Women make movies. This obvious fact is often overlooked in today's media world, which is dominated by men almost as strongly as Hollywood of 50 years ago.
True, a handful of women have broken the gender barrier in mainstream film. But even those with viable careers often find that their writing, directing, and producing must conform to the rules and standards of a male-controlled studio system.
Facing this unhappy situation back in 1972, two filmmakers named Ariel Dougherty and Sheila Page decided to challenge it through direct action. Convinced that independent production offered a route to free expression, they launched a workshop series in the basement of a Manhattan church and crusaded for a new kind of cinema by and about women.
They called their enterprise Women Make Movies (WMM), and a quarter century later the venture is still going strong, celebrating its 25th anniversary with major shows at New York's renowned Museum of Modern Art and other venues in a variety of cities. WMM still serves as a continual source of ideas and resources for women who feel they have something to share with the world through cinema.
"The basic idea hasn't changed in 25 years," says Debra Zimmerman, who joined WMM in 1978 and has been its executive director since 1983. "Our mission is still to facilitate the production, distribution, and exhibition of films by women and about women."
This means giving constant attention to both sides of the filmmaking equation - not only the people who make movies, but also the audiences who see them. "We want to make sure women have the capacity to make films," Ms. Zimmerman says. "And we also want to provide film for [moviegoers] aching to see their own experiences on the screen, in all their diversity. We want to bring women's films to the people who need to see them - and also to people who might think they don't want to see them!"
In keeping with these goals, one of WMM's main activities is a production-assistance program that helps women find support for their projects. It also coaches them in what Zimmerman calls "the business side of the business," as opposed to the artistic or aesthetic side.
The organization's most important activity is geared to film distribution, however. This reflects the reality that even when a movie by women is successfully completed, it will have no impact if audiences don't get a fair chance to see it.
"In any city," Zimmerman points out, "you can almost always find a film by a woman in some theater. But there aren't nearly enough. I counted a [magazine] listing of movies playing in New York ... and out of 50-odd films, six were by women. That's about 10 percent, which is about the same as the proportion of women in the Directors Guild of America.... It doesn't match the makeup of society."
All this adds up to a paradox: a motion-picture scene that accumulates vast amounts of wealth, fame, and social influence yet fails to accomplish the obviously needed task of "giving people an opportunity to see the world through women's eyes," in Zimmerman's words.
Looking back on WMM's first 25 years, Zimmerman finds two main threads running through the movies it has assisted into the world. One is a strong current of nonfiction filmmaking, much of it focused on issues left uncovered - or halfheartedly covered - by mainstream media, such as matters related to women's social and physical health.
The other is "movies that push the envelope of film not only as communication but as an art form," Zimmerman says. This includes work by such innovative talents as Sally Potter and Trinh T. Minh-ha, who combine commentary on pressing sociocultural topics with new approaches to the grammar and vocabulary of film.
Ideally, such experiments will lead to a heightened awareness that women's movies are different from men's movies in the way they're made as well as the things they say. "I can almost always tell if a woman made a film without looking at the credits," Zimmerman says. "The film isn't necessarily better, but it's different." The difference lies in a number of factors that women tend to handle differently from men: "Who is the central character? Who propels the story? Who acts and who's acted upon?"
None of which means cinema by women must be doctrinaire or predictable. "If a woman had made 'Thelma and Louise,' the men would probably not have been such cardboard-cutout characters!" says Zimmerman, with a cheerful laugh at director Ridley Scott and the Hollywood establishment he represents.
Assessing the challenges facing WMM today, Zimmerman sees hope in the fact that more women are making films. But she adds that such movies are not getting an equitable share of exposure in film festivals and other outlets. In this respect, American women are confronting more problems than their counterparts in areas of Europe and Asia, where more resources are often available.
American women tend to get "pigeonholed into certain types of projects," Zimmerman observes, "and when they do finish a film, they often don't get the marketing money they need." This leads to a vicious circle: Movies don't get marketing budgets because of their women-oriented approach, and when they fail to find an audience, the lack of support appears to have been justified.
Women Make Movies is fighting such difficulties on various fronts. "We try to bring our films to diverse audiences," Zimmerman says. "We call our women's-health films to the attention of medical schools, for instance. It's a way of infiltrating the system."
Television is another key outlet, and WMM is making solid progress here. Public television will show three of its new releases on the "P.O.V." series this summer. Some video stores carry WMM films on cassette, too, and a growing number of public libraries are making them available.
In all, Zimmerman says, matters are improving despite setbacks from recent backlashes against feminist progress in general. "So many women have now gotten the opportunity to make films," she notes, "and they will bring other women along with them. It's very hard when you're a singular voice. But when you're two or three, it's a lot easier."
WAY BEYOND 'GIRL MOVIES'
"Women Make Movies: Celebrating Twenty-Five Years of Women's Media," a special tribute on view at the Museum of Modern Art through June 2, features a wide variety of film and video works. Among the most noteworthy are these:
Sink or Swim
Su Friedrich, 1990
Brilliant and poetic movie about the filmmaker's troubled relationship with her father.
Las Madres: The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo
Lourdes Portillo and Susana Muoz, 1985
Oscar-winning film about mothers battling government terrorism during Argentina's notorious "dirty war."
Sally Potter, 1979
The movie "Psycho" and the opera "La Bohme" are starting points for this witty examination of how women are exploited and "sacrificed" to create drama and entertainment value in traditional media.
Trinh T. Minh-ha, 1982
A poetic look at how views of diverse cultures are shaped by the methods of documentary cinema itself.
Julie Dash, 1983
Ironic drama about an African-American woman looking for a career in Hollywood of the 1940s.
Hair Piece: A Film for Nappy-Headed People
Ayoka Chenzira, 1985
Humorous animation about arbitrary standards of beauty.
A Spy in the House Ruth Built
Vanalyne Green, 1989
A woman looks at the male domain of baseball.
Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy
Tracey Moffatt, 1990
Offbeat drama about an Aboriginal woman caring for her white Australian mother.
World Tour Schedule
In addition to the tribute at the Museum of Modern Art, exhibitions marking the 25th anniversary of Women Make Movies have taken place in Salt Lake City; Austin, Texas; Seoul; and Jyvaskula, Finland. Current and future events include:
Boston: Boston Women's Film Festival, through May 2
Washington: National Museum for Women in Arts, May 22
New York: Bronx Museum of the Arts, through May 28; Brooklyn Museum of Art, through June 1; Snug Harbor Cultural Center, June 4 and 18; Langston Hughes Public Library, June 14 and 21
Atlanta: Atlanta Film and Video Festival, June 5-9
St. Louis: National Women's Studies Association, June 18-22
Bylorus: Minsk Women's Film Festival, May 17-22