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Community Women Pick Up the Camera: It Was the 1970s

The Ann Arbor Film Festival commissioned essays from the curators of our special programs for the 60th AAFF, and published them in our program book. Enjoy this essay by Ariel Dougherty, curator for At the Half Century Mark: Celebrate Early Productions from Women Make Movies.

A film strip with three stills from Women's Happy Time Commune
Women's Happy Time Commune by Sheila Paige

Teenagers; young twenty-year-olds who worked with teenagers; a 29-year-old secretary from the local settlement house and her sister; a middle-aged mother of two boys; a nun from the church that initially housed the workshop; and a retiree, a former WWII Women’s Air Corps (WAC) ferry pilot all ventured into the Women Make Movies (WMM) film workshop in the summer of 1972. From then through Spring 1973 these women came afternoons, evenings, and Saturdays to put the first self-directed community women’s stories onto 16mm film. The women mastered skills of the spring-wind Bolex, organized their casts once their scripts were reviewed, and lugged camera and lights with sister-crew to their shoots. The workshop hummed with exhilaration when rushes were viewed. Then each woman hunkered down to editing, swirling her footage back and forth on rewinds, with the film laced through a movie scope, clipping out the unwanted material, reattaching stretches of footage with a cement splicer. On crafting sound, from the organizations’ files:

Two women—one, strapped with recording equipment, stands framed in the light from the open workshop door; the other runs farther up the street and stops, waiting for the signal.


She starts running toward the women with the equipment. She begins screaming as she runs and then comes to an abrupt halt ... She is out of breath and begins to cry.

Distortion. Let’s do it again.”

Backing up for a second run. The sky and buildings form an enormous vault, opening her up, making her feel small and desperate. She had needed to scream all day. It was a good time to record.” (1)

This women's community filmmaking took place, and was embraced and emboldened, within the cusp of radical change in feminist filmmaking. WMM’s first five completed workshop films rolled out of the lab just in time to be showcased on the opening day of the ten-day Women and Film International Festival in Toronto, Canada, in June 1973. Five community women filmmakers spoke before the audience. Later, they led a workshop. Also at that festival we were blown away seeing women filmmakers who had come before us: the mother of us all, Alice Guy-Blaché; Leontine Sagan; Sarah Maldoror; and so many more. While we of the seventies worked to open up an imagined future on celluloid, our unknown past unfolded simultaneously. The tidal wave of the older works was profound and invigorating. And shocking, that it had been stolen and denied.

When the women’s liberation movement began in the late 1960s we had to work both forward and backward and create institutions of support. Women-centered cinematic stories, strong with women protagonists, were almost entirely absent not only within mainstream theaters (2) but also within avant-garde screenings. Only a handful of university film programs existed.

In 1969, in our early twenties, as film teachers in the early movement of youth filmmaking, Sheila Paige and I envisioned something different. We formed Women Make Movies as a production collective working solely with all-women crews, learning skills as we went. (3) The spunk of our youth students’ works served as one influence. Andy Warhol, another. Use of real people, non-actors speaking their own words, and donning their own self-crafted costumes, in a loosely created storyline—these are components of Paige’s and my own films. Second takes, as in real life, didn't happen. Brazen, even restless, due to the doors that were closed to us, we experimented, like showing films to passersby on sidewalks. When we were told that “women are not an audience” by distributors, our apertures widened. The vitality and stories that youth brought to filmmaking we wanted for community women.

The excitement and openness in crafting untold stories into new imaginations, along with the camaraderie and buzz among participants, was palpable within WMM’s workshop. DeeDee Halleck, whose first film Children Make Movies (1961) foreshadowed the organization’s name, declared “how important spaces were where people would feel comfortable and non-alienating.” Of the carriage hayloft that was WMM’s home for nine years she exclaimed, “how brilliant you girls were to have found that. It was so charming ... it just had a very nice feel to it.” (4)

WMM’s teaching and producing of films were short-lived—lasting only that one decade. Distribution, for survival, took the lead in 1980. A number of the 39 productions (5) of works that were made under the banner of Women Make Movies are being restored. They are testament to the vibrancy of women’s celluloid hopes and dreams in that radical feminist germinal decade. May this presentation and celebration be a springboard for these and other early WMM films to become known and enjoyed by more audiences today. And into the future.


Ariel Dougherty, a co-founder of Women Make Movies in 1972, celebrates the 50th anniversary of this hub of feminist media teaching and visionary moving image, women-identified storytelling. An expert on the intersection of feminist media, its funding, and women rights, she has written scores of articles, most recently at Philanthropy Women. She is completing a book on girl and women centered community film/video teaching programs and runs a filmmakers residency program from her SW home.


(1) In Kristen Fallica email to author on June 8, 2012, she quoted this writing, seeking to know if I knew its author. I didn’t. In 2013 Fallica completed her dissertation, “Sustaining Feminist Film Cultures: An Institutional History of Women Make Movies.”

(2) While in the ensuing 50 years extensive changes have improved for women filmmakers, there remain roadblocks. One is that women directed films reach only 2.75% of US movie screens:

(3) Gunvor Nelson and Dorothy Wiley had a brief lesson with Nelson’s filmmaker husband with the Bolex before they launched the making of Schmeerguntz, which won best film at Ann Arbor Film Festival in 1966.

(4) Interview by the author with DeeDee Halleck, January 20, 2015.

(5) The author has a working nine-page document that lists all these productions as an initial basis for deeper scholarly study.


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