Academic journal article Framework

On Frieda Klug, Pearl White, and Other Traveling Women Film Pioneers

Academic journal article Framework

On Frieda Klug, Pearl White, and Other Traveling Women Film Pioneers

Article excerpt

When I was invited to reflect on the significance of the now emerging category of "transnationalism"1 for the practice of women's film historiography, I found myself wondering: are the processes of transnational mobility and transcultural relations somehow specific to the experience of early women filmmakers? Is there any particular reason why feminist film history should pay special attention to those aspects and be actively involved in the process of a transnational reconfiguration of film studies?

I find the ambivalence of this question extremely stimulating. Obviously one cannot state that women working in the international silent film industries were more prone to travel for professional opportunities than their male colleagues. This would be clearly false, since we know how important international mobility was in the silent cinema professions on the whole, causing waves of migration from country to country, throughout Europe, and from Europe to the United States, as well as from other countries, including parts of Asia, Australia, and South America. Yet at the same time we all sense, as it were, that a transnational perspective is as urgent, and even as inescapable for women's film history, as ever. So how can we begin to make sense of this paradox?

A few characteristic feminist film history methods may be useful here. First, I would like to mention the deliberate biographical approach that the Women Film Pioneers Project has adopted since its inception.2 Of course, the international imbrication of industrial and economic practices is an obvious aspect of film history, one that could be analyzed even in a non-gendered context, as indeed it has been done repeatedly. And yet, to introduce women's biographies into the frame does not mean simply to add more or less significant details to an already established picture. Rather, it has the power to dramatically change the coordinates themselves and produce a discursive move from merely an "objective" level of economic or industrial history to a social history in which even subjective experiences can be comprehended, researched, and understood, to the extent that they are not exclusively subjective and are instead co-formed (to use Laura Doyle's phrase) within a wider context of social, as well as cultural and economic, interactions.3 Second, another crucial characteristic of feminist film historiography is the way in which it has chosen deliberately to focus not on "authors," the great masters of the cinematographic art and their masterpieces, but rather on more or less ordinary professional figures.4 Again, this is not a mere adjustment but a real paradigmatic change, resulting in a new attention to people considered to be in negligible, unimportant, and marginal roles and practices. In this, feminist film history aligns itself with the assumptions of the post-Brighton wave of historical research, although with a greater emphasis on the recovery of neglected biographies. In fact, even if it's not difficult to recognize the major role that such figures as the screenwriters, producers, film critics, distributors, and so on have played in the process of both cultural and industrial transnationalization, the room that canonical film history has allowed for their achievements is nonetheless very small. So it appears that (once more) feminist studies (here specified as feminist film historical studies) find itself positioned at a particularly advanced point in methodological terms, showing how the inclusion of such apparently unheroic professional figures can also be extremely valuable for non-exclusively women-oriented versions of cinema's histories.

Let's take the case of distribution. Though the international success attained by the Italian epic genre during the 1910s is a familiar topic in national film histories, until recently very few documents had been made available that could shed light on the (trans)cultural, industrial, and commercial roots of such phenomenon. …

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