By Dr Karen Pearlman
Film industries have poor records of treatment, opportunities, and recognition of women (see Loist & Verhoeven 2019). The Screen Australia media release on Gender Matters of 15/10/2020 states that “we aren’t seeing enough meaningful change in the sector”. It calls for “cultural change” to address the gender equity issues in the screen industries. Arguably, changing film culture begins with changing education in film history. It cannot be approached with the same individualistic, predominantly male-dominated conventions of teaching authorship that leave traces of women’s participation and influence “submerged, suppressed … missing” (Staiger 2013: 206). Given that film history “narratives function in support of existing power” (Dall’Asta & Gaines 2015: 13) new approaches are needed.
A significant impediment to taking a new approach in teaching film history is that little is written about the ways that women filmmakers have been influential on film form, and the ways their work informs film theory. For example, there are dozens of books in English on male filmmakers of the Soviet Montage period Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, but none to date on their colleague, teacher, and mentor, the highly innovative woman filmmaker, Esfir Shub. Consequently, Eisenstein and Vertov get taught in film schools, and Shub’s innovations are generally overlooked.
Wright (2009) proposes that correcting occlusion of women may be a matter of a “paradigm shift away from authorship and textual analysis and a move toward analysing industry practices and cultures of film and media production” (10). The short essay documentary that accompanies this article, After the Facts, makes that shift. By questioning the truisms of film history, it identifies a core problem for teaching: when we teach about historical innovation in form as though it is achieved by a single active protagonist, a “hero” on a “journey”, we are actively effacing the creative and intellectual participation of women and non-binary people.
After the Facts approaches this problem by drawing on my research into creative practice, distributed cognition, and feminist film histories. The distributed cognition (DCog) framework proposes that “thinking” doesn’t just happens in the brains of individuals, but arises through entangled engagements of brains, bodies, and world. So, creative ideas are generated through expert engagement of multiple agents with their context, their tools and each other (Pearlman 2018, Pearlman, Sutton, & MacKay 2018, Pearlman & Sutton 2021). They do not just “spring fully-striped from the head like tigers” (Allen 1995: 40).
This is a fairly disruptive premise for the teaching of film. It calls into question core understandings of authorship – understandings which dominate film pedagogy. However, while it suggests that no one on a filmmaking team is a sole creator, it also asserts that “it is not necessary to take anything away from recognition of directors as creative artists. Rather we can add a more informed, empirically demonstrable understanding of the generation of ideas in the distributed cognitive systems in which films are made.” (Pearlman & Sutton 2021)
After the Facts applies this premise to the history of editing. It begins with a slightly tongue in cheek recreation of the editing pattern commonly taught as having its basis in “The Kuleshov Experiments”. My recreation uses shots of Soviet documentary filmmaker Esfir Shub as seen in Man with a Movie Camera (Vertov et al. 1929). Shub’s expression in this footage is not neutral, as is claimed for the actors in the original Kuleshov experiment. Rather it is filled with wariness. After the Facts uses the constructive editing process with which Shub and all of her colleagues worked, and these wary shots of her, to imply that she herself may have been dubious about the “naming of something lots of women and editors were doing for one man who observed them doing it”.
Given what is known about Shub’s creative ideas and enactive innovations in filmmaking, justification could be made for claiming a “Shub Effect” in documentary editing, however After the Facts is not trying to simply replace the teaching of an individual hero with an individual heroine. Instead, it interrogates, and ultimately follows Shub’s own reflections on creative process and the work of women editors (Gadassik 2018.) It re-names “The Kuleshov Effect” “The Editor’s Effect”, and in doing so offers some “film facts” that I hope will be useful to an inclusive approach to teaching innovation in film history and encouraging innovation in film.
Watch After the Facts by Karen Pearlman:
Allen, Richard James. 1995. ‘Tigers.’ In The air dolphin brigade. Paper Bark Press in association with Tasdance
Dall’Asta, Monica, & Jane M Gaines. 2015. “Prologue: Constellations: Past Meets Present in Feminist Film History.” In Doing Women’s Film History, edited by Christine Gledhill, Julia Knight, Monica Dall’Asta, & Jane Gaines. U. of Illinois Press.
Gadassik, Alla. 2018. “Ėsfir’ Shub on Women in the Editing Room: ‘The Work of Montazhnitsy’ (1927).” Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures of Central and Eastern Europe 0 (6).
Loist, Skadi, & Deb Verhoeven. 2019. “Complex Not Complicated: Gendered Media Industries” Media Industries Journal 6 (1).
Pearlman, Karen. 2018. “Documentary Editing and Distributed Cognition.” In A Cognitive Approach to Documentary Film, edited by Catalin Brylla and Mette Kramer. Palgrave/MacMillan. 10.1007/978-3-319-90332-3_17
Pearlman, Karen, John MacKay, & John Sutton. 2018. “Creative Editing: Svilova and Vertov’s Distributed Cognition.” Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures of Central and Eastern Europe (6). 10.17892/app.2018.0006.122
Pearlman, Karen, and John Sutton. 2021. “Reframing the Director: Distributed Creativity in Film Making Practice.” In A Companion to Motion Pictures, edited by Mette Hjort and Ted Nannicelli. Wiley.
Screen Australia Media Centre. 2020. “SCREEN AUSTRALIA RELEASES GENDER MATTERS KPI UPDATE.”
Staiger, Janet. 2013. “‘Because I Am a Woman’ Film History: An International Journal 25 (1): 205–14.
Vertov, Dziga, Mikael Kaufman, and Elizaveta Svilova. 1929. Man with a Movie Camera. Soviet Union.
Wright, Julia. 2009. “Female Editors and Representation in the Film and Media Industry.” UCLA: Center for the Study of Women, 2.
After the Facts, and some of the thoughts in this short essay have been published in a special issue of [In]Transition edited by Dr Julia Vassilieva and on the Women Film Pioneers Project site: https://doi.org/10.7916/d8-tfhh-g977.
Dr Karen Pearlman is a senior lecturer in Screen Practice and Production at Macquarie University and the author of Cutting Rhythms (Focal Press, 2016). Her research into creative practice, distributed cognition, and feminist film histories has produced a number of published articles and chapters, and three award winning short films about Soviet women filmmakers in the 1920s and 30s. The third of this trilogy, I want to make a film about women (2020) was long-listed for an Oscar, short-listed for an AACTA, and has won three best directing awards (from the Australian Directors’ Guild, Women in Film and Television Australia, and Cinéfest Oz), along with 10 other nationally and internationally competitive awards.