AFI Catalog Spotlight: “Behind the Veil” Research on Short Films and Diversity in Early Hollywood – American Film Institute

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AFI Catalog Spotlight: “Behind the Veil” Research on Short Films and Diversity in Early Hollywood

In honor of Women’s History Month, we are shining a spotlight on the work being done by the AFI Catalog researchers for “Behind the Veil,” AFI’s landmark initiative to study thousands of short films released in the silent and early sound eras and chronicle the groundbreaking work of female and BIPOC pioneers who were working mainly on short subjects in the early days of American filmmaking.

AFI’s research not only assists the Institute’s ongoing efforts to record the profound influence of women and people of color to the creation, distribution, and reception of American film, but balances an inclination in film scholarship that has long favored feature-length titles — a partiality that has limited historians’ efforts to study how people from diverse communities made films and how they saw themselves onscreen. AFI seeks to establish the foundation of a new canon that accurately represents filmmakers, actors, and audiences who have been marginalized to date, offering a look “behind the veil” of historical bias to reveal the true breadth of America’s cinematic legacy. Female film pioneer, Weber Lois is surrounded by a male crew on the set of one of her films. Bret Wood - Kino Lorber

“Behind the Veil,” which is titled after the lost 1914 short film directed by Lois Weber, was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2022, and since that time the AFI Catalog research team and its academic advisors have put together a list of 6,000 shorts from early cinema that showcase the work of traditionally underrepresented filmmakers, as well as significant performers who got their start in short productions.

Under the leadership of project director Sarah Blankfort Clothier, a team of three researchers and up to six graduate student interns per semester have been examining mainly contemporary sources including newspapers and trade magazines published at the time of production, searching for information about each film’s history, release and significance. This work has included several special projects, partnering with ProQuest and the University of Chicago’s Allyson Nadia Field, which gave AFI access to historical Black newspaper databases and allowed the Catalog team to enhance research for hundreds of African American films that had little or no coverage in the trades.

Sam and Lindy in A Fool and His Money (1912)Through expanding the research and documentation of short film creators, there will be more opportunities for discovering the work of storytellers who have been excluded from the historical canon and open new doors of possibility for a more accurate account of America’s cultural legacy. For example, Alice Guy Blaché is believed to be the first person to direct a narrative film. In 1910, she started her own American studio, Solax, where she directed 22 features, all of which are recorded in the AFI Catalog. However, Blaché’s filmography includes over 300 titles when accounting for her short films, and these pictures have now been added to the AFI Catalog database, including the groundbreaking extant 1912 short A FOOL AND HIS MONEY, which is considered to be the first narrative American picture with an all-Black cast. [i]

Other significant research includes the work of America’s inaugural Black filmmaker, William D. Foster. Foster established a studio in 1910 to produce short films that portrayed African Americans authentically, without racial stereotypes and blackface, but none of these important works were previously included in the AFI Catalog.[ii] Lois Weber, who became the highest paid director in Hollywood, male or female, wrote and directed over 40 features, but she got her start in short films, of which she directed nearly 100.[iii] Another example is director Ida May Park, who helmed 14 feature films but wrote over 20 shorts that were not formerly recorded in the database. The list is long of women and BIPOC storytellers who were working more abundantly behind the camera in the short film format, as features became increasingly difficult to finance with higher production costs and the advent of sound technology.Tsuru_Aoki_ Portrait in a newspaper, c. 1916

Data for performers also demonstrates the challenges in documenting the true scope of the actor’s influence when omitting short films. Early Hollywood’s biggest star, Mary Pickford, acted in over 80 shorts between 1911 and 1913. Bert Williams, the first Black celebrity of vaudeville whose recordings sold millions, wrote, directed, and starred in two 1916 short comedies. Japanese actress Tsuru Aoki worked on 20 short films between 1913 and 1915 with mainly Asian themes. These important works and so many more are now accurately recorded in the AFI Catalog.

In the Spring of 2025, when “Behind the Veil” concludes, the AFI Catalog will publish substantive documentation for over 6,000 short films, as well as roughly 45,000 additional records that account for the prevalence and continued relevance of short productions. In addition, the Catalog is collaborating with University of California, Santa Barbara professor Cynthia Felando and a curriculum specialist to create lesson plans for grades 9-12 about the history of short films and their continued significance today. The curriculum will be available for free to educators at AFI.com and at the NEH’s EDSITEment website, which hosts study guides and other scholarly resources for teachers.

By documenting early short films and those involved in their creation, the AFI Catalog continues its mission to expand the scope of scholarship, bring marginalized perspectives into view, and unearth the complex, multi-layered diversity within American film history.

Your support makes all this possible. This Women’s History Month, you have the power to champion women filmmakers and shine a proper light on underrepresented storytellers in our creative community. Make a tax-deductible gift to AFI today

Also this Women’s History Month, on March 27, Sarah Blankfort Clothier, Manager of the AFI Catalog and Project Director of “Behind the Veil,” will be moderating a panel discussion with Los Angeles-based feminist film historians Emily Carman, Sloan De Forest and Maya Montañez Smukler at the Ebell Theatre for the Ebell’s First Annual Women’s History Symposium. This free event, which is open to all who wish to attend, will focus on the female filmmakers who made such significant contributions to the establishment of Hollywood as an industry and as a city. Screening several silent short films directed by women well over 100 years ago that also feature Los Angeles locations, this panel will take audiences back to a time in which women were making tremendous advancements in new cinematic technologies. The conversation will also address questions regarding what happened to the female film pioneers, how women’s roles evolved in Hollywood, and how they worked throughout the 1970s and beyond. To learn more and RSVP for the event, please visit: https://ebellofla.org/event/ebell-institute-womens-history-symposium-03-27-24/.

[i] Sarah Gleeson-White, “The Astonishing and Multiple Achievements of Alice Guy-Blaché.” Los Angeles Review of Books, November 23, 2019.

[ii] Jane M. Gaines, Fire and Desire: Mixed Race Movies in the Silent Era (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 95.

[iii] Shelley Stamp, Lois Weber in Early Hollywood (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015), 337-352.

Watch Alice Guy Blaché’s A FOOL AND HIS MONEY:

Watch Mabel Normand’s short film MABEL AT THE WHEEL:

Watch Myrtle Gonzalez in the short film THE COURAGE OF THE COMMONPLACE:

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