________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 2 . . . . September 12, 2008

cover Fantastic Female Filmmakers. (Women’s Hall of Fame Series).

Suzanne Simoni.
Toronto, ON: Second Story Press, 2008.
122 pp., pbk., $10.95.
ISBN 978-1-897187-36-4.

Subject Heading:
Women motion picture producers and directors-Biography-Juvenile literature.

Grades 4-8 / Ages 9-13.

Review by Julie Chychota.

*** /4


Anne Wheeler was just learning the art of filmmaking when she was asked to shoot a groundbreaking ceremony from the air, for a commercial project. But Anne was afraid of heights. She was using a rented camera and, since she was so nervous, she barely glanced at the camera’s user manual before stepping into the plane. Strapped in place with a simple belt used to hold up trousers, she hung out the plane’s open doorway and filmed the event. Back on the ground, Anne thought the worst was over. But she was in for a shock when the rolls of film came back from processing and she realized that she had filmed everything with the camera held upside down. The only way to watch the film was to stand on your head! While the company’s client was on the way to view the footage, Anne got help with bolting the camera upside down on the ceiling of the viewing room. The client never knew the difference.


Like previous releases in Second Story Press’s “The Women’s Hall of Fame Series,” Fantastic Female Filmmakers celebrates women’s contributions to the world. In this instance, author Suzanne Simoni laments that the “playful, pioneering spirit of filmmaking” in its fledgling state at the turn of the last century gave way to the more prescriptive atmosphere that accompanied the entrance of “talkies” into cinematography, and which saw men shuttering out women from behind the camera. She then spotlights 10 individuals who persisted in making films in spite of the resistance they encountered with respect to their sex, their directorial style, or their choice of subject matter.

      Fantastic Female Filmmakers adheres to the structural pattern established by its sister texts: 10 chapters of eight to 13 pages in length, preceded by a table of contents and an introduction, and succeeded by pages designated “Glossary,” “Sources and Resources,” and “Photo Credits,” for a total of 122 pages. Deciding who makes the cut and who does not is always a gamble in a survey such as the one Simoni performs. She relates that she “chose women who have had different experiences working as feature film directors” in an industry that is still dominated by men.

      In accordance with her loosely articulated criteria, Simoni includes Nell Shipman, Ida Lupino, Margarethe Von Trotta, Anne Wheeler, Martha Coolidge, Sally Potter, Deepa Mehta, Euzhan Palcy, Mira Nair, and Patricia Rozema. Apart from Shipman (b. 1892) and Lupino (b. 1918), all the filmmakers featured were born in the 1940s and 1950s. Conspicuously absent are directors born after that time. One supposes that up-and-coming directors, such as Mina Shum (b. 1966) and Sarah Polley (b. 1979), have not yet wrapped up enough feature films to meet the criteria for inclusion; still, one would think that their freshness would appeal to the 9- to 13-year-old demographic for which this series is marketed.

      Nevertheless, Simoni selects women whose lives represent diverse experiences, yet serendipitously intersect in domestic and professional respects. For example, Shipman, Lupino, Van Trotta, and Mehta all married (and later divorced) men invested in filmmaking, be it as promoters, actors, or directors. Shipman gave birth to twins, as did Wheeler. Lupino and Wheeler both implemented a motherly, nurturing approach to directing, and both deliberately chose to make films about ordinary people. Mehta and Nair were both born in India and moved to North America but have filmed in their native country. Together with Palcy, who hails from Martinique, they make films that challenge stereotypes.

      The women’s lives intersect in terms of place, too. Shipman, Wheeler, and Rozema were all born in Canada. Coolidge, an American, has worked and lived in Montréal and Toronto. Lupino, Potter, and Von Trotta were born in Europe, the former two in England, the latter in Germany, whereas the Caribbean-born Palcy studied filmography in France. Since their work takes them across continents, Mehta and Nair might locate it and themselves somewhere between Indian and North American influences. No matter where they roam, nor whether they developed an interest in filmmaking in their early teens (Shipman, Lupino, Coolidge, Potter, Palcy) or after post-secondary studies (Van Trotta, Wheeler, Mehta, Nair, Rozema), all have proven themselves resourceful and innovative directors.

      In addition to providing a sense of the filmmakers’ personal backgrounds and the professional challenges they have faced, Simoni synopsizes a handful of their films. One of the pressing concerns for all 10, as it emerges in this text, is the need to tell women’s stories, whether those stories are of self-sufficient women in the wilderness, of unwed mothers, of a black girl attending a white school, of awkward young women who transform into self-assured beings, or of the bonds of sisterhood. Despite a serious lack of funding for their craft, these filmmakers have told stories that generated a remarkable number of firsts: Shipman “pioneered animal rights in film” (p. 14), Lupino was the “first woman in Hollywood to attempt self-directing” (p. 25), Coolidge “became the first woman president in the sixty-six-year-old Director’s Guild of America” (p.59), Nair was the first woman to win the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival (p. 99), and Rozema was the “first woman to direct a Jane Austen movie” (p. 109).

      Like its 11 series-sisters, Fantastic Female Filmmakers also privileges visual imagery. For example, an image of an elegant Pantages-style auditorium adorns the glossy cover stock, with the book’s title centred on the proscenium stage, while photographs of Shipman, Palcy, Mehta, and Potter are aligned along the bottom fifth of the space. Furthermore, each of the 10 chapters begins with a half-page black-and-white photograph of one of the filmmakers set inside a graphic border that resembles a frame of filmstrip. Twenty-two additional black-and-white photographs depict the 10 women engaged in various aspects of filmmaking. Also, on the flip side of every chapter’s title page is a “Selected Filmography” of that filmmaker, capped by an icon of a reel of film. Another 19 sidebars throughout the book pair up icons of movie projectors or directors’ chairs with filmmakers’ quotations. Finally, page numbers appear inside tiny clapboards centred horizontally at the bottom of every page. These accents establish a visual continuity within the text and within the series.

      This book contains much beauty; unfortunately, it also contains a few beasties. All too frequently for my taste Fantastic Female Filmmakers begins sentences with coordinating conjunctions (at least 17 times), thereby rendering them fragments. Similarly, it is much too fond of the dash, which loses its punctuating punch if it receives too much screen time. The coherence of at least one paragraph is stretched very thinly (p. 19, par. 3), and there is a tiny problem with consistency: Shipman’s “Selected Filmography” progresses chronologically from top to bottom, whereas all the others’ unfold in reverse chronological order. However, quotations without introductory signal phrases present the greatest offence (p. 9, 45, 75, 96, 97, 112). While juvenile fiction might be excused for taking certain liberties, one expects juvenile nonfiction to exemplify the kind of writing appropriate for the reports and essays it might engender.

      Of course, it would be petty to let stylistic pet peeves prevent anyone from reading Simoni’s text for research or recreation. Fantastic Female Filmmakers is billed as a book for ages 9 to 13, and although the two paragraphs excerpted above read at a Flesh-Kincaid grade level of 7.3, the book’s 9 cm x 6 cm, 122-page format, image-rich design, and clipped sentences suggest it might be better suited to readers aged 9 to 11. Given its list of “sources and resources,” it would serve as an excellent initial reference point for older readers, too.

      In Fantastic Female Filmmakers, Simoni captures both the playfulness and the perseverance of her subjects. This book will especially encourage and empower young girls and women who wish to break into filmmaking.


Julie Chychota lives in Ottawa, ON, and works as a computer interpreter and sometime transcriptionist.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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