Saving Women’s Films: A Q&A with Drake Stutesman of the Women’s Film Preservation Fund

DRAKE STUTESMAN is Co-chair (with Roberta Friedman) of the Steering Committee for the Women’s Film Preservation Fund, a project of the organization New York Women in Film and Television (NYWIFT).

Throughout this month in New York City, the WFPF is hosting three major events in celebration of the preserved and restored work of a number of women filmmakers.  On November 3, this month-long event was kicked off with a screening of pioneering African American woman filmmaker Jessie Maple‘s 1981 film WILL. (See the previous October posting here on Her Film for a press release detailing the events of the Women’s Film Preservation Fund’s screenings and discussions in November.)

Her Film: What are the most pressing issues within the process of preserving women’s films, either technical, financial, or socio-cultural?

Ms. Drake Stutesman: The most pressing issue is, of course, the rapid deterioration of film stock. We are racing against time to preserve films that will be lost forever if they are not saved. Money is always an issue and we hope, as do many foundations working to save films, to raise public awareness about the quality of these films and to raise funds to ensure that our heritage isn’t lost. The third part of your question, the socio-cultural issue, is very relevant to The Women’s Film Preservation Fund, as we are the only such of fund in the world. We save films in which women have played a significant creative role. Sadly, women’s phenomenal and often pioneering contributions to the film industry have been marginalized. Our small committee has funded films that would probably not have been awarded grants by larger institutions with a wider scope. But, as in all history, these tiny efforts will save something, seemingly insignificant at the time, which proves to be, for a later generation, of enormous value and can come to define the culture.

HF: Many restored films have amazing back stories about where they were found and how they arrived at a place to be restored.  How do films normally gain the attention of the Women’s Film Preservation Fund?

DS: People apply for grants annually. They can be individuals, the filmmakers themselves or institutions. We have given grants to the Library of Congress, the Pacific Film Archives, and George Eastman House, for example. How each applicant came to have the film always has a unique side. Serendipitous finds are not uncommon.

We also are now working with the Film Foundation and actively seeking certain key films to restore. We work with film scholars and archivists to target films that urgently need to be saved. There are films made by women that will change the film canon as it currently stands and this work, known in element pieces or only in texts, must be found, salvaged, or restored. The prodigious work of Alice Guy Blaché is one such director. There was a major exhibit of her films at the Whitney Museum in New York last year. Her charming narrative short, The Cabbage Fairy, screened in 1896 rivals the Lumière brothers as the first narrative film ever made. She made comedies, epics, dramas, westerns, parodies and more with exceptional talent. Most of her films (of the 300+ that she made) were lost but some 80 films have been found and restored.  The Women’s Film Preservation Fund has preserved 4 of them and we were pleased to participate in the Whitney show with a panel discussion and screening.

HF: How does the WFPF involve people who might not recognize the need for the preservation of such films?

DS: We deeply believe that saving a film is only half of our practice. The films must be seen and studied. We make every effort to screen films at venues such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which offer us a space annually. We participate in panels, conferences, lectures and screen in a variety of locations and have toured the US and Europe with a set of 9 films. Audiences typically are wildly enthusiastic when they see these amazing films, some of which have not been screened for decades.

HF: The WFPF is a part of the organization New York Women in Film and Television, the mission of which also encompasses women in media.  How does the preservation and exhibition of restored films by women compare with that of television and media?  Is there more urgency to preserve film due to the nature of the physical material (celluloid)?

DS: Film is a fragile substance, especially stock made before the 1980s but video is also in danger. We wish that we could preserve video and TV as well but it is always a matter of money. We just don’t have enough.

HF: It must be a moving experience for women filmmakers to have their work preserved or restored and exhibited.  What has your personal experience been in working with these filmmakers, especially those who attend the events at which their work is screened?

DS: Filmmakers are thrilled to have their beautiful work restored to them. Meredith Monk actually said her film, Ellis Island, looked better after our restoration than it had looked when she first made it!  Every screening I’ve attended in the 10 years I’ve been on the committee has been exciting because the films are often so extraordinary. We have been able to include panels with filmmakers or people commenting on the films including Ruby Dee, Susan Meiselas, Tracey Moffatt, and, recently at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Jessie Maple, now in her 80s, the first African American woman to make an independent feature film. These women have remarkable talent and remarkable experience and their conversation often generates great interaction with the audience. It’s fantastic to see how interested in the films, in filmmaking and in preservation people are.

HF: Is there a way in which the work of the WFPF can influence, or is influencing, the current filmmaking industry in the United States?

DS: That is a wonderful thought. The influence exists because we have been able to help make the films exist again and if you can see an exceptional film then you can think about new ways to make a film or new ways to think politically or new ways in which to conceive of an era such as the 1960s or 1970s when that film was made.

It is crucial that the films speak for themselves and not be left for historians to speculate about what a film might have been like.

I urge everyone to donate to The Women’s Film Preservation Fund… even $10 can help!  Go to our website for more information about our past recipients, our history and how to contribute.

___________________________________________________

Thanks go out to Drake Stutesman for engaging with Her Film to talk about this important topic, and to Kia Muhammad of Film First Co. for making the arrangements.

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