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Women Make Film (4)

Film still from THE SEALED SOIL. A young woman with long hair sits in a room with half-closed eyes.

Women make films. This should go without saying - but it doesn’t. Women have been behind the camera since the beginning of film history. But there is no question that in the 125-year history of film, access to filmmaking has been made difficult or even impossible for women, that they have not had the same opportunities as men, that the films they have made against the odds have rarely been included in the canon, that they have been overlooked, marginalized and forgotten, that their legacy has been neglected and that they have often been written out of film history. In a series extending over four months, we will present works by women directors from a wide range of countries and eras, that have not received enough attention and continue not to receive enough, in order to give them visibility.
A little-known fact of film history is that the first two decades of cinema there were more women active in the film industry than ever since. Back then, the new and as yet unrecognized form of art and expression offered both men and women an opportunity to experiment and try things out.
Once cinema had established itself as a serious career option and industry, women were pushed back particularly from the profession of directing, but also from screenwriting and producing. Their original contribution to film history was ignored and eventually forgotten. The few women directors who were able to hold their own, especially during the heyday of the studio systems, confirmed the rule as absolute exceptions. More and more, filmmaking became a matter for men. This is only changing slowly and makes a constant reassessment and rewriting of film history all the more necessary.
Our series was inspired by the 14-hour compilation WOMEN MAKE FILM (GB 2018) by film critic and director Mark Cousins. It consists of extracts from several hundred films by a total of 183 women directors: "This is a film school of sorts in which all the teachers are women: an academy of Venus.” (Tilda Swinton)
We have selected 13 of these female filmmakers for our program. We will show several films by them all and contextualize them with introductions, texts, and discussions. The resulting knowledge will be permanently available on our homepage and will provide an initial access.

A panel discussion with Borjana Gaković, Alexandra Schneider and Pary El-Qalqili on 4.12. explores the question of the visibility of women directors in cinema and in film history.

Yuliya Solntseva
Born in Moscow in 1901, Yuliya Soltnseva was one of the most important actresses of the Soviet cinema of the 1920s and played the title role in Yakov Protazanov’s Aelita (1924). In 1929, she met Oleksandr Dovzhenko, with whom she lived until his death in 1956. Her last role as an actress was in Dovzhenko’s 1930 film Zemlya; afterwards, she became his assistant and put herself entirely at the service of her famous husband. When Dovzhenko died, he left behind numerous uncompleted ideas and scripts, including the “Ukrainian Trilogy” that was eventually shot by Yuliya Solntseva.
For a long time, Solntseva was not considered even to have her own cinematic signature, with the films she made based on Dovzhenko’s scripts being regarded as his films instead, with her merely the one executing his artistic vision. She herself actively encouraged this point of view by declaring that she only became a director in order to realize Dovzhenko’s ideas in line with his spirit. Yet the exuberant images and experimental sound design of the “Ukrainian Trilogy” make her own artistic achievements impossible to ignore. Solntseva’s films followed the conventions of socialist realism, but she also employed a sort of melodramatic emphasis to carry these conventions into fantastical, dreamlike worlds where both logic and narrative rigor became suspended. Aside from their myriad references to reality, they function too as observations of the transience of life and the eternal cycles of nature, deeply rooted in Ukrainian culture and landscape. Forward and backward looking in equal measure, they celebrate technical progress as a utopia already realized while still retaining an element of melancholy about idylls lost forever.   

Olga Preobrazhenskaya
Olga Preobrazhenskaya (1881–1971) was already a well-known actress even before the 1917 revolution, working first in theater and from 1913 onwards in film. With her 1916 directorial debut, she became Russia’s first female filmmaker. After the October Revolution, she first taught for several years at the newly established VGIK film school—the world’s first—in Moscow before turning her attention back to directing from the mid-1920s. From 1927 onwards, she co-directed films with her former student Ivan Pravov, of which BABY RYAZANSKIE (USSR 1927) is the most well-known. She enjoyed her heyday during the silent era; although she shot several films with sound, she was not able to replicate her earlier successes. She made her last film in 1941.

Marva Nabili
Born in Tehran and now based in the US, Marva Nabili (*1941) only shot two films for cinema. Alongside Shahla Riahi in the 50s and poet and documentarian Forugh Farrokhzad in the 60s, the latter of whom died young, Nabili was one of the few women able to make films in pre-revolutionary Iran. Her first feature THE SEALED SOIL (1976), which deploys Brecht-inspired distancing effects to tell the story of the silent rebellion of a young woman, was self-produced and self-financed; she worked in television for several years to raise the necessary money to make it, where she shot documentary shorts and a series of children’s films. Although THE SEALED SOIL enjoyed success at several international festivals, the film was swiftly forgotten. Marva Nabili was only able to make one more film.
Both of these films are very seldom screened; THE SEALED SOIL showed at the Berlinale Forum in 1977 and there is a 16mm print of the film with German subtitles in the Arsenal collection that can barely be screened any more. The film is in the process of being digitized in the US.  

Astrid Henning-Jensen
Astrid Henning-Jensen (1914–2002) is regarded as one of Denmark’s most important female directors and the first to gain international acclaim. She began her career in the 30s as a theater actress before shifting her focus to film. Her oeuvre is closely linked to that of her husband Bjarne Henning-Jensen, who she met in theatre. They wrote scripts together, and she first worked as his assistant before starting to direct films herself. Over the course of her career, which stretched from the 40s to the 90s, she made short films, documentaries, features and children’s films—often involving her son—that remain classics of the genre to this day. In 1950, she went to Norway to direct two literary adaptations for Norsk Film. Women and children were normally at the heart of her films, and she adapted several novels by Danish author Tove Ditlevsen. In stylistic terms, she was committed to social realism, approaching her themes directly and with a keen focus without being overly political, and looked for a balance between the demanding and the accessible.

Sumitra Peries
Unlike most of the other South Asian female filmmakers of her time, Sumitra Peries didn’t find her way to film directing via acting, but rather started her film career as an assistant director and editor. Between 1978 and 2018, she shot ten films. Born close to the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo in 1935, she experienced the country’s independence from the British colonial forces as a teenager. In her early 20s, she spent a lengthy period in Europe, where she also studied at the London School of Film Technique (today’s London Film School). In Europe, she met her later husband Lester Peries, one of Sri Lanka’s most important filmmakers. Before they married, she worked on his films and later worked as an editor, before making made her debut feature GEHENU LAMAI (The Girls) in 1978.  
The essential themes of her films are already to be found in THE GIRLS: a focus on girls and young people, the patriarchal society that leaves little space for women, classism within society and the contrast between rich and poor. Her early films in particular are hard to get hold of and are often only available in poor quality prints. (Annette Lingg)

The program has been made possible by a grant from the Capital Cultural Fund.

Past screenings

Funded by:

  • Logo Minister of State for Culture and the Media