Welcome to Auteuse Theory

Welcome to Auteuse Theory. The purpose of this blog is to allow us to think about and write about a range of films made by women, from silent re-discoveries to the latest releases, from activist documentaries to mainstream Hollywood features, taking in examples from across the globe, whether famous or obscure. We have no desire to force ham-fisted links between very different films and very different filmmakers, to insist that they fit some pre-designated template of women’s cinema. Quite the opposite; we want to explore the diversity of forms taken by women’s filmmaking across different nations and eras. So why focus on women as a separate category at all? Why isolate their films from those of their male peers and think about them as some kind of exceptional or special case? Well, there’s still the matter of persistent inequality of opportunity within certain key authorial roles in the film industries. We all know the stats: even now, post-Bigelow Oscar win, women only constitute 10% of directors globally, and 15% of screenwriters. This is an improvement on previous years but it’s still (obviously!) a very minor proportion of the whole. As the British director Lynne Ramsay has commented, it’s ‘a bit like a country not being filmed – and that country not having a voice. It really does matter.’ And although we are very reluctant to make simple equations between the fact of there being a woman being at the helm of a film and that film offering a more complex picture of femininity (there have always been battalions of male directors who are very good at telling female-focussed stories), there is nonetheless plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that this is often true.

Our main subject is film but we will inevitably make forays into television and other media from time to time. We will be focussing predominantly on films directed by women, but we’re also interested in including films which demonstrate female authorship in other ways (writing, producing or performance). And we won’t be thinking about those films solely as women’s films. We don’t want to ghettoise them, so we’ll be connecting them to the time and place of their production, or their place within a genre or a movement, as much as we connect them to each other. There will be no rhyme or reason to the films that we discuss or the order in which they appear, instead we’ll be hoping for serendipitous connections, unexpected correspondences, sharp contrasts, strange juxtapositions; in other words, a blog that aims to be perpetually different and surprising. Most of the writing will be undertaken by the two main authors but interspersed with guest reviews from others who will each bring a fresh perspective.

And, finally, why the title Auteuse Theory? We were scouting around for a name that indicated a response to the old-fashioned auteur theory, and its insistence on ‘virility’ as a marker of directorial quality (all that Hawks and Ford worship). Women hadn’t only been marginalised in the making of films but the select few who had managed to break through were often given short shrift in the founding critical histories of film (with the exception of the highly problematic case of Leni Riefenstahl), until feminist scholars put Arzner, Weber, Guy-Blache, Lupino and Varda back into the picture. And this work of excavation and rediscovery continues – see the Women Film Pioneers and Women and Silent British Cinema websites for ongoing examples. We are aware of the problems of using the French feminised form of a professional name, drawing a gendered distinction between male and female practitioners (just as some publications reject the word actress in favour of actor for both men and women), but in the spirit of subversion, we wanted to occupy and feminise a word - auteur - which still sits at the heart of so much film scholarship and film appreciation. And although the blog is called Auteuse Theory, it might be more appropriate to think in terms of 'theories', the more intellectually generous plural form. These are some theories and thoughts and ideas arising from watching these films made by women. We hope you enjoy reading them…

Thursday, 3 May 2012

To be a Woman (Jill Craigie, 1951)


One of the most interesting of filmmakers to emerge from Britain’s rich tradition of documentary, Jill Craigie, is also someone whose work is hard to see. Therefore it’s great news that her 18 minute film To be a Woman (1951) is now available on the BFI’s excellent collection of postwar British documentary, Shadows of Progress. Here’s hoping that her other films Out of Chaos (1944), The Way We Live (1946), Children of the Ruins (1948) and Blue Scar (1949) also enjoy release soon - some way, somehow. To be a Woman was co-sponsored by the National Union of Women Teachers and the Equal Pay Campaign Committee, and it makes a watertight case for equal pay legislation, addressing all the usual objections to its implementation. A man who may have a family to support should be paid more than a spinster? Well in that case, why shouldn’t bachelors and spinsters be paid exactly the same then? Why should sex be the differential factor? And what about the fact that many spinsters have dependents such as parents and more than half of male workers have no dependents at all? The documentary’s core point is that under the existing system ‘women are cheap labour’, and that this has deleterious side-effects for both male and female employment, not to mention being fundamentally unfair; as Labour politician Ian Mikardo points out in the film, ‘the same job done in the same way’ merits the ‘same rate of pay’ (it’s depressing to note that equal pay legislation was not brought into force in British law until 1975, and there still exists a significant pay gap between the sexes).
One of the glories of the film is Wendy Hiller’s wonderfully astringent voice-over narration, coldly furious in places, wittily sarcastic in others (C. E. M. Joad’s reactionary views on women are introduced as evidence that even misogynists can be ‘quite lucid’ on occasion), and never less than engaging. Elizabeth Lutyens’ timpani-dominated music for the film is aurally striking and strikes quite an ominous note, and the composer also makes an appearance in the film as one of a number of notable female professionals in areas ranging from trade unionism to engineering to the arts. Arguing for the necessity of equal pay for men and women is the immediate remit of To be a Woman – and it does this forcefully and eloquently - but the film goes beyond that single issue into a broader question: ‘What does it mean in 20th century Britain to be a woman?’ What is the difference between the life of an everywoman in Victorian Britain and an everywoman in 1951? Library pictures of Suffragette marchers embedded in the film act as a salutary history lesson, and a reminder that rights are rarely freely given; they have to be fought for. Otherwise even legitimate demands will be indefinitely postponed: as Hiller’s voiceover states, ‘Now never is the time.’

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