Feb 10, 2010

Amateur film shot at the Ginling College for Women in China (1930)

As part of a panel on women amateur filmmakers of the 1930s, Melissa Dollman, archivist at the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, will be showing and discussing amateur films shot by an American couple working in China as educators and Christian missionaries.

Below are excerpts from her proposal to present the films at the upcoming Orphan Film Symposium.  

Three reels of silent 16mm film were given to the Schlesinger Library by the Thomson family in 1981.
Lengths: 446', approx. 200', and approx. 300'.
Condition: When inspected at the Harvard Film Archive, no work was needed. No vinegar; good splices. No header/leader. No edge code.
Years shot: R1, 1930-31; R2, 1931; and R3, 1937-38.

Margaret Cook married James Claude Thomson, a chemist and nutrition expert in 1917. That year they departed the United States for the University of Nanking, where he taught, and remained there until the communist takeover of China in 1949. During the Japanese war the university was moved to Chengtu on the Tibetan border. Margaret Cook Thomson was a teacher and missionary for the United Presbyterian Church.

James and Margaret Cook Thomson's home movies depict children's birthday parties, snowball fights, and excursions, most of them shot in the households of fellow white, upper middle-class families -- except these activities take place in a suburban Chinese neighborhood.  In between shots of the Thomson kids at play, we also see local Chinese farmers setting out in the mornings with their wheel barrels down country roads, local Chinese children, a market square, and other scenes of daily life.

We also view moments at the children's Quaker kindergarten.  We don't, however, find in these films much intermingling of the cultures, save for the Thomson family's (beloved) Chinese governess.  

There is also footage of writer Pearl Buck, who was a family friend.

The Thomson children's oral history also details how their parents' positions as visiting foreign professors forced them to flee Nanking for a time during the massacre of 1937, a period captured on film as a pleasure trip to the Great Wall and religious sites.

I will focus on the roll of film shot at the
Ginling College for Women.  As the intertitles (not done for the other two films) state, the footage contains shots featuring 

   "Ginling students heading out for church," 
   "Scenes from the Outdoor Spring Field Meet," 
   "Winter Indoor Gymnastic Work," 
   "Smith-Ginling meeting at Ginling," 
   "Ginling Faculty," and 
   "Smith Building in the Spring," among others.  

The "Smith-Ginling" intertitle refers to the collaboration between Smith College (Margaret Thomson's alma mater) and Ginling.  These scenes illustrate, among other things, international collaborations between women's colleges, the work of American Christian missionary women, and how the Ginling school at one point made history for horrific reasons during the Nanking massacre.


More reports on the other panelists and pioneering women filmmakers in this space soon. But there's nothing like seeing the films projected.

Dan Streible