The case study describes the learning materials and pedagogical approach of a film history course for undergraduate students. The outline of a seminar session on classical Hollywood cinema shows how to build on insights from feminist film historians in classroom discussions. The models and methods of feminist film historiography can expand our understanding of moviemaking by acknowledging the significant role of women in the aesthetic and social histories of cinema.
For a long time, “The History of Film” has been mainly constructed on the basis of North American and European male directors’ works and certain male-dominated film movements (e.g., New Hollywood in the United States, the Nouvelle Vague in France or Cinema Novo in Brazil). Seminal texts on film history from the late 1950s onwards have often dismissed the substantial artistic and managerial work of women in film production. From well-known film history books we might learn about Lotte Reiniger, Germaine Dulac, Esfir Shub, Wanda Jakubowska, Leni Riefenstahl, Ida Lupino, Dorothy Arzner, Maya Deren, Agnès Varda and some female actors. However, time and again, these women are often featured as merely a minor supplement to several hundred male directors, screenwriters, producers and directors of photography who, in contrast, are presented as the driving forces behind technological, stylistic and narrative innovations in the history of film.
Study programs in film and media play a crucial role in constructing and handing down ideas of what constitutes film history. So, how can a curriculum for future filmmakers acknowledge the legacy of women’s cinematic visions? How can we as lecturers spark students’ curiosity about women’s creative work in film production? And how can discussions on film history make us aware of gendered stereotypes of professions that may prevent us from recognizing the individual skills of our colleagues in joint projects?
In a nutshell, film historiographic research has revealed that “women were never absent from film history; they often simply weren’t documented as part of it” (Hill 2016: 5). Thus, engaging critically with the history of unjust gender politics in film production can help us to better understand the present and to imagine new modes of collaboration between people of all gender identities.
At ifs internationale filmschule köln, the curriculum for the BA Film study program covers the fields of film analysis, film history and film theory. All students attend these classes regardless of their respective area of specialisation (e.g., screenwriting, production design, cinematography, editing, directing, animation). According to the curriculum, students have an introductory class on film analysis in their first semester, followed by a class on the first fifty years of film history in their second semester. Thus, students have become familiar with the vocabulary necessary for analyzing films and can assess the filmmakers’ creative choices. The film history class expands the discussion on aesthetic means and allows the students to explore the historical changes and the cultural specificity of narrative forms and modes of expression.
When it comes to film history classes, the main task for lecturers is to carefully select materials and to establish their focus on a few filmmakers and national cinemas. On the one hand, basic information and facts on technological innovations, on the history of visual arts in the 20th century, on film genres, aesthetics and modes of production as well as the economic and social histories of popular culture are fundamental components of an introductory course on film history. On the other hand, the selected readings, films and learning activities should allow students to understand the methodological approaches, which effectively shape our research on — and our view of — the past.
At ifs, the class covering the time-span from early to classical cinema concludes with a seminar session on the Hollywood studio system. In the following, this particular seminar session shall serve as an example for the ways in which learning materials and activities can engage students in discussions of the history of gendered stereotypes in film production.
For the seminar session, a screening of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) gives students the opportunity to discover the elaborate visual style and sophisticated storytelling of a classical Hollywood movie. The required reading for the session is an extract from Erin Hill’s book Never Done: A History of Women’s Work in Media Production (chapter 3: pp. 90–101, 109–116). Drawing on a wide range of documents, Hill’s chapter on female clerical workers illuminates the studios’ specific production culture and gendered division of labor. Hill’s text shows in detail how distinct groups of female and feminized workers — especially studio secretaries — upheld the highly efficient and controlled creative processes of film production in the major studios.
The film and the reading material for the seminar session manifest two distinct approaches to film history: Firstly, drawing on the movie Double Indemnity, film history can be explored as a history of aesthetic forms, visual styles and strategies of storytelling. This includes an analysis of historically and culturally specific linkages between popular genres and their gender representations. Secondly, the excerpt from Hill’s book allows to take up a view on film history as a history of changing production cultures. Hill’s text links the issue of gender politics to the studio as a workplace. Accordingly, the study of women’s creative work also elucidates the modus operandi of the American studios (e.g., the managerial models for the division of labor and the highly controlled distribution of tasks).
Scholarly debates on film noir often define the characters, the conflicts and urban settings against the background of politics and the social and economic shifts in the United States during WWII. The socio-economic facts of the historical world (women entering the workforce and traumatized veterans returning from war) are presented as an explanation for the films’ new types of masculine and feminine characters or for the stories’ fatalist world-view. Rather than contributing to the plain story of women’s increasing independence and economic power in the 1940s, Hill’s text offers a more nuanced depiction of the unjust conditions for women working in Hollywood at the time. In doing so, her analysis problematizes the persistent binaries, which usually delimit the discussion of film noir’s representation of gender and social worlds (weak male protagonist vs. femme fatale, passivity vs. action etc.). In short, the learning materials for the seminar session suggest differentiating the fictional renderings and representations of genders from the historical world. Obviously, the power relations between sexes and genders are performed, represented and negotiated differently in both realms.
The pedagogical approach for the seminar session encourages students’ collaboration and conversation: Setting collaborative tasks for small-group work (e.g., analyzing performances of gender in particular scenes from Wilder’s film; short lists of questions on concepts and main arguments from Hill’s text, which structure a discussion among groups of students; extracts from the script for jointly developing a storyboard) allows students to learn actively and to relate to the ideas of their peers. Small-group work gives students the opportunity to ask questions and to explain things to each other. They can talk through texts and ideas in their own pace and have a chance to put abstract notions into their own words while getting immediate feedback by their peers. Small-group environments help students compare their understanding of and their views on learning materials with the rest of the group. Often students feel more encouraged to contribute to classroom discussions once they have had a chance to talk to a small group of their peers first. Furthermore, students feel more involved and animated when working in small teams to tackle tasks that give space for thinking creatively and solving a problem collectively. As a pedagogical method, small-group learning provides an environment in which students can train their communication skills and improve their strategies for self-organization. In addition, they can learn to cope with problems that may result from working in teams and reflect on their own approaches to collaborative processes. Given undergraduate students’ varying familiarity with international film cultures and their highly diverse skills, small-group work opens up a space for articulating their different viewpoints and for learning together.
To raise the issue of gender (in-)equality with a group of students means for everyone to reveal something about herself or himself — this includes the personal social background and upbringing, individual processes of education as well as biases and particular attitudes towards certain gender identities. Given students’ diverse backgrounds and biographies, a conversation on feminism and gender studies may elicit controversial opinions and conflicts. Therefore, it seems necessary as a group to first set up rules together on how to address conflicts and deal with them.
To pursue a feminist analysis of power structures within an institutional setting is a paradox. Clearly, a seminar on gender inequality can only be a starting point for thinking about one’s own positioning, experiences and attitudes. Nevertheless, addressing issues of sexist work cultures and sexist film cultures is necessary and may encourage students to closely analyze personal interactions, call out discriminatory behaviors and find allies for collaborating in solidarity.
Callahan, V. (Ed.) (2010). Reclaiming the Archive: Feminism and Film History. Wayne State University Press.
Francke, L. (1994). Script Girls: Women Screenwriters in Hollywood. BFI.
Gaines, J. M. (2018). Pink-Slipped: What Happened to Women in the Silent Film Industries? University of Illinois Press.
Hill, E. (2016). Never Done: A History of Women’s Work in Media Production. Rutgers University Press.
Gutiérrez-Albilla, J. D. & Nair, P. (Eds.) (2019). Hispanic and Lusophone Women Filmmakers: Theory, Practice and Difference. Manchester University Press.
Double Indemnity (1944, Billy Wilder)
Photo by Bekky Bekks on Unsplash