The St. James Women Filmmakers Encyclopedia: Women on the Other Side of the Camera

edited by Amy L. Unterburger

Published by Visible Ink Press

568 pages, 1999 

Buy it online






Reel Women

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards


On a first pass, it doesn't seem like a book about women filmmakers could be a very substantial volume. In fact, all but the most avid students of film would likely have a hard time naming even a fistful of women on the working side of the camera. According to the very substantial The St. James Women Filmmakers Encyclopedia there's a good reason for this.

In her foreword to the book, Gwendolyn Audrey Foster -- who is the author of Women Film Directors: An International Bio-Critical Dictionary and Women Filmmakers of the African and Asian Diaspora -- says that women were largely written out of the history of film.

Unfortunately, when the first surveys of film history were written, and when the first pantheons of directors and major players were drawn up, most of the accomplishments of women directors, producers, and scenarists were overlooked. Even feminists tended to believe that there simply were no women involved in the production end of early films; women were viewed as objects of a voyeuristic "male gaze," in films that were supposedly all directed and created by men.

It is laudable, then, that editor Amy L. Unterburger has managed to put together an impressively hefty tome. There are over 200 women filmmakers represented in Women Filmmakers . A list that includes directors, producers, animators, art directors, editors, writers and costume designers.

Listed in alphabetical order in true encycolpedic format, Women Filmmakers includes basic biographical information for each woman listed, ending with her contact address in the case of those still living and date, place and cause of death for those no longer with us. This biographical information is followed by a brief essay. Each essay was written by one of 78 contributors: many of these as illustrious in their own fields as the women they have written about.

The resulting book is a delight for the film student, the armchair expert and even for women who enjoy finding role models in their gender. Just grazing through the pages is an enlightening adventure. It's interesting, for instance, to read about Alice Guy, the French writer and director who was perhaps the first woman filmmaker. Born in 1873, she is thought to have been the first person to make a fictional film.

Included also are many women filmmakers who are better known for their roles in front of the camera. Liv Ullmann, for instance, whose five listed directorial projects include a film that will be released in 2000: Trolosa . And Ida Lupino, who is certainly most popularly remembered as a star of Hollywood's golden age, but whose work as a director -- in film and later in television -- would perhaps leave a more lasting mark.

A smattering of photos illustrate the pages of Women Filmmakers and these -- collected from a wide variety of sources and none created for this work -- are riveting. It is somehow heartening to scan these faces to look for the things that bind these women of many times and many countries together. The connection is not immediately apparent, but it's there. From the confident sophistication of Virginia Van Upp (Gilda, 1946; The Lady from Shanghai , 1948; Affair in Trinidad , 1952) leaning comfortably on a director's chair next to a camera; or the nonchalant and happy stance of Elaine May (A New Leaf , 1971; Ishtar , 1987); to the gamin grin of Penny Marshall (Big 1988; A League of Their Own 1992) the photos in Women Filmmakers all show women looking confident and comfortable in their roles, unfazed by the fact that they have been pioneers; unaware that their work and their faces will be scrutinized by future filmmakers for the secrets of their magic.

Though Women Filmmakers is thorough and delightful, it is not without flaws. Even the subtitle -- Women on the Other Side of the Camera -- troubles me. What other side? This phrasing assumes that a woman's "place" would normally be on the non-production side, yet the book itself puts a lie to this concept.

Some of the essays are disturbing, as well. For instance, film critic and commentator Rob Edelman's otherwise very succinct look at actress and director Diane Keaton includes a reference to Keaton's 1987 documentary Heaven . Edelman writes:

Keaton loaded the film with interviews, plus sequences from films and television shows that visualize heavenly existence. Her old friend Woody Allen might have suggested she pose one of the film's more intriguing questions: Does sex exist in heaven?

Of course, since this is a supposition, there's a very real possibility that Allen did not make this proposal at all and that Keaton might (gasp!) have actually come up with the idea on her own.

Fortunately, the flaws in Women Filmmakers are far fewer than the really thorough looks at these interesting women, many of whom have made their marks on both sides of the camera. | August 1999


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, is published by St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books.