Femmes on film

Despite the commercial success of films by directors such as Amy Heckerling (“Fast Times at Ridgemont High”) and Nora Ephron (“Sleepless in Seattle”) it has remained difficult for women filmmakers to gain recognition and sustain careers in the industry. Apart from the mainstream, however, women have thrived as independent creators of film. Independent and avant-garde cinema offer limited commercial appeal to the corporate media conglomerates, so more effort is needed to access them.

An excellent opportunity to do so came along last week when two programs of films assembled by the Women’s Film Preservation Fund were hosted at the Whitsell Auditorium. Aside from persistent technical problems with sound and focus in the first half, and the stopping and starting that resulted, the films were given a good presentation by the Northwest Film Center.

Because the program was part of a “tour,” I expected a representative of the Women’s Film Preservation Fund to appear, but this was likely a fiscal impossibility for the small organization. Since 1995 the fund has provided grants to preserve dozens of important films, ranging from the works of Alice Guy Blache, who is credited with directing the first narrative film, to films from the 1980’s and 90’s.

As it turned out, the films presented in Thursday night’s program really needed no introduction. The evening began with a few short films by Mary Ellen Bute, one of the leading American pioneers of abstract animation. Beginning as a painter, Bute became interested in visual representations of moving objects in the 1930s and began creating short animated films that exploded with rhythm, color and motion. The visions and techniques established by Bute and collaborators such as Norman McLaren were so influential that they can be recognized and assimilated by viewers today. Most small children would likely be immediately struck by the liveliness and ebullience of these films. This puts the lie to the idea that experimental and abstract art is by nature esoteric or academic. A few of Bute’s films are now available on DVD, thanks to last year’s outstanding “Unseen Cinema” box set.

Another selection – “The Women’s Film” by Louise Amato, Judy Smith and Ellen Sorin – offered a glimpse into a key moment in U.S. history: the rise of the modern women’s movement in the early 1970s. Eschewing standard documentary form, the filmmakers simply allow interviewees to speak about their lives, their work and what led them to activism as the means to achieve equality. Made in 1971 by the all-female San Francisco Newsreel collective, this 40-minute piece is an example of some of the work that has influenced the recent explosion in political documentary filmmaking.

The pi퀨͌�ce de resistance was Maya Deren’s documentary on Haitian Voudoun (aka Voodoo) ceremony, “Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti.” While Deren is frequently referred to as “the mother of the American avant-garde,” “Divine Horsemen” might at first seem quite different from her experimental shorts such as “Meshes of the Afternoon.” Deren filmed these religious rituals in Haiti during research trips in the late 1940’s and early 50’s. After languishing for decades in an unfinished state they have been completed by her heirs, Teiji and Cherel Ito. Deren’s intense interest in the religion led her to not only participate in the rituals but adopt them, eventually becoming initiated as a Voudoun priestess.

While the narration of “Divine Horsemen” might resemble a standard documentary, the film has none of the dispassionate distance of normal ethnography. Her intense engagement with the material is evident in the finished film and, while narration adapted from Deren’s book on Voudoun has been added to guide us through what is being depicted. It can all be a bit too much for the uninitiated viewer. Deren’s camera is locked intensely on the motion and rhythm of the rites while the narration tries to explain the practitioners’ beliefs. It is difficult to capture the significance of ancient religious ceremonies, especially in the span of one hour. Little time was spent placing the customs within a cultural context.

Although I had trouble fully understanding the religious beliefs and practices, it was fruitful much of the time to simply tune out the narration and think of the film as another of Deren’s exercises in using the camera’s characteristics of time and space to capture bodily motion and rhythm. However different in style, as one watched the rapturous participants possessed by the spirits of their gods, one can begin to see how the film intersected with the metaphysical themes Deren explored in her other work.

Viewers should be warned that animals were indeed harmed in the making of this film. While these sacrifices were not carried out rapidly by the Voudoun devotees, they occupy only a couple of minutes of the film’s runtime.

This is a film that without a doubt benefits from repeated viewings, and fortunately it can now be purchased on DVD direct from Mystic Fire Video.

For more information about the Women’s Film Preservation Fund, refer to www.nywift.org