Jan 17, 2010

How many women filmmakers are represented on the National Film Registry?

When the Library of Congress named its annual 25 films to the National Film Registry for 2009, some of us noted that 5 of the titles were by women filmmakers. That's only 20%, but notably more than usual (e.g., zero in 2008).

But even advocates campaigning for more films by women on the Registry underestimated the number. While we could debate what screen credit one must have to be considered the maker of a film, for the moment let's use the conventional measure of director.

Of the 525 titles now on the National Film Registry, there are 31 directed or co-directed by women.

1. Matrimony's Speed Limit (1913) Alice Guy Blaché
2. Mabel’s Blunder (1914) Mabel Normand
3. The Curse of Quon Gwon (1916) Marion Wong
4. Where Are My Children? (1916) Lois Weber
5. Grass (1925) Merian C. Cooper, Ernest Schoedsack, Marguerite Harrison
6. The Forgotten Frontier (1930) Marvin Breckinridge
7. A Study in Reds (1932) Miriam Bennett
8. Trance and Dance in Bali (1936-39) Margaret Mead
9. Cologne: From the Diary of Ray and Esther (1939) Ray and Esther Dowidat
10. Commandment Keeper Church, Beaufort, SC (1940) Zora Neale Hurston
11. Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) Dorothy Arzner
12. Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid
13. In the Street (1948) Helen Levitt, James Agee, and Janice Loeb
14. The Hitch-Hiker (1953) Ida Lupino
15. Glimpse of the Garden (1957) Marie Menken
16. Little Fugitive (1953) Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin, and Ray Ashley 
17. The Cool World (1963) Shirley Clarke
18. Through Navajo Eyes (1966) Maxine & Mary Jane Tsosie, Susie Benally, Alta Kahn
19. Time for Burning (1966) Barbara Connell and Bill Jersey
20. Frank Film (1973) Caroline and Frank Mouris
21. Antonia: Portrait of a Woman (1974) Judy Collins and Jill Godmilow
22. The Buffalo Creek Flood (1975) Mimi Pickering
23. Quasi at the Quackadero (1975) Sally Cruikshank
24. Harlan County, USA (1976) Barbara Kopple
25. Powers of Ten (1978) Ray and Charles Eames
26. The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (1981) Connie Field
27. Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) Amy Heckerling
28. Drums of Winter (1988) Sarah Elder and Leonard Kamerling
29. Daughters of the Dust (1991) Julie Dash
30. The Red Book (1994) Janie Geiser
31. Scratch and Crow (1995) Helen Hill

Since some titles have more than one director, that's actually 36 female filmmakers.

Of the movies directed by men, there are no doubt some that arguably had women exerting an authorial influence over the production.  The group Women in Film and Television, for example, has been lobbying for films with influential women screenwriters. A good idea -- although I think campaigning for The Big House (the 1930 MGM prison film for which Frances Marion won an Academy Award as writer) is a bit odd. The redoubtable Frances Marion wrote 3 films already on the Registry: Mary Pickford's The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917), the Valentino picture Son of the Shiek (1926), and The Wind (1928, directed by Victor Seastrom and starring Lillian Gish).  Since she has over 150 screenwriting credits, my guess other Marion films will get Registered down the line.

There are many more films deserving of the designation "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." The more we learn about the neglected cinemas of all stripes, the more surprises we find. It's too simple to say that women were/are historically not empowered to direct Hollywood feature films. Certainly recent research in silent-era film history has uncovered far more work by women directors than our generation previously thought. Why, then, presume we won't discover even more from other periods, especially if we consider all films of significance and not just theatrical features?