Ally Acker, poet, director, archivist & activist
Many cross-border conversations about #womeninfilm take place on Facebook now, rather than in blog comments or elsewhere online. This week, several of those conversations were about Geena Davis’ participation, as one of five executive producers and the ‘star’, according to imdb, of Tom Donahue’s Untitled Geena Davis/Gender in Media Documentary. And the conversations were notable for their rich diversity of viewpoints, because there’s now a rich diversity of #womeninfilm activists (including some men), many of us also filmmakers.
And as I enjoyed the debate, I recalled Ally Acker’s project, Reel Herstory, with Jodie Foster and wondered if she had asked Geena Davis to participate in any way. I also recalled that this year at Cannes, one of the few features directed by women was The Women Who Run Hollywood/ Et la femme créa Hollywood, by sisters Julia and Clara Kuperberg.
Time for an update, I thought. Just a little one. ‘Nothing too long or demanding, just updating,’ I emailed to Ally, whom I interviewed for Wellywood Woman almost two years ago — she’s always super-busy. Back came this wonderful response. After it, a reprint of the original interview!
Ally It’s funny that you’re asking me these questions, all of which (as you might imagine), I’ve been asking myself. Just this week I finished writing an article called, Why Women Will Never be Equal in Hollywood. I don’t want to give the gist of it away online. But suffice to say, it deals with issues of gender, patriarchy, and the requisite unconsciousness that ensues.
To your questions…
Marian Since we spoke, back in 2014, you’ve shared your interviews with Julia and Clara Kuperberg. The Women Who Run Hollywood premiered at Cannes this year. I love the networking that’s happening with women’s film activists and that you’re a part of this. Tell me about Julia and Clara and their films and your collaboration? They’ve made 27 films since 2006? Did you go to Cannes? Where is their film available, in English?
Ally Clara and Julia in my life have been a great gift. I’m contacted a lot, by students and others, asking me questions for thesis, or people on the throes of beginning a book or documentary. When the Kuperbergs first approached me, I was deep into assembling my own film, Reel Herstory with Jodie Foster. They said they’d be in New York in a few months, and could they interview me for their film?
Here’s what I’ll admit, when they told me they were doing a doc on the same subject as my own, the old patriarchal fear rose as a wave of competition in my chest! My next feeling was dismissing the contact altogether. After all, how many times have I received such a request, and it all came to nothing? I never hear from the recipient again?
Eight months later, C&J are on their way to New York, and call to confirm a meeting. I tell them I can’t get to the city (New York City, that is), so they make the impressive effort, and shelp with their camera crew to find me on Long Island. By the time we set up that meeting, those aforementioned competitive feelings had been brought to full consciousness, and I face them for the ugly monsters they are. As a child of feminism from the 70’s, I’ve worked hard on trying to understand how patriarchy insidiously infiltrates our thoughts. (I believe we all need to be vigilant about how patriarchy functions in our everyday lives.)
Of course there cannot be too many films, or too many books, on this topic! My initial reason for beginning my own research on the herstory of women in film in the 80’s was to integrate lost womens film history, into the larger world of film history. They are not separate histories!
By the time our interview for the film was over, I was much more interested in interviewing them! Never had I met two sisters so respectful, or so encouraging of one another, who work together 24 hours a day!
As they were working on their film, I answered all their questions where I could, and freely offered to share my footage. I eventually made them co-owners of my Reel Women Archive, (which is also now co-owned by Academy Archives — Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences, where students can go to Los Angeles and view the interviews for research, although only myself, Clara & Julia, can use these interviews in our films.) The pioneer, Dede Allen, told me a story long ago which is seared in my brain, about how imperative it is to pass along the baton of what we know to the coming generation, because we’re here and we’re gone.
You’ll need to ask C&J more about their interaction and how they work. Here’s some of what I garnered about their prolific filmic life…They are French and live in Paris, but their primary focus and interest is American film, and American culture (hence, Wichita Films). Under contract with French television, they come up with concepts for five films a year (all around 52 min each). They try and marry these concepts to common experts who can talk about two or hopefully more of their five ideas. This way, they have a containable amount of people to interview during their annual sojourn to Los Angeles, and New York. They spent six months in the States, and six months back home cutting their movies. (The Goddess only knows how they manage to get five done a year! But impressively, they do. And they do them really well.) Their films are classy, intelligent, beautiful. Their films breathe, and somehow still manage to get the modicum of information conveyed. I’m really proud to be a part of one of their brilliant efforts.
The Women Who Run Hollywood/ Et la femme créa Hollywood is in English, with French subtitles, since all the interviewees are American. You’ll have to ask them about its availability and distribution. Aside from Cannes, it has already shown on French television. I didn’t make it to Cannes. Aside from personal scheduling conflicts, this was their film, and I believe that the red carpet belonged to them.
Marian What else have you been doing? Are you continuing to document women filmmakers or are you working on new things?
Ally I think I answered this in my opening paragraph. I’m hoping to get the article I just finished placed somewhere with a wide readership (easier said than done). I don’t want it to get lost in the barrage of the ethernet.
Marian This week, there’s been controversy over Geena Davis’ co-producing for a man who is making a film about women filmmakers. What’s your view? I’m wondering whether Geena would have helped women working on similar projects if they had approached her but it just so happened that none of you did. Did you ever approach Geena for her help? And if so, was it forthcoming?
Ally Yes, I know about the Geena Davis controversy. When I finished Reel Herstory I contacted her organization about a collaboration with the idea of showing the film with her participation to raise monies for women’s film preservation. She ignored the request. That’s all I can say.
The issue of gender and film is such a complicated one. I’ll quote you a couple of paragraphs from my new article:
Often when I would lecture, I would get the same remark from audiences time and time again, Look how many women are in powerful positions in Hollywood! Isn’t it great? And I would always have to stop and point out that the question is off the mark. It actually has very little to do with gender. If the women who have the power to green-light films have the same consciousness as a Judd Apatow, what’s the difference? Unconscious female filmmakers are, in my mind, actually worse than having no women in positions of power at all. Gender has very little to do with it, if Patriarchal thinking has already commandeered your consciousness.Gloria Steinem is right on money (as usual) when she says that gender equality is not a feminist issue, but a social justice issue. As filmmakers, our consciousness translates onto the screen, and thereby effects each and every one of us. It’s a powerful responsibility.
It is no accident that ‘pant-suit’ Hillary Clinton is the first woman to climb to the top of the political heap. She’s a terrific example of inculcated patriarchal thinking planted in the body of a woman. Does it make a difference that she’s a woman? Not really. Can you actually tell the difference between Hillary and Bill other than the obvious division of their physical gender? Hillary has gotten to where she is in the patriarchal structure, in the same way that Katharine Bigelow became the first female Oscar recipient, they have proved to be better than the boys at the boys own game. Not to say that Bigelow isn’t a terrific filmmaker. She is an amazingly gifted, competent artist. But had she made a different genre of film other than a war film, one has to wonder if she would have garnered the top prize.
Marian What significant changes have you seen in the last two years? I’d like to know about the Reel Herstory distribution, but so much has been happening and I think you’re in a good position to identify what’s been most useful.
Ally Reel Herstory is currently distributed by Kanopy Streaming. I’ve been working with them for many years now. (Naturally, they originated near your neck of the woods, in Australia). Its founder and CEO, Olivia Humphrey, has a terrific philosophy, one very empathetic to independent filmmakers and their sustenance. She’s been quoted as saying, ‘As a community, we need to be cognizant of the fact that we must forge a sustainable economy for educational filmmakers, to ensure they can continue to produce videos that teach, inspire, challenge and engage the next generation of students’.
The statistics from Martha Lauzen’s Celluloid Ceiling studies haven’t significantly changed since well before 1998, and in the case of women directors, they have actually gotten worse. As women filmmakers, we need to stop worrying about getting the approval and recognition of the old boy’s club, and get on with our work.
Believe me, I know better than anyone that this is easier said than done! Especially when we all depend on monies for our projects. We all want careers that go on. Women filmmakers in Europe, as Margarethe von Trotta, and the Kuperberg sisters have explained to me, have an easier go of it. Small money from the state is available for film, and if the films lose money, it’s a write-off, and the filmmakers don’t get penalized or blacklisted as they do in the United States. (Although here, male filmmakers can have a flop and still go on to prolific careers, while this is unheard of for women.)
But really, we have no choice except to focus on what matters. We can either expend our energies railing against what we don’t have, and are not included in, or we can take those energies and channel them into our art, and into our own clubs. Each one of us makes that choice every day. If there is any kind of significant change, I think it manifests in our own consciousness, and how we choose to live our lives, and make our art. The change you speak of always shows up in independent film, where voices are fresh and eclectic. Time and time again you see that once those voices are co-opted by Hollywood, they are diluted, washed, and made into something far less interesting, far less vital.
Sorry! You said nothing too long! I’m afraid you’ve caught me on a Saturday morning with good coffee! Hope this answers your questions.
Ally Acker’s Reel Herstory, narrated by Jodie Foster
(first published in Wellywood Woman, 30 August 2014)
I fell over Ally Acker’s work via this tweet.
Not Ally’s tweet, you’ll notice, because she doesn’t engage with social media, which may be why I missed her before.
I was immediately curious about Ally’s extraordinary magnum opus, Reel Women, the two-volume revised and expanded book and the 10 discs (see below) and the forthcoming Reel Herstory: The REAL Story of Reel Women. Introduced by Jodie Foster, Reel Herstory is a feature-length documentary that runs two and a half hours. It’s in two parts. The first covers The Silent Era and the second Talkies Through Today (first ten minutes below).
One of the difficulties women filmmakers face is that we have a fragmented heritage. Often unconnected to continuous traditions of women’s storytelling on screen, we don’t know about the work of women who could inspire us and validate our concerns. I’m thinking today of women like Li Ling-Ai, a Chinese American producer from the 1940s, who’s the subject of Robin Lung’s Finding Kukan. And New Zealand’s writer/director Christina Andreef, who’s just been appointed as Development Executive at our state funder. I had no idea she existed. Based in Australia for years, she was assistant to Jane Campion from Sweetie to The Piano, assistant to Alison Maclean on Crush and writer/director of well-received short films and a feature, Soft Fruit (1999) about three sisters and their ex-con brother who return home to nurse their mother, dying of cancer.
Like the women who made them them, ‘our’ films can get ‘lost’ as well. This week, I was astonished to learn of Julie Dash’s Illusions (1982), about ‘a fictitious Hollywood motion picture studio [where] Mignon Duprée, a Black woman studio executive who appears to be white and Ester Jeeter, an African American woman who is the singing voice for a white Hollywood star are forced to come to grips with a society that perpetuates false images as status quo’. Illusions seems so relevant to current debates and it feels like a miracle that Women Make Movies has remastered Illusions and re-released it.
What Ally’s done is amazing, a beautiful riff on the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media’s ‘If she can see it she can be it’. Just look at those 10-disc titles at the end of the post! I had lots of questions for her. And felt challenged by aspects of her responses. Like her reference to an art historian’s conclusions– ‘All of our work was derivative, and ultimately harkened back to the work of a man’. I can’t wait to see Reel Herstory, because I think it will enhance women filmmakers’ knowledge and understanding of our past and inspire and strengthen our future.
You entered the industry in the late 1970s. Which came first, poetry or film?
I started to write poetry when I was 13, very bad poetry as we all will when we’re 13. I made my first film in college (Northwestern University) when I was 20, an 8 mm film called Anima Rising, using Joni Mitchell’s song as the soundtrack. It was very dreamy and surreal. Both poetry and film are languages of the subconscious. They are both manifestations of our secret selves. But even in those early days, I was concerned with the feminine consciousness exploding forth from the underworld.
You’ve described the late 70s as–
…a heady time… We all thought this ‘new wave’ of women filmmakers would mean that in thirty years time (today), the number of women directing would be equal to that of men, and that the stories of women’s lives would proliferate on the big screen.
What went wrong? What happened to directors like Martha Coolidge and Donna Deitch, Susan Seidelman and Amy Heckerling, those whom you call ‘the most gifted young directors of the 80s and 90s? When I was reading about Julie Dash just now I found that she said in 1992–
I’m a very hopeful person and I think we can accomplish a lot through film in the ’90s. We’re going to see a lot of film work done by black women who have different concerns than our brothers who make films […] We have strong statements to make because we’ve been silenced for so long.
We keep getting hopeful and our hopes keep being disappointed. Why?
What went wrong? One word, money. We were idealistic to think that the film industry had changed since the late 20’s, when the studios slowly began to realize this thing called flickers could be much more a commodity than a passing fad. You could actually get rich doing it. It was then that the unions infiltrated the field, and promptly showed women the exit door. Between the 30’s and the late 70’s, only a handful of women held positions of any real power…Margaret Booth, Dorothy Arzner, Virginia Van Upp. And these women were successful mainly because they played by the patriarchal rules.
Dorothy Arzner Margaret Booth, for instance, was Supervising Editor at MGM from 1932 to 1964. For three decades, no film left MGM without Booth’s stamp of approval. When I interviewed her before her death in 2002, I asked her, Weren’t you lonely? Meaning, weren’t you lonely as one of the only women executives in the field? I remember her looking at me like I had two heads and she said, Oh no, I wasn’t lonely. I had all these men around me. So the idea of being a woman never consciously occurred to these women. They were, in a way, genderless. You simply did your job, and worked like a man. This way, nobody questioned your integrity.
Dorothy Arzner was the only woman able to direct in the Hollywood of the 30’s and 40’s because her pictures made money. Virginia Van Upp wrote scripts that turned Rita Hayworth into a star, which made a killing for Columbia Pictures. That’s why Columbia’s president, Harry Cohn, made her his second in command. But these women were an anomaly.
Virginia Van Upp, VP Columbia Pictures, one of three women producers of the 1940s As actress and director Lee Grant says in my new film–
All the women directing today (the mid-1980’s) owe a lot to Dorothy Arzner. Not because she opened any doors. The irony is…there was only Dorothy Arzner… and then 40 years of closed doors that are just opening now to a very few of us.
It’s not clear to me why all the women directing today owe a lot to Dorothy Arzner if she didn’t open any doors?
I assume that Grant meant it was fortunate that Arzner existed at all. Her very presence in the industry was crucial. The fact that her films were big money makers could not lead anyone to claim later that a woman could not make a picture that was a success at the box office. Arzner had done it, and she did it remarkably.
By the late 70’s, egged on by the women’s movement, women started to make films independently…Claudia Weill, Joan Micklin Silver.
This was attempted only once, a half century before, by Dorothy Arzner in The Wild Party (1929) Women with star power like Elaine May, Jane Fonda, Sally Field, started to direct and produce. And suddenly, women who did not have star power to back them up were choosing careers as producers. This was an unheard of possibility before. Lynda Obst, Debra Hill, Paula Weinstein, Lauren Shuler-Donner… women like that. Nothing like this had happened since the teens and the 20’s. There was a lot of, what I call, historic amnesia. We forgot that women were initially ousted from the industry because of patriarchy and male-dominated capitalism. Just because all these new women (the ‘second wave’ of Reel Women pioneers) were suddenly green-lighting pictures, did not mean that the fundamentals of society had changed. Movies still had to make money, no matter who was directing or producing them. And if they didn’t make enough, these women would not get those 3-picture deals.
What’s a 3-picture deal?
Especially in the days of the studio era, hot filmmakers were guaranteed 3 films to direct by the studio, so that the studio would not lose them to someone else. In addition, in the 80’s and 90’s, there was the added bonus of subconscious sexism for women filmmakers. To this day, if a man does a picture and it’s mediocre or a flop, he gets to direct another picture. If a woman pulls this, the likelihood of another chance is small to none.
Many of those gifted women from the 80’s are still directing, but virtually all of them went to television. Donna Deitch had an unexpected hit with Desert Hearts (1985) that surprised everyone, most of all Deitch herself. The studios came running. But as Donna Deitch says in Reel Herstory, after three years of raising money for Desert Hearts, she was exhausted. She did not have another feature on the back burner at the ready when those studio meetings came.
Admittedly, this happens to a lot of young directors caught up in their first project. But sexism in Hollywood runs deep. In order not to lose a hot director, a studio can offer those 3-picture deals I mentioned. Although Desert Hearts gave Deitch many terrific connections (she later directed Oprah in The Women of Brewster Place for television), she did not get a 3-picture option. Recently Paramount hired writer Robert Orci to direct the latest Star Trek film. This is a guy who has no directing experience whatsoever. The double standard is not likely to go away any time soon.
But the good news is that television programming is increasingly excellent, and it continues to provide an avenue for women to keep working.
For women of color, it’s even worse. Overall, with all the women in high ranks, it’s still very much a white boy industry. The powerful women inside the studios still play by the rules of patriarchy and capitalism. But what was true in the 80’s and 90’s is still true, even more so today because of technology, and that is that the marvellous, eclectic voices of women’s lives is coming from the independent arena. If you want to tell your story, you can’t rely on the studios to tell it for you. No one is going to tell it as magically or as idiosyncratically as you will.
During that ‘heady time’, you pitched a five-part series on women filmmakers and later interviewed many of them. How did you achieve a diversity of interviewees and select and reach the directors outside the United States? When was your final interview?
I pitched that series to The Today Show at NBC where I was a field producer. Thanks again to the women’s movement, I got that job when I was 28, after spending two years at NBC as a film and video editor. When I first got the idea for the series, women in film was a very new, hot item in the news. I really knew nothing about it except what I was reading in the newspapers. It was in the Zeitgeist of the moment, and I thought it would make interesting television. Of course, being The Today Show we were all into ratings. So initially, I interviewed whatever big names we could land… Sherry Lansing had just become the first woman to be president of a major studio, 20th Century Fox (1980 — she was 35), so we interviewed her. Martha Coolidge and Amy Heckerling were directing big studio pictures. I spoke to Nora Ephron on the phone. She had just finished (writing) Silkwood. She said she felt she didn’t feel she had enough experience in the film industry to be part of such a series. Luckily for her, (and the rest of us!), that would change very quickly in the next few years.
It was when I wanted to pepper the segments with historic photographs that everything changed for me. I didn’t know if there would be any history about women in film. According to film history books written to that time, we certainly never thought there was. But then I met Marc Wanamaker at Bison Archives, who showed me stunning stills of unnamed women in obviously very influential positions behind the scenes.
Not even Marc knew who many of these women were. I knew then that I had a piece of untapped history on my hands, and maybe even a long documentary I could sink my teeth into. If I had known how long it would actually take me, I’m not sure I ever would have started down that road!
It would be several years pursuing this that I knew I wanted only to interview pioneers. I began to define this as any filmmaker who pushed the boundaries of the medium, be it technically, culturally, socially, or artistically. The interest for my books, as well as for the feature, had never been to include every single woman who worked in motion pictures. I was interested in visionaries, people whose work in someway changed our lives. Mainly for me, this was a story of women in Hollywood, their rise and their fall.
I was lucky enough to tap, for instance, Margarthe von Trotta, when she came to America to promote one of her films. That’s the great thing about living in New York, eventually every filmmaker comes here. Von Trotta is one of the great independent, eclectic visionaries. She has long been one of my role models. I also was lucky enough to cross paths with Euzhan Palcy in New York when she was completing A Dry White Season (her first and only Hollywood studio picture).
Euzhan has more passion and drive than anyone I’ve ever met! Nothing will stand in her way. It’s daunting and inspiring.
Same with Fina Torres whose first film, Oriana (1985), I saw years before at the New York Film Festival. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen, and it mesmerized me.
In all these cases, it was crucial to the story that I compare what women in film were doing in America, with what women filmmakers were accomplishing elsewhere, and why. Von Trotta said that her husband at the time, Volker Schlöndorff, had secretly guaranteed her film to the powers that be, so that if she couldn’t finish, he would step in. When she learned about this much later, she was livid. Even after that, when that first film, The Second Awakening of Christa Klages (1978) proved a success, (she previously co-directed The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, with Schlöndorff), it was still a challenge for her to raise her own funds.
She added that the women of the generation that followed her, like Doris Dörrie, only had to snap their fingers to get money. I’m not sure how accurate this is, but it was Von Trotta’s experience. Regardless, Von Trotta always felt that art in general in Europe was encouraged.
I was recently interviewed by two remarkable young women, Clara Kuperberg and Julia Kuperberg, who run Wichita Films in Paris. They expressed to me how easy they felt it was to pitch their films, and to get funding. They average completing five films a year! They also iterated how art in general is encouraged in Europe, and not treated as a commodity for trade as it is in the US. They are 39 and 32 respectively, and they’ve said they’ve never felt the kind of resistance or sexism that women filmmakers in America have expressed. I have to qualify this and say that these women do documentaries for television, and that both documentaries and television have always been more welcoming arenas for women. Regardless, I can say that not even female documentarians in the America have this kind of impressive prolific track record.
Of course I am aware of the poor statistics for women feature directors worldwide. But at least Europe can boast female European auteurs, like Von Trotta, Agnès Varda, Liliana Cavani, Helma Sanders-Brahms (who died this past May), Sally Potter, Mira Nair, all of whom have developed a cohesive body of work that has their unique signature. One cannot boast anything near this when it comes to Reel Women in the United States. I acquired other interviews that I could not do personally, but felt were important, like those with Gillian Armstrong, Haifa Al Mansour, Pirjo Honkasalo, Amma Asante, and Sarah Polley.
I couldn’t interview everyone. Of course I would have loved to interview Jane Campion, and I would have loved to interview Agnès Varda in France, and Marta Meszaros in Hungary, and Liliana Cavani in Hungary, and Chantal Akerman in Belgium. The list is long. It was a matter of timing and who I was able to intersect with at the moment. I did not have the money to travel. For years after I left the Today Show, I had jobs elsewhere, and was working on other things. I would work on Reel Herstory in between, here and there.
The oldest director I interviewed was Lillian Gish before she died. One amazing experience! Gish directed her first film when she was 20, Remodeling Her Husband (1920), which starred her sister, Dorothy.
At the time I interviewed her, Gish was in her 90’s. I felt so very privileged to get to speak with her. It was like talking to film herstory itself! The youngest filmmaker in Reel Herstory is Greta Gerwig (Reel Herstory is not only about directors, but about influential pioneers in all aspects of film). I suppose the final interview I conducted was with Jodie Foster when we were filming her host segments and narration wrap-arounds.
You’ve interviewed amazing women who are no longer around, like Katharine Hepburn. What was it like to interview her? Did she identify problems for women in film and if so, what were they?
Sadly, I was not the one who got to interview Hepburn, although I was present. I dovetailed in on a DGA shoot, and asked if I could highjack a question, which they graciously let me do. I asked her what it was like to work with Dorothy Arzner? Arzner gave Hepburn her first chance in a ‘Talkie’, Christopher Strong (1933). She said that interestingly, she didn’t find it peculiar at the time that she was working with a woman director. It seemed perfectly natural at the time. But that 40 odd years hence, if it happened to her now (late ‘70’s), she would find it somewhat peculiar–
She [Arzner] was completely professional. Smart, funny, and did some very interesting stuff.
Arzner gave many women their start… Hepburn, Lucille Ball, Maureen O’Hara. She made a star out of Roz Russell in Craig’s Wife (1936), which was nominated for an Oscar.
What were the most important things you learned from the interviews?
Wanting to be a filmmaker myself, I think I was curious to learn about every obstacle in the path. And believe me, I could write a book now solely about that! But mainly I felt really inspired by everyone I sat down with. Pioneering women all seem to share common traits… tremendous tenacity, drive, never accepting No for answer. A terrifying single-mindedness like they’re on a warpath.
What are the major obstacles that you consistently heard about? Did any of them surprise you, the first time you heard them?
The biggest one, of course, is money. You have this vision in your brain. How do I convince someone to fund this dream in my head, and make it manifest in the world? It’s one huge game of problem-solving from beginning to end. The stories of how people get around and through this, is fascinating. It speaks to the very core of everything you are, and everything you’ve got in you. For women to ask for money for a dream they possess is often like an Odyssean journey. Everything in our societal DNA tells us we shouldn’t do it, we can’t do it, it’s bad form to do it. What makes us think we’re worth it? What makes us think we can be artists? For centuries we’ve been told the idea of a woman artist was just silly. In the first edition of the best known, most widely used book on art history, The History of Art (1963), its author, H.W. Janson, famously claimed that there were no women artists in his book because although there had been hundreds of women artists through the ages, none of them had an impact on the development on the history of art. None of their work was truly original. All of our work was derivative, and ultimately harkened back to the work of a man. Such ideas live deep in the mass cultural psyche. We may seem like we’ve come a long way, but it also speaks to why, I believe, women will never have equal foothold in Hollywood. Movies are in the business of creating mass cultural visions. I don’t believe patriarchy will ever willingly allow women to do this in any great numbers. It threatens the very nature of patriarchy itself.
From what I’ve read, the research you did was often a dispiriting experience, because of the loss of information. What kept you moving forward?
I can’t ever say I felt dispirited. It was more like being in the middle of a great detective mystery. Through Marc Wanamaker, who has an infectious love for historic Hollywood, I began my discovery of the many women who changed the way we look at movies today, but were never acknowledged. I spent a couple of years in Los Angeles in the mid-80’s, basically living at the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I was going one page at a time through early Hollywood periodicals like Photoplay, Moving Picture World, and Motion Picture Magazine.
In 1916 she was the second star to set up her own film company, the Clara Kimball Young Film Corporation. Selznick was president. These magazines had articles about, (for instance), Lois Weber becoming the highest paid director in 1916, or Mabel Normand directing and starring in her next picture with a newcomer named Charlie Chaplin, or June Mathis giving a chance to an unknown Rudolf Valentio. None of these magazines had indexes, so you literally had to go page by page to discover another pioneer. What kept me going was the fascination of looking under a rock that was teeming with life!
What happened to the original series, which I can’t find on imdb? Did it just transform into your ten-disc DVD series?
By ‘original series’ I’m assuming you mean the five-part series produced for The Today Show. It aired on NBC in the mid-80’s. But for me, it proved to be a springboard for the work I was about to do. The 10-part series came in the next decade. But even the series was like a holding station for the film I had in my mind, the film I only now, after 30 years, completed. I intended for this to be a feature since 1986.
Who are your key collaborators, beyond the women you’ve interviewed, and how did Jodie Foster become involved?
Nothing in film is ever just one person! Especially for a project as huge as this turned out to be. It happened in stages. I wrote Reel Women: Pioneers of the Cinema, which was published in 1990 and updated and expanded to two volumes in 2012.
When I first came to NY in 1980, I serendipitously landed a job as an apprentice film editor at an edit house that was like a B-movie factory. Dozens of 20-something film wanabees all working for little to nothing. It was here that I was lucky to get paired as an assistant to Sam Pollard. He had an unerring passion for movies. We shared this, but working with him only ignited the love for me and made it stronger.
Sam is a genius, and he became a lifelong friend. His feedback and encouragement on this film has been invaluable. He’s Reel Herstory’s Executive Producer. And I’m lucky to claim that.
Jump to 1995. I’m working as a producer for a small educational film company outside Washington, DC. At that time, the internet had not yet grabbed hold, and publishers were experimenting with new technologies like the CD-ROM. Jolie Barbiere of EnterActive was a producer for one of these new companies.
She optioned my book to make into a CD-ROM, and they spent a year hoping to get Jodie Foster to be its spokesperson. Foster finally found the time to see us, and she’s proved a big supporter ever since. She is one of the greats, for many reasons, but mainly for me she is an artist who walks her talk. She says herself that she is just about the luckiest filmmaker she knows. She gets to direct essentially anything she likes. We’re all lucky too, because she’s one of those rare breed of directors who is conscious of the power film has to change our lives. She’s conscious of the characters she both creates and portrays for the big screen. She’s conscious of their impact.
If it wasn’t for Jolie Barbiere, Jodie Foster, or Marc Wanamaker, none of this would have happened. Now I’ve got a producer, Robert Dassanowsky, who won’t quit. He’s part brilliant cinefile, part rabid cheerleader. He’s also the descendent (the son) of one of the great Reel Women pioneers of Austria, Elfi von Dassanowsky, who was among the first in post-war Vienna to found a film studio.
You’ve been working on the Reel Women books and films for thirty years. The clips in the films must have been expensive. How have you funded the books and the movies?
One day at a time! I borrowed a huge amount of tenacity garnered from the women I interviewed. Much of the material was donated over the years. I had friends who owned archival footage. Marc Wanamaker donated the amazing stills. Many of the women I interviewed granted the rights to the clips in their films. Many of the clips fall under public domain. What I had to buy, I dug into my pockets and bought. I received small grants here and there along the way, like a lovely personal starter grant at the beginning from Frances Lear (former wife of Norman Lear). That got me going. All the time I was squirreling stuff away. I cut the film myself… in-kind services as it were! A gifted friend, Irene O’Garden, donated her great voice for the last bit of narration needed for the film.
Everyone chipped in along the way. Everyone believed. I’ve been very lucky.
Has the work been satisfying? I love it that you’ve stated that you never meant your work to be known as ‘women’s film history’ because as soon as a piece of history is segregated and relegated to its own corner, ‘it becomes diminutive, and somehow less important’. Do you feel that you have achieved your aim to complete an incomplete film history? How will you integrate it?
It’s satisfying when young women tell me the work has inspired them to want to make films. The whole purpose of history is to give us role models. If we don’t what came before us, how do we know what’s possible? We all need maps. This is what the work has been for me, the uncovering of a road map that led to buried treasure.
But no, I don’t feel that we’ve reached the point where an incomplete history has been completed. The very fact that my book, Reel Women, came out 25 years ago, and that film departments still don’t teach about film’s female pioneers is appalling. I could understand it when I went to film school in ’86 (Columbia U for an MFA), and the information was still not available in history books. But since 1990 when Reel Women came out, there is no excuse. The history of women’s ground-breaking contributions to film is now in the cultural mainstream. It needs to be mainstream teaching in film classes everywhere.
Sometimes films, as popular media, are more successful in getting information out than books. Let’s hope that Reel Herstory: The REAL Story of Reel Women with Jodie Foster does the trick.
Is Reel Women going to be available to stream and download?
Questions of distribution for the film are still up in the air. We don’t have a distributor yet. We’re just beginning to enter film festivals this fall.
Why don’t you engage with social media?
I feel like it dissipates my energy. After a day on Facebook, I feel scattered and anxious. I’d rather spend the time with the book of a new poet I’ve never encountered. That feels more peaceful to me. At the end of a day like that, I’m rejuvenated. I’m lucky enough to be one of the editors at Poetry Salzburg Review. It provides me with the opportunity to read works from poets all over the world, many times, before anyone else has discovered them.
How did you come to make The Flowering of the Crone: Leonora Carrington, Another Reality? What drew you to Leonora?
This is a question for a whole separate interview! Suffice to say that in college, my best friend was a surreal painter, and she introduced me to Carrington’s work. Years later, I’m living in NY, and another art friend told me that Leonora had moved to the city for the winter, and that she knew her. By that time I was involved in filmmaking. I grabbed a friend who had a camera and knocked on Leonora’s door. That felt surreal in itself!
Poetry, filmmaking, surrealism are all of a piece. They are all the language of dreams, our inner world. My first loves in film were the films of Maya Deren. Strangely, years before I ever heard of Deren, I made a 16mm film, 8 minute short, called Silver Apples of the Moon (1977). It won a student Academy Award. Someone came up to me at that ceremony and said, You must be a fan of Maya Deren. I said, Who’s Maya Deren? When I finally saw Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), it made me shiver. It was so much like Silver Apples, I felt I was encountering my soul sister long dead! It was eerie.
What might you have done if you hadn’t been distracted by Reel Women?
That’s a nearly impossible question to answer. But I have to say, Reel Women never once felt like a distraction. It felt more like a mission. From the moment I discovered that great role models had been abandoned by history, it was like someone put a mantle on my shoulders and said, ‘This is your task. Your life is not your own again until you finish it’. Well, it took 30 years, but I’m finally done. Now I hope it finds a life of its own, and these women never get lost from history again.
How does your filmmaking connect with your work as a poet?
Some of this I think I’ve answered above. I do not have poems about women filmmakers. I did write a poem about another remarkable woman lost to history, the mathematical prodigy, Sonya Kovalevsky. She was the first woman to teach higher mathematics at a University in Europe. She had to teach for the first two years without pay to prove a woman could teach. I wrote a screenplay about her that was a Finalist for the Nicholls Fellowship. It’s called The Mathematical Mermaid. I had an agent who sent it around to the studios for a while. But no one wanted to touch a period piece that had a woman as the protagonist. And so it goes…
What’s your next film project, now your life is almost your own again?
I’m working on something now, but I won’t talk about it. I learned a long time ago — and this goes for writing too — that if you talk about a creative endeavour before you’ve done it, the subconscious feels as though it’s already happened because it’s been expressed… Then you won’t finish it. So I hope you’ll forgive me. Suffice to say, the path of giving unacknowledged remarkable women their say will never be over for me.
(A Russian mathematical prodigy, Kovalevsky was the first woman to teach mathematics at a University, 1850–1891)
A systematic man, he knew it all.
It was arithmetic Malevich taught best.
But abstract considerations, I must confess,
were my call. At thirteen I asked about the sine.
A logical man, it wasn’t his curriculum.
Besides, “philosophies hurt the brain
without frequent reference, and cause strain
for girls,” he said. “Find a different strategem.
Females are exempt from trigonomic functions.”
A generous man, Malevich taught without exception.
It was father who removed Bourdon’s Algebra
thereby making my proof difficult to decipher.
(He had a frightful horror of learned women)
I stole the book; took on the sine by night.
An avidity seized me, (I worked often without light),
I substituted chord for the enigmatic sine
A quantity close enough, it seemed, given
these angles were only small and slight.
(Something sweet rippled through me, and I surrendered)
One night possessed,
I asked Tyrtov, the physicist, when he came,
to speak of analytic trigonometry.
(As if I’d uttered the profane, father shivered)
Tyrtov laughed. Suggested I be humble.
“Your mind has but breath enough to stumble
on systematic learnings, being a woman’s
and so severed.” I conceded, yet explained to him
the method of the chord. He mumbled
something to my father, then was silent.
An explosion seized him till his breath was spent.
A strange heat left him, which I absorbed.
“Don’t you see? The application of the chord
is the same road Pascal went!”
(The sweetness left father’s eyes, and he surrendered)
Like lust pursued without restraint,
for years I grieved no instant severing of that chord
that led me to insatiable
yearning for the sine, and hid my father
from me, and I from him.
© 1994 Ally Acker, Surviving Desire
Reel Women Archive Film Series
10 Disc series, or as single discs (click for each link)
1. The Herstory
2. Screenwriters on Screenwriting
3. Editors on Editing
4. Actresses Turned Producer/Director
5. The Producer/Director relationship
6. Directors on Directing 1
7. Directors on Directing 2
8. Foreign Directors on Directing
9. Early Directors on Directing
10. Producers on Producing