Women in Film Throughout History – Past and Present

#30 | Women's Film History Making It: Women in Film

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March is Women’s History Month; a time spent celebrating the women of the past, and the ones who are paving the way in the present. In honour of WHM, we at Making It: Women In Film wanted to highlight some incredible women, their accomplishments and contributions, who have worked in the film industry throughout history, across the world.

Please note that we are not historians, and that this list is not complete; there are thousands of women across time and borders who have and are shaping the ways of cinema. This list also has a specific focus on women who direct, but women have worked across the many areas of filmmaking for decades. Use this as a starting point for a self-exploration of women’s contribution to motion pictures – and dig even deeper. Happy Women’s History Month.

Alice Guy-Blaché (1873-1968) was the first woman to ever direct a film, and between 1896 and 1906 she is thought to have been the only female filmmaker in the world. Alice was a pioneer within filmmaking and is widely considered the first to create narrative fiction in film with her short The Cabbage Fairy (1895).

Alice Guy-Blaché

In 1910, after having lived in the U.S. for a while, Solax Studios was founded by Alice, her husband Herbert, and George A. Magie. Before Hollywood became what we now know it as, Solax’ studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey was the centre of the film industry in America. As a pioneer within filmmaking, Alice was part of the first filmmakers who tried out different types of techniques like the split-screen, double exposure, editing, and the close-up shot. She was also one of the first to add colour to film by hand painting each frame, bringing out a tint on the otherwise black and white shades. Alice has a particular interest in adding sound to film, and some even say that she made the first music video ever in 1905 where she had singers lip-sync to music that had already been recorded!

As mentioned, she was the first to blend filmmaking and storytelling – at the beginning, film was mostly used as a way of capturing real life images, whereas Alice wanted to explore what she could express throughout it. She also explored social issues and highlighted women and girls. One of her movies, Two Little Rangers, is about two young cowgirls and also directed a comedy short called The Consequences of Feminism where gender roles are reversed. Alice featured women in ground breaking ways with depth and character that was often neglected by male directors at the time, where a woman’s role in film very much reflected her role in the patriarchal society.

After working under Leon Gaumont, an innovator and filmmaker, and leaving his company after ten years, Gaumont wrote a book about his company and removed all trace of Alice’s contributions and achievements. She is sadly still often excluded from film history today, despite the undeniable impact she had on the development of cinema as we know it today. She directed over 700 films in her lifetime.

Dorothy Arzner (1897-1979) was one of the first female film directors in America, as well as one of the first openly gay women in the film industry. She worked during the silent era – but was an essential part of the transition to sound and screen as she invented the boom mic by dangling a microphone from a fishing rod!

Dorothy Arzener

Throughout her career, Dorothy directed 16 feature films – which is one of the largest feature filmographies of any woman in Hollywood to date. She also taught at UCLA, where one of her students was Francis Ford Coppola – yes, the director of The Godfather. At an event in Marrakech, Coppola said, about women in history, “We have a history of women every bit as great as great men, and we know women can do anything a man can do – and will, as our species evolves. It takes time and we have seen it happen now. The women are doing dazzling work and when I started in film, there were no women film directors, so my daughter became one of the first, so I feel there is good progress.”

When it came to Dorothy, he had this to say: “She was a successful film director in the 1920s and 1930s; the only woman who was. She was a wonderful woman, and she was very encouraging to me. I think what meant so much, as I always had self-doubt, was that she would say: you are going to do fine. She was very famous. I just had the good luck that I was her student.” Read the full transcript on The Luxury Channel.

From being one of the few women telling stories about women at the time and being the first woman part of the Directors Guild of America, Dorothy’s legacy is vast and still influential.

Marion E. Wong (1895-1969) was a Chinese American director living in Oakland. At only 21 years old, she founded the Mandarin Film Company in 1916 where she created her first, and only, silent film called The Curse of Quon Gwon: When Far East Mingles With The West.

Marion E. Wong

At the time, Chinese and other Asian groups were only portrayed as caricatures and stereotypes in American cinema. But Marion wanted to show her culture authentically, and so while writing, directing, producing, casting, designing the costumes, and playing the villainess of the story, she with an all Chinese cast- mostly consisting of family members – shot her short film.

In an article by Persephone Magazine, it is stated that: “Marion convinced one of Chaplin’s cameramen to work on her project, which required financing by Marion’s uncle Ben Lim. Lim’s financing allowed Marion to form a production company, Mandarin Film Company of Oakland, and hire actors and production assistants. Marion’s decision to enlist a professional cameraman paid off; The Curse is unusually well-crafted for such a small, early production.”

But Marion was unable to get any distributors to buy her 35 minute long short due to its lack of the conventional racist stereotypes white audiences were used to, and she had to abandon her Hollywood dreams. Her uncle, Ben Lim, received no return or profit on his investment and was forced to declare bankruptcy. Marion went on to pursue her goal of becoming a performer of both pop music and traditional Chinese opera.

The Curse of Quon Gwon was found and restored half a decade ago and can now be seen on YouTube.

Is there any woman you would like to add to this list? Email us at makingitwomeninfilm@gmail.com or DM us on Instagram @MakingItWomenInFilm and we will be more than happy to add them!

Haifaa al-Mansour is Saudi Arabia’s first female director. Her 2012 movie Wadjda was the first full length movie ever shot in the country, and was directed from the back of a van with walkie talkies due to the systemically enforced sexism it was shot under, in which Haifaa couldn’t be seen giving orders to men on the street. Now, she can direct in the open. She is one of the most prominent and controversial directors in Saudi Arabia. (Watch Wadjda now on Netflix)

Kinuyo Tanaka was a Japanese actress and director working in Japan’s film industry between 1924-1976. Despite male resistance, she was able to direct because of her celebrity status. She has been credited on over 250 films, and for a long time was the only female director working in Japan.

Julie Dash on the set of "Daughters of the Dust"
Julie Dash

Alice O’Fredericks was a prolific Danish director working under the Golden Age of Cinema in Denmark. She has directed over 70 feature films, and have written over 30 film scripts.

Lois Weber was an American actress, screenwriter, director, and producer known for her socially and politically provocative films, of which she directed more than 200 hundred. She is often talked of as one of the very first auteurs and the most important woman in the American film industry.

Wanuri Kahiu is a Kenyan director, producer, and author. Her internationally renowned movie Rafiki, a love story between two Kenyan women, was banned in Kenya for its open and positive portrayal of lesbian love.

Mimí Derba

Mira Nair is a highly accomplished Indian-American filmmaker and the founder of the production company Mirabai Films, which focuses on films about Indian society and culture for international audiences. Her film Salaam Bombay! was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars in 1988 and was considered one of the best movies of the year

Janet Mock is a writer, producer, director, and television host. With her work on the show Pose, she is the first transgender woman of colour to both write and direct a television episode in history.

Lina Wertmüller became the first woman to be nominated for Best Director at the Oscars in 1976 for her movie Seven Beauties.

The Bodil Award

María Luisa Bemberg was one of the first women filmmakers of Argentina who focused her work on sparking conversations around feminism and gender.

Muriel Box is the most prolific female director in Britain and directed 12 feature films. Her screenplay for The Seventh Veil won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

Deepa Mehta is an Indian-Canadian filmmaker creating movies for change. She produced the film Heaven on Earth which has become a tool used by professionals to assist specifically immigrant women who are abused. Her movies pull the curtains away and dig into social issues in India to the point where there have been attacks at screenings and she has also been forced to stop production because of threats and extreme criticism.

Deepa Mehta

Dee Rees is an American writer-director with a focus on telling stories that explore blackness, sexuality, history, religion and society.

Rakhshan Banietemad, also known as “First Lady of Iranian Cinema” is an internationally and critically acclaimed writer-director analysing the cultural pressure faced by Iranian women. She directed her first film at 17, and since then has created a renowned legacy of movies.

Safi Faye

Ava DuVernay is one of the leading changemakers and trailblazers within women in the film industry. She is also the first black woman to direct a triple-digit budget film. She has also founded ARRAY Alliance, a database that makes it easy and accessible to hire diverse crews and creatives.

Mo Abudu is a Nigerian media mogul, philanthropist, and founder of EbonyLife TV network and the EbonyLife Films production company. According to Forbes, Mo is Africa’s Most Successful Woman.

Haifaa al-Mansour on set.
Haifaa al-Mansour

Ida Lupino was an English-American actress, singer, director and producer who worked as one of the most notable female filmmakers of 1950s Hollywood. Her 1953 movie The Hitch-Hiker was the first film noir directed by a woman.

Julie Dash made history in 1991 when her feature debut Daughters of the Dust became the first feature length movie directed by a black woman to have a wide theatrical release in the United States. The movie is highly critically acclaimed and considered one of the most significant and impactful movies of modern American cinema. Three decades later, and Julie is set to direct her sophomore feature – a biopic of author and activist, Angela Davis.

Yim Soon-Rye is a South Korean filmmaker and one of the leading female auteurs of the New Wave in Korean Cinema.

Yim Soon-Rye

Germaine Dulac was a French filmmaker during Avant Garde cinema of the 1920s and was the leader of the cineclub movement in France.

Mimi Derba was a Mexican screenwriter, actress, and the first female filmmaker in Mexico. She also founded Azteca Films – one of the very first Mexican production companies.

Anja Breien is one of the leading filmmakers in Norwegian cinema and has worked in the industry since 1967. Her work is centred around social issues and women’s rights.

Mira Nair

Bodil Ipsen is a Danish director, writer, and actress of the 40s and is considered to be one of the most influential stars of Danish cinema. The oldest Danish film award, the Bodil Awards, is named after her.

Elvira Notari was the first female film director in Italy and directed over 60 feature narrative films and over 100 documentaries.

Muriel Box

Cheryl Dunye is a Liberian-American filmmaker with a focus on gender, race, and sexuality. Her film The Watermelon Woman was the first feature film directed by an openly black lesbian, about black lesbians.

Kathryn Bigelow was the first, and to this day only, woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director for her film The Hurt Locker, which was also nominated for Best Picture.

Kathryn Bigelow

Nnegest Likke became the first black American woman to write, direct, and act in a feature length movie released by a major film studio with her 2006 movie, Phat Girlz.

Agnès Varda was a legendary Belgian-French filmmaker and artist. Through decades of work, experiments, and achievements, she is considered one of the very best directors of all time. She was also the first woman to receive an Academy Honorary Award.

Dee Rees

Rachel Morrison is a cinematographer and the only female cinematographer to ever be nominated for Best Cinematography by the Academy for her work on Dee Rees’ Mudbound.

Safi Faye is a Senegalese filmmaker and the first woman from sub-Saharan Africa to direct a widely distributed feature-length film. Her movies are focused on stories taking place in rural Senegal.

Chloé Zhao is a Chinese filmmaker mostly known for her indie film Nomadland, which she was nominated for Best Director by the Academy Awards – making her the first woman of colour to be nominated for that award. She is also directing Marvel’s Eternals, making her the first woman of colour to direct an MCU movie.

Written by Malin Evita

Evita is the co-host and producer of the podcast, Instagram curator, and a writer focused on script, cultural commentary, and film analysis. She is a Vocal grand prize winner and currently studies Professional Writing at college. Through storytelling, she aims to amplify empathy and human connectivity.

Website: malinevita.com | IG: @malinevita

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