Female eyes light up the screen

Alice Guy Blaché - Projections 13
August 20, 2004

"It has long been a source of wonder to me that many women have not seized upon the wonderful opportunities offered to them by the motion picture art... of all the arts there is probably none in which they can make such a splendid use of talents so much more natural to a woman than to a man and so necessary to its perfection..." (Alice Guy Blaché, 1914).

The first woman film-maker, indeed, the person who might well have been the first of either sex to elaborate on screen narrative, would have found it incredible that 90 years later women still form such a small proportion of film-makers. However, if she knew that of the 1,000-plus films she made barely 100 have survived, and that many are still credited to male directors, she might begin to appreciate that the odds that were stacked against her still pertain.

But Alice Guy Blaché was in the right place at the right time. Employed as a secretary at Gaumont in Paris in 1895, it was her temerity in going to her boss that gave her the opportunity that launched an amazing career: "Gathering my courage, I timidly proposed to Gaumont that I might write one or two little scenes and have a few friends perform in them. If the future development of motion pictures had been foreseen at this time, I should never have obtained his consent. My youth, my inexperience, my sex, all conspired against me. I did receive permission, however, on his express condition that this would not interfere with my secretarial duties."

Guy Blaché went on to write, produce and direct everything from one-shot scenes to feature-length melodramas - first in France and subsequently with her husband, Herbert Blache, in the US - where she established her own company and studios.

The first time I became aware of her true status was when I saw a documentary on her life and work made by the Canadian director Marquise Lepage in 1994. Alison McMahan has dedicated herself to researching and writing this biography of Guy Blache for ten years, and it is a significant contribution to the rebalancing of film history and to the debate about women in film-making.

In her introduction, McMahan reveals that she wanted to find a role model who would serve to support her desire to make films "using a feminist filmic language". She asks herself if female film-makers "removed from the economic and stylistic influences of Hollywood [would] necessarily come up with a cinematic language of their own? And if so, what would that language look like?"

Her findings, using Guy Blaché as her exemplar, are inconclusive. She makes a little too much of the significance of cross-dressing in Guy Blaché's films and, as a proper theorist, identifies the differences in "mode of address", which relate to a female point of view, but Guy Blaché does not appear to have elaborated a sufficiently different cinematic language in her films to stand as the feminist alternative to the dominant convention established by men.

It might be necessary to use film-makers of more recent vintage to provide the role model sought by women such as McMahan. Many women directors who are still active - for instance, Agnès Varda, Chantal Akerman, Claire Denis, Diane Kurys or Catherine Breillat - might serve, so might a considerable number of male directors whose sex did not prevent them from developing a "mode of address" that is hard to categorise in gender terms. Surely Bresson's Mouchette or Dreyer's Gertrud represent both content centred on a female perspective and a style that owes nothing to the conventions of mainstream cinema.

Women film-makers have often made significant use of approaches used by unconventional male directors. Chantal Akerman's Les Rendez-vous d'Anna , which turns Lumi re on his head from the first image, in which the train arrives from behind the camera, is in a style that owes as much to Bresson or indeed the writings of Andre Bazin as to any feminist treatise.

None of the above women is featured in the latest edition of Projections . The sexism of the industry is often implied, or even spoken of, as when Katia Lund, co-director of City of God , points out the difficulty of maintaining her credit when the film was publicised internationally. But in most cases the stories told - by actors, publicists, producers, lawyers, directors and programmers - are not concerned with describing the struggle to create a different kind of cinema. The impression is that succeeding on your own terms in a man's world is achievement enough, although I agree with Isabella Weibrecht when she emphasises the collaborative spirit embraced by women film-makers.

French cinema, which offers many examples of women film-makers, is represented only by Anna Karina and her memories of Godard and Pauline Kael on Renoir. The first is charming but anecdotal, and the second insightful; but Kael on women in cinema would have been more apposite.

Projections is never less than readable, and it would be wrong to expect an imposed coherence when this stimulating eclectic mix of film-makers, superbly edited by Weibrecht, is what we have come to expect. Yet encouraging a debate about what kind of cinema women admire or would like to make would have served a useful function in an age when control of distribution around the world is delivering a bland, homogenised product to most screens.

More than a century after Guy Blache began film-making we are still waiting for a sufficient critical mass of women in film to allow us to identify McMahan's desire for a style of cinema that women could make their own.

Roger Crittenden is director of the full-time programme at The National Film and Television School.

Alice Guy Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema

Author - Alison McMahan
Publisher - Continuum
Pages - 362
Price - £45.00 and £16.99
ISBN - 0 8264 5158 6 and 5157 8

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