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…

Friday, 4 March 2016

Out of the shade and into the limelight: Women Amateur Filmmakers in Britain


Joanna Fryer, Make-Up (1978)

As International Women’s Day approaches, the East Anglian Film Archive (EAFA), part of the University of East Anglia, has revealed over one hundred newly-digitised films by women amateur filmmakers. This fascinating collection offers unprecedented insights into the concerns and approaches of amateur female filmmakers working between the 1920s and late-1980s. These Institute of Amateur Cinematographers (IAC) award-winning films showcase an impressive variety of themes and topics, including observations of life in Britain (and abroad) and insights into the various social and cultural changes that took place over the period. These themes are explored through dramas, comedies, documentaries, animated films and travelogues.

The films also highlight the different ways in which women amateur filmmakers worked during the last century. Previously assumed to play a secondary or incidental role in amateur film productions, the research undertaken at EAFA during the cataloguing and digitisation of this collection demonstrates a more complex and varied range of production practices. These films were made by lone filmmakers, cine club teams, husband and wife partnerships, young women, students and children. For example, research carried out by Dr Francis Dyson into partnerships such as Stuart and Laurie Day revealed that women were key to such creative collaborations, while the all-female team of Sally Sallies Forth (Frances Lascot, 1928) arose out of cine-club interests. Indeed, the film is credited as the first amateur film produced wholly and exclusively by women.

Many of the women amateur filmmakers went on to make films professionally and the films featured in this collection offer a rare glimpse at the beginnings of the filmmaking styles they would go on to develop professionally. For example, Joanna Fryer’s film Make-Up (1978), produced when she was a student, demonstrates her skill for sketch animation which she would later use as an animator on The Snowman (1982). Meanwhile, animator Sheila Graber’s early films from the 1970s were screened at IAC festivals and seen by an agent, which led to her working on the Just So Stories (1979) and Paddington (1975-1986), and she continues to produce short films today.

The films also offer unique perspectives on significant historical and cultural moments, such as Eustace and Eunice Alliott’s travelogues, which were produced during their trips around Europe in the 1930s. The Alliott’s snapshots of their daily life on their travels are underscored by a sense of foreboding as they depict Europe on the brink of war. On the other hand, sometimes a film only becomes significant long after it was made, as is the case with Her Second Birthday (circa. 1934). The film captures a two-year-old girl playing in the garden and was not initially intended to be shown outside the family. This little girl grew up to be June Thorburn, the British actor who starred in films such as The Cruel Sea (1953) and Tom Thumb (1958), Thorburn was killed in an air crash in 1967, aged 36. 

These distinctive films shed light on the contribution women have made to amateur filmmaking in the twentieth century, and they are soon to take their place in the limelight as films are due to be
screened in selected cinemas across the UK from the 3rd of March 2016 to celebrate International Women’s Day. This will be followed in the coming weeks by special screenings and events to be announced. You can also find out more about the films via Twitter @EAFAAmateurFilm and Facebook.

The Women Amateur Filmmakers in Britain catalogue and a selection of the digitised films can be accessed here. For more information on the collection, or to arrange a screening, please contact Sarah Hill at the University of East Anglia.

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