A Review of Women in Film and Video's New Oral History Project
Women in Film and Video (WIFV) is an organization that supports and networks women filmmakers in the DC area. Its membership features high profile documentary filmmakers, producers who have worked on Hollywood films, and young women just starting out in the business. Like the Humanities Council of Washington, DC, WIFV is celebrating over 30 years of service to their constituency. WIFV received one of the Council’s 30th Anniversary Grants earlier this year to help document their history through oral histories of some of their founders and notable members.
Many of the narrators for WIFV's oral history project are instantly recognizable to anyone interested in documentary film. Aviva Kempner, a Washington-area filmmaker known for her pieces on under-represented Jewish heroes, discussed her early life, and her circuitous path to the world of independent film. The daughter of a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor, it is clear that Kempner’s family had a strong influence on her career and creative path. She arrived in DC from Detroit as a young woman dedicated to studying law, but soon realized that filmmaking was more important to her than passing a grueling bar exam.
Each narrator addressed the challenges women face in the film industry including sexist discrimination, balancing family and work life, and finding mentors or sympathetic colleagues. Some like independent filmmaker, Marilyn Weiner and American University communications professor, Pat Aufderhide believe that the field has changed for the better, and that one is much more likely to see women in roles once reserved solely for men. Women directors and executive producers are no longer uncommon. Aufderhide credits the feminist movement and early affirmative action initiatives with some of her early success, but her impressive resume and extensive list of achievements suggest that her career has been based on the solid advice she now offers young filmmakers starting out in the business. She tells the future generation to approach everyone with a legitimate sense of self-confidence, and never go into a situation where you have to “wing-it.”
Weiner, unlike several of the other women interviewed, regularly brought her children with her on location while shooting films. She claimed that the key to balancing work and family life is to avoid being a perfectionist; one must accept that things will not always be ideal, but must make them work anyway. Another independent filmmaker, Judy Hallet, remembered benefiting from a supportive family structure. Her mother-in-law was often available to take care of her son while Hallet and her husband were away shooting films. In retrospect however, Hallet believes recognized her dedication to making time for family. “If you know what you need, and you know what makes you sane, usually you can work it out.” Before accepting major positions at a PBS network in Utah and National Geographic TV in Washington, Hallet insisted on 6 weeks off each Summer to spend with her family.
Several of the project narrators discussed the foundation of WIFV either because they were founders, early members, or because they benefited from the group’s network when they arrived in DC. Founder Ginny Durrin remembered having no grand visions when she called the first meetings; she was motivated by a simple desire for companions who could relate to her professional life. She was amazed at the rapid growth of the organization, and remembers how roles began to slowly develop among the members, and soon it became more than just a regular meeting of friends. Phylis Geller, who has been involved in WIFV in both LA and DC noted the organization’s strong efforts to encourage professional development within the field, build mentoring relationships, and conduct statistical studies to determine how many women are entering the film industry and what jobs they are taking. Geller was a former president of WIFV, and helped start the companion organization The WIFV Foundation which aims to help people outside the core organization’s membership.
This first round of oral history interviews is a wealth of information and collective memory about women making film in Washington, DC. Changes in the industry and the difficulties of being a woman in an often male dominated field are common themes discussed by all of the narrators, but each interview is unique, and offers narratives likely as vibrant as the subjects’ films. Students of the history of film and video, labor history, or women’s studies will assuredly find the archive of interviews held by Women in Film and Video, a remarkable resource not only for first-hand accounts of some extraordinary events, but also for records of the way real people remember their life works, and how they hope that information can best benefit the future of their industry.