Women were forerunners of the film industry. In honor of Women’s History Month, the AFI Catalog Spotlight is focused on Women They Talk About, an NEH-funded AFI initiative documenting the widely unrecorded contributions of female filmmakers in the silent film era and uncovering the true story of women’s pioneering role in the creation of American cinema.
Up until now, the narrative of film history has predominately chronicled the ground-breaking work of male filmmakers who portrayed society from the leading man’s perspective, and an assumption has largely remained unchallenged: Women were never widely included behind the camera. However, female filmmakers were prolific in the silent film era. They forged unchartered territory in the burgeoning industry and contributed to every aspect of production. For example, Alice Guy Blaché is believed to be the first person, male or female, to direct a narrative film. She started her own American studio in 1910 where she directed over 20 features, all of which are recorded in the AFI Catalog. Around the same time, Lois Weber became Universal Picture’s highest paid director in Hollywood, making films which explored women’s issues such as abortion, birth control and poverty. Other women who worked extensively behind the camera include Mary Pickford, Frances Marion, June Mathis and Alice B. Russell, to name a few, but the AFI Catalog also accounts for hundreds of women of whom little is known until now, by either the general public or film historians.
The AFI Catalog’s uniquely comprehensive and scholarly data on American film history provides an unprecedented opportunity to illuminate women’s contributions to the creation of cinema and to make fresh discoveries. With support from The Lovell Foundation and the NEH, the AFI Catalog is mining and augmenting its data to rectify widespread misconceptions about the origins of the industry and provide the groundwork for researchers and educators to tell an authentic story of women’s inclusion. Today, as news headlines share stories of discrimination in Hollywood and the industry takes decisive action to achieve greater gender parity, historians can trace the inequities back to the beginning of the film industry in which the accomplishments of women filmmakers have largely been overlooked or excluded from historical record. Now is the time for the female trailblazers of the silent film era, and those who followed in their forged paths, no longer remain silenced in the narrative of film history and to ensure they are, indeed, Women They Talk About.
Learn more about the AFI Catalog and explore the history of American film here.