché was born in Paris and got her start working for the famed camera manufacturer, Gaumont. Being among the audience for the first known screening of Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory it is said she found the film "rather dull". Within a year, she was making her own movies. She didn't just record "happenings" as the Lumiere Brothers were known for doing, she used fictional narration and special effects, as well as some sort of rudimentary synchronized sound. Guy-Blaché was at the cutting edge of French cinema for nearly a decade before moving to America. There, she established The Solax Company, which quickly became the biggest studio on the East Coast, overshadowing Thomas Edison's own Black Maria.

Lois Weber (A former pianist and evangelist) may be even more revered as a pioneering female filmmakers. After the turn of the century Weber first became an actress because she was "convinced the theatrical profession needed a missionary" and went on the stage with a desire to convert her fellowman. She was hired at Gaumont’s U.S. branch during Guy-Blaché’s tenure. Weber rose from performer to writer, and then to director. With her husband as collaborator, they made films for a variety of studios. Weber’s work became famous for its willingness to tackle hot-button topics including religion (Hypocrites) and abortion (Where are My Children?).

There were other female filmmakers coming on the scene to explore social issues through film, including African-American Lita Lawrence and Dorothy Davenport. Although these directors were well-attuned to weighty topics (such as eugenics and white-slavery), they still placed an importance on entertainment. For example, some of the most exciting action of the silent era can be seen in the serials of Grace Cunard (The Purple Mask) and Helen Holmes (The Hazards of Helen).

"Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers" focuses on American films made between 1910 and 1929. This series is meant to illuminate a crucial chapter of our cultural history by displaying lost classics that have gone unseen for decades. Key features, shorts and other historically significant footage of the era have never looked better than in these restorations, newly transferred in HD or 2K from the original 35mm and 16mm elements, digitally remastered and paired with new musical scores. I encourage all to take advantage of this rare opportunity and see for themselves that great filmmaking does not rely on gender.

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