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Women Screenwriters

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Women Screenwriters
An International Guide

Edited by

Jill Nelmes
University of East London, UK


Jule Selbo
California State University, Fullerton, USA
Introduction, selection and editorial matter © Jill Nelmes and Jule Selbo 2015
Individual contributions © Contributors 2015
Softcover reprint of the hardcover 1st edition 2015 978-1-137-31236-5
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List of Figures ix
Acknowledgments x
Notes on Contributors xi
Foreward by Cari Beauchamp xxvii

Introduction 1
Jill Nelmes and Jule Selbo
Part I Africa
Burkina Faso 7
Jule Selbo
Egypt 9
Koen Van Eynde
Ghana 18
Jule Selbo
Kenya 21
Jeremy B. Warner
Morocco 23
Stefanie Van de Peer
Namibia 29
Jule Selbo
Nigeria 30
Noah Tsika
South Africa 39
Haseenah Ebrahim
Tunisia 45
Ouissal Mejri
Part II Asia
China and Hong Kong 55
Cristina Colet, Jule Selbo and Jeremy B. Warner
India 69
Alexis Krasilovsky, Debashree Mukherjee, Jule Selbo and Anubha Yadav
Iran 87
Debbie Danielpour

vi Contents

Israel 104
Jule Selbo
Japan 108
Lauri Kitsnik, Jule Selbo and Michael Smith
Korea 131
Jeremy B. Warner and Brian Yecies
Palestine 143
Jule Selbo
Russia 145
Michele Leigh, Jule Selbo and Tatiana Tursunova-Tlatov
Part III Australasia
Australia 163
Nicolette Freeman, Lisa French, Margot Nash and Mark Poole
New Zealand 194
Hester Joyce
Part IV Europe
Armenia 209
Carl Wilson
Austria 214
Robert Dassanowsky
Belgium 238
Ronald Geerts
Czech Republic 249
Alice Němcová Tejkalová, Filip Šára and David Sorfa
Denmark 266
Eva Novrup Redvall
Estonia 288
Margit Keerdo-Dawson
Finland 302
Riikka Pennanen and Raija Talvio
France 311
Kelley Conway, Kath Dooley, Mary Harrod, Susan Hayward,
Florence Martin, Jule Selbo, Alison Smith, Isabelle Vanderschelden
and Elena Von Kassel Siambani
Germany 363
Andrew Kenneth Gay, Alexis Krasilovsky, Ervin Malakaj,
Juliane Scholz and Carl Wilson
Greece 398
Tonia Kazakopoulou
Contents vii

Ireland 410
Susan Liddy and Díóg O’Connell
Italy 433
Mariapia Comand, Alexis Krasilovsky, Bernadette Luciano,
Paolo Russo, Jule Selbo and Bridget Tompkins
Malta 488
Monika Maslowska
Netherlands 493
Thomas van den Berg, Erik Buikema, Gert Jan Harkema,
Annelies van Noortwijk, Jennifer O’Connell, Rianne Pras, Vincent Ros,
Johanna Seelbach, Steven Willemson and Jauke van Wonderen
Norway 516
Kyja Kristjansson-Nelson
Poland 523
Jule Selbo
Romania 526
Monica Mitarcă
Serbia and Yugoslavia 533
Olga Dimitrijević
Spain 538
Natalia Sanjuan Bornay, Julia Sabina Gutiérrez and Jeremy B. Warner
Sweden 550
Johanna Forsman and Kjell Sundstedt
Switzerland 578
Michael Burri
Turkey 586
Jule Selbo
United Kingdom 591
Lavinia Brydon, Marcella Forster, Christine Gledhill,
Stella Hockenhull, Susan Liddy, Nathalie Morris, Jill Nelmes,
Jamie Sherry and Paul Wells

Part V North America

Canada 685
Michael Coutanche, Jule Selbo and J. T. Velikovsky
Cuba 693
Michelle Leigh Farrell
Jamaica 700
Tanya Gail Davies
viii Contents

Mexico 714
Maria-Teresa DePaoli and Felipe Pruneda Sentíes
United States of America 726
Jean Ansolabehere, Robert Arnett, Kristiina Hackel, Helen Jacey,
Warren Lewis, Sam Lively, Victoria Lucas, Bettina Moss,
Claudia Myers, Megan Reilly, Dorin Schumacher,
Jule Selbo, Anne Slatton, Tom Stempel, Anna Weinstein and Rosanne Welch
Part VI South America
Argentina 859
Linda Craig and Felipe Pruneda Sentíes
Brazil 870
Camila Malagolini Gama
Chile 875
Carmen Sofia Brenes
Venezuela 889
Belkis Suárez Faillace

Index 901
List of Figures

4.1 Aksella Luts as the forester’s daughter in the Young Eagles

(1927). Estonian Film Archives 294
4.2 Morsian yllättää (1941) featuring the film’s screenwriters
Kersti Bergroth, Lea Joutseno and Valentin Vaala working
on the script, accompanied by an unknown typist (left).
Valentin Vaala: Morsian yllättää 1941 ©KAVI/Suomi-Filmi Oy33.1 304
4.3 Tot Ziens/Goodbye (1995, Honigmann). Courtesy of Ariel Film 502
4.4 Director and leading man Mauritz Stiller sits centre stage,
holding leading lady Ester Julin in the theatre play
Bakom Kuopio/Behind Kuopio at Lilla Teatern, Stockholm, 1911.
Stiller adapted the play for film in 1912 as Den Tyranniske
Fästmannen/The Tyrannical Fiancée and cast Ester Julin to
repeat her role. It was her first contact with the film industry 553
5.1 The MPPDA Seal of Approval 730

Jill Nelmes and Jule Selbo

We have so many people to thank for the existence of this project; first of all the
long list of female screenwriters who have been active from the outset of the film
industry in 1896 to today (2015) across the globe. Their lives and works are inspi-
rational. We would also like to acknowledge those female screenwriters who may
not be mentioned in this volume, but who deserve to be part of this ambitious
endeavour. We would love to hear about these women, so that, in future editions,
they too can be included.
This volume represents the efforts of scholars from more than 50 nations –
freely giving their time and energy to research an array of sources that were often
difficult to access. We would like to thank the Margaret Herrick Library of the
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the British Film Institute Library,
Women Film Pioneers Project based at Columbia University, the Women and
British Silent Cinema website, and the multitude of researchers referenced in the
book. On a personal front, we would also like to thank those who led the two
of us into the field of film history and this project, especially Ted Larson, Rusty
Casselton, Scott Hudson, Cari Beauchamp, Kevin Brownlow, and the works of
Tom Stempel, Lizzie Francke and Marsha McCreadie.And of course, we wish to
thank the fine folks in the film, culture and media studies division at Palgrave
Macmillan, especially Felicity Plester, Chris Penfold and our editor, Anne Hudson.

Notes on Contributors


Jill Nelmes is reader in film at the University of East London, UK. She is the
author of The Screenwriter in British Cinema (2014), Writing the Screenplay (2012),
editor of An Introduction to Film Studies (1996) and Analysing the Screenplay (2010),
and founder of the Journal of Screenwriting. She studied screenwriting at UCLA,
has been a script reader in Hollywood, and has had a number of feature-length
screenplays in development.

Jule Selbo is a professor in the MFA in Screenwriting programme at California

State University, Fullerton, USA. She is an award-winning American screenwriter
with work in feature film, network and cable television, and animated series with
all the major Hollywood studios. She is co-editor of the Journal of Screenwriting.
She has written two books on screenwriting structure (2008, 2015) that include
information on the business of screenwriting, and her latest book is Film Genre for
Screenwriters (2014).


Jean Ansolabehere is a script coordinator and bilingual editor working in Los

Angeles, USA.

Robert Arnett is an associate professor at Old Dominion University. He teaches

screenwriting, film history, and film theory. His writing has been published in the
Journal of Popular Film and Television, Film Criticism, and Quarterly Journal of Film
and Television.

Cari Beauchamp is the award-winning author of Without Lying Down: Frances

Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood, Joseph P Kennedy Presents, and
four other books of film history. She has also written and produced documenta-
ries, serves as the resident scholar of the Mary Pickford Foundation and is seen
frequently on Turner Classic Movies. She writes for Vanity Fair and other maga-
zines and is the only person to twice be named an Academy of Motion Pictures
Arts and Sciences Scholar.
Thomas van den Berg graduated from the University of Groningen, specializing
in the development of videographic film studies. He is currently expanding his
research on the topic, while also engaging in film scoring and videography.

Natalia Sanjuan Bornay is lecturer in academic skills for NESB students at

Flinders University, where she has previously taught Spanish language, culture
and cinema. She has published several journal articles on the topics of language
teaching and strategic learning as well as a chapter in the edited volume Film,

xii Notes on Contributors

History and Memory, based on her PhD research. Her thesis explores issues of
memory, gender and identity in women-authored fiction films and documentaries
that reconstruct Spain’s contested past.

Carmen Sofia Brenes is professor of poetics and screenwriting at University of

los Andes in Chile. As well as academic director of the screenwriting Master’s
programme (MGDA), she is the director of a research project, funded by Fondecyt-
Chile, on the practical and professional current validity of Aristotle’s Poetics in
screenwriting. She is a member of the executive council of the Screenwriting
Research Network (SRN).

Lavinia Brydon is lecturer in film at the University of Kent. Her research interests
centre on the issues of space and place in film, with a particular focus on ques-
tions of mobility. She has published work that relates to these interests in the
Journal of British Cinema and Television, Dandelion, and Short Film Studies. She also
co-edits the book reviews section of NECSUS_European Journal of Media Studies.

Erik Buikema graduated with honours from the international Master’s programme
in arts, culture and media studies at the University of Groningen, specializing in
cognitive film theory. He currently holds a position as junior lecturer in film stud-
ies at the University of Groningen, while also working as an intern at EYE Film
Institute Amsterdam.

Michael Burri teaches film and European studies in the writing programme at the
University of Pennsylvania. He studied film with Andries Deinum, co-founder of
Film Quarterly, and has written on film, history, and literature in German Studies
Review, New German Critique, The Austrian History Yearbook, World Film Locations:
Vienna, and in leading Czech and US dailies.

Cristina Colet is  adjunct professor in the history of Italian cinema, the business
of film, and modern China at Saint John International University in Vinovo, Italy.
She also collaborates with Università degli studi di Torino and in particular with the
Studium Department (DAMS – Faculty of Film Studies). She is part of CRAD (Centro
Ricerche Attore e Divismo), a centre which studies actors and stardom. She is the
author of The Legend of Bruce Lee (Li Xiaolong Chuan Qi, 2008) and L’adattamento
per la serie televisiva e la questione dell’identità nazionale e culturale (2014).

Mariapia Comand has the teaching chair in Italian cinema and screenwriting
at the Università degli Studi di Udine, Italy. She directed the Master’s degree in
writing for cinema: screenwriting/criticism (2005–8). She has been a member of
the academic board for the FilmForum, International Film Studies Conference.
She has been director of the Screenwriting Research Centre Sergio Amidei
since 2004, an archive comprising original Italian screenplays. She is a mem-
ber of the academic board of the Bianco e Nero, Rome, and the academic board
of the series Italiana on cultural studies in Italian cinema for Il Castoro, Milan.
Her research has centred on the concept of writing, in both the theoretical sense
(I personaggi dei film, 2013) and the historiographical (Sulla carta: Storia e storie della
sceneggiatura in Italia, 2006), with a special interest in Italian cinema (Commedia
Notes on Contributors xiii

all’italiana, 2011), paying particular attention to cultural and social dynamics in

cinema that also involve the whole audiovisual industry.

Kelley Conway is associate professor in the department of communication arts

at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the author of Chanteuse in the City
(2004) and Agnès Varda (2015). She has published essays on music in the films of
Jean Renoir, the installations of Godard and Varda, the American career of Brigitte
Bardot, the French musical, and sexually explicit films in contemporary French

Michael Coutanche is an associate professor at the Ryerson RTA School of Media

in Toronto, Canada. He is co-author (with Charles Davis) of the 2012 Report
on Canadian Screenwriters, which sheds light on the employment statistics of
Canadian screenwriters.

Linda Craig, now retired, was senior lecturer in film and literature at the University
of East London, specializing in Latin America. Her monograph Marginality and
Gender in the Works of Juan Carlos Onetti, Manuel Puig and Luisa Valenzuela was
published in 2005, and she has published numerous articles on Latin American
and Spanish literature and film, the most recent of which is ‘Transnationalism in
Pedro Almodóvar’s All About my Mother’, Transnational Cinemas, 1 (2), 2010.

Debbie Danielpour writes screenplays, fiction, libretti and essays. She has taught
fiction and film writing for over twenty years – at San Francisco State University,
Emerson College, Harvard University Extension, and now at Boston University.
Her latest work includes the adaptation Halfway Somewhere Else and the libretto
for The Great Good Thing. Her historical feature Stand Accused is in development.
Professor Danielpour has an AB from Harvard College, an MA in film production
and screenwriting from San Francisco State University, and an MFA in fiction and
literature from the Bennington Writing Seminars.

Robert Dassanowsky is professor of German and film and director of film studies
at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs and works as an independent film
producer. His articles on film and culture have been published internationally and
his recent books include Austrian Cinema: A History (2005), New Austrian Cinema,
co-edited with Oliver C. Speck (2011), Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds:
A Manipulation of Metafilm (ed.) (2012), World Film Locations: Vienna (2012) and
Screening Transcendence: Film under Austrofascism and the Hollywood Hope 1933–38

Tanya Gail Davies is a creative agent who resides in Jamaica. She writes, pro-
duces, illustrates, designs, teaches and consults in the field of traditional, digital
and interactive media. She has received honorary mention in the Organization
of Black Screenwriters’ screenwriting competition and Jury of Peers competition
for her feature-length script, Maroon, and was an honorary recipient of a Princess
Grace Award for her undergraduate thesis. A current lecturer at the University of
Technology in Jamaica, she teaches TV production and scriptwriting. She is also
a founding member of the Writer’s Clinic (2009); the clinic offers consultations,
xiv Notes on Contributors

script analysis, screenwriting workshops/seminars, and basic legal/contract counsel

for aspiring or professional screenwriters.

Maria-Teresa DePaoli is an associate professor of Spanish at Kansas State

University. She received her doctorate from Purdue University in 2001. Her
research focuses on Latin American literature, film, media, and cultural stud-
ies. She has published several peer-reviewed articles in journals such as Letras
Femeninas, Graffylia, Hispanet, and Inter-Disciplinary Press, among other scholarly
publications. Her book The Mexican Screenplay: A Study of the Invisible Genre, and
Interviews with Women Screenwriters was published in 2013.

Olga Dimitrijević is a Yugoslavian playwright and dramaturg. Her film and

theatre reviews have been published in Vreme, Teatron, Yellow Cab, and Popboks.
She has participated in many international workshops, seminars and conferences
dealing with arts, theory and gender studies. Her play Boarding School was staged
at the Dadov Theatre in Belgrade. Other notable projects include a cabaret, Behind
the Mirror, depicting the lives of transgender sex workers in Serbia (2012), and the
book Between Us: Untold Stories of Gay and Lesbian Lives (2014), a co-edited research
project on the history of homosexuality in Serbia.

Kath Dooley is a filmmaker and academic in the department of film, television

and screen arts at Curtin University, Western Australia. She recently completed
a creative PhD exploring portrayals of the body in the work of contemporary
French directors Claire Denis, Catherine Breillat and Marina de Van at Flinders
University, South Australia. Kath has written a number of short and feature-length
screenplays, and has directed several award-winning short films and music videos.

Haseenah Ebrahim is head of the Division of Dramatic Arts (Theatre and

Performance) in the Wits School of Arts at the University of the Witwatersrand
(Wits) in Johannesburg. She received her PhD in film/media studies from
Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Her research and teaching inter-
ests include children’s and youth-targeted films, Bollywood, youth and media
culture, consumption, fandom and anti-fandom. Her publications include several
journal articles on Caribbean cinema, on Bollywood in South Africa, and on Pixar
Animation Studio’s construction of little girls. She is currently editing a collection
of essays on cinema in post-1994 South Africa.

Johanna Forsman is a screenwriter and transmedia producer, educated at Broby

Grafiska, Sweden. Together with Kjell Sundstedt, she is the author of the screenplay
Pater Noster and the theatre play Fallet Sigrid Gillner, as well as the forthcoming book
Filmmanusets svenska historia/The History of the Swedish Screenplay, the research for
which is being supported by the Swedish Film Institute. She is also the originator
and co-creator of MyStoryTours, a transmedia universe of travelling and fiction,
launching in 2015.

Marcella Forster is a writer-director specializing in short films about parent-child

dynamics. Her short film Daddy’s Girl (2007) won Best UK Short at the British Film
Festival Los Angeles and was screened at festivals around the world, including
Notes on Contributors xv

Palm Springs International Short Film Festival and Rhode Island International
Film Festival. She has written for EastEnders (BBC1) and Crossroads (Carlton) and
has had several feature film screenplays optioned and developed. She is senior lec-
turer in script and screenwriting and programme leader of the MA in media, film
and television production at the Lincoln School of Film and Media, University of

Nicolette Freeman is head of the School of Film and Television at the VCA,
University of Melbourne. She obtained BAs in filmmaking at Sydney’s University
of Technology and the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, where she
specialized in cinematography. She has shot many acclaimed drama and docu-
mentary films, including Road to Nhill (1997), Eclipse of the Man-Made Sun (1991),
Leaping off the Edge (2000), and The Lifestyle Experts (2005). She also has a Master’s
in Research in film and television, during which she investigated poetic form in
the documentary genre.

Michelle Leigh Farrell earned her PhD in Spanish: literature and cultural stud-
ies from the department of Spanish and Portuguese at Georgetown University in
Washington, DC. In her research she focuses on the Spanish-speaking Caribbean
and Brazilian national cultural productions in literature and film. As a trilingual
scholar, she teaches Spanish language, Portuguese language, Latin American film
and literature, and is active in fostering a dialogue in her research between Brazil
and Spanish-speaking Latin America.

Lisa French is deputy dean (media) and associate professor in cinema, media and
communication at RMIT University (Melbourne). She has published extensively
on Australian film.

Camila Malagolini Gama studied social communication at the University of São

Paulo, Brazil. She has worked in different areas of communication such as envi-
ronmental communication, organizing events, social media, and text production,
and studied screenwriting at California State University, Fullerton.

Andrew Kenneth Gay is an independent filmmaker and assistant professor of

convergent media at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon, where his
research is focused on non-industrial models of motion picture development and
production. As a writer-director-producer of shorts and features, he has received
multiple awards and over 50 official selections at festivals across the globe, and
his scholarship has been published in Frames Cinema Journal and the Journal of
Screenwriting. He has an MFA in entrepreneurial digital cinema from the University
of Central Florida.

Ronald Geerts teaches theatre and film courses at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel,
a screenwriting seminar at the Universiteit Antwerpen, and screenwriting history
and theory at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. He originally trained as a photog-
rapher, cinematographer and screenwriter and became passionate about theatre
when studying literature at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. He has also been a guest
lecturer at the drama and writing departments of RITS, School of Arts, Brussels. As
xvi Notes on Contributors

a member of the executive council of the Screenwriting Research Network (SRN),

he helps to promote the screenplay as an object of serious academic research.

Christine Gledhill was professor of cinema studies at Staffordshire University

and more recently visiting professor at New York University. She writes and edits
work on feminist film criticism, melodrama, and British cinema, including Home
is Where the Heart Is: Essays on Melodrama and the Woman’s Film (1987), Reframing
British Cinema, 1918–1928: Between Restraint and Passion (2003) and Gender Meets
Genre (2012). With Julia Knight at University of Sunderland she established the
Women’s Film and Television History Network, co-organized the first Doing
Women’s Film History conference (2011) and has co-edited Doing Women’s Film
History: Reframing Cinemas Past and Present (2015).

Julia Sabina Gutiérrez earned her PhD at CEISME (Centre d’Etude sur les Images
et les Sons médiatiques), Sorbonne Nouvelle University (Paris III), granted by
the interdisciplinary Labex ICCA (Industries Culturelles et Création Artistique).
She has contributed a number of conference papers and articles about Spanish
Cinema in the 1950s and 1960s. She is member of the XIII CILEC (International
Congress of Spanish Literature) and also a member of the international coordinat-
ing board of the CILEC. Julia is a screenwriter and previously studied and taught
in Madrid, Spain.

Kristiina Hackel is a professor at California State University, Los Angeles; associ-

ate chair of the department of television, film and media studies; and director
of the MFA programme in television, film, and theatre. An active BEA and UFVA
member, she has contributed to three volumes of the World Film Locations series
by Intellect Press. An award-winning filmmaker, her last directing project, Speedie
Date, was nominated for a 2009 Webby Award.

Gert Jan Harkema is a PhD candidate at Stockholm University. His research

focuses on very early cinema and aesthetic experiences.

Mary Harrod is assistant professor in French studies at the University of Warwick.

She has published numerous journal articles and book chapters on French and
global film and media. Her books include The Europeanness of European Cinema
(2014, co-edited with Mariana Liz and Alissa Timoshkina) and From France with
Love: Gender and Identity in French Romantic Comedy (2015).

Susan Hayward has written widely on French cinema. Her most recent book was
on French costume drama of the 1950s. She is the author, amongst other books,
of Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts.

Trinidad Herrera graduated from the Universidad de los Andes in Chile. She
studied the Screenwriting Master’s Programme (MGDA). Currently she works at
the School of Communication of Universidad de los Andes.

Stella Hockenhull is reader in film and television studies at the University of

Wolverhampton and co-director of the Research Centre for Film, Media, Discourse
and Culture. Her research interests include British cinema and landscape, British
Notes on Contributors xvii

women directors and animals in film. She has published widely in the field with
recent publications including a monograph titled Aesthetics and Neo-Romanticism
in Film: Landscapes in Contemporary British Cinema (2013). Her forthcoming pub-
lication with Palgrave Macmillan, titled British Women Directors, is due to appear
in early 2016.

Helen Jacey is a professional screenwriter and story consultant who has devel-
oped numerous projects for the UK and international film industry, and is author
of The Woman in the Story (2010), the first screenwriting guide on creating female
characters. She is senior lecturer in scriptwriting at Bournemouth University, UK.

Hester Joyce is a senior Lecturer in the Media: Screen + Sound programme at

La Trobe University, Melbourne, with professional credits in acting, script edit-
ing and consulting in film, theatre and television. Research interests include
scriptwriting research, policy and practice; biography and film memoir; national
cinema/indigenous cinema; and creative project assessment. A recent publication
written with Trisha Dunleavy is New Zealand Film & Television: Institution, Industry
and Cultural Change (2011). She is a co-editor of the Journal of Screenwriting.

Tonia Kazakopoulou has completed her PhD with a thesis titled Women’s Popular
Cinema in Greece: The Case of Olga Malea at the University of Reading, where she
also works as an associate lecturer in film and television studies. Tonia’s research
focuses on women’s cinema, particularly in small nations, contemporary Greek
and European cinema, and world cinema. She was a guest editor of a Special Issue
of Filmicon: Journal of Greek Film Studies (Issue 2, September 2014). She is the co-
editor of Contemporary Greek Film Cultures from 1990 to the Present (forthcoming,
Peter Lang, 2016). toniakazakopoulou@gmail.com

Margit Keerdo-Dawson is a screenwriter and script consultant. She has worked in

the film industry since 1998, working both on film sets and in production offices.
She studied cinematography and directing at Tallinn University and screenwriting
at Leeds Metropolitan University in England. She wrote the seven-part TV drama
series The Class: Life After (2010), and the film and six-part drama series Zero Point
(2014–15). She teaches screenwriting, script editing and storytelling at the Baltic
Film and Media School in Tallinn, Estonia.

Lauri Kitsnik is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, having recently

completed his dissertation on the history and readerships of scriptwriting in
Japan. His interests include East Asian cinema, silent film, adaptation, and star
studies. He has previously taught courses on Japanese literature and cinema at
Tallinn University.

Alexis Krasilovsky is professor of screenwriting at the Department of Cinema

and Television Arts, California State University, Northridge. She wrote and
directed the global feature documentary Women Behind the Camera about the
challenges and visions of camerawomen in Hollywood, Bollywood and beyond.
She co-authored with Harriet Margolis the book Shooting Women: Behind the
Camera, Around the World (2015). Her film Blood was described in the LA Times
xviii Notes on Contributors

as ‘in its stream-of-consciousness way, more powerful than Martin Scorsese’s Taxi
Driver’. Krasilovsky is an active member of the Writers Guild of America.

Kyja Kristjansson-Nelson is chair of the School of Media Arts and Design and
professor of film at Minnesota State University, Moorhead. Her film work has
been presented at festivals in Asia, Europe, North America and Australia and been
screened at venues such as the Walker Art Center, the D. C. National Museum for
Women in the Arts, the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, and the Croatian Film
Association Cinema. She was a Fulbright scholar to Iceland in 2005, a Bush Artist
Fellow in 2007, and was named 2014 Minnesota CASE Professor of the Year by
the Carnegie Foundation.

Michele Leigh is an assistant professor of film history at Southern Illinois University.

She received her PhD from the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of
Southern California. Her research interests include representations of women in
pre-Revolutionary cinema, female industrial practice in Russian cinema, gender
construction in adult animation, and issues of post-feminism in film and televi-
sion. She is currently the co-president of Women in Film History International, an
organization dedicated to the preservation of women’s film histories.

Warren Lewis teaches at California State University, Fullerton and participates

in the UCLA and University of San Diego extension programmes. His profes-
sional credits include screenplays for Paramount, Sony, Warner Bros, Fox, and

Susan Liddy lectures in the department of media and communications, Mary

Immaculate College, University of Limerick. Her research interests include gender
issues in script development and the production process; female screenwriters and
a female ‘voice’, and the representation of aging femininity in screen narratives.
She is currently researching the work and experience of Irish female screenwriters
and the potential for affirmative action strategies in the Irish film industry. She
has produced a number of documentaries with Puddle Films and her feature-
length script was supported by the Irish Film Board.

Sam Lively is a writer and film critic. He holds a BA in radio-TV-film and an MFA
in screenwriting from California State University, Fullerton. His writings on film
and television can be found at the ScreentoScreed blog.

Victoria Lucas is a development and production executive at both major stu-

dios and independent film companies, and a screenwriting consultant. She is
proud of the strong women filmmakers in her family, including her mother, Joan
Winfield (actress and playwright), and her screenwriter/actress grandmother, Bess
Meredyth,  one of the 36 founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and
Sciences, who taught her from infancy that story is the most important element
in any movie.

Bernadette Luciano is an associate professor at the University of Auckland. She

specializes in Italian cinema and cultural studies. She has published articles and
Notes on Contributors xix

book chapters on Italian cinema, film adaptation, Italian women’s historical

novels, women’s autobiographical writing and literary translation, and co-edited
an interdisciplinary book on cross-cultural encounters between New Zealand and
Europe. She is author of The Cinema of Silvio Soldini: Dream, Image, Voyage (2008)
and of the co-authored book (with Susanna Scarparo) Reframing Italy: New Trends
in Italian Women’s Filmmaking (2013).

Ervin Malakaj holds a BA and MA in German studies from the University

of Illinois at Chicago and is currently a PhD candidate in the department of
Germanic languages and literatures at Washington University in St Louis, where
he has completed the graduate certificate program in film and media studies. His
research, funded in part by a Fulbright Research Fellowship at the Eberhard Karls
Universität Tübingen, focuses on the literature of the long nineteenth century and
early film history.

Florence Martin is professor of French and francophone cinema and literature at

Goucher College and an editor of Studies in French Cinema. She is most recently
the author of Screens and Veils: Maghrebi Women’s Cinema (2011), the co-editor
(with Patricia Caillé and Kamel Benouanès) of Les Cinémas du Maghreb (2012), and
co-editor (with Guy Austin) of French and Francophone Cinema and Contestation,
a special issue of Studies in French Cinema (Vol. 13, No. 3), 2013.

Monika Maslowska is a screenwriter and PhD candidate at Bangor University,

Wales, and a visiting lecturer at the Faculty of Media and Knowledge Sciences,
University of Malta, where she teaches screenwriting. Her research interests fall
between the history and practice of screenwriting, film as art, and the concept of
hybrid documentaries. Monika is currently working on three audiovisual projects
as a writer.

Ouissal Mejri received her Master’s and doctorate from the University of Bologna.
Her thesis was titled ‘The Cinema in Egypt and in Tunisia from 1896 to the Sound
Period: the Foreign Influence’. Topics of current research include Arabic cinema
and its relationships with European cinema, and the role and contribution of
important women pioneers in the history of silent movies in Arabic cinema.

Monica Mitarcă graduated in journalism and mass communication studies at

the University of Bucharest and holds a PhD in communication studies (Media
and Pornography: Encoding and Decoding Practices). She is interested in the repre-
sentation of sexuality in the online media, Romanian cinema and social media/
Facebook. Since 1999 she has been an assistant professor at Media University, in
the journalism department, and, later on, film and television department, teach-
ing genres and formats in television. Since 2011 she has been a lecturer at the
Christian University ‘Dimitrie Cantemir’ in Bucharest, in the political studies

Nathalie Morris is senior curator of special collections at the BFI National

Archive. She has published and curated exhibitions on various areas of British
cinema including women’s work and women as audiences, Ealing Studios, British
xx Notes on Contributors

Hitchcock, and film design and costume. Her current research interests include
food and drink on film, and Powell, Pressburger and their collaborators.

Bettina Moss is an associate professor in the school of professional studies at

National University in California, where she is programme lead and creator of the
MFA in professional screenwriting programme. She has worked on independent
and big-budget films, both in casting and as a production coordinator. For over
eight years she was managing story editor and served as a development executive
for HBO Films in Los Angeles. She is a sold screenwriter, nationally published
journalist, and received her MFA in screenwriting from Columbia University film
school in New York City. She is also a Fulbright senior specialist candidate.

Debashree Mukherjee is assistant professor in the Department of Middle Eastern,

South Asian, and African Studies (MESAAS) at Columbia University. She earned
her doctorate in the Department of Cinema Studies at New York University
(2015), with a dissertation that tracks cultures of work and material practice in the
late colonial Bombay film industry (1930s–40s). She is currently an editor with the
peer-reviewed journal BioScope: South Asian Screen Studies.

Claudia Myers wrote and directed the features Fort Bliss and Kettle of Fish. The
script of the former was an outgrowth of Claudia’s extensive work with veterans
and soldiers over the last several years. She has produced and directed two award-
winning documentaries and a multi-media, interactive feature for the US Army.
As a screenwriter, she has won several awards and is an alumna of the Hamptons
Screenwriters Lab. Claudia is a professor in the film and media arts division of
American University’s school of communication in Washington, DC.

Margot Nash holds an MFA from the College of Fine Arts UNSW, Australia. She
is a filmmaker and a senior lecturer in creative practices at the University of
Technology, Sydney, where she coordinates the postgraduate writing programme.
Her areas of research include the theory and practice of screenwriting, developing
subtext, film directing and Australian independent film history.

Annelies van Noortwijk is a senior lecturer in the department of arts, culture

and media studies, University of Groningen. Her research focuses on questions of
engagement, resistance and ethics. She is currently working on a project on life
representation in contemporary documentary.

Eva Novrup Redvall is assistant professor in the department of film and media
studies at the University of Copenhagen, where she is head of the Research Priority
Area on Creative Media Industries together with Ib Bondebjerg. She holds a PhD
in screenwriting as a creative process and has published a number of articles on
Nordic film and television in books and journals. She is part of the editorial board
for the Journal of Screenwriting. Her latest book is Writing and Producing Television
Drama in Denmark: From The Kingdom to The Killing (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

Díóg O’Connell is lecturer in film and media studies at the Institute of Art,
Design and Technology, Ireland. She is the author of New Irish Storytellers:
Notes on Contributors xxi

Narrative Strategies in Film (2010) and co-editor of Documentary in a Changing State:

Ireland since the 1990s (2012). She was co-organizer of the ‘Irish Television Crime
Drama Symposium’ at the National Film School, IADT, in 2014. She has written
extensively on Irish television drama and Irish cinema for books, journals and

Jennifer O’Connell is an MA student in the department of arts, culture and media

studies at the University of Groningen, specializing in film festival policy and
documentary film theory. She has programmed for several Dutch festivals and is
currently researching the possibility of applying cognitive film theory to docu-
mentary film for her Master’s thesis.

Riikka Pennanen has an MA in film studies from the University of Westminster

in London. Based in Helsinki, she is a freelance film researcher at the National
Audiovisual Institute and writes about film at Elonet.fi and on her blog 21stcen-
turyflapper.com. Riikka’s interests include silent and pre-Code cinema, female
filmmakers and the representation of gender and sexuality.

Mark Poole is an award-winning writer and director of both drama and docu-
mentary. In 2008 he was awarded an Australian Writers Guild AWGIE award for
screenwriting, and was the chair of the AWG in Victoria for five years from 2007
to 2012. He is an occasional lecturer at Monash and RMIT Universities.

Rianne Pras is an MA student in the department of arts, culture and media stud-
ies at the University of Groningen. She is currently finishing her MA thesis on
how emotions evoked by identification, empathy and sympathy with fictional
characters relate to the experience of narrative unreliability.

Megan Reilly, MFA, is a print and internet journalist and script supervisor.

Vincent Ros graduated from the international research Master’s programme in

literary and cultural studies at the University of Groningen with a thesis on nar-
rative complexity in film noir and contemporary cinema. His current research
focuses on the cognitive and hermeneutic dynamics of film interpretation.

Paolo Russo is senior lecturer in film studies at Oxford Brookes University. He is

on the editorial boards of the New Review of Film and Television Studies and Journal
of Italian Cinema and Media Studies; of the book series ‘Cinemaespanso’ (Bulzoni,
Rome) and ‘Mimesis’ (Milan); and is a member of ISO (Italian Studies at Oxford)
and of the Screenwriting Research Network. He currently researches and teaches
screenwriting, film narrative, film history and film genres. He is also a screen-
writer: he co-wrote Three Days of Anarchy (2006), premiered at Tokyo IFF and
at 30+ international festivals.

Filip Šára is an MA student of journalism at Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles

University, Prague. Since 2008 he has been working as a freelance editor at the
news server Novinky.cz. In recent years he has been the film reviewer and editor
at Kultura 21.cz, Filmweb.cz, and Obrazor.cz.
xxii Notes on Contributors

Johanna Seelbach currently attends the international Master’s programme in the

department of arts, culture and media, University of Groningen. Her specialism is
film studies and in her thesis she researches Dutch scriptwriters and their role in
the Dutch film system.

Juliane Scholz is a researcher and lecturer at the Cultural Sciences Institute,

University of Leipzig. She earned her doctoral degree in 2014 with a dissertation
on the history of screenwriters in the US and Germany. From 2010 until 2013 she
held a scholarship from the German National Academic Foundation. She was a
member of the international doctorate program, Graduate School Global and Area
Studies at the Research Academy Leipzig. Her research areas include modern, com-
parative, cultural and social history, migration and exile studies, film and media
history, and the history of professions and intellectual property.

Dorin Schumacher, an independent scholar, has been doing research on the

life and career of Helen Gardner for many years. Schumacher has presented talks
on Gardner, published papers and book chapters on her, and restored one of her
independent features, A Sister to Carmen (1913). Schumacher is currently writing
Gardner’s biography.

Felipe Pruneda Sentíes is a teaching fellow in film studies at Hendrix College and
a PhD candidate in critical and cultural studies at the University of Pittsburgh. He is
completing his dissertation on the history of Mexican film criticism and theory, and
has published on subtitles and cinephilia in the inaugural issue of the International
Journal of Cinema. He is currently at work on a project on screenwriting and ethics.

Jamie Sherry is  lecturer in screenwriting at Bangor University, secretary

of  the Association of Adaptation Studies, and reviews editor for the Journal of
Screenwriting. He has published research on the theories and processes of adapta-
tion through screenwriting. He is also a practising screenwriter and script editor
for UK film and media production companies including Screen Yorkshire, Leeds
Bridge, and BBC Leeds, and is involved in writing and developing film scripts
for Leeds Children’s Film Festival, First Light Scheme, Berlinale Talent Campus,
and BBC Writers’ Room. He is currently completing the monograph The Adapted
Screenplay: Theory, Practice and Process (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) and Psychomania
(2015) with I. Q. Hunter.

Anne Slatton is an award-winning writer and director. She teaches video produc-
tion and film studies at the University of North Carolina, Asheville.  A frequent
panelist on issues of diversity and women in film, scholarly works include chapters
on Sofia Coppola and Lorraine Hansberry.

Alison Smith is subject head of film studies at the University of Liverpool. She
has researched and published extensively on French cinema of the New Wave and
beyond, including a monograph on Agnès Varda (1998) and another on Jacques
Rivette, co-written with Douglas Morrey. She has also published on the career
path for women as cinematographers in France, as well as on the representation
and significance of language difference in European cinema.
Notes on Contributors xxiii

Michael Smith was awarded his PhD from the University of Leeds in 2013. His
research looked at the representation of women in early postwar Japanese cin-
ema, particularly focusing on how the key political and social issues of the period
affected their onscreen portrayal. In 2012, he curated a retrospective on the actress
and filmmaker Kinuyo Tanaka for Leeds International Film Festival.

David Sorfa is senior lecturer in film studies at the University of Edinburgh and
editor of the journal Film-Philosophy. He has published on Michael Haneke, Jan
Švankmajer, Czech cinema and a wide variety of other film-related subjects. He is
the co-editor of The Cinema of Michael Haneke: Europe Utopia (2011).

Tom Stempel is professor emeritus of cinema at Los Angeles City College, where
he taught film history and screenwriting from 1971 to 2011. He is the author
of six books about film, five of them about screenwriting and screenwriters. He
currently writes the online column ‘Understanding Screenwriting’, which can be
found at www.slantmagazine.com/house.

Belkis Suárez Faillace is an assistant professor of Spanish at Mount Mercy

University. She holds a PhD in Latin American literature from the University of
Florida. Her research focuses on the representation of urban spaces through the
discourse of violence in contemporary Latin American literature and film. She has
organized and presented for panels at national and international conferences that
have brought together scholars from different countries to examine literature,
violence, and film. She has also presented on the topic of using film to teach
Spanish and culture.

Kjell Sundstedt has worked in the Swedish film industry since 1972, and written
more than 30 screenplays for film and television, as well as several theatre plays,
most notably Juloratoriet/The Christmas Oratio (1996), Elina – Som om jag inte fanns/
Elina – As If I Didn’t Exist (2002), and Den nya människan/The New Man (2007). He
is the author of Att skriva för film/To Write for Film (1999), which is used in many
film schools throughout Scandinavia, and translated into several languages, most
recently Kurdish. Together with Johanna Forsman, he is the author of the forth-
coming book Filmmanusets svenska historia/The History of the Swedish Screenplay,
the research for which is being supported by the Swedish Film Institute.

Raija Talvio is a doctoral candidate at Aalto University ELO Film School in Helsinki,
where she also teaches. The topic of her thesis is the history of screenwriting in
1930s Finland. Talvio is an award-winning screenwriter whose credits include the
feature films Little Sister (1999) and August Fools (2013), several hours of television
drama, and a stage play for the Finnish National Theatre. She has also worked as
a film editor. Her publications include articles in the Journal of Screenwriting.

Alice Němcová Tejkalová is director of the Institute of Communication Studies

and Journalism, Faculty of Social Science, Charles University, Prague. She is a prin-
cipal investigator of the Czech branch of the Worlds of Journalism study project
and a member of the Journalism Studies section of ECREA. Since 2000 she has
also been working as a freelance TV journalist. Books include The Other Athletes
xxiv Notes on Contributors

(2012). Articles include ‘The Undressed Newsroom: The Application of Visual

Ethnography in Media Research’ (2014), ‘Framing the National Indebtedness’
(2013) and ‘The Relationship between Journalism Studies and Media Professionals
in the Czech Republic’ (2011). She has also contributed book chapters titled
‘Foreign Correspondents in the Czech Republic’ (2015) and ‘Journalist Education
and Truth in the Digital Age (2014).

Bridget Tompkins holds a PhD from the University of Auckland. She is an inde-
pendent researcher and writer living in New Zealand and working in the field of
contemporary Italian literature and film. She is author of Calvino and the Pygmalion
Paradigm: Fashioning the Feminine in ‘I nostri antenati’ and ‘Gli amori difficili’ (2015).

Tatiana Tursunova-Tlatov graduated in screenwriting and cinema studies from

the Russian State University of Cinematography (VGIK) in 1989. She has worked
as a journalist, script editor, paralegal and screenwriter and now heads the office
of international affairs at VGIK in Moscow. She represents VGIK worldwide and
travels as a visiting professor to universities such as the Beijing Film Academy –
Modern Creative Media College, Qingdao China.

Noah Tsika is assistant professor of media studies at Queens College, City

University of New York, where he teaches courses on African cinema, queer and
feminist theory, and media technologies. He is the author of the books Gods and
Monsters: A Queer Film Classic and Nollywood Stars: Media and Migration in West
Africa and the Diaspora. His research focuses on the political economy of media
stardom in sub-Saharan Africa, the global politics of access to queer and feminist
media platforms, and the roles of state institutions in shaping theories and practices
of documentary cinema.

Isabelle Vanderschelden is head of French in the department of languages, infor-

mation and communications at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her research
focuses on contemporary French cinema and has written articles on popular film,
genres, subtitling and using film in language classes. She has published a critical
study of Amélie (2007), a series of essays on key films and directors titled Studying
French Cinema (2013), and has co-edited with Darren Waldron a volume on popu-
lar cinema, France at the Flicks (2007). She is currently co-authoring with Sarah
Leahy (University of Newcastle) a volume on the history of French screenwriters
from the 1930s to the present.

Stefanie Van de Peer is a teaching fellow in global cinema at the University of

Stirling in Scotland. She specializes in Arab and African women’s filmmaking,
the ethics of solidarity in spectatorship, and film festival studies. She has edited
two books: Art and Trauma in Africa (I. B. Tauris) and Film Festivals and the Middle
East (St Andrews) and curates Arab and African film programmes for festivals.

Koen Van Eynde has worked for more than five years at the Netherlands-Flemish
Institute in Cairo, teaching Arabic and doing research on Egyptian cinema and
gender representations. He has presented his work regularly at international
conferences, and is now working as an independent researcher. He has recently
Notes on Contributors xxv

finished his PhD at the University of Leuven in Belgium titled Men in the Picture:
The Representation of Men and Masculinities in Egyptian Cinema.

J. T. Velikovsky is a transmedia writer, and a doctoral candidate in communication:

film/transmedia at the University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia. He is a graduate
of the University of Newcastle (screenwriting major), and of the Australian Film,
Television and Radio School (screenwriting postgraduate certificate). His transmedia
writing weblog can be found at http://on-writering.blogspot.com/.

Elena Von Kassel Siambani teaches MA English courses in theatre, film, litera-
ture and poetry, drama and film at the University of Paris 3 Sorbonne-Nouvelle,
as well as courses in English and American History at Cergy- Pontoise University.
She is the author of Humphrey Jennings, le poète du cinéma britannique (2009).
More recently she has published articles in The Documentary Film Book (ed. Brian
Winston, 2013) and the anthology British Cinema (ed. Robert Murphy, 2013).

Jeremy B. Warner is a scholar, film editor, and film producer and has been
integrating theoretical concepts with production for over ten years. His writings
and presentations include works on transmedia and the evolution of narrative
structure. He received his MFA from Temple University.

Anna Weinstein teaches screenwriting at Auburn University. She is a develop-

mental editor for Cengage Learning, and she has served as editor of the Truman
Pierce Institute’s peer-reviewed journal, The Professional Educator, since 2007. Her
Film International series ‘Diva Directors Across the Globe’ has featured interviews
with Oscar-winning directors such as Susanne Bier, Marleen Gorris, and Caroline
Link. She is currently writing a family comedy for Furthur Films.

Rosanne Welch teaches in the masters of screenwriting programme at California

State University, Fullerton and has multiple credits as a television writer/producer
in the United States. Her research interests include Doctor Who, The Monkees, and
marriage in the movies. Publications include Torchwood Declassified: Investigating
Mainstream Cult Television, Doctor Who and Race: An Anthology, and the Journal of

Paul Wells is director of the Animation Academy, Loughborough University, a

research group dedicated to cutting-edge engagement with animation and related
moving-image practices. He is also a screenwriter and director, having published
widely in animation and film studies, and written and directed numerous projects
for theatre, radio, television and film. Books include  Understanding Animation,
Animation and America, The Fundamentals of Animation, and The Animated Bestiary:
Animals, Cartoons and Culture.

Steven Willemsen is a PhD candidate and junior lecturer in film theory at the
University of Groningen, researching cinematic narrative complexity from a cog-
nitive perspective. He is the co-author of a forthcoming monograph, provisionally
titled Impossible Puzzle Films, which addresses cognitively dissonant storytelling in
contemporary cinema.
xxvi Notes on Contributors

Carl Wilson is an associate lecturer in media at the Sheffield College. Writing on

a variety of media topics, his work has recently appeared in four volumes of the
Directory of World Cinema series (American Hollywood and American Independent),
and three volumes of the World Film Locations series (Vancouver, Toronto, and
Havana). Carl looks at UK Heritage film tourism in the forthcoming Fan
Phenomena: Jane Austen, has an essay on ‘Hollywood North, Canada’ forthcom-
ing in Mapping Cinematic Norths, and is currently developing the multi-media
digitization archive project at Kelham Island Museum, Sheffield.
Jaukje van Wonderen currently attends the international Master’s in arts, culture
and media at the University of Groningen, where she is a former coordinator of
the film archive and research laboratory.

Anubha Yadav teaches broadcast studies at the University of Delhi, India. Her
key research areas are screenwriting practices in Indian cinema and gender
in screenwriting practice. Her research work has appeared in the International
Screenwriting Journal. She has also presented papers at the Universities of Helsinki
and Copenhagen. At present she is working on compiling a book of interviews
with women screenwriters in Mumbai cinema. She also writes fiction. A short
story was shortlisted for the Wasafiri New Writing Prize in 2013.

Brian Yecies is senior lecturer in cultural studies at the University of Wollongong,

Australia. He is author of Korea’s Occupied Cinemas, 1893–1948 (2011, with
Ae-Gyung Shim) and The Changing Face of Korean Cinema: Planet Hallyuwood,
1960–2015 (forthcoming, with Ae-Gyung Shim). His writes on transnational film
and digital media in Asia.
Cari Beauchamp

Here, for the first time, the breadth and depth of the talent of female screenwrit-
ers is put front and centre. We see how women screenwriters from around the
globe have proven themselves in all genres, entertaining while revealing injus-
tices, hopes, ambitions, tragedies and possibilities – all from a unique, ‘female’
The ripple effect of these writers’ lives and work may be impossible to quantify,
but it is difficult to overstate the impact their films have had from the very begin-
nings of the film industry. For instance, French filmmaker Alice Guy, who began
in directing in 1895, influenced the work of American Lois Weber who went on
to have protégées such as Frances Marion who became the highest-paid American
screenwriter – male or female – from 1915 through the mid 1930s. Marion’s work
in turn made an impression on female screenwriters in Russia such as Ayn Rand
and Zoia Barantsevich who were also influenced by German Thea von Harbou’s
Metropolis and other women writers from throughout the world including Japan,
Spain and the United Kingdom.
Half of all films written in America before 1925 were written by women, and
in the silent era, when there was no competition from radio or television, their
films were particularly revelatory. At a time when most people had been only a
few miles from their birthplace, they could enter their local cinema to witness
different lifestyles, cultures and ideas of freedom on the big screen.
The focus on female screenwriters also underscores how international film has
been from its very beginnings. Readers may know a lot about Hollywood and a
little about Bollywood, but here they will also learn about Nollywood, southern
Nigeria’s remarkable film industry, and women’s important role in it. We also see
how nuances in culture affect opportunities for female screenwriters in countries
such as Jamaica, Malta, Cuba, Mexico and Israel. With over 50 nations represented
here, there is so much new to discover and appreciate.
Excavating the history of women writers is a challenging calling – in part
because they often did not keep archives – either because they thought so little
of their own work or because they were so busy doing other things. Jule Selbo,
Jill Nelmes and their over 100 contributors should be commended for what they
have unearthed – it is a work of committed scholarship that is also a work of love.
Just like the women whose stories they spotlight, the editors’ perseverance,
passion and dedication elevate and illuminate the power and significance of film.
Please let this serve not as the last word, but as the beginning of the discussion of
the importance of hearing the female voice.

Jill Nelmes and Jule Selbo

In this study of female screenwriters, from the first film scenarios produced in
1896 to the present day, we highlight the work of more than 300 writers from
over 50 nations. Each entry gives an overview of the history and background of
women screenwriters in that country, highlighting its most influential females in
individual entries.
The scope and range of the book is ambitious and there is no existing work
that gives such coverage of the subject. The guide is divided into six sections by
continent: Africa, Asia, Australasia, Europe, North America and South America.
There are entries for the more frequently written about nations such as the US, the
UK, France and Australia, as well as countries like Malta, Romania, Korea, Poland,
South Africa and Switzerland where we have found a rich but rarely discussed
tradition of female screenwriting. Indeed the entries for individual countries show
how varied the experience of female screenwriters is – experiences that are very
dependent on historical, social and political factors. We have tried to include
entries on all the film-producing countries, although unfortunately it has not
been possible to do this where there is very little information available or where
we were unable to find a contributor. We hope that publication of the book will
encourage discussion of these omissions as well as promoting the subject further.
In subsequent editions, we hope to include information on more females who
have used their talents as screenwriters in the feature film industry.
Women screenwriters were at the forefront of the film industry in its earliest
days in many nations around the world. The sudden popularity of early film-
making created opportunities for women in key creative positions; early screen-
writers and filmmakers such as the Frenchwoman Alice Guy, Americans Gene
Gauntier and Lois Weber, Australian Lottie Lyell, and Fatma Begum in India were
writing, directing, producing and creating their own film companies.
In most countries the myriad opportunities for women in the film industry
changed after a relatively short period. By the coming of sound in 1928, it had
become evident how much money might be made in the industry. This meant
that corporate interests (dominated by males) began to dictate, more males were
drawn to the industry and the ranks of female screenwriters diminished. Even in
Sweden, a country with a strong tradition of female writers, women only wrote
2 Women Screenwriters

6.5 per cent of the 240 films made during the 1930s. In the UK, for instance, a
small number of talented women writers such as Muriel Box and Janet Green were
very successful in the 1940s and 1950s, but most women only wrote one or two
films. The decline of the studio system in the 1950s in Hollywood and parts of
Europe did little to help women writers and, as audiences fell, fewer films were
made. At the same time, television began to attract millions of viewers and some
female screenwriters moved their careers to the new medium, not only in the
United States but wherever television programmes were produced. In Sweden,
Astrid Lindgren adapted her very popular Pippi Longstocking children’s books for
film and television in a career that lasted 33 years.
More recently there are grounds for optimism; in countries such as Sweden,
the Netherlands and Denmark the gender balance is now almost even. In South
Africa, for example, television has provided a platform for women writers like
Sara Blecher (Zero Tolerance, 2011); she has gone on to make feature films and
documentaries. Indeed it is noticeable how many women now move from film
to television with ease. However, there are still nations that pose restrictions and
strong censorship; Iran levies severe constraints on women’s freedom, yet some
of its female writers and filmmakers, like Rakhshan Bani-Etemad and Samira
Makhmalbaf, have received worldwide acclaim for their films. In the Soviet
Union, after World War II, countries like Estonia, Czechoslovakia and Romania
had strict censorship imposed on the content of screenplays. Greater freedom
following Stalin’s death in 1953 allowed women writers and directors to work,
and Perestroika, in 1985, ended state control of the studios. When Estonia gained
independence in 1991, it took some time for women screenwriters to gain a
foothold, but by the 2000s a new generation of women had emerged.
The late 20th and early 21st centuries brought a greater awareness of gender
inequity in the film industry, particularly regarding writing and directing. Many
countries are now trying to redress this imbalance and some have initiated quotas
to ensure there are more women film writers; in the Netherlands many of their
most successful films are written and directed by women. In Argentina, of 64 films
made in 2005, 13 were by women; however, the numbers have not remained this
high; in 2012, of 51 films produced, only five were by women. Unfortunately, for
every success, or partial success, there are other countries, such as Romania, where
very few scripts written by women are produced.
Despite difficulties along the way, a great many outstanding women screen-
writers from across the world have emerged in the last 110 years and there is rea-
son for celebration. Poland boasts award-winning screenwriters such as Agnieszka
Holland, Italy celebrates Suso Cecchi d’Amico and others, and China claims Li Yu
and Ann Hui among their talents. Women screenwriters in the Middle East are
exploring difficult narratives of identity and freedoms, and female filmmakers
in Africa are contributing stories that are shining lights on social and political
There is still a need to encourage the film industry in the majority of nations to
be more receptive to women writers and women’s stories. We hope this volume
will inform and inspire and point to the fact that women screenwriters have
Introduction 3

shown their creativity, capabilities and value from the beginning of cinema into
contemporary times.
We thank all the contributors who have been so diligent in their research and
helped to illuminate these women’s lives and work.
Part I
Burkina Faso
Jule Selbo

Burkina Faso (formerly the Republic of Upper Volta and also referred to as Burkinabe or
simply as Burkina) is in West Africa. It is one of the most prolific feature-film-producing
countries in Africa and, in 1969, established the Festival Panafricain du Cinéma et de
la Télévision du Ouagadougou (FESPACO), the largest film festival in sub-Saharan
Africa, which takes place biennially in March and boasts more than half a million
attendants. FESPACO focuses on African film and filmmakers, and its focus is to
encourage and support the expansion of African cinema as a means of expression,
education and awareness-raising. Burkina also headquartered the Federation of
Panafrican Filmmakers (FEPACI) before it moved its operations to South Africa.
Directors such as Gaston Karbore, Idrissa Ouedraogo and Dani Kouyate hail
from Burkina. Traditionally, due to the cost of education in the country (roughly
$100 a year per child), most families have chosen to send only male children to
school; this caused the literacy rates for girls to be low. In recent years, however,
this policy seems to be changing.1
Fanta Régina Nacro (1962–), screenwriter and director, was born in the
landlocked Burkina Faso. She earned her first degree at the African Institute for
Cinematographic Studies (INAFEC – the only training venue in French-speaking
sub-Saharan Africa until it closed in 1986) in Burkina and then moved to Paris to
earn her Master’s degree in film studies at the Sorbonne. She wrote and directed
a short film, Un Certain Matin, in 1992 and continued making short films, choos-
ing to employ a humorous perspective on the traditions of her country and the
multiple obstacles that present themselves in relation to the modern world. In
1993 she founded her own production company, Les Films du Défi. Her film
Bintou (2001) won more than twenty prizes at international festivals, including
Cannes, Bermuda and FESPACO, for the best short film of 2001. It is the story of
the mother of three children (Bintou) who is beaten by her husband for using
housekeeping money to send her daughter to school. Her husband believes only
men should be educated. Determined to give her daughter more than she expe-
rienced, Bintou decides to earn her own money by growing millet sprouts. Her
husband continues to sabotage her efforts but Bintou does not give up. Bintou
was included in a collection of three short films called Mama Africa, hosted by
American actress and musician Queen Latifah. This collection includes works
8 Women Screenwriters

by African female filmmakers such as Ingrid Sinclair (Zimbabwe), Raja Amari

(Tunisia), Bridget Pickering (Namibia), Ngozi Onwurah (Nigeria) and Zulfah
Otto-Sallies (South Africa).
Nacro penned and directed her first feature, Night Of Truth, in 2004; this was a
French/Burkinabe production. The genesis of the narrative idea, according to Nacro,
came as she read about the atrocities in the war in Yugoslavia in the early years of
2000 – specifically about women being raped and tortured. She was taken aback
and reflected on the dualistic nature of humankind – that human nature is both
good and bad. The question she examines is: what causes one or the other to
dominate? Night of Truth is set in a fictional West African country and explores the
relationship between two warring ethnic groups, the Nayak and the Bonandes. The
leader of the Bonandes calls for a reconciliation. Things begin to progress – until
the village idiot causes things to fall apart.
Sarah Bouyain was born in France in 1968. Her mother was French, her father
half French and half Burkinabe. She originally studied mathematics, but moved
on to study cinematography at the Louis Lumière School of Cinematography. She
began to concentrate on her African heritage and wrote the book Métisse façon;
its narrative focuses on children born to African women and French soldiers dur-
ing colonial times. She penned (co-writing with Frenchwoman Gaëlle Macé) and
directed the film Notre Étrangère/The Place in Between (2010), a film that explores
the life of a mixed-race young woman who leaves Paris to explore her familial
roots in Burkino Faso.

1. ‘Education – Burkina Faso’, Nationsencyclopedia.com (2009).
Koen Van Eynde

Pioneering women in the liberal period (1920s and 30s)

Ali Badrakhan, a prominent Egyptian ‘new wave’ director active from the 1970s
until the present day, is reported to have said that ‘Egyptian cinema was shouldered
by women, namely Aziza Amir, Fatma Rushdy and Assia (Dagher)’. It is perhaps not
a coincidence that Fatma Rushdy herself has referred to this statement in her mem-
oirs (quoted in Abdel Rahman 2002: 29), and the importance of the contributions of
these and other women – behind the camera – to an emerging national film culture
in Egypt cannot be denied. Nevertheless, the available studies about women’s con-
tributions often focus on their acting careers, and they are remembered in Arabic or
Egyptian film historiography in terms of their actual ‘visibility’ as actresses, rather
than as filmmakers who wrote, directed, acted in, composed the soundtracks of,
and sometimes designed the costumes and décor for, their own films.
Important to understanding these early films is the context in which they were
made, and in which the female pioneers of cinema – Aziza Amir, Bahiga Hafez,
Assia Dagher, Mary Queeny, Fatma Rushdy and Amina Mohamed – started working.
In early-twentieth-century Egypt, feminist movements were formed under the
guidance of middle- and upper-class women like Hoda Shaarawi. The first feminist
movements were mainly concerned with constructing women’s support networks.
Hoda Shaarawi was the first to politicize women’s demands (Badran 1996: 51), and
as the president of the Egyptian Feminist Union strove for women’s equal rights
in Egypt. Although in the 1923 constitution all citizens were considered equal,
a later electoral law did not give women the right to vote. Other female writers
and poets in the time of Hoda Shaarawi were publishing their work within the
context of this modernization and education of the nation in the late-nineteenth
and early-twentieth centuries. An important feature of this modernist discourse
was the focus on male-female gender relations and a reinterpretation of Islamic
texts. These modernist discourses also reappeared in novels and articles by male
writers, like Qasim Amine and Taha Hussein (the latter was a vehement proponent
of equality between men and women and opposed polygamy).1
In this setting and shortly after (formal) independence from the British in 1922,
Aziza Amir (1901–52) produced her first film, Layla (1927, originally titled Nid̄ ʾ

10 Women Screenwriters

All̄h/God’s Calling).2 Aziza Amir was an actress, director, producer and screenwriter,
one of the most important pioneers in the Egyptian film industry; she made the
first Egyptian feature-length narrative film and wrote at least seventeen scenarios.3
Talaat Harb Pasha, a banker and founder of the Studio Misr in 1935, congratulated
her for ‘accomplish[ing] what men could not’ (Darwish 1998: 11). However, some
critics found fault; her first film incorporated commercial ‘Hollywood-elements’
according to Abdel Rahman, referring to Rudolph Valentino’s 1926 performance
in the film The Son of the Sheikh.4 Abdel Rahman’s comments are not entirely sur-
prising, as Ifdal Elsaket notes that films about ‘peasants, Bedouins, or […] “ques-
tionable” traditions and cultural practices’ were often shunned by Egyptian critics
in the early days of cinema. They were worried that a ‘wrong’ image of Egypt
would be perpetuated rather than the proposed national image of progress and
modernity, i.e. images of modern cities and industrialization (Elsaket n.d.: 294).
Layla tells the story of the young Bedouin girl Layla who was raped by Salim
but initially saved by Sheikh Ahmed who promises to marry her to safeguard her
honour. A Brazilian tourist lures Ahmed away from Layla before they marry – and
when her pregnancy starts to show Layla is cast away from the village. Wandering
around, she is hit by a car driven by Ra’ouf Bey. He takes her in and will even-
tually take care of her child while Layla is destined to die.5 Later in 1933, Aziza
Amir wrote and directed the film Kaffari ‘An Khatɩ ʼatik/Atone for Your Sin about an
Indian family moving to Egypt for medical treatment. Amir plays the daughter
of the Indian man who will fall in love with a young Egyptian man. Her brother,
however, has already betrothed her to a wealthy Egyptian, after which the girl
and her lover decide to run away. They eventually return, but a gruesome destiny
awaits her: she will commit suicide by poisoning herself.
Amir started writing scenarios in 1940 after the establishment of a flourishing
cinema industry in Egypt. Her 1940 film – in which she also plays the main char-
acter – Al-Warsha/The Workshop features her as the successful owner of a workshop
after the disappearance of her husband. When one of her new customers passes
by, he initially believes she is a man since she is dressed in a man’s overalls, doing
‘masculine’ work, resulting in the expected misunderstandings and ‘awkward’
situations. When he finds out the truth, he immediately falls in love with her.
The girls and women Amir wrote about (and often portrayed herself) were idealist
depictions of women. In Egyptian dialect they are usually described as ‘gadaʿa’,
meaning trustworthy and having integrity (El-Messiri 1978: 49). These are women
who would stand by their husbands and support them whenever necessary, but
also women who fight for their fair share against patriarchal oppression embodied
by one or more male relatives.
Furthermore, in films like Ibn al-Balad (1942)6, Amir also wrote about and por-
trayed the Egyptian ‘effendi’ class, the new educated middle class that had started
to become more and more prominent in Egyptian social life at the beginning of
the twentieth century.7 The more political film of 1949, Fat̄t Min Filistɩn/A Girl
from Palestine, features a melodramatic love story between an Egyptian pilot and
a Palestinian girl whose home is used to store the weapons of the Resistance. The
film exposes a pan-Arabic theme through the love story between the Palestinian
Egypt 11

girl and Egyptian pilot, a theme that will continue to play a prominent role in
Egyptian cinema. Amir’s final screenwriting credit was in 1952 with ʼĀmint bi-All̄h/
I Believe in God (1952), a film where she received story credit and which was directed
by her husband, Mahmud Zu al-Fikar.
Another pioneer of Egyptian cinema was Bahiga Hafez (1901–83) who was a
student of music and an actress. There are various versions of the start of her career
in cinema; film critic Abdel Rahman claims that her family discontinued any con-
tact after her decision to work in the cinema industry (Abdel Rahman 2002: 46).
However, historian Mona Ghandour notes that Hafez’s start was rather coinciden-
tal, occurring after her picture was on the cover of a music magazine, and that
this was the actual reason for her family’s scorn (Ghandour 2005: 201). She wrote
the scenarios of at least two films, of which Layla Bint as∙-S∙ ah∙ r̄ ʾ/Layla Daughter of
the Desert (later changed to Layla al-Badawiyya/Layla the Bedouin, 1937 and 1944
respectively) is important. With a similar ‘oriental’ setting to Amir’s Layla, the
Bedouin girl Layla (played by Bahiga Hafez) is kidnapped and imprisoned in the
castle of the Persian king, Kusra.
The film caused a stir after the 1938 engagement of Egyptian Princess Fawzia
to the Persian Shah (they married in 1939; the union often referred to a political
union). The Persian Exterior Ministry pushed for the film’s censorship and with-
drawal from theatres, as well as from the Venice Film Festival in 1938; however, it
returned in cinemas seven years later.8 The subject of Bedouins was popular at the
beginning of the cinema in Egypt and attracted audiences, but it also resulted in
negative remarks from critics for various reasons, as mentioned earlier. In this film,
however, Layla is allowed to return to her family and fiancé, Buraq, as opposed to
Amir’s Layla who was (perhaps) destined to die.
A third screenwriter of the time is Amina Mohamed (1908–85); she was from
a lower-class rural background without any link to the art scene in Cairo. When
she moved, together with her niece, Amina Rizq,9 and their mothers, to Cairo,
they were locked in the house after their first theatrical performance (Ghandour
2005: 391). They persevered, however, and both became famous actresses; Amina
Mohamed was also a famous dancer. She was furthermore the director, producer,
screenwriter and editor of the film Tita Wong (1936), in which she also played the
main role. The film is set in Cairo, in one of the nightclubs that dotted the city in
the interwar period (1920s and 30s), catering to British soldiers and rich Egyptian
men. Tita Wong (played by Mohamed) was the daughter of poor Chinese immi-
grants in Cairo and she was forced to dance in one of those nightclubs. She is later
accused of murdering her uncle, while her lawyer tries to convince the judges of
her innocence, telling stories about Tita’s life through a series of flashbacks.
Similar to the other films of the era, Tita Wong portrays a magical and exotic
‘Orient’, and its featured lead character – the female ‘victim’ of circumstances – was
part of a common trope in the Egyptian film industry. The subjects of these films
have similar traits: a virtuous woman is seduced and surrenders herself to a man.
The men in these films – and this remains true for most Egyptian films up to the
present day – are either the brutal husband or relative and his antagonist, who is
often the good and soft-hearted male, full of noblesse and righteousness.10 This
12 Women Screenwriters

meta-narrative is commonplace in Egyptian cinema, a modernist discourse on the

gender relations between men and women where the ‘old’ concept of male domina-
tion through patriarchal advantage (institutionally, through marriage and divorce,
but also on socio-cultural levels like freedom of movement and the right of edu-
cation) is discouraged and replaced by a ‘new’ concept of masculinity, a concept
that requires men to be an active part of the family and an ‘equal’ through ‘just
guidance’ to their wife and children.

The new pioneering female filmmakers of Egypt

After Egypt gained independence in 1952, and particularly after the establishment
of the public sector filmmaking industry in the early 1960s,11 women directors
were entirely absent.12 However, there was a woman screenwriter, Wafiya Khairy,
who adapted stories from novelists Naguib Mahfouz and Lotfy El Khouly for the
big screen. She adapted Mahfouz’s Cairo Modern and El Khouly’s Case 68; both
films were directed by Salah Abu Saif in 1966 and 1968 respectively. Only after
the bankruptcy of public sector filmmaking and with the start of a new wave in
Egyptian filmmaking in the early 1970s (Bouzid 1995: 244) did women screenwrit-
ers (and directors) start to become more prominent again, centring their storylines
on ‘women issues’. In 1975 Hosn Shah (?–2012) wrote the highly influential film
ʼUrɩ du H 13 14
∙ allan/I Want a Solution. The film’s plot is centred upon Doria, a middle-
aged upper-class woman who is seeking a divorce from her abusive and adulterous
husband. While Doria has always lived a life in luxury, far removed from the daily
misery and abuse that most lower-class women have to go through, she now comes
face to face with the daily reality of these women in the court. Her class, which for
most of her life has shielded her from the abuse of officials, is of no value in the
courtroom and in front of the law when seeking divorce. The melodramatic fea-
tures of the film and the usual plot developments in Egyptian melodramas allow
Doria to meet and fall in love with a soft-hearted, understanding man, in stark
opposition to her husband’s misogynist character.
Hosn Shah’s films are usually about women who are in one way or another
wronged by their husbands, and they address patriarchal personal status laws.
Nevertheless, her main characters refer to Islamic sources to argue for equal
rights for women.15 The film Ad∙ -D ∙ ̄iʿa/The Lost Woman (1986) is a story about
Zaynab; she supports her husband and family financially, and yet her husband
divorces her in her absence and marries someone else. The film ends dramati-
cally with the murder of the husband, mother-in-law, and his second wife by
Zaynab. Imraʾa Mutallaqa/A Divorced Woman (1987) also questions the husband’s
privileges in marriage and divorce. The two women in the film empathize with
each other, however, against the will and authority of the husband. One of her
last films, Al-Gharq̄ na/Drowning (1993), explores the story of a Bedouin woman
whose bad luck in marriage is considered a curse by the other villagers. She is
then abused by the tribe’s elder, a partly paralysed charlatan pretending to have
‘special powers’; he convinces her to marry him to rid her of the spell. Ignorance,
fear and abuse lead to her murder at the end of the film. Although the Bedouin
Egypt 13

woman is murdered, the film primarily condemns male authority in the figure of
the paralysed elder.
In the 1980s and 90s, two female directors gained attention with their popular
films. The most famous and controversial is Inas Eldegheidi (1953–), who does
not shy away from controversial statements.16 In 1985 she co-wrote and directed
(the first female director since the 1940s) the controversial film ’Afwan ʾAyȳh̄
al-Q̄n̄n/Pardon, Law!. In it she criticizes the double standards in the law regard-
ing adultery and testimony. Interestingly, she applies Islamic law and sources to
criticize this old-fashioned law based on traditionalist interpretations of Islamic
jurisprudence and secular Western influences. However, Eldegheidi refuses to be
called a feminist and denies the existence of ‘woman cinema’ (Qasim 2010: 98).
Her other films, however, revolve around ‘women’s issues’, including forced mar-
riages, prostitution, polygamy, and matters relating to divorce. Her newest film,
As∙ -S∙ amt/Silence (2011), about a father who sexually abuses his daughter, was with-
held by the censors because it ‘tarnishes’ the image of the father figure in Egyptian
society. The censors demanded that the father be depicted as mentally unstable so
as not to be portrayed as representative of ‘normal’ Egyptian men.17
The other famous director and screenwriter is Nadia Hamza (1939–2012), who
did call herself a feminist filmmaker, contending that directors should stop depict-
ing women in the way society wanted them to be, instead presenting them as they
are, opposing the popular image of the morally superior heroines in many Egyptian
melodramas (Hillauer 2005: 86). She wrote several of her films while often working
together with other female screenwriters, including Inas Bakr, Mona Noor El Din
and Samira Mohsen for her other films. Many of the films feature female leads and
a few are autobiographical, usually with a heroine named after herself. Hamza’s
films can be read as empowering to women as they feature working women and
single mothers who have to go to great lengths to ensure their children’s upbring-
ing or assert their position in a male-dominated workplace.
Hamza’s film Bah∙ r al-ʾAwh̄m/Sea of Illusions (1984) is about women working
as prostitutes, while Nis̄ ʾ Khalf al-Qad∙ b̄n/Women Behind Bars (1986) talks about
a female prison guard whose daughter, Nadia, ends up under her supervision
after being caught on the set of a pornographic film. In one of her last films,
Imraʾa wa-Imraʾa/A Woman and a Woman (1996), Hamza’s main characters are two
women, one with an established career as an objectified actress in the cinema
industry, the other a lower-class woman aspiring to a brilliant future as an actress.
It is obvious from the start that the lower-class woman’s only hope is her looks,
since she otherwise lacks any acting skills. Women in Hamza’s films are thus not
‘exemplary’ virtuous creatures, but women who – driven by poverty or misery – are
forced to sell their bodies. Although not a ‘new’ plot in Egyptian films, Hamza’s
women are not destined to die at the end and are somehow redeemed for their
actions and choices in life.
In the first decade of the twenty-first century, a new, young and vibrant genera-
tion of filmmakers, screenwriters and artists appeared, not only within the com-
mercial cinema industry, but also outside of it as independent artists.18 New and
young screenwriters like Hala Khalil (also a director; 1967–), Maryam Na’oum
14 Women Screenwriters

(1977–) and Wessam Soliman19 often cooperate in successful productions. Hala

Khalil and Wessam Soliman co-wrote the scenario for Ah∙ l̄ al-ʾAwq̄t/The Best of
Times (2004, directed by Hala Khalil), in which three women pick up their high-
school friendship during a road trip to Alexandria. Each one of them has a differ-
ent story to tell: one is married and expecting her third child, another is preparing
to get married, while the third is trying to find her roots by reliving her childhood
memories in her old neighbourhood and looking for the person sending her
letters. They are three different female characters and identities, while the men in
their lives play only a minor role.
Maryam Na’oum wrote the scenario for one of the most acclaimed films in Egypt –
a rare example of a film about which critics and the public actually agreed –
of the past decade, W̄h∙ id Sifr/One-Nil (2009).20 The film’s story takes place in

one day – the day Egypt wins the African Cup of Nations. Of the different female
characters, the story that most inspired reactions in Egypt was that of the Coptic
woman, Nevine, trying to remarry after obtaining a divorce.21 Na’oum (a Coptic
Christian herself) stated in an interview with a leading Egyptian French-language
newspaper that she wanted to disarticulate a religious discourse from a social one,
something that religious conservatives continue to merge together.22 Although
her film scenarios are less explicitly activist, she continues to tell her stories from
a woman’s point of view. In the same way as the feminist director and screenwriter
Nadia Hamza, she contends that the ‘perfected’ image of Egyptian women in
popular media is no longer attainable or desirable, instead opting to show women
in more diverse roles, with their own flaws, merits and expectations.
While these women screenwriters’ films from the 1970s through the 1990s are
more politically ‘activist’ in terms of topics, though conformist in style, the last
decade has seen a development of films that talk about the ‘normal’ lives of aver-
age women, without the previously ubiquitous misery and abuse. The men in
these films are also no longer the common misogynist type, abusing women for
their profit and benefit. They are, rather, kind-hearted men, respecting women
for who they are. Furthermore, women’s lives are no longer defined by men; it is
rather the other way around. Apart from new depictions of gender relations, these
women’s films continue to provoke reactions for their blunt and ‘controversial’
tackling of social issues, but also for their different ways of storytelling.


Although women were not, for most of the Egyptian cinema industry’s history, a
majority or strong presence in terms of numbers, their presence as screenwriters was
and remains significant. Their films are part of a national discourse proclaimed
by Egypt’s governments but also espoused by subsequent feminist movements. As
historian Lila Abu-Lughod states, ‘feminists have tried to link the advancement
of women to national development and progress’ (Abu-Lughod 2005: 81), which
can also result in some ambiguity. For linking women’s causes to a paternal-
ist autocratic regime essentially does not create an environment in which they
are allowed to construct their own identities. Yet, the film industry has always
Egypt 15

demonstrated a certain inclination for subversion, often being blown back by the
censor – like Bahiga Hafez’s 1937/44 film Layla the Bedouin and Inas Eldegheidi’s
newest film The Silence from 2011. It shows that these films continue to provoke
and push the boundaries of such paternalist and autocratic institutions as the cen-
sorship committee and cannot simply be dismissed as commercial products with
little artistic or social merit.
The recent contributions of young and independent (female) filmmakers such as
Hala Lotfy, Nadia Kamel, Hanan Abdallah and Jehane Noujaim continue to offer
new ideas, styles and boundary-pushing films in the theatres, although the com-
mercial products, aimed at a male audience, of one major producer, El Sobky, occupy
a leading position in the current cinema industry. Nevertheless, the relatively small
number of women screenwriters makes their voices heard in the continuously male-
dominated industry, telling their stories from a woman’s point of view.

1. Hoda Elsadda claims that these men’s writings are furthermore instructive with regard
to what it means to be an Egyptian male, although a new masculine identity was hith-
erto not considered in studies about gender and nation building that primarily focused
on women and their relation to, or role in, the nation and nation building (Elsadda
2007: 34–5).
2. Amir initially hired Wedad Orfi as the film’s director, but because of problems between
Orfi and Amir, she later appointed Stéphane Rosti – an Austrian-Italian resident in Egypt –
and also contributed herself as director and script writer in the end (Hilmi 2013: 44–5).
3. Recently a copy was found of In the Country of Tutankhamun, directed and produced
by Victor Rosito, an Italian resident in Egypt, but arguably not an ‘Egyptian’ director.
Therefore Egyptian national film historians and critics usually consider Amir’s 1927 film
as the first Egyptian feature film, being produced and co-directed by Egyptians.
4. See Abdel Rahman 2002: 24. Valentino’s persona was well known to Egyptian moviegoers.
In the 1960 comedy Isha’it Hobb/Agony of Love by Fatin Abdel Wahhab (based on John
Emerson and Anita Loos’s play The Whole Town’s Talking), he is referred to as the ideal
seducer, an admirable type to imitate in order to approach and win the hearts of women.
5. Sami Hilmi (2013) argues that, because of the last-minute removal of director Wedad
Orfi, Aziza Amir and Stéphane Rosti changed the ending to a more positive one in which
Layla is allowed to live, and this on the advice of a select public to whom the film had
been screened prior to its release (Hilmi 2013: 46). Still, Mahmoud Qasim writes in his
encyclopedia of Egyptian films that Layla passes away at the end of the film (Qasim
2008: 13).
6. ‘Ibn al-balad’ is Egyptian for ‘son of the country’, meaning a typical local male who
espouses several characteristics like integrity and courage (El-Messiri 1978).
7. Although the educated ‘effendi’ middle classes around the 1900s indicated social status,
by the 1930s it was associated more commonly with an impoverished urban middle-
class male.
8. See: http://www.elcinema.com/person/pr1086762/ (accessed 5 January 2014), http://
www.bibalex.org/alexcinema/actors/Bahiga_Hafez.html (accessed 21 February 2014) and
Abdel Rahman 2002: 46–7.
9. Amina Rizq (1910–2003) is particularly famous for her role as a mother in post-inde-
pendence (1952) films, melodramas that Abu-Lughod called ‘development realism’ (Abu-
Lughod 2005: 81). The realism Abu-Lughod refers to is strongly informed by ‘educating’
principles, an attempt to ‘educate’ the nation through films and television while adher-
ing to some form of realism in the depiction of social topics.
16 Women Screenwriters

10. Arab women novelists also often portray the father figure as an all-powerful male,
revered and feared either as a king or god-like creature (Abudi 2011: 36).
11. President Abdel Nasser nationalized businesses and factories in the late 1950s and
60s, including Bank Misr and Studio Misr, as well as other studios. They remained
nationalized until the 1970s when President Sadat started to reprivatize business.
12. Film critic Samir Farid describes women’s absence as directors following the establish-
ment of Studio Misr in 1935 as the ‘masculinization of the industry’, after the more
adventurous early period of filmmaking in Egypt. He likens women’s work in the
background, like screenwriting, designing costumes and doing make-up, to working
in the ‘kitchen of the film industry’. Source: http://www.almasryalyoum.com/News/
Details/383860 (accessed 22 February 2014).
13. The film was an important popular reference for changing the divorce law in 1979,
commonly referred to as ‘Jihan’s Law’, after the name of former president Anwar Sadat’s
wife, Jihan al-Sadat. She pushed for the changes in the law, giving women, among other
things, the right to divorce if the husband were to marry a second wife without their
14. The role of Doria is played by the tear-jerking melodrama actress Fatin Hamama, nick-
named ‘First Lady of the Screen’. Yet, Fatin Hamama has always condemned women’s
oppression and abuse in her films.
15. Egyptian feminists have often referred to Islamic sources to argue for a critical analy-
sis of ‘normative’ gender relations. Margot Badran states that ‘contemporary feminist
women insist on retaining their space within Islam’ (1996: 11).
16. Eldegheidi, for example, called for the legalization of prostitution in Egypt, causing
angry reactions from religious figures in the country. Source: http://www.alarabiya.net/
articles/2008/08/06/54386.html (accessed 2 December 2013).
17. Source: http://english.al-akhbar.com/node/3093 (accessed 2 December 2013).
18. Although the actual ‘independent’ film scene in Egypt is rather small – and begs the
question ‘independent of what?’ – the recent developments in digital filmmaking have
made this medium available and affordable for a wider range of people and budgets.
Furthermore, with more inconspicuous digital material, filmmakers are now able to film
in the streets without special licenses to do so, as for example Ibrahim Battout did for
his film Ain Shams of 2009.
19. Wessam Soliman also wrote the scenario for three of her husband Mohamed Khan’s
films, Ban̄t Wust∙ al-Balad/Downtown Girls (2005), Fɩ Shaʼʼit Mas∙ r al-Gidɩda/In a Heliopolis
Flat (2007) and Fat̄t al-Mas∙ na’/Factory Girl (2013).
20. Although not number one at the box office of 2009, the film was relatively well received
thanks to its cast of popular actors like Ilham Shahin and Khalid Abu al-Naga. The film
also won the ‘Naguib Sawiris’ prize for best scenario in 2008 (Sami 2009).
21. Divorce is regulated by personal status laws based on the citizen’s religious affiliation.
Coptic divorce laws are strict considering the Church does not allow it except for very
specific reasons. When the divorcees receive the legal right to divorce from a state court,
this does not mean that the Church will accept their remarriage. Divorce is also regu-
lated by Church laws for Copts, and Islamic Shari’a for Muslims (which is more lenient
towards divorce and marriage).
22. Source: http://hebdo.ahram.org.eg/NewsContentPrint/9/44/3604.aspx (accessed 9
January 2014).

Abdel Rahman, Magdy. 2002. R̄ʼid̄t al-Sɩnima fɩ Mis∙ r (Pioneering Women of the Cinema in
Egypt). Alexandria: Bibliotheca Alexandrina.
Abudi, Dalya. 2011. Mothers and Daughters in Arab Women’s Literature: The Family Frontier.
Leiden: Brill.
Egypt 17

Abu-Lughod, Lila. 2005. Dramas of Nationhood: The Politics of Television in Egypt. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press.
Badran, Margot. 1996. Feminists, Islam, and Nation: Gender and the Making of Modern Egypt.
New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Bouzid, Nouri (trans. Shereen El Ezabi). 1995. ‘New Realism in Arab Cinema: The Defeat-
conscious Cinema’, Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, 15: 242–50.
Darwish, Mustafa. 1998. Dream Makers on the Nile: A Portrait of Egyptian Cinema. Cairo: American
University in Cairo Press.
El-Messiri, Sawsan. 1978. Ibn al-Balad: A Concept of Egyptian Identity. Leiden: Brill.
Elsadda, Hoda. 2007. ‘Imagining the “New Man”: Gender and Nation in Arab Literary
Narratives in the Early Twentieth Century’, Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, 3 (2):
Elsaket, Ifdal. n.d. Projecting Egypt: The Cinema and the Making of Colonial Modernity: 1896–1952.
Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Sydney.
Ghandour, Mona. 2005. Sultanat al-Shasha: Ra’idat al-Sinima al-Misriyya (Divas of the Screen:
Pioneering Women of Egyptian Cinema). Beirut: Riad El-Rayyes Books.
Hillauer, Rebecca. 2005. Encyclopedia of Arab Women Filmmakers. Cairo: American University
in Cairo Press.
Hilmi, Sami. 2013. Bid̄ȳt as-Sɩnim̄ al-Mis∙ riyya (The Beginnings of Egyptian Cinema). Cairo:
General Authority for Cultural Palaces.
Qasim, Mahmud. 2008. Dalɩl al-Afl̄m f ɩ al-Qarn al-’Ishrɩn f ɩ Mis∙r wa al-’Ālim al-’Arabɩ
(Encyclopaedia of Films of the 20th Century in Egypt and the Arab World). Cairo: Madbouli
Qasim, Mahmud. 2010. Maws̄’at al-Mukhrigɩn f ɩ al-’Ālim al-’Arabɩ (Encyclopaedia of Directors
in the Arab World). Cairo: Maktabat Madbuli.
Samir, Farid. 2014. ‘Min Aziza Amir ila Jihan Nujaim’ (‘From Aziza Amir to Jihan Nujaim’).
Available at: http://www.almasryalyoum.com/News/Details/383860 (accessed 22 February
Jule Selbo

The film industry in Ghana cites 1948 as the year of its birth, when Gold Coast
Film Unit and African Pictures Limited were formed. Government support has
been sporadic. One of Ghana’s best-known filmmakers is Kwah Ansah whose
films include African Pot (1980) and Heritage Africa (1988). In 1999 the Ghana
Film Awards were held. Veronica Quaashie, a graduate of Ghana’s National Film
and Television Institute (NAFTI), won several awards for her films A Stab in the
Dark and Ripples. NAFTI was formed in 1978 by the government of Ghana to
foster professional and academic excellence in film and television, and students
from other African nations such as Zambia, Ethiopia, Mali, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and
Cameroon have taken advantage of its courses and facilities. Ghana boasts many
successful female documentary filmmakers such as Yaba Badoe (1955–), known
for Witches of Gambaga (2010), and Rungano Nyoni, who made Mwansa the Great
(2011). Zina Saro-Wiwa has written and directed documentaries (This is My Africa
[2008/9]) as well as short films commenting on the woman’s role in Africa such
as Phyllis (2010) and The Deliverance of Comfort (2010).

Akosua Cyamama Busia

Akosua Cyamama Busia (1966–) was born in Ghana, the daughter of an ex-prime
minister of the Republic of Ghana. She was educated at Oxford University in
England. She is an actress, novelist, songwriter, director and screenwriter. Feature-
film screenwriting credits include a co-writing credit on the adaptation of Toni
Morrison’s novel Beloved (1998), directed by Jonathan Demme. This credit was
hard-won and somewhat acrimonious; the Writers Guild of America (WGA) initi-
ated arbitration proceedings after Busia, who had written the first draft for Harpo
Productions (Oprah Winfrey’s production company), was not credited on the
screenplay along with Richard LaGravenese and Adam Brooks and felt strongly
that important story elements of her draft had been used in the production. In an
article in 1998 in Entertainment Weekly, Daniel Fierman describes Busia as ‘intelli-
gent and slightly eccentric in a New Age-y way’ and goes on to write, ‘[I]n a move
that borders on professional suicide, that’s precisely what virtually unknown
scribe Akosua Busia has done – allowing a nasty behind-the-scenes battle over

Ghana 19

credit, race and screenwriting cred to spill out into the press’ (Fierman 1998). In
the article, Busia stated that, through her sister, a professor at Rutgers University
in New Brunswick, she had read a galley version of Beloved, the story of the effects
of African-American slavery on a family, prior to its publication. Busia, who por-
trayed Nettie in Steven Spielberg’s production of The Color Purple, recommended
the book to actor Danny Glover and actress/producer/superstar Oprah Winfrey.
Winfrey’s Harpo Productions immediately purchased the film rights and hired a
writer to do a treatment for a screenplay. That initial treatment was unsuccessful
and Busia, on spec, wrote her own 28-page proposal. Winfrey’s production com-
pany declined her proposal ‘citing Busia’s inexperience’ (Fierman 1998). Three
years later, Busia sent her first screenplay, Seasons, to Harpo Productions under
the pseudonym Mia Oshwegus – ‘an anagram for “guess who I am”’ (Fierman
1998). The script received a positive response and Busia was hired to do a draft of
Beloved. She handed in the script in November 1991 and, although it was long,
it, too, received a positive response. The project, however, did not find a home
at a studio and Harpo Productions brought on screenwriter Richard LaGravenese
(The Fisher King [1991], A Little Princess [1995], Bridges of Madison County [1995],
The Horse Whisperer [1998]) to do a draft of the screenplay. LaGravenese claims he
was never given Busia’s draft to read. When LaGravenese left the project to direct
a film, Adam Brooks (French Kiss [1995], Wimbledon [2004]) was hired to work
with director Jonathan Demme on the production script. The film, with Disney
committed to distribution, was made. The WGA then issued tentative credits that
did not include Busia. When Busia read the production script, she decided to pur-
sue credit arbitration. She wrote a letter to Winfrey and to Harpo’s development
executive: ‘I felt as though two white men were picking over my bones. I find
it sadly ironic that here we have a story such as Beloved, where a black woman,
Sethe … fights for freedom for herself and her children from their white oppres-
sors. And then here I am, a black female writer from Africa, writing the script,
and then being left in a position to battle alone against Disney, who recommends
that two white male writers who were paid, literally, millions of dollars more …
credited instead of me!’ (Fierman 1998).
Busia, finally, did receive first credit on the film. Harpo Productions states that the
other writers on the project were never given access to Busia’s script. All of those
involved in the production note that in adapting a story from a novel, the pos-
sibilities of similarities in narrative choices may often occur. Regarding the WGA’s
decision, LaGravenese noted, ‘The guidelines favor the original screenwriter for
an original production. The problem is that those same guidelines are used when
it comes to adaptation – which doesn’t make sense, because the original writer for
an adaptation is the novelist. There needs to be some aesthetic judgment. Where
does craft come into it – the ability to translate a book to a screenplay that can
be made into a film? Just taking a book and putting it into screenplay format ...
allows anyone, even a nonprofessional, to get credit’ (Fierman 1998).
Taking on Harpo Productions (Oprah Winfrey being a popular and power-
ful force in the entertainment community) as well as Disney and accusing fel-
low screenwriters of taking credit for another’s work may have affected Busia’s
20 Women Screenwriters

subsequent screenwriting career. Beloved remains her only screenwriting credit.

She directed Ascension Day in 2007 and continues in her acting career.

Leila Afua Djansi

Leila Afua Djansi (1981–) attended primary and secondary schools in Ghana. She
was interested in studying medicine and criminology. She met Ghanaian actor
Sam Odi and he suggested she write a script for him. Her first feature-film credit
as a screenwriter came at age 19, with the film Babina (2000). She worked with
Socrates Safo’s Movie Africa Productions as a writer and line producer and wrote
The Sisterhood, a film exploring gay and lesbian rights. She wrote and produced her
next film, Legacy of Love, made under the auspices of the Gama Film Company.
She then entered the Ghanaian National Film and Television School but trans-
ferred to the Savannah College of Art and Design in the United States and even-
tually established Turning Point Pictures in Los Angeles, a production company
focused on narratives exploring social issues. She often uses voiceover narration in
her screenplays. Other credits include the short films Subcity (2007), Ebbe (2012)
and Grass Between My Lips (2009), a film exploring female circumcision and forced
early marriages set in a village in northern Ghana. Feature credits include I Sing
of a Well (2010), a fictional story of an African prince who must marry to win
the throne from his father. His choice of bride and his political choices cause his
kingdom to be overrun with slave traders. Ties that Bind (2011) is a film focusing
on three dissimilar women who share a similar tragedy – the loss of a child. They
come together to renovate a run-down clinic in an African village. Other credits
include Sinking Sands (2011), And Then There Was You (2013) and Where Children
Play (2015). Djansi has been nominated for and received awards from the African
Movie Academy Awards, WorldFest Platinum Awards, and the BAFTA/LA Pan
African Film Festival Choice Awards.

Fierman, Daniel. 1998. ‘Brawl Over Beloved’, Entertainment Weekly, 16 October 16.
Jeremy B. Warner

Before the independence of Kenya from the United Kingdom in 1963, foreign
production companies used Kenya as a backdrop for films shot in the country.
After becoming a republic, film production started to rise, however, the quality
of production values were extremely low. After the year 2000, the number of
films created in the country rose due to the advent of digital video and acces-
sible technology. Film scholar Wanjiku Beatrice Mukora, born and raised in
Kenya, writes:

Women filmmakers have been very significant in forming the foundations

of national cinema in Kenya. They comprise more than fifty percent of film-
makers with men occupying positions of cameramen, members of the lighting
crew and other assistant or behind-the-scene posts. (Mukora 1999: 43)

Kenyan documentary producer and media advisor Dommie Yambo-Odotte

states that it hard for men to enter cinema production due to financing – but
even more difficult for the women (Ouédraogo 1995: 20). Most of the films
produced by Kenyan women have been documentary and educational films.
The Kenyan Film Commission was established in 2005 and promotes Kenyan
filmmakers, as well as offering incentives to foreign production entities to shoot
in the country.
One of the few women producing narrative films in the country is director,
producer and screenwriter Wanuri Kahiu (1981–). Originally she pursued a degree
in management, but went on to receive a Masters of Fine Arts from the University
of California, Los Angeles. Returning to Kenya, she directed the dystopian sci-fi
film From a Whisper (2009), which swept the 2009 Africa Movie Awards by win-
ning Best Screenplay, Best Director and Best Film (Seibel 2010). Kahiu is executive
director of Dada Productions, which she started with Anna Marano. The company
works with local authorities to focus more on domestic production and to bridge
the gap in production values of Kenyan cinema.
In 2014, UDADA (translates to ‘sisterhood’), East Africa’s first female film
festival, was held in Nairobi, Kenya and other continents. Two of the festival
organizers are screenwriter/directors Wanjuri Kinyanjul and Matrid Nyagah

22 Women Screenwriters

Munene, whose goals include bringing to the foreground the work of Kenya’s
female filmmakers.

Mukora, Wanjiku Beatrice. 1999. ‘Disrupting Binary Divisions’: Representation of Identity
in Saikati and Battle of the Sacred Tree. Source: digitool.library.mcgill.ca (accessed 2 October
Ouédraogo, Noufou. 1995. ‘Dommie Yambo Odotte’, African Screen, 12 (2): 20–1.
Seibel, Brendan. 2010. ‘Kenyan Sci-Fi Short Pumzi Hits Sundance with Dystopia’, WIRED,
22 January, n.p.
Stefanie Van de Peer

Moroccan film production was slow to develop into a credible film industry,
but today it is the most productive and successful industry in the Maghreb, and
arguably in the Arab world. As Jamal Bahmad, expert on Moroccan cinema, has
argued, it is mainly since the 1990s, and the relaxation of censorship laws as well
as a renewed investment in the arts, that a new energy has been injected into
Moroccan cinema. The importance of the urban, young, creative generations is
visible in this trend: the Moroccan Cinema Centre (CCM, based in Rabat) invited
a large number of new, young Moroccan filmmakers to attend the Tangiers
National Film Festival in 1997. This landmark event gave Moroccan cinema a new
impetus: New Urban Cinema (NUC) was born (Bahmad 2013).
From independence in 1956 until the death of King Hassan II in 1999, Morocco
suffered from a dictatorial, oppressive regime that inhibited the creative powers
of its filmmaking constituency through censorship, paranoia and a lack of invest-
ment. Filmmakers and other cultural producers had exiled themselves from the
oppressive regime and what are now known as the Years of Lead (Les Années de
Plomb). They were, however, encouraged to return to Morocco towards the end
of the weak king’s rule, and by the more lenient new monarch, Hassan II’s son,
King Mohamed VI.
During the eighties and nineties, young filmmakers who had been taught
abroad returned to Morocco. They not only brought with them their expertise and
training on the technical side of filmmaking; they also had the urge to develop
new concepts of social and political realism. One consequence was that film-
makers who had stayed in Morocco learned a lot during this time, and the gap
between the filmmaker and his or her audience diminished.
Farida Benlyazid (b. 1948) was one of the first women in Morocco to get
involved in filmmaking. She studied Literature at Paris 8 and received her
degree in 1974. She continued her studies and received a degree in filmmaking
at ESEC, École supérieure d’études cinématographiques (Higher Institute of
Cinema Studies), in 1976. After that, she worked in film production in France,
but returned to Morocco in 1980. In 1978 she produced the Moroccan classic
Une brèche dans le mur (A Hole in the Wall, Jillali Ferhati) and wrote the script for
Poupées de roseaux (Reed Dolls, Ferhati, 1980). Her own filmography includes both

24 Women Screenwriters

fiction and documentaries, with titles such as Une porte sur le ciel (A Door to the Sky,
1989), Ruses de femmes (Women’s Wiles, 1999) and Casablanca, Casablanca (2002).
She has also written creatively: a novel, Une Journée dans la vie de Hajja Leithmath
(1990), as well as for publications such as Le Liberal and Autrement. This article
will look briefly at the historical circumstances within which women make films
in Morocco, in order to focus on the pioneering woman of Moroccan filmmaking –
scriptwriter, producer and director Farida Benlyazid. I focus on her three most
popular films as a writer, and draw parallels between her autobiography and
her scripts, in order to come to a better understanding of her circumstances and
inspiration. Benlyazid is well respected for her attempts to provide her viewers
with a better understanding of Morocco’s rapidly changing society and the young
demographic of the country, without being patronizing. Instead, she looks for
indigenous strengths in solutions that are familiar to her audience and takes into
consideration local as well as international trends and issues.
Farida Benlyazid had returned to Morocco in 1980 and was the first woman to
make her own film in 1988: Une porte sur le ciel (A Door to the Sky). She was one of
the returnees who had been educated in France, and contributed significantly to
the rapprochement between filmmakers and their audiences through her script-
writing skills and her collaborations with some of the most successful filmmakers
in Morocco today.
Before writing, producing, directing and editing her own first feature film,
Door to the Sky, in 1988, Benlyazid had been working as a scriptwriter on a few
other successful movies, such as Poupées de roseaux (Reed Dolls, Ferhati, 1981). She
had produced Jillali Ferhati’s first film, A Hole in the Wall (1978), and married
him. They continued their collaboration on Reed Dolls, which is still regarded
as the most successful, popular Moroccan film of all time, together with A la
recherche du mari de ma femme (Looking for My Wife’s Husband, 1995) by Mohamed
Abderrahman Tazi. Both films were scripted by Benlyazid.
Reed Dolls (Ferhati, 1981) is set in the 1950s in Tangier. It was then still terri-
tory run by Spanish, British and French administration as a free international
zone, and a beloved city of the Beat poets. As an area in rapid transition towards
independence, the city seems the fitting background for a complex story about
a woman’s limitations and opportunities. Aisha, the main protagonist, is spurred
on by the dawn of Independence to seek her own independence from her family.
Her husband has recently died and traditional mores prescribe that she marries
her brother-in-law. However, inspired by female solidarity and optimism about
the future for women in an independent nation, her mother-in-law supports her
in her decision to explore her new identity outside of the private sphere stereo-
typically occupied by women. Aisha stumbles across con artists and men with
dishonest intentions, and in her innocence and inexperience falls pregnant out
of wedlock. In a downward spiral of rejection by her secret lover, an attempted,
but unsuccessful, abortion, and abuse by her in-laws, she ends up in court, as this
pregnancy is considered illegal in traditional Morocco. She loses her family, her
three children from her previous marriage and her home. She becomes home-
less and is taken for a prostitute by men on several occasions. This leads her to a
Morocco 25

Zawiya – a spiritual home for ‘fallen’ women, where all that is left for her is seclu-
sion and prayer. The film has no straightforward ending: it rather presents Aisha
with options, as she is still very young and full of potential. However, in a way, the
narrative seems to have come full circle, as she is once again in the private sphere,
with only women as company. The women may come to embody a replacement
family, and the Zawiya a new home, but they do both constitute a new sense of
limitations and boundaries.
If Reed Dolls depicted the complexities of the opportunities and limitations for
women in Moroccan society, Door to the Sky (Benlyazid, 1988) goes even further
in its searching, questioning attitude. The existentialist nature of the film speaks
to global audiences and it has won several awards for its script. A film full of
contradictions, it explores the return of a young Moroccan woman who has lived
in France to Morocco as her father lies on his deathbed. The protagonist, Nadia,
is one of three siblings: she has a sister in Morocco and a brother in France. Her
brother stands to inherit most of their father’s possessions, mainly a house in the
old village. Not wanting anything to do with his Moroccan heritage, the brother
wants to sell the house, and after a lot of obstacles – the main one being that
she is a woman and under Islamic jurisprudence cannot inherit the house from
her father – Nadia manages to buy the house. From being modern and western-
ized, she transforms into a Moroccan woman and even becomes more and more
interested in religion. Once she has managed to obtain the full ownership of the
house, she reconnects with the childhood memory of an old spiritual Sufi leader
in the village. On her spiritual quest, he is her guide. Her increasing spirituality
attracts others to her, as she becomes a healer and her home turns into a Zawiya,
where women are granted protection from abusive husbands or fathers. As such,
her increasingly strong association with her traditional roots does not necessitate
a rejection of her modern womanhood. Once again, as in Reed Dolls, Benlyazid
does not pit one attitude against the other. Instead, she subtly weaves a story
that encapsulates the simultaneity of tradition and modernity, and searches for
concepts and issues in tradition that can help to work through the problems of
modernity. This is a film that explores contradictions and, through spiritual-
ity and female solidarity, seeks to come to a mutual understanding between its
characters and its audiences. The issue the audiences in Morocco had with the
film was the question of whether it deals with a personal journey or whether it
problematizes Islam. The fact that she combines her role as spiritual leader with
having a young lover who is not religious, and the fact that, at the end of the film,
Nadia leaves the Zawiya as she starts to perceive the community of women as too
oppressive points to the fact that tradition and modernity can and must co-exist
for Benlyazid. And thus it is in particular this personalized Islamic spirituality
that draws the most criticism. Although it is her mysticism that enables Nadia to
rediscover and reassemble a moderate Islam, this humanism is not shared by her
co-habitants, and so it is ultimately what drives her out of her own home.
Looking for My Wife’s Husband (Tazi, 1995) was Morocco’s first internationally
successful comedy, a box-office success in Europe and the Arab world at large. It
was one of the films that became associated with the renaissance of Moroccan
26 Women Screenwriters

cinema in the nineties, and Tazi, its director, is still highly respected as a producer
and director, and for his outspoken opinions in the press regarding the lack of
distribution of Moroccan films abroad. Benlyazid wrote the script, and with this
film turned a corner from her usually more serious stance on women’s issues.
Nevertheless, this film, in its own humorous way, also addresses the unfair divi-
sion of space and labour between men and women. Al Hajj, the male protago-
nist, has three wives: Lalla Hobby, Lalla Rabea, and the very young and beautiful
Houda. The film divides its time between the man and his three wives very well,
and portrays the home as a safe and warm space for the women and the children.
But Al Hajj is an aging man, who loses his temper quite easily with his children
and with Houda, who is herself still very young and naïve. It becomes apparent
that Al Hajj has – in his furies – divorced Houda twice before, but always taken
her back immediately. When one day she opens the door to a delivery man and
shows a bit too much flesh, he sees it and explodes in another rage, divorcing her
instantly, not realizing that a third divorce is much more complex than the first
two. In traditional society in Morocco it means that the divorce is final, unless
the woman marries another man and consummates the marriage, after which
they can divorce and remarry their former husband. This complex Islamic law
borders on the ridiculous, and Benlyazid and Tazi derive much slapstick humour
from it. The second half of the film shows Al Hajj gradually going mad in his
quest to win Houda back – a futile one, as her new husband has fled the country
and Al Hajj cannot obtain a visa to go abroad. This subtly hints at the fact that
women are in fact trade goods for their husbands and do not usually get the
opportunity to decide for themselves who they will marry or divorce. This last
issue is important for Benlyazid, as it is an autobiographical element that reflects
what she experienced, first-hand, when she wanted to divorce her first husband.
Houda remains a fairly naïve girl throughout the first half of the film, but later on
tries to (unsuccessfully) balance her energetic nature and embrace of modernity
with the traditional pleasures and comforts of Al Hajj’s house and his wealth.
When she first experiences her freedom after the third divorce, she spends a lot of
time with her friend, who is a widow and lives alone and in Houda’s eyes can do
what she wants. But after Houda has her hair cut short and changes her outfit to
that of a modern woman, men start to harass her more openly. This means that
she becomes torn between the safety of a traditional shelter and the protection
of a rich husband on the one hand, and her freedom and the imposing nature
of presumptuous young men on the other. Her widowed friend shows her that
freedom is not so wonderful after all, and Houda starts to mourn the community
feeling she enjoyed in Al Hajj’s house. In this 1995 film, then, it is once again a
matter for the young woman to find and maintain a balance in order to manage
the clash between tradition and modernity. Benlyazid shows a complex Morocco
that is developing too quickly and failing to adequately stay in touch with its
traditional mores.
Until recently, it was very difficult to be a woman and a filmmaker in Morocco.
The difficulties of being a woman in a society struggling to merge tradition and
modernity are not only very well reflected in her scripts, but she also experienced
Morocco 27

it first-hand. Her films are arguably all, to a certain extent, inspired by her own
autobiography. Of course, the complexity of being a woman in a society that is
still dealing with its traumatic past (the Years of Lead) and struggling to define
its national identity, and the precarious condition of women in Islam, are all
central to the portrayal of women in Moroccan cinema in general. Reed Dolls
was an opportunity for Benlyazid to explore her own oppression and come up
with creative ways of dealing with it afterwards. Door to the Sky was even more
an exploration of her own experiences as a student returning to Morocco from
France and the transformational journey she went through on the way. The inter-
subjective relationships that exist between women often offer an alternative route
to self-acceptance in a society that is steeped in tradition and ritual, and in which
women are often neglected or disadvantaged. Door to the Sky is still regarded as the
first feature film made by a Moroccan woman, and Benlyazid is revered for its sub-
tleties and complexities. Looking for My Wife’s Husband, while it was such a huge
box-office success in and outside of Morocco, also had to tackle serious criticisms.
As the comedy centred on Al Hajj and his antics, critics ignored Houda’s complex
characterization. She is the figure in the film who best chimes with the growing
younger population of Morocco’s outlook on life. She is the representative char-
acter of the new Morocco that came through in the cinema of the nineties and
really put Moroccan cinema on the map. Her struggle to seek the freedom that
is appropriate to her society, and her attempt to balance the safety of tradition
with the promises of modernity, is what most likely spoke, and still speaks, to the
young demographic of the new Moroccan audience.
Benlyazid married her first husband and had two children before deciding to
go to France for her higher education. When she started to make plans to travel
to France, her husband had her passport seized and forbade her to travel. The
confrontation with these false restrictions put on women in the name of religion
as well as the numerous attempts to overcome seemingly never-ending obstacles
pervade most of her scenarios. Her major obstacle was the fact that women at that
time were not legally allowed to request divorce from their husbands. She had to
overcome numerous obstacles herself, which undoubtedly inspired her treatment
of the complexities of Moroccan life and the resourcefulness of women. She never
disparages Islam; on the contrary, she uses it time and again as an alternative to
the way men exercise their authority over women in the name of Islam.
Benlyazid is a politically and socially engaged writer, for whom it was vital to
show the reality of oppressions and contradictions. She is especially interested in
women’s suffering and the inequality between men and women under the guise
of Islam. In sparse dialogues and aesthetically moving images, she synthesizes the
extremes of a society under pressure. Benlyazid first and foremost aims to estab-
lish a cultural identity of union, illustrating that women can be both modern
and traditional at the same time. She still makes films, among others CasaNayda
(2007), a film about the subculture of rap and hip hop music in Casablanca, and
Frontieras (2013), screened at the 14th National Film Festival in Tangiers. Other
notable early female filmmakers include documentary filmmaker Simone Bitton;
she was born in Morocco but moved to Israel when she was a young teenager.
28 Women Screenwriters

Moroccan screenwriters since the 2000s include Yasmine Kassari, Narjiss Nejjar,
Laila Marrakchi and Fatima Jebli Ouzzani. These are all strong women who write
their own scripts and often also produce their own films, winning prizes at inter-
national film festivals.
The credits of Yasmine Kassari (b. 1972) include short films, documentaries, and
the feature L’Enfant endormi/The Sleeping Child (2004), winner of the Great Amber
Award for Best Film and the Jury Prize for Best Film at the Bos’art Film Festival.
The narrative focuses on a woman living in the Atlas Mountains who realizes she
is pregnant after her husband has left her and decides to ‘sleep the fetus’, which
relates to a white magic tradition in the Maghribian rural world. The film was shot
using the Berber and Moroccan Arabic languages.
Laila Marrakchi (b. 1971) was born in Casablanca, Morocco. Her films include
Marock (2005), made in collaboration with a French production company. It con-
tains ‘multicultural themes in its narrative’ (Khannous 2013) and focuses on a
romance between a Muslim girl and a Jewish boy.
Marrakchi’s other screenwriting and directing credits include Rock the Casbah
(2013). The narrative focuses on three very different women who come together
to mourn the death of a rich entrepreneur. The film was screened in a special
presentation category at the Toronto Film Festival.
The films of Narjiss Nejjar (b. 1971) include Les yeux secs/Dry Eyes/Cry No More
(2003). Film reviewer Touria Khannous noted at the 27th Cairo Film Festival that
‘outside the competition there is a programme entitled Arab Cinema Now. This
features excellent films that we would have loved to include in the competition,
mainly from the Maghreb. The highlights include two Moroccan debuts: Fawzi
Ben Saaidi’s A Thousand Months and Narjiss Al-Nejjar’s Dry Eyes’ (Khannous 2013).
Nejjar’s other screenwriting credits include Wake Up Morocco (2006), using the
game of soccer/football as the setting for her narrative, Terminus des anges (2010),
and L’amante du rif (2011), based on a novel by Noufissa Sbai. The film focuses on
a young Moroccan woman who feels trapped by her life but is ‘untamable’. The
story moves back and forth in her lifetime as she grows up and eventually lands
in prison.
This winning streak of Moroccan women filmmakers promises to continue with
such impressive scriptwriters and filmmakers as Leila Kilani and Rahma Benhamai

Bahmad, Jamal. 2013. ‘Casablanca Unbound: New Urban Cinema in Morocco’, Francosphères,
2 (1): 73–85.
Khannous, Touria. 2013. ‘Cinema: Films Made by Women Screenwriters, Directors, and
Producers: Morocco’, in Suad Joseph (ed.) Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures.
Brill Online. Available at: http://referenceworks.brillonline.com/entries/encyclopedia-of-
producers-morocco-EWICCOM_0647 (accessed 14 April 2015).
Jule Selbo

Namibia gained independence from South Africa in 1990. Before this period, lit-
tle cinematic data is available. John Marshall, an American working and living in
Namibia, released documentaries about the country between 1958 and 1980. In
2000, the Namibian government passed the ‘Namibian Film Commission Act’ to
attract filmmakers to use the country as a film location and to promote native
filmmakers such as Cecil Moller and Bridget Pickering.
Pickering, born to a Namibian father and a South African mother, attended
Syracuse University in the United States and worked for Universal Pictures before
returning to Namibia to work in its film industry. She created the Namibian con-
tribution to Africa Dreaming (1997) and was chosen in 1999 as one of six women
filmmakers in Africa to direct a short story for the Mama Africa series (2001), a
compilation of short films sponsored by American Queen Latifah. Pickering’s short
film in the Mama Africa series is titled ‘Uno’s World’. The character Uno (Sophie
David) is a sexually inexperienced young woman. She gets involved with a wom-
anizer, Kaura (Muhindua Kaura), and the affair leads to an unplanned pregnancy.
When Kaura refuses to take responsibility, Uno leaves the baby in the care of her
mother and embarks on a dangerous journey to track Kaura down. Pickering is
also credited as a producer on the Academy Award-nominated Hotel Rwanda (2004,
distributed by the North American film companies United Artists and Lions Gate.).
Oshosheni Hiveluah, in 2012, co-wrote (with Onesmus Shimwafeni) and
directed the film 100 Bucks. The film asks: what would someone risk if they had a
deep desire for money? The narrative follows a hundred-dollar Namibian note as
it makes its way through the various social strata of Namibian communities – and
gives insights into the lives of very different characters.
Tjiraa (2012), a short film by Krischka Stoffels, focuses on Vezuva, a modern
ovaHerero woman who completes her studies abroad and returns home. She is told
she is to follow the customs of her community and marry her cousin. However,
she is in love with another. Vezuva’s pleas for understanding and compassion are
not rewarded and she realizes that she is left without a choice – and can only hope
that, in the future, her sister will be allowed more freedom.
The documentary form, to date, is most popular among the Namibian

Noah Tsika

The standard story of Nollywood, southern Nigeria’s remarkably prolific film

industry (currently the world’s second largest in terms of annual output), is thus:
with the average production budget settling somewhere between nine and ten
million naira (or between 45,000 and 50,000 US dollars), the shooting of an
individual feature often occurs on a necessarily tight (typically two-week) sched-
ule, occasioning planned as well as unexpected shortcuts, compromises, and
combined professional functions. Directors often double as performers; costume
designers can be recruited from the ranks of production assistants; and sets –
more often than not – are Lagos living rooms belonging to relatively well-heeled
patrons of the arts who may or may not be acting out of a self-centred desire to
see their properties employed as on-screen backdrops (Haynes 2007: 138).
In Nollywood filmmaking, one of the most common of all ‘double duties’ is
that which combines writing and acting, although it is important to point out
that both vocations, as developed within exclusively Nollywood contexts, have
received little critical attention in West Africa and the diaspora. That is partly
because, as Jonathan Haynes points out in his essay ‘Nollywood in Lagos, Lagos in
Nollywood Films’, Nollywood’s on-screen performers are sometimes ‘improvising
from a scenario, rather than reciting lines from a script’, thus evoking a doubly
amateur approach to film production (Haynes 2007: 139). Haynes does not take
into account that numerous Nollywood narrative traditions are founded on some
rather famous stories-turned-screenplays, despite the relatively high rates of illit-
eracy in southern Nigeria. Nollywood filmmaker Charles Novia describes adapting
the world-famous folk tale of Cinderella into a screenplay in 2003, suggesting that
he ‘had always wanted to produce the Cinderella story from an African perspec-
tive’, and that constructing the script thus became a matter of ‘preserving’ the
familiar plot (particularly as grounded in the Grimm Brothers version) while
imbuing it with southern Nigerian cultures and colloquialisms (Novia 2012: 69).
Novia’s subsequent screenwriting ventures have followed a similar process of
preservation-plus-supplementation, whether in updating his ‘old’ stories or in
adapting some iconic Hollywood films.
The persistence of a limiting popular and even scholarly focus on Nollywood
as a ‘rebel’, rootless enterprise, which posits the habitual absence of a traditional

Nigeria 31

screenplay from the industry’s creative ventures, is consistent with the way that
African screenwriting is devalued or ignored more generally (Cham 2009: vii).
Such negative appraisals have, in some cases, aligned an alleged lack of writing
talent with the absence of any sort of practised performance method (such as
the celebrated Stanislavskian approach) as the Nollywood style. Critics point to
the Nollywood style as a function of affective self-indulgence or simply – from a
distinctly racist, white Western perspective – as a consequence of African ‘embodi-
ment’, the opposite of the kind of European ‘rationality’ that would allow an actor
or actress to invent from a well-informed position. In other words, there have
been several insidious discursive consequences of the failure to pay close critical
attention to the very viable vocation of Nollywood screenwriting. Assuming that
there are no bona fide Nollywood screenwriters is a prejudiced view of the indus-
try. In reality, some of Nollywood’s top performers are the screenwriters respon-
sible for their own star vehicles, and their twinned, increasingly formally trained
talents powerfully give the lie to notions of Nollywood as an ignorant and utterly
‘authorless’ enterprise.
In one of the most famous scenes in Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder’s 1950 gothic
about the so-called ‘golden age’ of Hollywood cinema, screenwriter Joe Gillis
(William Holden) complains, ‘Audiences don’t know somebody sits down and
writes a picture. They think the actors make it up as they go along.’ A similar
assumption has haunted Nollywood reception, as Uche Jombo’s character argues
in the Jombo-scripted film Last Celebrity, about a top television talk-show host
who also laments the equally limited public perception of her as ‘perfect’. As in
Sunset Boulevard, the fans’ inability – or adamant unwillingness – to understand
that a script is the source of a film’s narrative serves only to demean or dismiss
individual filmmakers. In Last Celebrity, a drama that allegorizes Nollywood by
depicting Nigerian television production, and thus suggests the long-standing
synergy between the two media industries; Jombo’s talk-show host undergoes a
crisis of confidence as a result of persistent rumours suggesting that she is ‘on the
way out’ professionally. Compounding matters is a patent lack of popular recogni-
tion for her self-transformative achievements, which include her daily ‘elevation’
from ordinary woman to extraordinary, Oprah-style personality. Jombo isn’t sim-
ply playing an ‘unappreciated’ media star in Last Celebrity; she is also, as the film’s
scriptwriter, tethered to a profession that is perhaps similarly misunderstood in
today’s Nigeria. The question is presented: who is going to honour the contribu-
tions of Jombo the scriptwriter when the widely held assumption is that, as an
actress, she is simply, unthinkingly, ‘playing herself’, with no written source from
which she is creating a character?
Jombo has addressed such concerns on multiple occasions; in a 2012 inter-
view with Exquisite magazine, she noted that, if Nollywood fans often forget or
refuse to believe that she is in fact ‘a real writer’, then they also forget or refuse
to believe that she is extremely well educated – that she holds degrees from the
University of Calabar as well as from the Federal University of Technology, Minna
( Jombo 2012). That these degrees are in the fields of mathematics and computer
science further surprises people, she says – a surprise derived from misogynistic
32 Women Screenwriters

assumptions, from the notion that no woman can balance a chequebook, pro-
gramme a computer, or compose a film screenplay. Jombo chose to satirize such
gender bias in her screenplay (co-written with Emem Isong) for the film Nollywood
Hustlers (2011). Directed by Moses Inwang, Nollywood Hustlers features Jombo as a
seemingly clueless waitress who becomes caught up in the comedic intrigue of two
men who want to make it big in Nollywood but who have no skills whatsoever –
creative or otherwise. They must rely on Jombo’s character, Scholarstica, to
support their dreams (both fiscally and by carrying out a series of harebrained
schemes). While a not-uncommon name in Nigeria, ‘Scholarstica’ points, in this
English-language production, to the ‘true book smarts’ of the character – to the
young woman’s ‘inner scholar’, which remains invisible to the affable yet deeply
misogynistic men who surround her.
The matter of language has long been a contentious one in Nollywood studies,
inspiring debates about whether Yorùbá films – which tend to maintain practi-
cal as well as symbolic ties to the traditions of the Yorùbá theatre – merit the
Nollywood label, or whether that label should be limited to English-language
films. At the local level, the industry itself does embrace so-called ‘language
films’ – those produced using African dialects, or whose English is pidgin rather
than standard (McCain 2012). iROKOtv.com, one of the most popular sources of
licensed, streaming Nollywood films, even contains a Yorùbá section that show-
cases the overlap (in terms of personnel) between Yorùbá- and English-language
productions. One such crossover star is Funke Akindele, whose screenplay for
2008’s Jénífà is a Yorùbá-language account of the complicated journey of a vil-
lage girl (played by Akindele) to attend the University of Lagos, where she is met
with – and resists – the pressure to rely exclusively on English when socializing
with her fellow students. While she remains proud of her Yorùbá heritage, Jénífà
(who has adopted her new name, no longer using her very traditional birth name,
Suliat) eventually joins a group of high-priced campus prostitutes. Having por-
trayed the lead role in the long-running Nigerian television series I Need to Know
(1997–2003), a production of the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF) that
focused on adolescent sexual and reproductive health education, and having con-
tributed scripts to that series in collaboration with UNPF officials, Akindele has
long been recognized as one of the faces of HIV/AIDS advocacy in Nigeria. With
Jénífà, she crafted a screenplay that culminates in its titular character’s contract-
ing HIV from one of her johns, and then deciding to devote her life to educating
young Nigerian girls about their sexual health.
Jénífà is ultimately as didactic and melodramatic as any Nollywood feature, but
prior to its eleventh-hour capitulations to pedagogy, it is a fine platform for Funke
Akindele’s comedic talents. Shaping the screenplay to suit those talents, Akindele
wrote a series of dialogue-free sequences in which her character strides through
a variety of university locations, confidently wearing the ‘wrong’ clothes (high-
heeled leather boots and billowing, childlike pyjama pants) while proudly taking
stock of a series of campus landmarks – landmarks that Akindele, as a graduate of
the University of Lagos (where much of the film is set and where some of it was
shot), must know extremely well. Cannily creating opportunities for her physical
Nigeria 33

humour to shine, Akindele also wrote extensive monologues – as well as a few

terse insults: ‘O da abo., Gbogbo Big Girl!’ she shouts at one of her antagonists,
which roughly translates as ‘Goodbye, Total Big Girl’ (the ‘total’ referring to the
self-assigned designation of the campus prostitutes, known locally as ‘big girls’).
As written by Akindele, Jénífà is a record of some of the Lagosian campus trends
and associated sayings that were reaching their peak in 2008; it offers a glimpse of
a hyper-specific urban Nigerian subculture that, in less complex Nollywood con-
texts, has often been reduced to caricature. Here, that subculture retains its histori-
cally specific colloquialisms; they are peppered throughout Akindele’s screenplay,
suggesting that, as a kind of time-capsule film, Jénífà is bound to age well.
In many ways, Jénífà represents a transitional film in Nollywood’s well-known
campus genre. Before Akindele’s work, that genre had mostly consisted of ensem-
ble films about teams of young women, most of them torn apart by infighting
(often over a man, but sometimes over a ‘competitive’ lesbian sexuality). These
narratives were finally rendered shameful according to the proscriptions of the
Nigerian Censor’s Bureau, which regulates Nollywood film content. While Jénífà
retains the campus genre’s use of the all-girl group, its narrative is also individu-
ated in ways that set it apart from such multicharacter conceptions as Sexy Girls
(Caz Chidiebere, 2008) and Women’s Affair (Andy Chukwu, 2003). The narrative
and thematic payoff is that, in Jénífà, Akindele’s title character can serve a sym-
bolic function; she can stand in for – as she herself says, and as an end title later
tells us – ‘so many young women’ who have fallen victim not simply to pimps
and various prostitution rings but also to those individuals who would deny or at
least downplay the existence of HIV/AIDS, and who, in the process, would dismiss
condoms as unnecessary.
Jénífà closes with an AIDS-themed quotation from Ghanaian Kofi Annan, who
served as Secretary General of the United Nations from 1997 to 2006, and also a
lengthy plea to the viewer to ‘show love to people living with HIV/AIDS’ – a plea
written by Akindele herself. Both the Annan quote and the Akindele plea arrive
via intertitle, as white text superimposed over a black screen. The attributions
of authorship that appear beneath the quote as well as beneath the plea, which
interrupt the colour scheme by materializing in yellow typeface, set up a certain
activist equivalence between Annan and Akindele. The one proclamation fol-
lows the other, and they are both devoted to raising awareness about HIV/AIDS.
Akindele’s quotation advocates youth education and empowerment, identifying
her Jénífà – the fictional human subject of the preceding film – as both a ‘comic
creation’ and a ‘teaching tool’, one designed to reduce the vulnerability to infec-
tion of young Nigerian women. By ending her screenplay with a series of prose
‘teachings’, which appear in the finished film as a series of textual superimposi-
tions, Akindele further inscribes herself as the writer of Jénífà, providing the kind
of clear, on-screen attribution of authorship that Uche Jombo’s character craves
in Last Celebrity, and whose significance Jombo herself has stressed in interviews.
Akindele’s ‘stamp’ – as an actress, activist, and perhaps most especially as an
accomplished screenwriter – is all over Jénífà; she turns it into another kind of
teaching tool – a Nollywood film that, in crafting an intertextual relationship
34 Women Screenwriters

with its writer-star’s earlier efforts (such as I Need to Know), foregrounds the cen-
trality of the creative consistency of a screenwriter’s commitment to a single,
broadly defined subject.
Helen Ukpabio, the Pentecostal preacher known for performing compli-
cated ‘exorcisms’ on unruly children, has written and produced a series of
Nollywood scripts, using film as a platform for promoting her controversial views
(Oppenheimer 2010). Perhaps most notable in Ukpabio’s oeuvre is her screenplay
for Teco Benson’s 1999 film End of the Wicked, which follows a Beelzebub who pos-
sesses children and also manifests as ‘evil penises’ that attach themselves to the
groins of vicious witches. Working to undermine the allegedly ‘virtuous’ gender
norms of contemporary Nigeria – the very same norms that Uche Jombo’s films
have sought to subvert – these witches use their new appendages to rape and pos-
sess their female foes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the apparent ‘point’ of End of the
Wicked is to present a Pentecostal preacher (played by Ukpabio) who specializes in
possession as the heroine of the film’s story and also as a heroine ‘of all Nigeria’
(a far from feasible proposition, given the country’s remarkable religious diver-
sity). Ukpabio’s scripts aren’t simply silly and nakedly partisan; they also reflect
the sort of beliefs that have made Ukpabio the focus of numerous human rights
organizations (Oppenheimer 2010). According to Ukpabio, ‘if a child under the
age of two screams in the night, cries and is always feverish with deteriorating
health, he or she is a servant of Satan’ (in Levack 2013: 2000). Ukpabio has con-
sistently provided portraits of a Pentecostalist triumph over ‘liberal’ social forces.
Whatever her political and religious allegiances, a figure such as Helen Ukpabio
helps to demonstrate that women screenwriters are a diverse lot in Nollywood.
Another writer whose projects are distinct is Peace Anyiam-Osigwe; it is perhaps
instructive that she got her start as a poet and a prose stylist. For Anyiam-Osigwe,
writing ‘comes from the bottomless pit of inspiration called the heart and the
soul’; each of her works, whether in the form of a film screenplay or a lyric poem,
‘has a story to tell’, such that ‘a thousand and one interpretations will be given,
whether true or false matters not, for it’s what the words mean to you that is
important – nothing else’ (Anyiam-Osigwe 1993: 1). Many of the themes that
drive her Nollywood screenplays are apparent in her first book of poetry, Looking
from the Outside in. Published in 1993, when Anyiam-Osigwe was 24 years old,
Looking from the Outside in contains an array of poems, from the nakedly auto-
biographical to the intensely imaginative; they all centre on the experiences of
black African womanhood. ‘The Last Decision’, for instance, envisions the world
from the perspective of a wife who re-evaluates her life upon turning 42 – an age
that Anyiam-Osigwe selected because it represented a reversal, an inversion, of
her own age at the time (Anyiam-Osigwe 1993: 8). The vaguely numerological (or
simply mischievous) decision to invert an age – to turn 24 on its ear, as it were –
masks a more profound strategy: in writing from the perspective of a 42-year-
old, the young Anyiam-Osigwe offered herself an experiment in empathy, one
that would find its own reversal, some fifteen years later, in her appearances in a
pair of documentary films about the Nollywood industry. The first of these films,
Jamie Meltzer’s Welcome to Nollywood (2007), provided Anyiam-Osigwe with an
Nigeria 35

opportunity to describe some of the basic working conditions for the industry’s
practitioners, and in particular its young women artists. Anyiam-Osigwe also
appears as an experienced mentor figure in Dorothee Wenner’s 2008 documentary
Peace Mission, whose title describes Anyiam-Osigwe’s commitment to promoting
Nollywood’s global visibility; in the documentary she considers the aspirations
of young women – as well as the misogynistic obstacles that they face in the
Nollywood film industry.
With the publication of Looking from the Outside in, Anyiam-Osigwe confirmed
that her personal, professional mission would be to combat racist and essentialist
stereotypes of Africa and Africans, while at the same time celebrating uniquely
Nigerian experiences. Her poem ‘Lagos’ is an impressionistic account of the
sights, sounds, and inchoate sensations of life in the title city – complete with
several of the languages (from Pidgin and Yorùbá to Hausa and Arabic) that can
easily be heard there. Like the great Christy Essien-Igbokwe, Nigeria’s famed ‘Lady
of Songs’, who wrote and performed lyrics in multiple African languages, Peace
Anyiam-Osigwe has worked to honour Lagos as multilinguistic, multiethnic, and
also religiously diverse – a place of ‘chaos life’ (Anyiam-Osigwe 1993: 24). This
valorization of Lagos finds its correlate in Anyiam-Osigwe’s screenplay for La
Viva (2007), which presents the Nigerian military as ‘beautifully and brilliantly
diverse’, in contrast to popular, essentialist assumptions.
La Viva, along with Anyiam-Osigwe’s screenplay for 2003’s Fear of the Unknown,
focuses on the inter-ethnic conflicts that often characterize black-majority coun-
tries. Many of her other works focus upon the psychic effects of white supremacist
discourses upon contemporary Nigerians, particularly women. Anyiam-Osigwe’s
poem ‘Colour Blind’, published in Looking from the Outside in, laments that ‘it’s
1992 and we still await the someday’ when race will cease to matter. At the same
time, Anyiam-Osigwe is communicating through this poem her awareness of
being black; by the end of it, she’s exulting in her blackness, defying and denounc-
ing the proliferating temptations of skin lighteners and hair straighteners. She
proclaims, ‘[N]ever going to change am I’ (Anyiam-Osigwe 1993: 36). This senti-
ment later turns up in Anyiam-Osigwe’s screenplay for Fear of the Unknown, which
culminates in a critique of the Osu caste system as well as in a celebration of ‘the
simple fact of being black’ – a celebration that powerfully recalls Aimé Césaire
and the politics of Négritude. In preparing for this plot development, Anyiam-
Osigwe punctuates the screenplay with stories about hate crimes that are told by
the victims themselves – a tactic that her poems often embrace, rendering har-
rowing encounters through the use of the first person. ‘Thick Skin’, for instance,
describes a young, black African woman’s experience of riding a crowded train
and having to confront the fact of her blackness. When ‘the racist jokes begin’,
and suddenly ‘a knife is pulled’, she is forced to disembark. Walking away from
the train, she recognizes not merely her vulnerability to oppression, but also the
sad chronological fact that it’s not ‘1940, or 1960, but 1992’, and she is ‘still fight-
ing for [her] right to be allowed to be a human being’ (Anyiam-Osigwe 1993: 35).
A similar lament turns up in Fear of the Unknown, with many a character decrying
the persistence of the Osu caste system in the twenty-first century. Throughout
36 Women Screenwriters

her work, Anyiam-Osigwe expresses an awareness of history and also a principled

exasperation with the sort of odious history that repeats itself.
Like Uche Jombo, Peace Anyiam-Osigwe has written her share of sexually
sophisticated, romantically themed stories. However, unlike Jombo, Anyiam-
Osigwe has thus far confined these stories to her poetry, apparently preferring to
use Nollywood screenwriting to focus on class conflict and ethnic prejudice (as in
Fear of the Unknown) and the history of the Economic Community of West African
States Monitoring Group (as in La Viva). Looking from the Outside in is, in fact, full
of poems that seem to anticipate some of Jombo’s concerns as a screenwriter: the
hopeful ‘Make it Last’ might describe the opening sequences of Games Men Play,
given its focus on the goal of one confident, sexually active young woman to
better understand men; conversely, the caustic ‘Open Letter to Him’ and ‘Staying
Away’ could be blueprints for the more outraged sections of Jombo’s film, in
which the prickly truth about husbands and boyfriends is revealed, leading some
women to find empowerment in openly, even angrily, critiquing male deceit.
As these examples attest, there are many surprising, productive points of conver-
gence among Nollywood’s women screenwriters, not one of whom has neglected
to address the HIV/AIDS pandemic, in one way or another. Indeed, even Helen
Ukpabio has managed to embed references to AIDS in her various screenplays –
though this is perhaps unsurprising, given the moralism and misogyny that con-
tinue to surround sexually transmitted diseases in today’s Nigeria, particularly
among the Pentecostalist set. (In Ukpabio’s oeuvre, AIDS is often evidence of
‘sin’ – a major mark of shame.) Several of Jombo’s screenplays acknowledge AIDS,
as do Anyiam-Osigwe’s Fear of the Unknown and La Viva. Nevertheless, Akindele’s
Jénífà is perhaps alone in being a work of explicit AIDS advocacy that focuses on
young women, although its central moral mandate can be traced back to Anyiam-
Osigwe’s Looking from the Outside in, which contains a startling, informative poem
entitled ‘Statement of Facts about AIDS’. As its title suggests, this 1993 poem
outlines what was then known about the pandemic, anticipating the end titles
of Jénífà, with their plainly pedagogical bent. If, in that film, Akindele’s closing
summation combines ‘the cold, hard facts’ with her own subjective, expressive
assessment of the pandemic and its effects upon young Nigerian women, then
so does Anyiam-Osigwe’s 1993 poem place AIDS at the centre of efforts to better
understand the risks associated with African womanhood.
The feminist inflections in the work of so many Nollywood women screenwrit-
ers are difficult to miss, and they resonate with the statements that these screen-
writers have made in the Nigerian popular press and on television – statements
such as Akindele’s anti-essentialist claim to ‘have many layers that deserve the
spotlight’ (Okiche 2012: 41). However, the precise political project at the centre
of a Nollywood screenplay can sometimes seem hidden – buried beneath a heap
of generic requirements and further obscured by the sort of surface ‘errors’ that
inevitably accrue to films shot cheaply and rapidly – and this is perhaps nowhere
more apparent than in a romantic comedy. Uche Jombo’s recurrent subjects,
apart from those explored in her Damage trilogy (tracing such hot-button top-
ics as AIDS, drug addiction, spousal abuse, and human trafficking), may seem
Nigeria 37

‘superficial’ and strictly celebrity-focused, but they manage to explore issues of

relevance to contemporary working women. There is a definite feminist project at
the centre of Last Celebrity, which considers gender inequality among professional
public figures. Games Men Play, which Jombo wrote with her frequent screenwrit-
ing partner Emem Isong, suggests that women needn’t stick their heads in the
sand, ostrich-style, while their husbands and boyfriends scheme and cheat. The
film suggests that they can take action, either by confronting and dumping them,
or by seeking to better understand male psychology, to provide ‘compassion’ and
work towards experiencing empathy.
In spite of dismissive popular presumptions, Nollywood screenwriting pro-
vides a forum for artists to express their political positions. There is perhaps no
stronger confirmation of this possibility than the work of the industry’s women
screenwriters, who often need to fight allegations of frivolity that arrive wrapped
in a well-worn misogyny, as Uche Jombo has consistently suggested. In his
essay on Nollywood’s most dismissive critics, Onookome Okome explains that
Nigeria’s formally credentialled ‘cultural mediators’ tend to view Nollywood films
as ‘no more than curios, which are produced by naive artists who have little or
no critical sense of the “grave” matters that confront the African in the post-
independence era’ (Okome 2010: 28). Okome argues that this ‘negating approach’
ignores the subversively satirical, productively allegorical, and socially relevant
aspects of countless films. The careers of Peace Anyiam-Osigwe, Uche Jombo, and
Funke Akindele indicate how central these aspects are to the work of Nollywood’s
women screenwriters. Of the scripts referenced in this essay, none are currently in
print in Nigeria, and only brief prose treatments for Peace Anyiam-Osigwe’s films
Fear of the Unknown and La Viva were ever commercially available – and then only
as ‘tie-ins’ to reprints of Anyiam-Osigwe’s popular book of poetry, Looking from
the Outside in (which itself is no longer in print). Okome notes that even Nigerian
university archives are missing Nollywood screenplays and that this is perhaps a
measure of the anti-Nollywood intellectual prejudice. However, as the industry
continues to grow, and to acquire new promotional avenues both at home and
abroad, it might eventually embrace the potential of the published screenplay.
Circulating the words of some of Nollywood’s most prolific women would cer-
tainly prove that a Nollywood film isn’t always improvised; that the screenplays
contain a series of pedagogical interventions, incisive dialogue exchanges, and
complex portrayals of Africa and Africans.
Chineze Anyaene is a director, producer and screenwriter. She attended the
University of Abuja and the New York Film Academy. Ije:The Journey (2010, co-
written by Anyaene and Samuel Tilson and shot in Nigeria and America) is the story
of a child, Chioma, in the Nigerian countryside who warns her sister, Anya, about
believing in the myth of the ‘American Dream’. Many years later, Anya is accused
of killing three men in Hollywood, California and Chioma travels to Los Angeles to
find out the secrets that her sister is trying to hide. The film received several awards
and for two years held the record as the top-grossing film in Nigerian cinemas.
Stephanie Okereke (1982–) is an actress, screenwriter, director and producer.
She was born in Imo, Nigeria and was educated at the University of Calabar,
38 Women Screenwriters

receiving a degree in English and literary studies. Okereke wrote, directed, acted
in and produced Through the Glass (2008). The film received an African Movie
Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay.
Ngozi Onwurah (1966–) was born in Nigeria to a Nigerian father and a British
white mother; she was educated in the United Kingdom. She is a writer, director
and lecturer. Many of her short films focus on growing up in a mixed-race house-
hold and investigating the role of women in society. Her feature film, Welcome II
the Terrordome, a sci-fi drama which she wrote and directed, was released in 1995.
Zina Saro-Wiwa (1976–) is a video artist and screenwriter and filmmaker. She
is the founding member of the alt-Nollywood movement – a movement designed
to use typical narrative and conventional Nollywood-style filmmaking, using
low budgets and aimed at politically subversive challenges. She has worked as a
reporter for BBC Radio, a documentary filmmaker (This Is My Africa [2008/9] and
two short film narratives in 2010, Phyllis and Deliverance of Comfort).

Anyiam-Osigwe, Peace. 1993. Looking from the Outside in. Lagos, Nigeria: All Media.
Cham, Mbye. 2009. ‘Foreward’, in Bhekizizwe Peterson and Ramadan Suleman, Zulu Love
Letter: A Screenplay. Johannesburg: Wits University Press, pp. vii–xii.
Haynes, Jonathan. 2007. ‘Nollywood in Lagos, Lagos in Nollywood Films’, Africa Today, 54
(2): 131–50.
Jombo, Uche. 2012. In conversation with Exquisite magazine. Exquisite, ‘The Get Gorgeous
Issue’, 45, p. 18.
Levack, Brian P. 2013. The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West.
Connecticut: Yale University Press.
McCain, Carmen. 2012. ‘Kannywood, the Growth of a Nigerian Language Industry’,
Nigerians Talk, 9 October. Available at: http://nigerianstalk.org/2012/10/09/kannywood-
the-growth-of-a-nigerian-language-industry-carmen-mccain-2/ (accessed 12 August 2013).
Novia, Charles. 2012. Nollywood till November: Memories of a Nollywood Insider. Bloomington:
Okiche, Wilfred. 2012. ‘Funke Kan! Nigeria Kan!’, Y! Magazine, 7, pp. 40–5.
Okome, Onookome. 2010. ‘Nollywood and Its Critics’, in Mahir Saul and Ralph A. Austen
(eds), Viewing African Cinema in the Twenty-First Century: Art Films and the Nollywood Video
Revolution. Ohio: Ohio University Press, pp. 26–41.
Oppenheimer, Mark. 2010. ‘On a Visit to the US, a Nigerian Witch-Hunter Explains Herself’,
New York Times, 21 May. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/22/us/22beliefs.
html?_r=0 (accessed 12 August 2013).
South Africa
Haseenah Ebrahim


The involvement of women in the film industry in South Africa dates back to the
apartheid era when several white women worked within what was then, as now,
a white, male-dominated industry. In some instances, these women worked in
professional partnerships with their husbands, such as producer-director Katinka
Heyns who continues to work with her scriptwriter husband, Chris Barnard.
While women screenwriters remain outnumbered by their male counterparts, a
number of white women, especially those who write in English, are relatively well
known, and still outnumber women of colour in the mainstream film industry,
despite their minority status in terms of the country’s population demographics.
This remains a legacy of the colonial and apartheid-era privileging of the minor-
ity white population in South Africa. Two significant findings have emerged from
this research undertaken to map the presence of women screenwriters in the
South African film industry: first, an awareness that, while a few women of colour
have begun to enter the filmmaking sector, they remain at the margins of the
mainstream film industry, writing primarily for documentaries and short films;
and, secondly, the complete absence of black African women screenwriters. The
reasons for this are unclear, and suggest that further research is warranted into the
structural factors that continue to hamper the participation of women of colour,
and black African women in particular, in the film industry in South Africa, other
than as actresses.
As in other parts of the world, television provides a more open environment
for aspiring writers than does the world of feature film production. However, it is
also an environment in which much of the scriptwriting and story development
is done collaboratively, usually as part of a series writing team, with a certain level
of anonymity or limited recognition. The profiles that follow indicate that even
when women write for feature films, they often not only collaborate with other
writers, but also with directors and actors. This may reflect a particular gender-
inflected preference in terms of modes of working, and may also provide easier
access to feature film production for women screenwriters within the current film
production landscape.

40 Women Screenwriters

In the post-apartheid period, the establishment of the state-funded National

Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) has brought with it opportunities for emer-
gent screenwriters to develop their skills through several screenwriting training
programmes. Although criticisms are regularly levelled against these screenwriting
programmes for their emphasis on Hollywood narrative formulae and genres, a
number of aspiring screenwriters, male and female, have utilized this opportu-
nity to develop their feature film scripts. The Sediba Spark screenwriting training
programme is directed by two women screenwriters, Thandi Brewer and Julie Hall
(profiled below). While most scripts are written in English, some of these training
programmes include scripts written in Afrikaans (a South African language based
primarily on Dutch, but also including vocabulary from Malay, Portuguese and sev-
eral African languages), and a few in the more prominent African languages such
as IsiZulu, TsiVenda or Sesotho. Much needs to be done to encourage both male
and female writers to write in some of South Africa’s other eleven official languages.
It is apparent from the profiles included here that most women screenwrit-
ers wear multiple hats as producers/directors/writers. One filmmaker noted that
the South African film industry is small and dominated, as elsewhere, by male
producers and directors who tend to work informally with a small group of male
screenwriters. Women screenwriters often expend considerable time and effort
working within the independent sector to see their scripts realized. As a result,
they develop skills and expertise in several aspects of filmmaking, and quite fre-
quently are forced to utilize all of these to see their scripts produced.
Many of the screenwriters profiled here are keen to tell stories that have not
been told before about their own communities, or that draw on South Africa’s
rich, multicultural heritage. They often also express a desire to tell their stories in
a way that would cross the racial divides that still persist within the country. This
survey’s identification of the dearth of black African women screenwriters indi-
cates that the road ahead for women filmmakers, including screenwriters, is still
a long one and that there are many stories to be told by the different segments of
South Africa’s diverse population.
The short profiles that follow are listed in alphabetical order by surname, and
this is the first attempt to identify the women screenwriters in South Africa in any
one review. As such, there are, no doubt, some names that have been inadvert-
ently omitted, but it is hoped that the list will be expanded in the years to come.
Sara Blecher is a graduate of New York University, and a co-founder of Cinga
Productions. Although better known as a director and producer, Blecher also co-
created and wrote many episodes of the television series Zero Tolerance, which
she directed and produced and which was nominated for an international Emmy
award, as well as the award-winning 36-part drama Bay of Plenty. Blecher works
across several media platforms and formats, including short films, television series
and documentaries. She co-wrote the screenplay for the feature film Otelo Burning
(2011), which she also produced and directed. The film tells the story of a group
of black teenage boys who discover the joys of surfing in the subtropical waters of
the Indian Ocean holiday resort city of Durban, just a few miles away from their
crime and poverty-ridden township of Lamontville. Set in the apartheid era of the
South Africa 41

1980s, the boys’ dreams and joys in the hitherto unknown world of surfing are
soon brutally impacted by political, social and interpersonal conflict. Blecher also
produced and directed the documentary Surfing Soweto (2010), screened by CNN,
which follows the lives of a group of Soweto teenagers who surf moving trains,
using footage shot by her filmmaking team as well as by the boys themselves.
Lauren Beukes has worked as a scriptwriter for animated television series and
is a comic-book writer, but shot to fame when her novel, Zoo City (2010), won the
prestigious Arthur C. Clarke award. She is currently working on the screenplay
for the novel’s film adaptation, which Beukes describes as ‘ a dark and twisty love
story murder mystery noir in a gritty magical Jo’burg’.
Thandi Brewer is an award-winning playwright, screenwriter, producer, direc-
tor and script editor for the NFVF. Brewer graduated from Trinity College, London.
She is the current Chair of the Writers Guild of South Africa, and also heads up the
Sediba Spark screenwriting training programme for the NFVF, together with Julie
Hall. Her film writing credits include Story of An African Farm (2004) and several
uncredited contributions to scripts for international films, including Paris Le Cap,
Cheap Lives, The Weatherman, 12 Dancing Princesses, Corner Pocket and The Chemo
Club, and she has credits as a script editor/script doctor on a number of feature
film productions, including Otelo Burning.
Julie Frederikse is a screenwriter, film producer and novelist, who wrote the
screenplay for the feature film, Izulu Lami/My Secret Sky (2008), which tells the
story of two recently orphaned children who leave their rural homestead on a
quest and find themselves caught up in a desperate struggle for survival with a
gang of street children. The film has won several international awards. Frederikse,
a graduate of Cornell University, writes in English, Afrikaans and Zulu.
Margaret Goldsmid is a successful television producer, script editor and educa-
tor in screenwriting for the NFVF, where she also acts as script editor on feature
films in development, and mentors aspiring screenwriters in the NFVF’s screen-
writing programme. Goldsmid has worked as a script editor for fifteen years, and
has written for, or produced, a number of award-winning television drama series,
including Justice for All (1998) and 7de Laan (2000–). She has also taught short
courses in screenwriting at the South African School of Motion Picture Medium
and Live Performance (AFDA) and Monash University.
Julie Hall is a television scriptwriter, having worked on numerous television
series in various genres and formats, including sitcoms, edutainment series,
miniseries and various dramas. Her scriptwriting experience includes working on
South Africa’s most popular soap, Generations (1993–) , for five years. Hall co-heads
the Sediba Spark screenwriting training programme for the NFVF with Thandi
Brewer, and works as a script editor/doctor for various feature film projects. She is
currently writing a romantic comedy feature film.
Acclaimed writer Rayda Jacobs turned her award-winning novel, Confessions
of a Gambler, into a screenplay, then directed and played the lead role in the
adapted film, Confessions of a Gambler (2007). Set amidst the conservative Cape
Malay Muslim community in Cape Town, the film draws on Jacobs’ own experi-
ences in its story of a pious Muslim woman who becomes a gambling addict. This
42 Women Screenwriters

controversial theme is, however, only one of a number of social challenges facing
the community; the film includes a storyline in which a Muslim mother comes
to terms with her son’s homosexuality, and AIDS. Jacobs is also a documentary
filmmaker who has produced, written and directed several documentaries about
Islam and Muslim women.
Anna-Marie Jansen van Vuuren is a screenwriter and academic, teaching
screenwriting at the University of the Witwatersrand’s School of Arts (WSOA),
while writing scripts for radio and television documentaries and series, including
the children’s television series Thabang Thabong and Rivoningo. Her screenplays for
feature films include Wolf Wolf, Hoe laat is dit? (2010), an innovative filmmaking
project involving twenty directors, and Babalas (2012), which she co-wrote with
Carl Stemmet. She is currently developing a feature film screenplay entitled En
Garde Rooinek as part of the NFVF’s Sediba Spark scriptwriting programme.
Shirley Johnston is an actress, screenwriter, playwright and educator who has
written for several South African television series, including Isidingo, Backstage,
Madam and Eve, Shooting Stars and Montana. Her early efforts in several mediums/
formats have won her awards: her first short film, Clean Hands, won an M-Net
New Directions Screenwriting Award; her first play, Plastics, won the South African
Committee of Performing Arts Councils (SACPAC) Best Playwright award, and her
debut feature film, Felix! (2013), won the 2004 Writer’s Forum Award at Sithengi
and was a quarter finalist in Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Screenwriting
Competition. Felix! is an all-woman collaboration, written, directed, shot and
line-produced by women, but the story is about a teenage boy from the townships
who dreams of becoming a jazz saxophonist.
Justine Loots is a screenwriter, independent filmmaker, educator and script
editor. Currently writing a miniseries for television, and co-writing an adaptation
of the play Green Man Flashing for the big screen, she has worked on the writing
teams of several television series, including Erfsondes, and actuality programmes
such as Carte Blanche and Carte Blanche Africa. Loots headed the script develop-
ment programme at Videovision Entertainment for some time, and currently
teaches screenwriting at the NFVF. Loots currently also works as a script editor
for the NFVF.
Raeesa Mohamed is a radio and TV producer, presenter and news anchor,
whose foray into screenwriting is very recent, with the release of the romantic
comedy For Better For Worse (2010). The film, which she wrote (and produced) to
highlight the east coast city of Durban, explores the eccentricities of contempo-
rary Indian South African life.
Jayan Moodley’s debut film, White Gold (2010), is an historical drama inspired by
her search for her ancestral roots. Moodley wrote and directed the film. Surprisingly,
in a country which has the largest Indian-descent population outside India, White
Gold is the first feature film that explores the experiences of Indian indentured
workers on their arrival in South Africa in the late 1800s to work on the sugar cane
plantations of the British colony which is now known as KwaZulu- Natal.
Beverly Mitchell is a producer/director/writer who works mainly in television.
Mitchell co-wrote the screenplay (with Weaam Williams and Dingi Ntuli) for 34
South Africa 43

South (2004), the first South African full-length feature film to be directed by a
black South African woman, Maganthrie Pillay. 34 South is a road movie about a
group of young Capetonians on their way to Johannesburg. Mitchell also wrote
and produced the documentary Footprints in Africa: Our Nation in Colour (2008) for
the SABC (South African Broadcasting Corporation).
Born in Mozambique, Helen Nogueira is a writer, director and editor who
became the first woman to direct a feature film in South Africa with Quest for
Love (1988), which she also wrote. Quest for Love focuses on the lives and conflicts
of two lesbian women against the tensions of South Africa’s political climate.
Nogueira wrote and directed several short films, as well as the feature film The
Good Fascist (1992), and a documentary, Ingrid Jonker: Her Lives and Time (2002),
which explores the life of the iconic Afrikaner poet. Nogueira is writing a screen-
play for a feature film on Jonker entitled All That Breaks.
Zulfah Otto Sallies is a screenwriter, filmmaker, writer, playwright and poet
whose films reflect the vibrancy of her upbringing in the Cape Malay Muslim
community of the Bo-Kaap in Cape Town. In 2001, she wrote and directed the
short film Raya (2001), broadcast as part of the Mama Africa series featuring films
by African women. The film highlights the generational tensions amongst the
residents of the Bo-Kaap whose Muslim identity is constantly tested against the
seductions of sexual freedom and drug abuse. She also co-wrote the screenplay for
the short film Stompie and the Red Tide (2000).
Elaine Proctor is a novelist, film director, screenwriter, actress and producer
who graduated with a Master’s degree from the National Film and Television
School in England. Her screenwriting credits include On the Wire (1990), Friends
(1993) and Kin (2000), all of which she also directed. On the Wire (1990) was her
graduation film and earned her the British Film Institute’s Sutherland Trophy for
most original and imaginative first film, while Friends won the Camera d’Or –
Mention Speciale prize at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival. She released her debut
novel, Rhumba, in 2012. Now resident in London, she continues to write novels
and scripts set in southern Africa.
Hanneke Schutte is a young writer and director whose screenplays for several
short films have won awards both locally and overseas. Schutte shot to fame when
she was selected as the South African winner of the Jameson First Shot competi-
tion with her screenplay for the short film Saving Norman (2013). The win provided
Schutte the opportunity to fly to Los Angeles to direct Willem Dafoe in the leading
role. Saving Norman, produced by actor Kevin Spacey, is the story of a hypochon-
driac ping pong player who has never fully recovered from missing a major tourna-
ment. Schutte’s first feature film, which she wrote and directed, Jimmy in Pienk, was
released in 2013. The film is an Afrikaans-language social satire targeting Afrikaner
conservatism about homosexuality. Her other screenwriting credits include the
short film script The City Swallows, which was a semi-finalist at the Berlin Today
Awards, and a screenplay provisionally titled A Chameleon called Gatiepie, a film
adaptation of Riana Scheepers’ youth novel Blinde Sambok. She also wrote the
third installment in the popular Bakgat film franchise, and acted as script editor on
Wolwedans in die Skemer (2012), adapted from a long-running radio drama series.
44 Women Screenwriters

Jann Turner co-wrote the screenplay for White Wedding (2009), which was
also her directorial feature film debut. The romantic comedy/road trip film was
very successful in South Africa, and was nominated in seven categories at the
South African Film and TV Awards (SAFTA). It was South Africa’s entry for Best
Foreign Language Film at the 82nd Academy Awards. Turner’s collaboration with
two well-known South African actors, Rapulana Seiphemo and Kenneth Nkosi,
also inspired their next film, Paradise Stop (2011), for which Turner once again
co-wrote the screenplay. Paradise Stop is a high-speed action comedy/heist film
which she produced and directed. Turner is a graduate of the New York University
(NYU) film school, and has also written for a number of television series, in addi-
tion to producing several novels, including Heartland (1977), Home Is Where You
Find It (2001) and Southern Cross (2002). She also co-created several television
drama series such as Hard Copy (2005), a drama series set in the newsroom of an
independent, influential weekly newspaper, which went on to win in the Best TV
Drama category of the South African Film and TV Awards.
Janet van Eeden began her screenwriting career in the United Kingdom, writ-
ing plays and teaching drama, before returning to South Africa. Van Eeden has
written a number of screenplays, including A Matter of Time, No Going Back and
Skeleton Coast, and the short film The Red Shoes. Although several of her scripts
were optioned, none was produced, until she responded to a call to develop a
full feature film script about a white lion. Drawing on traditional African beliefs
about the ancestral links to white lions, van Eeden’s screenplay focuses on actual,
not romanticized, lion behaviour. There is a strong conservational approach in
its story about a white lion cub that is rejected by its pride and the Shangaan
tribesman who takes on the guardianship of the cub, in accordance with the
beliefs of his people. The film, White Lion (2010), won the Audience Award at the
Lucas International Festival of Films for Children and Young People. Van Eeden
also acted as script editor for the documentary Property of the State (2003), which
explores the status and experiences of gay men in the apartheid-era military in
South Africa.
Sandra Vaughn is an actress and comic who wrote the screenplay for the
Afrikaans-language romantic comedy Semi-Soet (2012), much of which is set on a
wine estate, hence the title (semi-sweet). Her other writing credits include the TV
series Getroud met Rugby (2009) and Liefste Kayla (2013). Getroud met Rugby, which
translates into English as Married To Rugby, is an Afrikaans-language television
series similar to the British television series Footballers’ Wives. Liefste Kayla focuses
on the life of a 13-year-old girl who writes and sings her own songs.
Weaam Williams and Beverley Mitchell co-wrote the screenplay (with Dingi
Ntuli) for 34 South, the first South African full-length feature film to be directed
by a black South African woman, Maganthrie Pillay, a road movie about a group of
young Capetonians on their way to Johannesburg. Weeam Williams, a published
poet and short story writer, has also directed two documentaries, The Feminine
Divine, profiling three women healers, and Hip Hop Revolution (2006), which
explores the twenty-five-year journey of hip hop in South Africa and approaches
hip hop as a source of inspiration and activism.
Ouissal Mejri

The Tunisian Cinema

Since its birth, the Tunisian cinema has been at the forefront of the feminist move-
ment, trying to rehabilitate the dignity and equality of women in the country.
In most cases, Tunisian women screenwriters are also the directors of their
scripts. These screenwriters/directors often have a leading voice in the social
causes that Tunisia began to recognize in the age of Bourguiba, and which
continue to be recognized today. ‘The emergence of women’s cinema and the
proportionally high participation of women in national filmmaking have been
facilitated by Tunisian jurisdiction, which is considered to be the most liberal
in all Arab Muslim countries in terms of gender equality’ (Dönmez-Colin 2007:
148). The cinema is the means of communication that these women directors and
screenwriters decide to use to denounce, explain, affirm or deny daily situations
in Tunisian society.
This work about Tunisian women screenwriters focuses initially on the work of
the first woman screenwriter in Africa and Tunisia, Haydée Chikly Tamzali, who
wrote Zohra (1922) and The Girl from Carthage (1924), and then on Salma Baccar
(Fatma 75 [1978], Habiba M’sika/The Dance of Fire [1995]); Néjia Ben Mabrouk
(Al-Sâma/The Trace [1982]); Moufida Tlatli (Samt al Qusur/The Silence of the Palaces
[1994]); Kalthoum Bornaz (Keswa/The Lost Thread [1998]); Kalthoum Bornaz
(Keswa/The Lost Thread [1998]); and Raja Amari (Satin Rouge/Red Satin [2002]).

Haydée Chikly Tamzali

Haydée Chikly participated in building the history of Arabic and African cin-
ema. She was the first actress and screenwriter in Africa. In a memoir she wrote
about her father, Albert Samama Chikly, an important cinematographic inventor
(Tamzali 1992: 109) who allowed her to enter the world of cinema. Haydée Chikly
had three jobs: first, creating and writing scenarios; second, being her father’s
principal actress; and the third as a film editor. She even hand-coloured film
on occasions (Mansour 2000: 200). Albert Samama Chikly filmed Zohra in 1922
and The Girl from Carthage in 1924 with his sixteen-year-old daughter as the lead

46 Women Screenwriters

actress. She was also the screenwriter. About the film The Girl from Carthage, she
said, ‘I wrote this story to show how badly women were treated when they were
just sold off with an arranged marriage into a man’s world’ (Tamzali 1992: 112).
These two film narratives were the first made on the African continent and they
are preserved in France; the negatives are in the Bois d’Arcy archives.
After The Girl from Carthage, Haydée Chikly played a part in The Arab (1924);
this was directed by the famous Hollywood director Rex Ingram and also starred
Ramon Novarro. She also recited for Ferid Boughedir’s film Un été à la Goulette/A
Summer in La Goulette (1998) and for Mamoud Ben Mamoud’s documentary
devoted to Albert Samama Chikly. Haydée Chikly, who became Haydée Tamzali
after her marriage, is a woman of letters highly appreciated in Tunis; she remains
the benchmark and is also intent on keeping a faithful memorial of her father.
Later on, Haydée Chikly wrote several stories and articles for the Tunisian
newspaper La Presse and in 1998 a book entitled Images retrouvées from true stories
inspired by common memory. She wrote about her life and her memories and
dedicated a text to her family, ending it as follows: ‘I would like to conclude today,
at the end of my life, saying that the most beautiful character of woman is to be
a woman’ (Mansour 2000: 200).
A part of the Zohra script still exists in the family archives, written in French
and in typewritten format. What follows are short synopses of some of Chikley’s
film narratives:

The film Zohra tells of the loss of a young French girl following a shipwreck due
to a storm in the Mediterranean Sea. She is found by the fisherman Amor; he tries
to revive her. Then he takes her to a Bedouin’s Douar where she is warmly wel-
comed. The Shiek of Douar Brahim proposes the community accept her and she
soon lives a bohemian life. Shortly after, Zohra joins a caravan heading north and
contacts the European authorities. Meanwhile, her adoptive mother is kidnapped
by bandits and her adoptive father is killed. That night Zohra hears the sound of
a plane’s motor; she escapes and reaches it. She discovers it to be a French plane
and she explains her situation. Finally, Zohra is saved and finds her real parents.

The Girl from Carthage

In the early 1980s, the script of The Girl from Carthage was withdrawn from
the family archives, when the Ministry of Tunisian Culture planned to open a
museum of cinema. This material was lost.
The fact that Haydée Chikly is the screenwriter is reinforced by the first interti-
tle of The Girl from Carthage: ‘Ain-el-Ghezal, The Girl from Carthage, a drama from
Arab life played by the author, Ms Haydée Chikli’. The Girl from Carthage tells the
dramatic story of a young girl forced by her family into marriage. She runs away
with her lover and commits suicide when he is killed. The story appears to be a
remake of the impossible love between Romeo and Juliet, but for this movie, it is
the crazy and impossible love between Ain-el-Ghezal and Taleb. This topic would
be revisited frequently in subsequent Tunisian productions.
Tunisia 47

Salma Baccar

Some time elapsed before the appearance of the next female scriptwriter in the
1970s – Salma Baccar, born in 1945 and the first Tunisian woman director since
Tunisia’s independence. Earlier, Baccar took part in the rehabilitation of Tunisian
women. In 1978 she wrote and directed the movie Fatma 75 supported by the
Tunisian government and focusing on women’s emancipation. This pioneer of
Tunisian cinema wrote several scripts during her career including: L’Eveil (1968),
Le Crépuscule (1968), Khochkhach/Flower of Oblivion (2005), the documentaries De
la Toison au Fil d’or (1985), Au Pays du Tarayoun (1985), and L’Histoire des coutumes
(1985), and the docu-drama Habiba M’sika/The Dance of Fire (1995). She has also
written for television (FESCAPO 2000: 51).
Whether working with documentaries, movies or TV series, Salma Baccar
always chooses a woman as her main character and the Tunisian female world as
the film’s backdrop. For her first film, Fatma 75, she contributed to the progress
of the thinking about the future of Tunisian women. Fatma 75 tells us about
a research student who, through flashbacks, introduces famous women in the
history of Tunisia. Three generations of women and three ways of thinking are
presented in the film: 1930–38, when the Tunisian Women’s Union (UFT) was
created; 1938–52, showing the relationship between the fight for women’s rights
and the national fight for independence; and, finally, the period from 1956 up to
the 1970s, presenting the achievements of Tunisian women made possible by the
Code of Personal Status. In an interview with Wassyla Tamzali, published in the
book entitled En attendant Omar Gatlato, Salma Baccar says that:

My film is aimed at women, in particular the Tunisian ones. I hope that this
film will be shown to those who do not usually go to the cinema, leaving the
traditional circuit. I’m sure that there will be undoubtedly some of them that
will be against the film. Today, only a few intellectual women are mobilized for
the struggle. In general there is no dialogue between those who are conscious
and those who are not aware. (Tamzali 1979: 54)

In Habiba M’sika/The Dance of Fire, Salma Baccar focuses on the life of Habiba
Msika, one of the greatest theater and songwriting stars of the 1920s. The frame-
work of the film is inspired by the life of the artist, showing the last three years of
her career starting from 1927. In these years the star was at the top of her career
and managing ‘Salons’ where poets and artists used to meet. The personality of
Habiba Msika is, in a sense, strongly symbolic. She is an example of a young and
talented artist who is in need of liberty. Salma Baccar describes her in this way:
‘It is a symbolic character that represented the women’s condition with several
facets’ (Baccar 1994: 12).
Finally, the movie Khochkhach/Flower of Oblivion, for which the scenario and
dialogue were written by Salma Baccar and Aroussia Nallouti, comes back to
Haydée Chikly’s first topic: the arranged marriage. The movie tells us about the
story of Zakia, married following the Tunisian traditions of wedding arrangement.
48 Women Screenwriters

After having discovered that her husband is homosexual, she becomes addicted to
opium. Zakia starts to neglect everything in her life – including her daughter – in
pursuit of her growing addiction.

Néjia Ben Mabrouk

Another woman who rose in the Tunisian cinema after the Independence (1952–62)
is Néjia Ben Mabrouk.
Néjia Ben Mabrouk was born in Ouédiane in Tunisia. She studied cinema in
Brussels at the Institut National Supérieur des Arts et du Spectacle (INSAS). Her
first full-length feature film, Al-Sâma/The Trace (1982), contains elements of her
own biography, looking at the long years spent by her father in the phosphate
mines of M’dilla in the south of Tunisia (Boughedir 1998: 174). Al-Sâma/The Trace
relates the story of Sabra, a girl from the south of Tunisia whose father is a mining
worker and whose mother is illiterate. It describes the struggle of a young woman
to obtain an adequate education and the right to determine her own life. The
young girl wishes to continue her studies in Tunis, the capital. For Sabra, studying
is the only way to achieve freedom. ‘The narrative of Al-Sâma/The Trace constantly
shifts between past and present, between the protagonist’s childhood and her vain
efforts to graduate from high school’ (Shafik 1998: 205). The major concern is that
she finds herself in the situation of every Arabic woman for whom life is decided
by someone else. It tells of the fragility of her future. The movie is structured by
alternating childhood memories with current situations. Sabra, as a child, dreams
of invading the spaces reserved for men, so she rides a bicycle, a privilege author-
ized only for men, and plays with a spinning top, shocking the neighbours and
provoking them to blame her mother for her bad moral education. The interior
of the house is defined by Néjia Ben Mabrouk ‘as the female domain, which men
rarely enter, the realm of the embracing, protective, but also devouring mother.
This juxtaposition is made already at the beginning of the film in a dream of the
protagonist’ (Shafik 1998: 206).
This film offers a similarly claustrophobic description of the female environ-
ment, set in the prison-like universe of a family full of taboos, creating conflicts
between mother and daughter. The specificity of this conflicted relationship
between mother and daughter is not only linked to the Tunisian tradition but
can also be traced back to the Islamic culture. In Moslem society the mother is
responsible for the behaviour of her daughter and she might be punished even if
there is only the smallest suspicion of guilt.
The title of the film, The Trace, is very meaningful and is linked to the scar on the
mother’s forehead. The scar has been induced by acid; it was used to remove the
traditional tattoo, a symbol of obedience and submission. The story about the trace
covers what the mother says to the daughter: ‘For a girl, it is easy to get smeared.
Men are not easy, they don’t get the trace. Young girls have to protect themselves
against the masculine threat. Girls are locked because adults believe that they
cannot resist the temptation of the flesh’ (Khelil 2007: 151). The voice of the
screenwriter joins the screaming of the protagonist who denounces the injuries
Tunisia 49

undergone by women: in a patriarchal society all kinds of barriers are raised to

confront the desire for emancipation.
In the same manner, the main character, by refusing her past heritage and by
fighting for emancipation, will burn her books and decide to join her brothers in
Europe where she will finally have the opportunity to make her dream come true.
The dialogue refers also to the painful past of Tunisian women and to this feared
trace: this sexual defilement. Al-Sâma/The Trace was finished in 1982, but was
released only in 1988 due to a dispute between the author and the film’s producer.

Moufida Tlatli

Another screenwriter who revisited these topics is Moufida Tlatli through the
movie Samt al Qusur/The Silence of the Palaces.
Moufida Tlatli was born in 1947 in Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia. She studied cinema
at the Institut des hautes études cinématographiques (IDHEC) in Paris, graduat-
ing in 1968. ‘She worked for French television until 1972 as a scriptwriter, then
as a director of production’ (Pallister and Hottell 2011: 34). Her first feature film
was Samt al Qusur/The Silence of the Palaces (1994). This film develops some of
the social and cultural paradoxes in Tunisian society, illustrated by the transi-
tion from the traditional to modern era. It chronicles the experiences of a young
woman, Alia, who tries to discover the truth of the present through her past. The
narrative structure of the movie seems well synchronized with the passage of
time, both in front and in back. It is built on a very smooth structure that allows
some time points to be omitted from the regular chronology. The movie has Alia
as the pillar, playing both child and adult, while the other characters revolve
around her. The dramatic attention is focused on the principal character of Alia.
Her childhood is marked by complexes brought about by the sufferings of her
mother and feelings of guilt relating to responsibility for her death. Nevertheless,
Alia, the adult woman, has a hard life fixed in the past. Her forgotten suffering is
revived again when her companion asks her to abort a baby, thereby refusing a
precocious and unexpected paternity. The character of Khedija, the mother, is in
total conflict with that of her daughter who becomes ever more unmanageable;
she finds within herself the strength to be impassive and resistant to any form
of pain. Based on a structure that mixes contradiction and contrast, the director
has understood how to evolve her characters, ensuring more artistically credible
choices. This contrast empathizes with a whole generation of women who must
learn and manage their freedoms and rights. Therefore, the scriptwriter/director
knows how to play with her characters so as to introduce to the public the true
issues of a society taking the first steps towards modernity. It is not a coincidence
that the 1960s were selected as the backdrop of the movie, for this was the period
when women acquired most of their rights within the ‘constitution of June 1,
1959 to have the full right to exercise their political, economic, and social rights’
(Doumato and Posusney 2003: 173).
The above films addressed an issue both relevant and specific to Tunisian soci-
ety, namely, the emancipation of the woman and the limits of such emancipation;
50 Women Screenwriters

the contrast between the official emancipation by law and the inherited submis-
sion arising from traditions. Following on from these topics, another screenwriter
and director from Moufida Tlatli’s generation is Kalthoum Bornaz.

Kalthoum Bornaz

Kalthoum Bornaz (1945–) was born in Tunis. She is a director, editor and screen-
writer who revisits the issue of marriage, the most common topic in Arabic and
Tunisian culture. This time it is related to the film Keswa/The Lost Thread (1998),
which was her first movie, a gently satiric comedy. The film is about Nozha, a
young Tunisian woman who has defied her parents’ wishes for an arranged mar-
riage and moved away to strike out on her own. ‘Nozha returns home from France
for her brother’s wedding, but finds herself left behind when the party leaves for
the ceremony. Looking for her family, she wanders through Tunis wearing her
expensive traditional wedding dress (Keswa), which gradually unravels’ (Armes
2005: 66). Kalthoum Bornaz followed this effort with several short fiction films:
Couleurs Fertiles (1984); Regard de moutte (1991); Trois personnages en quête d’un
théâtre (1988).
Kalthoum Bornaz wrote Regard de moutte for Tunisian television. She based the
scenario on Ali Louati’s poem entitled Parfois. Regard de moutte is about a man
who ‘alone on a deserted winter beach remembers, meditates and wonders. He
suffers, emotes, laughs, wanders around, and becomes satirical. A redemptress
(his muse, lover, or death?) will come to relieve him of his torture’ (Pallister and
Hottell 2011: 164). She also wrote Trois personnages en quête d’un théâtre (1988) for
Tunisian television; the synopsis concerns ‘the evocation of the municipal theatre
of Tunis through famous characters who have been produced there’ (Pallister and
Hottell 2011: 165).

Raja Amari

Raja Amari was born in 1971 in Tunis and is now a resident in Paris. She was
enrolled in the Paris film school, La Fémis, where her first short film, Avril/
April (1998), won a number of awards. The author’s fame arose in 2001 with
her movie Satin Rouge/Red Satin. The script, which was written while she was at
school, earned a New Directors’ Showcase Award from the Seattle Film Festival;
the Audience Award at the Maine International Film Festival; and the Grand Prix
at the Turin Film Festival. ‘Raja Amari has written film reviews for Cinécrits maga-
zine, a radio feature, and screenplays’ (Hillauer 2005: 370).
Satin Rouge/Red Satin is about a widowed Tunisian housewife, tired of living in
the shadow of her daughter and dead husband. She finds herself drawn to the
seductive, but socially unacceptable, belly dance cabaret down the street. From
then on, nothing is out of the question, not even a bizarre love triangle. Raja
Amari, in this movie, describes a specific woman’s personal story and is not mak-
ing a statement on the role of women in Tunisian society. In fact, she declares:
‘I started out with Lilia, the main character, who is not representative of Tunisian
Tunisia 51

society. I didn’t want to set the character in conflict with society. That was not my
intention’ (Hillauer 2005: 370).
What is new in this film is the introduction of a new woman – not the mother
of a family, living inside the house, but one who is outside, in a cabaret. Lilia is a
model housewife with a great deal of moral conviction and a strict sense of duty.
She goes against everything for which she has ever stood when she goes dancing
all night in a nightclub. The nightclub offers her an alternative life by providing
her with new friendships. Raja Amari, in this film, presents the consciousness of a
woman awakening little by little in an impelling silence. In the sclerotic Tunisian
cinema, which repeats a lot of clichés about women, Raja Amari’s film seems origi-
nal and the restraint of its writing is clear. She declares: ‘Typically, in Arab films
and Tunisian films, you have a woman who is in conflict with society, and she’ll
fight against it. I didn’t want that. That was not my subject. She is involved in a
society that is hypocritical in the sense that there are two worlds out there: the
world of the night and the world of the day’ (Hillauer 2005: 370).
A common theme in Tunisian cinema, including Raja Amari’s film, is the social
hypocrisy that makes all the religious and sexual prohibitions hidden and not
spoken. What brings up more and more problems in Tunisian films concerning
woman and written by women, however, is that the subject presents the same
motivation over and over again, causing this to become an easy and a stereotypi-
cal model.


It is true that Tunisian women since the 1950s have had to fight to get the current
roles they play in modern society. The emancipation of women was achieved, and
today this issue is out of date to a certain degree. Society has obviously changed,
and some of the situations that were represented in the earlier movies are not
on the agenda any longer. But the Tunisian woman today continues to live in
the shadow of the pre-independence generation. However, subjects and films
like those of Haydée Chikly, Salma Baccar, Néjia Ben Mabrouk, Moufida Tlatli,
Kalthoum Bornaz and Raja Amari report on the destiny of all women who are
prisoners of their own silence. Today, Tunisian women are present among the new
generation of movie directors and screenwriters. The new generation of screen-
writers are now able to create their work after the January 2011 revolution.

Armes, R. 2005. Postcolonial Images: Studies in North African Film. USA: Indiana University
Baccar, S. 1994. ‘Les années folles de Habiba M’sika’, Ecrans d’Afrique, 8 (2).
Boughedir, F. 1998. ‘Le cinéma tunisien avant la Trace: une thématique féministe’, in
A. Gabous, Les femmes et le cinéma en Tunisie. Tunis: Cérès-éditions, pp.173–81.
Dönmez-Colin, G. 2007. The Cinema of North Africa and the Middle East. Great Britain:
Wallflower Press.
Doumato, E. A., and M. P. Posusney. 2003. Women and Globalization in the Arab Middle East:
Gender, Economy and Society. USA: Lynne Rienner.
52 Women Screenwriters

FESCAPO (L’Association des trois mondes). 2000. Les cinémas d’Afrique Dictionnaire. Paris:
Hillauer, R. 2005. Encyclopedia of Arab Women Filmmakers. Cairo: American University in
Cairo Press.
Khelil, H. 2007. Abécédaire du cinéma tunisien. Tunis: L’Harmattan.
Mansour, G. 2000. Samama Chikly un tunisien à la rencontre du XX siècle. Paris: Simpact
Pallister, J. L., and R. A. Hottell. 2011. Noteworthy Francophone Women Directors. UK: Fairleigh
Dickinson University Press.
Shafik, V. 1998. Arab Cinema: History and Cultural Identity. Cairo: American University in
Cairo Press.
Tamzali, H. 1992. Images retrouvées. Tunis: Maison Tunisienne de l’Edition.
Tamzali, W. 1979. En attendant Omar Gatlato. Algiers: Editions EnAP.
Part II
China and Hong Kong
Cristina Colet, Jule Selbo and Jeremy B. Warner


Jule Selbo
The art of filmmaking was introduced to China with screenings by the French
Lumière brothers in Shanghai in 1896, less than one year after they debuted their
work in Paris. China’s film industry, centred in Shanghai, began to thrive over a
decade later, around 1906. Initially, Chinese cinema consisted mainly of static
filming of the Beijing Opera, where traditions of the Chinese operatic stage dic-
tated that men played the female parts.
The Chinese term ‘cai nu’, or ‘talented woman’, was not necessarily a compli-
ment in China in the early 1900s. ‘Traditional beliefs held that talent (cai) and
virtue (de) were incompatible in women and their combination would result in
a tragic fate (ming) because heaven disapproved’ (Berg 2013). Despite this belief,
literary works authored by women play an integral part throughout Chinese his-
tory. Female writers helped to bring forth topics such as romance, marriage, gen-
der roles and the politics surrounding women. The first women writers in China
were poets. In the early 1900s, a few feminist writers came to the foreground;
however, there is no record of any women involved in scenario-writing for early
Chinese cinema.
It was not until 1913 and the making of the Hong Kong short film Zhuangzi
Tests His Wife that the tradition of having all roles – male and female – played
by male actors was broken. The first female to perform on screen was Yan Shuji
(under the name Yan Shanshan); she was well educated and from a prominent
family. She became an actress and a political activist and is considered in Chinese
history as one of the early Chinese feminists. She appeared in a minor role as a
servant in Zhuangzi Tests His Wife – the lead female role in the film was played
by a male, director Li Minwei. Some historians point to the fact that the film
was made in Hong Kong (then under British rule) as a possible reason for this
liberalization and break with traditions and practices.  It was not until the film
Yan Ruisheng, in 1921, that a woman would act in a film produced in mainland
China; Wang Caiyun (a former brothel inmate) portrayed the infamous high-class
courtesan Wang Lianying in a film detailing her scandalous murder.
56 Women Screenwriters

The opportunities for female screenwriters came many decades later. In the
early 1980s, the ‘Fifth Generation’ filmmakers graduated from the newly reo-
pened Beijing Film Academy. This was on the heels of the Cultural Revolution and
women were among the students accepted into the Academy. The late 1980s and
post millennium period produced screenwriters who are making their mark in the
industry such as Joan Chen (Xui Xui: The Sent Down Girl, 1998); Bonnie Bo (Loess
Ballad); Lui Miaomiao (Chatterbox, 1993, co-writer); Joanne Cheng (c/o Butterfly,
2014); Huang Shuqin (A Soul Haunted by a Painting – 1994, co-written with Min
Anqi, Zhiya Li, Heng Lui – and Hi Frank! – 2004, co-written with Lili Gao, who
also scripted Da Yu Bing in 1986; Ann Hui (Romance of Book and Sword, 1986, co-
writer; The Opium War, 1997, co-writer; As Time Goes By, 1997; The Post Modern
Life of My Aunt, 2006, co-writer); Yin Lichuan (The Park, 2007; Knitting, 2008); Xu
Jinglei (My Father and I, 2003; Go Lala Go!, 2010, co-writer); Ma Liwen (You and
Me, 2005; Desires of the Heart, 2008); Li Yu (Fish and Elephant, 2001; Dam Street,
2005, co-written with Fang Li; Lost In Bejing, 2007, co-written with Fang Li; Double
Xposure, 2012, co-written with Fang Li); television writers Gao Xuan and Baoru
Ren (Wo de qing chun shei zuo shu, 2009; and Tong Hua, a novelist and television
writer (The Perfect Couple, 2013).

Three Chinese female screenwriters: Ai Xia, Zhang Ailing

and Peng Xiaolian

Cristina Colet
Ai Xia
Ai Xia (1912–34) was a Chinese writer, screenwriter and actress who died very
young, becoming a symbol for Chinese women’s emancipation. She lived in
a period of transformation for her country after the loss of many territories at
the end of the Opium Wars (1839–42; 1856–60) and the passage from imperial-
ism to republicanism (1911). The pressures exerted by Confucianism and the
patriarchal system on Chinese society were strong. It was the latter reason, in
particular, that meant many Chinese women couldn’t live freely or completely
express themselves. As Bryna Goodman argued (2005), female suicide in China
was a current phenomenon among women who held both to old-style traditions
and new hopes and expectations. Old-style women were those who conformed to
the Confucian ideal of lovely mother and caring wife (xianqi liangmu). New-style
women (like Ai Xia) were those who reflected the need for emancipation; young
intellectual women (but not only them) who were very influenced by Western
models. Often used by Chinese directors as a metaphor for China, women – and in
particular modern women – represented the condition of a country that needed to
change. Ai Xia represented the kind of modern intellectual who wanted to express
women’s need for modernity, not just in terms of fashion or Western customs, but
in their desire for emancipation from men (Sang 2008).
During the 1920s, a model woman who represented emancipation was Nora
from Ibsen’s masterpiece A Doll’s House (1879). Many writers tried to create female
China and Hong Kong 57

characters inspired by Nora, creating a sort of literary movement: ‘Noraism’. Ai

Xia, who came from a middle-class family and studied at university, represented
this kind of model; like Nora she left an arranged marriage to move to Shanghai
looking for fame and emancipation. She entered the film industry, becoming
an actress, but also a screenwriter. In 1933 she wrote a book, Xiandai yi Nüxing/
A Woman of Today, and then she scripted it for a movie of the same name. She
also acted the main character, Tao Tao. The story focused on a young woman,
Tao Tao, who is emancipated and works as an employee for a firm, but when she
falls in love with a married man, her apparent freedom is compromised. After
being shocked when Tao Tao robs the firm of money to fund her new lifestyle,
her lover Yu Leng abandons her. Tao Tao is imprisoned. After this punishment she
understands that it’s important for her to change her life and to dedicate herself to
revolution. The critics of that time did not appreciate the movie because it inves-
tigated controversial topics like profligacy and revolution. Ai Xia argued, on the
contrary, that she had tried to express the condition of many women at that time
who were apparently emancipated but whose lives depended on men’s will. Tao
Tao, whose name means ‘grape’ and symbolizes a sexual sphere, was considered to
be a woman who stumbled between glamour and political causes and thus could
not be accepted. For Ai Xia, the lover Yu Leng (whose name means ‘individuality’)
represents man’s egoism, which crushes women’s freedom and emancipation.
After the film did not perform well, Ai Xia decided to commit suicide herself – as
a protest against left-wing intellectuals who sanctimoniously used female char-
acters in their works to talk about Chinese society in general, but who weren’t
really interested in women’s emancipation. When a woman tried to express a real
woman’s point of view, they tried to destroy her.
After her death the actress Ruan Lingyu (1910–35), who committed suicide in
1935, played Wei Ming in a movie inspired by Ai Xia’s work and life, New Woman
(Xin Nüxing, by Cai Chusheng, 1934). The character of Wei Ming is sort of ‘Ai Xia’s
alter ego’ and, at the end of the movie, she decides to commit suicide because
she is a victim of Chinese patriarchal society. Lu Xun (1881–1936), who is con-
sidered the father of Chinese contemporary literature, wrote an important essay
about the condition of women, commemorating both Ai Xia and Ruan Lingyu
as two symbolic victims of the cruel Chinese patriarchal society that smothered
individual freedom.

Zhang Ailing (Eileen Chang): Influential Chinese writer

Zhang Ailing (1920–95) is a screenwriter known for narratives in the comedy
genre that explore women’s sophisticated perspectives on life. Often referred to as
Eileen Chang, she also wrote novels, short stories and essays.1 However, screen-
writing was her major pursuit beginning in 1947. Filmmaking became, for her,
an ‘alternative space for self-expression’ (Fu Poshek 1999) and also an occasion
to stand apart from political issues: ‘Political topics are rarely favored [in today’s
motion picture] because our private lives are already packed full of politics’ (Zhang
Ailing 1946). Chinese literary circles often commented that her stories were full of
decadent elements and were too oriented towards the West.
58 Women Screenwriters

The purpose of this essay is to outline the guidelines in Zhang’s screenplays,

examining four in particular, also considering plots, kinds of narratives and recur-
ring themes, glancing at the audience’s response and possible repercussions on
Chinese society.
Zhang’s approach to the filmic environment was a way to express herself and
continue to examine topics and themes she investigated in other literary fields.
For example, she concentrated on the life of the female – examining topics such
as marriage and family and domestic conflicts. These topics were wisely matched
with those of Hollywood comedies and she adapted Chinese farce to occidental
comic standards.
In 1947, Zhang Ailing wrote two screenplays: a melodrama, Unending Love
(also known as Buliao Qing/Lingering Passion), and a comedy, Long Live the Wife
(also known as Taitai Wansui/Long live the Misses), both produced by Wenhua
Film Company,2 situated in Shanghai. The latter was a great box-office success;
however, critics and intellectuals labelled it a frivolous comedy not appropriate
for the historical period in which it took place (the Chinese Civil War, 1945–9).
Long Live the Wife tells a story about a wife, Chen Sizhen (Jiang Tianlu), betrayed
by her husband, Tang Zhiyuan (Zhang Fa), with a young, cunning and gold-
digging girl, Shi Mimi (Shangguan Yunzhu), who only cares for his money. In
fact, Tang Zhiyuan, an ambitious bank clerk and typical example of a Shanghai
petty urbanite, convinces his father-in-law to fund a business; soon Tang Zhiyuan
faces bankruptcy. It is revealed that Shi Mimi is also married and, in accord with
her vicious husband, wants to cheat Tang Zhiyuan. Chen Sizhen discovers her
husband’s betrayal and decides to leave him; the elements of farce are clear in the
crossing over of desires, intents and misunderstandings. Long Live the Wife under-
lines the crisis of the patriarchal authority and women’s attempts to emancipate
themselves. Zhang earned ‘a reputation for having a flair for women’s stories’.3 As
Zhang herself admitted, the plot of Long Live the Wife conforms to ‘wifely virtues,
philandering husbands and conflict between mothers and daughters-in- law’
(Zhang Ailing 1947). Zhang was able to match comic periods to tragic events,
allowing the audience to be entertained and, at the same time, to make the audi-
ence think about Chinese reality.
Zhang’s work was appreciated by leftist filmmaker Xia Yan; he wanted her to
join the Shanghai Screenwriters Production Guild of which he was the chief.
However, other members had some doubts about her background. Due to the
hostile mood of her colleagues, Zhang decided to move to Hong Kong in 1952.
From 1957 until 1964 she collaborated with MP&GI (Motion Pictures & General
Investment Co Ltd), later renamed Cathay. Thanks to friend and director Stephen
Soong, the MP&GI’s production chief, she was introduced to the scriptwriting
committees of the film company.4 She divided herself between Hong Kong and
the United States where she established herself in 1955 (and where she lived
until her death in 1995). Her work at Cathay/MP&GI was strongly influenced by
Hollywood productions,5 and in particular by screwball comedies. Zhang blended
elements from Hollywood comedies with typical elements of Chinese comedy,
like farce and stories of familial conflict. She focused on the Hong Kong audience
China and Hong Kong 59

because in the People’s Republic of China her movies were banned. As film histo-
rian Ng pointed out, Zhang’s screenplays are an example of pioneering renovation
in the Chinese comedy of manners and in the satiric cinema of postwar Shanghai
(Ng 2008: 149). It’s true that, for Zhang, Shanghai represents an ‘ideal’ location;
this is where all of her stories (literary and filmic) take place, where the ‘sense of
desolation’ corrupts human hunger and frustration (Hsia 1999: 395). Hong Kong
represents a prosthesis of Shanghai, a middle place between Chinese-ness and the
Western way of life where it is possible to mix different cultures (because Hong
Kong itself, as a British protectorate, is a hybrid city); therefore it is also possible
to create a hybrid genre where Hollywood screwball comedy meets Chinese farce.
Zhang also mixed Chinese dialects (Mandarin and Cantonese) and, in essence,
created a unique language in her work.
Why does Zhang adopt Western elements like Hollywood influences? She
thought that reproducing stories that incarnated modern life was a way to renew
Chinese society, encouraging the Chinese audience to change its customs. Film
scholar Fu Poshek, in 2007, pointed out: ‘MP&GI’s Hollywood-style feature films
represented not only the culture of modernity but also the global domination
of American popular culture in postwar Asian societies’ (Ng 2008: 152). Zhang’s
sophisticated comedies, as in the cinematic tradition of late 1940s Shanghai, focus
on love, marriage and womanhood (Ng 2008: 149). Although she focused on the
woman’s condition and the necessity for the woman to emancipate herself, her
female characters weren’t heroic, they were common people. Zhang presented
these women realistically, without moral judgement. She adopted the screwball
comedy form to speak about women’s feelings and family relationships as ‘symp-
toms of bourgeois malaise’ (Ng 2008: 141). In particular, Zheng Shusen affirmed
that the comparison between screwball comedy and Zhang’s filmic work is due
to her tendency ‘to mock middle class (or very rich) families by exposing their
domestic conflicts and emotional entanglements from a slightly detached per-
spective’ (Zheng 1994: 77–8).
Also, the utopic idea of enchanting marriages was a common element explored
by Zhang. Nanbei Yijiaqin/The Greatest Wedding on Earth (1962), Qingchang ru
Zhanchang/The Battle of Love (1957), and Liu Yue Xinniang/June Bride (1960) are
some examples. The Greatest Wedding on Earth is part of a popular trilogy which
also includes The Greatest Love Affair on Earth (1964) and The Greatest Civil War on
Earth (1961), and all were enormous box-office success. They are romantic com-
edies about love and cultural differences, including conflicts between Northerners
(people from Shanghai who emigrated to Hong Kong, representing Mainland
China) and Southerners (people from Hong Kong who speak Cantonese); their
rivalry escalates as their customs and different dialects clash. It is for this reason
that these comedies are known as North-South comic dramas. Ng (2008: 153)
points out The Greatest Wedding on Earth is an example of Zhang’s cosmopolitan
vision ‘melded with the city’s capitalist character and colonial milieu’.6 This
blending of elements from different cultures to create a new culture is something
that is neither properly Chinese nor Western; it reflects Zhang’s condition as an
exiled writer. She came from Mainland China, but she is no longer an ‘authentic’
60 Women Screenwriters

Chinese, because her Chinese-ness has been corrupted by Western influences.

Zhang succeeded in make this hybrid her signature.
Another Zhang film about marital conflicts is June Bride (1960); it is set in the tra-
dition of screwball comedies, focusing also on aspects like gender conflicts, social
change and class mobility. The opening scene on a boat indicates the emigration
of many Chinese from Mainland China to Hong Kong. Film scholar Stephen Teo
defines it as a ‘transient place’ which symbolizes Shanghaiers’ transient identity
with a sort of homesickness for the country that they left and a sense of disorien-
tation vis-à-vis integration processes and their future in a new town.
Considered one of Zhang’s best screenplays, June Bride is a hectic and roman-
tic comedy whose female main character, Wang Tanlin, is played by the famous
actress and singer Grace Chang (Ge Lan). Wang Tanlin goes to Hong Kong to
solve some problems with her fiancé and future husband, Tung Chifang (Zhang
Yang), because she thinks he betrayed her. Her doubts about her forthcoming mar-
riage, her consequent disappearance, a greedy father, and the groom’s erstwhile
mistress are all elements related to contemporary and psychological aspects of
Western narratives and also Asian society. Wang Tanlin’s dream sequence is an
example of women’s need to escape, like ‘a Nora’ from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, in
order to achieve independence in love. The plot is similar to Zhang’s novel, Love
in a Fallen City, where the main character’s sense of desolation and frustration in
leaving Shanghai for Hong Kong is the dominating story. However, the movie
reflects Hong Kong’s modern life style with well-finished interior settings worthy
of a sophisticated Hollywood comedy and focuses on conflicts between parents
and daughters, sentimental confusion and gender conflicts.
In Battle of Love (1956), Zhang’s first script produced in Hong Kong, the beloved
actress Lin Dai (1934–64) is Ye Weifang, a rich young woman who amuses herself
by keeping her lovers on a string, weaving a sweetheart’s net. The Battle of Love
arises in the screwball comedy tradition, dealing with themes like the battle of the
sexes and gender conflicts. The sophisticated interior design doesn’t reflect the
reality of a typical upper-class family from Hong Kong, and perhaps it is meant
to symbolize falsehood, a theme which is presented in the movie and is another
way for the audience to approach the sophisticated comedy of the American film
industry,7 but nothing in this narrative relates to the ‘real life’ that characterized
Zhang’s previous screenplays. As in the tradition of the American screwball com-
edy, the female character is at the centre, with the male in the position of sub-
mission; it is the female who seduces, and leads the courtship. All these elements
have no relation to Chinese culture. For this reason, her work is ‘less Chinese’ and
less realistic, even if it can be seen as her hope for the future of Chinese women.

Peng Xiaolian: a female answer during Chinese economic reform

Peng Xiaolian (1953–) graduated in 1982 from the Beijing Film Academy and is
considered a member of the Chinese Fifth Generation of filmmakers. She differs
from her colleagues in her approach to form and narrative. Both director and
screenwriter, she is best known for her second work, Women’s Story (also known
as Three Women/Nüren de Gushi [1987]). In this film she follows three women who,
China and Hong Kong 61

taking advantage of economic reforms (the introduction of semi-private produc-

tion), go to town to sell yarn. For each character, it is an occasion to change their
life and see something new. For the first woman the trip is a way to escape from
an arranged marriage; for the second woman it is a way to show the villagers that
women can sustain their own families; for the third woman it is a way to earn
money and find wives for her three brothers-in-law. In town, attitudes towards
patriarchal traditions like fixed marriages and one-child policy are very different
from those in the village. The movie is considered a pro-feminist work about
‘female consciousness and sisterhood in the age of mainland economic reform’
(Yingjin Zhang 1998: 265) and for this reason, it was subjected to censorship. Peng
had to rewrite it many times to get the authorization for production.
The tradition of focusing films from a female perspective began with the work
of Wang Ping (1916–90) and Dong Kena (1930–), with some important titles such
as The Story of Liubao Village/Liubao de Gushi (1957) and A Blade of Grass on the
Kunlun Mountains/Kunlun Shan Yi Ke Cao (1962). In these films, the female char-
acters were no longer simple objects of desire; they were also upholders of their
own desires. As Laura Mulvey argues (1975: 4), traditionally women are looked
at and displayed as sexual objects, becoming sort of leitmotifs of erotic spectacle.
In China, and particularly in its early movies, women were often the object of
attention, there purely to stimulate male interest. During the 1930s, many movies
with female subjects gained plaudits from the critics; but even if female subjects
were an oblique way of talking about China (using the allegory of the woman’s
condition), all these movies were directed and written from the male perspective.
This is the reason why the work of Dong Kena and Wang Ping was considered
very innovative, providing a breath of fresh air and opening the door for gender-
oriented movies.
In Women’s Story by Peng Xiaolian, we can find some elements of what Freud
called scopophilia, which Laura Mulvey was able to connect, in her essay about
narrative and visual pleasure, to cinema (1975: 2). Peng’s work is a clear (and
comic) way of reflecting on scopophilia and the male gaze. In particular, she tries
to highlight the attitude of the young girl who, after having split her trousers,
looks at her naked body with shame. Peng Xiaolian emphasizes that kind of gaze
because it is very different from the man’s scopophilic attitude when he looks at
the same object, the female naked body.
Even as the film deals with gender consciousness, its narrative structure and
style of representation are conventional and lack a feminine aesthetic. As Shuqin
Cui argues, in this movie ‘woman bears the weight of social, cultural, and politi-
cal meanings rather than the subject of herself’ (2003: 183). Although the movie
is told from a woman’s perspective we can’t define it as a feminist work. This is
because the style is very similar to that used by male colleagues, without introduc-
ing a real female voice. In China, indeed, the term ‘feminism’ is not common.
During the period of feminist activism that occurred in many areas of the world
in the 1960s, in China there was the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). Women
embraced the communist cause, with its emphasis on ‘good for the whole com-
munity’ as opposed to individual freedom. For this reason, and because the
62 Women Screenwriters

feminist cause came from the West, it was considered something related to the
middle classes and capitalism, and for this reason forbidden.
After six years spent in the United States, Peng Xiaolian returned to China in
1996, where she began to write her next movie Once Upon a Time in Shanghai/
Shanghai Jishi (1998) for the celebration of the liberation of China by the Chinese
communist army. The city of Shanghai became one of the main characters and
the work became a trilogy that evolved from 2002–6: Shanghai Women/Jia Zhuang
Mei Gan Jue (2002), Shanghai Story/Meili Shanghai (2004) and Shanghai Rumba/
Shanghai Lunba (2006). Shanghai is an allegory for the changing woman in this
economically-oriented and capitalistic China.

Hong Kong

Jeremy B. Warner
For decades, Hong Kong was the third-largest film industry in the world after the
United States and India. Production first started in 1896, when the Lumière Studio
filmed scenes of city life in Hong Kong. Two years later, Edison Studios continued
with the documentary tradition of the early filmmakers and produced shorts such
as Street Scene in Hong Kong (1898) (Leung, Wong and Ho 2002: 371). Westerners
would continue using Hong Kong as an exotic subject for documentary films and
the backdrop for narrative films. The first Chinese-directed narrative film, Tou
Shao Ya/Stealing Roasted Duck, was shot in 1909.
The birth of the Hong Kong Cinema came with the Huamei Studio (Wah-Mei
meaning China-America). The first film produced by the studio was filmed in
1913 and entitled Zhuangzi shi qi/Zhuangzi Tests His Wife. Li Minwei directed
the film and also played the part of the wife, cross-dressing roles being common
practice on the theatrical stage in China. However, breaking from the tradition of
women being banned from appearing on screen, Li Minwei’s wife, Yah Shanzhau,
played a servant girl in the film. According to Ching Yau in Filming Margins, the
first female director in Hong Kong was Chinese-American Xie Caizhen, underlin-
ing the ongoing themes of diaspora (Yau 2004: 13). Her first, and possibly only,
film was directed in the 1920s, but little information exists about her work. Film
continued to flourish after the introduction of the first Hong Kong studio until
the Great Strike of 1925–6 caused many studios to close their doors or relocate
until the mid-1930s.
Global economic depression put a damper on film production in the early
1930s and some filmmakers resisted the addition of sound to motion pictures.
Eventually, sound production caused the Hong Kong film industry to boom. In
addition, the Kuomintang government (KMT) in China banned the production of
films based upon martial arts or ghost stories, causing many filmmakers to flee to
Hong Kong to produce these stories.
Women were often strong, leading characters in Hong Kong films produced in
the 1930s. These stories often featured women warriors based on female generals,
such as Hua Mulan or Mu Guiying, or women swordsmen in the wuxia tradi-
tion (Stokes 2007: 472). Esther Eng (also known in the Mandarin language as
China and Hong Kong 63

Wu Jinxia or in the Cantonese language Ng Kam-ha) was a female director who

was born in San Francisco, but directed films in Hong Kong in the late 1930s. Her
film It’s a Women’s World was the first Hong Kong film to feature an all-female
cast, portraying women working in thirty-six different professions (Taylor 2011:
17). No writing credits are available on her films; it is unclear whether Esther Eng
also served as writer or co-writer on these works. At the end of the thirties, the
Japanese occupation forced Chinese filmmakers to flee to Hong Kong, but in 1941
the invasion halted production in Hong Kong altogether.
During the invasion, the Japanese melted films to extract silver, thus only a
handful of films produced prior to the 1950s still exist. After World War II, a
number of small studios began to appear, but two prominent studios emerged
that would drive the mainstream cinema of the area. The Shaw Brothers Studio
and MP&GI were both based upon the Hollywood studios’ model of production,
producing mainly Mandarin-language films and originally rooted in Malaya and
Singapore. Shaw Brothers Studio established a production branch in Hong Kong
called Shaoshifuzi/Shaw and Sons Ltd during 1950. The studio produced and
distributed Hollywood-like costume dramas in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia.
Though these films had high budgets, the stories were often lacking in quality.
The following year, MP&GI established their production branch in Hong Kong,
focusing on films that had intelligent scripts, were artistic, and profitable.
Hong Kong cinema of the 1950s and 1960s continued to feature women in
prominent positions, as musicals and melodramas gave actresses top billing. These
stories, often dark, focused on the struggles of women, often in the familial roles
of wives, mothers, and daughters.
One of the most influential women in Asian cinema was Zhang Ailing/Cheung
Ying/Eileen Chang. Originally from the Hebei province, she studied in Hong Kong
before the war, but moved to Shanghai during the war to publish short stories and
screenplays. She returned to Hong Kong in 1952 where she met Song Qi/Stepen
Soong, a member of the MP&GI scriptwriting committee. In 1955, Song Qi brought
Zhang Ailing onto the committee to help choose scripts and shape the story style
of the company. Later that same year, she moved to the United States, but contin-
ued contributing to eight additional screenplays produced by MP&GI. One of these
screenplays, Ching Cheung yue chin cheung/Qingchang Ru Zhangchang/The Battle of
Love (1957), cast Li Jingfang/Helen Li Mei. Li Jingfang entered the industry as a
screenwriter, but after winning the Miss Hong Kong pageant she went into acting.
She founded the Beidou Film Company in 1956, where she produced and starred
in two films. Around the same time, another actress, Bai Guang/Baak Gwong/Pai
Kwong, wrote and directed The Fresh Peony (1956) for the Shaw Brothers.
Yi Ji Yam/Yi Zhi Ren was an actress in the late 1940s who shifted her talents
towards writing and directing in the mid-to-late 1950s. Her first writer credit was
on a romance film entitled Tian tian mi mi/Sweet as Honey (1959), and she would
continue to work with films focusing on relationships in both the comedy and
drama genres until 1967.
Qin Yifu/Nellie Chin Yu (1929–) was born in the Zhejiang province into a fam-
ily of academics. She performed in theatres while she studied at the University
64 Women Screenwriters

of Hong Kong. Originally she was an actress in films like The 72 Martyrs of
Canton (1954). In 1957 she appeared in Ching cheung yue chin cheung/Qingchang
Ru Zhangchang/The Battle of Love (1957), written by Zhang Ailing/Cheung Ying/
Eileen Chang. In the 1950s Yifu translated novels and stage plays from English
into Chinese. She was hired as a screenwriting supervisor for MP&GI in 1956.
Two years later, she wrote Hung wa/Hong wa/Scarlet Doll for MP&GI, which was
the first colour feature film at the studio. Yifu’s films focused on strong char-
acterizations of women and their daily struggles. Yifu wrote two other features
before completing Yuk lui shut ching/Yunu siqing/Her Tender Heart (1959). This film
follows a young lady being raised by a single father as she is exposed to shocking
revelations, such as learning her aunt is her mother, and that her father is not her
father, and also that her father has lost a leg. Following Yuk lui shut ching/Yunu
siqing/Her Tender Heart, Yifu penned Yau mooi gwai ji luen/Yemeigui zhi lian/The
Wild, Wild Rose (1960). Based upon Bizet’s Carmen, the film takes place in Hong
Kong, where everyone is a refugee. Filmed in a film noir style, this musical follows
a female nightclub singer who ultimately gives her life to show other refugees
the way to happiness. Based upon the current political environment and fleeing
of many Chinese into Hong Kong, this film outlined the chaotic state and social
dislocation of the exile culture. It won the Best Screenplay prize at the Golden
Horse Awards. Sing sing Yuet leung Tai leung/Xing xing Yue liang Tai yang/Sun, Moon
and Star (1961) and Tai siu yan yuen/Ti xiao yin yuan/The Story of Three Loves (1964)
were adaptations of novels and would both receive Golden Horse Awards. So Siu
mooi/Su xiao mei/Wife of a Romantic Scholar (1964) is based on a popular novel
by Feng Menglong and the film was awarded Best Screenplay at the Asian Film
Qin Yifu co-chaired MP&GI’s screenwriting committee with Yao Ke, and mem-
bers included Wang Liuzhao, Eileen Chang, Yi Wen/Evan Yang, and Tao Qin. This
provided the high quality of story structure that Loke Won Tho demanded, thus
giving a distinctive brand and style to the films produced by MP&GI. Yifu retired
in 1967 and moved to Canada.
The Hong Kong riots in 1967 jolted audiences into a fear of smaller left-wing
studios that conveyed social messages of communism. The political climate fol-
lowing the riots led to an industry void of creativity, similar to the Hong Kong
industry of the 1930s. Meanwhile, the studios continued to compete, flooding the
film market, and Cathay Studios became defunct in 1972.
The early 1970s are often considered a dismal time overall in the Hong Kong
film industry. Mandarin-language films imported from Taiwan became popular
and Hong Kong productions quickly diminished. Martial arts films, especially
ones featuring Bruce Lee, were the top earners at the Hong Kong box office.
There were few instances of Cantonese films outperforming Mandarin films, but
one exception was the work of Tang Shuxuan/Cecile Tang Shu Shuen (1941–).
She was a female writer/director who had studied in the States before returning
to Hong Kong to write and direct Dung foo yan/Dong fur en/The Arch (1969). This
film foreshadowed the themes of gender and generational identity that would
shortly become the topics of Hong Kong’s new wave filmmakers (Yau 2002: 80).
China and Hong Kong 65

Shuxuan was born in Yunnan, but grew up in Hong Kong. She travelled to the
United States and studied at the University of California, Los Angeles. She directed
commercials until she wrote and directed her first feature, The Arch (1969). The
Arch, set during the Ming dynasty in China, follows a widowed woman working
as a teacher and doctor. The widow falls in love with a soldier in the small village
where she works. According to tradition, the widow is not allowed to marry the
soldier, and decides to marry her daughter to the soldier instead. Law Kar’s essay
‘The Significance of the Arch’, in A Comparative Study of Post-War Mandarin and
Cantonese Cinema: The Films of Zhu Shilin, Chun Kim and Other Directors, describes
the film as ‘starting a revolution, in spirit if not in practice … posing an uncom-
promising challenge to commercial cinema’, with the writer/director exploring
mental struggles through story and visual metaphors. The Arch (1969) won Most
Creative Special Prize at the 9th Golden Horse Film Awards.
In 1974, Tang Shuxuan wrote and directed China Behind, which follows
five Chinese students trying to leave China during the Cultural Revolution.
Preparation, illegally crossing the border, and failing to adapt to capitalism in
Hong Kong illustrate the psychological elements Tsang Shuxuan had explored
in The Arch. The film was banned by the Hong Kong colonial government until
1987, but was screened in France in 1974. The film never received a theatrical
release, but embodies many of the ideals that the future Hong Kong new wave
filmmakers would tackle.
Tang Shuxuan then teamed up with Jeanette Productions, a production com-
pany started by the actress Jeanette Lin Tsui. Tang Shuxuan wrote and directed Sup
Sap Bup Dup/Sap saam bat daap/Shisan buda (1975). This was a comedic-sketch film
exploring themes of capitalism and identity. Tang Shuxuan wrote and directed
Hong Kong Tycoon (1979), before leaving Hong Kong for Los Angeles to start a
restaurant. Tang Shuxuan struggled with the anomaly of being both female and
a filmmaker. In an interview in Chinese Students’ Weekly, Tang Shuxuan stated:
‘Whether you said I’m good-looking or not, I’d still not be happy. Because what
should be important is my work, my works, not myself, especially not my cos-
metics.’ As noted by Ching Yau in Filming Margins, ‘Tang Shu Shuen’s gender has
always been a prioritized element in the public discourse’ (Yau 2002: 80).
An actress for Shaw Brothers during the fifties and sixties, Kao Pao Shu/Go
Bo Shu eventually became an assistant director. She left Shaw Brothers in 1971,
opening her own company, Park Films, where she would write and direct motion
pictures. Another notable actress who became a screenwriter in Hong Kong during
the seventies is Xiao Liang/Josephine Siao Fong-Fong. Though she was born in
Shanghai, she moved to Hong Kong in 1974, where she wrote and co-directed a
film noir piece entitled Tiu fooi/Tiao hui/Jumping Ash (1976). Three years later, she
founded Hi-Pitch Film Company where she wrote, produced and starred in Lam A
Jan/ Lin Ya Zhen/Lam Ah Chun (1978). Another precursor of the Hong Kong new
wave, she would reprise the role of Lam Ah Chun in the 1982 John Woo film, Baat
choi Lam A Jan/Ba cai Lin Ya Zhen/Plain Jane to the Rescue (1982).
Hong Kong saw a major film movement happen during the late 1970s as film-
makers who claimed Hong Kong as their home returned from overseas study
66 Women Screenwriters

to work at television stations in their homeland, and who after a few years
abandoned television to make feature films. Visual style, a change in structure,
and social consciousness were some of the elements that Hong Kong new wave
filmmakers brought to the table. The Extra (1978) marked the beginning of Hong
Kong’s new wave, but it was quickly followed by Ann Hui’s The Secret (1979), writ-
ten by Joyce Chan Wan Man. Ann Hui would also write and direct four of her
own features, as well as a documentary. Joyce Chan Wan Man would also collabo-
rate in writing efforts with several other new wave filmmakers. Sharon Hui was
a writer for Tsui Hark on The Lovers (1994) and Love in the Time of Twilight (1995)
before she broke away from the Hong Kong new wave to work for independ-
ent studios. Sandy Shaw Lai King started by writing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star
(1983) and Gigolo and Whore (1990) before writing in a variety genres for different
studios. Cheung Ai-chai/Sylvia Ngai-ga Chang/Sylvia Chang was a Taiwanese-
born actress who moved to Hong Kong in 1979, and produced Ann Hui’s Fung gip/
Feng jie/The Secret. She started directing features two years later, and began writing
screenplays for her films starting with Sisters of the World Unite (1991).
In 1997, Hong Kong was transferred from the British to the Chinese. Chinese
filmmakers had been active since the nineteenth century but, starting with the
Hong Kong new wave, they were brought to the foreground (Lu 2002: 276). Mabel
Cheung Yueng Ting/Zhang Wan Ting/Mabel Cheung and her husband, Alex
Law, wrote and produced the Immigration Trilogy, consisting of Fai faat yee man/
Feifa yimin/The Illegal Immigrant (1985), Chau tin dik tung wa/Qiu tian de tong huo/
An Autumn’s Tale (An Autumn’s Fairy Tale) (1987), and Baat a gam/Ba ya jin/Eight
Tales of Gold (1989). Each of these films won major awards at various festivals.
Janet Chun Siu Jan/Chun Siu Jan/Janet Chin set her screenplay, Die Xue Jie
Tou/Bullet in the Head (1990) in Vietnam to portray the fortitude of characters in
a harsh environment, this being a metaphor for the Chinese diaspora. John Woo
directed the film, and she wrote his next project, Zong Heng Si Hai/Once a Thief
(1990). Later in her career, she started directing her own work. Law Cheuk Yu/
Clara Law Cheuk Yu/Clara Law is a writer/director emerging from the second
wave of the Hong Kong new wave. She and her life partner, Eddie Fong Ling
Chang/Eddie Fong, were nominated for Best Screenplay at the Golden Horse
Awards for Ru meng/Like a Dream (2009). Not only do these filmmakers tell stories
of the Chinese diaspora; many of them, such as Ann Hui, Law Cheuk Yu and John
Woo, have left Hong Kong to make films.
Modern-day Hong Kong cinema has continued to grow with the help of women.
The first, Chan Bo Wa/Chen Bao Hua/Ella Chan Bo Wa, started her career by
writing screenplays for low-budget crime films including Clarence Ford’s The
Dragon from Russia (1990) before shifting to romance, collaborating with Ivy Ho
Sai Hong and Aubrey Lam Oi Wah on The Age of Miracles (1996). Aubrey Lam Oi
Wah entered the union, United Filmmakers Organization (UFO), as a screenwriter
and has worked closely with The Age of Miracles’ director, Peter Chan, for most
of her career. Her writing colleague, Ivy Ho Sai Hong, wrote July Rhapsody (2002)
for Ann Hui, and has continued to pen scripts mainly in the romance genre. She
has been nominated for four Hong Kong Film Awards Best Screenplay prizes, and
China and Hong Kong 67

won twice. Chan Suk-Yin/Susan Chan Suk-Yin was nominated twice for Best
Screenplay at the Hong Kong Film Awards before winning in 2012 for A Simple
Life (2012). Another notable person is Hong Kong media personality Cheuk Wan
Chi/Chi See Goo Bi/Vincci Cheuk Wan Chi who worked in radio and television
before she began screenwriting in 1999 with Cross Harbor. She wrote three more
feature films and five short films before venturing into directing. Hei-yan Heiward
Mak graduated from the City University of Hong Kong and was hired to work
alongside Aubrey Lam Oi Wah to write for Peter Chan. Hei-yan Heiward Mak writes
and directs dramas dealing with the subject of the diaspora, focusing her stories
on younger subjects. Chun Chun Barbara Wong is another writer/director deal-
ing with the topic of young women in society, but her films, such as Truth or Dare
(2006), take a comedic approach. Chi Long To/Christine To started writing in the
crime genre with Jiang Hu/Triad Underworld (2004). Her second film was an action
thriller, Fearless (2006), and starred Jet Li. She recently finished writing Rise of the
Legend, which is being directed by her frequent collaborator, Chow Hin Yeung Roy.
Though men controlled a vast part of the cinema in Hong Kong, women have
maintained a strong presence. Far fewer in numbers than men, women have
played many important roles as producers, directors and board members through-
out the history of Hong Kong cinema. Ann Hui has become something of an icon
through the thirty-plus films she has created, influencing a larger group of women
to enter the film industry. In the last two decades, the number of awards and
nominations given to female filmmakers has risen, showing the growing presence
of women in Hong Kong cinema.

1. The comic genre that Zhang Ailing preferred was not appreciated in some intellectual
circles. Fu Lei (an important literary critic and french translator), for example, accused her
novels of being too cinematic and spatial, lacking in psychological depth. See: Xun Yu (Fu
Lei), 1944, ‘Lun Zhang Ailing de xiaoshuo’ (‘On Zhang Ailing’s Fiction’), in Chen Zishan
(ed.), 2004, Zhang Ailing de fengqi: 1949 nianqian Zhang Ailing pinshuo (The Fashion of Zhang
Ailing: Commentaries on Zhang Ailing before 1949), Shandong huabao, Jinan, pp. 3–18.
2. Wenhua Film Company was a major, founded in 1946 by Wu Xingzai, which produced
smaller-budget art films, sophisticated comedies and high-minded dramas.
3. Kenny K. K. Ng, 2008, ‘The Screenwriter as Cultural Broker: Travels of Zhang Ailing’s
Comedy of Love’, Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, 20 (2), p. 132. Some scholars such
as Jiao Xiongping and Rao Shuguang have examined Long Live the Wife as a screwball
comedy. See: Jiao Xiongping, 1998, Shidai xianying: Zhong Xi dianying lunshu (Reflection on
a Era: Discourses on Cinema in China and West), Yuanliu, Taipei, pp. 81–8; Rao Shuguang,
2005, Zhongguo xiju dianying shi (A History of Chinese Comic Cinema), Zhongguo dianying,
Beijing, pp. 116–19.
4. This team also included other writers who came from Shanghai, like Yao Xinnong,
Sun Jinsan, and Song Zhiqi. Zhang Ailing wrote more than ten screenplays for MP&GI,
mostly comedies with melodramatic and farcical elements. During the 1950s and 60s,
Cathay/MP&GI was the main rival to Shaw Brothers with a similar studio system, and
also a similar star system. Founded in Singapore in 1947 by Loke Wan Tho (1915–64),
in 1956 he established a Cathay studio, also in Hong Kong (where he bought out the
bankrupt Motion Picture Studio, relaunching it as MP&GI/Cathay), to produce Chinese-
language movies (Mandarin and Cantonese).
68 Women Screenwriters

5. As her brother pointed out, Zhang Ailing was a great film fan, in particular of Hollywood
cinema, and moviegoing was one of her favourite pastimes during her first years in the
United States. See: Zhang Zijing, 1996, Wo de jiejie Zhang Ailing (My Sister Zhang Ailing),
Shibao Wenhua, Taipei, pp. 117–19; Sima Xin, 1996, Zhang Ailing zai Meiguo: hunyin yu
wannian (Zhang Ailing in America: Her Marital and Later Life), Shanghai Wenyi, Shanghai,
pp. 90–1.
6. This screenplay is a rewrite of the popular farce Charley’s Aunt by Brandon Thomas. It’s
very difficult to consult Zhang’s screenplay because all MP&GI screenplays are owned
by an affiliate company and, for this reason, there are some restrictions in reproducing
these materials (even for academic purposes). This doesn’t allow all her productions to
be examined in depth.
7. This screenplay is inspired by another one, The Tender Trap (1954), by Max Schulman and
Robert Paul Smith, and for this reason it has the typical air of a sophisticated screwball
comedy, and is not typically Chinese.

Berg, Dania. 2013. Women Writers and the Literary World in Early Modern China. UK and USA:
Cui, Shuqin. 2003. Women through the Lens: Gender and Nation in a Century of Chinese Cinema.
Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Fu Poshek. 1999. ‘Eileen Chang, Woman’s Film and Domestic Culture of Modern Shanghai’,
Tamkang Review, 29 (4): 13.
Goodman, Bryna. 2005. ‘The New Woman Commits Suicide: The Press, Cultural Memory,
and the New Republic’, Journal of Asian Studies, 64 (1): 67–101.
Hsia, C. T. 1999. A History of Modern Chinese Fiction, 3rd edition. Bloomington: Indiana
University Press.
Leung, P., Wong, A., and Ho, S. 2002. ‘Elegant Trails of the Quill: A Preliminary Study of
Scripts by Nellie Chin Yu’, in The Cathay Story. Hong Kong: Hong Kong Film Archive.
Lu, Sheldon. 2002. ‘Filming Diaspora and Identity: Hong Kong and 1997’, in P. Fu and
D. Desser (eds) The Cinema of Hong Kong: History, Arts, Identity. UK: Cambridge University
Mulvey, Laura. 1975. ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Screen, 16 (3): 2, 4.
Ng, Kenny K. K. 2008. ‘The Screenwriter as Cultural Broker: Travels of Zhang Ailing’s
Comedy of Love’, Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, 20 (2): 132.
Sang, Tze-lan D. 2008. ‘Failed Modern Girls in Early Twentieth-Century China’, in Doris
Croissant, Catherine Vance Yeh, and Joshua S. Mostow (eds) Performing ‘Nation’. Gender
Politics in Literature, Theater, and the Visual Arts of China and Japan, 1880–1940. Leiden:
Stokes, L. O. 2007. Historical Dictionary of Hong Kong Cinema. Lanham: Scarecrow Press.
Taylor, Kate E. 2011. On East Asian Filmmakers. USA: Columbia University Press.
Yau, C. 2002. ‘The (Im)possibility of an Institutional Critique: A Study of “China Behind”’,
Spectator – The University of Southern California Journal of Film and Television, 22 (1): 80–97.
Yau, C. 2004. Filming Margins: Tang Shu Shuen, A Forgotten Hong Kong Woman Director. Hong
Kong: Hong Kong University Press.
Zhang Ailing. 1946. On the Screen: Wife, Vamp, Child, 4 (5): 392. Shanghai: XXth Century
Publishing Co.
Zhang Ailing. 1947. On the Screen: Mothers and Daughters-in Law 5 (2–3): 202. Shanghai: XXth
Century Publishing Co.
Zhang Yingjin. 1998. ‘Zhiwei Xiao’, in Encyclopedia of Chinese Film. UK: Routledge.
Zheng, Shusen. 1994. Cong xiandai dao dangdai (From the Modern to Contemporary), Sanmin,
Taipei, pp. 77–8.
Alexis Krasilovsky, Debashree Mukherjee,
Jule Selbo and Anubha Yadav


Jule Selbo
The Lumière brothers, French inventors and cinema pioneers, introduced their
film technology to a British-held India in July 1896 and ignited an interest in an
art and industry that continues to thrive. The first full-length film produced in
India was, according to most sources, Pundalik (1912, directed by R. G. Torne and
P. R. Tipnis); the narrative was based on a play by Ramrao Kirtikar. There is not much
information on the film except that its content explored Indian myths and the
life of a Hindu saint. Historical research on Dadshaheb Phalke’s 1913 film, Raja
Harishchandra, gives us a clearer picture of filmmaking in India, and the initial
challenges facing women entering the industry. Phalke wanted to go against the
tradition of males playing female roles; he wanted to find a young woman who
could take on the role of the female lead. However, no woman, even among the
prostitutes, courtesans and dancing girls he approached, was willing to do it, for
facing the camera was akin to laying oneself bare in a public square. Finally, one
night in a restaurant, Phalke found his heroine, an impressive womanly beauty,
working in the kitchen in a lowly position. Phalke made a monetary offer that
was promptly accepted by the worker. Phalke’s film provided India with its first
film heroine, Anna Salunke – in reality, however, ‘Anna’ was a young, slight male
actor who portrayed the female convincingly onscreen (in multiple films) until he
matured and his physique became more masculine. It was nearly a decade before
a female made her mark on the Indian film industry.

Fatma Begum
Film scholar Debashree Mukherjee (see essay in this chapter) has explored the
work of the earliest female screenwriters in India, noting that very little informa-
tion exists on the early decades of film in India and, specifically, details about
female film professionals. This absence is partly due to the fact that the film indus-
try (especially in Bombay) was not rigidly organized with clear specializations and
departments. As in America and other nations, those working on films – in front
of or behind the camera – multitasked, and onscreen credits were inconsistent.

70 Women Screenwriters

However, there are clues and hints available in sources like fanzines, autobiogra-
phies and publicity materials that reveal perhaps the first female actress to appear
on the screen in an Indian film did so just before or in the early 1920s and that
there were women screenwriters in the early Bombay film industry. One of the
earliest Indian females who made a name for herself as an actress, producer and
screenwriter was Fatma Begum (1892–1983) who debuted in Ardeshir Irani’s silent
film Veer Abhimanya in 1922. Many sources note that Fatma Begum was married
to Nawab (viceroy) Sidi Ibrahim Muhammad; however there are no actual records
supporting this and no documents of the Nawab claiming paternity of any of her
children. She began her career as an Urdu stage actress and moved to film. After
her film acting debut, she was soon writing and producing her own films and then
opened her own studio in 1926. When the Nawab objected to her career, they
separated and she continued to make films – and raise their children who went
on to become Indian film stars themselves.

The film industry today

The film industry of today in India is divided into various cinematic cultures –
all stem from different regions of the country. These include Mumbai City’s
Hindi-language cinema (popularly referred to as Bollywood), and other promi-
nent regional-language industries located in the states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala,
West Bengal, Bihar and Maharashtra. While many films are made in the official
language of the country – Hindi – others are made in Tamil, Bengali, Gujarati,
Marathi, Malayalam, Bhojpuri and Assamese or other languages. More than 1,000
commercial films are distributed each year, with revenue nearing two billion dol-
lars, making India one of the top film-producing nations of the world. Female
screenwriters in India in the most recent decades include Kalpana Lajmi, whose
credits as a screenwriter/director include Ek Pal (1986), Rudaali (1993), Damon: A
Victim of Marital Violence (2001) and Chingaari (2006). Screenwriter and actress
Aparna Sen (1945–) has received eight National Film Awards; her credits include
36 Chowringhee Lane (1981, winner of the National Film Award for Best Director
and for Best Feature in English), Paroma (1984), Yugant (1995, winner of the
National Film Award for Best Feature in Bengali), 15 Park Avenue (2005, winner of
the National Film Award for Best Feature in English), and Goynar Baksho (2013).
Screenwriters of Indian heritage working in Canada, the United Kingdom, the
United States or other nations include Deepa Mehta, Pratibha Parmar, Gurinder
Chadha, Nisha Ganatra, Sonali Gulati, Eisha Marjara and Shashwati Talukdar.

Jaddan Bai and early Indian cinema

Debashree Mukherjee
Historical accounts of women’s film work in late colonial South Asia (1920s–1940s)
are rare and the common understanding is that, apart from actresses and extras,
there were no female film professionals in the subcontinent’s many film indus-
tries.1 In this essay I discuss the work and significance of one of these ‘not there’
professionals – Jaddan Bai. I use a mix of cultural biography and textual analysis
India 71

to construct a story of her screenwriting career. Through her particular story I raise
some larger questions about how we might turn to print materials in the face of
absent film archives, the social position of female film professionals in Bombay,
and the transnational movement of film genres and their appropriation and resig-
nification in the Indian context.
Writing about screenwriting as a specific type of work inadvertently contributes
to some ontological and methodological questions. First, it brings into sharp focus
the range of charged discussions around film as text and cinematic authorship
that have taken place in film studies through its brief history.2 On a material
level the film script is indeed text, ink on paper. And yet, the object of study
eludes grasp because screenwriting constitutes a range of paper-based technolo-
gies that include synopses, step outlines, screenplays with dialogue, shooting
scripts with shot breakdowns, continuity scripts and so on. To complicate mat-
ters further, what does one do when both the celluloid film object as well as the
screenplay are absent? This essay has been written in the absence of both these
primary sources, marshalling instead certain extra-filmic or secondary sources
such as publicity booklets, song booklets, film reviews and interviews to recon-
struct the lost films. This set of materials comprises a parallel written universe
that dispersed the promises and pleasures of a film contemporaneously. Through
this essay I try to demonstrate that these written documents also constitute the
horizon of experience, sensation, and subjectivity that makes for cinema.
In Hollywood’s silent years, scenario writing initially meant the barest of step
outlines. The emergence of the continuity script led to an altered understanding
of the screenplay as a complex technology produced by professionals. With the
arrival of sound, new profiles like dialogue writers and, in the Indian case, dialect
coaches and lyric writers were created. Unfortunately, there is a near total absence
of studio records or production files for the silent and early talkie years in South
Asia. Thus, it is very difficult to trace a history of screenwriting practices as they
change and expand during these decades. Nevertheless, through film journals and
fanzines it appears that the lack of adequate and good-quality screenplays was one
of the major problems facing the Bombay film industry in the 1930s. For example,
here is a typically disparaging opinion from the time:

A better picture is only possible with a better story. With all the technique
in the world, a poor and lame story cannot be dressed into a big show … In
India, scenarios are written by Munshis, fakirs and street minstrels. With the
exception of three or four good scenario writers, we have no men for this job.
( Judas 1937: 11).

Written in 1937, this lament comes a full six years after India’s first Hindustani talkie
film was released (Alam Ara, 1931) and the work of the screenwriter had considerably
transformed. If there were ‘no men for this job’, perhaps there were women?
I ask this question as one who is familiar with feminist film historiographical
work that has emerged from the United States and Britain since the 1990s. This sig-
nificant archaeological work indicates that women writers were a prominent and
72 Women Screenwriters

socially acknowledged presence in the silent and early talkie era (see Beauchamp
1997, Muscio 2010, Acker 1991, Francke 1994, McCreadie 1994, McDonald 2011).
For the period 1910–27, Wendy Holliday asserts that ‘the popular image of the
scenario writer, especially the amateur, was almost always female … The most
common portrayal of the successful amateur writer was that of the housewife who
made good in her spare time’ (Holliday 1995: 100–1). There was a ‘subtle, femi-
nine sex-typing of screenwriting’ (Holliday 1995: 119) which is unsurprising given
Ally Acker’s claim that ‘From the end of the century to the mid-1920s, women
outnumbered men in the screen writing trade ten to one’ (1991: 155). However,
there are sharp archival as well as experiential differences between the Indian
context and these newly written histories of the West.
Very little information exists on the early decades of film in India and histories
of female film professionals are rare. The consensus seems to be that there simply
were no women working in the Bombay film industry except in the capacity of
actresses, dancers or junior artistes. Many practitioners from that era, women as
well as men, corroborate this view.3 However, preliminary evidence suggests that
female film producers, directors, screenwriters, music composers, costume design-
ers, and even art directors appeared on the scene in the first decades of South
Asian cinema (1910s–1940s), albeit occasionally. Several factors, both historio-
graphical and contextual, have led to the invisibility of these women from public
memory and official history.
First, there is the sheer paucity of archival documentation and evidence.
Nearly 2,200 talkie films were produced in Bombay alone between 1931 and
1950 (Barnouw and Krishnaswamy: 294) and less than 10 per cent of these films
are available for viewing at the National Film Archive of India.4 From the silent
era there is barely a handful of surviving prints. As I mentioned earlier, there are
no studio records or production notes from this period.5 The evidentiary mate-
rial that is available is mostly extra-filmic and includes secondary sources such
as publicity material, autobiographies, film magazines, newspaper reviews, and
government reports. Irrespective of their sex, it is difficult to find credits for film
technicians who were not at the top of the work chain. Second, the early film
industry in Bombay (up until the mid-1930s) was not yet rigidly organized with
clear specializations and departments. Studio employees routinely multitasked,
often without official onscreen credit. Feminist historiography in such a context
has to contend with anecdotal accounts of actresses designing costumes, washing
film negatives, and determining set design (Barnouw and Krishnaswamy 1980: 18;
Mukherjee 2013: 26).
However, nowhere is the contextual contrast between ‘East’ and ‘West’ so
stark as in the case of women screenwriters. While there were sporadic cases of
women wielding the pen in the late colonial Bombay film industry, it appears
that the female screenwriter did not exist as a socially distinct or profession-
ally plausible category. The women I discuss in this essay have likely never
been written about as screenwriters. This is partly because screenwriters such as
Fatma Begum, Jaddan Bai, Enakshi Rama Rau, Frene Talyarkhan, Snehaprabha
Pradhan, Protima Dasgupta and Ismat Chughtai primarily identified themselves
India 73

as producers, directors, actresses, or literary writers. Jaddan Bai’s screenwriting

credits are available to us mainly because she also directed and produced her
own films. The other difficulty has been that women’s screenwriting careers were
either short-lived (often limited to 1–2 films) or an extension of their ‘primary’
work profile. Therefore, screenwriting work often became an uncredited facet
of the role of a producer-actress or was dismissed by contemporary media as a
foolish hobby.6 Feminist film historians across the world have come up against
this stumbling block – the uncredited or unacknowledged work contributions of
women. However, to return to the particularity of the Indian situation, I must
emphasize that, far from being perceived as ‘women’s work’, as has been suggested
in the early Hollywood context, screenwriting in Bombay, like most other tasks in
a studio, was considered to be a man’s job.
Given the absence of direct evidentiary sources such as films, screenplays, or
autobiographies, I have used sources such as song booklets, biographies, inter-
views, film reviews, photographs, and industry almanacs to reconstruct these his-
tories. The most comprehensive and valuable resource in the writing of this essay
has been the now-obsolete song booklet. This humble document was essentially
a slim publicity pamphlet that carried miniaturized versions of the film poster on
the cover, complete cast and crew credits, the film’s synopsis, production stills,
and the lyrics of the songs. Most song booklets carried this information in two or
more languages and scripts in order to cater to the multiple linguistic competen-
cies of Bombay cinema’s reading publics. We do not have definitive histories of
song booklet circulation and reception but they were certainly sold on occasion
as they sometimes carry a printed price. In the 1930s these booklets carried elabo-
rate synopses often peppered with key dialogues, in a format that is akin to what
is called the ‘film treatment’ within the Bombay film industry today. These vivid
narratives enable a present-day historian to reimagine the lost films in remarkable
detail. Thus, I analyse a range of satellite texts around the film object to open out
Jaddan Bai’s creative oeuvre. As film scholar Vicki Callahan reminds us, ‘the his-
tory that we present as feminists always implies a kind of reclaiming, rewriting,
and re-contextualization of materials’ (2010: 5). This is an effort at active histori-
cal reconstruction, joining together fragile pieces of a puzzle to create a sense of
a life and a career.

Screenwriting and feminist rewriting: the lost films of Jaddan Bai

(1892–1949):7 singer, actress, producer, director, screenwriter, composer
Directed and produced by a woman and that woman the author of the story
and script, the writer of the music and songs, as well as the singer, and to
crown it all, the star of the picture, Madame Fashion, at the Imperial Talkies,
Lamington Road, has an irresistible claim upon the attention and sympathy of
Bombay’s film fans … India’s only woman director and producer, and one of
the country’s famous songstresses ...’ (Times of India 1936: 7)

By the time Jaddan Bai died, in 1949, she had become a veritable institution of the
Bombay film industry. Legendary was her imperious manner, her ability to settle
74 Women Screenwriters

complex personal and professional industry disputes, her generous open kitchen,
her penchant for colourful language, and the high premium placed on her advice
and introductions (see Desai 2007, George 2004). Jaddan Bai had achieved this
level of fame in the film industry within a short span of 16 years. Her film career
began in 1933 as an actress and she soon went on to produce, direct, and write her
own films. Her screenwriting credits include Talash-e-Haq (Search for Truth, 1935),
Hridaya Manthan (Call of the Soul, 1936), Madam Fashion (1936), Jeevan Swapna
(Journey’s End, 1937), Moti Ka Haar (Pearl Necklace, 1937), Anjuman (Audience,
1948), and Darogaji (Mister Inspector, 1949).
Jaddan Bai was born in 1892 in the historic city of Allahabad in northern India.
Her mother, whose own remarkable life story cannot be discussed here, was a
professional singer of the tawaif or courtesan tradition (see Desai 2007). Jaddan
was trained in classical Hindustani music and nurtured a passion for poetry. The
tawaifs (courtesans) of Allahabad, Lucknow, Calcutta, and Lahore were usually
well read and expertly trained in the performing arts. It was a matrilineal profes-
sion, with mothers passing on their knowledge to daughters who were groomed
from an early age to become singers and dancers. These women survived on
patronage from the aristocratic class and were invited to perform concerts at the
private and public gatherings of North India’s last remaining royalty. It is note-
worthy that, in the nineteenth century, tawaifs were perhaps the only women
who owned property and paid taxes (see Oldenburg 1990). While many were
sexually exploited by patrons, mentors, or relatives, many others also enjoyed
a kind of brazen sexual freedom unheard of at the time. These factors led to a
contradictory play between professional fame and social notoriety, a conflict that
doggedly shadows Jaddan Bai’s screenplays. In Jaddan Bai’s lifetime, the courtly
system of patronage went through serious decline and a prescient few gaanewalis
(professional singers) turned to new avenues of sustenance like the gramophone
and radio. Jaddan Bai did one better. She chose the cinema.
In her early teens Jaddan moved from Allahabad to Calcutta where she would
have a better choice of gurus (teachers) and a larger audience to appreciate her
talents. She achieved fair acclaim as a singer in the new city and at one of her
concerts met Uttamchand Mohanchand, a wealthy Brahmin from Rawalpindi
who was on his way to England to study medicine, that is, until he got sidetracked
by Jaddan Bai. The fact that she already had two sons from previous liaisons did
not deter him and the two married despite stiff opposition from his parents. In
1925, with Mohanchand, she had a third child – a girl named Fatima Rashid.
Mohanchand was devoted to his wife but, as he was not equipped for any special-
ized profession, he remained dependent on her for financial support. Jaddan Bai
was thus the primary breadwinner for a family of five.
In Calcutta, Mohanchand was not the only man impressed by Jaddan Bai. A
Lahore-based film producer, Hakim Ramparshad, was charmed by her singing and
offered her a role in a forthcoming film.8 Jaddan Bai joined Playart Phototone in
1932 and her first film as an actress was 1933’s Raja Gopichand. If the birth date
of 1892 is accurate, Jaddan Bai would have been forty years old when she acted
in her first film. By any standard, forty was an advanced age for a lead acting
India 75

debut and many reviewers commented on this in the years to come.9 We must
remember, however, that this was 1932, barely a year after the subcontinent’s first
‘all singing all talking’ feature film, Alam Ara (1931), was released. Many beautiful
and accomplished actresses of the silent screen had been forced to retire because
of a poor singing voice, or inability to speak in Hindi-Urdu. Jaddan Bai was a
renowned singer trained in the Hindustani classical tradition and, moreover, she
was proficient in Urdu, Hindi, Bengali and Persian (Hussain 1932: 10). Hired not for
youth but for her voice and diction, she was cast in her debut film as the mother of
the title character, Raja Gopichand (Oberai 1933, cited in Desai 2007: 33).
It is a measure of Jaddan Bai’s ambition and courage that in 1933 she gave up
established fame and riches in Calcutta and relocated to Bombay with the radi-
cal plan of becoming a film producer. An apartment on posh Marine Drive was
rented and, according to Kishwar Desai, Jaddan Bai proceeded to contact old
patrons ‘who had appreciated her performance in earlier days, and perhaps could
sponsor her next project’ (Desai 2007: 37–8). In the interim she took up a couple
of acting offers in Bombay. Bombay city had emerged as the leading metropolis of
the subcontinent, a cosmopolitan port city that hosted the heady confluence of
anti-imperialist politics, finance, and entertainment. Bombay’s film industry was
also poised to outstrip all the other regional film production centres as Bombay’s
studios chose to make films in Hindi-Urdu, which had a far wider audience reach
than languages such as Bengali (Calcutta), Punjabi (Lahore), and Tamil (Madras).
Jaddan Bai launched her own film production company, Sangeet Movietone, in
1934.10 The song booklet for the company’s first feature film, Talash-e-Haq/Search
for Truth (1935), credits her for ‘Story, Dialogues and Music Direction’, potentially
making Jaddan Bai the first female music composer of the Bombay film industry.11
Jaddan Bai also cast two of her children, Anwar Hussain and Fatima Rashid, in this
film. Fatima, about five years old at the time, had already been ‘launched’ under
the screen name ‘Baby Rani’ in the 1934 film Naachwali, a film that had also fea-
tured Jaddan Bai. Mother and daughter now started a professional collaboration
that would reap rich future dividends as Baby Rani would one day become one of
Hindi cinema’s most beloved superstars and an icon of respectability.
It is worth quoting Jaddan Bai’s prefatory remarks in the Search for Truth song
booklet at some length. This is the closest we might ever get to hearing her own
thoughts, reproduced in the original English version:

The soul is not an abstract figure of speech – it is as positive an actuality as the

body and the intention with which I have written the story of Talash-e-Haq or
Search for Truth – my first production – is based on my earnest desire to rouse
some few of my fellow creatures out of the strange torpor and spiritual lethargy
in which they lie, not feeling the terrible responsibility to possess that ‘Vital
spark of Heavenly Flame’, the direct gift of the Creator. Every mean desire,
every sensual craving – withers the delicate essence of the soul, the only thing
we possess of pure Godhead in us and whose nature is to shrink from the very
contact of evil. It springs to life and grows with every effort towards betterness. …
The person who lives in a dark and dismal cave has no right to complain that the
76 Women Screenwriters

sun is not shining. The sun shines only for those who step out into the sun-
light. Life is full of good if we look for it. (Search for Truth song booklet, 1935: 1)

Such a mode of direct address must constitute a thrilling moment for the film
historian who suddenly has unprecedented access to the first-person voice of a
forgotten technician. However, despite its promises of unmediated ‘intentionality’
this preface is still a kind of public performance, a posturing that leads us from the
text to the ideological contexts of its production.
Throughout her authorial career, Jaddan Bai recurrently performed the pious
morality evident in this passage. In this first film, she created a heroine named
Feeroza, a ‘very popular stage actress’ but ‘her private life was the life of vice.’
(Search for Truth: 1). Feeroza has been introduced to ‘this profession of prostitu-
tion’ by her uncle, Subhan Khan, and she is responsible for the ruination of many
an impressionable young man. The synopsis outlines two incidents that establish
Feeroza as the fount of all evil. First, an admirer called Shaukat is driven to steal-
ing from his own father in order to satisfy Feeroza’s lust for jewels. A widower,
he even mistreats his little daughter (played by Baby Rani) when she pleads with
him to spend time at home. One day, he arrives at Feeroza’s residence to find her
in the arms of another man and is completely broken. An outcast from his fam-
ily, Shaukat decides to become a ‘highway robber’ (Search for Truth: 2). The second
incident involves a man called Salim who is besotted with Feeroza. Unable to gain
her affections he shoots himself outside her house. Feeroza is terribly affected by
these tragic incidents and her ‘moral metamorphosis begins at this stage’. She sets
off on a ‘Search for Truth’ (Search for Truth: 3).
Writer and columnist Kishwar Desai has noted that Jaddan Bai’s ‘stories were
usually morality tales and they voiced “Bai” Jaddanbai’s concern about a society
rapidly degenerating due to “Western” influences.’ Further, Desai suggests that,
with films like Search for Truth, Madam Fashion, and Call of the Soul, Jaddan Bai
was consciously participating in a nationalist discourse: ‘[These films] also served
as a veiled gesture of support for swadeshi values.12 Perhaps it was the only way
in which filmmakers of the period could fight a subversive war against British
colonialism and censorship’ (Desai 2007: 38).
Desai’s hypothesis seems plausible but assumes too much. Yes, the synopses of
Jaddan Bai’s first three films are structured as morality plays. Nevertheless, tradi-
tion and modernity, or even ‘East’ and ‘West’, are treated as complex configura-
tions with shifting values. As I will discuss in the following sections, the dramatic
conflict in these films pivots on the question of the heroine’s moral virtue as it is
tested by artificial social parameters. ‘Society’ is a major protagonist in these films
but does not necessarily equate to ‘Western influences’. In her own private life,
Jaddan Bai was able to embrace elements of swadeshi as well as Western culture.
A publicity piece published in 1932, on the eve of Jaddan Bai’s film acting debut,
deliberately flaunts this ease of navigation:

She [ Jaddan Bai] is not only well educated in Urdu, Arabic and Persian, but
can also converse fluently in Hindi and Bengali. Socially, therefore, she is quite
India 77

cultured. Her hobby is the study of classical poetry, writing verses and compos-
ing her own Gazals. In sports, Jaddan Bai is fond of swimming, motoring and
tennis. (Hussain 1932: 10)

This biographical sketch strives to highlight her cultivated charms and the spe-
cialized skills that heightened her social status. Among these are fashionable
‘Western’ pursuits like swimming, motoring, and tennis, which are given as much
prominence as her ‘swadeshi’ literary interests.
The overt ‘concern’ about a depraved society had particular undertones that
derive much of their significance from Jaddan Bai’s biography. Jaddan Bai’s pro-
fessional status in her early musical career and the last years of her life presents
a picture of fame and solid repute. However, in this middle period when she first
entered the film industry, she must have struggled hard to rid herself of the tawaif
tag. It is critical to note how closely this melodramatic narrative conformed to
official as well as everyday social discourse about tawaifs and female performers.
The celebrated Urdu writer Sa’adat Hasan Manto has narrated an incident wherein
a ‘respectable’ female relative, speaking to Jaddan Bai herself, unknowingly rues
the entire courtesan class.

Apa Saadat was in her element: ‘God protect us from these women. Whosoever
falls into their clutches is lost both to this world and the next. You can say
goodbye to your money, your health and your good name if you get ensnared
by these creatures. The biggest curse in the world, if you ask me, are these cour-
tesans and prostitutes.’ My wife and I were severely embarrassed and did not
know how to stop Apa Saadat. (Manto 2008: 515)

Jaddan Bai apparently heard out this harangue with equanimity and then dis-
closed her identity to the mortified woman. This incident took place almost a
decade after Jaddan Bai wrote Search for Truth, but attitudes towards traditional
female performers had remained unchanged.
The link between female performers and cinema was also entrenched in a
deeply moralistic discourse. It is common knowledge that the earliest actresses on
the South Asian film screen belonged to professional performative traditions like
theatre, dance, and music. Such public women were greatly stigmatized and their
liminal social status was the condition for their entry into the dubious new realm
of cinema. At the same time, their presence exacerbated anxieties about the nega-
tive implications of this new medium. By the time talkie technology appeared
on the scene, the industry needed these talented women more than ever but the
dominant nationalist rhetoric of ‘respectability’ and ‘self-improvement’ pulled in
the opposite direction.13 And, predictably, it was women and their sexualities that
became the locus of nationalist concern (see Chatterjee 1999).
It is crucial to note that Jaddan Bai herself played the part of Feeroza in Search
for Truth. After Feeroza embarks on her expedition of moral renewal she ‘patiently
endures many cruel incidents. People sneer at her, cutting cruel jokes. Fed up and
realizing that the so called Society shall never acknowledge her as a respectable
78 Women Screenwriters

woman however noble and good she becomes, she thinks of committing suicide
by drowning herself in the sea’ (Search for Truth song booklet, 1935: 3).
Lines such as these give the lie to any straightforward moral argument. Feeroza
has the clear-eyed wisdom to see through society’s hypocrisies and she chooses to
withdraw from the world forever. She survives the suicide attempt and achieves
many noble goals, reuniting Shaukat and his daughter, and even setting up a
charitable hospital and orphanage along the way. However, her past is too volatile
to be erased from public memory and the film resolves the matter through chaste,
penitent religiosity. Feeroza exits the film when ‘in answer to the call of that vital
spark of heavenly flame, the soul sails on a pilgrimage to Mecca to complete her
Search for Truth. The End’ (Search for Truth song booklet, 1935: 5). Jaddan Bai, on
the other hand, continued in the film industry and used her controversial lineage
to her advantage. In her second film, Call of the Soul, Jaddan Bai squarely ques-
tions parameters of morality. The cover of the song booklet features a quote from
Hamlet: ‘There is nothing Good or Bad in this world but the thinking makes it so.’
The Introduction tells us that the film is interested in ‘depicting the iniquities of
our Society’ and exposing the ‘false ideas of social conventions and popular moral-
ity justified in the name of religion …’ (Call of the Soul song booklet, 1936: 1).
In any discussion of screenplay motivations we must also look to genre histo-
ries outside the local. Search for Truth and Call of the Soul were written at a time
when the women’s melodrama mode was internationally popular. This cinematic
mode often featured ‘fallen women’ who were pitted against society due to their
transgressive choices and behaviour. Late 1920s and early 1930s Hollywood saw
the dominance of the fallen woman protagonist, who was either cheated or
compelled into sexual compromise or was a debauched child of hedonism who
could not help herself. In either case, the plot demanded that these heroines pay
up their ‘wages of sin’ and end up single, broke, or dead. We see this in Madame
X (1920), Coquette (1929), A Woman of Affairs (1928), Hold Your Man (1933) and
What Price Hollywood! (1932), all of which were screened in Bombay between 1930
and 1934.14 Based on the synopsis of Search for Truth, I suggest that the film can be
read as a part of the transnational appropriations of the fallen woman melodrama.
Such a reading enables us to see connections across urban sites that were similarly
grappling with anxieties about female sexuality and consumerism. The ‘modern
girl’ who had embraced fast cars, fashion, and sexual freedom featured centrally
in this globally circulating mode, even starring in Jaddan Bai’s next film, Madam
Fashion (1936). Thus, it is not enough to state that her films were responding only
to local contestations of tradition versus modernity – they were also imbricated
within a larger network of shared generic subjects, plots, anxieties, and desires
that were dispersed through transnational routes of theatrical distribution and
individual travel. In Bombay cinema, these same generic concerns were adapted
along local lines of tension, bringing in unique permutations of gender with class,
religion, and modernity.
Released in 1936, Madam Fashion was apparently inspired by a ‘high moral tone’
(Times of India 1936: 7). The song booklet synopsis opens with prefatory com-
ments by producer-director Jaddan Bai, and states that ‘fashion fanaticism’ will
India 79

lead to the ruination of hundreds of citizens of India who spend all their time,
money, and moral energy as blind devotees of western fads:

Citizens of India! … It is now time to stop mimicking other countries and to

contribute to India’s progress by following in the footsteps of our ancestors. …
Every citizen of this nation should have only one wish – that our women emu-
late the saintly women of yore and become dutiful wives and model mothers.
(Madam Fashion song booklet, 1936: 1, trans. from Hindi by author)

The main object of critique in this preface is Western modernity, particularly

Western femininity. Nevertheless, the very detailed film synopsis that follows is
quite ambivalent in its tone. This time Jaddan Bai plays Sheila, a wealthy and
middle-aged mother of two. Her husband, Seth Amarnath, takes his dutiful wife
on several foreign trips, buys her pretty things, and unwittingly converts her
into a fashion victim. As the song booklet puts it, Sheila is transformed into a
‘Society lady’ (Madam Fashion: 1) Significantly, these are the only words rendered
in English in the booklet, which carries the synopsis in three languages – Hindi,
Gujarati, and Urdu. And yet ‘Society lady’ remains untranslated, perhaps because
it had come to take on an untranslatable power of its own, as a distinct urban
figure. The newly ‘fashionable’ (also transliterated to the Devnagari script) Sheila
goes to the races, shops on the continent, and throws fancy yacht parties. One day
she loses all her betting money at the races and is helped out by a smooth operator
she has previously met in Germany. Her husband recognizes him as a cheat but
Sheila refuses to believe him. One thing leads to another and Sheila walks out of
her home and marriage. Her grown son’s wedding is called off as the bride’s fam-
ily does not want to be associated with such a scandal. Her little daughter roams
the streets plaintively looking for her mother. Surprisingly, Sheila remains blithely
cheerful and finds new friends and clothes. Ultimately, however, she has to sub-
mit to the demands of creditors and is reduced to beggary and good intentions.
On the surface, this seems like a classic tale of punishment and transforma-
tion. But, if one is to judge by the synopsis, the script provides empathetic spaces
for Sheila’s interior life to be revealed. For example, when her husband wrongly
accuses her of having an affair with Jagdish, she retorts: ‘You want me to stay
confined within the four walls of this house, like the women of yore, and slowly
get stifled to death. Every day there is some new quarrel, fights, harassment, nag-
ging. There is a limit to how much one can tolerate’ (Madam Fashion: 3). She then
lovingly bids farewell to her sleeping children, packs her jewellery, and leaves.
This is a free-thinking woman who dotes on her children but refuses to accept
unjust accusations and abuse from her husband. Moreover, her liberated spirit is
recognized as such by the script itself. Characterizing Jagdish as a conniving con-
artiste, the synopsis states that he is an expert at swindling ‘free and independent’
women. Granted, in the moral universe of this story, free and independent may be
negative attributes for a woman; however, the Hindi words used in the booklet are
‘swantantra aur azaad’, words that had much affective resonance in contemporary
South Asia, deeply linked as they were with the national struggle against British
80 Women Screenwriters

colonialism (Madam Fashion: 1). When associated with a modern woman instead
of the ancient motherland, these same words take on a charged meaning.
Whereas in the early Hollywood context we often see women screenwriters in the
role of star makers (e.g. June Mathis’s championing of and writing for actor Rudolph
Valentino or Frances Marion’s work with actress Mary Pickford), in Jaddan Bai’s case
she was using her screenplays to create an elaborate star image for herself. On the
one hand, she repeatedly acknowledged her past profession and its social status by
presenting herself in spectacles of consumption, fashion and debauchery. This was
commercially canny as these images satisfied audiences’ cravings for glamour and
sensation, drawing simultaneously on the global circulation of fallen woman melo-
dramas. On the other hand, Jaddan Bai actively sought to rewrite the significance
of her past through screen narratives of moral transformation and social hypoc-
risy. These acts of rewriting can be interpreted as direct exhortations to her public
against social prejudice. Written during the era of transition to sound and the large-
scale entry of courtesan-singers into the film industry, Jaddan Bai’s films represent a
woman’s social activism on behalf of her female professional community.
The film industry at this time provided a relatively open playing field for those
with the capital to finance their own ventures. Caught between the scarcity of
talented singer-actresses and the clamour for ‘cultured ladies’, Bombay cinema
negotiated a fine balance. Applauding her decision to choose cinema rather than
radio or gramophone, film historian Saleem Kidwai avers that:

Jaddan Bai had the foresight to sense the inevitable as the Indian liberals got
closer to power. She chose wisely for her talented daughter and prepared her for
tremendous success. Those who continued to be gaanewalis [professional sing-
ers] had to deal with the indignity of All India Radio insisting that its female
singers be married, even insisting that they use a separate entrance so that their
presence at recordings wouldn’t offend regular, well-born staffers. (Kidwai 2004)

In a scenario where patronage for courtesans was steadily diminishing along

with the dying world of rajas and nawabs, women such as Jaddan Bai had little
option but to reinvent themselves. The 1930s film industry retained some of its
early democratic impulses but was being pushed towards the road of middle-class
respectability and moralistic prejudice. Having succeeded in this environment on
her own terms, Jaddan Bai ensured that her daughter, Fatima Rashid, would grow
up thoroughly respectable and perhaps that is why she was not taught how to
sing (Kidwai 2004). Fatima had a second name change when she made her adult
lead debut – this time it was the elegant ‘Nargis’. Nargis became a major superstar
of the 1950s and her career pinnacle was a far cry from her debut as Baby Rani in
Naachwali/Dancing Girl. This was a film called Mother India (1957), an allegorical
classic of modern India that is even today screened on public television during
national holidays. Kidwai points out that, ‘With the success of Nargis, both as a
star and a public figure, the cover up of the origins of these artistes was complete’
(2004). And yet, at the start of her film career, Jaddan Bai was interested not so
much in ‘covering up’ her origins as rewriting their consequences.
India 81

Author’s note: I would like to thank Ravi Vasudevan for his help with acquiring the song
booklets without which this essay would not have been possible. Paulina Suarez Hesketh
and Kartik Nair read through an early draft with close attention and magnificent com-
ments. Thanks also to the American Institute for Indian Studies for a research grant
during the year 2012–13.

Sooni Taraporevala

Alexis Krasilovsky
Sooni Taraporevala (1957–) was born in Bombay, now known as Mumbai, in
1957. She credits her fourth-grade teacher, Rati Wadia, for her love of writing. In
1976, while studying at Harvard under a full scholarship, she met fellow student
Mira Nair, who encouraged Taraporevala to take a film course, leading to graduate
school in cinema studies at New York University (Viets 2009). In the meantime,
Nair made several documentaries. In 1986, the two friends travelled together
researching stories, and Taraporevala suggested they go with an idea that Nair
had come up with about street kids, culminating in Salaam Bombay! (1988), about
a boy who is abandoned by his mother on the streets of Mumbai, who befriends
a heroin addict and the daughter of a sex worker, while trying to earn enough
rupees to return home. Their first feature with Nair as director and Taraporevala as
screenwriter, Salaam Bombay! was nominated for an Oscar and won over twenty-
five awards worldwide, including the Lillian Gish Award from Women in Film for
Taraporevala (Taraporevala 2005).
Their second film, Mississippi Masala (1990), starring Denzel Washington, is a
love story between an Indian daughter whose family has been exiled from Uganda
to Mississippi and an African-American carpet cleaner who works in her family’s
motel. Taraporevala says the story ‘was rooted in research’, including travel with
Nair to Uganda and the Deep South. Mississippi Masala won the Osella Award for
Best Screenplay at the Venice Film Festival. In an interview with Sonia Faleiro,
Taraporevala described her collaboration with Mira Nair: ‘We share a certain short-
hand together. A certain perspective, a way of looking at the world. We’ve never
clashed creatively … we discuss things, and I go off and write’ (Faleiro 2004),
They also worked as the director/screenwriter team of My Own Country (1998), for
Showtime Television, and The Namesake (2006), a film about the immigrant expe-
rience based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Jhumpa Lahiri. In an interview
with Dylan Callaghan for the Writers Guild of America in 2013, Taraporevala
stated, ‘For adaptations, they should have two awards – one for the screenwriter
and one for the author. When I adapt I always try and put myself in the service
of the author, to use whatever craft I’ve learnt to translate from one medium to
another. [But] while adaptations are easier, originals are more fun to write’.
After working as a screenwriter for twenty years, mostly for Nair, but also
with directors Sturla Gunnarson and Dr Jabbar Patel, Taraporevala wrote a script
for herself: Little Zouzou, a light-hearted comedy based on the serious issue of
religious intolerance in the Indian Parsi community. In an interview by Majula
Narayan, Taraporevala stated, ‘Because I wrote it with certain actors in mind,
82 Women Screenwriters

certain locations in mind, I thought that since this was a world that I really knew
well, that I was confident I could direct it’ (Narayan 2009). Taraporevala’s first film
as writer-director, Little Zouzou (2008) won over ten international awards includ-
ing Time/Warner Best Screenplay. It was modelled on aspects of her son’s life and
featured her own children, Jahan and Iyanah, in the starring roles.
Taraporevala enjoys a non-Bollywood lifestyle in India while working interna-
tionally, sometimes by Internet. The first of seven drafts for The Namesake, for
example, involved a process of emailing Mira Nair adapted scenes every few days
‘while she read the book and marked out her selections – which coincided with
mine. We were perfectly in sync’ (Lambert 2007). (Special thanks to Maria Victoria
Hubbard for her research assistance.)

Screenwriter: Honey Irani

Anubha Yadav
Indian cinema has not had many women screenwriters. The number has been
low across all regional film industries. This minimal presence has always been
even more noticeable in popular cinemas of India. Honey Irani (1950–) is a wel-
come presence in one such popular practice. In the last three decades, Honey has
penned eighteen films for popular Hindi-language cinema.

Early years in Mumbai cinema – star to apprenticeship

In 1950s and 60s Honey Irani acted in more than seventy Hindi films as a child
actor. She appeared in box-office hits like Talaq/Divorce and Bombay ka Chor/Thief
of Bombay. After two decades in the industry she left acting to settle into married
life with screenwriter Javed Akhtar; however, they separated after less than a dec-
ade. Irani returned to the Mumbai film industry around 1980, assisting Ramesh
Talwar for seven years on three films: Zamaana/The Times (1985), Duniya/The
World (1984), and Basera/Shelter (1981).

Screenwriting – early years

Honey Irani began to write short stories but did not seek publication of them.
However, the wife of filmmaker Yash Chopra read one short story and decided to
adapt it into a television drama. Eventually, Yash Chopra asked Irani to develop
the idea further for a film. Irani narrated a detailed treatment based on the short
story and, seeing her talent, Yash Chopra hired her to also write a different project.
This project became Irani’s debut film as a screenwriter. Lamhe/Moments was
released in 1991. Despite its commercial failure,  Lamhe  won several awards.
Chopra and Irani collaborated again shortly afterwards in Darr/Fear (1993). Two of
the first four films written by Honey Irani (Darr/Fear and Aaina/The Mirror [1993]),
became box-office hits in India.

Successes and failures

Due to professional differences, Irani and Chopra parted ways. Differences
stemmed from the writing credits on Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge/The Brave Hearts
India 83

Will Take the Bride. Irani claimed she had collaborated on the screenplay with Yash
Chopra’s son, Aditya Chopra. The demand was dismissed and Irani was denied
screen credit. The film became one of the most popular films in the history of
Mumbai cinema. Irani never went to court regarding the credit, and still claims
she co-wrote it, although she has refused to discuss it in interviews. In 1994, Irani
wrote Suhaag/My Husband, Suhaag; this film became one of the highest-grossing
Hindi-language films of the year, and Irani was recognized as one of the important
factors behind its success.
Over the next four years (from 1995 till 1999) Irani wrote six screenplays: two
box-office hits and four films that did not find financial success. She was trying to
find a new collaborator, a production house/director that understood her vision. She
often changed her directors, and worked with different producers on all six projects.
After a decade as a screenwriter, Irani found a collaborator in the actor-turned-
director Rakesh Roshan. For the first time, Irani moved out of her preferred genres
of family drama and romance and collaborated on a romantic action thriller, Kaho
Naa ... Pyaar Hai/Say You Love Me (2000), which became a commercial success.
Almost simultaneously, Kya Kehna/What Is There to Say was released and was suc-
cessful at the box-office. Kya Kehna was hailed by critics for its sensitive treatment
of the  issue of pre-marital pregnancy. The film was seen as a breakthrough for
popular cinema: it could handle a serious issue with song and dance.
Deciding to ride on this success, Irani followed her ambition to become a direc-
tor. She chose to direct her own story, co-written with Javed Akhtar, but Armaan/
Wishes did not do well at the box office. This stalled her career as a director. In the
last decade, Irani has continued her screenwriting work and mainly collaborated
with the director Rakesh Roshan. The films are in the superhero/science-fiction
genre. Roshan chooses to work with a team of screenwriters (usually six or seven),
and the entire team receives onscreen credit. The films are highly marketed and
branded as Indian Superhero films – much of the credit being taken by Roshan,
the star cast, and the high production values.
Thus, the last three films by Irani have been highly collaborative. Irani states
that she finds the process very enjoyable and does not feel troubled or stifled by it.
She adds that she shares a great rapport with most of the male writers in the room,
and there are no ego hassles because of a woman’s presence. In the last decade
this deeply collaborative writing is the only work she has done as a screenwriter
(except for Har Pal/Every Moment – a film that was never released). This, on the one
hand, has solidified her presence in popular cinema, while on the other somewhat
eclipsing her unique creative voice.

Looking for Irani’s authorship

There is almost no academic interest in Honey Irani, despite her unique pres-
ence in popular Mumbai cinema for three decades. Honey Irani creates atypical
romances in which the characters, plot and narrative structure do not always
abide by genre conventions. Lamhe/Moments ushered in a new genre of socially
conscious love stories in popular cinema. In almost all her films there is a constant
search for a ‘good man’; however, the ‘bad’ men are not typical villains. They are
84 Women Screenwriters

everyday men – obsessive lovers; spoiled, diabolical, and mentally challenged

albeit with special powers. Irani’s conception of female characters and their seem-
ing submission to fate is also of interest. In my conversation with her regarding
Aaina/The Mirror15 she rejected my understanding and said:

If I really wanted to punish Roma (the career-oriented elder sister in Aaina),

I would have killed her. And it was suggested by a few people. And I said noth-
ing doing. Why? Why, should you kill her? Why kill such a strong character?
She has made a mistake and she has learnt her lesson. (Irani, from interview
with author)

The genealogy of Irani’s filmography does not elucidate why she deviates so dras-
tically at times from her thematic feminist preoccupations. Perhaps there can be
no one master ‘blow’ to the monolithic accumulation of traditional film conven-
tions in popular cinema. Irani’s work is surely indicative of this and deserves far
more attention and recognition.

1. This essay speaks only of the Bombay film industry, one of several key film production
centres in pre-Independence, undivided India including Calcutta, Lahore, Madras, and
Kolhapur. India became an independent nation-state in 1947, signalling the end of
more than two centuries of British colonial rule and the political partition of the Indian
subcontinent into two separate nation states: India and Pakistan. Pakistan subsequently
went through another political bifurcation in 1971 with the creation of Bangladesh.
Some cities mentioned in this essay are in present-day Pakistan.
2. For a look at some of the key voices in the authorship debates see John Caughie (ed.),
2001, Theories of Authorship (London: Routledge/British Film Institute), and also Barry
Keith Grant (ed.), 2008, Auteurs and Auteurship: A Film Reader (Oxford, Malden: Blackwell
3. This opinion is based on interviews conducted by the author with actresses, directors, make-
up artists, and other film industry associates from the 1930s and 1940s including Sushila
Rani Patel, Ram Tipnis, Shanti Mahendroo, Peter Wirsching, and Shankar Mukherjee.
4. This percentage figure is based on the National Film Archive of India (NFAI) online as
well as on-site catalogues.
5. In 2012, parts of ‘the only film script available from India’s entire silent cinema era’,
Gul-e-Bakavali (Kanjibhai Rathod, 1924), were published in BioScope: South Asian Screen
Studies, 3 (2): 175–207.
6. For example, the prominent critic Baburao Patel declares (in filmindia, 1 August 1943)
about Snehaprabha Pradhan’s screenwriting debut that ‘this is the second time that a
well-known Maharashtrian film actress has had the foolhardiness to venture into the
difficult field of story-writing. The first instance was that of Leela Chitnis presuming to
claim talent in this field. Both the girls have failed miserably and it will be a mercy if they
leave story-writing for the screen severely alone.’
7. The main sources for culling Jaddan Bai’s biographical details were Bharucha 1938,
Chatterjee 1994, Desai 2007, Hussain 1932, Kidwai 2004, Manto 2008, and Rajadhyaksha
and Willemen 1999.
8. Ramparshad was partners with A. R. Kardar, who later became a famous producer and
studio boss in Bombay. Kardar was among the cluster of film production elite who made
up Jaddan Bai’s circle of influence in later years.
India 85

9. For example in July 1935 a journalist praises Jaddan Bai saying, ‘It was a noble sight to
see an elderly woman like Jaddanbai playing a heavy leading role in Talash-e-Haq …’
( Judas 1935).
10. The company’s name is differently spelt in every iteration, e.g. Sangit Movietone,
Sangeet Movitone, etc., and I have picked the most frequently recurring version.
11. Jaddan Bai shares this honour with Saraswati Devi, née Khorshed Homji, who was the
music composer for Bombay Talkies Studio Limited from 1935 until 1941. Her first
film was released just a few months after Talash-e-Haq in September 1935 – Jawani-
ki-Hawa (see Ashok Da. Ranade, 2006, Hindi Film Song: Music Beyond Boundaries, New
Delhi and Chicago: Promilla & Co., p. 114). On the other hand, recent popular sources
suggest that Ishrat Sultana, also known as Bibbo, might have been the first female
music director with the 1934 film Adil-e-Jehangir (see ‘Fairer Sex Makes a Mark’, Times
of India, available at: http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2011-03-08/news-
interviews/28667954_1_film-industry-silent-films-debut-film [accessed 15 September
12. The word ‘swadeshi’ is an adjective deriving from the Sanskrit ‘Swa’ meaning self and
‘Desh’ meaning country. The term was used to describe all that was ‘of one’s own
country’ and became the main force behind Gandhi’s anti-colonial economic boycott
13. In fact, Neepa Majumdar has argued, ‘[An] ambivalence toward cinema began in the
1930s, when a desire to participate in the cultural mainstream, which was informed at
the time by predominantly nationalist concerns, reshaped cinematic discourse from the
cosmopolitan mode of the 1920s to an increasingly bourgeois-nationalist mode begin-
ning in the 1930s’ (2009: 9).
14. See Times of India, ‘Engagements’, 6 February 1930, p. 4, 1 March 1930, p. 11,
8 November 1933, and 17 May 1934, p. 3.
15. Aaina is the story of two sisters. One is career-oriented and the other is domestic. The
career-oriented sister is shown as a negative character.

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Debbie Danielpour

Very few women living in Iran are active screenwriters as many Iranian-born
screenwriters/directors are exiled outside their native country due to the current
Islamic government’s codes, which control all aspects of a screenplay and film
production. This entry features screenwriters who have accomplished their work
while living in Iran.


An overview of Iran’s history in the 20th and 21st centuries provides context
for understanding how different regimes exerted artistic/commercial censorship,
controlled women’s participation and ultimately influenced women’s entry into
the country’s film industry.

Early Persian cinema, 1900–60

The earliest documented use of film in Iran dates back to a royal court visit in
Belgium. The footage, which shows Iranians gazing upon modern Europeans,
stands as a prescient metaphor for the tension that has coloured the history of
Iranian film. Iran’s first cinemas appeared during the politically tumultuous years
of 1905–11, screening primarily European films to a gender-partitioned Iranian
audience drawn exclusively from the court and aristocracy. Religious authorities
then denounced Tehran’s first movie theatre as the mark of Satan and the cinema
was shut down (Sadr 2006: 14).
The ascension of Reza Shah to the Pahlavi throne in 1926 began a new era
in the history of Iranian modernity. The Shah banned the chador for women,
dictated a westernized dress code for men, and forbade Iranian passion plays,
although his aim to provide educational opportunities for women and establish
an Iranian National Cinema was not successful. Nonetheless, the cinema of this
era marked the first time women could watch other women in public without
veils (Dabashi 2001: 18). Prohibition of the veil, however, was initially opposed
by most traditional Iranian families, as for many women the chador represented
honour, femininity and ease. These women were therefore reluctant to leave their
homes, which led to their isolation from public activities.

88 Women Screenwriters

In 1931, the first Iranian sound films were praised as examples of Iran’s artistic
and political progress, while in fact they were poor imitations of European and
American comedies and melodramas. At the same time, clerics and a large meas-
ure of the populace resisted the films’ portrayal of modernity. The nine feature
films that were produced between 1931 and 1937 were simple comedies, clas-
sic Iranian love stories, tales of adventure/conquest, or expanded mythologies
designed to entertain an emerging middle class and unify the population around
modernity. Stories that exposed the reality of the regime’s brutality were strictly
forbidden (Sadr 2006: 24). Female characters followed Western paradigms, typi-
cally being cast as mothers or the ‘girl’ to be rescued or wooed.
In Iran’s first widely distributed talkie, The Lor Girl (Ardeshir Irani, 1933), the
subject and characters of the film borrow from Western imagery and ignore eth-
nic, religious and national contexts. The film mimics a colonialist perspective
on women, which objectifies them as exotic spectacles and renders women nar-
ratively impotent. This depiction of women was inspired by Hollywood represen-
tations of exotic Oriental women in American film epics (Dabashi 2001: 22). It
has been suggested that the film stands as an example of the reach of Reza Shah’s
propaganda, while some critics have argued that the story emphasized feminine
power and self-reliance, challenging traditional views of a woman’s role as con-
fined to the home (Lahiji 2002: 217). Perhaps the most telling barometer of the
public’s reception is the fact that, after the release of the film, the actress who
played the protagonist was subject to much public scorn.
The regime’s forced modernity did little to truly open creative opportunities for
women. During the Shah’s push to westernize, Ovanes Ohanian established Iran’s
first film school and solicited applications from both male and female filmmakers,
yet no women applied (Sadr 2006: 17, 26). It appeared as though gender politics
could not ‘catch up’ with the regime’s demands for modernity.
From 1937 to 1948, there was a decrease in Iranian film production and the cin-
emas mostly exhibited foreign films, particularly those imported from Hollywood
and India. In 1941, Britain and Russia occupied parts of Iran, and Reza Shah was
sent to exile. American troops entered the same year and supported the installa-
tion of Reza Shah’s son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in September 1941. The new
regime established deeper commercial and political ties with the US and Britain,
which, it has been argued, opened up educational and employment opportunities
for women (Sadr 2006: 41).
By the mid 1950s, Iranian cinema had become entirely commercial, and stories
were controlled by vast lists of prohibitions, mainly forbidding demeaning depic-
tions of the regime. Hollywood’s film language, including genre conventions and
screenplay structure paradigm, was so pervasive that by the 1960s it had become
a standard in Iranian films. Iranian native narrative art only lived on in fiction
and poetry.

1960s westernization and the New Wave

Iranian filmmakers, almost all of whom were male, portrayed women either as
good or bad, the ‘good women’ fulfilling traditional roles at home and the ‘bad
Iran 89

women’ as Western-influenced, dressed provocatively, drinking alcohol and

destroying families. This binarist and hyper-sexualized representation shifted the
blame to women as carriers of modernity’s excesses and, no doubt, made it dif-
ficult for women to participate as serious filmmakers. The later revulsion against
Pahlavi-era commercial movies and the push for purification and Islamization of
Iran’s film industry can be traced to this initially extreme drive toward moderniza-
tion (Naficy 2012: 98).
The Shah’s White Revolution of the early 1960s granted Iranian women the
right to vote, increased women’s minimum legal age of marriage to 18, and
improved women’s legal rights in divorce and child custody matters. These
reforms were opposed by the country’s conservative families and the majority of
Iran’s clergy, in particular Ayatollah Khomeini, who led many of the country’s
artists and intellectuals into the 1963 uprising. Although the authorities quelled
resistance, the populace’s resistance to westernization had been registered and the
regime’s brutal enforcement of new laws increased (Bill 1970: 30–3).
The first sparks of native Iranian cinema emerged with what has been called
Iran’s New Wave, characterized by films that reflected a rejection of the state’s
authoritarianism and its overblown reports of progress. Most notable is Darius
Mehrjui’s The Cow (1969), a dystopian vision of Iranian society that emphasizes
fear, loss and a lack of true personal connection. The film was banned until it
won the Best Actor award at the Chicago Film Festival (Sadr 2006: 133). With
these films, Iranian work gained visibility at international festivals and generated
a more discerning Iranian film audience (Hirchi 2013: 262). Despite the gritty,
realistic themes in these films, women characters remained passive, the screenplay
stories were sexist, and women seldom had opportunities to work in the produc-
tion process (Sadr 2006: 144).

1970s – women step in

The 1970s saw the gradual emergence of Iranian women as screenwriters and
filmmakers. The School of Television and Cinema was established in Tehran in
1969, fully financed and supported by the government of Iran through the NIRT
(National Iranian Radio and Television). Of the students, 95 per cent were men
(Talachian 1980). Among the few women who enrolled at that time were Pouran
Darakh’shandeh (more information below) and Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, who cur-
rently teaches film at Columbia College in Chicago.
Because cinema was seen primarily as entertainment, filmmaking was not con-
sidered a respected profession. Therefore, children of the middle-class and profes-
sional classes, the only classes with the opportunity to attend university, were
discouraged from studying cinema. Nonetheless, Iranian cinema of the 1970s
saw a significant growth in output and number of filmmakers. Many filmmakers
ignored state censorship and abandoned traditional film formulae, characters and
situations, and a new generation of socially conscious writers emerged, including
the few women who were active in the industry (Talachian 1980).
The Institution for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults,
founded by Lili Jahan Ara, a close friend of Farah Diba (the Queen of Iran),
90 Women Screenwriters

established a cinema department in 1969 and supported artists who were allowed
relatively more freedom of expression (Rezai-Rashti 2007: 197). Many prominent
directors, all men, started their careers here or made films for the institution:
Bahram Baizai, Amir Naderi, Abbas Kiarostami, Reza Alamzadeh and Sohrab
Shahid-Sale. In fact only three women had been able to made a feature film before
1979: Shahla Riahi (Marjan, 1956), Marva Nabili (The Sealed Soil, 1976–8), and
Kobra Sadi (aka Shahrzad, a cabaret singer and dancer, Maryam and Mani, 1979)
(Naficy 2012: 138).

1978 – present: post-revolutionary cinema

August 19, 1978 marks the burning of the Rex Cinema in the southern city of
Abadan, where 300 people perished. This was the trigger that set the 1979 Iranian
revolution in motion. Between 1979 and 1981, 125 movie theatres were burned.
Cinema before the revolution had been deemed a source of corruption and seen
as a symbol of colonization and westernization. Ayatollah Khomeini, who led the
revolution, later stated ‘we don’t disagree with cinema, we are against prostitu-
tion’. Interestingly, he cited The Cow, a film that is said to have germinated Iran’s
native cinematic voice, as a good, Iranian film (Sadr 2002: 241).
Once in power, Khomeini declared the role of cinema to be a tool for ‘educating
the people’, which, like all art, should be ‘put in service of Islam’. Cinema that
seemed to follow the clergy’s guidelines was officially legitimized (Zeydabadi-
Nejad 2007: 379). As long as women filmmakers followed the new Islamic guide-
lines, which fluctuated from one administration to another, they were able to
gain education and employment and therefore become publicly visible and vocal
(Naficy 2012: 116).
In 1983 film producers bifurcated into two groups: those well-educated, expe-
rienced professionals familiar with Western culture, and the more traditional,
conservative and less educated individuals who supported the Islamic Propaganda
Organization. The latter group’s films often focused on ‘proper’ gender relations.
The first group established a filmmaking institute, restricted the importation of
foreign films, financially supported indigenous filmmakers and entered Iranian
films in prestigious international film festivals. In order to receive production
permits, however, all films were expected to be ‘Islamic’, that is, to follow codes
reinforced by the conservatives (Rezai-Rashti 2007: 198).
The portrayal of women in Islamic films shifted dramatically as these codes
forced screenwriters to reroute many of the conventions used in previous narra-
tives. The guidelines dictated that men and women could not gaze at one another
unless they were family members or married; unrelated men and women could
not touch one another; the hejab or chador must be worn in all public places, and
women must behave chastely. The film heroine was now pictured as pure, usually
in the kitchen or at home, dedicated to God and family, and platonic in all expres-
sions of love. The seductive, Western ‘star’ was replaced by the lower-class worker
or peasant. Sensual women were conveyed as ‘bad’ characters who were entirely
lacking in honour. Dramatically this was extremely limiting; a scene where a
wife covers her face in the privacy of her home and in front of her husband, for
Iran 91

example, would not seem credible, but, because of the presence of a film crew,
actresses were obliged to veil themselves. To counter this ‘unrealism’, many film-
makers sought ‘workarounds’, such as shooting the same scene outside, where
women’s veiling would seem credible. Another workaround is the ‘fragmented
presence’ of women, meaning that in a given shot the whole woman is not seen
on screen.
Contrary to what would be expected, given these restrictions, women became
active in the Iranian film industry after the Islamic Revolution. The Islamic
Republic News Agency reported that women constituted 10 per cent of screenwrit-
ers and six per cent of film directors (Naficy 2012: 139). By 1998, Iranian cinema
ranked tenth in the world in terms of output (Mottahadeh 2004). In the effort
to purify the public space, regulations restricting foreign films had inadvertently
encouraged indigenous filmmaking and opened up possibilities for women to
work in a variety of roles. Yet other changes seemed to restrict women’s par-
ticipation: compulsory veiling in public spaces and the abrogation of the Family
Protection Law (Rezai-Rashti 2007: 193). However, in the two decades after 1979
more women were active in every field of cinema and other artistic activities. This
is possibly because the Islamic Revolution brought the women’s question to the
forefront of discourse (Najambadi 1998: 59). Furthermore, the enforcement of the
hejab allowed women to participate more publicly because public spaces in which
citizens dress and behave properly were seen as morally correct (Mir-Hosseini
2000: 7).
With each change in administration since the Islamic Revolution, artistic free-
dom in Iran has vacillated significantly. During the time of the reformist, post-
revolutionary government, women were encouraged to enter Iranian universities
(Ramazani 1993: 413). By 2006, the proportion of women accepted by Iranian uni-
versities was over 60 per cent. But the second term of Khatami’s presidency, 2001–5,
became more turbulent as the power struggle between conservatives and reformists
intensified. In this period, some professors, intellectuals and editors of newspapers
and cinema magazines were arrested and imprisoned (Rezai-Rashti 2007: 200).

Women in contemporary Iranian cinema

Despite the fact that, post-revolution, women as screenwriters and filmmakers
represented a significant force in Iranian cinema, Iran’s culture of cinema under
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad experienced significant setbacks. The limitation on
screening art films, for example, amounted to a new type of censorship in Iran
(Zeydabadi-Nejad 2010: 385). In 2012, the Iranian government implemented
wide-ranging restrictions on courses women were permitted to take, forbidding
women from majoring in 77 of the fields in which they had previously flourished
(Tait 2012). Restrictions on filmmakers continue in many phases, either in obtain-
ing funding, production permits, distribution or screening permits. Censorship
regulations prohibit the distribution of many of Iran’s internationally acclaimed
films within the country itself (Shakil 2011). For instance, Manijeh Hekmat’s
film Women’s Prison was banned for domestic screenings, so Hekmat distributed a
censored version in Iran while the complete cut was screened at festivals overseas.
92 Women Screenwriters

The dynamic of making films for an international audience versus films for
a domestic audience renders it difficult to pinpoint precisely what is common
to Iranian films written and directed by women. Western critics are often cited
as claiming that films exclusively distributed in Iran are pedestrian comedies or
melodramas not intended to challenge viewers. However, these popular Iranian
films, such as Ceasefire, written and directed by Tahmineh Milani, should be seen
as ‘legitimate’ objects for study as they yield insights into an Iranian woman’s
perspective on the contemporary culture in which they are created (Brown 2011:
336). As will become evident in the discussion of Iranian women’s screenplays,
they reveal the country’s culture as influenced by modernity while trying to recap-
ture its native traditions, values and concerns.
Women screenwriters and directors in Iran are in a constant state of negotia-
tion between government regulations, spectators and their own artistic visions.
The presence of women as filmmakers stands as evidence that women have not
been passive in responding to restrictions or cultural expectations, but rather have
participated actively, particularly with films that provide a lens on social issues.
Many film theorists suggest that cinema provides a metaphor for the construction
of identity. If this is true, then Iranian women working as screenwriters and direc-
tors are shifting their nation’s gaze to a different type of Persian woman: complex,
active, intelligent, outraged against injustice and often surprisingly powerful.


The following women represent a sample from the socio/political/artistic spec-

trum of women screenwriters working in Iran, some of whom worked prior to
the revolution. Because filmmaking was dominated by men, by the time women
entered the industry in greater numbers it was difficult for a woman screenwriter
to gain recognition or have her work considered for production; therefore many
women directed their own films or wrote for women directors.
While my research uncovered a dozen other Iranian women screenwriters who
have worked in Iran and in other countries, the following four are particularly sig-
nificant for several reasons: they span the length of time that women have been
working in the field; they have pursued their work while living in Iran; they have
created the largest body of work of any Iranian women filmmakers; and their films
have demonstrated the greatest impact both inside and outside Iran.

Rakshan Bani-Etemad (b. 1954)

One of Iran’s most celebrated writer-directors, Rakhshan Bani-Etemad began her
career before the 1979 revolution as a documentary filmmaker for television and
cinema and is Iran’s earliest well-known woman filmmaker. Her awards include
the Best Directing (2004) award at the Fajr Film Festival (Iran’s largest and longest-
running festival) for Gilaneh (2001), and many others from festivals in Locarno,
Montreal, Moscow, Thessaloniki, Torino, and more.
Bani-Etemad received her Bachelor of Arts degree in film directing from Iran’s
University of Dramatic Arts. She worked as a television reporter, then began her
Iran 93

independent career behind the camera in 1984, researching and documenting the
issues that were defining the lives of the underprivileged. This area of concern, as
well as challenging Iran’s deeply entrenched patriarchy, continues to inform all
Bani-Etemad’s fiction films.
Bani-Etemad’s early screenplays were not granted production permits by the
Council of Screenplay Inspection either because of their story content, ideological
implications or the Council’s disapproval of the project’s cast and crew. Therefore,
her first three features were not based on her screenplays, even though she sub-
stantially rewrote them before production (Iran Heritage Foundation 2008).
One of the few documentary filmmakers to move into feature filmmaking,
Bani-Etemad infuses her films with a documentary sensibility. Her scripts craft
sympathetic portrayals of realistic and believable characters and shed light on
Iran’s most significant contemporary problems – poverty, and questions of cul-
tural and religious morality. Hamid Dabashi explains:

Bani-Etemad’s cinema is the return of the Iranian repressed … she exposes the
material misery of the dominated, a misery that has to be collectively denied
in order for that collective amnesia to begin to authorize itself. (Dabashi
2001: 227)

Bani-Etemad’s fiction screenplays typically feature female protagonists who strug-

gle to balance love, family and material survival. Her films are often set in deso-
late or war-torn regions and are populated by poor families, drug addicts, petty
criminals or loners. Some convey the concerns of an extremely young population
confronting the discontents of the Islamic Revolution, or of women discovering
newfound freedoms and chafing at the obstacles of the new Islamic state’s reli-
gious traditions.
This entry will focus on the following films: Nargess (1991), Under the Skin of the
City (1995), and Gilaneh (2001), which demonstrate the breadth of Bani-Etemad’s
narratives and the consistency of her screenplay and filmic voice.
The first film for which Bani-Etemad wrote the screenplay, Nargess, was awarded
Best Film of the Year by the Iranian film critics. The screenplay focuses on a
relationship between a divorcee, her petty-thief lover and a young, innocent
woman, Nargess. One of the first post-revolutionary films to focus on sexuality,
Bani-Etemad pushes the boundaries even further – sex between an older woman
and younger lover is central to the story (though never shown). Regulators forced
Bani-Etemad to rewrite the story to show that the couple were originally married
and resumed their relationship after divorcing (Sadr 2006: 259).
In the screenplay, Adel, the young lover, is determined to marry Nargess despite
his unemployment and disreputable lifestyle. Desperate to lead a respectable
married life, Adel visits his estranged mother in the hope that she will arrange
a proper family introduction, but she rejects him. With Adel unable to find a
family advocate, Afagh, his accomplice and former lover, proposes a treacherous
scheme – she will pose as Adel’s mother and validate his eligibility in exchange
for the continuation of their affair and criminal partnership after the marriage – a
94 Women Screenwriters

proposal that Adel tragically accepts. Despite the fact that Afagh is a social outcast,
the narrative renders her fully self-aware and confident in her sexuality without
presenting her as the stereotypical ‘bad’ woman – the likely portrayal in a less
culturally tolerant and sophisticated Iranian screenplay, as Dabashi points out:

What is successfully shattered and dissolved by Bani-Etemad’s confident cam-

era is the presumption of the primacy of masculine sexuality. Afagh is in fact at
the center of both the sexual and the textual tension of Nargess. Bani-Etemad
achieves this reversal of the primacy of masculine sexuality despite the fact that
it is Afagh who is being abandoned by Adel for a younger and more ‘respect-
able’ woman (Dabashi 2001: 228)

While the young thief, Adel, appears to hold the greatest agency, in that he makes
the choices and takes actions that shape the story and thus would be considered
the protagonist of this noir-ish screenplay, it is actually the ageing Afagh who
pulls the most powerful strings, a statement on the workings of Iran’s sexual poli-
tics as seen by a female film director.
One of the more fascinating and powerful aspects of Bani-Etemad’s screenplays
are their intertextuality. In her subsequent film, The May Lady (1995), Nargess,
played by the same actor, is now a woman in the documentary-within-the-
narrative. She holds a child in her arms, not only suggesting that she and Adel
stayed together and produced a child but also that the lives of these characters are
somehow closer to reality than that of most fictional characters.
In Bani-Etemad’s later film Under the Skin of the City (1999), the main character,
Tuba from The May Lady (1995), reappears as a blue-collar worker whose house is
the anchor for her family – herself, her disabled husband and three children. The
story’s primary tension revolves around Tuba’s husband and son scheming to sell
the deed of her house. Her oldest daughter is beaten by a husband burdened by
economic hardship, and the teenagers are active in the reform movement. It is in
this story that we see an example of a female character disembodied: a close-up
of Tuba’s long, wet hair drying over the heater while her body remains offscreen.
The conflict in the script highlights recurring themes in Bani-Etemad’s films:
how families endure economic hardship and the social tensions that ensue. Laura
Mulvey analyses the unique complexity of this film, noting how:

In Under the Skin of the City, she [Bani-Etemad] refuses to idealize her main pro-
tagonist or extract her from the everyday into the heroic … At the very end, the
film suddenly mutates, something beyond either melodrama or social realism
overtakes the screen. (Mulvey 2010: 10)

In Gilaneh (2001), co-written with Mohsen Abdolvahhab, Bani-Etemad explores

a mother’s courage, hardship, and dedication during the 1988 Iran-Iraq war.
Gilaneh escorts her pregnant daughter, Maygol, from the calm of their village into
war-torn Tehran to search for Maygol’s husband, Rahman. On their journey they
encounter wounded and desperate soldiers who have descended into madness.
Iran 95

They reach Tehran to learn that Rahman has been conscripted and will likely not
return from battle. The story jumps to 2003, when the American invasion of Iraq
has begun. Gilaneh is home caring for her son, Ismaeel, who is now an invalid,
haunted physically and psychologically by the trauma of war. Bani-Etemad points
out, ‘My intention in the second part of the film was to show, above all, the amne-
sia that has been prevalent in the entire society, and the loneliness of people like
Ismaeel.’ She continues:

When I set him [Ismaeel] in that beautiful scenery, that village, in nature,
I thought he could be more of a universal figure. He could be a young American
who goes to war and is a victim, he could be an Iraqi soldier, a Palestinian,
an Israeli soldier, for that matter … This is how I wanted to show my hatred
for war, and my sorrow that we, in the twenty-first century, should be going
through such horrific experiences. (Laurier and Walsh 2005)

While the screenplay’s events are well designed to make a political statement
about Iran’s participation in the Iran-Iraq war or America’s hand in their war
with Iraq, its focus remains on the people at the margins whose lives are shat-
tered and haunted by the ravages of war. Bani-Etemad elaborates, ‘Usually what
I do is that I grasp the realities of the society – of course I dramatize it, but in the
process of dramatization I will try to make it as close to the documentary style as
possible, so that it will reflect the reality intimately.’ She points out that she has
not been inspired by particular filmmakers, but rather by society itself (Laurier
and Walsh 2005).
Bani-Etemad’s later films demonstrate a growing radicalization of the writer-
director’s work, most evident in her films’ female subjectivity, female autobiogra-
phy, and female modernity. At the same time, her stories reveal an anxiety about
the social position of women in Iran and therefore resolve many stories with
‘reactionary appeasement’. As Naficy notes, ‘Bani-Etemad’s attempt to reconcile …
rebellion and resignation, progressivism and conservatism’ is a recurring compo-
nent of her cinematic style and voice (Naficy 2012: 162).
Bani-Etemad is the wife of Iranian film producer Jahangir Kosari. Her daughter
is Iranian actress Baran Kosari, who has worked with her mother on some of her
films. Bani-Etemad continues to be an active filmmaker and mentor in the culture
of Iranian cinema.

Pourān Derakh’shandeh (b. 1951)

A film director, screenwriter and producer, Pourān Derakh’shandeh graduated
in film directing from the Advanced School of Television and Cinema in 1975,
though she has directed six of her own screenplays and written four screenplays
directed by others. She launched her professional career working in television in
Kermanshah and later in Tehran.
Where Bani-Etemad’s screenplay stories could be categorized as social realism,
Derakh’shandeh’s approach is more akin to psychological realism. Bani-Etemad’s
tone is sometimes satirical, whereas Derakh’shandeh’s is primarily sombre, often
96 Women Screenwriters

examining problems in communication, focusing on disabled characters whom

she sees as symbols for ‘all those who are internally handicapped in our society’
(Naficy 1994: 135).
Regarding the themes of her films, Derakh’shandeh explains, ‘My films are
about those who have been forgotten. Family and children have always been the
central themes of my films’ (PressTV, 2009).
Derakh’shandeh’s latest screenplay, Hush! Girls Don’t Scream (2012), co-written
with Mitra Bahrami, won Best Film at the 2012 Fajr International Film Festival
and has received international distribution, starting its US tour at Los Angeles’
Laemmle Movie Theater in November 2013. The screenplay opens with a descrip-
tion of a bride with blood splattered across her white dress. The central character,
Shirin, confesses to killing a man who abused her repeatedly as a child and had
been lurking around the fringes of her life ever since. The script builds a case
against Iran’s legal system and the social constraints that make justice, especially
for women and children, almost impossible to attain. There are scenes of Shirin’s
childhood where parents and school officials ignored what the distraught little
girl was trying to say. The girl is given medication rather than proper attention or
protection. Shirin insists that she committed this crime to protect another little
girl. However, because the second victim’s father refuses to file a complaint (citing
the family’s ‘honour’), Shirin’s defence fails (Chute 2013).
By focusing on story tensions that are not necessarily particular to Iranian girls
or women, Derakh’shandeh hopes to explore the conflicts facing these characters,
not because of their gender or social position, but because they are human beings
in a struggle for understanding and love.
Other screenplays written by Derakh’shandeh include Masoume, 2005; Farangis,
2004; Wet Dream, 2004; Candle in the Wind, 2003; Love without Frontiers, 1998;
Parvin Etesami, 1993–5; That Night in the Train, 1989; Lost Time, 1988; Passing
through the Dust, 1988; Mute Contact, 1985.

Samira Makhmalbaf (b. 1980)

An internationally acclaimed filmmaker and screenwriter, Samira Makhmalbaf is
the daughter of director Mohshen Makhmalbaf who is considered to be among
the most influential directors of the Iranian New Wave (Egan 2005: 174).
Makhmalbaf left high school at the age of 14 to study cinema with her father,
at what became the Makhmalbaf Film House. At 17, she directed The Apple, her
breakthrough work for which she has been the recipient or nominee of numerous
awards. She won the London Film Festival’s Sutherland Trophy for The Apple in
1998, Prix du Jury at the Cannes Film Festival for Blackboards (2001) and Five in
the Afternoon (2003), and the Venice Film Festival’s UNESCO Award in 2002 for
11.09.01 – September 11. In 2003, a panel of critics at the British newspaper the
Guardian named Samira Makhmalbaf as one of the 40 best contemporary directors
(Bradshaw et al. 2003).
Samira has been strongly influenced by the work and tutelage of her father, as
well as by events in her life. Her father was imprisoned for five years during the
Pahlavi regime and released just a year before Samira was born. Her mother died
Iran 97

in 1992, when Samira was 13. Her father later married his sister-in-law, Marziyeh
Meshkini, a women’s rights activist and documentary filmmaker. Family pro-
vided much of Samira’s later education and cinematic opportunities; however, her
cinematic voice is entirely her own.
Released just after the election that ushered in the reformist president Khatami,
Samira’s film The Apple (1998) won seven international awards. Samira was the
youngest director at the Cannes Film Festival. Co-written with her father, the
screenplay is based on a true story about an old man and his blind wife who keep
their 12-year-old daughters locked up from birth. The family portrayed in the film
are not actors, but the people who lived the experience.
In Samira’s film, as with the actual events, concerned neighbours report the
case, a social worker discovers the girls, and they are released. The father justi-
fies the entrapment by saying he fears his daughters will mix with boys. It is
also shown that he cannot afford to provide his children with the things other
modern children expect (Sprio 2009: 4). The film focuses on the girls’ first expe-
riences with the outside world, thus acting as a metaphor for the clash between
the past and modernity. Throughout the film many symbols convey this theme:
the mother’s blindness and veiling, the metal-barred door behind which the girls
are kept, the girls seeing their reflections in the mirror for the first time, one girl’s
hand trying to water a dying plant through the bars of her cage, and the central
symbol of the apple, which signifies freedom rather than the traditional fall from
grace in the Adam and Eve myth.
By underscoring the father’s draconian restrictions, Samira turned modesty into
oppression: the girls are imprisoned in darkness and the mother is similarly incar-
cerated by a head-to-toe chador. Margherita Sprio’s analysis of The Apple suggests
the film’s ‘performative endeavour is both within its narrative and outside of it.
The work of art here performs the very act of modernity that the parents seem so
against and Samira Makhmalbaf enables a national news story to become global’
(Sprio 2009: 5).
In an interview, Samira explains the contradictions that women living in Iran
experience, but also hope for the future:

After my film The Apple, many people questioned me about Iran. They won-
dered if Iran was really a country where thirteen-year-old girls could be locked
up for eleven years and where an eighteen-year-old girl could have her first film
at Cannes. I think Iranian women are like freshwater springs: the more pressure
applied, the more force they show once they are freed. (IMDB)

Samira’s second feature film, Blackboards (1999), was released to a large inter-
national audience and won several prestigious awards. The film was shot in a
remote region of the country without a production permit and was smuggled
out of Iran for submission to the Cannes Film Festival. The screenplay follows a
group of itinerant teachers who carry blackboards on their backs, wandering the
desolate mountains of Kurdish Iran, looking for children to teach. Two teachers
separate from the group. One finds a group of teenage boys carrying illegal and
98 Women Screenwriters

unspecified contraband. In exchange for bread the teacher proposes to teach them
to read and write. The second teacher offers to guide a group of people trying to
reach their homeland in return for a bag of walnuts. In an impromptu ceremony,
he marries one of the women in the group after she learns to read ‘I love you’.
Throughout the film, Samira negotiates the government’s restrictions by using
fables and symbols to convey potentially incendiary ideas about the plight of a
nearly stateless people.
Soon after September 11, 2001, French film producer Alain Brigand invited 11 film-
makers from 11 countries to create a short film lasting 11 minutes 9 seconds, and one
frame. Each director made a film on the consequences of the attack through the lens
of their native country. Samira was among the chosen directors. Critics have lauded
her segment, ‘Iran’, as one of the most outstanding. The short film shows a teacher
in an Afghan refugee camp who tries to explain the events that have occurred in
New York City to a group of children who have no knowledge of the world out-
side their village, no access to television or other educational resources. Her episode
reminds the viewer there is an entire population who struggle to makes sense of his-
tory’s tragedies without the lens of modern media or the understanding bestowed by
education and broader knowledge. Implied within the narrative is the question: can
all people develop empathy despite their lack of privilege or basic comforts?
At Five in the Afternoon (2003) was inspired by Samira’s travels in Afghanistan
during the months when a million refugees poured back into Kabul and the sur-
rounding areas. She was struck by the desperation of families who returned to vil-
lages where their homes were gone and jobs were scarce. The documentary-style
film, Jahad argues, makes an ‘audacious statement against antiquated religious
thinking and the fundamentalist and pro-violence interpretation of Islam’ ( Jahed
2012: 198). As with all her screenplays, this film is concerned with the changing
status of women.
The film’s protagonist, 23-year-old Noghreh, dreams of becoming president.
She wears Western-style shoes as a symbol of this wish for liberty. Her funda-
mentalist father believes that women who wear inappropriate shoes or do not
veil themselves ‘have abandoned the path to heaven’. Samira’s film exposes how
the change in a regime does not necessarily reform a larger culture as she notes,
‘I wanted to show reality, not the clichés on television saying that the US went to
Afghanistan and rescued the people from the Taliban’ (Sadr 2006: 277).

Tahmineh Milani (b. 1960)

One of the few women filmmakers to have produced popular and ‘art house’
films, Tahmineh Milani’s work is mostly about ‘the economic, social and psy-
chological problems facing Iranian women, in particular middle-class women’
(Philips 2006). Milani’s Ceasefire, about relationships in a middle-class Iranian
family, was the highest-grossing film in Iranian history at the time of its release
(Brown 2011: 336).
Milani studied architecture at the University of Science and Technology in Iran
in 1986, but when the universities closed in 1979 she began to write screenplays,
was apprenticed as a ‘script girl’, and then worked as an assistant director on sev-
eral films, soon authoring her first screenplay for Mohammad Reza Alami, Love
Iran 99

and Death (n.d). Her debut work as a screenwriter-director, Children of Divorce, was
co-winner of the Best First Film Prize at the 8th Fajr Film Festival in 1989.
In her second film, The Legend of a Sigh, Milani explores a subject rarely dis-
cussed in post-revolutionary Iranian cinema; the travails of women intellectuals.
A frustrated female writer in a creative crisis sighs deeply only to have her sigh
become a character who enables the writer to turn into five different people. The
idea of choice with regard to one’s identity, which suffuses the film, raises themes
critical to gender politics in Iran. The film has been interpreted as demonstrat-
ing that the writer-character is ultimately a helpless, humiliated and dependent
person and a captive of ruthless and selfish men. On the contrary, the script can
more easily be interpreted as the demonstration of a woman’s unyielding imagi-
nation, a spirit that cannot be confined by men or social mores. The Council of
the Ministry of Islamic Guidance claimed that ‘the characters of this film do
not provide appropriate role models for our youth’. This verdict resulted in the
Council refusing to grant Milani an exhibition permit for the film for more than
six months (Naficy 1994: 135).
Just after the release of The Hidden Half in 2001, Milani was arrested and jailed
by Iran’s Islamic judiciary for ‘abusing arts as a tool for actions which will suit
the taste of the counter-revolutionary and mohared [those who fight God] grou-
plets’ (Scott 2001). It was the first time an Iranian director had been jailed in
Iran. Milani was held for one week and threatened with the death penalty, but
eventually released following mass protests and a petition signed by1,500 Western
filmmakers including Francis Ford Coppola, Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, Martin
Scorsese, Ang Lee and Mike Leigh.
Set in the 1990s, The Hidden Half tells the story of Fereshteh, a former left-wing
radical married to a judge, whom she tells about her love affair with an older man
during her university days. The story is told in a series of flashbacks that show
the repression unleashed by the fundamentalist Islamic regime against university
students. It underscores the fact that the government shut down the universities
for four years, redirecting the futures of young people, particularly women. This
was the first film to vividly illustrate the events around the closing of Iranian
universities. Milani says of the film:

Political movies about my country are dangerous because you never know what’s
going to happen. Firstly, you don’t know whether the government will give you
permission to go ahead and then if they do whether it will be released or not. …
With The Hidden Half, I understood that it could lead to my arrest and imprison-
ment but I was an established director and felt it was my duty to make this film.
I had to do it for all those who had been exiled or killed. (Sadr 2006: 263)

When first shown in Tehran, Milani’s next film, The Fifth Reaction (2003), was met
with strong adverse reactions from both reformist and conservative critics: secular
critics noted the one-sided view of gender issues, claiming that the film placed
all the blame for women’s misfortunes onto men. When the film was released
throughout Iran, one cinema in which it was screened came under an arson attack
(Zeydabadi-Nejad 2010: 110).
100 Women Screenwriters

In the film, women are shown as being at the mercy of their husbands, both
in terms of material and emotional power. The protagonist, Fereshteh, played by
Niki Karimi, a perennial presence in Milani’s films, has recently lost her husband
in a car accident. Much against the values of Hadj Agha, her wealthy father-in-law,
his son had married for love, and now the older man plans to remove Fereshteh’s
two sons from her custody. She will be permitted to live with her father-in-law
and children only if she agrees to marry one of her brothers-in-law, for the sake
of propriety and honour. Fereshteh plots to escape the country with her children.
At this point, the film becomes a fast-paced, suspense-filled pursuit film that illus-
trates our protagonist’s powerlessness and ingenuity at the same time. Hadj Agha
traces his daughter-in-law’s movements, declaring ‘I am the law’, positioning this
film as one of Milani’s strongest indictments against a culture that aims to silence
and disempower its women.
Milani’s successful 2006 romantic comedy, Ceasefire, while vastly different in
tone from her other films, is still fuelled by the theme of the strength of women’s
voices that lie beneath Iranian society’s attempts to silence them. The film depicts
a newlywed’s rocky marriage: Sayeh is a strong-willed, educated female architect
and Yousef is her confident, handsome engineer husband. At the film’s opening,
Sayeh accidentally walks into a therapist’s rooms, rather than a divorce lawyer’s
office. The therapist listens to her story, shown in flashback, and later hears
Yousef’s story, ultimately teaching them to ‘love their inner child’ – a satirical
swipe at this therapeutic undertaking. The antics between the couple are reminis-
cent of American screwball comedy. It has been suggested that the cat-and-mouse
dynamic between the couple has similarities to Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot
(1959) and takes on added, ‘hidden’ layers because of its intertextual references to
Wilder’s film (Brown 2011: 336).
Ceasefire laid the groundwork for the production of films portraying Iran’s
contemporary middle class, a focus that had previously been absent from Iran’s
art-house cinema. ‘Mobile phones are ubiquitous, Sayeh is seen checking her
emails in a home defined as much by its mod cons as by its white-walled interi-
ors’ (Brown 2011: 337). Other films depicting Iran’s middle classes followed the
release of Milani’s film, such as About Elly (Ashghar Farhadi, 2009), Orion (Zamani
Esmati, 2010), and A Separation (Ashghar Faradi, 2011). The film is not, however,
a wholesale appropriation of Hollywood tropes: Yousef plays Iranian music, Sayeh
cooks traditional Iranian dishes, and their home, with Frida Kahlo reproductions
on the walls, reflects a diverse cosmopolitanism.
Most recently Milani has written and directed Yeki az ma do nafar, 2011;
Superstar, 2009; and Tasvie hesab, 2007.
Tahmineh Milani’s screenplays and films reveal a potent juncture in the evolu-
tion of Iran’s national cinema and the role of Iranian women in it. When asked
if being a woman and a critical director is a dangerous combination, Milani

No, it isn’t. Let me tell you a little story. Upon finishing my studies, I became
an architect. I went to my building sites and had problems with the workers.
Iran 101

This was perhaps 20 years ago and they didn’t accept me as an architect. The
same thing happened when I began to shoot my first film, Children of Divorce.
I was 26 or 27 years old and the team with which I worked ridiculed me the
whole time. They made jokes and laughed. But by the time I made my second
film, everything was fine. This was probably because other women filmmak-
ers had since appeared. Things went better for me than for those first women
filmmakers, and it will be even easier for those who come after me. We want
to show our films and we find a way. At present, I do not have any more prob-
lems, as people now accept me in my profession. (Auer 2006)

Most of Milani’s screenplays, as well as the majority of those written by Iranian

women, concern the material and psychological struggles of Iran’s modern
women, and yet, as seen in Ceasefire, they extol the possibility of a middle-class,
nuclear-family-based, heteronormative lifestyle, one which is a product of a com-
bination of Western modernity and Iranian tradition, a dynamic that has charac-
terized the development of Iranian cinema since its inception.
Despite the obstacles Iranian women face in creating, producing and distrib-
uting their work, many women screenwriters have been able to professionally
thrive in Iran’s Islamic society. About the filmmaking climate in Iran, Samira
Makhmalbaf has stated:

One of the benefits of censorship is that we have been allowed to develop

our own cinematic language in Iran. Don’t forget that Iran is one of the few
countries because of legislation where Hollywood cannot export, so we have
in many ways avoided some cinematic clichés and found more personal ways
of expressing the ideas which we have. (Wood 2003)

Indeed, women screenwriters in Iran have developed an imagistic and verbal lan-
guage that works within the imposed artistic restrictions, yet nonetheless results
in films that are seen as entertaining, powerful and influential, both within Iran
and around the world.

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Tahmineh Milani, Between Censorship and a Smash Hit’, Qantara.de. Available at:
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and Steve Rose. 2003. ‘The World’s 40 Best Directors’, Guardian, 13 November. Available
at: http://film.theguardian.com/features/page/0,11456,1082823,00.html (accessed 30
April 2012).
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Third Text, 25 (3): 335–41.
102 Women Screenwriters

Chute, David. 2013. ‘Film Review: Hush, Girls Don’t Scream’, Variety, 26 November. Available at:
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New York: Verso.
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DC: Mage Publishers.
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(accessed 6 January 2014).
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by Rakshan Bani-Etemad’. BFI Southbank, London. Available at: http://iranheritage.org/
rakhshanbanietemad/default.htm (accessed 5 January 2014).
Jahed, Parviz. 2012. Directory of World Cinema: Iran. Bristol: Intellect.
Lahiji, Shalala. 2002. ‘Chaste Dolls and Unchaste Dolls: Women in Iranian Cinema Since
1979’, in Richard Tapper (ed.) New Iranian Cinema: Politics, Representation and Identity.
London: I. B. Tauris.
Laurier, Joanne, and David Walsh. 2005. ‘An Interview with Rakhshan Bani-Etemad,
Co-director of Gilaneh’, World Socialist Website, published by the International Committee
of the Fourth International (ICFI). Available at: http://www.wsws.org/ (accessed 9 January
Mottahadeh, N. 2004. ‘Life is Color!: Toward a Transnational Feminist Analysis of Mohsen
Makmalbaf’s Gabbeh’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 30 (1).
Mulvey, Laura. 2010. ‘Between Melodrama and Realism: Under the Skin of the City (2001)’,
in James Walters and Tom Brown (eds) Film Moments. London: BFI/Palgrave Macmillan,
pp. 8–11.
Naficy, Hamid. 1994. ‘Veiled Vision/Powerful Presences: Women in Post-Revolutionary
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1984–2010. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Philips, Richard. 2006. ‘Iranian Director Tahmineh Milani Speaks with WSWS’, World
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Sadr, Hamid Rez. 2006. Iranian Cinema: A Political History. London: I. B. Tauris.
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8 January 2014).
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Iran 103

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Republic. London and New York: Routledge.
Jule Selbo

Train Station in Jerusalem (1896) was one of the earliest films ever made, shot in
Ottoman Palestine by the French Lumière brothers, long before the advent of
Israeli statehood. The first full-length feature film in Hebrew was Oded the Wanderer
(1933); the film focuses on a young student who gets separated from his class on
a field trip and teaches the lesson of respect for the land and advocates a Jewish
connection to it. After the dawn of Israeli independence in 1948, there was a large
migration of people from Europe and Muslim countries, and thus the creative base
in Israel stems from many sources.
Israeli cinema, according to Amy Kronish, curator of Jewish and Israeli film at
the Jerusalem Cinemathèque and contributor to the Jewish Women’s Archives, has
developed ‘along unique thematic and stylistic lines …’ and women filmmakers
are heavily present in both the narrative and documentary modes (Kronish n.d.).
Within the Israeli cinema, there are distinct groups of filmmakers, mostly divided
between the Orthodox communities (films typically made for women by women
and not shown outside of the community) and the commercial film industry. The
Orthodox films are shown in their own festivals; ‘it’s a shadow industry in which
directors make films for women only, without subsidies and without establish-
ment recognition’ (Glinter 2013). One of the prominent female filmmakers in
the Orthodox filmmaking sector who has now enjoyed more commercial suc-
cess is Rama Burshtein (1967–). She was born in New York City and moved to
Tel Aviv with her family at the age of one. Having attended the Sam Spiegel Film
and Television School in Jerusalem, she joined Orthodox Hasidic Judaism at age
twenty-five; this commitment is one that usually comes with accepting member-
ship in a community that forbids secular films and television. Burshtein began her
filmmaking in the typical and accepted way of her community. ‘In the (Orthodox
Hasidic) community, we have an industry – only women making (the films), only
women watching them. We fund ourselves and we have to make sure the women
buy the ticket’ (Dawson 2013). Burshtein, however, expanded the accepted
parameters; she is known as the first ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman to write and
direct a feature film for a general audience (Wax 2013).
Burshtein’s Fill the Void was released in 2012. She noted that it took her fifteen
years to move from conception to finished film; this included a stint with the

Israel 105

work at the Sundance Screenwriting Lab. The tale takes place in a circumscribed
world where gender roles are strict and ‘every aspect of life, from the spiritual to
the mundane, is governed by a complex array of laws and customs designed to
emphasize the perceived needs of the community over individual desires’ (Eisner
2013). The tale focuses on the questions of honour and duty that face a family
after a tragedy. A religious Jewish woman, Shira, lives in a cloistered Israeli Hasidic
home. Her sister has just died in childbirth; the husband is bereaved. Shira’s mother
wastes no time in pushing for a quick marriage between Shira and the grieving
widower so that the child will not be taken from the familial unit, and Shira has to
decide whether or not to marry her dead sister’s husband. The film was entered in
the Venice Film Festival; at the conclusion of the screening the film received a ten-
minute standing ovation (Dawson 2013). The film also garnered Burshstein three
Ophir Awards (Israeli Oscars) and it was chosen for North American distribution
by Sony Pictures. She says: ‘I’m a storyteller more than anything, and I realized
that we had no cultural voice. Most of the films about the community are done by
outsiders and are rooted in conflicts between religious and the secular … I wanted
to tell a deeply human story’ (Wax 2013).
Burshstein has a strong point of view on the woman’s role in her community.
‘I don’t have to be a king. For me, it’s very good that my husband is a king. It
doesn’t mean I don’t exist. We do it quietly. It doesn’t have to be so loud, our exist-
ence as women’ (Eisner 2013). Burshstein also notes, ‘I’m just telling my story,
with more heart and feeling than brains. I believe in the rules, but I will find the
passion within them’ (Eisner 2013).
Director of the Israel Film Center in New York City, Isaac Zablocki, points to
Burshstein as one who is moving the perimeters of Israeli cinema. ‘It’s a sign that
Israeli culture is coming into its own. Filmmakers like Rama Burshtein are confident
enough to tell a story from within and know it will have an audience. For Israelis
to understand their own experiences – this is a revolution in Israeli cinema’
(Eisner 2013).
Most Israeli films are made in Hebrew and many have been nominated as Best
Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, as well as for other awards across
the globe. There are many women who have contributed to Israeli commercial
cinema, including Michal Bat-Adam (1945–). She was born Michal Breslavy in
Afula, Israel to parents who fled Poland in 1939. She studied music at Tel Aviv
University and acting at the Beit Zvi School of Performing Arts in Ramat Gan. She
was cast in the title role of director Moshe Mizrahi’s film I Love You Rosa (1972),
and when the film went on to be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at
the Academy Awards, her professional acting career blossomed. During the 1970s,
Bat-Adam began to write screenplays. She wrote, directed and starred in Moments
de la vie d’une femme (1979); she is often credited as the first Israeli woman to direct
a feature film. Moments explores an intense relationship between two women and
includes a ménage a trois. She wrote and directed The Thin Line (1980); the film
focuses on an eleven-year-old girl who must care for her mentally ill mother
(Bat-Adam’s mother suffered from mental illness – thus her interest in pursuing
this topic). Ben Loke’ah Bat/Boy Takes Girl (1982) focuses on Bat-Adam’s memories
106 Women Screenwriters

of growing up in a kibbutz. Other screenwriting credits include Ha-Me’ahev (1985),

Elef Neshotav Shel Naftali Siman-Tov (1985), Life is Life (2003), and Sof Shavua
be-Galil (2007, co-written with Moshe Mizrahi). Bat-Adam is also a teacher at Tel
Aviv University and Camera Obscura.
Mira Recanati is an artist, screenwriter and director of A Thousand Little Kisses
(1985); the story focuses on a complex relationship between mother and daughter
and is a study in the importance of forgiveness. Recanati notes that ‘everything is
so small and tightly knit in Tel Aviv, families are so dependent upon each other
that there is an emotional blackmail which doesn’t change from generation to
generation’ (Thomas 1985).
Ayelet Menahemi (1963–) is a screenwriter, editor and director; she graduated
from Beit Zvi Academy. Her screenwriting credits include Noodle (2007, co-written
with Shemi Zarhi). Noodle focuses on an airline stewardess, Miri, whose cleaning
lady, surprisingly, leaves her Chinese son in Miri’s care. The two must forge a rela-
tionship as Miri tries to locate the boy’s mother. Menahemi, in an interview at an
Asian film festival, noted that the idea for the film came during a retreat in India.
She used scripting and improvisation in the creative process (Stefan S. 2008).
Menahemi also co-wrote and co-directed Surpurei Tel Aviv/Tel Aviv Stories with Nirit
Yaron. Yaron also graduated from Beit Zvi Academy and started her screenwriting
career on a popular Israeli television series Zeho Ze. She works as a producer,
director, screenwriter, song writer, and also works in advertising.
Gila Almagor’s screenwriting credits include Malkat Hakvish (1971, co-writer),
the adaptation of her autobiographical books about being a Holocaust survivor,
Ha-Kayitz Shel Aviya/The Summer of Aviya (1988, co-adaptor) and Under the Domin
Tree (1994, co-adaptor).
Ronit Elkabetz (1964–) was born in Beersheba, Israel into a strict Moroccan
Jewish family. She is a screenwriter and Ophir award-winning actress and works
in Israel and France. Screenwriting credits include Tzalet (1995, co-written with
director Haim Bouzaglo), and three films she also starred in and co-wrote with her
brother Shlomi Elkabetz: 7 days (2008), To Take a Wife (2004), and Gett: The Trial of
Viviane Amsalem (2014). These films focus on the role of women in strict religious
and male-dominated societies.
Shira Geffen (1971–) is a screenwriter, actress and director. Screenwriting credits
include Meduzot/Jellyfish (2007, winner of the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film
Festival) and Boreg/Self-Made (2014). Geffen wrote and directed Self-Made, the story
of an Israeli woman and a Palestinian woman whose lives get mixed up at the
border crossing. They must learn to live each other’s lives.
Keren Yedaya (1972–) trained at the Camera Obscura School in Tel Aviv. She is a
political activist for women’s rights. Her screenwriting credits include Jaffa (2009,
co-writer), Or/My Treasure (2004, co-writer and winner of the Camera d’Or at the
Cannes Film Festival), and That Lovely Girl (2014).
Talya Lavie (1978–) was born in Petah Tikva, Israel. She is a writer and director
for film and television. Her feature film screenwriting credit is Zero Motivation (2014);
the story focuses on a unit of female Israeli soldiers stationed on a remote desert
base and the events that befall them as they wait to return to civilian life.
Israel 107

Veronica (Ronni) Kedar (1984–) was born in Tel Aviv. She is a writer, producer,
actress and director. She has written and directed multiple short films and her fea-
ture screenwriting credits include Endtime (2014) and Joe + Belle (2011, co-writer).
Joe + Belle premiered at the Outfest Festival in Los Angeles. Her film project Family
(2014) won the top money prize at the Jerusalem International Film Lab. The
award is intended to help finance promising film narratives (Aviv 2013).
Filmmaker Yuta Silverman’s screenwriting credits include Sheffield’s Manor
(2010) and Arranged (2007, story credit).
Other screenwriters with roots in Israel, working in both narrative and documentary
films, include Tzipi Trope, Hanna Azoulay-Hasfari and Anat Zuria.

Aviv, Uri. 2013. ‘Kedar’s Family Wins Top Prize at Jerusalem Lab’, Twitch Film. Available
at: http://twitchfilm.com/2013/07/kedars-family-wins-top-prize-at-jerusalem-lab.html
(accessed 28 April 2015).
Dawson, Nick. 2013. ‘Rama Burshstein on Fill the Void’, Filmmaker Magazine, 23 May. Available
at: http://filmmakermagazine.com/71342-rama-burshtein-on-fill-the-void/#.VIMn92TF_38
(accessed 28 April 2015).
Eisner, Jane. 2013. ‘An Unconventional Look at Orthodoxy,’ New York Times, 3 May.
Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/05/movies/fill-the-void-directed-by-rama-
burshtein.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1& (accessed 28 April 2015).
Glinter, Ezra. 2013. ‘Is There an Orthodox Film Industry?’, The Arty Semite, 22 May. Available
at: http://blogs.forward.com/the-arty-semite/177084/is-there-an-orthodox-film-industry/
(accessed 28 April 2015).
Kronish, Amy W. 1996. World Cinema, Israel. USA: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.
Kronish, Amy W. n.d. ‘Filmmakers, Israeli’, Jewish Women’s Archives, Encyclopedia. Available
at: http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/filmmakers-israeli (accessed 28 April 2015).
Stefan S. 2008. (A Nutshell) Review: Probably Singapore’s #1 Moview Review Blog, 5 September.
Available at: http://anutshellreview.blogspot.com/2008/09/israel-film-festival-noodle.
html (accessed 28 April 2015).
Thomas, Kevin. 1985. ‘Movie Review: ‘Little Kisses’: Plight of a Failure to Forgive’, Los Angeles
Times, 4 December.
Wax, Emily. 2013. ‘Rama Burshstein Is First Ultra-Orthodox Woman to Direct for General Audience’,
Washington Post, 7 June. Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/goingoutguide
2013/06/07/ecc1f9ea-c7a2-11e2-9f1a-1a7cdee20287_story.html (accessed 28 April 2015).
Lauri Kitsnik, Jule Selbo and Michael Smith

The beginnings

Jule Selbo
The Industrial Revolution in the 1800s changed the way people lived their lives in
many nations around the world. Japan entered this era of technology in a resolute
manner after 1854 when – after nearly 200 years of seclusion and refusal to trade
with the Western world – the nation was challenged when American Commodore
Matthew Perry steamed into Nagasaki. (Perry was a futurist who, after the advent
of the steam engine, championed the modernization of the US Navy.) As a result
of fairly strong-armed methods of negotiation, America was awarded a treaty (the
Convention of Kanagawa 1854); this treaty opened Japan to the new skillsets,
machinery, equipment, ideas and products of the United States and other Western
nations. Japan began to see firsthand the early technological wonders and soon
entered the race to compete in the modern world. Early film technology was being
invented by the late 1880s; a fascination with moving pictures was prevalent in
all industrialized countries – and Japan was no exception.
As a result of the Industrial Revolution, rural ways of life shifted as people
moved into urban centres to work in factories and offices. This changed men’s
lives, but perhaps one can argue that the lives of women changed in a more dra-
matic fashion. There were shifts in educational opportunities, in family dynamics,
and ultimately in female independence.
Japan, shortly after entering the industrial age, instituted compulsory education
for both sexes. However, policy makers of that period stated that education for
females was primarily to facilitate women becoming more productive daughters,
wives, mothers and homemakers. (As an interesting historical sidelight, historians
note that in 12th century Japan [700 years earlier in the Heian period] women
could own property, be educated, and were allowed, if discreet, to take lovers.
These freedoms and opportunities were curtailed under the Shogunate feudal gov-
ernments and into the Meiji period and, by 1898, women in Japan were denied
nearly all legal rights and subjugated to the will of male household heads.) The
compulsory education reform did not necessarily bring Japanese women into
the workforce beyond the factory, for the focus was on gender-specific ‘moral

Japan 109

training’ – which included self-control, obedience, patience, and discipline.

Classes in proper tea ceremony and flower arranging were also part of the cur-
riculum for females.

Pre-World War II opportunities for women in Japan’s film industry

Strong censorship in Japan was in place at the beginnings of the national film
industry (the first films being made in the late 1890s). There was also govern-
ment oversight of narrative content. Filmmakers were, in some way, ‘vetted’ to
ensure they were in line with the Japanese government’s policies and purposes.
Propaganda films, usually referred to as ‘culture films’, were favoured and many of
the soon to be major screenwriter-directors such as Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro
Ozu were expected to create these culture films. This they did to stay in favour
with the government. At the same time they lobbied to gain permission to make
their more personal films. Some of these personal films made it through the cen-
sorship oversight board and saw distribution within the country; others did not.
(Interesting note: The more personal films were mostly low budget and shot on
lower-grade film with less expensive cameras.)
Due to the proscribed role of the woman in Japanese society at the time, there
were very few female creatives working as scriptwriters in the Japanese film indus-
try pre-World War II. One of these females, Tazuko Sakane, forged a place for
herself in the nearly all-male industry:

Men I will fight to the bitter end.

I will make my film!
That’s why I have dared
To enter this world of cinema –
To show men, not to work for them! (Onishi 1993: 53, from McDonald 2007)

These are the words written by Tazuko Sakane (Tatsuko Sakane) (1904–75) in 1936
when she was 32 years old. Sakane was one of the first women to rise through
the ranks of the Japanese film industry – from production assistant to script girl
(continuity) to assistant director to screenwriter. Sakane was born into Japan’s
‘privileged’ society; her father was a wealthy inventor and businessman (who
often used early film technology to showcase his inventions – he also wrote and
produced scenarios) (Ikegawa and Ward 2005: 259; McDonald 2007: 129). Sakane
was enamoured with the cinema from a young age; most likely she was watch-
ing benshi-narrated silent films – all directed and written by men – with most of
the acting roles (male and female) performed by men. (In 1911, the first Japanese
actress was allowed to perform in a film; she played a servant while the male
director played the lead female role.It wasn’t until the early 1920s that women
began to take on lead acting roles in films.) It is also very likely that many of the
early films Sakane viewed were very theatrical, using kabuki style or shinpa (overly
melodramatic tales of women suffering because of social prejudice).
Sakane’s father held over 200 patents and his inventive mind also led to him
being open to new ideas – one of them was a Western-style education for his
110 Women Screenwriters

eldest daughter (McDonald 2007: 129). Sakane attended and graduated from the
privileged Kyoto Prefectural First girls’ school. Many Western-style schools were
founded by Christian missionaries; at these schools there were policies stress-
ing freedom and individuality (McVeigh 2003). Sakane went on to attend the
Christian-sponsored Doshisha Women’s College; there she studied English litera-
ture (Ikegawa and Ward 2005: 259). The stated goal of the college was ‘to nurture
independent women who use their knowledge and skills as conscience dictates,
working actively for the good of society’(DWCLA).
Unfortunately, Sakane’s father’s second wife was opposed to female education
and Sakane was forced, in 1924, at age 20, to drop out of school and enter an
arranged marriage with a physician. After four unhappy years, Sakane defied
expected social behaviour and left the marriage. Because it was difficult for a
woman to gain a divorce, her father eventually paid her husband to gain Sakane
her freedom (Ikegawa and Ward 2005: 259; McDonald 2007: 129). Instead of seek-
ing a new husband, Sakane again went against tradition and decided she wanted
to get a job – specifically in the film industry. Her father arranged a job for her
at the Nikkatsu Studio in Kyoto. The film business in Japan in the 1920s was not
considered respectable; actors and actresses were referred to as kawara kojiki (beg-
gars of the riverbank) and film studio employees were also ill-considered, often
disowned by their families and even denied proper burial in family cemetery plots
(McDonald 2007: 130).
A few females were making headway in screenwriting at this time. In 1924,
Ayame Mizushima received on-screen writing credit for the silent film The Song of
the Fallen Leaves. She worked at the Shochiku Kamata Studios until 1935. Female
screenwriters Yoshiko Hayashi and Noriko Suzuki were also given opportunities.
Sakane, first working in production and with a strong desire to direct, had a more
difficult journey.
By 1929, Sakane was an oddity in the industry because no other females worked
in production (except in the hairdressing department). However, she had proven
her worth as an assistant director’s assistant. After an introduction to Mizoguchi,
she became his ‘script girl’ (her duties similar to those of a script supervisor today).
Mizoguchi employed, at this time, the shinpa style of filmmaking, focusing on
the tribulations and self-sacrifice of ‘good women’. He asked Sakane to help him
with the script for The Foreigner’s Mistress (1930). The collaboration was successful
(although Sakane did not get screenwriting credit); she became his screenwriting
partner and assistant director – and eventually took on the task of being his film
editor. She worked as a scriptwriter on Yet They Go (1931) and The Man of the
Moment (1932) (McDonald 2007: 131). Again, she did not receive on-screen credit
as a scriptwriter, although she did receive credit as assistant director. As Mizoguchi
moved from studio to studio, Sakane moved with him.
Perhaps to blend in – being the only woman in Mizoguchi’s on-set production
crew – Sakane cut her hair short, gave up wearing a kimono, and hired a tailor to
create pairs of pants for her to wear at work. This attire was new to women’s cloth-
ing in Japan (although in America it had become fashionable in the late 1920s;
in 1929, Dorothy Arzner had taken to dressing in men’s clothing and wearing
Japan 111

her hair in a masculine style when she moved from screenwriting into directing
at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood). Because of Sakane’s family’s elevated social
position andher abnormal choice of profession, Sakane was considered ‘pecu-
liar’ and often subjected to questions concerning whether she had a ‘sufficient
amount’ of femininity.
In 1935, at age 32, Sakane decided to pursue permission to write and direct her
first feature film (Ikegawa and Ward 2005: 260). As noted previously, there was a
vetting process – government sanction of the filmmaker as well as the narrative
content. Sakane was required to publicly state her support for Japan’s aggressive
colonization policies and the government’s social measures. This she did; and thus
she was given the go-ahead by the Daiichi Eiga film company, a company where
she now worked with Mizoguchi (McDonald 2007: 132). Sakane hoped to adapt
and direct A Woman’s Life based on a novel by Yuzo Yamamoto; however, the
patriarchal system assigned her to adapt and direct Hatsu Sugata (translated vari-
ously as New Clothing or New Year Finery or First Appearance). The narrative was an
adaptation of Kosugi Tengai’s shinpa tragedy, a human study focusing on a young
geisha-to-be, Otoshi – the illegitimate daughter of a promiscuous woman – and a
young man, Ryutaro, who is about to become a Buddhist priest (McDonald 2007:
132). The two fall in love; however, there is much conflict in their relationship (it
is suggested that, because of her parentage, Otoshi’s passionate nature can never
be controlled), and in the end the two lovers know they cannot be together.
Otoshi makes the ultimate sacrifice and marries a wealthy businessman to help
her family. This plot was somewhat controversial; however, the narrative outcome
of the film fell in line with government policies and expectations of its people –
that duty and tradition will always triumph.
Because Sakane’s first film – as with many early Japanese films – is no longer
in existence (due to many factors: the 1923 earthquake that was responsible for
many of the early Japanese films being destroyed, multiple wars and poor preser-
vation in the humid climate of Japan), there are no records of the actual credits
of the film. Keiko McDonald, in her article in Asian Cinema in 2007, based in part
on Etsuko Onishi’s biography of Sakane, notes that, reportedly, Mizoguchi and his
cameraman, Minoru Miki, were overly involved in the film. Film reviews noted
that it was ‘weak-water Mizoguchi’, and the film did not do well at the box office.
In 1936, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan signed a pact against the Soviet
Union. In 1937, Japan invaded China, initiating the Sino-Japanese War, and
eventually World War II began in the Pacific. During this time, the Film Law (the
censorship body) was given even more power and, by 1939, government oversight
of the film industry and story content was immutable (Ikegawa and Ward 2005:
261). ‘The Home Ministry issued stringent regulations … Scripts were not to pro-
mote frivolous behavior or Western notions of individual freedom, especially with
respect to women’ (McDonald 2007: 135).
Male filmmakers like Mizoguchi, Ozu and others continued to make films dur-
ing the war; however, Sakane could not obtain government permission to make
another film. Mizoguchi cast actress Kinuyo Tanaka in his film The Women of Osaka
and began a close professional and personal relationship with her. According to
112 Women Screenwriters

McDonald, this was difficult for Sakane, for she was close to Mizoguchi, but also
close to his wife who was suffering from the debilitating effects of syphilis and
was soon committed to an insane asylum. McDonald also suggests that Mizoguchi
proposed marriage to Sakane (McDonald 2007: 136), introducing more challenges
in their relationship. In order to put distance between herself and Mizoguchi, and
to continue her craft, Sakane accepted the position of director of education films
at the Manchukuo Film Association. An article in a newspaper of the time stated,
‘In order to appeal to the women of the Co-prosperity Sphere in the future, we
must make films in which women themselves have a hand. This is why Sakane
(Tazuko) has been selected as a director’ (Ikegawa and Ward 2005: 262).
Sakane moved to Manchukuo (Manchuria) for three years; there she made over
a dozen culture films; these were called bunka eiga films – scripted ‘non-fictional’
films shot in documentary style and meant to help ‘nurture the national spirit
and enlighten people’ (McDonald 2007: 137). The Manchukuo Film Association
was run by Masahiko Amakasu, a formerly high-ranking Japanese military officer
who had been court-martialed and imprisoned in 1923 for brutal actions fol-
lowing that year’s earthquake. He was released after three years to oversee the
Japanese Army’s involvement in smuggling opium into China, and to help smug-
gle the last Emperor of China (Puyi) into Manchukuo. Amakasu was determined
to make the Manchukuo Film Association a strong producing entity. Amakasu
offered Sakane the chance to continue her filmmaking and, although she made
culture films there (several sources note she did 10 films, others credit her for 14),
it is noted that Amakasu, for the most part, gave his filmmakers the freedom to
choose their topics and how they would present them. Sakane’s chosen subject
matters focused on exploring the plight of women in war-torn Northeastern
China and include Hataraku Josei/Working Women (1942), Kaitaku no Hanayome/
Brides on the Frontier (1943), and others. Brides on the Frontier (sometimes referred
to as Bride of the Settlement) is a culture film dealing ‘with a scheme promoted
as part of the Manchurian emigration policy, whereby women were lured to the
colony by the prospect of marriage’ (Ikegawa and Ward, 2005: 262). Sakane’s leg-
acy was her focus on ‘seeing things from a woman’s point of view’ (Ikegawa and
Ward 2005: 272). One of Sakane’s films, a ‘news film’, was found in the Russian
State Film Archives in the mid 1990s; it focuses ‘on female students put to work
helping out on a training exercise for the Japanese troops’ (Ikegawa and Ward
2005: 263) and ‘Chinese men and women in aprons finely cutting, boiling and
drying the leaves of wild grape plants’ in preparation for making tartaric acid ‘to
be used for scientific weapons, such as radar’ (Ikegawa and Ward 2005: 272). Two
months after this film was shot, the Japanese surrendered and the Manchukuo
puppet state collapsed. Most of the films of the Manchukuo Film Company were
confiscated by the Soviet Army (Ikegawa and Ward 2005).
In a 1939 volume of the Japanese film magazine Eiga Junpo, found among
Sakane’s personal belongings, Sakane is quoted as saying that ‘if something is
depicted by men only, it is controlled by men only … I hope that as many female
scriptwriters, camerawomen, etc. as possible come into the Japanese film world,
because I would like to take them on as staff to make a film celebrating women,
Japan 113

such as only a woman could make’ (Ikegawa and Ward 2005: 272).1 From this
quote it could be surmised that Sakane, having enjoyed the relative freedom of
scripting and directing films of her choice in Manchukuo, was hoping to return
to Japan to continue in this vein.
However, returning to Japan, Sakane was denied work as a film director. The
reason she was given was that, postwar, it was now mandatory for all film direc-
tors to have a college degree. However, the narrative content of her work in
Manchuria, and her association with the Manchukuo Film Company, which had
held on to its own autonomy by not allowing the Japanese government to control
narrative content of the films it produced, may have been contributing factors.
At age 42, Sakane, simply wanting to work, again signed on to Mizoguchi’s film
crew and worked as a script girl. According to film historians Ikegawa and Ward,
she worked her way back up to scriptwriting and editing positions; however,
in searching Mizoguchi’s post-World War II work (11 of his 18 films starred the
popular and beautiful actress Kinuyo Tanaka), Sakane’s name is not credited as
a scriptwriter. (Mizoguchi turned mostly to screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda in these
years.) When Mizoguchi died of leukemia in 1956, Sakane’s work in film reportedly
slowed down. In 1962, Sakane (now age 58) was asked to script Miss Ogin, a film
to be directed by Kinuyo Tanaka. When Tanaka found out who the scriptwriter
was to be, she refused to work with Sakane (each of their personal histories with
Mizoguchi may have been at the crux of the animosity). The studio backed Kinuyo
Tanaka (McDonald 2007: 144) and Sakane retired from the Shochiku Studios in
1967; however, she continued to do freelance scriptwriting for the Daiei Company
until her death from cancer in 1971 at the age of 67 (McDonald 2007: 144).

Japanese women screenwriters: collaborators

Lauri Kitsnik
The 1950s Golden Age of the studio system in Japanese cinema is commonly tied
to the efforts of directors such as Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu,
Mikiro Naruse, and Kon Ichikawa. Less attention has been paid to the fact that
the careers of all these filmmakers are characterized by long collaborative relation-
ships with a number of notable screenwriters. Western histories of Japanese film
have seldom touched upon this phenomenon whereas it has usually received a
more balanced treatment from Japanese scholars,2 allowing considerable prestige
and visibility for screenwriters such as Kogo Noda (1893–1968) and Yoshikata
Yoda (1909–91), who worked with Ozu and Mizoguchi respectively. Two of the
biggest screenwriting names that emerged after World War II, Shinobu Hashimoto
(1918–) and Kaneto Shindo (1912–2012), also scripted films directed by the era’s
leading filmmakers. Remarkably, though, shaping the oeuvres of Naruse and
Ichikawa in particular, are the contributions of three female screenwriters: Yoko
Mizuki (1910–2003), Sumie Tanaka (1908–2000), and Natto Wada (1920–83).
In addition, Mizuki worked extensively with Imai Tadashi, a prolific and popular
director notoriously ignored in Western scholarship although enjoying almost
unanimous acclaim for socially conscious work in Japan at the time.
114 Women Screenwriters

The strong presence of women screenwriters in early Hollywood, attested to by

the work of Anita Loos, Frances Marion, and June Mathis, is well documented.
However, in the Japanese film industry, very much a male-dominated one – even
to the point that up to the early 1920s female roles were still played by male
actors – there were considerably fewer chances for women to become part of film
production in roles such as producers, directors, or screenwriters. The distinction
of being the first female screenwriter is commonly given to Ayame Mizushima3
(1903–90, born Takano Chitose). The pen name was created for the occasion of
her receiving her first screen credit on The Song of Fallen Leaves, which opened
in November 1924. Using her real name would have resulted in her being expel-
led from Japan Women’s College, where viewing films, let alone participating
in making them, was prohibited. The next year, Mizushima entered Shochiku
Kamata Studios, where she remained employed until the studio’s move to Ofuna
in 1935, when she retired from the film industry to become a children‘s writer.
Known for scripting comedies and melodramas, she had a total of 29 of her
screenplays produced.4
In 1928, Mizushima penned a screenplay for the film Sora no kanata e/
Beyond the Sky, 1928, dir. Takeo Tsutami), based on a novel by Nobuko Yoshiya
(1896–1973), a notable and commercially successful contemporary woman writer
and pioneer of lesbian literature in Japan, as well as a major influence on shojo
manga (a genre of comics targeted at teenage female audiences).5 Mizushima’s
last film, Kagayake shonen Nihon/Shine On, Boy Japan! (1935), commissioned to
celebrate the birth of the Crown Prince (the future Emperor Akihito), was also
her only talkie, indicating that her withdrawal from writing for film might, in
part, have resulted from the changes the medium was going through in its shift
to sound. In sum, Mizushima had a chance to work with notable male directors
such as Mikio Naruse and Hiroshi Shimizu, often turning her own original stories
into screenplays, employing genres encompassing melodrama, mother’s films
(hahamono), comedy, period films, adventure, and even a sports film (Kagayake
Nihon no josei/Shine On, Japanese Women! [1932], co-written with Kogo Noda) set
at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. However, Mizushima did not remain
the only woman writing for film at the time. Only three months after her debut,
the rival Nikkatsu studio released Shitaiyuku kage/Yearning Shadows (1925), scripted
by Yoshiko Hayashi. Indeed, the July 1926 issue of the journal Shibai to kinema/
Stage and Cinema featured an illustrated introduction to Mizushima and Hayashi
as the flag bearers of newly emerging women screenwriters. Subsequently, nine
more of Hayashi’s scripts were produced, her version of the story of the legendary
swordsman Musashi Miyamoto in the eponymous film of 1929 becoming her
last screenwriting credit. A third notable woman screenwriter of the era, with
27 scripts to her credit, was Noriko Suzuki (1909–85). She worked for the Nikkatsu
studios from 1933 to 1937, and then for Toho until 1941. Among her work is an
adaptation of yet another Nobuko Yoshiya novel, Hanatsumi nikki/Flower-Picking
Diary (1939). A print of Chokoreeto to heitai/Chocolate and Soldiers (1938), consi-
dered her representative work, was recovered in the United States in 2004. This
fact hints at a perennial problem: the majority of pre-war Japanese films are lost,
Japan 115

making it very difficult to adequately assess the mark left by women screenwriters
on Japanese silent and early sound cinema.
However, there was a definite and well-documented impact in the 1950s when
three of the most important women scriptwriters in the history of Japanese cinema
emerged. Given the relative scarcity of female screenwriters before the war, it is all
the more remarkable that Mizuki, Tanaka and Wada were to become some of the
most prominent writers in their trade. Belonging roughly to the same generation
as Mizushima, Hayashi and Suzuki, they only started working in film after the
war, were most active in the 1950s, and largely disappeared from the scene by
the mid 1960s, all three writing 30 or so films in total. Of the three, best known
outside Japan is Natto Wada who scripted most of her husband Kon Ichikawa’s
directorial work up to 1963, Biruma no tategoto/The Burmese Harp (1956), Kagi/
Odd Obsession (1959), and Yukinojo henge/An Actor’s Revenge (1963) being some
of the more famous examples. Working mostly on adaptations of contemporary
literature, often adding new twists peppered with black humour to the original
story, Wada gradually moved from light-hearted comedies in the early 1950s to
more serious subject matter by the end of the decade. Mizuki and Sumie Tanaka,
who shared an early background in writing for the stage, scripted what were some
of the most celebrated films of the 1950s, including Meshi/Repast (1951), Nigorie/
Muddy Waters (1953), Ukigumo/Floating Clouds (1955), Yoru no kawa/Night River
(1956), and Kiku and Isamu (1959). Interestingly, Sumie Tanaka also scripted two
films directed by her namesake, Kinuyo Tanaka, the first Japanese woman director
(see separate entries on Mizuki, Sumie Tanaka and Wada).
Why the sudden emergence of women screenwriters in the 1950s? The phe-
nomenon can be partly explained by simultaneous shifts in the composition of
audiences and the literary canon. On the one hand, film production companies
started to employ women screenwriters to accommodate rapidly growing female
audiences, providing films with a ‘feminine touch’. On the other hand, there
were female fiction authors such as Fumiko Hayashi (1903–51) who reached the
peak of popularity in the early 1950s. Hayashi, whose work had previously been
categorized by the somewhat derogative label of ‘women’s literature’ (joryu bun-
gaku), had a postwar revival, one that delivered her to the literary canon proper.6
There are strong indications that this happened with the aid of a string of Naruse-
directed films scripted by either Mizuki or Tanaka, which arguably ‘smooth[ed]
out Hayashi’s rough edges’ (Russell 2008: 219). This interplay with the literary
canon, a reciprocal movement where women writers found a larger audience and
appreciation through screen versions of their work, helped to cement Hayashi’s
critical reputation while providing a commercially viable pattern for film pro-
duction by way of literary adaptations. In fact, something akin to this can be
detected as early as the late 1920s, in the work of the very first women writing for
film. More than 40 films based on Nobuko Yoshiya’s works were produced before
World War II, with a number of the screenplays written by women screenwriters
such as Mizushima and Suzuki: in addition to the ones mentioned above, Bofuu
no bara/The Rose in the Storm (1931, co-written with Kogo Noda) and Nyonin
airaku/Woman’s Sadness and Joy (1933). Indeed, adapting Yoshiya seems to have
116 Women Screenwriters

been something of a yardstick for women screenwriters even after the war, as
the early 1950s saw most of the women screenwriters of the time participating
in the endeavour of adapting her work, including Mizuki and Sumie Tanaka.
Nevertheless, pointing out this particular tendency is not meant to reduce the
contribution of women screenwriters to simply bringing women’s literature to the
screen. In fact, Mizuki, Sumie Tanaka and Wada penned a number of screenplays
for critically acclaimed films based on novels by such Japanese literary giants as
Yasunari Kawabata (The Dancing Girl of Izu/Sound of the Mountain), Yukio Mishima
(The Temple of the Golden Pavilion), and Jun’ichiro Tanizaki (The Key).
There were a few other women writing for film at the time, such as Yoshiko
Kusuda (1924–2013), sister of the renowned director Keisuke Kinoshita. She ear-
ned 18 screen credits. From the 1960s, when the film industry witnessed a deep
slump, most women screenwriters started to shift their attention to new opportu-
nities brought about by television. Sugako Hashida (1925–), something of a link
between the Golden Age of the studio system in the 1950s and the advent of TV in
the 1960s, entered Shochiku Studios in 1949. Her 15 film credits include a take on
the A-bomb genre, Nagasaki no kane/Bells of Nagasaki (1950, co-written with Shindo
Kaneto), and a Nobuko Yoshiya adaptation, Kyoshu/Nostalgia (1952). Hashida left
Shochiku in 1959 when she came under the threat of being demoted to the rank
of a secretary, becoming instead a successful freelance scriptwriter for television
dramas such as Oshin (1983–4). Other female screenwriters with prolific output
since the 1960s include Yasuko Ono (1928–2011), Hiroko Nishizawa (1929–),
Ikuko Oyabu (1929–), Mieko Osanai (1930–), Kei Hattori (1932–), Fukiko Miyauchi
(1933–2010), Takako Shigemori (1939–), Tomomi Tsutsui (1948–), and Michiko
Nasu (1952–). A new generation that appeared at the end of the 20th century inc-
ludes Akiko Tanaka (1960–), Miwako Daira (1966–, Chakushin ari/One Missed Call
[2003]), Satoko Okudera (1966–), Mika Omori (1972–), Erika Seki (1973–, Sakura
no sono/The Cherry Orchard [2008]), and Miwa Nishikawa (1974–). Besides film and
television work, there have been notable women writing anime screenplays, such
as Keiko Nobumoto (1964–, Cowboy Bebop), and there is even the moniker ‘Yokote
Michiko’, which stands for a team of female screenwriters of undisclosed indentity.
Finally, a number of female filmmakers who emerged at the turn of the millen-
nium also write their own scripts. Those that have a considerable international
following include Naomi Kawase (1969–) – Moe no suzaku/Suzaku (1997), Mogari
no mori/The Mourning Forest (2007) – and Naoko Ogigami (1972–) – Kamome
Shokudo/Kamome Diner (2006), Toilet (2010). Emiko Hiramatsu (1967–), who
in 2012, with Himawari to koinu no nanokakan/Days of Himawari & Her Puppies,
became the first female director at Shochiku Studios since Kinuyo Tanaka, has a
number of co-writing credits for films: Kabei: Our Mother (2008), Ototo/About Her
Brother (2010), and Tokyo kazoku/Tokyo Family (2013).

A closer look
Yoko Mizuki
One of the most important and accomplished Japanese female screenwriters of
all time, Yoko Mizuki was active in the 1950s Golden Age of the studio system.
Japan 117

Mizuki is notable for her work with directors Imai and Naruse in particular, and
for introducing a woman’s point of view and various socially sensitive topics to
Japanese cinema. She was born Tomiko Takagi on 25 August 1910, in Tokyo7 and
graduated from Bunka Gakuin. She started acting at the Tokyo Left-Wing Theatre
(Tokyo Sayoku Gekijo). In order to support the family after her father’s death,
she began to write stage plays at the age of 23. Before World War II she was brie-
fly married to film director and screenwriter Senkichi Taniguchi (1912–2007), a
frequent collaborator of Akira Kurosawa. During wartime she started writing radio
dramas. It was Mizuki’s former Russian teacher, Toshio Yasumi (1903–91) – the
single most prolific screenwriter of his time with almost 200 screen credits and
mentor to a number of fledgling screenwriters such as Shinobu Hashimoto and
Ryuzo Kikushima – who encouraged her to take up screenwriting. Mizuki’s first
effort was Onna no issho/The Life of a Woman (1949), co-written with Yasumi, the
story of a pregnant woman working in inhumane conditions at a printing plant.
However, it was her second screenplay, Mata au hi made/Until We Meet Again
(1950), that brought her instant critical acclaim, with the film taking top place
in the influential Kinema Junpo’s film critics’ annual poll, and triggering Mizuki’s
long and successful collaboration with director Tadashi Imai.
Mizuki claims that at the time of making Until We Meet Again, a film about
young love doomed by the closing stages of the Pacific War, she was still strugg-
ling, despite her background in writing for stage and radio, to learn the very basics
of screenwriting. She had to rewrite most of scenes during filming.8 Although
based on Romain Rolland’s novel Pierre et Luce (1920), set during the First World
War, it was probably due to this working method that it turned out to be a very
loose adaptation (in fact, the film’s credits even fail to mention its literary source).
While having adapted a number of works of Japanese literature for the screen,
Mizuki always admitted to being more comfortable with working from her own
original material. This sets her in sharp contrast to the other two notable women
screenwriters working at the same period, Sumie Tanaka and Natto Wada, whose
work consists mostly of literary adaptations. This also suited the director Imai
who over the years developed an unflinching trust in Mizuki’s ability to come up
with new ideas, which in turn gave her considerable power in shaping the film to
come. As an outspoken, left-leaning director, Imai had been forced to leave Toho
Studios during the Red Purge in the late 1940s, and the majority of his subsequent
films were produced independently, which apparently enhanced the experience
of the screenwriter.
Mizuki suggested that her work could be thematically divided in two: films
dealing with a woman’s world and those tackling particular social issues. While
asserting that screenplays in the former type usually took her only about 15 to
20 days to complete, Mizuki admitted that the latter required thorough research
not always compatible with the time frame of standard film production, singling
out Himeyuri no to/The Tower of Lilies (1953).9 This story about schoolgirls who
had taken on the role of nurses during the Battle of Okinawa casts a grim, almost
naturalistic look at the last days of the Pacific War, contrasting it with contem-
porary tear-jerkers dealing with similar subject matter such as Keisuke Kinoshita’s
118 Women Screenwriters

hugely popular Nijushi no hitomi/Twenty-Four Eyes (1954). The same year, 1953,
saw another Mizuki-Imai collaboration, Nigorie/Muddy Waters, an omnibus of
three stories about hardships endured by women living on the margins of soci-
ety, adapted from the works of Ichiyo Higuchi (1872–96).10 The Story of Pure Love
(Jun’ai monogatari, 1957), winner of the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film
Festival, merges in its story, a Mizuki original, a tale of adolescent love with issues
arising from the heroine’s A-bomb-inflicted radiation disease. Kiku to Isamu/Kiku
and Isamu (1959), perhaps Mizuki and Imai’s finest effort, deals with an uncon-
ventional topic for the time, the fate of two mixed-race children growing up in
Okinawa. Mizuki’s simple but delicate build-up of the story in combination with
the use of amateur actors make it a touching film. It went on to win a number of
awards, including a Blue Ribbon Award for her screenplay.
While collaboration with Imai came to define both their careers (one third of
her scripts are for him), Mizuki also wrote for other notable directors, often with
highly acclaimed results. Like Sumie Tanaka, she worked with Mikio Naruse, the
main proponent of women’s film in the 1950s through early 1960s. While Tanaka
scripted four Fumiko Hayashi adaptations for Naruse, it is Ukigumo/Floating Clouds
(1955), adapted by Mizuki, that has often been hailed as his definitive masterpiece.
It is a story about lovers who find it hard to sustain their relationship amidst the
postwar chaos. Just when a brighter future finally looms, as the man takes up an
appointment as a forestry warden on a remote island, the woman contracts tuber-
culosis and dies. While one of Naruse’s most celebrated films, it is known that
the director himself did not think much of it. Apparently Naruse had wanted to
end the film with the couple getting on the ship, but Mizuki insisted on going all
the way to the small island to have her die during a typhoon. Because of Mizuki’s
contribution, then, Floating Clouds ended up quite different from other Hayashi
adaptations by Tanaka that have been accused of being somewhat watered down
in comparison to their sources.
Among her 34 screen credits, Mizuki’s own five favourites were Until We Meet
Again, Floating Clouds, The Story of Pure Love, Kiku and Isamu, and The Age of
Marriage (Konki, 1961, dir. Kozaburo Yoshimura). In her obituary, Tadao Sato
concludes that Mizuki scripted some of the best films by directors who did not
themselves participate in writing screenplays, adding that her work indicates
how the Japanese both succeeded and failed in coping with their country’s rapid
transition from wartime militarism to postwar pacifism (Sato 2003: 132–4). Films
scripted by Mizuki landed at the top spot of Kinema Junpo’s annual critics’ poll five
times between 1950 and 1960, the last of them being Ototo/Younger Brother (1960).
Based on Aya Koda’s autobiographical novel about a young woman trying to take
care of her delinquent sibling, it was a rare occasion when Kon Ichikawa did not
collaborate with his wife, screenwriter Natto Wada. Mizuki was awarded Kinema
Junpo’s prize for Best Screenplay in 1962, jointly for Are wa minato no hi da/These
Are Harbour Lights (1961) and The Age of Marriage; and again in 1965 for Amai ase/
Sweet Sweat (1964) and Kwaidan (1964, dir. Masaki Kobayashi, Cannes Special Jury
Prize), the latter an adaptation of ghost stories by Lafcadio Hearn. In her later
career Mizuki continued to work extensively for television: her credits include
Japan 119

Ryoma Forever (Ryoma ga yuku, 1968), a taiga drama, an entry in the year-long
historical drama series about Japanese historical figures aired by the Japanese
Broadcasting Corporation (NHK). Mizuki died on 8 April 2003 in Ichikawa, Chiba.
Her former home has been turned into the Mizuki Memorial Museum.11

Sumie Tanaka
One of three notable women screenwriters active during the Golden Age of
Japanese cinema in the 1950s, Sumie Tanaka is known for her long collaboration
with director Mikio Naruse and for writing screenplays for Kinuyo Tanaka, the
first major Japanese female filmmaker. Born as Sumie Tsujimura, on 11 April 1908
in Tokyo, Tanaka was married to the playwright Chikao Tanaka and first gained
recognition for her stage plays in the late 1930s. After the war, her whole family
was baptized into Catholicism, which remained a strong influence on her work.
Her very first three screenplays, Waga ie wa tanoshi/Our House is Happy (1951),
Shonenki/Record of Youth (1951), and Meshi/Repast (1951), jointly brought her the
Blue Ribbon Award for Screenwriting in 1952.
It was the screenwriter initially appointed to write Repast, Toshiro Ide, who
decided to bring in Sumie Tanaka, already an established writer for stage in the
Bungakuza theatre company but inexperienced in film. Based on an unfinished
novel by Fumiko Hayashi who had died earlier that year, the story about the
decaying marriage of a young couple needed a proper ending. While the screen-
writers wanted it to conclude with the couple getting a divorce, the studio insisted
on a happy ending brought about by reconciliation; this resulted in bitter disil-
lusionment for the screenwriting duo. While pointing to the problematic legal
position of married women in Japan, this reinstating of the status quo failed to
provide an alternative solution. However, the film was a critical success and set the
general tone for a string of subsequent Naruse-directed adaptations of Hayashi’s
work scripted by either Ide, Sumie Tanaka or Yoko Mizuki. It seems safe to say
that Naruse’s reputation as the fourth great Japanese director (after Kurosawa,
Mizoguchi and Ozu) and a proponent of women’s film stands in great part on
his collaboration with Tanaka and Mizuki. Nevertheless, as is apparent from the
following anecdotal account provided by Audie Bock, Naruse had a markedly dif-
ferent working relationship with these two women screenwriters:

Different scenarists describe a different Naruse. Sumie Tanaka who says he

taught her everything about scriptwriting on their two prize-winning films
Repast and Lightning, portrays a terribly strict director who like Mizoguchi gave
no explicit instructions at the outset, but demanded as many as three complete
rewrites of the 400-page Repast script in the interval of only ten days, and never
offered a word of thanks or praise. Yoko Mizuki, on the other hand, said Naruse
told her to begin writing from wherever she pleased and not to worry about the
theme, and that all in all he was the easiest person in the world to work for. But
he had such strong objections to her script that he wanted to talk all night. He
told her to rewrite all of the location scenes, and then went off and shot them
while she was doing it. (Bock 1978: 111)
120 Women Screenwriters

Indeed, in comparison with Mizuki, whom Naruse seem to have trusted to make a
solid independent contribution, Tanaka mostly worked in a duo with male screen-
writer Ide, calling into question the gender dynamics of the screenwriting process,
where the female writer is brought in to provide a ‘woman’s point of view’ (Russell
2008: 239). At any rate, Naruse’s postwar films consistently present strong-willed
women characters who refuse to be victims of male-dominated society, mak-
ing them diametrically opposite to the long-suffering, submissive heroines of
Mizoguchi. This feature is quite unimaginable without, and could certainly be
attributed to, Naruse’s long collaboration with Mizuki and Sumie Tanaka.
Sumie Tanaka had a key role in the pivotal moment in the history of Japanese
cinema when a woman screenwriter and a woman director collaborated in adapt-
ing for the screen material written by yet another woman. The actress-turned-
director Kinuyo Tanaka’s third film, The Eternal Breasts (Chibusa yo eien nare, 1955),
was based on the autobiography of the poet Fumiko Nakajo (1922–54) who,
shortly after leaving her abusive husband, was diagnosed with terminal cancer of
the breast and had to undergo a mastectomy before eventually succumbing to the
disease. Discussing Sumie Tanaka’s screenplay, Fuyuhiko Kitagawa has called it the
first truly existentialist film to come out of Japan (Kitagawa 1956: 91). In addition,
referring to a scene where the protagonist gets into a bath after the surgery, Mikiro
Kato points out that, rather than evoking an erotic image, the loss of the symbol
of femininity prompts the erasure of the male gaze for the first time in the his-
tory of Japanese cinema (Kato 2011). The two Tanakas went on to collaborate on
another film, Onna bakari no yoru/Girl of Dark (1961), set in a rehabilitation centre
for former prostitutes whose trade has been criminalized by the 1956 Prostitution
Prevention Law.
While Sumie Tanaka’s work with Naruse will probably remain her strongest
legacy, she wrote screenplays for other notable directors such as Kozaburo
Yoshimura, effectively depicting the rupture of traditional values while
employing a woman’s viewpoint in films such as Yoru no kawa/Night River (1956)
and Yoru no cho/Night Butterflies (1957).12 Parallel to her work with Kinuyo
Tanaka, she penned screenplays for another actor-turned-director, Shin Saburi,
with Kokoro ni hana no saku hi made/Until Flowers Bloom in the Heart (1955) and
Yoru no kamome/Night Seagull (1957). Tanaka excelled at adapted screenplays, in
contrast to her contemporary, and something of a rival, Mizuki. Sumie Tanaka
died on 1 March 2000. In addition to her 35 film credits, Tanaka turned to
writing for television in the 1960s, and had a parallel career as a prize-winning

Natto Wada
Born as Yumeko Moji, the screenwriter Natto Wada (1920–83) was best known for
her work on the films of her husband, Kon Ichikawa. Wada studied English litera-
ture at Tokyo Christian University and shortly after graduating began working as
a translator for Toho, one of Japan’s major film studios. Along with Ichikawa, she
was part of the group of Toho staff that left the company after a labour dispute
to form the breakaway Shintoho film studio in 1947. Wada and Ichikawa wed the
Japan 121

following year and, according to Keiko McDonald (1994: 448), it was Ichikawa
who encouraged Natto to begin writing the scripts for his films, with Hateshinaki
jonetsu/Passion Without End (1949) being the first of 35 films the couple worked
on together.
Using novels, short stories and serials as the basis for screenplays was extremely
common in postwar Japanese studio cinema, and Wada (a keen essayist in her
own right) followed this trend by adapting a wide range of popular literature for
the screen throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Although Ichikawa wouldn’t always
take a writing credit, the creative process behind their scripts seems to have been
a genuinely collaborative one. According to Ichikawa, both he and Wada would
initially read the source material and then discuss their ideas of how to transform
it into a film, firstly deciding on the genre. In the course of their domestic life they
would then work out the finer details relating to character and structure. Wada
would finally write an extremely detailed script, which enabled Ichikawa to start
preparing the technical aspects of the film (Bock 1978: 41).
While this process may, on paper, appear to be logically sound and harmonious,
both reported on the problems of interweaving professional and matrimonial life.
For Ichikawa, he regarded disagreeing with his wife’s ideas as a dangerous game:

[W]hen you get Natto-san to write you a script, you’re in for a lot of trouble. If
your opinions clash about something like a character’s role, the disagreement
might escalate to a discussion of divorce. She may say, ‘If this is really the way
you think, I simply cannot live with you a moment longer.’ (Sato 2003: 127)

For her own part, Wada compared attempting to be both a screenwriter and a
housewife to ‘like chasing two rabbits’, but was somewhat more vocal about the
pitfalls of adapting respected literary work for the screen. In an essay on the film
Shokei no heya/Punishment Room (1956), Wada identified the problems inherent in
page to screen adaptations:

[Y]ou can either remain faithful to the original work or, conversely, deal with
it critically in order to bring its spirit to life. The latter option, however, places
you in a difficult position as a screenwriter, for not only is it likely that your
film will clash with the image held by those who have read the original, it will
also almost certainly put the author’s nose out of joint. Optimally, of course,
you would like to avoid making enemies on either side, but there are still occa-
sions when you have no choice. (Sato 2003: 191)

An instance where Wada and Ichikawa made a significant diversion from the
source material was in their 1959 adaptation of Shohei Ooka’s 1951 novel Nobi/
Fires on the Plain. Set in the final days of World War II, the story concerns Tamura,
a tuberculosis-ridden soldier banished from his unit by a commander who sees
him as a drain on already scarce resources. As Tamura traverses the landscape of
the Philippines with no mission other than survival, he encounters and even par-
ticipates in the abject horrors of a dystopia physically and morally decimated by
122 Women Screenwriters

the events of a sustained war. As Audie Bock (1978: 45) has pointed out, whereas
the book is structured around a recovered Tamura’s recollections of the war, the
film ends with the soldier walking into Philippine gunfire with arms aloft.
Even by the standards of today, Fires on the Plain is an extremely graphic film;
we see corpses piled up indiscriminately, cold-blooded murder and cannibalism.
Although Ichikawa modestly claims to be a director who ‘did not have any unify-
ing theme – I just make any picture I like or any that the company tells me to
do’ (Bock 1978: 38), much of his work with Wada is characterized by an uncom-
promising directness, both in theme and dialogue, which at times borders on the
inflammatory. Indeed, several of the 1950s and early 1960s films scripted by the
pair have been widely interpreted as critical of the path taken by Japan in the
war and the proceeding years. Alongside the open condemnation of the atrocities
of war found in Fires on the Plain, Natto also adapted Michio Takeyama’s 1948
novel Biruma no tategoto/The Burmese Harp for Ichikawa in 1956. An immensely
successful movie that was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the 1957 Academy
Awards, Natto’s screenplay draws out the psychological motivations behind the
actions of Mizushima, a soldier who is sent on a mission by his captured supe-
riors to persuade a remote Japanese platoon to surrender to the Allied forces.
Citing duty to their country, the soldiers stubbornly refuse to heed Mizushima’s
warning and the mountain on which they are hiding is subsequently obliterated.
Mizushima somehow survives the onslaught and, rather than joining his platoon
in a prison camp as previously ordered, makes his way across Burma posing as a
monk. When his comrades discover his true identity shortly before they are due
to be repatriated, they invite Mizushima to return to Japan with them in order
to rebuild the country. He declines, and in a letter that is read to the platoon by
their captain in the final scene of the film, explains that seeing the bodies of the
dead piled up throughout Burma has convinced him that the real work of human
beings is ‘simply to ease the great suffering of the world. To have courage to face
suffering, selflessness and irrationality without fear, to find the strength to create
peace by one’s own example’. Mizushima stays in Burma to enter the priesthood
and vows not to return until all the dead have been buried. The broadly paci-
fist messages of the two war films are widened into a critique of the nation as a
whole in Wada’s adaptation of Taiheiyo hitori-botchi/Alone Across the Pacific (1963).
Based on the true story of Kenichi Horie’s unassisted solo journey from Osaka to
San Francisco in a tiny custom-made vessel, Wada’s script goes back and forth
in time to rationalize the sailor’s wish to escape from Japan by focusing on his
prior strained relationships with his family and friends. His blue-collar father is
dismayed at his son’s decision not to attend university in order to learn a trade.
When Horie explains that being the same as everyone else ‘doesn’t interest me’,
his father brusquely replies that ‘work isn’t supposed to interest you’. His mother,
meanwhile, is reduced to a nervous wreck over her son’s determination to escape
Japan in such a dangerous fashion. Outside his family, Horie is portrayed as a
social misfit whose self-interested demeanour offends even those who are trying
to help him achieve his goal. This is memorably captured in Wada’s script, which
is based on the memoirs of Horie himself, through a monologue from an older
Japan 123

sailing friend who finally snaps at what he perceives as the youth’s condescend-
ing attitude:

You always do exactly what you want and you do it your way. There’s nothing
wrong with that. When you’re the only one you can trust, you have to believe
in yourself. Having said that, in order to protect what’s around you, surely you
have to treat those around you with respect. You might not see eye to eye with
everyone, but they’re still friends and family, right? You are one man and they
are many.

Horie’s lack of interest in engaging with the familial and economic structures
which govern Japan is certainly not condemned by the film, but any complete
approval is tempered by the humanist warning given by the elder; the overall
message is that it is fine to follow individual rather than group ambitions, but it
is also important to remember how others feel. The angry young man character
trope is also explored in two harsher films scripted by Wada for Ichikawa. Based
on a Yukio Mishima novel, Enjo/Conflagaration (1958) is one of four films that
Wada worked on as a co-writer with Keiji Hasebe. Mizoguchi, a bright young man
with a stutter, follows in his father’s footsteps by training as a Buddhist priest, but
is ultimately left dismayed, both at the rampant commercial exploitation of the
temple and the lack of basic humanity shown towards him by friends, teachers
and family members. His only respite is found in his reverence for the physical
temple itself, and when Mizoguchi is finally worn down by the moral corruptness
of the world around him, he razes the temple to the ground in an act of defiance.
The cynicism of youth towards society is dealt with more viciously in Punishment
Room, where a disaffected teenager rebels through participating in both sexual
and physical violence. Wada was in her mid-thirties when she adapted Shintaro
Ishihara’s controversial novel for the screen and she offers an interesting explana-
tion as to why she elected to confront its taboo themes head on in her screenplay:

This may sound overly dramatic, but the society in which I grew up is so
radically different from the one today’s young people inhabit that none of my
youthful experiences could provide me with a handle to grasp the significance
of their actions. Faced with this utter incomprehension, there was no alterna-
tive but to take a direct approach. (Sato 2003: 192)

Along with Sumie Tanaka and Yoko Mizuki, Wada was one of a band of high-
profile female screenwriters working in the Japanese film industry, and her female
characters generally, but not always, tend to be strong-willed, smart, and of a more
stable mindset than their often rash male counterparts. Indeed, it could be argued
that Wada’s women often appear superior simply by being placed alongside male
characters with deep psychological flaws, which range from egotism (Alone Across
the Pacific), to sexual perversion (Kagi/Odd Obsession, 1959), to simply failing as
a male role model (Watashi wa nisai/Being Two Isn’t Easy, 1962). Often labelled
as a feminist by critics (and not always in a complimentary way), one of the few
124 Women Screenwriters

filmmakers other than Ichikawa who Wada worked with was the maverick actress-
director Kinuyo Tanaka. Wada’s screenplay for Ruten no ohi/The Wandering Princess
(1960) is centred around a typically headstrong woman wronged by historical
events entirely out of her control.
After helping Ichikawa plan the seminal sports documentary Tokyo Olympiad
(Tokyo Orinpikku, 1965), Wada retired from screenwriting at the young age of 45.
Much like her characters, who often felt cut off from a society depicted as callous
and cruel, Wada left the Japanese film industry, which had grown increasingly
graphic due to the rise of Nuberu bagu/Japanese New Wave practitioners such as
Shohei Imamura and Nagisa Oshima, because she disliked the ‘new film grammar’
and felt that modern cinema lacked humanity. Although Wada never formally
returned to film, in her final days she reportedly helped Ichikawa with the ending
of Sasame-yuki/The Makioka Sisters (1983).

Short biographies of Japanese women screenwriters

Michael Smith (with contributions by Jean Ansolabehere)

Kyoko Inukai
Kyoko Inukai (1974–) was born in Saitama, Japan. Credits include Heaven’s
Bookstore (2004, co-written with Tetsuo Shinohara), Strawberry Shortcakes (2006),
The Signs of Love (2007), and Sweet Little Lies (2010), based on a novel by Kaori

Yukiko Mishima
Yukiko Mishima is a screenwriter and director. Her screenplays focus on the ideas
of heritage and characters going back to, or accepting, traditional and familial
ways: Tsukuroi Tatsu Hito (2015, based on the manga by Aoi Ikebe) is about a dress-
maker who works on an old sewing machine that belonged to her grandmother
and, when her dressmaking skills are recognized, refuses to change her traditional
ways. Budou no Namida/Tears of Grapes (2014) looks at a brother who returns to
the family’s wine business and finally wins acceptance, and Shiawase no Pan/Bread
of Happiness (2012) follows a young married couple who leave Tokyo to open a
bread shop and restaurant in a small town. Mishima has also written for Japanese

Miwa Nishikawa
Miwa Nishikawa (1974–) was born in Asaminami-ku, Hiroshima. Although her
name is little known overseas, screenwriter-director Nishikawa is one of the most
acclaimed filmmakers currently working in Japan. Nishikawa began in the film
industry as assistant director to Hirokazu Koreeda, arguably the premier modern-
day Japanese auteur, on Wandafuru Raifu/After Life (1998). A year before her 30th
birthday, Nishikawa made her first feature, the Koreeda-produced Hebi ichigo/
Wild Berries (2003). Since then, Nishikawa’s work has been greeted with rapturous
critical acclaim in Japan; the hugely commercially successful Yureru/Sway (2006)
Japan 125

was the only Japanese film entered in competition at the 2006 Cannes Film
Festival and won the Best Film award from national newspaper Mainichi Shinbun,
while the venerable Japanese film magazine Kinema Junpo named Dear Doctor/Dia
dokuta the best Japanese film of 2009. Nishikawa also received the critics’ Blue
Ribbon Best Director award for both films, and her work as a screenwriter has
been acknowledged with the Mainichi award for Wild Berries, and Kinema Junpo
accolades for Sway and Dear Doctor, with the latter also receiving the 2010 Japan
Academy Prize for Best Screenplay.
Many of the most renowned filmmakers in Japanese cinema history are those
who locate their work within the realm of the everyday. This is true not only of
world-famous names from the classical era such as Yasujiro Ozu and Mikio Naruse,
but also modern-day filmmakers like Koreeda. By ostensibly focusing her work
around the Japanese domestic world, Nishikawa is no different in this respect.
Wild Berries looks at the classic theme of generational differences between parents
and children, while Sway examines the strained relationship between two broth-
ers, one of whom remained in their small hometown as an adult while the other
fled the nest to the city at the first opportunity. In Dreams for Sale/Yume uru futari
(2012), Nishikawa’s attention switches to a young couple trying to fund their
ambition to open a restaurant, and the impact of a doctor on the life of a tiny
remote village is the theme of Dear Doctor.
On the surface, Nishikawa’s narratives sound wholly quotidian, but where her
approach differs is in her tendency to involve one or more protagonists in often
quite disturbing criminal acts. In Sway, an employee of the family business falls
to her death on a bridge and the elder brother is convicted of her murder after
evidence given by his younger sibling. The doctor who brings such stability to
the lives of the villagers in Dear Doctor turns out to not be a licensed medical
practitioner, something which comes to light only when he knowingly misdi-
agnoses an elderly widow’s cancer. The remaining two films take similar turns;
the restaurant-opening ambitions of the couple in Dreams for Sale are funded by
calculated, repeated financial exploitation of lonely and vulnerable women, just
as the son of the family in Wild Berries helps to solve his father’s financial woes
by stealing donations from the funeral ceremonies of strangers (in Japan, it is cus-
tomary to offer the bereaved family a sum of money, known as koden, as a gesture
of condolence).
The descriptions of these crimes may sound repugnant, but any moral condem-
nation is halted by the rationalist complications that are inserted into the stories.
Writing on Dear Doctor, Laird (2012: 73) states that ‘Nishikawa asks viewers to
reconsider conventional cultural ethics that automatically render falsehoods as
wrongdoings’. This holds true across Nishikawa’s work, as all four films dwell
upon the ethical ramifications of the crime or the decision to incriminate the
perpetrator. In Dreams for Sale, Satoko and Kanya’s relationship becomes increas-
ingly strained as their duplicity takes more abject forms, the height of which is
when the pair convince an emotionally fragile Olympic weightlifting hopeful
that Satoko is suffering from cancer and needs expensive experimental treat-
ment. Despite the seriousness of their actions, Satoko and Kanya’s behaviour is,
126 Women Screenwriters

to a degree, both rationalized and redeemed. The film begins with a scene of the
two working happily in their small, hugely convivial neighbourhood restaurant.
A kitchen accident leads to the restaurant burning down and both former own-
ers frequently visit the condemned site throughout the film, ensuring that the
viewer does not forget that the crimes of the couple, as morally abhorrent as
they may be, are underwritten by the simple desire to return to what made them
happy. The weight on their consciences is also noted. Satoko keeps highly visible
notes promising to repay their victims on the wall of their small apartment and,
towards the end of the film the couple’s original sponsor is repaid as a symbolic
After Ino’s lack of medical credentials is discovered in Dear Doctor, even the
outraged police officer who leads the investigation is forced to admit that the
fraudulent doctor ‘held the village together’. During his questioning of Torikai,
the elderly woman whose request that her cancer diagnosis be hidden has been
granted by Ino, he asks her ‘Did that man ever do anything for you?’ Torikai
replies, ‘Nothing at all,’ and smiles, before the film flashes back to Ino caring for
and, most importantly, passing time with the lonely widow in her home. The
fraternal and emotional bonds which Ino has with his patients are repeatedly
emphasized through his interactions with those he treats, and Nishikawa makes
it clear that, though Ino’s posing as a doctor is illegal and highly dangerous,
his impact on the village has undoubtedly been a positive one. In Wild Berries,
high-school teacher Tomoko searches her soul before incriminating her brother,
and at the conclusion of the film there remains ambiguity over whether her
decision was the right one. The conundrum between family loyalty and adher-
ence to a personal moral code is a subject that occurs again in Sway. Although
we are not given a definite answer to whether Minoru did push Chieko off the
bridge, the moral ramifications of the choice made by Takeru to give decisive
evidence against his brother are directly questioned. After Minoru’s conviction,
the film jumps forward seven years and we see a meeting between Takeru, who
has since happily resumed his life as a photographer in Tokyo, and Yohei, a
long-time employee of the family business. In their conversation, Yohei reveals
that Minoru is about to be released from prison and urges Takeru to meet his
brother at the gates. When he refuses, an exasperated Yohei uncorks his frus-
tration, telling Takeru that he should never have given evidence against his
own family and questions the benefit of Takeru’s actions by pointedly asking
him, ‘What exactly did you gain?’ The question points to an idea which recurs
throughout Nishikawa’s work: ethically sound actions made by an individual,
be it a sibling with a heavy conscience or a police officer pursuing justice, often
occur to the detriment of a larger group. Intersecting everyday domesticity
with criminality, Nishikawa’s work is ultimately concerned with the subjective
nature of morality.

Naoko Ogigami
Naoko Ogigami (1972–) attended college in her hometown Chiba before mov-
ing to America in 1994 to study film production at the School of Cinematic
Japan 127

Art, University of Southern California (USC). From the beginning of her career,
Ogigami has enjoyed a particularly fruitful relationship with both domestic and
international film festivals; her debut feature, Barber Yoshino/Yoshino’s Barber
Shop (2004), was the winner of the Pia Festival Scholarship Award and was also
shown in Berlin, where it received a special mention in the Kinderfilmfest strand
of the festival. Since then, Ogigami’s work has enjoyed a relatively high profile
internationally, with Kamome shokudo/Kamome Diner (2006) being shown as part
of Japanese film programmes in both the UK and US, while Rentaneko/Rent-a-cat
(2012) had its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival and was also shown at the
2012 edition of the Edinburgh Film Festival. As well as international recognition,
Ogigami’s work has enjoyed commercial success in Japan. Kamome Diner was a
sleeper box-office hit which went on to sell over 100,000 copies on DVD, and the
more widely distributed Megane/Glasses was reported to have made upwards of
600 million yen ($5.6 million) on its domestic release.
At USC, Ogigami learnt how to make narrative film following the conventional
American model but began to doubt whether she would find creative fulfillment
from making films in this fashion. While promoting Glasses in 2008, Ogigami
told Nikkei Weekly that seeing the ‘boring Hollywood movies’ being turned out
by her classmates convinced her that ‘just following the formula won’t work and
I had to go a step further’ (Zaima 2008). One of her main objections to mainstream
American film is that the protagonists must always be the bearers of a ‘problem’
that the narrative then tries to ‘solve’. For Ogigami, ‘a lead character doesn’t
always have to face troubles’ (Zaima 2008) and, as such, the chief characters in the
majority of her films are not afflicted with a dramatic conundrum that must be
answered before the status quo can resume. This is not always the case, as there is
some adherence to conventional narrative trajectory in both Yoshino’s Barber Shop
and Kamome Diner, but a reticence to indulge the traditional expectations of story
and plot is a defining feature of Ogigami’s style. Instead, the events of the films
are based more around the abstract, existential and occasionally absurd concerns
of characters we often know very little about. For example, in Glasses there is scant
information given about the various protagonists and, as a result, the viewer has
no firm idea of who they are or why they have ended up in a hotel on a remote
beach. What unites all the characters is their interest in and practice of the mys-
terious act of ‘twilighting’, which is defined late in the film as simply ‘thinking
of someone or something’. The main character of the film is Taeko, a woman in
her mid-thirties whose initial unease with the relaxed environment of the hotel
manifests as hostility towards the other inhabitants. However, once she learns
how to relax, or twilight, Taeko becomes more comfortable. The same can be said
of Yomogi, a younger acquaintance of Taeko who somehow finds his way to the
hotel. This approach is typical of how Ogigami resolves her narratives; although
we do not always know the specifics of exactly what troubles her characters, they
always end up in a better psychological position at the end of the film than they
were at the beginning. By the end credits of Yoshino’s Barber Shop, the uptight
and slightly menacing barber who had insisted that all schoolboys in her town
receive the same haircut has mellowed and no longer demands uniformity. The
128 Women Screenwriters

three Japanese women who operate a Helsinki cafe in Kamome Diner eventually
manage to bridge the gap between themselves and the local community at the
same time as finding a degree of mental clarity about their own positions in life,
while the three very different siblings in the Toronto-set Toiretto/Toilet (2010) are
gradually brought together through their attempts to understand and commu-
nicate with their Japanese grandmother. Whereas the traditional expectations of
conventional narrative often result in the restoration of the original equilibrium,
Ogigami typically goes a step further in ensuring that her protagonists are actually
improved as people by the end of her films.
Although establishing firm connections between an artist’s biography and their
creative endeavours is often risky work, a recurring trope in Ogigami’s career that
may be related to her own time overseas is the attention paid by her films to
encounters with the culturally and socially unfamiliar. The most obvious exam-
ples of this are the two films set abroad, Kamome Diner and Toilet, but the theme
persists throughout most of her work; in Yoshino’s Barber Shop the young city boy
who moves to the village is incredulous as to why all of his peers submit to the
conformity represented by the haircut, just as Taeko and Yomogi in Glasses are
initially mystified by the appeal of the resort and the idiosyncratic behaviour of
its inhabitants. The incongruity between protagonists and their surroundings is
often drawn out through humour and Ogigami is a particularly skilled constructor
of comedy set pieces; this is most evident in Rentaneko/Rent-a-Cat (2012), which
follows the adventures of Sayoko, a young woman who operates a cat rental ser-
vice. Episodically structured around the various eccentric characters that rent cats
from the equally mercurial Sayoko, the film is Ogigami’s most complete immer-
sion in the absurd to date.
There have been mixed opinions on the representational impact of Ogigami’s
work. Aaron Gerow (2004: 17) has observed that, despite the characterization
of the eponymous barber clearly corresponding to the rigidity of mainstream
Japanese social customs, there is little broad social critique in Yoshino’s Barber Shop
and the result is a film that ‘is more concerned with individuals than generalized
political lessons’. This largely holds true for the rest of Ogigami’s work; her general
style is one that gently hints at the problems in society while offering little in
the way of identifying causes and even less in the way of criticism. On the other
hand, Adam Bingham (2010: 61) points out that while social commentary may
be avoided, there is also ‘an admirably tacit refusal to make any sweeping grand
statements about “women” and “womanhood”’. Women are not tarred with the
same generalizing brush in Ogigami’s films; we see characters of different ages,
appearances, and backgrounds, with the result being an overall reluctance to ste-
reotype female characters. Rather than the demure, silently suffering housewives
and wild, adventurous modern girls that populated Japanese cinema in the clas-
sical era and beyond, we find a palette of independent female characters who are
resolutely not defined by their relationships to men. As uninterested as Ogigami
is in following the well-worn path of cause-and-effect narrative, her female pro-
tagonists show little enthusiasm for the tried and tested modalities of Japanese
Japan 129

womanhood. Whether they be domineering village hairdressers, expat fledgling

cafe owners or proprietors of cat rental services, Ogigami’s women fly in the face
of convention to take control of their own destinies.

Michiko Ohishi
Michiko Ohishi’s screenplay credits include Tounan kadobeya nikai no onna/Total
Rendezvous (2008, co-written with Masaki Tamura), Gegege no nyobo/Wife of Gegege
(2010, co-written with Takuji Suzuki), My Way of Life (2012), and the adaptation
A Band, Rabbit and a Boy (2013).

Mika Omori
Mika Omori (1972–) was born in Fukuoka, Japan. She graduated from Aoyama
Gakuin Women’s College and became an assistant director for drama at Fuji
Television. She is a screenwriter, director and editor. Her screenplay credits include
Koibumi-biyori (2004), Install (2004), Heaven’s Door (2009), Pool (2009), Space
Brothers (2012), and Akko’s Secret. She won the Mukoda Kuniko Award for her work
as a writer on the television series Fukigen na jiin.

Akiko Tanaka
Akiko Tanaka is a Japanese screenwriter responsible for the screenplays behind 12
feature films, movie teleplays, and shorts. She has been prolific and active since
the early 1980s. Her credits include Manon (1981), Jealousy Game (1982), Lovehotels
(2006), and Dog in a Sidecar (2007). She lives in Japan.

1. Source cited by Ikegawa and Ward: Tokushu Nyonin Shinsei, Eiga Junpo, #4, October 1939,
pp. 8–9. Ikegawa and Ward also refer to the magazine as Eigajin; however, in 1939, it
might have been Kinema Junpo.
2. Anderson and Richie 1959 (1982), commonly credited as the only comprehensive his-
tory of Japanese cinema in English, completely omits the topic of screenwriting while
dealing with a plethora of other facets of film production. In contrast, Sato Tadao, in
his seminal Nihon eigashi (1995 [2006]), dedicates a number of chapters to screenwriting
and discusses the contributions and style of individual screenwriters.
3. A highly informative and well-maintained electronic resource in Japanese on the life and
work of Ayame Mizushima can be found at http://mizushimaayame.kane-tsugu.com.
4. Unfortunately, most of the prints have been lost, with the exception of the melodrama
The Dawning Sky (Akeyuku sora, 1929, dir. Torajiro Saito), which has been released in the
Digital Meme’s Talking Silents series.
5. On Nobuko Yoshiya, see Suzuki 2010: 32–63.
6. On Fumiko Hayashi, see Ericson 1997.
7. Mizuki herself preferred to use 1913 for her birth year.
8. Mizuki 1964a: 102–3.
9. Mizuki 1964b: 124.
10. The first notable modern female writer in Japan, her face currently gracing the 5,000-
yen bill.
11. See its website at http://www.city.ichikawa.lg.jp/cul01/mizuki.html
12. See Jacoby 2008: 367.
130 Women Screenwriters

Anderson, Joseph L., and Donald Richie. 1959 [1982]. The Japanese Film: Art and Industry.
Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Bingham, Adam. 2010. ‘Original Visions: Female Directors in Contemporary Japanese
Cinema’, Cineaction!, Summer: 56–61.
Bock, Audie. 1978. Japanese Film Directors. Tokyo: Kodansha International.
Ericson, Joan. 1997. Be a Woman: Hayashi Fumiko and Modern Japanese Women’s Literature.
Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
Gerow, Aaron. 2004. ‘Barber Sweet but Avoids Issues’, Daily Yomiuri ( Japan), 8 April.
Ikegawa, Reiko, and Julian Ward. 2005. ‘Japanese Women Filmmakers in World War II:
A Study of Sakane Tazuko, Suzuki Noriko and Atsugi Taka’, in Gordon Daniels and Hiroko
Tomida (eds) Japanese Women Emerging from Subservience, 1868–1945. Trans. Helen S. E.
Parker. Kent, UK: Global Oriental, pp. 258–77.
Jacoby, Alexander. 2008. A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors: From the Silent Era to
the Present Day. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press.
Kato, Mikiro. 2011. Nihon eigaron 1933–2007: tekusuto to kontekusuto. Tokyo: Iwanami
Kitagawa, Fuyuhiko. 1956. ‘Tanaka Sumie’, in Kinema Junpo. Tokyo: Kinema Junposha
( January), p. 91.
Laird, Colleen A. 2012. ‘Dear Doctor’, in John Berra (ed.) Directory of World Cinema: Japan 2.
Bristol (UK): Intellect, pp. 70–1.
McDonald, Keiko. 2007. ‘Daring to Be the First: The Japanese Woman Director Tazuko
Sakane (1904–71), Asian Cinema, Fall/Winter.
McVeigh, Brian J. 2003. Nationalisms of Japan: Managing and Mystifying Identity. Rowman &
Littlefield, pp. 228–9.
Mizuki, Yoko. 1964a. ‘Ano koro to ima’, in Kinema Junpo zokan: Shinario sanninshu: Hashimoto
Shinobu, Mizuki Yoko, Shindo Kaneto. Tokyo: Kinema Junposha, 10 April, pp. 102–3.
Mizuki, Yoko. 1964b. ‘Shinario sakuho zakkan’, in Kinema Junpo zokan: Shinario sanninshu:
Hashimoto Shinobu, Mizuki Yoko, Shindo Kaneto. Tokyo: Kinema Junposha, 10 April, p. 124.
Onishi, Etsuko. 1993. Mizoguichi Kenji o aishita onna: Juryu eiga kantoku daiichigo: Sakane
Tauzko no shogari (The Woman Who Loved Mizoguchi: The Life of Tazuko Sakane, the First
Woman Director). Tokyo: San’ichi Shobo.
Russell, Catherine. 2008. The Cinema of Naruse Mikio: Women and Japanese Modernity.
Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Sato, Tadao. 1995 [2006]. Nihon eigashi, 4 vols. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten.
Sato, Tadao. 2003. ‘Sengo Nihon eiga no mottomo juyona kyakuhonka no hitori’, in Kinema
Junpo. Tokyo: Kinema Junposha ( July), pp. 132–4.
Sorte, Waldemiro Francisco ( Junior). 2005. ‘Bounded Rationality in the Japanese Cinema:
Director Miwa Nishikawa’s Yureru Revisits the “Rashomon Effect”’, Psychology, 26 (2): 202.
Suzuki, Michiko. 2010. Becoming Modern Women: Love & Female Identity in Prewar Japanese
Literature & Culture. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Zaima, Daisuke. 2008. ‘Film Director “Returns” to the US’, Nikkei Weekly ( Japan), 30 June.
Jeremy B. Warner and Brian Yecies


During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Confucianism greatly
influenced the people of Korea and Japan. This philosophy led to women being
confined to private space and men dominating the public sphere – and basically
prevented women from working in any industry culturally considered a male
career. The Japanese began to pull the Korean Joeson dynasty out of isolation in
the mid 1800s; it was put under the protection of Emperor Meiji in the Japan-Korea
Treaty of 1876. Three years before the turn of the twentieth century, the Joeson
dynasty proclaimed itself the Korean Empire, bringing forth Korea’s industrial rev-
olution. According to the London Times, it was during October of 1897 that actual-
ity films1 from France’s Pathé Pictures screened in Jingogae, Bukchon (2001: 20).
The first Korean theatre, Dongdaemun Motion Picture Studio, opened in 1903
and the Dansung-sa Theatre opened in Seoul during November of 1907. Actuality
films continued to play until the audience’s insatiable demands for the medium
led to the import of films from the United States and Europe. The Russo-Japanese
War in 1904 deflected control of Korea away from Russia, and Japan annexed
Korea under the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty in 1910. Hollywood fiction films
continued to be imported during the annexation. Kino-dramas, which imitated
the shinpa2 melodramas of Japan, were being produced in Korea in the late teens
of the twentieth century, leading to the production of narrative features in the
early 1920s. Women were not allowed to appear onscreen until 1923; the first
onscreen actress was Lee Wol-hwa, she appears in The Vow Made Below the Moon.
Korean cinema flourished in the 1920s, but production companies were strictly
under the control of the Japanese. Control was tightened in the 1930s by the impo-
sition of strict censorship guidelines; this led to a steep decline in the number of
films produced. With the advent of sound, the Japanese made Korea the central hub
of colonial film production, producing films that assimilated Japanese culture into
their governed territories. In 1945, Korea was freed from the control of the Japanese
and the embargo imposed by the Japanese on Hollywood films was lifted. Freedom
from the Japanese and the influence of Hollywood cinema led to women having a
greater presence in the ‘public space’; however, only a handful of films were produced

132 Women Screenwriters

at the beginning of the 1950s due to the Korean War. When the war ended, South
Korean president Syngman Rhee exempted film production from taxes in an effort
to rejuvenate production. Screenwriter/filmmaker Park Nom-ok started working
for the Chosun Film Company after liberation from the Japanese and worked on
the Film Crew of the Ministry of National Defence during the war. Afterwards, she
independently wrote and directed Mimangin/The Widow (1955, co-adapted with Lee
Bo-Ra), a film focusing on the struggles of a woman raising a daughter by herself.
The financial failure of the film prevented Park Nom-ok from writing additional fea-
tures (In-young 2007: 161). Hung Eun-won began working in the industry around
the same time as Park; she wrote screenplays during the early forties and directed
Yeopansa/A Woman Judge (1962), based on the controversial death of a female judge
at the time. The film follows the growing presence of women in the public space, and
the female judge tries to balance her life between work and home (In-young 2007:
162). She directed two more films and continued working as a screenwriter until
the early seventies. Hwang Hye-mi (1932–) majored in French literature at Seoul
National University and then studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. She began as a direc-
tor on Cheosgyeongheom/First Experience (1970) before going on to write and direct
two more features and write Naleul deo-isang goelobhiji mala/Don’t Torture Me Anymore
(1971). Her last film was Relationships (1972). ‘Although she was praised for her efforts
on First Experience, winning an award for Best New Director, she stopped taking part
in filmmaking. This was because of the times she was living in. Government control
of the film industry was at its strongest and making movies was like pouring money
into a hole. Hwang Hye-mi made no other movies after 1972’ (Seen in Jeonju, 2010).
The near-global women’s movements during the 1970s did affect Korea, leading
a group of women to form the ‘Kaidu Club’. The club was an alliance of female
filmmakers reacting against male chauvinism as well as the plethora of melodramas
produced by the Korean film industry. Han Ok-hee and Kim Jeom-seon were two film-
makers in the club; they produced experimental films, screened anti-establishment
works, and challenged the assigned roles of women before the club disbanded in
1977 (Park 2008: 139). The activism led by Han influenced the rise of women film-
makers in social realism and documentary films during the 1980s, most of these
being funded personally or on a low-budget scale with little to no exposure. The
1990s brought forth the Korean New Wave, which would influence emerging women
filmmakers. Women increased their presence during the 1990s and early 2000s
through creating shorts for the festival circuit. One current writer and director, Lee
Jeong-hyang, has had commercial success with her Misulgwan-yeob dungmul-wan/Art
Museum by the Zoo (1998), The Way Home (2002), and Oneul/The Way Home (2011).
The number of women working in the film industry has risen since the 1970s, but
social constraints still inhibit many from achieving great success. (Jeremy B. Warner)

Korean female writer-directors and the reach of their work

Brian Yecies, with contributions from Jie Yang, Matthew Berryman,

Aegyung, and Kai Soh
Since the late 1990s, South Korean cinema has become one of the most exciting
and dynamic national cinemas in the world – a phenomenon signalled by the
Korea 133

unexpected success of the domestic action-crime drama Shiri (1999), which

eclipsed Hollywood’s mega-blockbuster Titanic (1998) at the Korean box office.
This ‘David and Goliath’ accomplishment in an industry dominated by a cosy
club of male writer-directors demonstrated the newfound strength of Korean
cinema both at home and abroad. Perhaps surprisingly, a stable of previously
unheralded female writer-directors, drawn from both the independent and com-
mercial sides of the industry, have done much to ensure Korean cinema’s global
popularity. In addition, the work of female writer-directors is influencing the
continuing rise of Korean cinema in China. China has the largest number of
multiplex screens and the fastest-growing online and mobile media audience
in the world – factors which between them are contributing to the potential for
enormous box-office success and the creation of new audiences for films from
across the globe.
With this background in mind, we analyse the online commentary – often called
electronic word-of-mouth (hereafter eWOM) – on a range of films made by a select
group of female Korean filmmakers by thousands of Chinese fans who utilize the
popular Douban social networking service (SNS) website. Douban commentators
share and evaluate information and opinions about films accessed across cinemas,
video on demand (VOD) platforms, DVD shops and illegal kiosks, as well as illicit
peer file-sharing networks. To facilitate this unique cross-cultural analysis, this
study employs innovative data-collection and analytical tools developed by the
SMART Infrastructure Facility at the University of Wollongong. We aim to inves-
tigate how these Korean women filmmakers and their films are making transna-
tional connections outside of Korea with a particular subset of the world’s largest
audience of ‘digital natives’ – a label that describes mainstream Chinese movie
fans in their twenties who spend a large proportion of their waking hours using
online and mobile Internet and Web 2.0 applications.3
We first introduce the Korean women writer-directors – Hong Ji-young, Lee Jeong-
hyang, Byun Young-joo, and Roh Deok – responsible for The Naked Kitchen (2009),
A Reason to Live (2011), Helpless (2012), and Very Ordinary Couple (2012) respec-
tively. These films were selected for their significant place in the works of Korean
writer-directors and also because they attracted the largest number of Douban
user comments by Chinese film fans in relation to similar films. We initiated the
project in the hope that these case studies will help us understand how geographi-
cally dispersed Chinese-speaking movie fans on Douban – a segment of the largest
media audience in the world – are expanding awareness of these Korean women
writer-directors, thus adding depth and complexity to the global rise of Korean
cinema. In sum, we set out to investigate the local reception of these films, and
to gauge the level of awareness of Korean women writer-directors and their films
among active Chinese audiences who use Douban.

Korean women filmmakers in China’s social media scene

Among film fans active on the Chinese Douban SNS, the four most popular Korean
female writer-directors – in terms of the number of online comments – are Hong
Ji-young, Lee Jeong-hyang, Byun Young-joo, and Roh Deok. All four women
134 Women Screenwriters

undertook formal film studies at different times in their lives, with most entering
the field after studying an unrelated discipline – a common pattern in Korea’s
contemporary film scene. Hong and Lee attended Korean Academy of Film Arts
(KAFA), which has a significant influence on Korean cinema through the training
and nurturing of many of the country’s leading filmmakers. Over the past 30
years, KAFA has empowered female writer-directors by equipping them with
technical knowledge and skills of an international standard that have enabled
them to compete, not only in Korean cinema, but also in the global film industry.
In concert with other institutions with long-standing film programmes such as
Chung-ang University and Dongguk University, as well as specialized art institu-
tions such as the Korea National University of Arts (established in 1992), KAFA has
provided aspiring female filmmakers with the kind of opportunities that, in the
past, were available primarily through an informal apprentice system dominated
by male practitioners.
These four females followed circuitous pathways into the industry; however,
their early experiences helped them develop a mature view of the world embrac-
ing diverse perspectives. In turn, their considered views of Korean society, and life
in general, are reflected in the stories – both original and adapted from existing
sources – that they write for the screen. All four made short films or documenta-
ries before their debuts as feature film directors, thus gaining valuable experience
of industry practices.
Hong Ji-young (1971–) was born at a time when Korean cinema was experiencing
a ‘dark age’. She received a Master’s degree in philosophy from Yonsei University
and then graduated from the KAFA in 1999. As the scriptwriter and assistant direc-
tor on HerStory (1995), directed by her husband and fellow KAFA graduate Min
Kyu-dong, Hong gained valuable filmmaking experience.4 After making her short
film Rosa Story (1998), Hong made her debut as a feature film writer-director with
The Naked Kitchen (2009, aka Kitchen) – a light-hearted commentary on adultery
and the unpredictability of love. The film, which Hong co-wrote with Lee Kyoung-eui,
came to the attention of European audiences at the 2010 Berlin International Film
Festival, when it screened (by invitation) in the late-night culinary cinema sec-
tion, which celebrates the themes of food, love, nature, and the environment.
According to the Variety reviewer, Hong’s ‘handsomely shot romantic dramedy’
was reminiscent of Korean cinema’s ‘metaphysical’ films of the 1990s, associated
with well-known male directors such as Bae Chang-ho and Lee Myung-se (Elley
2010). The Naked Kitchen was released at a time when Korean cinema was recover-
ing from a downturn at home – in terms of total admissions, numbers of films
exported, and the proportion of completed films that were actually released.
After The Naked Kitchen, Hong directed Secret Recipe, one of four horror omnibus
films in Horror Stories (2012). Her episode is a drama of sibling rivalry in which a
woman has facial plastic surgery in order to steal her sister’s wealthy and attractive
fiancé. (All the episodes in Horror Stories were directed by females.) Also in 2012,
she directed the short film Star Shaped Stain for the Korean Ministry of Health and
Welfare’s omnibus film Modern Family (2012), which explores the social and cul-
tural factors behind Korea’s low birth rate. Hong’s most recent directorial project
Korea 135

was the light-hearted romantic drama Marriage Blue (2013, aka The Night Before
Marriage, written by Myeung-ju Ko) – starring 2PM Kpop idol Ok Taecyeon – which
follows a series of events preceding the weddings of four couples.
Lee Jeong-hyang (1964–) is the writer-director of A Reason to Live (2011), her debut
feature film starring the popular pan-Asian actress Song Hye-gyo. Lee studied French
literature at Sogang University in Seoul and then entered KAFA in 1988. After work-
ing for Lee Jang-ho, a leading male director who made his name in the mid 1970s,
as an assistant director on Declaration of Genius in 1995, Lee Jeong-hyang made
her writer-director debut with the feature film Art Museum by the Zoo (1998), one
of only 43 domestic films produced in 1998. This semi-autobiographical drama –
which was the fifth most popular Korean film in terms of annual total attendance –
portrays the awkward but heartfelt relationship between two strangers who end
up living together. The couple co-author a romance film script about a woman
working at an art museum and a male zookeeper, thus transforming Art Museum
by the Zoo into a film-within-a-film which also manages some serious reflections
on the meaning of life. The film, which Lee began writing in 1995 at a time when
government censorship was in full swing, earned numerous awards, including
Best Actor (for Shim Eun-ha of Christmas in August fame) at the Grand Bell Awards,
and Best New Actor awards for Lee Sung-jae at the Baeksang Arts Awards, the
Chunsa Film Art Awards, and the Blue Dragon Film Awards. Art Museum by the Zoo
is considered by local and foreign critics alike as a post-censorship (i.e. post-1996)
Korean cinema classic (Paquet 1998; Sung 2011).
Lee Jeong-hyang’s second feature, The Way Home (2002), was another box-office
hit, earning her the status of Korean cinema’s ‘most commercially successful’
female director at the time, and making her a beacon of hope for makers of
low-to-medium budget films (i.e. films made for under US $2 million) of either
gender (Paquet 2002). The film reached the number two spot in the top ten Korean
films in terms of annual total attendance, drawing audiences of over 1.6 million
in Seoul. Despite the film’s lack of commercial appeal, admissions for The Way
Home surpassed those of Hollywood blockbusters Minority Report (2002), The Lord
of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), and Spider-Man (2002), as well as
star-driven Korean films such as Public Enemy (2002) and Oasis (2002).5 The film
explores the relationship between a seven-year-old boy from Seoul and his mute
elderly grandmother who lives deep in the countryside. Through their clashing
lifestyles and attitudes, and the boy’s eventual warming to her and appreciation of
her simple and traditional way of life, the film underscores the social and cultural
divide between Korea’s urban and rural communities.
During interviews in 1998 when Art Museum by the Zoo was released, Lee
spoke about the ‘handicaps’ that she and other female filmmakers faced in a
male-dominated industry. First, the small number of women (including students)
interested in pursuing a film career had very few role models to emulate, and they
often faced discrimination from a core group of ageing male film professors whose
attitudes were rarely questioned. Thus, aspiring to become a director (or producer)
at this time – before the mid 1990s, pre-dating the rise of ‘new Korean cinema’ –
was a near-impossible task. Second, the pressure to return a profit (or at least
136 Women Screenwriters

recoup most of a film’s budget) in a period when funding was severely limited
made it especially risky for female filmmakers to experiment with art-house and
independent stories and projects.6
Lee Jeong-hyang’s much-anticipated third film, A Reason to Live (2011), offers a
range of viewpoints on the theme of forgiveness, which has traditional roots in
religious practice and belief. Lee focuses on the pain and suffering of the victim’s
family and friends who must deal with the deep emotions occasioned by the
loss of a loved one. The question that rings throughout the film is: who should
benefit from an act of forgiveness? (Gwy-hwan Kim 2010). Reminiscent of Lee
Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine (2007), A Reason to Live questions the role of religion
in people’s lives as a potential source of strength in times of emotional vulnerabil-
ity; at the same time, it traces ‘a woman’s purgatorial ordeal in accepting a loved
one’s unjust murder and a world without providence’ (Lee 2011).
The third woman writer-director in our study, Byun Young-joo, is Lee
Jeong-hyang’s contemporary and a key member of the first generation of female
directors who have emerged since the 1990s. She was born during the tumultuous
mid 1960s, in 1966, the same year that authoritarian president Park Chung Hee
established a screen quota system for domestic films in Korea, making it manda-
tory that a minimum of one-third of all films screened in cinemas should be
domestic films.7 Byun received an undergraduate law degree from Ewha Women’s
University and a graduate degree in theatre and film from Chung-ang University.
Along with Kim So-young, Mun Hyae-joo, and Hong Hyo-sook, Byun founded
the Bariteo, a feminist film collective, in 1989 with a view to spreading women’s
film culture and practice. Byun entered the film industry as a cinematographer on
Kim So-young’s Even Little Grass Has Its Own Name (1989) – a short independent
film exploring gender discrimination in the workplace – followed by My Children
(1990). The sex trade in Asia and ‘sex tourism’ in the famous Korean honeymoon
destination, Jeju Island, was the topic of her first independent documentary,
Women Being in Asia (1993), which was produced by Kim Dong-won of Repatriation
(2003) fame. She is best known for her critically acclaimed and award-winning
documentary trilogy The Murmuring (1995), Habitual Sadness (1997), and My Own
Breathing (1999). This poignant and visually compelling trilogy uncovers the
painful and suppressed experiences of Korean women who were forced by the
Japanese colonial government to serve as sex slaves or ‘comfort women’ during
World War II.
The positive critical and popular reception of Byun’s short films and independent
documentaries eased her pathway into commercial filmmaking, and many other
female directors have followed her. Like Byun and Hong Ji-young, they gained
valuable training while making short films and documentaries before turning
their hand to feature films. In making the transition, Byun, Hong, and other
female directors such as Park Chan-ok and Jeong Jae-eun initially became known
in the less competitive arena of independent films. For top female film producers
such as Shim Jae-myung, the founder of Myung Film, the increasing number of
female directors working on the male-dominated commercial side of the film
industry was a natural progression, given the prowess they were demonstrating
Korea 137

on the independent filmmaking scene. In fact, at the turn of the millennium, at

least one local commentator felt that Korean cinema was on the cusp of a new era
in which female directors would be dominant. Since then, the four filmmakers in
this study have made their mark both at home and abroad.
Byun’s use of film to give a voice to some of the hidden and unknown stories of
Asian women, as well as her focus on human rights, has made her an iconic mentor
for both male and female filmmakers in Korea and beyond. Her first feature, Ardor
(2002), was an erotic drama following the sexual re-awakening of a middle-aged
woman, Mi-heun (played by Kim Yunjin of Lost and Shiri fame), who has suppressed
her deepest desires after learning of her husband’s affair with another woman.
Byun’s second feature, Flying Boys (2004), was a romantic coming-of-age story
about a boy in his last year of high school; he has a crush on a neighbourhood
girl. The film gained the attention of both foreign and domestic critics for the pro-
gressive way it portrayed gender roles, sexuality and class distinctions in Korean
society. Byun’s most recent film, Helpless (2012), is discussed below in the data
analysis section of the Douban study.
The final writer–director in our analysis is Roh Deok (aka Nho Deok), who was
born in 1980. She is a graduate of Seoul Institute of the Arts’ film program and is
the youngest of the filmmakers in our study. Roh worked as a script assistant on
Jang Joon-Hwan’s Save the Green Planet! (2003), going on to direct The Secret Within
Her Mask (2005), a short award-winning film about a girl who wears a mask to
hide her embarrassing facial hair, offering a moral about learning to accept and
love one’s inner beauty.
In 2013 Roh Deok’s feature debut, Very Ordinary Couple (2013, aka Temperature
of Love), which she wrote over a seven-year period, won the Best Feature award
in the Asian New Talent competition at the 16th Shanghai International Film
Festival (Conran 2013). When interviewed, Roh spoke of her nagging sense that
both cinemagoers and her fellow filmmakers viewed her as a woman rather than a
director, reaffirming the challenges of succeeding in the macho world of filmmak-
ing in Korea and across the globe. As a survival strategy for overcoming the gender
barriers and stereotyping still in force in parts of the industry, Roh maintains a
calm and collected ‘feminine’ exterior when interacting with others. She believes
that this approach gives her the upper hand as a woman in a male-dominated
industry, enabling her to surprise those who underestimate her technical and
creative abilities as well as her project management skills. In adopting this stance,
and despite experiencing her fair share of obstacles and failures, Roh serves as
an example for other women filmmakers to follow – particularly since (as she
believes) here patience and forbearance stand in stark contrast to the manic ways
of many male filmmakers.8
These four writer-directors and their filmographies showcase both the diversity
of contemporary Korean cinema and the multiplicity of viewpoints that women
filmmakers bring to the screen. Each one has contributed in her own special way
to the expansion and changing face of Korean cinema, not only at home, but
also among the numerous Chinese fans, including those who use the Douban
SNS site.
138 Women Screenwriters

Douban’s invigoration of Korean cinema in China

Since its inception in early 2005, Douban has become one of China’s biggest
online social library systems and platforms for facilitating user-generated interac-
tions and reviews of creative and cultural content – films, television programmes,
books, music, and radio programmes – as well as cultural events in selected
Chinese cities and other international centres. (It was initially launched as a
platform for discussing books; films and music were added as major discussion
topics in the middle of 2005.) Both registered and unregistered users can use the
tools on this hybridized Amazon-IMDb-Myspace-Facebook Web 2.0 SNS site to
create and share a library of personal details, search for information, and make
recommendations to their followers as well as casual readers. The result is the
generation of vast quantities of participatory and collaborative eWOM, not to
mention increasing users’ motivation to engage with the media being discussed.
According to the website itself, Douban attracts more than one hundred million
unique visitors each month, and has amassed over 65 million registered users.
It is currently accessed by over 30 per cent of Chinese Internet users, making
the site a major magnet for the new waves of film marketing targeting film fans
across China.
Like Twitter, Douban is known as a ‘follower network’, meaning that users can
share information and spread messages and ratings of media texts among geogra-
phically dispersed followers and/or follow others. It also falls into the category of
an ‘interest-oriented’ SNS, as opposed to a ‘relationship-oriented’ site (Zhang and
Wang 2010). Today, eWOM is a critical factor in a film’s commercial success and,
by extension, its longevity among film viewers.
While previous studies have shown that high production values, critical response,
and ‘star power’ often do no more than create public awareness of a new release,
our study shows that, in China, star power also creates a sense of expectation or
‘buzz’ around a film. For example, many of the Douban user comments on Lee
Jeong-hyang’s A Reason to Live mentioned popular actress Song Hye-kyo by name,
but not the film or the writer-director. Of all the personal names recorded in the
dataset, Song’s name appears most frequently – with a majority of users citing her
as the primary reason for watching the film under discussion.
With these and other factors in mind, the value of using data quarried from
Douban to achieve a better quantitative and qualitative understanding of Chinese
audience tastes and a firmer perspective on Korean cinema in China becomes
apparent. We have used the four feature films The Naked Kitchen, A Reason to Live,
Helpless, and Very Ordinary Couple as our starting point in this process.

The SMART data analysis platform

To develop new connections between cinema studies and the burgeoning field of
digital humanities – an interdisciplinary arena for studying the evolution of the arts
and humanities in an increasingly interconnected and globalized world – this pilot
project utilizes the expertise of a team of IT specialists from the SMART Infrastructure
Korea 139

Facility at the University of Wollongong, a national centre for infrastructure solu-

tions. SMART stands for ‘Simulation, Modelling, Analysis, Research and Teaching’.
Specifically, we employ a range of machine learning algorithms and cloud comput-
ing techniques for data analysis, as well as the translation of conceptual models
into implementation programs and code prototyping. In plain English, the SMART
team employs advanced IT skills to develop a novel and more efficient technique
for investigating big data connected to audience analysis than those available to
researchers using traditional qualitative and quantitative survey and analysis instru-
ments. While the Douban dataset for these four Korean films is not exactly ‘big
data’, the complex systems modelling and analysis techniques employed in this
exploratory study constitute a working prototype for analysing films and case studies
involving the much larger volumes, variety, and velocities typically associated with
sources of big data.

The findings

Most of the users studied posted their comments for A Reason to Live, Helpless, and
Very Ordinary Couple around the time of each film’s festival and/or cinema release
in Korea, when they would also have become available via illegal DVD shops and
kiosks, and unlawful peer file-sharing networks in China.
The Naked Kitchen is an entertaining commentary on adultery and the unpre-
dictability of love. The film presents a light-hearted caricature of a married woman
who becomes involved in a ménage-a-trois. In taking this approach, director Hong
Ji-young suggests a liberal alternative to society’s general view of adultery, which
is a crime in Korea and punishable with a jail sentence (Chosun Ilbo 2009). Of the
four films analysed here, The Naked Kitchen attracted the largest number of user
comments. Douban commentators were more interested in the story, as opposed
to the director and actors, although the highest average rating (3.98) was given
by those who commented on the main characters. Of the relevant comments,
40 per cent of users mentioned aspects of the storyline, while only 4 per cent
showed any awareness of the writer-director. No one acknowledged her gender.
However, around 37 per cent of the comments used the word ‘Korea’ when dis-
cussing the film and/or the actors, as well as the marriage laws linked to the story,
revealing some awareness of this aspect of Korean social life.
Following a nine-year hiatus following the release of The Way Home, Lee Jeong-
hyang wrote and directed A Reason to Live (2011). The film presents two inter-
woven stories involving a female television producer whose fiancé is killed by a
teenager in a hit-and-run incident and a teenage girl (the producer’s friend’s sister)
who is abused by her father. Both women are at pains to forgive the men who have
caused them deep suffering. In this way, Lee interrogates such formidable topics
as the death penalty and Korea’s male-dominated society. Following the release
of this ‘deeply philosophical and layered work on forgiveness and crime’ in the
Pusan International Film Festival’s Gala Presentation section, Lee was interviewed
by a reporter for the Korea Herald (Lee 2011). Perhaps surprisingly, although
gender plays a key role in the story, neither Lee nor the reporter broached the
140 Women Screenwriters

topic of the day-to-day experiences of female filmmakers in the male-dominated

domestic industry. However – perhaps just because it is an intense story told from
a woman’s perspective – a reviewer in the Wall Street Journal ranked A Reason to
Live among the ten most notable films of 2011 (Napolitano 2011).
Of the films analysed, A Reason to Live attracted the second-largest number of
user comments. It received the highest average ratings among users sharing their
opinions about the actors, director, story setting (location), main characters, and
story – with the story achieving an average ranking of 3.92 out of 5 among slightly
over half (54 per cent) of the commentators. Unlike the film discussed above, a
majority of commentators on A Reason to Live knew that the film was written and
directed by a Korean woman filmmaker. It is likely that this awareness stemmed
from her reputation as the critically acclaimed director of two previous films, Art
Museum by the Zoo and The Way Home. Given the positive nature of the comments
on the film’s incorporation of the television industry, references to mass media
clearly resonated with the tastes and interests of this Douban cohort. In addition,
and like The Naked Kitchen, about one-third of the comments used the word ‘Korea’
when discussing the film and/or the actors, as well as the capital punishment laws
linked to the story. In other words, commentators showed an overt awareness
of this aspect of Korean social life. However, few if any comments broached the
subject of a male-dominated society.
Byun Young-joo’s latest writer-director project, Helpless, is based on the 1992
crime novel by Japanese author Miyuki Miyabe, All She Was Worth. Both the original
novel and Byun’s version tell the noir story of a woman who mysteriously disap-
pears and the detectives and family members who attempt to find her. During the
investigation, the woman’s financial problems are uncovered, and a picture of her
monstrous transformation emerges. In Byun’s adaptation, the female protagonist’s
dark trajectory, which includes murder and identity theft, is linked to the larger
economic woes of Korean society, with its dog-eat-dog ethos. Byun shifts the
original story’s setting from Japan’s precarious bubble economy of the late 1980s
and early 1990s to Korea in the late 2000s. This period was marked by the nation’s
struggles to overcome the damaging impact of the global economic crisis, not to
mention the residual hardships instigated a decade earlier by the 1997 Asian eco-
nomic crisis. At the same time, Byun’s psychological mystery-thriller shows how her
female protagonist is alienated from society and forced to live on its fringes – despite
her efforts to find some sense of normalcy within Korean society (Kim 2012).
Of the films in this study, Helpless attracted the largest proportion of users who
expressed positive opinions about the actors and storyline, with two-thirds of rel-
evant comments focusing on the story alone. These users gave an average rating of
between 3.3 and 3.6 for the actors, writer-director, story location and setting, and the
story itself. However, despite these positive ratings, less than 4 per cent of the cohort
specifically mentioned the writer-director – either by her name or job description.
One might have anticipated this, given the misinformation about Byun prevalent
in China. When Helpless was screened at the Pusan International Film Festival in
2012, Byun was interviewed by a Chinese film critic who had seen the film for sale
in various shops among stacks of illegal DVDs. While Byun was pleased to learn of
Korea 141

the film’s apparent popularity outside of the formal and legal film exhibition envi-
ronment, particularly given the localized Korean story in Helpless, she was bemused
to discover that the DVD cover named someone else as the director (a common
occurrence in the region owing to the hasty design of illegal DVD artwork).9
The final film in the study, Roh Deok’s romantic comedy Very Ordinary Couple,
recalls the treatment of the less attractive side of human nature displayed by the
main characters in War of the Roses (1989). It focuses on a secret workplace relation-
ship between a feuding couple who attempt to save face in front of their friends and
colleagues. Roh Deok’s creative inclusion of documentary-type footage, in the form
of an historical video project about the company, de-romanticizes the sugar-coated
love story while throwing the spotlight on the tumultuous relationship between
an estranged couple who are, despite their constant fighting, seeking to get back
together. Kim Min-hee, the heroine of Helpless, portrays a woman in a constant state
of flux vis-à-vis her male partner, as their love for one another oscillates between
hot and cold. Always a popular choice, Very Ordinary Couple received the highest rat-
ings of all four films in the Douban dataset: commentators gave an average rating of
3.75, 3.89, 3.63, 3.85 and 3.41 in comments including the keywords for actor, direc-
tor, location, main characters, and story respectively. Roh’s award for Best Feature in
the Asian New Talent competition at the 16th Shanghai International Film Festival
would have helped promote this film to Chinese audiences. As with Helpless, 75 per
cent of comments focused on the story alone, while almost 12 per cent mentioned
the story’s location or settings. However, as with the other films in the study, the
name and designation of the film’s director was scarcely mentioned.
Taking all four films into account, very few comments acknowledged that each
film was written and directed by a woman. Clearly, this aspect merits further
consideration and action by Korea’s commercial and independent producers who
are interested in global markets, as well as the Korean Creative Contents Agency
(KOCCA), which is tasked with promoting the nation’s popular media content
and culture to the world.

1. ‘Actuality films’ pre-dated the emergence of the documentary. One of the most well-
known early actuality films was shot by the Lumière brothers, in France: the camera
caught workers leaving a factory.
2. Shinpa is a form of theatre and cinema in Japan, usually featuring melodramatic stories,
and usually more realistic than narratives in the kabuki style.
3. In a recent interview, Mr Zhang Zhao, CEO of Le Vision Pictures (the film production
division of Leshi Internet Information and Technology Corp) and the co-producer
of the box-office hit Tiny Times 3.0, used the phrase ‘Internet aborigines’ to describe
China’s digital natives. See Liu Wei, ‘Film Company Utilizes Marketing Techniques’,
China Daily, 8 May 2014. Available at: www.chinadaily.com.cn/culture/2014-05/08/
content_17493073.htm (accessed 29 April 2015).
4. She also worked on the adapted screenplay of Antique (2008) directed by Min Gyu-dong,
which was based on Fumi Yoshinaga’s manga Antique Bakery.
5. The Way Home was the top-grossing film among all domestic and foreign films screening
in Seoul (1 January to 30 September) when Korean Cinema 2002 was published.
142 Women Screenwriters

6. Lee’s reflections were documented in two interviews, available at: http://www.hani.co.kr/c21/

data/L981214/1q4ece01.html and www.cine21.com/news/view/mag_id/1409 (accessed
29 April 2015)
7. The 1966 Screen Quota System conveniently adopted the oppressive contents of the
colonial-era Chosun Film Law introduced in 1941 by the Japanese colonial government
in Korea, as a means of controlling Korea’s burgeoning film industry. This law remains
in effect today. For more details, see Yecies 2007.
8. See Roh’s comments at: www.tvreport.co.kr/?c=news&m=newsview&idx=328383 and www.
newsen.com/news_view.php?uid=201303211358291110 (accessed 29 April 2015).
9. Personal interview with Byun Young-joo, Seoul, August 2014.

Chosun Ilbo: English Edition. 2009. ‘Hong Ji-young Looks at the Brighter Side of Adultery.
Available at: http://english.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2009/05/01/2009050100286.
html (accessed 29 April 2015).
Conran, Pierce. 2013. ‘“Very Ordinary Couple” Wins Prize in Shanghai’, Korean Film Biz Zone.
Available at: http://www.koreanfilm.or.kr/jsp/news/news.jsp?mode=VIEW&seq=2560
(accessed 29 April 2015).
Elley, Derek. 2010. ‘Review: “The Naked Kitchen”’, Variety, 18 January.
In-young, Nam. 2007. ‘Korean Women Directors’, in Kim Mee Hyun (ed.) Korean Cinema
From Origins to Renaissance. Seoul: Communication Books, pp. 161–8.
Kim, Gyu-hwan. 2011. ‘Reporter’s Notebook: Behind the Stories – A Big Hit Right Now, Focusing
on Forgiving Others (Gijap Sycheop: Yongseo – Reul Gangyohaneun Yi Sidaereul Hyanghan
Ilchim – Chwijae Dwitdamhwa), Maxmovie. Available at: http://news.maxmovie.com/movie_
(accessed 29 April 2015).
Kim, Hyeong-ho. 2012. ‘Interview: “Helpless”, Director Byun Young-Joo – 1. What Was
Rewriting “Helpless” Twenty Times Like for the Director? (Inteovyu: Hwacha, Byon Young-Joo
Gamdok – 1. ‘Hanttae’ Yeonghwagamdok-Ege 20goui Hwachaneun?), Maxmovie. Available
at: http://news.maxmovie.com/movie_info/sha_news_view.asp?newsType=&page=&
contain=&keyword=&mi_id=MI0094966985 (accessed 29 April 2015).
Lee, Maggie. 2011. ‘“A Reason to Live”: Busan Film Review’, Hollywood Reporter. Available at:
http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/a-reason-live-busan-film-245844 (accessed 29
April 2015).
Liu Wei. 2014. ‘Film Company Utilizes Marketing Techniques, China Daily. Available at:
http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/culture/2014-05/08/content_17493073.htm (accessed 29
April 2015).
Napolitano, Dean. 2011. ‘The Year in Asian Film, Wall Street Journal. Available at: http://
blogs.wsj.com/scene/2011/12/29/the-year-in-asian-film/ (accessed 29 April 2015).
Paquet, Darcy. 1998. ‘Short Reviews: “Art Museum by the Zoo”’, Korean Film.org. Available
at: http://koreanfilm.org/kfilm98.html#zoo (accessed 29 April 2015).
Park, Nohchool. 2008. A Cultural Interpretation of the South Korean Independent Cinema
Movement, 1975–2004. Kansas: University Press of Kansas, p. 139.
Seen In Jeonju. 2010. Available at: http://www.koreanfilm.org/tom/?p=512 (accessed 29 April
Sung, So-young. 2011. ‘In New Film, Director Puts Spotlight Back on Women’, Korean Joongang
Daily. Available at: http://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/news/article/Article.aspx?aid=
2942454 (accessed 29 April 2015).
Yecies, Brian. 2007. ‘Parleying Culture Against Trade: Hollywood’s Affair with Korea’s Screen
Quota’, Korea Observer, 38 (1): 1–32.
Zhang, Weiyu, and Rong Wang. 2010. ‘Interest-oriented versus Relationship-oriented Social
Network Sites in China’, First Monday, 15 (8). Available at: http://firstmonday.org/ojs/
index.php/fm/article/view/2836/2582 (accessed 29 April 2015).
Jule Selbo

Palestine has a relatively young cinema with a multilingual output – films are pro-
duced using Arabic, French, English, and Hebrew. In the early days of the industry,
work was focused primarily in the documentary mode. In 1945, the Arab Film
Company was founded; however, most of the films of this period are thought lost
due to political and social upheaval in the regions. In 1967 Palestinian cinema
was supported by the PLO and other Palestinian organizations; many of the films
in this period have also been lost due to continuing political unrest in the 1980s.
By the mid 1980s, Palestinian films had begun to receive international recogni-
tion. Then – as now – there was strong censorship and filmmakers often needed
government approval of projects. Despite the difficulties, however, women have
been working in the industry.
Annemarie Jacar (1974–) was born in Bethlehem, Palestine. Her work includes
screenwriting, producing and directing; she is also a poet and chief film curator
of the Dreams of a Nation Palestinian cinema project, an organization dedicated
to promoting the history and future of filmmaking in her nation. Her screenwrit-
ing credits include Lamma shoftak/When I Saw You (2012). This film focuses on an
11-year-old Palestinian refugee who is put in a temporary camp and searches for
a way out of the difficulties. The film earned awards at the Berlin Film Festival,
the Cairo Film Festival, the Carthage Film Festival, and the Amiens International
Film Festival. Other credits include the romance drama Milh Hadha al-Bahr/Salt of
the Sea (2008).
Filmmaker Cherien Dabis (1976–) was born in Omaha, Nebraska in the United
States and grew up in America and Jordan. Her parents are Palestinian and
Jordanian. She received her Master of Fine Art degree from Columbia University
in New York City. In 2009, she was named in Variety Magazine as one of the ‘Ten
Directors to Watch’ (Jaafar 2009). While living in America during the Gulf War,
she and her family faced discrimination. Musing on why she entered the film
industry, Dabis says, ‘I saw how the media was stereotyping Arabs and I decided
I wanted to have a hand in changing that’ (Jaafar 2009). Her film Amreeka (2009)
premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. ‘Amreeka is as much a mother-son story
as it is about life under occupation. I want to show the universality of an average
Palestinian family. The film is also about hope …’ (Jaafar 2009). Amreeka opened

144 Women Screenwriters

the New Directors/ New Films 2009 programme at New York’s Museum of Modern
Art and the Film Society at Lincoln Center (Mitchell 2009), was nominated for
Best Film at the Independent Spirit Awards, and won Best Arabic Film at the Cairo
International Film Festival. Other credits include May in the Summer (2013).
Documentary filmmakers Leila Sansour, Mai Masri, Ibtisam Mara’ana, Helga
Tawil-Souri, and others are also adding to the body of work by females in the film
industry of Palestine.

Jaafar, Ali. 2009. ‘“Amreeka” unveils Arab-American life’, Variety, 14 January. Available
at: http://variety.com/2009/film/features/cherien-dabis-1117998519/ (accessed 29 April
Mitchell, Wendy. 2009. ‘New Directors/New Films to open with Amreeka, close with Push’,
Screen Daily, 12 February. Available at: http://www.screendaily.com/new-directors/new-
films-to-open-with-amreeka-close-with-push/4043292.article# (accessed 29 April 2015).
Michele Leigh, Jule Selbo and Tatiana Tursunova-Tlatov


Jule Selbo
The Lumière film technology created in the mid 1890s in France – and the
Lumière brothers’ actuality films – may not have reached Russia until 1905,
nearly a decade after the technology was introduced in many other nations.
Under Tsar Nicholas II, Russia was slow to industrialize, and political unrest was
nearly constant as an underprivileged and repressed working class faced difficult
working conditions. These citizens began to organize against the bourgeois class
and the ruling royalty. Notwithstanding the fact that the country was politically
aligned with France (despite antagonistic relations in the Crimean War and the
Napoleonic invasion), the filmmaking movement stalled. It was once thought
that the film industry in Russia before the Bolshevik Revolution (1917) consisted
mostly of European imports, as companies such as Lumière, Gaumont, Pathè and
Danish Nordisk had large distribution branches. However, once the Russian film
archives were opened to the West in 1980, nearly 1,720 films were found that had
been made before 1917. The history of early Russian filmmaking is still unfolding.
One of the first production companies in Russia, the Drankov Studio, was
founded in 1908, releasing Stenka Razin, ‘a sensationalized account of a historical
outlaw’ (McReynolds 2003: 270). On the surface, filmmaking did not seem to gar-
ner the support of Tsar Nicholas, who is quoted as saying: ‘I consider cinematog-
raphy an empty, useless, and even pernicious diversion. Only an abnormal person
could place this sideshow business on a level with art. It is all nonsense and no
importance should be lent to such trash’ (Ferro 1995). The truth was revealed
years later, however, when it was discovered that Nicholas had set up a cinema
theatre in the basement of the Kremlin where he indulged in frequent late-night
screenings. He even sponsored, in 1911, the first full-length feature (100 minutes),
co-written and directed by Alex Khanzhonkov – Obonora Sevastopolya/Defence
at Sebastopol. The film narrative is based on stories by Leo Tolstoy focused on
events in the Crimean War. Khanzhonkov formed the Gomon I Siverson studio
in Moscow in 1905 and bought film equipment from Pathè. His wife Antonina
Khanzhonkov (also known as Antonina Nikolaevna Batorovskaya) worked as a

146 Women Screenwriters

screenwriter, director, producer and film editor; however, she does not receive
screen credit as a screenwriter (Rollberg 2008: 339). Female screenwriters working
at the Khanzhonkov Studios from 1913-17 include Zoia Barantsevich and other
actresses who penned scripts during short production schedules.
After the Revolution in 1917, Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin stated: ‘Of all the
arts, the cinema is the most important for us’ (Taylor 2008: ix). Lenin sought
to marry social reform with art through cinema. In 1919, he nationalized the
cinema and, in the same year, an acting school formed by Vladimir Gardin and
Lev Kuleshov became a training ground, becoming the first film school in the
world. In 1921 the school was designed as a college (GTK) and gradually became
the All Union Institute of Cinematography (VGIK). Both men and women were
trained in the art of filmmaking; female screenwriters who studied here and then
moved into the professional film industry include Viktoriya Tokareva and Maria
Nikolayevna Smirnova.
Nina Agadzhanova (1889–1974), under the name N. F. Agadzhanova-Shutko,
penned the massive The Year 1905, part of which became Battleship Potemkin
(1925, directed by Sergei Eisenstein); she received co-writing credit of the film.
Agadzhanova’s other credits include The Deserter (1933).
The film industry of the Soviet Union (USSR) (1922–91) encompassed the
work of filmmakers in Armenia, Georgia, Russia, Ukraine, Moldavia, Lithuania
and Byelorussia, as well as other areas in the Union. Although many films were
censored in the 1950s by the state, others found success at home and abroad. By
the 1970s, its status in international circles had increased and, with the advent
of Perestroika and Glasnost, works that would have formerly been censored made
it into the marketplace. By 1991, when the dissolution of the Soviet Union took
place and 12 independent republics were acknowledged, filmmakers began to
make films under the banners of their individual nations.
Female screenwriters have been active throughout Soviet and Russian history,
from the early silent films till today. They include Natalia Ryazantseva, Renata
Litvinova, Lidiya Bobrova, Kira Muratova, Lana Gogoberidze, Inna Churikova
and Elena Rayskaya.

Zoia Barantsevich and the Khanzhonkov Studios 1913–17

Michele Leigh
Zoia Fiodorovna Barantsevich (1896–1953) was a screenwriter, actress and novel-
ist. The years between 1913 and 1917 demarcate what is generally considered
the Silver Age of Russian cinema, filled with rapid growth and fledgling Russian
studios struggling to legitimize cinema as an art form while, at the same time,
Russian films gained dominance on Russian screens. During this time, feature-
length films were becoming the standard in worldwide filmmaking, thus marking
the transition from brief scenarios to well-crafted scripts. These factors, among
others, created space for women to become involved in a variety of roles in an
already male-dominated art form.
Zoia Barantsevich was one such woman. During her brief 14-year career in film-
making, from 1914 to 1928, Barantsevich was an actress, author and screenwriter.
Russia 147

During this period Zoia Barantsevich is credited with having worked on some
53 films, either as an actress or screenwriter – or both (only 12 of these films are
still in existence in some shape or form). The bulk of her film work was made in
the three years prior to the Revolution and, after 1918, she shifted back to acting
as her career tapered off. After 1928, it appears that she left the film profession
entirely and served in the administration of the All-Russian Theatrical Society.
Barantsevich began her career as a stage actress in Rostov working with
Konstantin A. Mardzhanov, but transitioned to cinema in 1914. From Mardzhanov
she learned the finer points of acting and, more importantly for her career as a
writer, learned to appreciate music, poetry and literature (Barantsevich 1965: 153–4).
Barantsevich’s first role in the cinema was that of Kitty in Vladimir Gardin’s
1914 production of Anna Karenina. According to fellow actor Amo Bek-Nazarov
(1965), Barantsevich immediately gained popularity after her screen debut in
Anna Karenina, which was produced by the company Rus’ Golden Series. The Rus’
Golden Series was known for its association with quality literature, thus establish-
ing a connection between Zoia Barantsevich and Russian high art.
Barantsevich was quickly courted by Alexandr Khanzhonkov, who wanted her
to join his production firm, Khanzhonkov & Co. She was signed to a three-year
contract to make 12 films per year (Barantsevich 1965: 158). Barantsevich is noted
for playing ‘young, helpless girls, inclined to the spirit of sacrifice and mystical
moods during the pre-Revolutionary period’ (World Art). In her book The Magic
Mirror, Denise Youngblood (1999: 12) lists Barantsevich as a ‘noteworthy’ but
second-tier film star. Zoia’s ‘second-tier’ status as an actress is challenged when
one considers the fact that, as Bek-Nazarov stated, ‘she worked with the best direc-
tors at the time – Vladimir Gardin, Evgenii Bauer, Pavel Chardynin, A. Chargonin,
and B. Tchaikovskii. In addition to this she acted with the ensemble of some of
the most widely known actors. Her inventiveness and her quick-wittedness were
never exhausted. To work with her was pleasure’ (Bek-Nazarov 1965).
It was possibly this inventiveness and quick-witted nature which gained her
access to the world behind the camera. Or perhaps her foray into scenario writ-
ing was due to the business acumen of Alexandr Khanzhonkov, who frequently
employed staff whom he could utilize in a variety of roles within the industry.
Based on extant films, 15 women were credited as screenwriters in Russia prior
to the Revolution and Khanzhonkov alone employed ten of them. Most of these
women also acted, edited and/or directed for him as well. Bek-Nazarov noted that
it became commonplace for Barantsevich to also appear on set as the scriptwriter.
‘She created numerous scenarios, including such unique, poetical works as Kto
zagubil?/Who Spoiled it? (1916); Umiraiushii lebed/The Dying Swan (1917); and
O, esli b mog vyrazit’ v Zvukakh/Oh, if Only I Could Express Myself in Sounds (1916)’
(Bek-Nazarov 1965). Regardless of the reasons she began writing, Barantsevich
is credited with having written at least eight screen scenarios between 1916 and
1918, four of which feature her in a starring role. Besides the three films already
mentioned she wrote: Legenda chernykh skal/Legend of the Black Cliffs (1916),
directed by B. V. Tchaikovskii; Skazka sinego moria/Tale of the Blue Sea (1916),
directed by Evgenii Bauer; Chortovo koleso/The Devil’s Wheel (1916), directed
by B. V. Tchaikovskii; Eto bylo vesnoi/It Was Spring (1916, director not listed);
148 Women Screenwriters

and Marionetki roka/Marionettes of Fate (1917), directed by B. V. Tchaikovskii.

Barantsevich also mentions another film, entitled Zhena prokurora/The Prosecutor’s
Wife (date/director unknown), for which she wrote the scenario (1965: 160).1
The period in which Barantsevich was writing also marks the push to legitimize
cinema as an art form. One way for studios to attain legitimacy was to produce
film adaptations of already established literary works, as is the case with Rus’
productions and Barantsevich’s first screen role as Kitty in Anna Karenina. Russian
movie theatres abounded with adaptations of works by authors such as Leo
Tolstoy, Alexander Pushkin, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Ivan Turgenev. When discuss-
ing attempts to legitimize the cinema, Denise Youngblood mentions prominent
writers like Tolstoy and Andrei Bely who openly endorsed the cinema, adding
credence to the newest of art forms. Youngblood goes on to note that other
‘popular’ authors ‘like Mikhail Artsybashev, Leonid Andreev, Zoia Barantsevich,
Vladimir Mayakovskii and Anastasiia Verbitskaia wrote screenplays’ (Youngblood
1999: 65). While not considered among the ranks of literary greats like Tolstoy
and Bely, these popular authors who Youngblood mentions were well known to
Russian readers of pulp fiction and ‘boulevard’ literature.2
Ranked as a popular writer of the time, two of Barantsevich’s screenplays were
based on her previously published work (1965: 159). The first of these two adap-
tations was Kto Zagubil? (1916), directed by N. V. Turkin, based on her novella
Lesnaia Storozhka/The Forest Lodge.3 In her brief memoir, Barantsevich provides
a little insight into her approach to adapting her own writing and her writing
process for the film: ‘When the actors felt “cramped” within the framework of
the scenarios given to them, they tried to overcome the problem themselves.
Sometimes this worked well, and sometimes it didn’t, but such attempts were
made. Nor was it something I avoided’ (Barantsevich 1965: 160). In other words,
as an actor cum screenwriter, she was not overly attached to the letter of the origi-
nal work; she valued the input of her fellow actors and allowed them to influence
her in adapting the writing for the screen. The review of Kto Zagubil? in Vestnik
kinematografii/The Cinematographic Herald illustrates that her loose adaptation
style and free-form method of writing was successful; ‘this is not a real life drama
in the strict sense, but that is to its advantage, it is not mired in superfluous eth-
nographic detail, and that allows the author to use the country as a back drop for
this life-like drama’ (1916: 8).
The countryside again features prominently in the second of Barantsevich’s
literary adaptations, her scenario for Umiraiushii Lebed, directed by Evgenii Bauer
in 1917. Barantsevich based the scenario on her novella of the same name; it was
written specifically with Imperial Ballerina Vera Karalli in mind (Barantsevich
1965: 160). The film was an instant success and received many positive reviews,
including this in the Obozrenie Teatr/Theater Review: ‘The content is quite inter-
esting. In general, the actress gave great thought to all the material put at her
disposal by the author of the screenplay, and the image she has created captures
one’s attention. Be that as it may, Umiraiushii lebed is an interesting film and will
no doubt appear on the screens of our cinemas for a long time to come’ (1917: 16).
This film about love and obsession was a success for the studio.
Russia 149

Barantsevich was not only an actress and screenwriter for motion pictures; she
also established herself as a writer of fiction and poetry and appeared as a frequent
contributor to the Khanzhonkov studio trade/fan journal, Pegas’/Pegasus, which
was published from 1915 until 1917. The clamouring for information about films
and film stars was developing in Russia; fans wanted to read about their favourite
stars. In response to these desires, A. Khanzhonkov & Co. was the first studio to
publish a non-trade journal on film that was intended, primarily, for a middle-
class movie-going reader. Khanzhonkov named this new journal Pegas’ zhurnal
isskustvo/Pegasus: A Journal of Art, drawing on the company’s already well-known
logo of the winged horse. It is important to note, however, that Pegas’ was pre-
sented as a ‘journal of art’ and as such was modelled on the successful literary
magazines in Russia at the time. The acceptance of fandom as a valid preoccupa-
tion was implied, as fans of cinema were the target market for the journal.
Pegas’ catered to the avid film fan, with plenty of film stills from their favourite
pictures, but also appealed to the fan’s desire for legitimacy by connecting film
to the other arts, such as painting, theatre and literature. Shelley Stamp argues
that, within the American context, serialized story tie-ins (i.e. the literary repro-
duction of film stories) ‘were used to increase cinema’s audience by drawing in
readers of newspapers and women’s magazines; production companies exploited
new methods of sustained, advanced publicity to promote chapter plays…’ (2000:
115). Pegas’ worked in much the same way – by connecting it to the other arts
by replicating the format of literary journals, the studio was able to increase the
readership beyond that of normal trade journals, reaching a broader audience
and thereby creating new interest in the cinema and cinema-going. According to
Stamp, the use of terms like ‘photoplay’ ‘connoted a dignified sphere of leisure
far from the world of cheap urban amusements with which cinema might oth-
erwise have been associated’ (Stamp 2000: 11). Pegas’ borrowed this trope quite
liberally and presented the films (or rather the plot summaries of the films) in
literary format, referring to them as kino-plays, kino-novellas and kino-novels. In
addition to appearing in the various film stills throughout the run of the jour-
nal, Barantsevich’s byline was regularly featured in association with kino-etudes,
kino-novellas, and kino-poems. Barantsevich’s writing is featured in six of the ten
issues, often appearing multiple times.
Slavic scholar Beth Holmgren notes that, in literary journals, names and por-
traits of women writers began to be placed alongside names and portraits of
male writers (Holmgren 1996). Pegas’ followed a similar tactic with the images it
placed on the cover of the journal. The inaugural issue of Pegas’ was released with
a photograph of Tolstoy on the cover, commemorating the anniversary of his
death. Subsequent issue covers featured various actors and actresses and one issue
featured Zoia F. Barantsevich. Just as Tolstoy was a literary star in Russian culture,
by virtue of such reverential treatment Koreneva, Kholodnaia and Barantsevich
(as both a writer and actress) attained the status of stars of Russian culture as well
as cinema. (That, at least, is what Khanzhonkov wished his viewers to believe.) In
addition to this, Zoia Barantsevich is the only screenwriter/actress to appear on
the cover of the journal, further elevating her as Tolstoy’s equal.
150 Women Screenwriters

Barantsevich’s role within the Khanzhonkov company was fairly significant. At

least one of her films, Umiraiushii lebed, was directed by the company’s most pow-
erful director and was financially and critically successful. Her image and byline
were prominently featured on the pages of Khanzhonkov’s journal, Pegas’, provid-
ing her with recognition that few other stars/screenwriters could boast.

Investigating women screenwriters in Russia

Tatiana Tursunova-Tlatov
With thanks to Nataliya Chertova and Jule Selbo

Nina Ferdinandovna Agadzhanova (Shutko)

Nina Ferdinandovna Agadzhanova (1889–1974) (also known as Nina
Agadzhanova Shutko and Antonina Nikolaevna Batorovskaya) was born on
27 October 1889 (some sources put her birthdate as 8 November 1889) in
Ekaterinodar (now Krasnodar), Russia. Her father was a merchant. She studied
history and philology at the Pedagogical College in Ekaterinodar (Rollberg
2008: 30). She became a member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union
(CPSU) in 1907 and, as a revolutionary in Moscow and St Petersburg, was jailed
five times and exiled twice. In 1914, she was executive secretary of the peri-
odical Rabotnitsa (Woman Worker). She played a significant role in the October
Revolution in 1917 and was drafted to work on the staff of the Soviet embassy
in Prague from 1921–2 (Rollberg 2008: 30). Her husband, Communist cultural
functionary Kirill Shutko, encouraged her interest in cinema. In 1925 she
penned In the White Roses, which was semi-autobiographical, focusing on her
experiences on a propaganda mission among White Army troops. Her extensive
screenplay The Year 1905 was entrusted to Sergei Eisenstein. He focused on part
of the script and this work was released under the title The Battleship Potemkin
(1925). Peter Rollberg, in his book Historical Dictionary of Russian and Soviet
Cinema. notes, ‘Agadzhanova-Shutko’s fame mainly rests on this one work,
although she disagreed with certain liberties taken by Eizenshtein. In hindsight,
despite Eizenshtein’s continued praise for the screenwriter, it was obvious that
(she) primarily provided the raw material that inspired the filmmaker’s unique
vision’ (Rollberg 2008: 30–1). Other parts of the comprehensive script (its scope
covered much of the era’s revolutionary unrest) were produced, including the
short film Krasnaia presnia (1926).
Agadzhanova-Shutko moved into directing and co-wrote and co-directed Two-
Buldi-Two (1929); the narrative focuses on a clown and his son who participate
in the struggles of the Revolution. In 1933 she co-wrote The Deserter; the story
follows a German dock worker who dreams of staying in the Soviet Union where
communism is becoming a reality. The film was directed by Vsevolod Pudovkin
(Rollberg 2008: 31).
Agadzhanova-Shutko worked as a script consultant at Mezhrabpomfilm
Studio before becoming, in 1945, a teacher at the All-Union State Institute of
Cinematography (VGIK).
Russia 151

Natalya Bondarchuk
Natalya Bondarchuk (1950–) was born in Moscow, USSR (now Russia). She is a
writer, director and actress. Her screenwriting credits include Gogol. Blizhayshiy
(2011), Pushkin: Pslednyaya duel (2006), Gospodi, uslysh molitvu moyu (1991, co-
written with Yevgeniya Rudykh, Oksana Strekova, and based on a story by Nikolai
Leskov), and the family fantasy films Yunost Bambi (1986) and Detstvo Bambi
(1985), both of which were co-written with Yurily Nagibin and based on Felix
Salten’s novel Bambi (1923).

Zinaida Brumberg/Valentina Brumberg

Zinaida Brumberg (1900–83) and Valentina Brumberg (1899–1975) were born
in Moscow, USSR (now Russia). They worked as screenwriters and directors, and
became well-regarded writers/directors of animated films (early credits include
Krasnaya Shapochka/Little Red Riding Hood [1937]). Other screenwriting credits
include the animated The Night Before Christmas (1951, which they jointly wrote
and directed; Mikhail Yanshin is also credited as a writer). The film is based on the
Nikolai Gogol story and is considered an example of the Soviet-Realist period in
Russian animation. Other credits include the animated short fantasy Propavshaya
gramota (1945, which they co-wrote with Zinoviy Kalik). Their work is also high-
lighted in the Soviet anti-Nazi propaganda film 4 Newsreels (1941).

Zoya Kudrya
Zoya Kudrya (1953–) was born in Tula, USSR (now Russia). She studied in the
department of journalism at Moscow State University and after graduation was
sent to work in Turkmenistan as a correspondent for the Turkmenistan Komsomolets
newspaper. After working as a journalist for several years, Kudrya decided to
move into screenwriting. She enrolled on the Higher Courses of Directors and
Screenwriters (the workshops arranged by filmmakers Vladimir Khotinenko, Pavel
Finn and Vladimir Fenchenko) where she attended the class of screenwriter and
actor Valeri Frid. One of Kudrya’s first scripts was for a full-length film, Homo Novus
(1990). The film won a number of international awards including the Grand-Prix
and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the Locarno Film Festival, the Golden
Dolphin of the Lisbon Film Festival, and the First Prize at the Ennio Flaiano Festival
in Pescara where the film competed with works by great screenwriters such as Akira
Kurosawa, Nikita Mikhalkov, Alexander Adabashyan, Vazlav Havel and others.
The collapse of the USSR affected the Russian film industry and the production
of feature films had slowed by the mid 1990s, leading Kudrya to join the rapidly
developing television industry. In the early years of the third millennium, she
worked as a scriptwriter on such TV shows as Café ‘Strawberry and Simple Truth.
However, talented Russian film directors of different generations sought to col-
laborate with her. Thus appeared the script Bogie; it was to have been directed by
Alexander Bibartsev, but production plans had lapsed due to Bibartsev’s untimely
death. Kudrya was then invited by Semyon Aranovich, an acknowledged master
of Soviet and Russian cinema, to write the script for The Year of a Dog (1994). The
film won the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival.
152 Women Screenwriters

In 2001, her script for the TV epic The Border: A Romance in the Taiga brought
her the Russian Federation State Prize in Cinema Art as well as the TEFI (Television
Broadcasting) Prize. In 2006, Kudrya accepted a position as assistant professor at
the Russian Federation State University of Cinematography (VGIK). Kudrya is a
member of the Film Expert Council of the Russian Ministry of Culture.

Maria Khmelik
Maria Khmelik (1961–) was born in Moscow, USSR (now Russia), the daughter of a
Spanish woman who resided in the Soviet Union. As a young girl, Maria often went
to Madrid and Barcelona with her mother to stay with relatives and felt at home
in both countries. In 1983, she graduated from the Screenwriting Department of
VGIK, the top Russian film school. She worked at the Mosfilm studios from 1983–5
and began to work in collaboration with her husband, Vassily Pitchul, a film direc-
tor. Khmelik’s screenwriting credits include Little Vera (1988), Dark Are Nights on the
Black Sea (1989), Idiot Dreams (1993), The Sky with Diamonds (1999), and Film Festival
(2006). She penned episodes for the television series Farforovaya Svadba, which
depicted the social changes during the Perestroika (events taking place in the 1980s),
with all its conflicts and contradictions, and the series Spy Life and World at War Four.
Other work includes research and writing on Pitchul’s documentary projects – a
number of films devoted to Soviet political leaders from Lenin to Andropov.
Few films have made such a scandalous stir in Russian cinema as Little Vera. This
was Khmelik’s first produced script and it received unexpected success – winning,
in 1988, the Special Jury Prize at the Montreal World Film Festival and the FIPRESCI
Prize at the Venice Film Festival. The narrative follows a troubled teenage girl (Vera)
who feels trapped in her provincial town; she meets and begins a relationship with
Sergei. They move into Vera’s parents’ small Russian apartment. Tensions with her
parents grow. The film contains a harsh look at life – at alcoholism, shortages, dis-
enchanted people and their inhuman, and often violent, relations. The narrative
also touches on people’s sexual lives, a relatively new and disturbing subject for
Soviet cinema at the time. The film features scenes of an unprecedented intimacy
and makes the point that the tempestuous relationship between Vera and Sergei
does not prevent them from being happy together and truly caring for each other.
The comedy Dark Are the Nights on the Black Sea explores the concept of hap-
piness, setting forth the idea that, because a human being does not choose the
time of his or her birth, all must live in the here and now. Despite suffering and
despair and disappointment in love, one can eventually come to understand that
life continues and that bitterness can be happiness.
From 1995–9, Khmelik completed a course at the Russian Academy of Sciences
Higher School of Psychology while working for a suicide rehab centre. She also
went back to her alma mater and works as an assistant professor and screenwriting
workshop supervisor at the Russian State University of Cinematography (VGIK).

Renata Muratovna Litvinova

Renata Muratovna Litvinova (1967–) was born in Moscow, USSR (now Russia). She
graduated from the Screenwriting Department of VGIK in 1989. She is an actress,
Russia 153

director and screenwriter. In 2003 she was the recipient of the Honoured Artist of
Russia award, and in 2007 she served as a member of the jury at the 29th Moscow
International Film Festival. Screenwriting credits include Leningrad. Nyobar (1990,
co-written with Oleg Morozov and Andreas Schadt), Nelyubov (1991), Traktoristy
(1992, co-written with Glen Aleynikov), Nebo. Samolyot. Devushka/Sky. Plane. Girl
(2002, based on a play by Edvard Radzinsky), Boginya/The Goddess (2004), Dva v
odnom/Two in One (2007, co-written with Yevgeni Golubenko), and Poseldnyaya
skazka Rity (2012).

Julia Loktev
Julia Loktev (1969–) was born in Leningrad, USSR (now St Petersburg, Russia).
She moved to the United States when she was nine years old. Her screenwriting
credits include Day Night Day Night (2006), a narrative that focuses on a 19-year-
old suicide bomber whose reasons for planning the crime are never clear, and The
Loneliest Planet (2011, based on a story by Tom Bissell), a story about a couple
who face physical, psychological and political troubles when they hike into the
Caucasus Mountains.

Kira Muratova
Kira Muratova (1934–) was born in Romania as Kira Georgiyevna Korotkova. Her
work includes screenwriting and directing. Screenwriting credits include shared
credit on The Tuner (2004), The Asthenic Syndrome (1990) and Chekhov’s Motifs
(2002). She is featured in a documentary made by Sally Potter (UK), Women
Filmmakers in Russia.

Viktoriya Tokareva
Viktoriya Tokareva (1937–) was born in Leningrad, Soviet Union (now St
Petersburg, Russia). She studied piano at the Leningrad Music College, graduat-
ing in 1958, and then attended the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography
(VGIK), graduating from their Screenwriting Department in 1969. Her first
published short story, A Day Without Lying (1964), earned her a screenplay com-
mission. Her adaptation was titled A Literature Lesson (1968). She has adapted
other original stories into screenplays, as well as working on original narratives
and adaptations from other literary sources. Tokareva is admired not only as an
author of vivid short stories shot through with psychological insight and subtle
irony, but also as a screenwriter. She has written over 20 screenplays and teleplays,
including such landmarks of Russian film as Gentlemen of Fortune (1971, in col-
laboration with G. Daneliya, winning the USSR State Award), The Adventures of
Huckleberry Finn (1973, in collaboration with G. Daneliya), Mimino (1977, in col-
laboration with R. Gabriadze and G. Daneliya, USSR State Award and Gold Medal
of the 1977 Moscow International Film Festival), and A Dog Was Walking on the
Piano (1978). Other film credits include Krasny petukh plimutrok (1975), O tom,
chego ne bylo (1986), Tu es … (1995), and Lavina (2001, based on her own book).
She writes mainly about women. The ‘eternal feminine’ is described by her with
such empathy and understanding that foreign critics consider her a feminist. She
154 Women Screenwriters

believes that the strength of a woman is in her active approach to life. Tokareva
was awarded the Russian Film Festival ‘Literature and Cinema Award’ in 1998. In
2000 she received an award ‘for the contribution to literature and films’ at the
Cannes Film Festival. Tokareva is a member of the Russian Writers’ Union (since
1972) and the Russian Pen-Centre. She is a recipient of the Moscow-Penne Literary
Award (1997) and the Order of Honour Pin (1987). Her daughter Natalya Tokareva
is also a screenwriter, writing for the television medium.

Elena Rayskaya
Elena Rayskaya (1957–) was born in Moscow and works as a screenwriter, direc-
tor and producer. In 1976 she entered the Screenwriting Department of VGIK
and graduated in 1981. The short film My Angel (1978), written by Rayskaya and
produced by the Debut company, won prizes both inside and outside Russia. The
claustrophobic atmosphere of the 1980s is reflected in the personal drama of a
little girl whose father deserts his wife for another woman. Rayskaya also explored
this atmosphere in Live Broadcast (1989), adding mayhem to the mix. In her film
Butterflies (1991) a man and woman are involved in crime and find themselves in
a locked apartment under surveillance. The film was inspired by the unhealthy
interest in the underworld that was peculiar to the ‘Great Criminal Revolution’
in the minds of the Soviets at the time. In her work, Rayskaya tends to model the
reality, but her ‘models’ are simplifying rather than generalizing. The writer’s style
manifests itself in the excessive nervousness of the narration, its overexcited tone.
The characters are forced to live on the edge and they are always ready to spill out
cherished beliefs.
Rayskaya’s script for The Role (1993) (also her directorial debut) showed the
confusion of intellectuals in the new political situation and their attempts to find
moral support in the past. Her next film, President and His Woman (1996), exagger-
ates the fear of the potential of image making and mass media and its manipula-
tion of the public’s mind and opinions.
Rayskaya also writes for television; Endangered Empire (2000) explores the life
of a notorious Russian revolutionary and double agent of the early 1900s. She
upturns the traditional view of the character and challenges the audience to draw
its own conclusions regarding the actions of the anti-hero. The historic lesson is
obvious: terrorism has become part of our present life and the pre-revolutionary
experience of fighting against it may come in handy.
Other screenwriting credits include The Snow Queen (2006), Hatred (2008),
Assumed Circumstances (2009), Piranhas (2011), and An Officer’s Wife (2013).
Rayskaya is an impressive personality who is always at the centre of attention.
Her originality cannot but lead to very different, even contradictory, opinions of
her work.

Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand (1905–82) was born Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum in St Petersburg,
USSR. Her family belonged to the ‘bourgeoisie’ and suffered financial and
Russia 155

political hardships during the Russian Revolution, causing them to flee to the
Crimean Peninsula. After the Russian Revolution, in the early 1920s, universi-
ties were open to women and, at age sixteen, Rand was part of the first group
of women to enroll at Petrograd State University (St Petersburg was renamed
Petrograd at this time). She majored in history, focusing on social pedagogy.
Rand came to the United States in 1926 to visit relatives in Chicago, Illinois;
one of her relatives owned a movie theatre where Rand could watch films for
free. She determined to become a screenwriter and moved to Hollywood. She
met director Cecil B. DeMille and worked as an extra on King of Kings (1927)
and then as a junior screenwriter (Britting 2004: 34–6). She sold a screenplay,
Red Pawn, to Universal Pictures in 1932; the film never went into production
(Britting 2004: 40). She married Frank O’Connor and became an American citi-
zen in 1931 and continued to write novels, plays and screenplays. Films based on
her work include The Night of January 16th (1941, based on her play), and We the
Living (1942, based on her novel about the struggle between the individual and
the state in Soviet Russia). Notable works include the screen adaptation of her
novel The Fountainhead (1949); the success of this film led producer Hal Wallis
to hire her as a screenwriter and script doctor. Her work for Wallis included the
adaptation of Love Letters (1945, based on the novel by Christopher Massie), and
You Came Along (1945, co-written with Robert Smith). Rand also wrote for tel-
evision in the 1950s and 1960s. Several adaptations of her novel Atlas Shrugged
have been produced (2011, 2012, 2014). She is the founder of a philosophy she
named ‘Objectivism’.

Natalya Ryazantseva
Natalya Ryazantseva (1938–) was born in Moscow, USSA (now Russia). Now
recognized as an Honoured Art Worker of the Russian Federation, a screenwriter
and publicist, she graduated from the Scriptwriting Department of VGIK in
1962. Her father was of noble descent and, in one of her interviews, Ryazantseva
mentioned that all the women in her family had a very strong will. After gradu-
ating from VGIK she contributed, as a screenwriter, to Ilyich’s Gate/I Am Twenty,
directed by Marlen Khutsiev. This film became a landmark in the history of the
Soviet cinema and its characters symbolized the new era in postwar Soviet society
of the sixties, called ‘Ottepel/the thaw’. Her next film, co-written with Valentin
Ezhov, Krylya/The Wings (1966), brought her to the attention of the professional
film industry.
The film investigates the complicated and difficult inner world of the main
character, a woman pilot, as she negotiates postwar life and reflects on her career
as head of a college, her family life and her struggle to understand the meaning
of life. The film has become a classic in the Soviet cinema because it shows the
depths of its female character. Ryazantseva’s screenplay Dolgie provody/Long Good-
byes (1971) is another example of an investigation of a woman’s life in postwar
Soviet Union. The film depicts the limitless love of a mother for her child and
how this love eventually causes conflict in the family. The shooting of Long
156 Women Screenwriters

Good-byes took three years and the script underwent many changes; Ryazantseva
notes that the script was radically reshaped.
Ryazantseva married twice; both her husbands (Gennady Shpalikov and
Ilya Averbakh) were talents of the Soviet cinema. Ilya Averbakh directed her
screenplays Golos (1982) and Other People’s Letters (1976). Other screenwriting
credits include Buket mimizy I drugie tsvety (1984), Portrait of an Artist’s Wife
(1982), The Scarlet Flower (1978), and Akme (2008). Ryazantseva also writes for
television and has written books, including Don’t Tell It to Mother (2005) and
The Voice (2007).
Ryazantseva’s literary works are marked by psychological insight and original
characters, true-to-life conflicts, and an ability to see the diversity of situations.
It is no wonder that there are no happy endings in her films and that the major
conflicts remain unsolved. ‘I have realized long ago …’ noted Ryazantseva in
an interview, ‘… that cinema attracts me as a microscope because no other
kind of art can approach a human being so closely and watch his or her life
in its constant movement.’ Ryazantseva teaches at VGIK in the Scriptwriting
Department. Ryazantseva served on the jury of the Venice Film Festival in
1988 and is featured in the Sally Potter (UK) documentary Women Filmmakers
in Russia.

Avdotya (Dunya) Smirnova

Avdotya (Dunya) Andreevna Smirnova (1969–) was born in Moscow, USSR (now
Russia), the daughter of film director Andrey Smirnov, who directed Byeloruskiy
Vokzal/Belarus Station (1971), an iconic film in the Soviet Union. Her grandfa-
ther was a well-known Soviet writer, Sergey Smirnov, the author of Brest Fortress.
Dunya’s father did not encourage her to enter the main cinematographic institute
of the USSR, the Russian State University of Cinematography (VGIK). For this rea-
son, Dunya entered Lunacharsky State Institute for Theatre Arts (GITIS), and pur-
sued a specialty in theatre studies. She also studied in the Philology Department of
Lomonosov Moscow State University; however, she did not graduate from either
Dunya Smirnova worked with director Alexey Uchitel on the successful docu-
mentary The Last Hero (1992). The film was dedicated to Victor Tsoy, legendary
musician and frontman for ‘Kino’, who died in a car accident. She continued to
work with Uchitel, penning the scripts for Gisele’s Mania (1995), His Wife’s Diary
(2000), and The Stroll (2003). The film The Stroll tells about a girl and her two
casual fellow travellers who walk around St Petersburg, flirting, exchanging caus-
tic remarks, and falling in love with each other. The stroll is filled with laughter
and tears, and the everyday bustle of streets presents an ominous mystery that is
solved unexpectedly. The open ending of the film makes the viewer empathize,
but also manages to engage the audience as co-authors of the film.
Dunya Smirnova then moved into directing her own screenplays, and these films
include Love Affair (2006), Fathers and Children (2008), Two Days (2011), Kokoko
(2012). Her marriage to Anatoly Chubais, a well-known politician of post-commu-
nist Russia, laid the foundation for the plot of the film Two Days: Petr Drozdov,
Russia 157

a high-ranking official from Moscow, arrives at a provincial museum in Russia at

the insistence of the local governor, who wants to take away the museum’s land
to build a new residence. At first, Drozdov supports the governor’s intention, but
after making an acquaintance with Masha, a specialist in the study of literature
who works as a deputy director of the museum, he changes his mind – not only
on this issue, but on the whole of life.
Dunya Smirnova has received praise for her real and expressive dialogue. In
interviews she has said that every good script has its own soul, its own character,
and that it is impossible to define who the author of it is, a man or a woman.

Maria Smirnova
Maria Nikolayevna Smirnova (1905–93) was born in Samoykino in the Samara
province of Imperial Russia (now Russia). She came to Moscow in 1924
and entered the Acting Department of the All-Russian State University of
Cinematography (VGIK). She acted in sketches, appeared in short films and, at
the same time, began to contribute as a writer to the materials in which she was
After her graduation in 1927, her screenplay for the silent film Her Way
(1929, co-written with D. Nikitin and D. Poznansky) was directed by Aleksandr
Shtrizhak. The story explored the character of a loving, strong-willed woman, for
whom the Revolution had opened new paths and who was now ready to work for
the people’s good.
In 1930, her screenplay for the silent film Aina was produced at the Ashgabat
Studio (now Turkmenistan). The narrative focuses on a Turkmen girl who escapes
to study in the city. Smirnova’s gift became apparent in a number of silent
films, and she continued to explore the character of the woman-toiler, aspiring
to knowledge for the people’s happiness. Her comedy Bear Home, dedicated to
the Komsomol members at a small railway station received the first prize at the
Lenfilm contest. In 1939, Smirnova took the first prize for the best script, Country
Women, at the All-Union competition.
During World War II, Smirnova was working on Martial Collections with other
writers, and published patriotic stories and essays. She continued writing screen-
plays; her The Village Teacher (1948) explored the life of an inconspicuous teacher
who became a hero to the people. ‘To live means to serve the Motherland’ was
a line of dialogue that resonated with the public. This film, featuring the actress
Vera Maretskaya as the village teacher, became a symbol of patriotism for sev-
eral generations and has become a classic in the history of Soviet cinema; it was
awarded the State Prize of the Soviet Union, one of the highest government
awards. Smirnova continued to explore the idea of a village intelligentsia in
screenplays that came to form part of a trilogy, starting with The Village Teacher
and moving into The Village Doctor and then Polushko-Pole (1957). However,
these films did not achieve the emotional tension of the first film. It should be
noted that the heroines of these films, Doctor Tatiana Kazakova and agronomist
Valentina Chernyshova, are spiritual daughters of Varvara Martynova, the main
character of The Village Teacher.
158 Women Screenwriters

While working on literary adaptations (The Story of Real Man by Boris Polevoy,
Mother by Maxim Gorky, and Floating Station by Vitalii Zakrutkin), Smirnova
always looked for specifically cinematographic ways to realize the material, while
at the same time carefully trying to preserve the essence of the source material.
In 1956, Smirnova wrote a screenplay with Indian filmmakers for a Soviet and
Indian co-production; the successful film, Pardesi/Journey Beyond Three Seas, was
co-directed by Indian director Khwaja Ahmad Abbas and Soviet director Vasili
Pronin. Smirnova’s other credits include The Story of First Love (1957) and Under
One Roof (1963).

Ekaterina Vinogradskaya
Ekaterina Vinogradskaya (1905–73) was born in Orel, USSR (now Russia). She
studied drama at the First Studio of Moscow Arts Theatre, but after seeing
P. Chardinin’s film A Woman of Tomorrow (1914) became interested in screen-
writing. Her credits include the silent film Wreckage of the Empire (1929, directed
by Fridrikh Armler). The film focuses on the rather complicated postwar life of a
confused soldier with amnesia who remembers his life under the tsar, but finds
himself in the world of the Bolsheviks and Lenin. The film was well received and
today continues to surprise audiences with its brave and harsh treatment of the
When sound was introduced into Russian cinema, Vinogradskaya demonstrated
new sides of her talent. Her artistry with dialogue became her unique trait. The
film A Party Card (1936) sets out a complex story of Soviet times in which the
story’s main characters are forced to act within certain limits; it is a love story
between a working-class girl and a talented revolutionary.
The film The Member of the Government (1939) was released on the eve of the
Second World War. It became a phenomenon not only because of its depiction of
the political life of the day but also its examination of Soviet cultural life. Other
credits include The Road of Glory (1948) and Towards Life (1952). From 1956 to
1973, Vinogradskaya devoted herself to teaching at the Russian State University of
Cinematography (VGIK). Her methodology, derived from her own work, became
a basis for teaching such remarkable postwar masters of Russian dramaturgy as
Yui Dunsky and Valeri Frid – two screenwriters who received their VGIK diplo-
mas after having spent many years in Stalin’s camps. A significant quote from
Ekaterina Vinogradskaya, the screenwriting teacher, is this: ‘A hack, sometimes
possessing certain qualities of a true master, is interested in the result only – but
not in the process.’

1. This research is based on extant films only. This last film, for instance, no longer exists
and it is currently impossible to verify if it was ever produced.
2. In other words, the sensationalist literature that fulfilled readers’ desires for loose
women, murder and intrigue.
3. Exact publication information in unavailable, which may mean that these were pub-
lished in serialized form rather than in book form.
Russia 159

Barantsevich, Zoia. 1965. ‘Liudi I vstrechi v kino/People and Meetings in the Cinema’, in
Kino I vremia/Cinema and Time, vol. 4. USSR: Moscow.
Bek-Nazarov, Amo. 1965. Zapiski aktera i kinorezhissera/Notes from Actors and Directors.
Moscow: Isskustvo.
Ferro, Marc. 1995. Nicholas II. UK: Oxford University Press.
Holmgren, Beth. 1996. ‘Gendering the Icon: Marketing Women Writers in Fin-de-Siècle
Russia’, in H. Goscilo and B. Holmgren (eds) Russia Women Culture. Bloomington: Indiana
University Press.
McReynolds, Louise. 2003. Russia at Play: Leisure Activities at the End of the Tsarist Era. USA:
Cornell University Press.
Obozrenie Teatr/Theatrical Review. 1917. ‘Umiraiushii lebed/The Dying Swan’, 3360: 16.
Rollberg, Peter. 2008. Historical Dictionary of Russian and Soviet Cinema. USA: Scarecrow Press.
Stamp, Shelley. 2000. Movie-Struck Girls: Women and Motion Picture Culture after the
Nickelodeon. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Taylor, Richard. 2008. The Politics of the Soviet Cinema 1917–1928. UK: Cambridge University
Vestnik kinematografii/The Cinematographic Herald. 1916. ‘Kto zagubil?/Who Spoiled It?’, 118: 8.
World Art: Art in all Displays. Zoia Barantsevich. Available at: http://world-art.ru/people.
php?id=13171 (accessed June 2012).
Youngblood, Denise. 1999. The Magic Mirror: Moviemaking in Russia, 1908–1918. Madison:
University of Wisconsin Press. ustrated Lives Series. New York: Gerald Duckworth & Co.
Part III
Nicolette Freeman, Lisa French, Margot Nash and Mark Poole

Women writers and the Australian screen

Lisa French and Mark Poole

The Australian film industry has been recognized for its creative innovation and
cinematic power, and Australian female screenwriters have played a significant
role in many of Australia’s most well-known films. For example, Judy Morris was
a co-writer of Babe: Pig in the City, 1998 and Happy Feet, 2006; Jane Kennedy co-
wrote The Castle, 1997 and The Dish, 2000; Melina Marchetta adapted Looking for
Alibrandi, 2000, from her own novel; Christine Olsen wrote Rabbit-Proof Fence,
2002; and Rachel Perkins co-wrote Bran Nue Dae, 2009. Australia’s female writ-
ers cover a range of genres and Olsen and Perkins were writing about Indigenous
Australia, a recurrent theme in Australian film; Morris was working in animation,
another key genre; Marchetta addressed issues of Australian multicultural society;
and Kennedy is known for her work in local comedy.
Indeed, the quality of Australian women screenwriters was highlighted when
Jane Campion was given the Academy Award for Screenwriting for The Piano,
1993 – and while other writers have received nominations in the screenwriting
categories of the Oscars, Campion remains the only one to have won. Originally
from New Zealand, Campion trained in film in Australia and went on to build a
transnational career from her Sydney base, working in the United States (In the
Cut, 2003) and the United Kingdom (Bright Star, 2009), as well as Australia (Holy
Smoke!, 1999) and New Zealand (The Piano), writing roles that could attract inter-
nationally renowned actors such as Kate Winslet, Holly Hunter, Meg Ryan and
Harvey Keitel.
In the non-feature sector, women writers have also been successful across a
range of genres. For example, women writers have achieved numerous screenplay
nominations in the ‘Best Screenplay Short Fiction’ category of the Australian
Film Institute’s (AFI/AACTA) Awards over the last decade; these include Erin
White, Kathleen O’Brien, Rachel Ward, Sally Riley, Trudy Hellier, and Mirrah
Foulkes. In the documentary sector, women have been prominent, penning such

164 Women Screenwriters

films as Joan Long’s The Pictures That Moved, 1968 and The Passionate Industry,
1972; Sue Castrique’s Federation, 1998; Barbara Chobocky’s The Raid, 1994; and
Katherine Thomson’s Unfolding Florence: The Many Lives of Florence Broadhurst,
2004, winning recognition for their work in the Australian Writers Guild AWGIE
Awards. Women writer-directors have also been prominent in documentary, for
example, Gillian Armstrong’s series of five films on young women growing up,
most recently Love Lust & Lies, 2010.
Australian television has experienced a golden era since the mid 2000s, and
women have been prominent in creating, originating and writing a number of
the most successful television dramas of recent years. For example, Sue Smith
co-wrote the iconic mini-series Brides of Christ, 1991, and also The Leaving of
Liverpool, 1992 and Mabo, 2012. Debra Oswald wrote episodes of the highly
successful drama The Secret Life of Us, 2002, and then created the show Offspring,
2010, starring Asher Keddie, currently in its third series. Deborah Cox was the
co-producer (with Fiona Eagger) and one of the writers for the successful series
Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, 2012 – indeed, almost all of the show’s 13 episodes
were penned by women. Cox was also a co-creator of the iconic series Seachange,
1998, and has written two feature films. Women are also writing for reality
television, taking good ideas and developing storylines, often drawing on the
conventions of drama; Claire Haywood, for example (Being Lara Bingle, 2012 and
Kalgoorlie Cops, 2011 – the latter uses three main storylines to frame each episode
and direct focus to the characters).
As a small industry with a medium-sized output, it is common for writers to
work across several forms (and genres); even Jane Campion, who has an extensive
international feature career, has also written narrative shorts, and television. Some
playwrights also work as screenwriters: Hannie Rayson, for example (writer on Sea
Change, 2000, Seven Deadly Sins, 1993), and Beatrix Christian (who wrote Jindabyne,
2006). Some novelists have also written for the screen, such as Julia Leigh, who
adapted her book as a feature film (Sleeping Beauty, 2011). Both Rayson and Leigh
have also had their non-screenplay work adapted to the screen by other writers.
With a particular focus on contemporary writers, this chapter offers an overview
of Australian women screenwriters in the context of the Australian film and tel-
evision industry (particularly film). This is undertaken in relation to their careers
within international circuits, and through a discussion of their participation and
representation within the industry.

Background and industry overview

As early as the 1920s, Australian women writers such as Kate Howarde, the
McDonagh sisters, Lottie Lyell, Mary Mallon, and Juliet De La Ruze were mak-
ing a contribution to the film industry. While their output was not large, they
were working across craft areas and many also directed and produced their films.
Indeed, the first woman ever to direct a feature film in Australia was also a writer
(Kate Howarde, who adapted her stage play Possum Paddock to the screen in 1921).
After this promising start Australian film production as a whole declined, and
between 1930 and 1970 few feature films were made. In the 1970s there was a
Australia 165

‘revival’ of the Australian industry (also referred to as a ‘renaissance’) when the

federal government moved to support the production of Australian film. Since
then the Australian industry has continued to rely on government subsidy to
survive, and this government funding has influenced the nature of the screen
works produced and the type of screenplays funded for development: for exam-
ple, nationalistic period films were popular with the Australian Film Commission
(now Screen Australia) when it was first established in the 1970s. This government
influence has also been read in some quarters as promoting a positive environment
for women: ‘The reason why women’s cinema flourishes in Australia, Canada,
France and even Iran is that they have governments that care about developing a
national cinema’ (McCreadie 2006: 144). The revival of the Australian film indus-
try in the 1970s was significantly influenced by equal opportunity policies operat-
ing at the time, and so the Australian Film Commission’s Women’s Film Fund was
established, which enabled many women to become writers and supported films
that were often political, female-centred and creatively innovative; for example,
funds were provided for writers Joan Long for Caddie in 1976, Helen Grace for
Serious Undertakings in 1983, and Tracey Moffatt for Nice Coloured Girls in 1987.
Today, government funding is available via the federal agency Screen Australia
and agencies located in each state (e.g. Film Victoria, Screen NSW). However,
women’s film funds no longer exist, having been phased out by the end of the
1980s (e.g. the AFC’s Women’s Film Fund 1976–89).
There are a considerable number of female writer-directors in Australia, and it
could be argued that, for women, directing their own work is one way for them
to get their projects realized. This is not unique to Australia; research globally has
shown this, for example, in the UK: ‘[T]he more women there are in decision-
making roles, the more likely it is that women will be able to take up writing
roles’ (Sinclair et al. 2006: 15), and in America: ‘[M]otion pictures with female
directors were more likely to hire women [as writers] than films with male direc-
tors’ (Sinclair et al. 2006: 38). To this day, Australia continues to produce many
writer-directors who are amongst the most notable of the country’s talent: Jane
Campion, Shirley Barrett, Ana Kokkinos, Tracey Moffatt, Jocelyn Moorhouse,
Cate Shortland, Sarah Watt and Rachel Ward (just to name a few). Indeed,
Australia has developed a reputation for supporting women filmmakers, includ-
ing women writers, and there are more women writer-directors coming out of
Australia ‘per capita’ than in the US (McCreadie 2006: 96).
Increasingly, Australian filmmakers have looked to international funding and
relationships to support their filmmaking and this has internationalized their
careers. Female writers have been able to develop transnational livelihoods, some
working in Hollywood or with international partners. Laura Jones is a major
international writer working both locally and internationally. She has written
projects directed by Jane Campion, Gillian Armstrong and Samantha Lang in
Australia, and also works outside the country; for example, she wrote the UK/
India co-production Brick Lane (Sarah Gavron, 2007). According to McCreadie,
‘Laura Jones, the screenwriter from Australia, built an entire reputation writing
films about women’ (McCreadie 2006: 11). The same could be said for numerous
166 Women Screenwriters

Australian women writers whose output is equally interested in representing

women, amongst them in features: Jane Campion (Top of the Lake, 2013; Bright
Star, 2009); Shirley Barrett (South Solitary, 2010; Love Serenade, 1996); Cate Shortland
(Lore, 2012; Somersault, 2004); Alison Tilson (Japanese Story, 2003; Road to Nhill,
1997); and in television: Deb Cox (Sea Change, 1998–2000; Simone de Beauvoir’s
Babies, 1997) and Kath and Kim, written 2002–7 by Gina Riley, Magda Szubanski
and Jane Turner. These writers have produced an abundance of female-centred sto-
ries, and this is their particular strength and contribution to global cinema. It also
contributes to the international perception that Australia produces and supports
women in the industry, including writers (McCreadie 2006: 96; French 2012: 42).

Australian film and television has a long history of adapting novels for the screen;
indeed, the revival of the industry in the 1970s was built on a large number of
screenplays based on novels, many of which were written by women. For exam-
ple, Eleanor Witcombe adapted two novels which became important films of the
1970s renaissance: My Brilliant Career (1979) from a novel by Miles Franklin, and
The Getting of Wisdom (1978) from a novel by Henry Handel Richardson (a pseu-
donym for Ethel Richardson). Witcombe won ‘Best Screenplay’ at the AFI Awards
for both films.
Contemporary women have successfully written adapted screenplays of signifi-
cance, including Head On (1998), written by Ana Kokkinos and Mira Robertson
(with Andrew Bovell), from the novel Loaded by Christos Tsiolkas; Puberty Blues
(1981), adapted by Margaret Kelly from the novel by Kathy Lette and Gabrielle
Carey (also made into a television series in 2012, the majority of which was written
by women: Imogen Banks, Alice Bell and Fiona Seres); Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002),
written by Christine Olsen from a novel by Doris Pilkington; Looking for Alibrandi
(2000), written by Melina Marchetta from her own novel; Anna-Maria Monticelli
wrote the screenplay for Disgrace (2008), an adaptation of the J. M. Coetzee novel,
which she also produced as a co-production (Australia/South Africa); and The Eye
of the Storm (2011), adapted by Judy Morris from a Nobel Prize-winning (1973)
novel by Patrick White. The majority of these films are from novels that offer a
female point of view, and even where that is not front and centre, the writer’s
empathy with a gendered view of the world often comes through. This is the
case with Morris’s adaptation of The Eye of the Storm, which brings something of
a female perspective. Morris has said, ‘I had enormous compassion for Elizabeth
Hunter [the mother, who was played by Charlotte Rampling] because I know that
woman … [her] sense of entitlement through extraordinary beauty and money,
but I [also] knew her kindness’ (Tynan 2011: 21–2). The writer’s affection for the
character of Elizabeth Hunter incorporates her fragile state of mind, her dreams,
visions, memories and examines her identity as a matriarch (Tynan 2011: 22).

Aboriginal stories
Australia is a bi-cultural nation, a fact that was not particularly evident on
Australian screens until the 2000s. However, Indigenous women have played a
Australia 167

significant role as writers, particularly writer-directors. The first Aboriginal women

to make careers for themselves were avant-garde filmmaker Tracey Moffatt (with
postcolonial interventions), and, in documentary, Essie Coffey championed a
path for Indigenous activism when she presented her documentary My Survival as
an Aboriginal (1978) to Queen Elizabeth during her visit in 1988.
Screen Australia continues to fund ‘Indigenous Programmes’, established an
Indigenous Drama Initiative (IDI) in the mid 1990s; these supported Indigenous
people to gain experience in drama, enabling numerous women who now have
significant roles and status in the industry to write short films. These women
included writer-directors Sally Riley, Darlene Johnson and Erica Glynn. As
Aboriginal scholar and activist Marcia Langton has observed, these women pro-
duced narratives important to communicating Aboriginality: ‘Kinship and famil-
ial narratives underpin much of Aboriginal society’, as can be seen in the IDI films
(Langton 2003: 53). Erica Glynn’s My Bed Your Bed (1998) is a contemporary story
of the arrangement of marriage in Aboriginal society. Darlene Johnson’s Two Bob
Mermaid (1996) examines the experience of an Aboriginal girl who looks white
in a period of apartheid (Indigenous people were not allowed in the whites-only
swimming pool), and she has to choose between white society and her family.
Sally Riley’s Confessions of a Headhunter (2000), an adaptation of a short story
by novelist and playwright Archie Weller, is another familial narrative where a
character discovers his Indigenous family links. As Langton has observed, the
contribution of Aboriginal women filmmakers lies especially in their distinctive
narratives of kinship, in communicating the complexity of Aboriginal social
organization and histories of contact with the settler society, which provide
‘a rich storehouse of story, legend and narrative’ (Langton 2003: 47). Langton
has collaborated with Indigenous screenwriters herself, having appeared as the
daughter in Tracey Moffatt’s Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (1990), and also as the
mother in Beck Cole’s Here I Am, a story about three generations of Aboriginal
women, one of whom, Karen (Shai Pittman), is released from prison and seeks to
reunite her family.
While Aboriginality is only one aspect of who these writers are as creative
individuals with their own artistic trajectories, it is true that to this day women
Indigenous writer-directors have continued to make political films, to document
Australian history and relations between black and white, and engage in intercul-
tural dialogues that communicate aspects of Aboriginal culture and experience
(e.g. Rachel Perkins in both television and film: First Australians, 2008; One Night
the Moon, 2001).

Multicultural perspectives
As well as being bicultural, Australia is also multicultural, and many stories on
the screen have explored this aspect of the culture. This was a strong feature from
and during the 1980s (particularly in relation to those of European heritage),
and numerous women brought second-generation migrant stories to the screen,
including writer-directors such as Ana Kokkinos (Only the Brave, 1994; Head On,
1998) and Monica Pellizzari (Fist Full of Flies, 1996; Rabbit on the Moon, 1987).
168 Women Screenwriters

Both of these writer-directors focused on the experiences of the children of

migrants in Australia. In her writing of the documentary Letters from Poland
(1978) and the feature Silver City (1984), Sophia Turkiewicz examined her Polish
heritage, running lines back to Australia through the migrant or refugee experi-
ence. From the 1990s, multicultural experiences of people from Asia began to be
written. Chinese immigrant Clara Law wrote documentary, short and feature
films about the displacement and alienation felt by new Australians, and the
development of diasporic communities. Her feature Floating Life (1996), shot in
Cantonese, was the ‘first feature film in Australia to be made in a language other
than English’ (Cunningham and Sinclair 2000: 1).

Participation and success

Recent figures (Screen Australia 2013) indicate that women represent 20 per cent
of the writers of Australian feature films, and 36 per cent of the writers of docu-
mentary films, and they have increased their participation in television (although
the actual percentage is not given). Over the last decade at the AFI Awards, now
called the AACTA Awards, women have won the Best Original Screenplay Award
(feature film) 45 per cent of the time (2003–12), yet women represent between
20–24 per cent of feature film writers during that period; this indicates that, where
women do take part, they enjoy great success, and are punching well above their
An examination of the participation of women writers in the Australian film
industries over the last 20 years reveals that although the actual number of
screenwriters, including women screenwriters, has increased, there has been lit-
tle growth in their proportional numbers: according to a comparison between
three surveys of the industry, in 1985/6 women comprised 18 per cent, in 1992
they were 27 per cent, and they are currently 20 per cent (Marsh and Pip 1987;
Cox and Laura 1992; Screen Australia 2013). This situation mirrors the global
trend for the proportional participation of women screenwriters to remain static
or shrink in Western industries; in fact, there is also a backwards trend from
the early 2000s across all key creative areas. For example, a US study by Martha
Lauzen (2008) found that 22 per cent of feature films released in 2008 did not
employ any women in the key creative roles, including as writers, and her com-
parison over ten years (1998–2008) showed that women’s employment as writ-
ers had slightly declined. A Danish study by Knudsen and Rowley (1992–2002)
discovered that women made up only 17 per cent of screenwriters, and a 2006
UK study by Sinclair et al. revealed that women screenwriters were still only
credited on fewer than 15 per cent of UK films overall (French 2012). So from
a global perspective, Australian writers are proportionally well represented in
an international industry that is dominated by male screenwriters. This is a sig-
nificant international issue. There are business/industrial, ethical, social, cultural
and legal impacts and it is vital to know the reasons why so that global, Western,
industrialized film industries can ensure women achieve equal participation, in
order to achieve productive, diverse and innovative industries (French 2012).
It logically follows that if the participation of women writers in Australia and
Australia 169

elsewhere is only around 20 per cent, then global industries are missing out on
stories and storytelling innovation:

When the products turned out by our media are mainly created by men, it’s
not only a pity for the women in the business; it’s a pity for all of us. Because
the consequence is that all of us – both women and men – miss out on a lot
more multifaceted and much more interesting stories about our lives. (Knudsen
2005: 7)

Australian women screenwriters are successful, transnational, and represent all
parts of Australian society, but they remain a minority by percentage. Their
success has made them appear to be a larger group than they actually are. They
are visible in all genres and forms, and Australia has produced a large number of
female writer-directors. A significant contribution to global film and television
has been their stories from female perspectives that centre female characters and
experiences, and examine what it is to be a woman in the worlds they create.

The silent work of Australian women scenario writers

Margot Nash

The early days of silent cinema in Australia were extraordinary. Over 200 narrative
films were produced in Australia before the advent of the talkies in 1928. This
included what is believed to be the first long-form dramatic film in the world,
The Story of The Kelly Gang (1906).1 Australians were passionate about the cinema
and audiences flocked to screenings in makeshift tents, community halls and
the many picture theatres that were quickly built in cities and country towns.
Showmen travelled to remote areas by horse and cart, screening films, often in the
open air. With small portable cameras, dramatic locations, and a hungry cinema-
going public, it was a time when anyone could have a go, and they did. In 1907
the Harvester Judgement ruled that the male basic wage should include the price
of a ticket to the pictures for a man, his wife and two children. While this did
not include the many single mothers and widows who were sole breadwinners, it
is indicative of the popularity of the cinema and its place in the life of everyday
During this time a number of remarkable women rose to prominence as writers
and directors. I will focus on the early scenario-writing work of some of them,
in particular Lottie Lyell (1890–1925) and the McDonagh sisters, Isobel (1899–
1982), Phyllis (1900–78) and Paulette (1901–78). Lyell was a much-loved silent
screen star, but her work as a scenario writer and script collaborator with director
Raymond Longford is less well known. Of the 28 films they made together Lyell
holds scenario-writing credits on 12, but it is now generally accepted that she
contributed much more to the writing and directing of all the films than was ever
170 Women Screenwriters

officially acknowledged (Pike and Cooper 1998: 19, 109; Dooley 2000:4). The
McDonagh sisters worked collaboratively, making four feature films and a number
of short documentaries. Paulette is credited as the writer and director, yet years
later she was furious when a television programme claimed she was the author
of the films. She rang archivist Graham Shirley immediately to set the record
straight, saying the films had been made by the three sisters together, and it was
incorrect to credit her as the sole author just because that was the way they had
divided up the credits.2
Two other women scenario writers are also worth noting here: Agnes Gavin
(1872–1948) and Louise Lovely (1895–1980). Agnes Gavin turned her hand to
writing scenarios for her husband, director John Gavin. They were both stage
and vaudeville actors who became best known for making low-budget ‘quickie’
bushranger stories and convict-era melodramas (Pike and Cooper 1998: 11). In
1911 alone Agnes Gavin is credited as the scenario writer on six films, most of
them about bushrangers. Bushranger stories were enormously popular with local
audiences as Australians loved outlaws and cheered on anyone brave enough to
take their colonial masters to task. The Gavins were not the only people cashing in
on the genre and, by 1912, the New South Wales, Victorian and South Australian
governments all banned films about bushrangers, concerned they were undermin-
ing the authority of the police. World war broke out in 1914 and film production
turned to supporting the war effort. Gavin and her husband achieved some inter-
national success with their film The Martyrdom of Nurse Cavell (1916). It was based
on the true story of an English nurse who was executed by the German Army for
helping some 200 Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium. Their
next film, The Murder of Captain Fryatt (1917), was also about German war atroci-
ties, but it was not received as well. They returned to genre with His Convict Bride
(1918) also known as For the Term of Her Natural Life, before moving to Hollywood
where John Gavin worked as an actor on westerns and comedies. In 1925, Gavin
and her husband returned to Australia where she wrote Trooper O’Brien (1928).
Silent screen star Louise Lovely left Australia for America in 1914, making
approximately 50 films in Hollywood before returning to Australia in 1924.
Lovely’s interest in areas other than acting had been evident as early as 1913 when
she and her husband, Wilton Welch, had co-written The Warning, a play about
the white slave traffic (Wright 1986: 27). In 1924 she returned to Australia and
toured with Welch in a show they devised together called ‘A Day at The Studio’.
It capitalized on her stardom by offering local fans the experience of seeing how
films were made. Travelling with a cinematographer and editing facilities they
offered locals a chance to screen test and then return the following week to see
themselves on film. While in Tasmania, writer Marie Bjelkie-Peterson requested
Lovely consider the novel Jewelled Nights as a possible film. Lovely wrote the
adaptation, co-directed and co-produced it with Welch. She also starred in it, and
edited it (Wright 1986: 27). Jewelled Nights (1925) was an expensive production
and, while the film was received well, it didn’t recover its costs. Lovely attributed
this to the amount of money taken by distributors and exhibitors – she claimed
that in one week in Melbourne the film took ₤1,565, out of which the producers
Australia 171

received £382.3 Her marriage disintegrated and she remarried a film exhibitor who
offered to take her back to Hollywood, but she declined (Wright 1986: 29).
My interest in sharing the stories of the early women scenario writers has come
from teaching both screenwriting and Australian film history and realizing that,
although much of Australia’s early film history, including the role of women
in it, was meticulously researched in the aftermath of the 1970 Australian Film
Renaissance by film scholars such as Andree Wright, Marilyn Dooley, Graham
Shirley, Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper, many students had no idea of the rich
history waiting to be explored, or that women had played a major role from the
beginning as both scenario writers and filmmakers. Stepping back in time and
looking at some of the original screenplays in the archives, typed on delicate rice
paper with love and care, I feel a sense of urgency for, unless history is retold again
and again it is lost, and unless women’s history is recovered and, in the case of
the early women scenario writers, re-evaluated, then the work of these women
will be forgotten.

Lottie Lyell
For a young woman like Lottie Lyell, growing up in Australia during the early days
of the new century was a time full of possibility and promise. The suffragettes
had been campaigning for votes for women since 1894, and by 1908, when Lyell
was 19 years old, white women4 in all states finally won the right to vote ahead
of many European countries. Two years later Lyell starred in The Romantic Story of
Margaret Catchpole (1911), and it was this early film that brought her to the atten-
tion of Australian audiences. It was based on the true story of a woman convict
transported to the penal colony of New South Wales for stealing a horse to help
her lover escape. Lyell played the title role, riding the producer’s magnificent dap-
ple grey horse, Arno, in a dashing and swashbuckling sequence that is one of the
few scenes from the film that have survived. When Lyell stole the horse, disguised
as a boy, and bravely rode it, pursued by the law, she rode into the hearts and
minds of Australians looking for new kinds of heroines.
Lyell didn’t fit easily into the image of a glamorous screen star. Instead she had
a genuine quality and an understated performance style that touched people’s
hearts. She never played antagonistic characters, usually playing plucky, intelli-
gent heroines facing danger, exploitation or discrimination. She did all her own
stunts and was an accomplished horsewoman. While men dominated the new
film industry, young women seized opportunities where they could. Budgets were
low and film crews small, often just the director, the cameraman and a couple of
assistants. It was an opportunity for young women who found themselves on set
when things needed to be done, and actresses like Lottie Lyell and Louise Lovely
jumped in and got their hands dirty, learning all aspects of production at the same
time as rising to stardom both at home and abroad as silent film heroines.
At the age of 20 Lyell was working as a professional stage actor, and when she
toured New Zealand in the play An Englishman’s Home (1909), her parents put
her in the care of fellow actor, Raymond Longford, a family friend, and a married
man. Lyell and Longford soon formed a creative partnership that would last right
172 Women Screenwriters

up until her death from tuberculosis in 1925, aged 35. Longford directed and Lyell
starred in nearly all the films, but she also worked tirelessly behind the scenes,
writing, editing, art directing, co directing and producing. Years later Longford
wrote: ‘Lottie Lyell was my partner in all our film activities’.5 Yet Longford’s
name is on all the scripts until 1916 when Lyell is credited as co-writer on both
A Maori Maid’s Love (1916) and Mutiny of the Bounty (1916). The following year
Lyell starred in The Church and the Woman (1917) and then The Woman Suffers
(1918), yet curiously she is only credited as an actress in them. Both films feature
stories about women who are unjustly accused of crimes, or treated poorly by men
they have loved and trusted. Asked if he thought Lyell played a significant role as
a screenwriter from the beginning, Australian producer Anthony Buckley, who as
a young man met and interviewed Longford, replied: ‘Without question: The Lyell
fingerprints are over everything.’6
My search for evidence of Lyell’s contribution as a writer on the early films has
meant looking for those fingerprints, and this has inevitably involved a degree
of speculation. Feminist film scholar and archivist Marilyn Dooley believes that
Lyell was ‘the reader’; that many of the early films were based on potboilers or
popular romantic stories of the day that targeted women readers, and it was Lyell
who read them and championed them.7 Given the sexual division of labour of the
time it makes sense to assume that Lyell was also the typist, that she typed while
Longford dictated; but given accounts of their relationship, it is probably closer
to the truth to suggest that they discussed every aspect of the screenplay, while
her hands were on the typewriter, forming words on the page and thinking about
the images. Silent films depended on visual storytelling and Lyell was an actor
whose work on screen showed a clear understanding of the demands of the new
medium. The films she and Longford made are distinctive for their naturalistic
acting style as well as the sophistication of their film language. This grasp of film
language is usually attributed to Longford. For example, the screenplay of Mutiny
of the Bounty (1916) ‘indicates the great advances Longford had made in his use
of editing and close-ups’ (Drew 2002), but it was Lyell who was editing the films,
not Longford. Having her hands on the film itself would have quickly taught her
about the new language, and this in turn would have informed her work as both
an actress and writer.
The copyright requirements of the time required the scenario, along with a still
photograph from each scene, to be submitted for copyright. This put pressure on
filmmakers because it meant the film had to be shot first and copyright applied
for later. Luckily this has meant that a number of the original scenarios, plus
accompanying stills, survive where the films are themselves lost. Lyell is reported
as having been a meticulous person, and this is borne out by the scenarios that
are available for study. All the scenarios I saw were typed on rice paper that was
almost transparent, usually in purple ink.
In the early 1900s typewriter ribbons were available in black and various other
colours, but in 1910 some typewriters were equipped to use two-colour ribbons
as well. The usual combination was purple and red. Users could switch easily
between the two colours. Copies could also be produced by using sheets of very
Australia 173

thin paper, and placing carbon paper between them (Polt 1910). The scenario for
The Woman Suffers (1918) is typed in purple, but the main title has been typed in
blue on page one and underlined in red. Perhaps Lottie hurriedly added it later for
the copyright submission, but even this small fingerprint shows an attention to
detail as she has adjusted the ribbon in order to neatly underline the title in red.
Longford’s name as sole author of the scenario has been handwritten under this
title, yet the first line reads ‘Our picture opens with …’
It was well known in film circles that Longford and Lyell’s relationship was
more than just a business one. Longford’s Catholic wife refused to give him a
divorce so they never married, but when Lyell’s father died, Longford moved into
the house with her and her mother. ‘Living with the fatherless family may not
have appeared as scandalous as it actually was’ (MacDonald 1985), but no one
really knows what went on under that roof.
Longford always claimed Lyell was very religious, implying she was chaste,
but this is at odds with stories like The Woman Suffers (1918) and The Church
and the Woman where the young female protagonists are not chaste. They are in
fact passionate and sexually adventurous, but ‘suffer’ when taken advantage of
by unscrupulous men, with devious agendas. In The Woman Suffers (1918) the
cad who has taken advantage of Lyell’s character returns to apologize to her in
the end and they are reunited, along with the child she has had out of wedlock.
Longford’s wife finally agreed to a divorce, but it came through just after Lyell
died. Curiously, none of Lyell’s papers have survived. Longford was the executor
of her will and they would have ended up in either his hands or her mother’s, but
apart from one letter and her signature on a few documents there are no papers
left to study.
Silent films often used handwritten letters to convey exposition and Lyell’s
handwriting is quite distinctive, in particular her capital Ds and Ls. Comparing
the one surviving letter and the handwritten letters that appear on screen in The
Woman Suffers, I quickly realized the handwriting was hers.
The mystery of Lyell’s personal papers remains unsolved. Perhaps her mother or
Longford destroyed them as they proved Lyell had lived a more sexually adventur-
ous life than she’d admitted to, and, like many artists of the time, and the char-
acter in The Woman Suffers, she would have been condemned publically for this.
Longford remarried after her death and his new wife took charge of all his papers.
These papers were later donated to the National Film and Sound Archive and
Marilyn Dooley then went through them carefully, but found no sign of Lyell’s
papers, although she did find a faded copy of the scenario for The Sentimental Bloke
(1917), which Lyell has a co-writing credit on. The original had been submitted to
the NSW Police Department, as Longford wished to film an illegal Two Up game
being raided by the police, and needed permission. Luckily the police failed to
return it and Longford’s papers contain correspondence, which led Dooley to the
State Records Office of New South Wales where the original scenario is still held.
During the silent era scenarios often looked more like prose outlines or
treatments. Some included locations and intertitle cards, but they were a lot less
detailed than the screenplays we are used to today. Silent films didn’t require
174 Women Screenwriters

dialogue to be written; they plotted out the story describing the main actions as
necessary. Intertitle cards were included if exposition was considered necessary
and could always be rewritten later. This meant directors and actors could work
freely on set, developing complexity through improvisation, and any changes
could be incorporated during the editing process. Scenarios were therefore
written with a different mind set or production process in mind.8 They were also
significantly shorter than screenplays for talking pictures. The scenario for The
Sentimental Bloke (1917) is one of the longest scenarios from the Longford/Lyell
team that survives. It is 40 pages long, which is closer to the length of a modern
feature treatment, but it is a lot more spaced out and has scene numbers written
down the left-hand side like a stage script. The scenario for The Church and the
Woman (1917) submitted for copyright is written in prose paragraphs and is only
ten pages long.9
The scenario for Mutiny of the Bounty (1916) is only 13 pages, yet it was feature-
length and in terms of format looks more like a modern screenplay. Scene num-
bers and locations are included along with intertitle cards, which are indented
in the same way dialogue is now routinely indented. This was only the second
film where Lyell received a formal credit as co-writer and the scenario shows an
artistic attention to detail that is distinctive. Lyell was clearly using a blue and red
two-colour ribbon as the scene numbers and title cards are typed in red, and the
locations and scene descriptions are typed in blue. She was also making copies as
the original scenario in the archives has been typed on delicate, extremely thin,
rice paper. If Lyell was ‘the typist’ then this careful use of colour is surely another
fingerprint, as is the correction on page 10 where ‘House’ has been crossed out
and ‘Home’ has been written instead.
Longford and Lyell achieved both local and international success with their film
The Sentimental Bloke (1919), which was based on the C. J. Dennis poem of the
same name. Lyell starred as the lovable Doreen, but she also holds co-screenplay,
editing, art direction and production assistant credits. Cameraman Lacey Percival,
who did two pictures with Longford and Lyell, claimed:

She allowed him to take the credit for everything, which he did. I think her
name should have come first. […] My experience was that she directed the
pictures and everyone looked to her. They hardly ever went to Ray to ask a
question. […] I reckon she put him on the map.10

Marjorie Osbourne, who played the lead in The Blue Mountains Mystery (1921),

Lottie Lyell appealed to me. I like brains in a woman and she had them. […]
She assisted Mr Longford and the two of them had plenty of healthy arguments
when their ideas on a scene differed.11

The Blue Mountains Mystery (1921) was an adaptation of the novel The Mount
Marunga Mystery by Harrison Owen, and in this case Lyell holds the sole
Australia 175

screenwriting credit as well as a co-directing credit. Only three of the 28 films

Lyell and Longford made together have survived and only one in its entirety.
Some scenes from The Romantic Story of Margaret Catchpole and The Woman Suffers
exist, but a 35mm print of The Sentimental Bloke (1919) was found in Melbourne
in 1952. In 1953 it was repaired by a young Anthony Buckley who respliced it in
order for a 16mm duplicate negative and print to be made:

My first discovery was that although the film was silent, it was not in black and
white, each scene was tinted a different tone, […] There was not the money to
provide for a 35mm negative and print. Eastmancolour processing had not yet
arrived in Australia for a tinted print to be made. (Buckley 2009: 17, 18)

In 1973 Australian archivist Ray Edmonson discovered the original 35mm camera
negative in George Eastman House in New York. It had been re-edited and the
intertitles changed as the Americans altered the Australian vernacular for the
American market. This made it possible to marry the surviving Australian copy,
which was poor quality and thought to have been a 35mm copy of  the  16mm
print made in the 1950s, with the American one (Case 2009: 67–9). The film was
lovingly restored by Australian archivists and film technicians and completed in
2003. The colour tints were matched as the edges of the frame on the one surviv-
ing faded nitrate print reel had not been exposed to the projector’s arc, and the
traces of colour found there were a significantly deeper hue (Case 2009: 71). Like
the multicoloured typed scenarios, could this careful use of colour be another
Lyell fingerprint?
After Lyell died, Longford never again achieved the success of the early films.
He ended up a solitary figure working on the Sydney waterfront as a night watch-
man. Lyell’s death had meant the end of a dynamic and creative partnership and
he was heartbroken, but it was also a difficult time for local filmmakers. The talk-
ies had meant a massive increase in production costs and Australian filmmakers
were increasingly unable to compete with the Hollywood juggernaut, which was
dominating cinema exhibition and distribution. Lyell and Longford are buried in
the same grave. Her epitaph reads Lottie Lyell Cox – Photo play artiste.

The McDonagh sisters

The McDonagh sisters, Paulette, Phyllis and Isobel, produced four feature films
together between 1926 and 1933. They were arguably ‘the most talented of the
late silent era filmmakers in Australia and the most courageous of the early talkies’
(Shirley 1978: 5). Paulette was the writer and director, Phyllis the production
manager and art director, and Isobel, the eldest, was the star under the name
Marie Lorraine. They worked collaboratively ‘from discussion of the storyline
onwards, although Paulette had final say as director’ (Shirley 1988: 3). Paulette
and Phyllis wrote the scenario for Those Who Love (1927) while they were still
at school. They always shared a bedroom, even when they were producing films
together, and would often stay up all night discussing books, plays, films and
ideas for storylines. In an interview in 1988, their younger sister, Paula Dornan,
176 Women Screenwriters

claimed: ‘They would never have bought a hairpin without consulting each other,
they were so close’ (Dornan 1988). The neighbours often heard raised voices at
night and thought they were fighting, but this was not the case. It was just the
three sisters engaged in robust discussion, often into the small hours of the morn-
ing. ‘They would spend days fighting over a subtitle. The wording’ (Dornan 1988).
In an interview in 1974, Paulette McDonagh said: ‘We were so loyal. We were so
close. We didn’t need outside friends or companionship.’12
The McDonagh sisters grew up in a large house in College Street in inner city
Sydney with four younger siblings. Their mother was the Spanish daughter of
the Argentinian consul and a trained nurse and their father was a surgeon who
had a love of the fine arts, theatre and music. McDonagh inherited his father’s
prestigious Macquarie Street medical practice, but moved it into the family home,
which he rented in the heart of Sydney. McDonagh was the honorary surgeon
for the Stadium, where he regularly went to watch boxing matches, and also
for J. C. Williamson’s Theatre Company. This meant the girls grew up going to
the Saturday theatre matinees. ‘We cut our teeth on theatre. When we went to
boarding school that’s all we talked and thought about. Schoolwork was a poor
second’ (Shirley 1978: 15). On Sunday nights their parents would often host
soirees for local and visiting actors and the girls witnessed high society rubbing
shoulders with bohemian life. They also witnessed poverty as their house backed
onto the laneways of the working-class suburb of Darlinghurst. Their sister, Paula,
tells stories about Isobel, Paulette and Phyllis pouring pitchers of water over the
young blades and their girls, all dressed up in their finery on their way to the
Domain Park to promenade, and how the younger children would often thrust
the family’s silver spoons and food through the slats in the back gate to the poor
and hungry children of Darlinghurst (Dornan 1988). When it came to charging
for his medical services their father was always generous with the poor and tough
with the rich and the first three films the sisters made were society melodramas
set in the city that ‘contrasted an upper middle class with that of the slum dweller
or underprivileged’ (Shirley 1978: 16).
Their mother loved the pictures and every Saturday night the whole McDonagh
clan would go to see a film. There were seven children and they would occupy a
whole row (Dornan 1988). The girls were in their early teens when war broke out
in 1914, and during these impressionable years would have witnessed women
routinely doing men’s jobs. (Before the war Australian women workers had been
extremely militant; forming their own trade unions in the face of the male-only
trade unions, and during the war they kept up their campaigns for equal pay.) The
sisters grew up in an urbane and privileged environment where social justice was
valued, but they were also exposed to risk-taking as their father often made ‘bad
investments; gold mines, silver mines, strings of racehorses and he was robbed on
every one of them. Never made any money. What money he had he spent or gave
to charity’ (Dornan 1988). The sisters perpetuated the myth that they came from a
wealthy background when in fact money was often scarce, particularly after their
father died. They also perpetuated the myth that they made their first film with
money their father gave them. He may well have, but it came from an inheritance
Australia 177

from a Chilean uncle on their mother’s side, Uncle Ernest Amora, who died leaving
eight thousand pounds to the family, one thousand of which was used to finance
Those Who Love (1926) (Dornan 1988). In this case the investment did make money.
Most Australian films of the time were set in the bush and portrayed male
protagonists as heroes or buffoons battling both an unhospitable environment
and their colonial masters. The McDonaghs were more interested in relation-
ships. Their films were emotional ‘melodramas of romance, sacrifice and parental
opposition’ (Wright 1986). Those Who Love told a story about ‘an upper class
outcast falling in love with, losing and regaining, a lower class showgirl’ (Shirley
1978: 16). It was enormously popular, earning more money in Australia in 1926
than Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (Dornan 1988). The sisters set their films in the city
and rejected the prevailing ethos that Australian films had to be ‘redolent with
the smell of gum leaves’.13 Having grown up watching American and European
films they wanted to make films that were as good as or better than overseas
films. ‘They had the sense to realize that they knew so little that they had to
find that knowledge’ (Dornan 1988). They spent hours at the cinema watching
the Hollywood and European movies over and over again and studying the way
they were put together. ‘Paulette realised that scenario writing was an art. You
could be the greatest playwright, but you can’t write a scenario’ (Dornan 1988).
She set about learning how to do it and as there was no one in Australia offering
courses, she signed up for a Hollywood scenario-writing course by correspond-
ence. Correspondence courses with Hollywood ‘experts’ were being advertised in
Australian newspapers as early as 1916:

Great local interest has been aroused by the announcement that a real live
American photoplay expert is conducting classes for tuition in the highly
remunerative art of scenario (or picture play) writing. Many enterprising local
residents of both sexes […] have taken advantage of this splendid opportunity
and rapidly qualified themselves under the expert tuition of Mr R. W. Williams.
[…] Send in your name and address, accompanied by an enrolment fee, and by
return post the full and complete course will be mailed you.14

After taking one of these courses Paulette became the main writer, and Phyllis,
who later became a short story writer and successful journalist, worked with her.
After Phyllis and Paulette had spent ‘whole days and nights’ working out the
storyline, they would flesh out the characters; then Paulette would spend up to
two months writing the scenario, or shooting script. Further collaboration with
Phyllis would come in the co-writing of dialogue for intertitles (Shirley 1978: 17).
Isobel, the family beauty, had already started acting in theatre and films and
they created female protagonists for her to play, complex characters with conflict-
ing desires which allowed her to develop her acting skills. Like Lottie Lyell, she
developed a naturalistic and understated performance style that was more suited
to the demands of the big screen.
On 14 September 1925 Paulette submitted Those Who Love for copyright. She
called the document a ‘Detailed Synopsis’. Unfortunately there is no record of
178 Women Screenwriters

any of their shooting scripts in the archives. The only other entry is a 19-page
unproduced scenario for a film called The Greater Love. Written in prose like a
short story it was obviously still a working document as it contains numerous
handwritten corrections.
Their father died before he could see Those Who Love (1926). The house in
College Street was rented and a group of McDonagh’s friends got together
and advised his widow to use what money there was to buy a large house, big
enough to live in and also run a convalescent home. She was a trained nurse and
the friends promised to send patients to her, which they later did. Eventually
Drummoyne House, a stately mansion with 40 rooms, became available. A
convalescent home was set up on one level and the family lived on another. The
girls quickly realized that the house, along with the family furniture, could be
used as a set. ‘When Uncle Ernest died it gave the girls the opportunity of starting
pictures. We had this lovely home and they were able to do it on a shoestring
budget’ (Dornan 1988). Those Who Love (1926) and The Far Paradise (1928) were
both shot there. The sisters were quickly feted in the press as plucky society girls
who were headstrong and talented.
The McDonaghs’ films were ‘infinitely more sophisticated than any other local
films of the period’ (Shirley 1978:5). They showed a clear grasp of film language
and a sophistication in their plotting that was unusual for the time. The influence
of German Expressionism is also clear in their use of shadows and deep space.
The first two films did well at the box office, but things were proving difficult
for local filmmakers. (Both Raymond Longford and Isobel McDonagh testified at
the 1927 Royal Commission arguing for protection for the local industry.) After
their mother died, Isobel took charge, but like their father she was reckless with
money and by the time the sisters made The Cheaters (1930) the money had run
out and they had had to sell Drummoyne House:

We were young and we had nobody in charge of us. Had we had a manager
or somebody to tell us what to do, we’d have been on top of the world. […]
When we made films anything we earned we used to put on these huge parties
at Drummoyne House of 150 people, full evening dress. Great parties and it
would go on all night and until dawn the next day.15

Then the talkies arrived and everything changed. The McDonaghs attempted to
turn parts of The Cheaters (1930) into a talkie in order to enter it into a competi-
tion, but technology failed them and the screening was a disaster. In another risk-
taking decision the McDonaghs turned down a lucrative offer from Frank Thring
Senior, who ran Efftee Studios, to make films for him. He promised to take them
to Hollywood, but they declined. They had younger siblings to bring up, but they
were also headstrong and still believed they could continue to make their own way.
Despite the Depression, the sisters made several short sporting documentaries
with financial backing from Standardtone Film Production Co.

The McDonaghs’ fourth and final feature, Two Minutes Silence (1933), was
based on Les Haylen‘s stark anti-war play. In strong contrast to their early
Australia 179

melodramas, its theme of serious social realism was praised by critics but failed
to please audiences craving romance and comedy. (Wright 1986)

Two Minutes Silence (1934) was a talkie and financed by Isobel’s husband-to-be,
businessman Charles Stewart. Paulette worked on the adaptation with the play-
wright Leslie Haylen. The Australian poet and critic Kenneth Slessor described the
film as ‘capable of challenging comparison with world standards. The whole effect
is one of beauty and strength. There is nothing cheap about the theme, noth-
ing rubbed or shop soiled; and the treatment is surprisingly free of banality.’16
However, the sisters paid dearly for their earlier decision to snub Thring who now
owned the Hoyts cinema chain and refused to screen it.
Paulette wrote a scenario for a feature film called Flynn of the Inland about
Australia’s pioneering flying doctor, John Flynn, but it was never financed and she
eventually gave up. Isobel had married and gone overseas and Phyllis had moved
to New Zealand where she was working as a journalist. They had chosen different
paths and it just wasn’t the same without them. Paulette lived a bohemian life
in Kings Cross until her death in 1978. A little over a week before she died the
sisters were honoured by the AFI’s lifetime achievement award, the Raymond
Longford Award, but Phyllis lost the award in a cab. It was never recovered, but
it was replaced.
(It is interesting to note that, after industry consultation, in 2014 the Raymond
Longford AFI [Australian Film Institute] and AACTA [Australian Academy of Cinema
and Television Arts] Award for outstanding contribution to the enrichment of Australia’s
screen environment and cultures was changed to the Longford Lyell Award.)

The screenwriting of Jane Campion: female-centred stories,

characters and perspectives

Lisa French
Jane Campion (1954–) has had one of the most internationally significant and
prominent careers relative to any writer-director from the Australasia region. Born
in New Zealand in 1954, she trained in Sydney during the 1980s and since then has
lived and worked from an Australian base. Campion’s film work ‘has been supported
in an economic and cultural way by her adopted Australia’ (McCreadie 2006:139).
From the beginning of her career, Campion was widely recognized as an auteur with
her own distinctive vision and style, emerging on the international stage in 1986
when she won the Palme d’Or for Best Short Film for An Exercise in Discipline – Peel
(1982), a film she wrote and directed. At the time of this writing, she had written
the screenplay for five features financed both in Australia and internationally (and
directed two others) and has written nine shorts between 1980 and 2008 (including
student films). In addition, she has script-edited, produced and directed numerous
other productions. Her critical success is demonstrated by numerous international
awards – including an Academy Award in 1994 for her screenplay The Piano (1993).
She also has the distinction of being the only woman director to ever win the Palme
d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival (Campion’s The Piano shared the award with Chen
Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine at the 1993 festival).
180 Women Screenwriters

On her graduation from the Australian Film and Television School (now
AFTRS) in 1984, Campion’s entry in the school yearbook read: ‘I want to work
for Kennedy-Miller (when they start making “girls’ films”).’ While that company
was making dynamic and interesting work in Sydney, the reference to ‘girls’ films’
reveals that from the beginning she had ‘an affinity with women, perhaps an
“oppositional consciousness”, and that her interest is in the concept of “women’s
films” where women explore the cultural construct of the “feminine”, and what
it is to be a woman in our society’ (French 2007: 143).
Campion is one of the few women filmmakers who ‘make big films that are
both critically acclaimed and marketable, capturing the popular imagination’
(Jayamanne 2001: 25). As a significant voice in mainstream cinema, and a writer-
director whose films largely explore the experiences of women characters, she
is in a powerful and leading position in relation to female representation. I will
examine Campion’s work as a screenwriter, with a particular emphasis on her
contribution to presenting female worlds and perspectives.

Campion on female subjectivity and desire

Campion foregrounds and conveys female subjectivity and desire in her films.
She has observed that ‘[a]s a woman, you have a unique and different vision. It’s
good that these voices are heard in the world’ (Andrews 2003). Campion ‘under-
stands the intricate circuits of vision between a woman and the world she tries
to see’ (Gillett 2004a: 10). If one considers the way in which Campion’s feature
films open, it is clear that this is the first thing she consistently establishes. The
script of The Piano immediately positions the audience as looking out from inside
Ada’s head and orients the audience towards her viewpoint: ‘The voice you hear
is not my speaking voice, but my mind’s voice.’17 The script does not provide the
action sequences (perhaps because Campion was going to direct it herself), but
the vision of this scene works in the same way to place the viewer inside Ada’s
body: a subjective shot of Ada’s hands covering her face. As she moves her fin-
gers from her eyes, both the audience and the character see a subjective view of
the sporadic, dappled scene in front of Ada. Campion uses an internal voiceover
that structurally works to foreground the protagonist’s viewpoint, a device she
repeatedly uses to ensure the audience engages with the central character’s sub-
jectivity or female perspective (she also did this in her 1989 film Sweetie). These
scenes have an absence of music which writers on anthropology Mascia-Lees and
Sharpe note disrupts audience expectations of the consonance of oral and visual
messages, unlike much of continuity editing; so while ‘Hollywood film studiously
synchronized voice and image, especially in the portrayal of women, Campion
disrupts … to portray the tension between how Ada appears and how she feels’
(Mascia-Lees and Sharpe 2000: 104).
The screenplay of Bright Star (2009) begins with an exterior of Hampstead
Heath circa 1818. In the morning light ‘A SQUIRREL runs along the BRANCH of
a tree’, we cut to the interior of a bedroom: ‘A THREAD of COTTON noses its way
through the eye of the needle’ (Campion 2008: 1). The completed film omits the
squirrel and instead begins with a close-up (macro lens) view of the fine work of
Australia 181

needlecraft, a determinedly female pursuit, particularly at this time. Women’s

culture is foregrounded and valorized in this opening by the heroic tone of the
music. These first scenes offer an emphasis not just on what Fanny Brawne sees,
but the place she makes for herself in the world through her creativity (a major
theme throughout Campion’s oeuvre, but in this scene it also enables Campion to
signal the idea of female creativity as bound by the constraints of the historical era
in which the character lives). Campion has offered that Fanny’s ‘sewing also rep-
resents a kind of patience that women had to have, or still have to have – a kind
of patience that they learn. Sewing is a literal metaphor for making one’s will,
stitch after stitch’ (Guerrasio 2010), and this links to the repeated preoccupation
in Campion’s films with female will.

Campion’s Collaborations
Time is an issue for any writer-director because both creative fields take a long
time, and it is faster and more productive to write with others. Campion has said
that it is ‘more difficult writing alone’ (Wright Wexman 1999: xvi), which she
knows from being sole writer on most of her shorts and The Piano and Bright Star.
She clearly values writing collaborations, and this has been an important part of
her writing process. She collaborated with Gerard Lee, co-writing the 1983 short-
Passionless Moments, and approached him to work on her feature Sweetie and the
mini-series Top of the Lake. She has said that he is a good writing partner because
they share a common way of seeing things, a sense of humour, and they have
‘the same inappropriate emotional responses’, both being amused by the ‘absurd-
ity of life and also touched by it’ (Dow and Rolfe 2013). Campion and Lee have
a process where they begin each writing day by spending ten minutes dealing
with their issues or ‘respective whinges’ (Dow and Rolfe 2013), and then get on
with the work. Campion also co-wrote the film and the subsequent novelization
of Holy Smoke! (1999) with her sister Anna Campion. However, Campion has said
that the choice to write alone or with others depends on the project. When writ-
ing The Piano, her process was:

… almost like an actor, I spend some time alone, a week or something like that
and try to enter right into the mood of the whole story and understand Ada’s
being, thinking and sometimes I’d cry and totally try to enjoy the whole emo-
tional mood. … and then once I’ve got it, I can … work sort of from a nine to
five basis. (Wright Wexman 1999: 176)

In making her films, Campion has been able to work with significant industry
talents, and there is evidence that the excellence of her scripts has been a factor in
attracting these collaborators. Campion wanted composer Michael Nyman, who
had scored several films for Peter Greenaway, to compose the music for The Piano.
According to Nyman, it was the script that convinced him to do it: ‘Jane had the
vision to see, through that music, that I could do the emotion she wanted. I read
the first couple of pages of the script and realized, from the compelling way she’d
written the opening, that I was going to love it. So I rang her back and pretended
182 Women Screenwriters

I’d read the whole thing and accepted’ (Tims 2012). Actress Holly Hunter claimed
she was ‘attracted to the script [of The Piano] partly because of the vast dimension
of things being unexplained to the audience or even to the characters’ (DuPuis
1996: 59). This aspect of Campion’s writing has been observed by others, such as
Australian writer-director Cate Shortland who said that Kathryn Bigelow and Jane
Campion ‘tend to create what Laura Jones calls the “shadow narrative” – a space
within their films that is ambiguous, where they don’t feel the need to answer all
the questions’; and Shortland noted ‘that women audiences seem to really enjoy
that space of thinking and dreaming about the ambiguity, long after they leave
the cinema’ (Norfor 2013). This may be one reason why Campion’s films are loved
by female audiences; many women have claimed that her films ‘speak to them
as women, and critics have observed that her films have divided audiences along
gendered lines’ (French 2007: 12).

Adaptations by Campion
In interviews, Campion has frequently acknowledged her love of literature, and
that she has been influenced by novels and poetry (particularly the romantic
and gothic) from writers such as the Brontes, Emily Dickinson, George Eliot,
Henry James, D. H. Lawrence, Leo Tolstoy and Katherine Mansfield. So it is not
surprising that her screenplays include adaptations; she wrote the screenplay for
The Portrait of a Lady (from the 1881 Henry James novel), In the Cut (from the 1999
novel by Susanna Moore, with whom she co-wrote the script), and collaborated
with screenwriter Laura Jones on An Angel at My Table (1990). from Janet Frame’s
trilogy: To the Is-land (1982), An Angel at My Table (1984) and The Envoy from Mirror
City (1984). Campion has also turned her screenplays into novels (The Piano and
Holy Smoke!).18 Remarkably, her novelization of The Piano in 1994 was ‘identified
as less literary than the film: as if the film was more of a novel than the novel
itself. [And it] received almost no critical attention’ (Gelder 1999: 157). So while
Campion has a great interest in writing prose, it appears that there is some fix-
ing of her into the box of writer-director, and not novelist. Indeed, despite the
voluminous publishing on Campion’s work, very little has been written specifi-
cally in relation to her writing, even in Australia, where the earliest recognitions
she received were mostly for screenwriting: for example, AFI Awards for Best
Screenplay in a Short Film for A Girl’s Own Story in 1984; Best Original Screenplay
for her feature Sweetie in 1989 – shared with Gerard Lee – and the same award for
The Piano in 1993.

Campion’s Characters
Campion’s consciousness of herself as a woman is evident in the characters she
creates. From a female point of view, her films play out the central character’s
experience of gender, and of what it is to exist in a sexed body (French 2007:
244). Her central female protagonists share this awareness of difference from the
male gender – and this is evidence that she is explicitly conscious of herself as a
woman. Difference is central – it is something that Campion’s characters come to
understand through their interactions with the societies in which they live, and
Australia 183

in particular through the men they encounter (for example, her leading women
often suffer because of patriarchal culture but find ways to disrupt it, and so
reveal the female voice and perspective as different to, but existing alongside, the
masculine). According to Campion herself, she makes films about women because
she is ‘speaking in their language; I’m speaking through the body of a woman,
the psyche of a woman, and that’s my particular insight’ (Goodridge 2002: 85).
Throughout her early career Campion deflected questions about the evident
feminism in her work, but she has more recently embraced it, and lobbied for the
equal participation of women in global film industries (as exemplified in her 2007
short film The Lady Bug, a critique of the male domination of the Cannes Film
Festival). Her approach to feminist ideas has always been subtly integrated in the
scripts, rather than inserting any feminist monologues or overt female heroes. She
has mobilized feminist thinking in an international context through films such
as The Piano, Holy Smoke! and Bright Star, and their ‘willful’ characters Ada (Holly
Hunter), Ruth (Kate Winslet), and Fanny (Abbie Cornish). She creates a view of
female experience through claiming the attribute of willfulness, something that
enables her to form and explore feminist questions, and to create characters that
resist patriarchal ideology. Academic Sara Ahmed (2011) has theorized feminist
willfulness as ‘audacity’, ‘standing against’, and as ‘creativity’ – all of which are
useful if applied to thinking about Campion’s work. She approaches this not so
much as rebellion (although it is this too), but from the viewpoint of trying to
understand how women are in the world – how they might feel their gender and
feminism, and make sense of and claim their place through fearless acts of willful-
ness. The way in which Campion has created these characters can be understood
through Ahmed’s concept of ‘willfulness’, which establishes the problem for the
screenwriter to explore: the willful character is someone ‘who poses a problem
for a community of characters, such that willfulness become[s] that which must
be resolved and even eliminated’ (Ahmed 2011: 233). Ahmed describes one of
Campion’s influences, George Eliot, as ‘a novelist of the will’ (Ahmed 2011: 233),
and this is perhaps why this concept is so appropriate for considering the structur-
ing of Campion’s characters. In Holy Smoke! the men surround Ruth (Kate Winslet),
corralling her like an animal, insisting she bend to their will and engage with the
cult deprogrammer PJ (Harvey Keitel). From then on it is the story of a battle of
wills, and of Ruth’s willfulness. Fanny in Bright Star rejects the propriety of the era
in which she lives by refusing to be demure; she pushes herself forward, battling
against Mr Brown (Paul Schneider) for the attentions of Keats (Ben Whishaw),
refusing to wait for his advances. Isabel in The Portrait of a Lady declares she will
not marry (although she does). Sweetie (in Sweetie) is a female grotesque, overly
sexual and voracious in every way – breaking social constructs of femininity. Other
Campion women battle to be themselves rather than creatures of their gender. So
her characters are fearless, even reckless. They refuse the constraints of the worlds
they live in and Campion’s representation of their willfulness can be seen as her
participating in the feminist struggle through characterization.
Campion’s films mark both local and/or national specificity (The Piano, Holy
Smoke!), and at the same time do not mark it (Bright Star, In the Cut). Her writing
184 Women Screenwriters

and characters have been influenced by her antipodean origins; for instance, her
interest in the gothic is a direct result of being a descendant of colonials who,
both in Australia and New Zealand, profoundly felt themselves as strangers in
an unfamiliar and often inhospitable land. Australian writing and filmmaking is
filled with gothic landscapes and stories (although they are usually produced by
men, films like The Well (1997), written by Laura Jones, and The Piano or In the
Cut being the exceptions). Antipodean origins are also denoted by the presence
of landscape as a character or to communicate place. This is particularly evident
in the scenes of outback Australia in Sweetie and Holy Smoke! and in The Piano
and Top of the Lake where ‘[g]reat flanks of mountains; deep, glassy alpine lakes;
primeval forests: the sheer mythic scale of this remote South Island New Zealand
landscape insists it be the dominant character in any scenario’ (Chenery 2013).

Preoccupations of Campion
Campion’s projects have frequently been described as cinematically representing
‘women’s’ desires, and no film has been able to embody this more than The Piano,
which inflects desire in multiple ways. Academic Sue Gillett gives many examples
of this, including a description of how Ada’s gaze at herself in a hand mirror is
not an interrogation of her own image but instead ‘she is trying to fall through
her image into a release of her passion. In kissing the mirror she uses her reflec-
tion as a means of transporting herself back to the remembrance of sexual desire
(she has been forcibly separated from her lover)’ (Gillett 2004b: 2–3). Desire is not
just inflected in an erotic sense but her characters are always desiring; for example,
Ada’s piano is ‘the most effectively charged object in the film, both as plot mecha-
nism and as love object’ ( Jayamanne 2001: 27) – her body is linked to it: on losing
a finger she sends one of the piano keys to Baines (Harvey Keitel).
Campion’s features also often deal with traumatic encounters: Kay (Karen
Colston) witnesses the death of her sister in Sweetie (and the film alludes to her
sexual abuse – a thematic trauma in other films, such as A Girl’s Own Story and Top
of the Lake); Ada (Holly Hunter) is subjected to male violence in The Piano; Ruth
(Kate Winslet) suffers a crisis of loss of faith and is traumatized by the experience.
In the Cut subjects Frannie (Meg Ryan) to her sister’s murder, and then Frannie
is almost slain. In Bright Star the lovers are separated by the untimely death of
Keats (Ben Whishaw). Even in the films Campion directed but did not write, the
screenplay shares this interest in trauma: Janet Frame loses multiple siblings and
experiences electric shock treatment and madness in An Angel at My Table; and
in The Portrait of a Lady, the death of Isabel’s child is only once referred to but is
represented in the mise-en-scène in the form of the cast of the baby’s foot which
Isabel caresses from time to time – silent in her grief. While there wouldn’t be
any drama without something happening to the central protagonist, Campion’s
vision here is clearly tied to the experience of loss and pain – and the trauma of it.
Jane Campion’s success as a filmmaker is indisputable. As a winner of the Palme
d’Or at Cannes, an Academy Award, and numerous others, she is recognized as
a powerful filmmaking force. But her work is usually studied and applauded for
her ability to direct. However, Campion’s status as a writer is far more than a
Australia 185

director who also writes. The fact that her screenwriting has been recognized by
an Academy Award, as well as a Writers Guild of America Award, that she has col-
laborated with many others as well as written on her own, and has penned the
novel versions of two of her films, lifts her into another category. Her writing,
imbued with her preoccupations with relationships, love, female desire, trauma,
female bravery, gender relations, and ideology, is a primary force by which
Campion has been able to successfully explore female worlds, perspectives and

Laura Jones

Margot Nash
Laura Jones (1951–) is one of Australia’s most respected and awarded screenwrit-
ers. Her work is characterized by strong and complex women characters and a
clear understanding of the visual power of the cinematic image. After the success-
ful adaptation of Janet Frame’s autobiography An Angel at My Table (1990) Jones
found herself in demand as a writer skilled in adapting literature for the screen.
She adapted the Henry James novel The Portrait of a Lady (1996), which starred
Nicole Kidman and John Malkovich; Peter Carey’s novel Oscar and Lucinda (1998),
which starred Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett; and Elizabeth Jolley’s novel The
Well (1997), which screened in Competition at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival.
She shares the writing credit for Angela’s Ashes (1999) with Alan Parker, Possession
(2000) with Neil LaBute and Brick Lane (2007) with Abi Morgan. In 2011 she wrote
an adaptation of the short story Runaway by Alice Munro for Jane Campion. Her
original screenplays include High Tide (Gillian Armstrong, 1987), which won the
New South Wales Premier’s Prize for Screenwriting and a prize from the Australian
Writers Guild, and the telemovies Every Man for Herself (1986) and Cold Comfort
(1985), which were part of the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) Spring
and Fall series.
Jones grew up in a house where a pleasure in language was part of everyday
life. Her mother, Jessica Anderson, was a novelist who had a late start, publish-
ing her first novel in her mid forties. There was no television in the house, but
her mother’s bookshelves provided inspiration for a young woman exploring her
creative pathway in the world. As a young art student Jones was introduced to
the cinema of Fellini, Antonioni, Bergman, Truffaut, Godard and Losey and con-
sequently her film-going life became as important as her reading life. While she
tried her hand at various things, it was an opportunity to write for the 1970s ABC
series Certain Women that proved the turning point. Up until then she claims she
had little ambition, but the experience of suddenly understanding just how much
she had to learn activated her. Watching the process of the actors working with
directors on her scripts, then seeing the episodes as they went to air, became her
film school.
Jones describes her screenwriting life as one of luck and chance, but ‘[i]t’s how
we use the luck and understand the chance that makes the difference’. At the
ABC she met producer Sandra Levy who produced the Spring and Fall series. They
186 Women Screenwriters

had both been to see the new wave of European art films and shared a passion
for the cinema and for storytelling. Levy offered Jones the opportunity to write
two original stories for the Spring and Fall series. It gave Jones the rare opportunity
to ‘choose characters and a world, to find a structure, a shape and a tone that
worked’. She immersed herself in original research and wrote two scripts which
‘opened up a new way of thinking about writing’.
Jones met director Gillian Armstrong through a screenplay that didn’t get made,
but they decided to work together to develop the original screenplay of High Tide.
Set in a small coastal town, High Tide, which starred Judy Davis, gave Jones the
opportunity to explore her interest in visual storytelling, ‘in the way images carry
meaning, in the importance of place and the creation of a fictional world. It was
about how people cobble together families; our desire for this, our desire to escape
from it.’
Luck intervened again and Jones was offered a six-week stint teaching screen-
writing at AFTRS where she met Jane Campion. Campion asked her if she would
read the Janet Frame autobiography and introduced her to producer Bridget Ikin.
Frame was a poet and her autobiography ran to three books and covered many dif-
ferent time frames and continents. The experience of researching and writing and
then the making of An Angel at My Table would become one of the most reward-
ing and pleasurable experiences of Jones’s career. Jones and Ikin both describe the
making of An Angel at My Table as ‘cubby house filmmaking’. Originally written
as a three-part low-budget television series it was only later that the decision was
made to turn it into a feature and release it theatrically. It went on to win numer-
ous awards including the Silver Lion and the Grand Jury Prize at the 1990 Venice
Film Festival.
Jones believes that, in adapting literature for the screen, the writer should be
‘true to the intention of the heart of the novel, but it would be stupid to be true to
the structure and the dialogue on the page’. She believes in the exploratory nature
of the writing process as opposed to the adherence to screenwriting formulas;
that entering the source material for a film and searching for the key that might
unlock its mysteries is part of the uncertain and often solitary detective work of
the screenwriter, and that this process involves intuition and experimentation as
well as the difficult job of becoming the internal critic, or analyst, of the work
when things go wrong.
Jones’s work is highly regarded in the Australian film industry and in 1996 she
was awarded the prestigious Australian Film Institute Byron Kennedy Award for
excellence and contribution to Australian cinema.

Alison Tilson

Nicolette Freeman
Alison Tilson, born in Adelaide, Australia, is the screenwriter of the Australian
feature films Road to Nhill (1997) and Japanese Story (2003). Both films are dis-
tinguished by their contemporary depictions of the Australian rural and outback
landscape, and their characters’ relationships shaped by that landscape.
Australia 187

Alison Tilson grew up in Whyalla, South Australia, ‘where the outback meets the
sea’, as the town’s website dramatically proclaims. In the 1960s Whyalla became
one of Australia’s three major steel manufacturing towns, after mining giant BHP
built a steelworks there. Tilson’s childhood home in Whyalla was a place full of
books, music and storytelling; parables about living a good life, as well as funny
stories. The house was at the edge of scrubby paddocks, which stretched towards
railway shunting yards, and further away, but still visible from the house, was ‘the
works’, with its blast furnace and ship building yards. Tilson’s father was a civil
engineer at the steelworks, and he would take young Alison with him on visits to
the mines, huge dam-building projects, and the ship launches at ‘the works’. She
also saw molten steel being poured in blast furnaces; red-hot. She noted, in an
interview with the author (Freeman 2013): ‘It was an amazing way to have your
mind opened to shape shifting.’
One could suggest then that Tilson’s screenplay themes and locales were
informed by this childhood; living on the edge of an industrial town, with her
awareness of the vast, arid landscape beyond and her direct knowledge of large-
scale enterprise. ‘It was remote then, and very hot,’ Tilson recalled, ‘and there
was a lot of stuff as a kid about survival.’ Interestingly, the inciting incident of
both Road to Nhill and Japanese Story is a significant physical accident, and Tilson
has admitted to a fascination with fate, acknowledging it is there, somehow, in
anything she writes.
Tilson’s initial enthusiasm for film, and her early days as an amateur filmmaker,
commenced after her family moved from Whyalla to the more cosmopolitan
Melbourne, where her school French teacher introduced her to the films of
Jacques Tati, and where the Tilson family continued to seek out French cinema at
screenings hosted by the Alliance Française.
Tilson has also acknowledged the Ealing comedies as early influences, and The
Lavender Hill Mob (1951) as one of her all-time favourite films. She saw Catch-22
(1970), M.A.S.H. (1970), Nashville (1975) and The Deer Hunter (1978) and mar-
velled at how certain material was being treated in novel ways by the new genera-
tion of American filmmakers. ‘I can remember seeing Catch-22 and not having
any idea about that sort of black comedy, and it just completely threw me against
the wall – and then, when I first saw M.A.S.H, they were laughing, but it was a war,
and it completely fried my brain,’ she recalled.
At university, where Tilson was training to be a teacher, she immersed herself
in filmmaking clubs and feminist groups. She was a member of the Melbourne
Women’s Film Group, Reel Women, and Women in Film and Television (WIFT),
which were part of the nationwide emergence in the 1970s of independent,
experimental, and feminist film production practice, bolstered by newly available
government financial support. The Women’s Film Fund was established during
this period by the Australian Film Commission to proactively encourage the
production of screen stories about and by Australian women. Tilson participated
in cinematography workshops funded in part by these schemes, and in Sydney,
at one of these workshops, she first met women who were making their own
films professionally. ‘I was working on films,’ she recalled, ‘and I used to write,
188 Women Screenwriters

and suddenly I thought you can put the two of these together.’ Her early short
film scripts were ‘fairly domestic and realistic – but stylistically weird’, Tilson has
remarked: ‘There would’ve been a script that was one long shot, with a lot of
people doing a lot of things. It was fairly dreamy, and then I probably would’ve
had an argument in a love affair, so there would’ve been a script about that.’
Unsurprisingly, Tilson has cited Marguerite Duras’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961)
and Chantal Akerman’s work, particularly Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce,
1080 Bruxelles (1975), as seminal influences.
The realization that screenwriting could be a proper job, rather than simply
a hobby, led Tilson to enroll, in the early 1980s, in the screenwriting course at
Australia’s recently established national film school, AFTRS. At film school Tilson
met like-minded colleagues Sue Brooks and Nicolette Freeman, who she observed
saw the world from a similar perspective to her, and shared her enterprise – to
depict the ordinary in a way that hadn’t been seen before. Brooks, who was study-
ing in the directing programme, went on to direct Tilson’s scripts for both Road
to Nhill and Japanese Story, and Freeman, who was studying as a cinematographer,
went on to work as director of photography on Road to Nhill.
This encounter at film school was exciting and reassuring to Tilson. Given her
interest in the Brechtian enterprise of making strange, Tilson has acknowledged
the importance of collaborators who have a similar sensibility, and who can
significantly enhance a film with their own particular craft. To a lot of people, the
writer’s intention may be invisible in the script, she has commented. Even with
the best of intentions, collaborators who don’t ‘get it’ can reinforce a familiar view
of the world, rather than work to make it strange. ‘You can’t say [to them] “no, it
doesn’t say that”, because of course it’s all about interpretation when you hand
[a script] over,’ she has said.
Tilson’s first produced feature screenplay was Road to Nhill. The film was pro-
duced by Gecko Films, a company set up by Tilson, with director Sue Brooks and
producer Sue Maslin. Set in the rural country town where director Sue Brooks grew
up, the story revolves around the accidental overturning of the car of four lady
lawn bowlers, the townsfolk who come to their rescue, and the loved ones who
anxiously await their return. ‘The script attempts to pay homage to the kind of
caring and gentle accommodation of each other, possible in a community’ (Tilson
1998: viii).
In the foreword to Road to Nhill: Original Screenplay, Tilson, Brooks and Maslin
admit, ‘It was a ridiculous first film to embark upon. There would be 42 characters,
all filmed on location in the country over eight weeks and made to look as if eve-
rything pretty much happens on one day, would involve car crashes, upside down
bowling ladies and helicopters!’ (Tilson 1998: ix). Popular Australian film reviewer
Margaret Pomeranz declared the film ‘a national treasure [which] should be shoved
in a time capsule post haste’ (Tilson 1998: xi). Pomeranz identified elements of
French farce and ‘Oz country style’ in the film, picking up on Tilson’s forma-
tive influences and background: ‘The attention to the details of the Australian
countryside warmed the cockles of my heart: the tea leaves on the azalia (sic),
the squeaking screen door, the reverberations of the cattle grid’ (Tilson 1998: xii).
Australia 189

Most importantly however, Pomeranz was drawn to Tilson’s original and emo-
tionally generous treatment of Australian male-female relationships. Over the
afternoon of the accident, the subsequent days, and briefly at an unspecified
time in the following year, the audience follows rural Australian men coming to
terms with the fragility of their relationships with their women folk. These men
are poor at verbally expressing their emotional attachments, but Tilson’s acute
description of their physical gestures reveals their underlying vulnerability and
dependence. Pomeranz called it an ‘Oz-specific relationship’, one in which ‘the
women understand the male need for “face” and discreetly grant it, often to their
own discomfort’ (Tilson 1998: xii). Tilson’s research for the film involved many
months of living in and observing the community in which the film was shot.
‘I would be completely behind the eight ball – because [how they speak] is all sub-
text,’ she said. ‘For an outsider, everything everybody says is coded with unspoken
knowledge and ways of doing things.’
The subject matter of Road to Nhill appears at first relatively conventional, but
as Tilson has declared, she wants to work with ‘the ordinary’ in oblique ways and,
in making strange, she aims to give her audience the opportunity to reflect upon
themselves. Consciously using the device of ‘standing back’, she encourages her
audience to see overall patterns and interactions in her story while also engaging
emotionally with the individual characters. For example, while humour arises
from many of her characters’ foibles in Road to Nhill, Tilson’s intention was for
the audience to recognize aspects of themselves in the characters, and thereby
laugh at themselves. ‘You are not watching silly people,’ she remarked: ‘You are
watching ordinary people who are flawed, and I’m wanting you to feel that they
are like you.’
Road to Nhill is a multi-stranded story, told in many scenes. The script originally
had 234 scenes, and the final film has 175 scenes, even though an average feature
film of this running length has 40–75 scenes. The majority of the story is set in
simultaneous time, and Tilson has acknowledged her deep fascination with the
manipulation of time in cinematic storytelling. She has said that the three prin-
cipal tools at a screenwriter’s disposal are sound, image and time; and with these
the writer can take the audience on many kinds of journeys – emotional, visceral,
intellectual and moral, and even, ‘if you were really cooking with gas’, she added,
‘transcendental journeys’. When asked about her consideration of international
audiences when writing Australian stories, Tilson has acknowledged the ability
of film to overcome national boundaries. ‘They’re human stories in the end,’ she
has said, ‘so [international audiences] get them, even though they think “that’s
so weird or different”.’
Tilson’s next produced feature screenplay was Japanese Story in 2003. It tells the
tale of a cross-cultural relationship between an Australian woman and a Japanese
man. There are only two principal characters, and a modest number of second-
ary characters; however, the film is no less formally adventurous than Road to
Nhill, and was similarly difficult to finance. ‘In some people’s minds,’ Tilson has
observed, ‘there are films that everybody knows will work when they get made
– and it’s just not like that. [In fact] the more that people like that [have their
190 Women Screenwriters

judgements shown to be] wrong, the more desperately they need there to be a
safe, secure haven of a film that will work. They become more risk averse.’
The screenplay for Japanese Story originated from a conversation between Tilson
and Sharon Connolly, a producer at the government film production unit, Film
Australia. Connolly wanted to commission Tilson to write a film about relation-
ships between Australian women and Japanese men. Tilson was at first reluc-
tant, but when Connolly described an image she had of a Japanese man driving
through the Australian desert, Tilson was intrigued: ‘I saw it on the screen as she
was describing it. I saw it on a big screen. Your first thought is “I want to see that”,
and that quickly turns into “I want to write that”.’
Tilson then had to discover who the Australian female character was. ‘She
could’ve been anything at that stage,’ Tilson declared, but unsurprisingly, given
Tilson’s childhood in Whyalla, Sandy, the Australian woman (played by Toni
Collette), became a geologist. Tilson researched story possibilities in the Queensland
sugar cane and tourist industries, and in the mines of South Australia, but the story
eventually settled in the remote Pilbara region of northwestern Australia because
of its startling visual possibilities. Known for its vast mineral resources, the region
is central to Australia’s early-twenty-first-century mining boom.
For the screenplay, Tilson read hundreds of haiku and rewatched the films of
Yasujiro Ozu, ‘because that was my personal, great, and most immediate love of
Japanese culture’, she recalled. She travelled to Japan, engaged a Japanese cultural
consultant, drove the Australian desert back roads, and visited the enormous and
male-dominated open-cut mines.
Japanese Story’s heroine, Sandy, begrudgingly accepts the job of escorting a visit-
ing Japanese businessman, Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima), to the remote Pilbara
open-cut mines region. She is resentful and fiercely independent, even selfish. As
Australian academic Felicity Collins has noted, in this regard she is reminiscent of
many white settler male archetypes in Australian literature, painting, and cinema.
Hiromitsu is taken aback by Sandy’s brashness and lack of grace and femininity.
Yet it is the mythologized character of the Australian outback, and its archetypes,
that attracts Hiromitsu. He is on this particular journey to discover something
unavailable to him at home in Japan; a reckless connection to the mysterious and
expansive unknown, symbolized for him by Australia’s vast interior.
Sandy and Hiromitsu’s relationship is a mismatch, which conventionally
should lead towards narrative reconciliation, but something surprising happens in
Tilson’s script, and the story resolves unconventionally and unexpectedly.
Felicity Collins has reflected on Tilson’s solution to the complex issues of ethnic
and gendered difference that Japanese Story articulates:

Breaking with the melancholy, defeated endings typical of landscape cinema,

Japanese Story hopes that, by delivering a sudden shock, it will take the audi-
ence with it on Sandy’s journey out of habitual isolation, both personal and
cultural. This turning point contains a new idea, suggesting that it is grief
rather than sexual intimacy that is capable of breaking down the defensive
hide that preserves a certain insularity in the Australian identity. (Collins 2003)
Australia 191

Japanese Story was a critical success, and the film and its screenplay won numerous
awards. The film was invited to be part of the Official Selection in Cannes 2003
in Un Certain Regard, and was sold to over 30 territories worldwide. It was
released in North America by Samuel Goldwyn Films; however, the US distributors
demanded a re-cut, and while Tilson has said the US version is effective, for her
‘it just has nothing like the emotional impact that the Australian version has’.
Collins has commended Tilson’s, and director Brooks’s, ‘distinctive view of life’.
It is ‘expressed in the film’s shifting of gears back and forth between the closely
observed minutiae of everyday life and sudden devastating moments of clarity
about our common fate, writ large’, writes Collins. This is certainly a strong char-
acteristic of Tilson’s writing in both Japanese Story and Road to Nhill, and reflects
her declared ongoing admiration for Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne
Dielman, with its surprising turn of events, and her fascination with shape shift-
ing, first witnessed as a child in the Whyalla blast furnaces.
Although Tilson is a self-declared boundary pusher, she is mindful of the tight-
rope between clarity and obscurity. ‘I have a clothes-line theory of scriptwriting,’
she has said: ‘– an old-fashioned clothes line, with a pole [at each end]. The
stronger the poles and the washing line, the more you can hang off it – that’s not
the through line.’
Over her career, Tilson has also written television drama and documentary.
She has script-edited or consulted on a number of produced feature screenplays
including Rabbit-Proof Fence (Phillip Noyce, 2002), Somersault (Cate Shortland,
2004), Little Fish (Rowan Woods, 2005), Samson and Delilah (Warwick Thornton,
2009), and Bran Nue Dae (Rachel Perkins, 2009). Tilson also works as a screen-
writing lecturer and script lab advisor.

1. Australian Screen: Australian Film and Television Chronology: the 1900s. Available
at:http://aso.gov.au/chronology/1900s/ (accessed 4 July 2013).
2. Personal communication with Graham Shirley, 19 March 2013.
3. ‘Australian Films: Obstacles to Exhibition, Louise Lovely’s Evidence’, Argus, 11 June
1927.Melbourne: National Library of Australia, p. 17. Available at: http://trove.nla.gov.
au/ndp/del/article/3860087 (accessed 30 January 2012).
4. For an official précis of the history of Australian suffrage, see http://www.aec.
gov.au/Elections/australian_electoral_history/wright.htm and http://www.aec.gov.au/
indigenous/history.htm (accessed 4 May 2015).
5. Raymond Longford – written history NFSA.
6. Personal communication, Tony Buckley, 22 August 2012.
7. Personal communication, Marilyn Dooley, 20 January 2012.
8. Personal communication, Tony Buckley, 22 August 2012.
9. National Archives of Australia Series, No. A1336, Item 3434876, The Church and the
Woman – dramatic work. Screenplay and still photographs.
10. Lacey Percival interviewed by Alan Anderson, 26 October 1966 at Manly, Sydney.
National Film and Sound Archives, Title No. 325633. Oral history sound recording. Dur:
00:34:33. Alternative title: The Pictures That Moved. Source Material.
11. Marjorie Osborne interviewed by Trader Faulkner, 24 March 1980, Australia. National
Film and Sound Archives, Title No. 376615. Oral history sound recording. Dur: 00:43:00.
192 Women Screenwriters

12. Paulette McDonagh interviewed by Graham Shirley and Joan Long,4 August 1974.
National Film and Sound Archives, Title No: 799472. Oral history sound recording.
13. Marilyn Dooley – interviewed in Don’t Call Me Girlie (Wright 1985).
14. ‘Money in Pictures’ (advertisement). Brunswick and Coburg Leader, 19 May 1916,
Victoria, Australia.
15. Ibid.
16. ‘Smith’s Weekly’, 10 February 1934.
17. This opening is quoted for comic effect in the film starring a mute Eddie Murphy:
A Thousand Words (Brian Robbins, 2012). This quotation demonstrates the reach, influ-
ence and broad popular recognition of Campion’s writing.
18. In the 1960s and 70s the novelization after the film, and from the script, was common.
It is less common now but Campion is someone who has engaged in this practice.

Ahmed, S. 2011. ‘Willful Parts: Problem Characters or the Problem of Character’, New
Literary History, 42: 231–53.
Andrews, N. 2003. ‘FT Weekend Magazine – The Arts’, Financial Times, 18 October, p. 26.
Buckley, A. 2009. Behind a Velvet Light Trap: A Filmmaker’s Journey from Cinesound to Cannes.
Australia: Hardie Grant Books.
Campion, J. 2008. Bright Star, Shooting Script, 4 April, Jan Chapman Productions Pty Ltd,
94 pp.
Case, D. 2009. ‘The Restoration of The Sentimental Bloke’, in Raymond Longford’s The
Sentimental Bloke: The Restored Version. Book accompanying the DVD. Australia: National
Film and Sound Archive.
Chenery, S. 2013. ‘The Return of the Native: Jane Campion’, The Australian, 13 March.
Available at: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/return-of-the-native-jane-
campion/story-fn9n8gph-1226596558566 (accessed 12 June 2013).
Collins, F. 2003. ‘Japanese Story: A Shift of Heart’, Senses of Cinema, 29. Available at: http://
sensesofcinema.com/2003/29/japanese_story/ (accessed 20 June 2013).
Cox, E., and S. Laura. 1992. What Do I Wear for a Hurricane? Women in Australian Film,
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Working Party on the Portrayal of Women in the Media.
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20130218-2emm7.html (accessed 4 June 2013).
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New Zealand
Hester Joyce

Defying the odds: women screenwriters in Aotearoa/New Zealand

Are the women portrayed as weak and confused? Are unmarried women usually
portrayed as incomplete? Do the men respond positively to strong, independ-
ent women? If rape is shown, is it dealt with as a basically sexual experience or
a physical assault? Do the male characters express anger or frustration through
acts of physical violence? Are the men portrayed as the ones who have the ‘real’
power and influence? (NZFC 1987a)

The success of the New Zealand screen industries internationally and globally belies
the nation’s geographic isolation, small population and economic vulnerability.
The growth of the film industry from its ‘cottage industry’ beginnings in the
1970s to the extraordinary success of An Angel at My Table (1990, written by Laura
Jones, based on the Janet Frame autobiographies, directed by Jane Campion),
Heavenly Creatures (1994, co-written by Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson, directed
by Jackson), and Whale Rider (2002, written and directed by Niki Caro, based on
the book by Witi Ihimaera)is the result of national characteristics of ingenuity
and doggedness, matched with strategic policy interventions from government
quarters. Opportunities for women screenwriters, at least until the mid 1990s,
have been dependent primarily on two government bodies, the New Zealand
Film Commission (NZFC), established in 1978, and the state-funded television
industry, which began broadcasting on one channel in the 1960s. The NZFC has
been bound by its legislative parliamentary act with an original, relatively open
mandate: ‘To encourage and also to participate and assist in the making, promotion,
distribution and exhibition of films’, as well as to encourage and participate in the
education of filmmakers, maintain archives and ensure the development of a film
culture (New Zealand Film Commission Act 1979: 695). Within these mandates
the organization is responsive to myriad changing political, social and cultural
The opening quote, taken from one of two 1987 memos to script assessors, is an
example of a policy intervention by the NZFC that indicates a strategic response
to those factors influencing film production and New Zealand screen storytelling.

New Zealand 195

The other equally compelling memo, issued simultaneously, is ‘Notes to Assessors

for Portrayal of Maori Characters’:

Are Maori characters written in roles that are stereotyped? Are the Maori roles
written by Maori writers, or bicultural writers? Are Maori characters presented
as positive because they have been able to ‘make it’ in the Pakeha world? Do
Pakeha respond positively to strong, articulate Maori characters? Are Maori
presented as ‘different from’ the norm? (NZFC 1987b)

Both are undoubtedly mindful of New Zealand’s earliest instances of human rights
legislation, the most significant being the Race Relations Act 1971 and the Human
Rights Commission Act 1977.
Bicultural relations between Maori (indigenous/first peoples) and Pakeha
(New Zealanders of European descent)1 and the potency of the feminist move-
ment, both coincident with the development of the screen industries through
the 1980s, were critical influences on the prospects of women screenwriters in
New Zealand. This group can be classified into the following: writer-directors,
screenwriters (small screen and big screen), and script editors/consultants. Each
decade, the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, has seen a turning point in the fortunes
of women screenwriters motivated and affected by historical and policy factors.
Broadly, the government-owned television industry, established 15 years before
the resurrection of a film industry in the 1970s, supported in-house production,
including dedicated screenwriting departments for drama series and serials. By
contrast, the film industry grew independently, frustrated at the outskirts, in
reaction to the institutionalization demonstrated within the television industry
(Dunleavy and Joyce 2011: 69–100). In the intervening years (1970–90), and
in an environment where there was relatively little privately funded screen
production, co-operation between the two government-funded industries was
These factors had consequences for the careers of women screenwriters. The
peculiarities of government film policy meant that funding decisions historically
favoured writer-directors – so the majority of women screenwriters within the local
industry tended to be those directors who chose to also write their own screenplays.
This is truer for first and second films than later career choices, when the possibil-
ity of ‘jumping’ to the Hollywood industry became an option. Consequently the
discussion of women screenwriters in the New Zealand screen industries begins with
writer-directors from the mid 1980s to mid 1990s and, in parallel, screenwriters and
script editors within television drama.

Writer-directors: Melanie Rodriga and Gaylene Preston

The situation for women filmmakers seems to have been different in New Zealand
because the industry developed later. When the new wave of [feminist] political aware-
ness came in Australia, the industry was already entrenched … In New Zealand,
the feminist awareness was there before the industry developed so they were
196 Women Screenwriters

able to have more impact. […] we seem to be able to make a mark on the
mainstream. (Horrocks: 1985)

In the mid 1980s the production of Melanie Rodriga’s Trial Run and Gaylene
Preston’s Mr Wrong (aka Dark of the Night), fiction feature films written and
directed by women, signalled a breakthrough in NZFC financing policy. These
films were the first features from women writer-directors at a time when, even
internationally, this was unusual, and both subverted the well-established and
popular thriller genre in New Zealand.
Melanie Rodriga was born in Malaysia in 1954; her family moved to Sydney,
Australia in 1961. She studied filmmaking in England at the Ravensbourne
Polytechnic in Kent. She began her career in New Zealand as a film editor in
1980. She wrote and directed shorts funded by the Australian Film Commission
(AFC) – Second Sight (1980) and Them’s the Breaks (1980) – and a short funded by
the NZFC – Hooks and Feelers (1983) – before writing her first feature, Trial Run.
This is the story of Rosemary, wildlife photographer, who takes a commission on
an isolated peninsula for six months where she lives away from her family. She
is in training for a woman’s marathon under the supervision of her athletic and
science-mad son, James. The screenplay contests those aspects of the genre that
depict women as victims:

I like the thriller genre and I like the devices. I like the discipline of making a
thriller film … When you saw Psycho you wouldn’t have dared laugh and it’s
only because those things have been created and treated in so many different
ways that now we can laugh at them. That was what I was trying to get at with
Trial Run. (Melanie Rodriga, quoted in Horrocks 1985)

Conventions within the thriller genre that irked Rodriga included stereotypes of
women as passive and as victims, while assailants were coded as psychopathic
male strangers. In Trial Run, the persecutor is the protagonist’s over-zealous son,
who sets up scenarios to make her ‘run for her life’, consequently exhorting her
to run faster and improve her running times. Violence, isolation and loneliness
were ongoing themes in New Zealand cinema and this narrative explores the
idea of the violence coming from within the family. The peripheral characters are
predominantly women: a farmer, publisher, real estate agent and policewoman.
Rosemary’s husband, Michael, is positively portrayed, consistently supporting her
decisions and actively taking on family and domestic responsibilities so she can
pursue her career.
Gaylene Preston (1947–) was also motivated to rewrite representations of
women on screen:

As a young woman at that time I was used to feeling scared … So that’s one
thing, the other is that having gone to Cannes, you had to decide as a filmmaker
[whether] you wanted to be part of the solution or the problem and I decided
that the thriller had a lot to answer for. (Preston 1997)
New Zealand 197

Adapted from a short story by Elizabeth Jane Howard, Preston’s Mr Wrong is the
story of Meg, a country girl who buys her first car for a questionably cheap price,
only to later discover that a ghostly woman who disappeared suspiciously several
years earlier haunts it. Meg experiences a number of natural and supernatural
trials, including being stalked by the murderous ‘Mr Wrong’. Mr Wrong subverts
the thriller genre by focusing on an initially passive female protagonist, a capable,
ordinary woman who becomes increasingly reactive to physical and emotional
threats to her safety.
Preston, formerly an art director, adapted the screenplay with Graeme Tetley
(co-writer of Vigil, 1984), and they changed aspects of the original story. ‘I did
not want Meg to die in the end. In the book Meg dies watching the blood trickle
out with a knife between her ribs and I didn’t want that’ (Preston 1997). These
decisions to confound the genre created difficulties in marketing the film with
distributors who claimed any reference to feminism in the publicity would be

It wasn’t really until the audience claimed it, that we knew we had a film that
worked … It is so hard to imagine now but it was only 1985, and it was 1983
when we were writing it, but obviously what we were on about was hard for
people to get a handle on. (Preston 1997)

The NZFC had, since the mid 1980s, been funding trainee positions in all areas
of filmmaking, with candidates selected that included Maori and women, thereby
encouraging fair representation and opportunity in terms of race and gender. The
feminist politics of Rodriga and Preston extended beyond the content of their
films as they adopted positive discrimination policies within their productions,
providing crew opportunities for women in non-traditional technical roles. It was
also at this time that Merata Mita, a Maori filmmaker, emerged, firstly with two
landmark documentaries, Bastion Point Day 507 (1980) and Patu! (1983), and then
a feature film, Mauri (1988).

A significant case: Merata Mita (1942–2010)

The 1985 amendment to the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi between Maori and Pakeha
required government organizations to act as good treaty partners, a duty placed
on all agents of the crown. The NZFC published its own guidelines on Treaty of
Waitangi obligations in 1995:

The Film Commission is mindful of the special needs of Maori and of its obliga-
tions under the Treaty of Waitangi. This commitment underpins every aspect
of the Film Commission’s work and its assistance programmes. (NZFC 1995)

If carving out a career was difficult for Pakeha women filmmaker/screenwriters in

the consolidation period of the screen industries, then for Maori women it was
even more so. When Maori women speak (korero) through the screen, traditional
198 Women Screenwriters

protocols that assign this aspect of leadership to Maori men are challenged (Peters
2007: 104–5). The period marked a renaissance of Maoritanga (Maori culture/life)
that was occurring along with the rise of the feminist movement through the late
1970s and 80s.
Out of this ferment Maori filmmaker Merata Mita arose. Forerunner Ramai
Hayward paved the way in the post-World War II era; however, Hayward was a
co-director/writer/producer with her partner, pioneer filmmaker Rudall Hayward;
they directed To Love a Maori (1972) and subsequent (non-New Zealand) docu-
mentaries. The distinction of being the first female to be sole director of a feature
film belongs to Mita, this being the 1983 documentary Patu! (to strike, a club)
(Peters 2007: 103). As with the feminist task undertaken by Rodriga and Preston,
Mita’s body of work extends beyond a simple definition of screenwriting; she
speaks for tangatawhenua (indigenous people of the land) and especially for Maori
women. In addition, whai korero (oral tradition) governs the functions of this
storytelling within her community. The tribal traditions mean that screen story-
telling from her perspective challenges established industry practices within both
the processes of screenwriting and the conventions of fiction and documentary.
Mita’s filmography attests to this extensive voice and cultural responsibility,
containing political and creative documentaries, biographies, archival documen-
tation, television current affairs, as well as acting and cultural advising on others’
screen projects.
Between 1979 and 1990, Mita made a film or television documentary almost
every year. In addition she wrote and directed a feature film, Mauri (1988), and
consulted on two others, Utu (1983) and The Quiet Earth (1985). The documenta-
ries, in which Mita variously took the roles of director, producer and editor, were
all motivated by themes of political struggle with respect to Maori (indigenous)
and class (labour) rights. In these roles Mita is rewriting and reclaiming histories
regardless of whether her method is by way of a formalized screenplay. Many
of these films were created in partnership, notably Bastion Point Day 507 (1980),
which documents the occupation in 1977 of Bastion Point/Takaparawhau (a parcel
of coastal land in Auckland city) over a proposed development on what was histori-
cally tribal land (Ngati Whatua). Activists occupied the land for 506 days before
being removed by the police and army. Mita recorded the protests and clashes
with law enforcement on the day of the protestors’ removal, the 507th day, which
ended tragically. The land was later returned to Ngati Whatua as part of Treaty of
Waitangi settlements. Bastion Point Day 507 was made in collaboration with two
men, New Zealander cinematographer Leon Narbey and German filmmaker Gerd
Pohlmann, and the use of atmospheric sound and radio tracks reflects Mita’s
preoccupation with providing ‘voice’ to the community she is representing.
Within three years Mita directed and produced Patu!, a record of the nationwide
protests against the 1981 South African rugby team tour of New Zealand. The tour
by the Springbok, a team selected along apartheid principles, incited protests from
both Maori and Pakeha, and these were depicted in Patu! as tandem political move-
ments. Again Mita constructed the documentary from footage collected from sev-
eral sources – people who had been at the protests in various capacities: protestors,
New Zealand 199

witnesses, and documenters. As with other Maori filmmakers, Mita uses the cinematic
form informed from within her own culture – for example, observing the rituals of
whai korero (oral tradition), acknowledging ancestors and offering prayers are rep-
resented as fundamental features of cinematic storytelling. Such characteristics are
embedded into the form of the documentary so that films become toanga (highly
prized artifacts). Mita’s writings include discussion of these aspects, extending the
life of the works beyond the screen.2
Mita’s second feature-length film, Mauri (1988), tells the story of Kara, a village
elder, and her passing of knowledge to her granddaughter, Awatea. A felon, Paki,
returning to Kara’s marae (village) following a prison sentence, assumes the iden-
tity of Kara’s dead son, Rewi. Paki befriends Kara and learns from her that his
behaviour is corrupt and has spiritual and cultural consequences. The film, set in
the 1950s, embraces themes of identity, land, life and death, opening with a birth
sequence and ending with Kara’s death. As with other of Mita’s projects, Kara’s
death is depicted with respect to cultural mores. Here a flight from Kara’s body
across the land to Cape Reinga (departing place of the spirits) in the far north is
depicted in a long aerial shot representing the journey of the spirit believed by
Maori to be taken in the afterlife.
Mita embraced Maoritanga in the form of the films she made and the process
of making these films. Kara is played by Eva Rickard, a land rights activist and
leader with mana (prestige, authority) that is (re-)embodied on screen, reflecting
the prominence of women in Maori leadership at the time. Further, Mita used
the production as a training ground for Maori crew. The story challenges conven-
tional narrative, relying on a multilayered technique that embraces documentary
as well as fictional sequences, and celebrating depictions of Maori life, including
rituals of birth and death, food gathering and preparation. Despite being recog-
nized internationally (Rimini Film Festival, Italy), Mauri challenged local Pakeha
reviewers who criticized its contestations. Mita’s project was for Maori:

… as a probing enquiry into concepts of culture using birth, marriage and death.
Individuality and community come under the same scrutiny but the story is
really a parable about the schizophrenic existence of many Maori in Pakeha
society. […] The Maori response to the film was more positive than the Pakeha
one, but that was the way it was from the beginning; from scripting to the final
cut. (Mita 1992: 49)

Mita left New Zealand in 1990 to work with indigenous filmmakers internation-
ally, basing herself at the University of Hawai’i and mentoring for the Sundance
Institute in the United States. She maintained contacts with work and family
in New Zealand, returning for various projects. Significantly, she was director of
the 2nd New Zealand Screenwriters Laboratory in 2003, supported by the NZFC
and run with the guidance of the Sundance Institute. Her last film, for which she
returned to New Zealand, was Hotere (2001), a portrait of one of New Zealand’s
most distinguished artists, Ralph Hotere. The documentary placed the Maori artist,
known for his pursuit of privacy and reticence regarding his work, within his
200 Women Screenwriters

house. As in Mita’s other work, she captures his mauri (life force) in the construc-
tion of the documentary. The works are embedded within montages that circle and
weave through Hotere’s home and studio, consolidating notions of work and life
and art forming an intricate tapestry, and completing the circle in Mita’s own work.

Small screen

On the small screen women had considerably more success as screenwriters.

Government-owned television broadcasting, in its most recent iteration called
Television New Zealand (TVNZ), was run as a public service from its inception
in 1960 until deregulation of broadcasting in 1989. Based on ‘public service’
principles the organization included television drama production departments
with script development teams for the writing of soap serials, drama series and
serials. Despite having no quota for local production, there was a consistent, if
small, output in the first 25 years of broadcast. The certainty of employment,
defined wages and the benefits that the public service provided may have offered
more secure career pathways for women than the competitive cut-and-thrust
of the independent film production industry. In addition, development teams
offered opportunities in roles allied to screenwriting, including script editing,
story editing and script producing. The pathway to television drama writing was
mainly through playwriting (Janice Finn, Norelle Scott, Riwia Brown, Philippa
Campbell, Frances Edmond, Fiona Samuel), novel writing (Anne Kennedy, Sue
MacCauley, Stephanie Johnson, Paula Boock), and journalism (Judy Callingham,
Debra Daley, Rosemary McLeod). As with the film industry, many of these women
developed a number of career portfolios either in addition to or in moving on
from screenwriting alone. Television series ‘classics’ Close to Home (1975–83), Gloss
(1987–90), Shark in the Park (1988–91), Open House (1986–7), Country GP (1984–5)
and others provided significant training opportunities for women interested in
screen storytelling. Often authorial control rested with female producers (such as
Janice Finn, Philippa Campbell, Caterina Denave), and in those times of positive
discrimination both the content and the staffing were often oriented towards
women’s issues.
Rachel Lang, screenwriter and co-creator of several television drama series, was
a key screenwriter for the small screen in the 2000s. Beginning as a story editor on
such local series and serials as Shark in the Park (1988–91), Open House (1986–7),
and Shortland Street (1992–), she then co-created (with Gavin Strachan) Jackson’s
Wharf (1999–2000) and Mercy Peak (2001–3). The majority of these are family and
community-based serials or series. Outrageous Fortune (2005–10), co-created with
James Griffin, is ‘an upside down morality tale about a woman who tries to make
her family go straight’ (Lang 2010). It tells of the West family and, in the tradition
of other series focused on the working classes, is ‘large, comedic, rude and outra-
geous’ (Lang 2010). Like the more successful New Zealand films, this series also
centres on a mother’s quest to protect and manage her family. Significantly the
format has been adapted for British television by ITV and for the American market
under the titles Honest (2008–) and Scoundrels (2010–) respectively, a first for a New
Zealand television series (Dunleavy and Joyce 2011: 199–201).
New Zealand 201

Deregulation and the 1990s

By the early 1990s, and after 15 years of government-originated film financing, six
films had been written and directed by Rodriga, Preston and Mita. These six films
were from a total of 70 films funded by the NZFC during the period, challeng-
ing Rodriga’s previously cited optimism. However, legislative changes in the local
screen industry in the early part of the 1990s, deregulation of broadcasting, and the
development of ‘art cinema’ internationally fostered a new generation of women
filmmakers and screenwriters who, over the next 15 years, made substantial contri-
butions to the majority of internationally acknowledged New Zealand films. Initially
NZFC policy remained focused on writer-directors with the production of Alison
Maclean’s Crush (1992, co-written with Anne Kennedy) and Anna Campion’s Loaded
(1994) – a pathway that invariably included writing and directing several short films
as part of a development programme. These policy decisions were based partly on
the extraordinary success of Maclean’s short Kitchen Sink (1989), a noir thriller that
also played with conventional gender representation. Jane Campion3 wrote and
directed Sweetie (1989) (co-writer Gerard Lee) and The Piano (1993). Although not
funded locally, at best they were claimed as culturally New Zealand’s own, and they
at least set the benchmark for what antipodean women could achieve worldwide.
Jane Campion’s Academy Award for the screenplay of The Piano proved the point.
Other than Preston and Jane Campion, the majority of the women cited in this first
wave have moved away from writing their own screenplays and on to careers as
directors or producers. For example, Maclean established a consistent career direct-
ing television and music videos in the United States, including Gossip Girl (2009)
and Michael: Tuesdays and Thursdays (2011). The second feature film she directed was
Jesus’ Son (1999), a USA/Canadian production written with a team of three.
The new regulatory environment and the expansion of the international film
market through the 1990s meant that financing could be sourced from a variety
of areas. It also saw the emergence of screenwriting as a dedicated career path for
women. The most prominent example is Fran Walsh, co-writer on Peter Jackson’s
films, including Meet the Feebles (1989), Braindead (1992), Heavenly Creatures
(1995), The Frighteners (1996), the Oscar-winning Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001–3),
King Kong (2005), The Lovely Bones (2009), and The Hobbit (2012–14). Walsh was
born Frances Rosemary Walsh in Wellington, New Zealand in 1959. She attended
Victoria University in Wellington, majoring in English literature. She began her
screenwriting career in television before joining forces with Jackson. Philippa
Boyens, a playwright, teacher, editor, screenwriter and producer who received
a BA in history and English from the University of Auckland in 1994 joined the
screenwriting partnership of Jackson and Walsh in 1996 during the development
of the LOTR trilogy; her credits include co-writing on the Lord of the Ring series
(2001–3), King Kong (2005), The Lovely Bones (2009), and The Hobbit (2012–14).

Making a mark

Ten years on from the pioneering efforts of Mita, Rodriga and Preston, the indus-
try had matured to the point where women were accessing screenwriting roles
202 Women Screenwriters

independently of directing roles. The two films released in 1994 that confirmed
this progress were Heavenly Creatures, written by Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson,
and Once Were Warriors (1994, winner of the New Zealand Best Screenplay Award),
written by Riwia Brown. Brown is a playwright and screenwriter. Both Heavenly
Creatures and Once Were Warriors surpassed all previous films with respect to
international recognition and sales returns. Both tell tragic tales of women within
families, and of relationships between mothers and their daughters. Heavenly
Creatures, a fictional account of the actual murder of Honora Rieper by her daugh-
ter Pauline Parker and Pauline’s friend, Juliet Hulme, in 1954, was given a fantasti-
cal rendition as Walsh and Jackson adapted the story from Parker’s diaries. The
writers were nominated for an Academy Award for their screenplay.
Once Were Warriors, adapted by Brown from the novel by Alan Duff, was a signi-
ficant breakthrough for both indigenous filmmakers and women screenwriters.
Brown, a Maori playwright and theatre practitioner, initially acted as a script con-
sultant on the novelist’s drafts, advising on the female protagonist, Beth, in what
was a deeply ‘macho’ story about family violence. Producer Robin Scholes and
director Lee Tamahori ‘had envisaged a team of writers working on the screenplay,
but Brown ended up doing the whole job’ (Smith 1994: 32). Brown recalls she
had no aspirations to write for film: ‘The miraculous thing was that I had never
written a screenplay, and for some reason way above me I had a very strong sense
of the structure, strong sense of the story’ (Brown 2001).
Warriors was the melding of social and cultural concerns that ignited the local
population to the extent that the film broke all New Zealand box-office records.
Its story of a disenfranchised urban Maori family violently disintegrating under
the pressures of postcolonial life spoke to both Maori and Pakeha audiences, while
Beth, the ‘mother courage’ at its centre, appealed to international audiences.

Into the millennium

The emergence of a number of notable screenwriters within the local and inter-
national industry reflected the transition undertaken by the NZFC and screen
industries from being primarily nationally oriented to partaking in the interna-
tional film and global screen industries. Peter Jackson and the development and
production of the Lord of the Rings trilogy from 1999 intensified the internation-
alizing of what had been a relatively discrete national cinema and an even more
contained television industry. The period saw an unprecedented engagement in
the arts by Helen Clark’s Labour government (1999–2008), drawing upon the
legislative reform of the creative industries by the Blair government in Britain.
Clark took on the role of arts minister herself, promoting an arts recovery pack-
age of 146 million dollars in 2000, with a one-off investment of 22.1 million
dollars earmarked for film production. This new Film Fund 1 (FF1) financed
eight films, three written and directed by women: Caro’s Whale Rider and The
Vintner’s Luck (2009) (co-writer Joan Scheckel) and Gaylene Preston’s feature
Perfect Strangers (2003), certainly a more favourable ratio than 20, or even ten
years earlier.
New Zealand 203

Screenwriter, director and producer Caro (1967–) was born in Wellington, New
Zealand. She attended the Elam School of Fine Arts at the University of Auckland
and then received a Master of Fine Arts from Swinburne University of Technology.
Her feature screenwriting credits include Memory and Desire (1998), Whale Rider
(2002), and The Vintner’s Luck (2009). Caro had previously written and directed
several shorts, with her first feature, Memory and Desire (1998), indicating her pref-
erence for stories that she has adapted herself. Like her predecessors, her films have
feminist themes and feature women, or girls, battling the odds. Memory and Desire
tells of a Japanese bride, widowed while in New Zealand on her honeymoon, while
Whale Rider follows the journey of a young Maori woman in a quest to become
her tribe’s spiritual leader. In between these features Caro had written and directed
for a number of television series, primarily for South Pacific Pictures, producers of
Whale Rider.
Preston’s Perfect Strangers continued her preoccupation with the thriller genre,
‘in which mythical and fairy tale elements are incorporated into contemporary
narratives for political rather than purely narrative purpose’ (Tincknell 2007: 82).
Within a noir aesthetic, Preston reverses the trope of female victimization as the
protagonist, Melanie, kills her new lover, albeit accidentally, and, in a farcical but
uncannily female way, stores his dead body in a freezer while she takes another
lover. Preston’s next film, Home by Christmas (2010), is a film memoir that departs
from the thriller genre of Mr Wrong and Perfect Strangers and captures the bio-
graphical elements of her television series Bread and Roses. This time the subject
is Preston’s own family and her parents’ experiences of World War II, her father’s
service in Italy, and her mother’s waiting at home for him to return. The feminist
concerns are continued from the earlier War Stories Our Mothers Never Told Us
(1995), interviews with New Zealand women about their wartime experiences, and
both works universalize these personal experiences for an international audience.
Emerging also at this time was Christine Jeffs, writer and director of Rain (2001)
and director of Sylvia (2003) and Sunshine Cleaning (2008). Jeffs was an assistant
editor on Preston’s Ruby and Rata and Maclean’s Crush, demonstrating the close-
ness of the New Zealand filmmaking community. Rain is a dark tale of the fracture
of a nuclear family while on their summer holiday. In a quintessentially New
Zealand holiday home (bach) the family falls apart through the mother’s drunk-
enness, father’s despair, and daughter’s burgeoning sexuality: emotional and spir-
itual poverties that reminded audiences of a forsaken centre in the modern family.
A significant, complementary film about a Maori family, The Strength of Water,
was released in 2009. The screenplay was written by Maori playwright Briar Grace-
Smith, directed by Armagan Ballantyne, and produced by Fiona Copland, these
latter two being Pakeha. The film presents a darker version of Maori community
life than either Whale Rider or Boy (2010). Here, too, a child dies early in the
story, the result of an unholy coalition of economic, social and familial factors.
The project was in development for an extended period of seven years and, as
with Whale Rider, the creative team spent a considerable amount of time living
and liaising with the local Maori community, Te Rarawa. This was a first feature
film for both Grace-Smith and Ballantyne, and The Strength of Water was selected
204 Women Screenwriters

for Competition at Rotterdam International Film Festival, for Generation at the

Berlinale, and was a nominee at the Asia Pacific Film Awards.
In 2013, Campion completed Top of the Lake, a seven-part detective series co-
written with Gerard Lee; this returned Campion to New Zealand and to television.
The series uses New Zealand’s sublime landscapes to explore existential themes
and is funded by the Sundance Channel, UKTV in Australia and the BBC, signal-
ling the globalization of the industries and the movement of women screenwriters
within it. What emerges in this historical overview is that there are few women
dedicated to a career solely in screenwriting, instead choosing the path of writer-
director to explore themes of motherhood, family and relationships. This in turn
has catapulted several into directorial careers. Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens,
arguably New Zealand’s foremost women screenwriters, have based their careers
in Hollywood, even though they remain domiciled in New Zealand. Significantly,
the New Zealand films that have impacted most strongly since Campion’s An
Angel at My Table, including The Piano, Once Were Warriors, Heavenly Creatures,
Whale Rider, and the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, have been written by
women. Further, these writers reveal through their screenplays a preoccupation,
like their male counterparts, with New Zealand’s place in the world. In addition
the writers and directors use the local landscape to reflect these concerns of isola-
tion and loneliness, in gothic and dark ways. The majority of films dealt with here
are passionately concerned with issues that are both politically and intimately
connected to women, and combined with the government mandates to tell local
stories, this has meant that the resulting screen products are often disturbing and
always distinctive.

1. All translations Maori to English/English to Maori are from The Maori Dictionary, http://
www.maoridictionary.co.nz/ (accessed 4 February 2013).
2. See Mita 1992 and Barclay 1990 for more detailed accounts of Maori aesthetics.
3. See essay on Jane Campion in the Australia section.

Barclay, B. 1990. Our Own Image. Auckland: Longman Paul.
Brown, R. 2001. Interview with Hester Joyce, 21 February.
Dunleavy, T., and H. Joyce. 2011. New Zealand Film & Television: Institution, Industry and
Cultural Change. Bristol: Intellect.
Horrocks, R. 1985. Melanie Read: New Zealand Film Makers at the Auckland City Art Gallery
Lang, R. 2010. Interview, 13 September. Available at: http://screentalk.nzonscreen.com (accessed
13 March 2013).
Mita, M. 1992. ‘The Soul and the Image’, in J. Dennis and J. Bieringa (eds) Film in Aotearoa
New Zealand. Wellington: Victoria University Press.
NZFC. 1987a. ‘On the Portrayal of Women and Men on Film’. Wellington: NZFC.
NZFC. 1987b. ‘Notes to Assessors on the Portrayal of Women and Men on Film’.
Wellington: NZFC.
NZFC. 1995. Programmes of Assistance and Policy Guidelines Handbook. Wellington: NZFC.
New Zealand 205

Peters, G. 2007. ‘Lives of Their Own’, in I. Conrich and S. Murray (eds) New Zealand Filmmakers.
Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
Preston, G. 1997. Interview with Hester Joyce, 7 September.
Rodriga, M. 1998. Interview with Hester Joyce, 18 February.
Smith, P. 1994. ‘Warrior Woman’, NZ Listener, 7 May, p. 32.
Tincknell, E. 2007. ‘Between the Personal and the Political: Feminist Fables in the Films
of Gaylene Preston’, in I. Conrich and S. Murray (eds) New Zealand Filmmakers, Detroit:
Wayne State University Press.
Part IV
Carl Wilson

After Armenia was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1922, the centralized
government formed the Armenian Film Foundation in 1923. With the establish-
ment of Armenfilm (Hayfilm) studios in the same year, Armenian cinema began
to flourish until the onset of World War II, when production declined. After
the resurgence and revitalization of Hayfilm in the late 1950s, the film industry
again began to increase its momentum. Receiving their orders from the Central
Television of the USSR, and in collaboration with Mosfilm, the largest and most
significant studio in Russia and Europe at the time, the Armenian film industry
eventually grew to regularly release six to seven feature-length movies a year
during the 1980s. However, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s,
and Armenia declaring full independence in 1991, Armenia encountered severe
economic difficulties, which impacted significantly upon their film industry.
According to Peter Rollberg, the funds allocated by the Armenian government
were ‘barely sufficient to pay salaries and maintain the rapidly aging, underused
equipment’ (Rollberg 2009).
It is only since 2000, when Armenia moved towards a market economy, looking
outwards towards Western coproduction and inwards with a greater appreciation
of their own cultural potential, that the volume of titles, and the presence of
Armenian cinema at international film festivals, began to substantially improve.
In 2006, the non-commercial National Cinema Centre of Armenia (NCCA)
was created to encourage and facilitate this expansion. Furthermore, in 2004,
Armenia’s KIN International Women’s Film Festival was created with the intent
to ‘promote women’s creativity, [and] establish a network between woman film-
makers from different parts of the world and give hand to a better understanding
of different cultures and each other’ (KIN 2013). When Mariam Ohanyan, the
director of the festival, was asked about current Armenian female filmmakers, she
reeled them off, proudly stating: ‘One of them is working and famous in Russia –
Maria Sahakyan. Her last two films are I Want to Change My Name (2012) and
Antropia (2013). We have Nika Shek, [who will soon] premiere her first feature
length film: From Two Worlds as a Keepsake (2012). Ludmila Sahakynts shot a
film in 2000. Other filmmakers are working in documentary or have shot films’
(Ohanyan 2013). Focusing on a new cultural identity that is based on shared goals

210 Women Screenwriters

and attributes, rather than abstract political and ideological lines, has allowed
female screenwriters and directors to develop in Armenia, and as we can see in
Anna Melikyan’s work (see entry below), it is of critical importance to the develop-
ment and expression of the New Post-Soviet Person.

Anna Melikyan (b. 1976) and the New Post-Soviet Person

Anna Melikyan was born in Baku, Azerbaijan and raised in Armenia. In 2002,
Melikyan graduated from the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography (VGIK),
Moscow, Russia, where she had worked under the esteemed directors Sergei
Solovyov and Valeri Rubinchik. While at VGIK, Melikyan produced three
short films that won recognition at Russian and international film festivals:
Andante (1997), Let’s Fly (1999), and Poste Restante (2000), which won the Grand
Prix at the St Anna student film festival in Russia, as well as the City of Melbourne
Award for best short experimental film at the Melbourne International Film
Festival, Australia. Melikyan’s final student piece, Contrabass (2002), secured her
a grant from the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation. With this grant,
and the financial backing of Central Partnership, Russia’s largest independent
film distributor, Melikyan was able to write and direct her first feature film, Mars
(2004). Following Mars, Melikyan directed the critically well received Mermaid
(2007), which brought her an Academy Award nomination, and a directing award
at the Sundance Film Festival. In addition to currently working on her third film,
Star (2008), which was co-written with Andrey Migachev and Viktoriya Bugayeva,
Melikyan has also moved into producing film and television features with her
new production company, Mars Media Entertainment.
Melikyan’s original screenplay for Mars presents the story of Boris, a boxer from
the capital city of Moscow who enters and engages with a provincial Russian
town called Marks – and promptly tries all manner of ways to leave. The town is
named after Karl Marx (‘Marks’ in Russian), the founder of communist ideology,
but a train station sign, seen by the lead protagonist, has dropped the letter ‘K’,
hence the pun that the people follow Russian/Communist traditions as though
they are from another world: the ‘red’ planet. The script wrestles with the char-
acters and their inherited cultural background, innovatively presenting their lives
and desires in a cavalcade of memorable inserts, dream sequences, flashbacks,
and flashforwards. The absurdist comedy of Mars is like an updated, kaleidoscopic
reconstitution of Afanasyev’s Russian fairy tales, one where everybody works in a
toy factory, there is an ‘outsider’ traveller, and the tale is resolved melodramati-
cally with a character (Greta) committing suicide and being resurrected via the
deus ex machina of love.
Melikyan’s work engages with Russian culture, but, as we can see in Mars, the
manner in which she portrays this immersion is distanced from the Stalinist
paradigm of the New Soviet Man/Woman, where heroic reality was imbued with
patriotic romanticism. Her films also separate themselves from the subsequent
postmodern destabilization of character and idealistic reality that former VGIK
Russian alumni such as Andrei Tarkovsky, Sergei Bondarchuk, and Alexandr
Armenia 211

Sokurov examine in their own work. Melikyan taps into what Natascha Drubek-
Meyer and Bettina Lange term the ‘New Russian Man/Woman’ (Drubek-Meyer
and Lange 2009), referring to the time at the turn of the century when tales of
new Russian capitalism met ‘patriarchal stories of the fairy tale’ with a focus on
‘individual characters and their life-stories’. For example, Star could be seen as a
simple ‘Cinderella in the city’ tale, where the rural girl falls in love with the young
son of a wealthy Moscow business family; except, the film also encompasses opti-
mism, misunderstandings, misplaced arrogance, and the insecurity of not having
a predetermined life in modern Russia from a variety of intersecting perspectives.
Mars was written with classic Russian fiction in mind, but Melikyan’s second
feature film, Mermaid, is a modern update of one fairy tale in particular: Hans
Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid (1837). In Mermaid, a young girl, called
Alisa, is conceived in the sea and lives by the ocean with her mother and grand-
mother. While awaiting her father’s return they struggle with their impoverished
lives. Alisa has selective mutism, and believes that she lives in a fantasy world
where her wishes come true. This leads her to eventually move to Moscow with
her family, where she saves Sasha, a suicidal Moon property salesman, from
drowning, and falls in love with him – like in Anderson’s story. However, instead
of marrying him, she becomes his house cleaner.
Sasha sells Moon property so that other people can ‘have somewhere to escape’
to, but does not have property himself as ‘I don’t need to escape anywhere, I feel
bad enough here’. This bleak contrast between fantasy and reality is a thematic
continuation of Melikyan’s work in Mars, and is presented in a stylistically similar
In Mermaid, the magical elevation of Alisa’s surroundings through her own voli-
tion promotes mixed feelings; she is shaping her life to please herself, but at the
same time her denial of reality is painfully tragic. Yet, Melikyan suggests that her
characters don’t all share the same collective response to their diegetic reality. As
with Alisa in Mermaid, who dreams about becoming a ballerina, and awaits the
return of her father, in Mars the Russian townspeople of Marks are equally solip-
sistic, comprising:

a precocious, scheming girl and her mother, both dreaming of a French suitor;
a young idealist, Grigorii, in love with an ethereal librarian Greta […] whose
daily routine includes watching Casablanca in the local movie theater; and a
barmaid fantasizing about a sexual encounter with Vladimir Putin. (Russian
Film Symposium 2005)

Yet, in a reversal of Mars, Mermaid is centred on one character who illuminates the
depression of those around her, precisely because she is the one with an optimistic
inner-belief system that to some extent negates the diegetic reality around her.
The coherence of the narrative is largely due to Melikyan finding inspiration
in the form of actress Masha Shalaeva, who plays the eponymous character.
According to Melikyan: ‘Writing the film was not linear. I wrote different parts
at different times. Masha, the lead, was a friend I studied with [at VGIK], and
212 Women Screenwriters

I was always thinking and thinking about her. I wrote the screenplay especially
for her, always thinking how she would appear in certain scenes’ (Kamenev 2008).
Furthermore, Melikyan has stated that ‘The script was very easy to write, because
I wasn’t thinking about an abstract image, but a specific person – her face, voice
and attitude’ (Moscow News 2008). This focus on the life of an innocent and naive
female character in love, with a unique perspective on the world, has invited sev-
eral comparisons to Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s classic quirky French film Amélie (2001).
As with the protagonist of Amélie, the New Russian Woman isn’t an ‘abstract
image’ to be constructed in relation to one country alone; she is a highly indi-
vidualized reflection of contemporary life across modern, capitalist culture. In
an interview for Mermaid, Melikyan points out the significance of these shared
points of orientation between the viewer and her work: ‘I understand that this
is the main thing that you shoot your films for, to make people see the film and
encourage them to think about something that is very important’ (Bugrova 2008).
The appeal to a wider audience partly explains the critical success of Mermaid
overseas. In 2008 the film won the Sundance Film Festival Directing Award in the
World Cinema category and Variety magazine singled out Melikyan as one of the
ten most promising directors in the world. Mermaid was selected as Russia’s official
submission for the Foreign Language Film category at the 2009 Academy Awards,
which suggests that the state-run Russian nomination committee had formally
validated Melikyan’s New Russian cultural typology. In the future, films of this
type could well be precluded from gaining international prominence because of a
new conservatism in Russian filmmaking. The Russian Filmmakers’ Union Ethics
Charter of 2013 calls for a return to ‘the portrayal of positive heroes, promotion
of traditional family values and national unity, and the respect for the history and
symbolism of the Fatherland’ (Talvio 2013).
Through using social permutations and colliding agendas as the subject mat-
ter for her films, Melikyan’s interest in examining the New Russians reflects her
own post-Soviet experiences and thoughts. However, Melikyan also has a wider
perspective, having been brought up in Armenia as it transitioned from Soviet to
independent Armenia. The varied fortunes of Armenia and its culture have not
only been formative of Melikyan’s world view, and present in the Russian charac-
ters that inhabit her films, but they are also a vital part in the wider formation of
the New Post-Soviet Person.

Bugrova, O. 2008. ‘“Rusalka” (“Mermaid”) – Russian Film is the Prize Winner of
the Berlin Film Festival’, Voice of Russia [Online]. Available at: http://voiceofrussia.
com/2008/03/26/184389/ (accessed 10 November 2013).
Drubek-Meyer, N., and B. Lange. 2009. ‘The Splendor and Misery of the Little Mermaid:
Roundtable on Anna Melikyan’s “Rusalka” (Introduction)’, ARTmargins Online [Online].
Available at: http://www.artmargins.com/index.php/the-splendor-and-misery-of-the-
little-mermaid-roundtable-on-anna-melikyans-qrusalkaq (accessed 10 November 2013).
Kamenev, M. 2008. ‘Sundance Contender’, Moscow Times [Online]. Available at: http://www.
themoscowtimes.com/arts_n_ideas/article/sundance-contender/356186.html (accessed 10
November 2013).
Armenia 213

‘KIN’ Women’s International Film Festival [Online]. 2013. Available at: http://kinfestival.
com (accessed 10 November 2013).
Moscow News [Online]. 2008. ‘Cinema – Russia Selects Anna Melikyan’s Rusalka to Enter
2009 Oscars’. Available at: http://themoscownews.com/arts/20080925/55347989.html
(accessed 10 November 2013).
Ohanyan, M. 2013. ‘Re: Anna Melikyan and Armenian Female Filmmakers’. Email to
C. Wilson (carl.wilson@sheffcol.ac.uk), 14 October.
Rollberg, P. 2009. ‘Armenfilm studio (Hayfilm)’, Historical Dictionary of Russian and Soviet
Cinema. Plymouth: Scarecrow Press.
Russian Film Symposium. 2005. ‘Program Notes: Mars’, the yellow house of cinema [Online].
Available at: http://www.rusfilm.pitt.edu/2005/pn/mars.htm (accessed 10 November
Talvio, R. 2013. ‘Re: Ethics in Screenwriting’. Email to the Screenwriting Research Network
(screenwriting-research-network@jiscmail.ac.uk), 12 March.
Robert Dassanowsky

Women screenwriters in Austrian film history

Given the sprawling Central European nature of the Austro-Hungarian Empire,

Austrian film has been transcultural since its inception and has remained so
throughout its history. The first Austrians to produce feature films were the team of
Louise Veltée (also known as Louise Kolm and Louise Fleck), her husband, Anton
Kolm, and their cameraman, Jakob Julius Fleck, and it was their efforts, beginning
in 1906, that mark the beginning of a mainstream, Vienna-based Austrian film
industry. Traditionally, however, Count Alexander Kolowrat-Krakowsky, known
as Sascha Kolowrat, has been labelled the father of the Austrian film industry
because of his business successes and discovery of film talent, and early Austrian
erotic films have been discovered that predate the Veltée-Kolm productions.
After the founding of the First Austrian Republic in 1919, and through the
1920s, both the Kolm-Fleck and Kolowrat studios attempted lavish biopics and
adapted operas for the screen. Sascha Kolowrat had long admired American films
and their exportability, and his intention to create an Austrian cinema inter-
national in theme and groundbreaking in presentation was something that he
had planned throughout the war years. He employed two Austro-Hungarian direc-
tors, Mihály Kertész (later Hollywood’s Michael Curtiz) and Alexander Korda, to
create the monumental silent epics Sodom und Gomorrah (1922) and Samson und
Delila (1922), respectively.
Early émigré Austrian writer-directors worked in Berlin and Hollywood; though
they were mostly male, for instance Erich von Stroheim, Josef von Sternberg,
Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder and Fred Zinnemann. Two Austrian-born women, Salka
Viertel and Vicki Baum, were among the few female screenwriters in the Golden
Age of Hollywood, and among the most well known. Salka Viertel (Salomea Sara
Steuermann, 1889–1978) was the daughter of a Jewish lawyer and long-time mayor
of Sambor, Austria-Hungary (today Western Ukraine), Joseph Steuermann. Viertel
began her career as a stage actress in Bratislava, Berlin and Vienna and married
Austrian-born writer, film and theatre director Berthold Viertel in 1918. German film
director F. W. Murnau arranged a contract in Hollywood for Berthold Viertel to work
as a writer and director in 1928. His wife and family relocated with him and they

Austria 215

remained there after the rise of Hitler’s Nazi party in Germany. Salka won support-
ing roles in four films between 1929 and 1931 and her friend Greta Garbo insisted
she take a significant role in the German-language version of Anna Christie (1931).
Viertel was co-author of the original story with Margaret P. Levino and she subse-
quently became a close friend and advisor to Garbo. Beginning with Queen Christina
in 1933, Viertel co-scripted most of the actress’s films. She had always constructed
resilient female figures in her fiction writing, but with Garbo as influence and idol,
her screenplays became known for their strong female leads and political themes.
Viertel’s friendship with the Hollywood-exiled Bertolt Brecht resulted in a col-
laborative but unfinished screenplay about a contemporary Joan of Arc figure,
involved in resistance against the Nazis. She additionally wrote for three more
productions between 1947 and 1959, including Hedy Lamarr’s episodic Italian
film (which Lamarr co-produced, with Austrian-born Edgar G. Ulmer co-directing),
L’amante di Paride/Love of Three Queens (1954), which Lamarr hoped would demon-
strate her abilities beyond the typecasting she had suffered in Hollywood.
Viertel’s famed salons attracted many of the exiled German and Austrian lit-
erati, and she was a co-founder of the European Film Fund or EFF (created in
1938 by Austrian-exile Hollywood agent Paul Kohner and German-born direc-
tor Ernst Lubitsch). The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) later
accused Viertel of having communist sympathies (her friendship with Brecht was
obviously considered incriminatory). Blacklisted in Hollywood, she subsequently
relocated to Switzerland in 1953.
Vicki Baum (Hedwig Baum, 1888–1960) was born into a family of Jewish-
Viennese civil servants and attended the Vienna Conservatory of the Friends of
Music. She published her first novel, Frühe Schatten (Early Shadow) in 1919, going
on to work as an editor for the Ullstein publishing house in Berlin from 1926–31.
Baum wrote the screenplay for her 1927 novel Hell in Frauensee for the German
film Die drei Frauen von Urban Hell/The Three Women of Urban Hell (1928), which
was later remade as the French Lac aux dames/Ladies Lake (1934). She adapted
what would become her most famous literary work, the 1929 novel Menschen im
Hotel (‘People in a Hotel’), for stage productions in Berlin and on Broadway in
1930. MGM asked her to write the screenplay, based on the novel and renamed
Grand Hotel (1932), as a star vehicle for Greta Garbo and she then moved to Los
Angeles in 1932. She remained in Hollywood partly due to the success of the film
but also because of Hitler’s assumption of power in Germany in 1933 and the
burning of her books there in 1935. Her bestselling novels and stories became the
basis for more than thirty American films (such as Hotel Berlin [1945] and Weekend
at the Waldorf [1945]), television productions (for Kraft Theater and Celebrity
Playhouse), and French and West German films and remakes. She received no
credit for her story contribution to the Johann Strauss biopic, The Great Waltz
(1938), or for her screenplay work on Unfinished Business (1941). Baum was given
idea credit for the films Powder Town (1942) and Girl Trouble (1942), and story
credit for Dorothy Arzner’s Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) and Behind City Lights (1945),
and for the Michael Kanin-scripted Honeymoon (1947). Her final credit as a screen-
writer is on the French film, Retour à l’aube/She Returned at Dawn (1938).
216 Women Screenwriters

Sound brought the creation of a genre that has become synonymous with
interwar Austrian cinema, the ‘Viennese Film’. Created by screenwriter-director
Walter Reisch and director-actor Willi Forst, these elegantly stylized and heav-
ily atmospheric Old Vienna-milieu melodramas, with rich musical scores, first
dealt with artists who sacrifice love for their art, then became more general in
theme. Austria’s film industry essentially split in two after 1934: the mainstream
‘Aryanized’ productions supported by the Austrian Nazis, which informed
Germany of the racial quality of cast and crew, and the Emigrantenfilm or emigrant
films, which included German talent that had fled to Austria and those Austrians
who were unacceptable to Germany, or refused to bow to Nazi pressure. These
films were mostly co-produced with Hungarian or Czech studios and were shot in
several languages for distribution across Europe, with the exception of Germany.
Even as the political catholicism of Austrofascism (1934–8) influenced cin-
ematic trends, the Emigrantenfilm positioned itself against Nazi cinema, offering
international-style, class-conflict musicals and comedies that questioned archaic
gender roles. Although there were few female screenwriters, those that had found
recognition continued to work in one or both industries, but their general lack of
surviving personal information points to the male dominance in films of the era.
Like Ida Jenbach, Rosa Wachtel (c. 1900–?) began her career as a journalist and
film critic, and co-scripted eleven films between 1921 and 1932 for Austrian and
German directors Max Neufeld, Robert Wohlmuth (known as Robert Wilmot in
Hollywood after 1938) and Carl Boese. Maria Stephan is even more elusive and
her personal details are unknown. She received credit as co-writer of Die Fahrt in
die Jugend/The Trip to Youth (1935), as sole screenwriter for Tanzmusik/Dance Music
(1935), and for one of the major costume dramas of the period, Manja Valewska
(1936). Although her three films had post-1933 German premieres, indicating that
there were no ‘known’ Jewish artists working on the film, Stephan obviously fled
the 1938 annexation for Italy, which also became the haven for Austrian director
Max Neufeld who was labelled ‘half-Jewish’ by the Nazis. Her last recorded film
credit is as assistant director on Vittorio de Sica’s comedy Maddalena ... zero in
condotta/Maddalena, Zero for Conduct (1940).
With the Anschluss, or annexation, of Austria by Germany in 1938, female
screenwriters were not encouraged. The Viennese film studio, Wien-Film, had a
specific role in the film production structure of the Third Reich as the centre of
lavish operetta, period comedy and entertainment films. The division of Vienna
and Austria following the war did not end until 1955, though historical biopics
on Mozart, Empress Maria Theresa, Beethoven, and Schubert helped reconstruct
a cinematic national identity in terms of high art and the imperial past, while
avoiding the Nazi period. The most important genres to emerge from the 1950s,
which marked a boom in Austrian film production, were the provincial melo-
drama or Heimatfilm and the imperial film, which romanticized the Habsburg
Empire in lavish colour costume epics. While there were women in other aspects
of the film industry, screenwriting remained male territory.
Austria’s commercial film industry disappeared in the mid 1960s. There was
no new wave movement to take its place as in other European cinemas of the
Austria 217

time; instead, a masculine-dominated, isolated, experimental-style film based on

Actionist performance art evolved from artists Peter Kubelka, Ferry Radax, Kurt
Kren, Günther Brus, Otto Mühl, Hermann Nitsch, and Peter Weibel. Their shock-
art, which attacked traditional forms and bourgeois complacency, along with
the lack of quality commercial productions, alienated established audiences who
abandoned the cinemas and turned to television.
The 1970s marked a return of narrative film, although these were small, local
productions. Valie Export, who experimented with her ‘expanded cinema’ con-
cepts and produced short films with Peter Weibel in the late 1960s, emerged
as one of the leaders of international feminist filmmaking and her work found
mainstream audiences.
In the late 1970s the national television network ORF (Österreichischer
Rundfunk) became a major film-financing source, and a national subsidy was
announced in 1980, allowing narrative films to gain limited commercial or tel-
evision screenings. New socially critical film was produced by Christian Berger,
Wolfram Paulus, Peter Patzak and Michael Haneke that focused on racism, xeno-
phobia, sexual repression, and psychological abuse, while Axel Corti and Nikki
List gained limited international attention for their work in historical drama and
comedy, respectively.
The broader possibilities created by production support for filmmaking in the
1980s and 1990s brought a relatively significant number of women into film writ-
ing and direction, giving the nascent New Austrian Film a reputation for being
one of the most female-driven cinemas in Europe. Greek-born director-actor-
artist Penelope Georgiou (b. 1949) settled in Vienna in 1970 and began her self-
produced run with Petunia in 1980, which she wrote and directed and performed,
with Valie Export. She also wrote other short productions in which she performed
such as Tonis+Eleni (1983) and Kallas and Kennedy (1991). Kitty Kino’s (Kitty Judit
Gschöpf, b.1948) first feature film, a comedy about a woman infiltrating the male
world of billiards, Karambolage/Collision (1983), co-scripted with Reinhard Meirer,
generated controversy for its feminist aspects. Kino has continued to write and
direct sporadically, with Die Nachtmeerfahrt/The Night Sea Journey (1986), and a
specifically Austrian comic take on sexual confusion in the self-important upper-
class yuppie milieu, Wahre Liebe/True Love (1990). Kino moved into the main-
stream as a television series writer and director.
Susanne Zanke (b. 1945) has been writing and directing teleplays and series
television since 1982, though she did not write and direct her first feature film,
Die Skorpionfrau/The Scorpion Woman, until 1989. Zanke followed with television
features that continued her focus on the difficult lives of women, such as Ein
Schloss für Rita/A Castle for Rita (1997), an update of the late 1940s and 1950s
Austrian female innkeeper films, and Vergewaltigt – das Ende einer Liebe/Raped – The
End of a Love (1998). Käthe Kratz (b. 1947) made her first film in 1976, but it was
the television specials on women’s lives, Lebenslinien/Lifelines (1983–6), which she
wrote and directed that brought her to the fore. Her next screenplays were for
the features Marlene – Der amerikanischer Traum/Marlene – The American Dream in
1987 and Das zehnte Jahr/The Tenth Year in 1995, which attempted a revision of
218 Women Screenwriters

the woman’s picture genre. Her feature documentary Abschied ein Leben Lang/Life-
Long Farewell (1999) follows three US residents who return to Vienna to witness
the reconstruction of the façade of a synagogue destroyed sixty years earlier.
Maria Knilli (b. 1959) was educated at the Munich Film School, and has been a
writer and film editor since 1980. Beginning as a cinema feature writer-director
with Lieber Karl/Dear Karl in 1984, she has maintained her socially critical stance
as a television feature director and documentarian in the 1990s. Vienna-born
Maria Arlamovsky (b. 1965) began her career as a short filmmaker and made her
feature writing and directing debut in 1996 with Seltsame Unruhe/Restless Solitude,
which looks at an alienated group of young people who avoid integration into
mainstream society. She scripted the documentary feature Abenland/The West
(2011) by Nicholas Geyrhalter who also produced her short documentary A White
Substance (2008) on sexual violence in the Congo.
The creator of a controversial and confrontational video of female physical
self-exploration, Toilette (1979), Friederike Pezold (b. 1945) offered more artistic
experimentation in 1980 with her Radio Free Utopia, a completely private broad-
cast station installed at Vienna’s Museum of Modern Art. In 1983, she returned
to the motion picture medium with a film she wrote, directed and appeared in,
Canale Grande/Grand Canal. Rather than couch her feminist visions in audience-
pleasing co-productions with ORF, Pezold remained provocative and produced
her next films under the banner of her own No Budget-Filmproduktion company.
Eines Tages/One Day (1986) was written, directed and shot (with Thomas Meissner)
by Pezold, who also appears in the film. Pezold’s next film, Das geheime Labyrinth
des Horrors/The Secret Labyrinth of Horror (aka Allein gegen die Würstel/Alone Against
the Sausages) (1989) was also written, directed, and shot by Pezold.
Margareta Heinrich (1951–94) studied direction and scriptwriting at the
Vienna Film Academy, creating films that focused on her political and feminist
interests. She wrote and directed seven feature documentaries between 1980 and
1994 on feminist and Third World topics which took her to Mozambique and
Nicaragua. Her first and third of three feature films produced, Zwielicht/Twilight
(1979) and Ihr glücklichen Augen/Her Happy Eyes (1993), were both based on a short
story by influential Austrian author Ingeborg Bachmann (1926–73). Heinrich’s
final work, the award-winning documentary Totschweigen/Deathly Silence (with
Eduard Eme, 1994) investigates the massacre of Rechnitz where 200 Hungarian-
Jewish slave labourers were murdered in March 1945. Writer and translator Lida
Winiewicz (aka Lida Winiewicz-Lefèvre, b. 1928) has been a recognized teleplay
and series writer since 1964. In 1986, she served as screenwriter with Wolfgang
Glück on his film based on Friedrich Torberg’s novel 38 Auch das war Wien/38,
about the doomed love affair of an ‘Aryan’ actress and Jewish journalist in Vienna
as the 1938 Anschluss approaches. It was the first Austrian film nominated for
the Foreign Language Film Oscar. Screenwriter Karin Brandauer was also active
in the 1980s.
Painter and media artist Maria Lassnig (1919–2014), whose early art was con-
sidered degenerate by the Nazis, came into her own as a painter in Paris and New
York in the 1950s and 60s, creating short 16 mm films before her return to Vienna,
Austria 219

where she founded Austria’s school for film animation in 1982. Bulgarian-born
performance artist Mara Mattuschka (b. 1959), a former student of Lassnig, has
scripted and directed experimental live action and animation films that feature
her in her ‘star’ alter ego, Mimi Minus.
Susanne Freund (b. 1954, Vienna), who has since become a prolific teleplay
writer and director, and Gerda E. Grossmann (b. 1953, Linz), who has moved into
sound engineering and is a television editor, co-wrote, with director Paul Harather,
Die Gottesanbeterin/The Black Widow (2000). The film, based on the true story of a
homemaker who financed her racetrack addiction by marrying and subsequently
poisoning several men. The material is given a satirical treatment by Harather
and his screenwriters. Barbara Albert’s award-winning Nordrand/City Skirts (1999)
led the strong female presence in the New Austrian Film of the early twenty-first
century to become the first Austrian film presented at the Venice Film Festival in
fifty-one years. The films of Ruth Mader, Jessica Hausner and Ruth Beckermann
have all gained national acclaim and international audiences in dealing with
shifting social and gender roles in Austria and Europe. American critic Ed Halter
considered the specific New Austrian Film style, at least among female directors,
to be ‘quiet, cool, and subjective … [These films] achieve a detached, contempla-
tive air so rarely attempted by overcompensating American cinema, communi-
cating a bittersweet beauty through the simple evocation of interior life’ (Halter
2003). Like Ulrich Seidl and Ruth Mader, Sabine Derflinger (b. 1963) ruptures
the façade of an orderly and satisfying life in her feature debut. Derflinger began
by writing and directing dramatic shorts and then turned to documentary shorts,
with Achtung Staatsgrenze/Attention, State-Frontier (directed with Bernhard Pötscher,
1995–6), about illegal aliens and those awaiting deportation in Austrian jails, and
The Rounder Girls (also directed with Pötscher, 1999), based on a soul and gospel sing-
ing group. Her feature film directing and writing debut, with Maria Scheibelhofer,
was Vollgas/Step On It (2002), where behind the images of beauty and relaxation at
an Austrian winter resort, an overworked and frustrated single mother’s unhappi-
ness leads to self-destructive alcoholism and one-night stands. She has continued to
write and direct feature documentaries and the occasional teleplay.
The daughter of Austrian actor Lukas Resetarits, Kathrin Resetarits (b. 1973)
studied direction at the Vienna Film Academy and writes documentary shorts.
She has encountered many of the new wave filmmakers in her work as actor
and casting director and assistant for director Michael Haneke. Haneke’s 2001
dramatic feature, Die Klavierspielerin/The Piano Teacher, which secured him inter-
national controversy and renown, is based on the novel by 2004 Nobel Prize-
winning Austrian author and writer of several television movies, Elfriede Jelinek
(b. 1946). Her meditation on self-abusive repression in the prosperous atmosphere
of Austria found international audiences and critical acclaim, as has Ulrich Seidl’s
Hundstage/Dog Days (2001), which exposes the sinister interiors of Vienna’s pris-
tine middle-class suburbs. Themes of ethnic and psychological self-realization also
pervade the new wave films. A standout among these is the feature Mein Russland/
My Russia (2002) by Barbara Gräftner (b. 1964). Having emerged from short film
production, Gräftner completed her doctorate as a physician then studied with
220 Women Screenwriters

Austrian director Peter Patzak at the Vienna Film Academy. Her writing-directing
feature debut, about a divorced middle-aged Viennese woman who resists her son’s
marriage to a Russian girl, is based on family experience. The unique quality of her
now classic black comedy is the result of a bringing together of what she sees as
the pragmatic, even metaphysical Russians and the goal-oriented, often prejudiced
Austrians. She has followed up as writer and director of several features and docu-
mentaries, including the Austro-HipHop film Rise Up! And Dance (2014). Andrea
Maria Dusl (b. 1961) is another screenwriter whose subject is Eastern Europe. She
has been writing and illustrating for Austrian periodicals since the mid 1980s and
has written and directed a series of six shorts under the umbrella title In Achtzig
Tagen um die Welt/Around the World in Eighty Days (1989/1991). Her writing-directing
feature film debut, Blue Moon (2002), is a mystery/romance that moves from Vienna
to Slovenia to the Black Sea in its tale about a money courier caught between his
fascination for a missing woman and her mysterious sister in the Ukraine.
South-Tyrolean Tizza Covi (b. 1971) has written and directed documentaries
with her partner, Vienna-born Rainer Frimmel, since the late 1990s. Their feature
film debut La Pivellina (2009) premiered at Cannes and was scripted by both
Covi and Frimmel. The existentialist character drama Nogo (2001), a cinematic
triptych about three diverse couples who arrive at a distant gas station, was writ-
ten and directed by another creative coupling, the experimental filmmaking
team of Sabine Hiebler and Gerhard Ertl. They co-wrote and co-directed the
feature Anfang 80/Coming of Age, an ‘octogenarian romantic comedy’, in 2011.
Gabriele Neudecker’s (b. 1965) Freaky (2001) is a short film about longing, loss,
and the concept of home, in which a fifteen-year-old Austrian girl recalls her
friendship with a Russian girl, Natalja, who suddenly disappears. It became a sur-
prise hit at several film festivals and she has continued to write and direct short
documentaries including Deserteur/Glorious Deserter (2012). Elisabeth Scharang
(b. 1969, Bruck an der Mur), daughter of Austrian writer Michael Scharang, has
been writing and directing documentaries, screenplays and teleplays since 2001.
Her most recent film is Vielleicht in einem anderen Leben/In Another Lifetime (2011),
which she co-scripted with the playwrights Peter Turrini and Silke Hassler
(b. 1969, Klagenfurt), based on Turrini and Hassler’s play about the death march
of Hungarian Jews to the Austrian concentration camp, Mauthausen.
Given the newly found international interest in Austrian cinema, filmmak-
ers have become a political force with some influence in the first decade of the
twenty-first century and have worked to increase film subsidies and control of
national festivals and promotion. Male auteurs Michael Glawogger, Ulrich Seidl,
Stefan Ruzowitzky, Götz Spielmann, and Michael Haneke have received copious
award nominations and prestigious international prizes, whereas Austria’s influen-
tial female writer-directors have not yet experienced the same level of global rec-
ognition. Nevertheless, a new generation of notable female screenwriters emerged
in the 2010s. Bosnian-born Nina Kusturica (b. 1975) edited Mirjam Unger’s
Vienna’s Lost Daughters and has also written short films and a feature documen-
tary, Little Alien (2009), about the plight of unaccompanied child refugees. The
Austrian Ministry for Education, Arts and Culture named Kusturica outstanding
artist in the category of Intercultural Dialogue in 2010. Born 1976 in Eisenstadt,
Austria 221

Barbara Eder’s debut dramatic film, Inside America (2010), examines the contra-
dictory and often troubled experiences of the students at Homer Hanna High
School in Brownsville, Texas, and their belief in the American Dream. It received
the Special Jury Prize at the German Max Ophüls Film Festival. Marie Kreutzer’s
first drama screenplay and directorial effort, Die Vaterlosen/The Fatherless (2011),
received recognition at the 2011 Berlinale Festival, while Anja Salomonowitz
(b. 1976) attended the Vienna Film Academy and is a trained editor as well as
writer and director of shorts and documentaries on critical sociopolitical topics
such as human trafficking. Her promising first feature film, Spanien/Spain (2012),
also premiered at the Berlinale and was followed by the documentary (written and
directed) Die 727 Tage ohne Karamo/The 727 Days without Karamo (2013), on mixed
European and non-European couples confronted with immigration laws.

Louise Kolm-Fleck (1873–1950)

While the role of France’s Alice Guy as the first feature film director has often
been discounted in film history texts or qualified by her gender, the prolific studio
founder, writer, director and producer Louise or Luise Veltée, born in Vienna in
1873, has been, until very recently, completely elided from cinema scholarship.
There is scant primary documentation on Louise Kolm, or on her role as filmmaker.
The best source regarding this aspect of research has been her son, Austrian film
director Walter Kolm-Veltée (1910–99), who describes his mother as ‘energetic and
full of humour. She loved fantasy but also desired to comment on the problems of
society and the relationships between men and women’ (Dassanowsky 2005: 13).
Unfortunately, much of her work in silent film is now lost, but the resurgence of
interest in Austrian cinema brought about by the success of New Austrian Film, has
led to the screening of a few of her creations in Viennese art houses.
In January 1910, the first true Vienna-based Austrian film production company
was formed by the trio of Louise Veltée (1873–1950), her husband, photographer
Anton Kolm (1865–1922), and their cinematographer Jakob Julius Fleck (1881–1953).
Louise Kolm, as she would be credited, co-scripted, edited, and assisted her brother,
Claudius Veltée, in the laboratory work (Hansch and Waz, n.d.). The Kolm-Fleck
company and its rival, the Sascha Kolowrat studio, dominated Austrian film
production until the eve of the First World War.
The 1910 Kolm-Fleck production of Der Müller und sein Kind/The Miller and His
Child is today considered the first true Austrian feature film; it was adapted from
a five-act drama by Ernst Raupach that was first performed in Vienna in 1830
and became popular throughout the German-speaking world. The continued suc-
cess and growing visibility of the Kolm-Fleck productions enabled the studio to
expand its scope and, in 1910, it increased its production of feature films, opened
a distribution office, and began publishing a weekly newsletter. Die Glückspuppe/
Doll of Happiness (1911) was co-written and directed by the team of Louise Kolm,
Anton Kolm, Jakob Fleck, and Claudius Veltée, displaying a more sophisticated
style of film writing, acting and music composition for the first time in Austria.
The premiere of the second version of the Kolm-Fleck Der Müller und sein Kind
on 21 October 1911, again adapted by Louise Kolm, signalled the strength of
222 Women Screenwriters

feature film production in Austria. Two more films were made by the original
Kolm-Fleck company: Das goldene Wiener Herz/The Golden Viennese Heart (1911)
and Trilby (1912), which was based on the popular novel by George du Maurier,
and co-written and directed by Louise and Anton Kolm, Fleck and Veltée. Trilby
tells the story of a Hungarian musician who controls his singing protégée by
Louise and Anton Kolm disagreed with a financial investor in their film com-
pany and left with Jakob Fleck and Claudius Veltée, in early 1912, to form a new
company, Wiener Kunstfilm (Viennese Art Film), which had a new studio and
sound stages in Vienna’s seventh district. The theatre drama Der Unbekannte/
The Unknown Man was to become the Kunstfilm company’s first production,
directed by Louise Kolm. Despite the success of the film, Louise Kolm preferred
co-direction, and shared the creation, as she did with many of her scripts, with
Anton Kolm, and her second husband, Jakob Fleck. Apparently, Louise Kolm and
her husband worked as a ‘committee’ on the set although Louise had the more
dominant voice in writing and acting direction, particularly in her work with
second husband, Jakob Fleck.
Most of the films made during this prolific phase of the Kolm-Fleck partnership
were progressive social dramas, and included the 1913 production Der Psychiater/
The Psychiatrist, also known as Das Proletarierherz/The Heart of the Proletarian. An
attempt at melding documentary, operetta and feature film on a subject which
has become one of the more popular ‘Austrian’ themes in international film his-
tory, Johann Strauss an der schönen blauen Donau/Johann Strauss on the Beautiful
Blue Danube in 1913, was a misfire despite its lavish conception and a premiere
which coincided with the unveiling of the Johann Strauss Memorial in Vienna’s
City Park.
Die Hochzeit von Valeni/The Wedding of Valeni (1914) was the Kolm-Flecks’ most
successful production on the eve of the First World War. Unlike previous theatre-
based films that cut back the drama to a skeletal plot, Louise Kolm sought to
extend the narrative of the Valeni film to include more character background and
motivation, setting the standard for future cinematic treatments of theatrical and
literary properties. Perhaps the pinnacle of all Kolm-Fleck artistry, Der Pfarrer von
Kirchfeld/The Priest of Kirchfeld (1914), based on the work by Austrian naturalist
playwright Ludwig Anzengruber, followed, the combination of famous actors,
beautiful nature photography, and Viennese literary credentials ensuring its suc-
cess (Nepf 1999: 29). The Kunstfilm company was also significant in bringing
the Great War into cinemas. Co-written and directed by Louise and Anton Kolm,
these features melded heroic notions with sentimental drama and rousing mel-
ody or song and include Mit Herz und Hand fürs Vaterland/With Heart and Hand
for the Fatherland (1915), with war songs by operetta great Franz Lehár, Mit Gott
für Kaiser und Reich/With God for Emperor and Empire (1916), and the 1918 drama
Freier Dienst/Voluntary Service.
Not all production was dedicated to war propaganda. The Kolm-Fleck team co-
adapted Austrian folk-dramatist Ferdinand Raimund’s (1790–1836) magical tale
Der Verschwender/The Spendthrift in 1917.
Austria 223

Louise Kolm’s desire to break with traditional gender norms is apparent in

several of her scripts; Liane Haid (1895–2000), the first true Austrian film star,
took on the lead role in Eva, die Sünde/Eva, The Sin (1920), in which she portrays
a femme fatale who attempts to seduce a monk. She also adapted work by Rudolf
Hawel, Louis Taufstein, Eugène Brieux, and Henrik Ibsen for silent film.
With the collapse of the Empire and the birth of the Austrian Republic,
Kunstfilm established a board of directors and renamed itself Vita-Film in 1919.
Following Anton Kolm’s death in 1922, Louise Kolm and Jakob Fleck disassoci-
ated themselves from Vita-Film and relocated to Berlin in 1923, where they mar-
ried. Louise continued to write and co-direct, now with her second husband and
under the name Louise Fleck. The couple then wrote and directed close to forty
German silent features for the Hegewald-Film company owned by Liddy (aka
Lydie) Hegewald, Berlin’s female film mogul, between 1923 and 1933. Among the
‘Austrian’ films made in Berlin was the Flecks’ second version of Der Pfarrer von
Kirchfeld in 1926, starring an unknown German actor who was to become a major
Hollywood director, Wilhelm (William) Dieterle.
Having left Berlin upon Hitler’s assumption of power in 1933 and returned to
Vienna, Louise and Jakob Fleck brought the icon of the lost Empire to sound film
in Unser Kaiser/Our Emperor (1933). The film was an attempt to define sovereign
identity in the face of German designs for annexation by encouraging a nos-
talgia for the lost polyglot Empire. Following this film, the Flecks concentrated
on Austrian co-productions with Czechoslovakia, co-writing and directing two
films in Prague (with Louise Kolm-Fleck’s son, Walter Kolm-Veltée), both pro-
duced by a Brno-based company: the marriage farce, Csardas/Czardas (1935), and
the Heimatfilm, Der Wilderer von Egerland/The Poacher from Egerland (1935). The
Flecks, who had been so instrumental in developing socio-critical melodramas in
Austrian cinema, carried their ideology into other genres where, according to offi-
cial criticism of the time, it was misplaced. The press considered Csardas a tasteless
comedy due to the ‘too liberated’ persona of the female lead role (Loacker and
Prucher 2000: 152). Nevertheless, Louise Fleck’s script had succeeded in reaching
far beyond the limited or repressed female image so common in film of the era.
The 1937 Austrian-Czechoslovakian co-production of Der Pfarrer von Kirchfeld/
The Priest of Kirchfeld was the third film version of the Anzengruber drama by
Louise Fleck (the second co-directed with Jakob Fleck). Due to their pro-Austrian
stance and Jakob Fleck’s Jewish ancestry, the pioneering film couple were forbid-
den from working in the film industry after the German Anschluss in 1938. They
were arrested and Jakob Fleck was interned for sixteen months at Dachau and
Buchenwald concentration camps. Thanks to the financial assistance of William
Dieterle, the German émigré director in Hollywood who had launched his career
in the couple’s 1926 version of Der Pfarrer von Kirchfeld, Fleck was released, and the
couple fled to Shanghai in 1940. There they created the first Austrian-Chinese film –
Söhne und Töchter der Welt aka Kinder der Welt/Sons and Daughters of the World aka
Children of the World) (1941) – co-written by Louise with the co-director, Chinese
filmmaker Mu Fei. The film premiered on 4 October 1941 in the Jindu Theatre in
Shanghai (Teng 1994; Rosdy 2001).
224 Women Screenwriters

The Flecks returned to Vienna in 1947, hoping to achieve fame through the
mounting of postwar productions, but it was not to be. Louise Kolm-Fleck died
on 15 March 1950 in Vienna, followed three years later by her husband and
creative partner. Walter Kolm-Veltée, her son by her first husband, Anton Kolm,
continued the long family tradition into the Austrian Second Republic as a
director and founder of the Film Academy at Vienna’s University of Music and
Performing Arts.
Louise Kolm-Fleck wrote more than eighteen screenplays, co-directed over fifty
films, and co-produced 129 film projects, although several sources suggest these
numbers are conservative since Louise often put her husband’s name on her
own work (Dassanowsky 2004). Her legacy as one of the first women to take on
nearly all the roles in the process of filmmaking may have been reflected in her
preference for socially critical material, particularly films that suggest repression
by gender, class, or, as the Austrian/Catholic ideology of her 1937 version of Der
Pfarrer von Kirchfeld signifies, the defence of the nascent ‘Austrian Nation’ against
the designs of Nazism. Louise Kolm-Fleck was also an individualist who chose to
leave Vienna and the studio she helped build rather than be pressured by business
intrigues, and who remained with her Jewish second husband when she might
have escaped arrest and exile. Louise Kolm-Fleck found her personal and creative
identity in the transculturalism and progressive artistic hothouse of the last years
of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Ida Jenbach (1868–1941?)

The previous lack of published information on Ida Jenbach is symptomatic of

the long scholarly neglect of Austrian cinema history, in and outside the coun-
try. With research, film restoration, and archival work only beginning in the last
decade of the twentieth century, much has been examined for the first time; this
includes the work of the few female artists behind the camera, and the careers of
those who perished in the Holocaust. The triple layer of cultural ‘amnesia’ sur-
rounding the work of screenwriter Ida Jenbach (as Austrian film talent, female
artist, and Shoah victim) is certainly a case in point.
Ida Jenbach, born Ida Jakobovits in Miskolez, Austria-Hungary (now Hungary),
studied acting at the Vienna Conservatory and made her stage debut in
Mannheim in 1888. She subsequently found acting work in theatrical produc-
tions in Vienna, Munich, Salzburg and Kronstadt. Jenbach was then employed
as the dramaturge for ‘Wiener Kunstfilm’ (Viennese Art Film), the studio where
Louise Kolm-Veltée was based, and she must have been influential in Jenbach’s
career. Her first recorded credits as screenwriter are for Der Giesel der Menscheit/
The Hostage of Mankind (1917), directed by Louise Kolm and Jakob Fleck, and Der
Schmuck der Herzogin/The Jewels of the Duchess (1917) for Sascha Kolowrat’s film
company, which she co-wrote with Edmund Porges. One or both of its writers
may very well have directed it. Just prior to the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian
monarchy, Jenbach scripted what is one of the few German-language detective
films of the era, Frauenehre/Women’s Honour (1918), directed by Georg Kundert.
Austria 225

Jenbach mostly wrote for the Austrian directors Hans Karl Breslauer and Max
Neufeld, helping to develop new genres for both of them. She was also a scenarist
for Carmen Cartellieri, a leading silent screen star who formed her own produc-
tion company, and created one of the first significant roles for future German-
language leading man and film director Willi Forst in Breslauer’s Oh, du lieber
Augustin/Dear Augustin (1922). Jenbach’s talent for neo-realistic melodrama and
on-location productions is shown in her screenplay for Strandgut/On the Beach
(1924), about a female shipwreck survivor who is rescued and pursued by two
brothers. The drama of a woman caught between the desires of two men, and the
equating of the female with dangerous natural forces, would become a popular
trope in the Bergfilm (mountain film) genre of the late 1920s and early 30s.
Jenbach’s best-known film is Die Stadt ohne Juden/The City without Jews (1924),
for which she adapted the popular satirical novel on anti-Semitism by Hugo
Bettauer. Directed by Breslauer, Jenbach’s script of Bettauer’s Novel about the
Day after Tomorrow, as it was subtitled, was met with more controversy than
the original publication of the novel, particularly in National Socialist and
other anti-Semitic circles. Literary critics tend to agree that Bettauer’s novel
was not intended as a visionary warning against a future expulsion of the Jews
from Austria, but functions as a wry commentary on the absurdity of bigotry.
Economic disaster in the city of Utopia (indicated to be Vienna) leads to the
expulsion of the Jews, who are then asked to return when the original problem
is only exacerbated by their expulsion. A romantic pairing also symbolically
reunites the divided culture. Jenbach contextualizes the novel’s satirical political
statement with a mollifying ending in which the film’s narrative is revealed to
have been a dream by an anti-Semite locked in an Expressionist, Dr Caligari-like
holding cell. Nevertheless, the subsequent murder of the author by a Nazi party
member resulted in a very limited release of the film. Alarmed theatre managers
made unauthorized cuts in prints when screenings were greeted with violence or
stink-bomb attacks.
Although she had not received a credit for film direction, Jenbach became the
only female member of the Austrian Directors Club (Loacker 2003). There is a
possibility that she assisted in the direction of Der Schmuck der Herzogin, and –
given Louise Kolm’s timidity regarding her own credits and her willingness to
share the directorial task – Jenbach might also have co-directed other scripts
she wrote for the Kolm-Fleck team and for actress-producer Carmen Cartellieri.
Writer-director Heinz Hanus, who had worked with the filmmaking couple at
the inception of studio production in Vienna, headed the club and it was with
Hanus and the founder of the Austrian Stage Association, Alfons Bolz-Feigl,
that Jenbach co-founded the Vereinigung aller am Filmschaffenden Österreichs
(Union of the Austrian Film Industry), more commonly known as the Filmbund,
in late 1922.
Jenbach again courted controversy with her adaptation of nineteenth-century
Austrian author Ludwig Anzengruber’s Der Pfarrer von Kirchfeld/The Priest of
Kirchfeld (1926). It was the second of three film versions of the play to be directed
by Louise Kolm and Jakob Fleck. Although interpreted as a Heimatfilm (a rural
226 Women Screenwriters

melodrama in which Catholicism and provincial tradition resolve conflict), the

aspects critical of Catholicism in Anzengruber’s naturalist drama are maintained
by Jenbach. Her pause in script production between 1928 and 1930 remains unex-
plained, but it may have been due to her need to adapt to the impact of sound
film. Jenbach had also worked as a journalist, film critic and foreign correspond-
ent, and in 1929 apparently published an article (as an unnamed reporter) in a
German magazine titled ‘Wien für Ton – aber gegen Sprechfilm’ (Vienna is for
Sound Film but against Talkies) (Loacker 2008: 47). When Jenbach returned to
scriptwriting, she worked in German film and again primarily for the Kolm-Fleck
team, which had moved to Berlin in 1923. Germany’s female silent picture mogul,
Lydie (aka Liddy) Hegewald, produced most of these features. Jenbach abandoned
the socially critical aspects of her earlier work and concentrated on operetta
and imperial-era romances, which became lavish audience pleasers (Hansch and
Waz 1998). Among them is her screenplay for Max Neufeld’s first sound film,
Opernredoute/Opera Ball (1931), which earned critical praise at its New York screen-
ing (Hall 1931) and was remade the following year in England as After the Ball
(1932), with only Neufeld receiving credit for the original script.
Because she was of Jewish extraction (although she claimed Protestant faith),
she and the Kolm-Fleck team were unable to continue to work in German
film after 1933. Jenbach’s final credit is as co-writer for the sound film Hoheit
tanzt Walzer/His Highness Waltzes (1935), a lavish ‘Viennese Film’-style operetta
directed by Max Neufeld. Produced in Prague, the film was simultaneously shot
in German, French (Valse éternelle), and Czech (Tanecek panny Márinky). With the
German ban on Jewish and other ‘unacceptable’ film artists, racial laws govern-
ing film imports from Austria, and Nazi infiltration of Austrian production, a
secondary ‘independent’ film industry had emerged in Vienna. This consisted
of films made mostly with Czechoslovakian and Hungarian studios by German
émigrés and Austrians not allowed to work in films exported to Nazi Germany.
Jenbach was well suited to this type of multicultural cinema, which concentrated
on internationally marketable contemporary, and often socially critical, comedy,
and it remains a mystery why she did not remain active in film. Two professional
relationships in the film industry certainly soured and may have been a factor in
her exit from film; Heinz Hanus, head of the Austrian film union she co-founded
with him, supported the outlawed Nazi party and provided ‘racial’ information
regarding performers and crew to producers (Dassanowsky 2005: 59), while direc-
tor Hans Karl Breslauer, who retreated from filmmaking after Die Stadt ohne Juden,
also became a Nazi party member in 1939 (Loacker 2000: 171).
Jenbach was forbidden to work following the German Anschluss in 1938, and in
1941 she was deported to the ghetto at Minsk and either perished there (the site
was liquidated in 1943) or at the nearby Maly Trostenets extermination camp. No
records survive. Ida Jenbach’s films and her considerable organizational involve-
ment with the Austrian film industry have been crucial to the ongoing research
on the female presence in early Central European film production. Her life and
work are no less important in understanding the female artistic response to the
creation and destruction of a democratic society.
Austria 227

Leontine Sagan (1889–1974)

The early 1930s saw the brief but potent emergence of Austrian writer, director
and theatre pioneer Leontine Sagan, who is often mistaken for a German because
of her landmark film, Mädchen in Uniform/Girls in Uniform (Germany, 1931). Born
Leontine Schlesinger in Vienna, she began her career as an actor under the aus-
pices of theatre director Max Reinhardt. Sagan soon defied the male-dominated
world of theatre with her work as a stage director in Austria and Germany in the
1920s. After promoting several female dramatists, Sagan decided to base a film
on the drama Gestern und Heute/Yesterday and Today by German playwright Crista
Winsloe, which had already gained notoriety for its all-female cast. Sagan adapted
the stage work into her 1931 film, which she directed in Germany. In addition to
the female cast, it was also the first German-language film to be produced coop-
eratively, whereby those involved with the production obtained shares in the
film rather than a salary. The obvious financial and creative empowerment of the
female performers and crew as co-owners of the film should rank as a unique and
progressive development in international film production history, but its revolu-
tionary value has largely been forgotten.
Sagan’s Mädchen in Uniform is remarkable on an ideological level. The story,
which takes place in an aristocratic girls’ boarding school, parodies Prussian mili-
tary values and male social constructs. The result is not only a criticism of these
aspects in German and Austrian culture, but of the displacement of women, their
lack of identity, and their problematic self-definition. In her 1979 study, Sexual
Stratagems, Nancy Scholar considers the film all the more remarkable ‘when we
consider the historical context in which it appeared’:

By 1931, Hitler was in the ascendancy … In this milieu, Sagan’s film appeared
overtly anti-nationalistic, anti-Prussian, anti-authoritarian, and surprisingly, a
separate ending, which was pro-fascist, was shown in Germany, and eventually
Goebbels had the film banned as unhealthy … The film departs radically from
convention in its open presentation of the possibilities of love between two
women. (Scholar 1979: 219)

Perhaps the film’s most fascinating aspect is the humanist non-conformism of the
teacher, Fräulein von Bernburg (Dorothea Wieck), who rejects the notion of being
a repressive male manqué to her female charges. The value of nurturing over a reg-
imented sense of discipline and the ‘difference’ of the female persona as a desir-
able human condition is a protofeminist statement that remains provocative even
today. The subsequent censorship of the film ultimately forced the director and
her crew to leave Germany, but in 1932 Sagan was asked by Austrian silent film
director Alexander Korda, then based in London, to co-script and direct Men of
Tomorrow in England. Sagan also eventually edited the film, which was intended
as a star vehicle for Korda’s protégée, Merle Oberon. It was a box-office failure,
but Sagan’s maverick work precipitated a call in 1934 from Hollywood producer
David O. Selznick. Unfortunately, the Hollywood practice of importing female
228 Women Screenwriters

film writers and directors, patterned after the cultivation of such expatriate female
actors as Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Luise Rainer and the Austrian Elisabeth
Bergner, did not materialize for Sagan.
With the Selznick call failing to develop into a serious offer, Sagan moved to
South Africa with her husband in 1939, returned to theatre direction and co-
founded the National Theatre of Johannesburg, with which she was still associ-
ated at her death in 1974. She returned to film only once more, as co-director in
George King’s collaborative musical, Showtime (Great Britain, 1946).

Valie Export (b. 1940)

Valie Export, born Waltraut Lehner in Linz, Austria, is a photographer, installa-

tion, performance and video artist, computer animator, sculptor, and arts and
feminist writer who successfully made the transition from the ‘expanded cinema’
experiments and abstract shorts of the mid 1960s to writing and directing narra-
tive feature films in the late 1970s and beyond. Working with her partner, Peter
Weibel, she created the Tapp und Tastkino/Touch Cinema (1968), which she called
the ‘first real woman’s film’ (Export 2003). This performance art action consisted
of inviting the viewer to insert their hands into a box strapped to Export’s chest
and was intended to transcend male-dominated cinema with a female material
destruction of cinematic illusion.
Export continued to redefine the spectator relationship and to extend filmic
conventions in other film ‘happenings’ such as Cutting (1967–8) and Der Kuß/The
Kiss (1968), which explored the value of the female body in a patriarchal soci-
ety. Her twelve-minute film, Mann&Frau&Animal/Man&Woman&Animal (1973),
returned to her Actionist roots, featuring, among other visuals, the artist filming
her menstruation in a visceral examination of gender and the ‘artistic nature of
blood’ (Export 2003).
In the 1970s Export garnered critical appreciation with her first feature, the
‘feminist science fiction’ film about female identity, Unsichtbare Gegner/Invisible
Adversaries (1978), which she directed and co-scripted with Peter Weibel. It is
now considered one of the few important Austrian films of that decade. In a
loosely structured tribute to Hollywood’s alien invasion films of the 1950s,
Anna, a photographer and video artist, comes to the shocking conclusion that
her alienation from an icy and technocratic lover and from male-dominated
society as a whole is the result of a body-snatching invasion of aliens from the
planet Hyksos.
A popular Austrian tabloid newspaper, Die Kronen Zeitung, launched a campaign
against the film, labelling it ‘perverse trash’ and condemning the government for
supporting its ‘call to anarchy’. Although Export’s work was selected by a jury for
the 1978 Austrian State Prize in the arts, Fred Sinowatz, the Minister of Education
and Culture, refused to award Export and gave no prize that year (Dassanowsky
2005: 199). She followed this scandal with another feminist feature, co-scripted by
Peter Weibel, Menschenfrauen/Human Women (1979), which examines four women
who rebel against male domination in their lives.
Austria 229

Export’s breakthrough outside Austria came with the popular political thriller
and feminist feature film Die Praxis der Liebe/The Practice of Love (1985), which she
wrote and directed. She satisfied the mainstream audience’s desire for suspense
entertainment without compromising her ideology and style, particularly regard-
ing the visual exploration of the female body. Export’s Praxis takes on the profes-
sional and personal ‘glass ceilings’ of a female television reporter who is trapped
in relationships with an emotionally unstable psychiatrist as well as a suspected
arms dealer. Export’s female archetype (Adelheid Arndt) comes to realize the
undemocratic aspects of the press and the government, as well as her repression
as a woman in society and her sexual relationships.
Export is recognized as one of the most important pioneers of the Austrian New
Wave, in addition to her role as an internationally influential feminist artist and
writer. Her early experimental films are included in the collection of the Museum
of Modern Art, New York; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Tate Modern, London; Reine
Sophia, Madrid; and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles,
among other venues. Since the late 1980s she has held various academic posi-
tions and, in the 1990s, has been the recipient of many Austrian arts prizes and
national awards, with her more recent art exhibited at major showings in Venice,
Kassel, Vienna, Bregenz, and Bolzano. She held a professorship in multimedia
performance at the Academy of Media Arts, Cologne from 1995 to 2005.

Karin Brandauer (1946–92)

Karin Brandauer was born in Altaussee, Austria, and married Austrian stage and
screen actor Klaus Maria Brandauer. She wrote and directed over forty documen-
taries and literary adaptations, although she was a television director for the
most part, contributing greatly to the reputation of ORF productions, with her
dramas often being screened as theatrical features abroad. Her TV films of Arthur
Schnitzler’s Der Weg ins Freie/The Way Outside (1982) and Peter Rosegger’s Erdsegen/
Earth Blessings (1986) brought wide attention to her elegant style and her adapta-
tion of the Heimatfilm (provincial melodrama) form. Brandauer’s docudrama, co-
written with Heide Kouba, about a village’s suffering during a mining strike in 1930,
Einstweilen wird es Mittag – Marienthal/Meanwhile it is Noon – Marienthal (1988), was
praised by critics for its sensitive study of the effects of rural unemployment.
Brandauer was one of the few Austrian filmmakers who offered intellectually
and emotionally satisfying period dramas following the collapse of commercial
film in the 1960s. These were meticulous in their attention to historical detail,
for example her work on Tyrolean playwright Felix Mitterer’s Verkaufte Heimat/
Bartered Homeland (1989) (Elsaesser 1999: 44). She co-wrote and directed two epi-
sodes of a four-part miniseries about the post-war effect of Mussolini’s sham 1939
referendum regarding Austria’s truncated South Tyrol province, which the Allies
had ceded to Italy following the First World War (Brennende Lieb’/Burning Love and
Leb’ wohl du mein Südtirol/Farewell, My South Tyrol). After Brandauer’s death, stage,
opera and television director Gernot Friedel (1941–) directed the postwar episodes
she had co-written (Feuernacht/Fire Night and Komplott/Plot) in 1994. Brandauer’s
230 Women Screenwriters

final work as writer-director was based on the novel by Erich Hackl, and focused
on the plight of a gypsy girl who is taken from her ‘Aryan’ foster parents by the
Nazi regime and placed into a concentration camp. She completed the script for
Die Wand/The Wall before her death from cancer aged 47. Her husband directed
the film based on her script in 1999.

Ruth Beckermann (b. 1952)

Born in Vienna, Ruth Beckermann studied journalism and history of art there
as well as in Tel Aviv and New York. She went on to write for several Austrian
and Swiss magazines, beginning her impressive run of documentaries in 1983
with Wien retour/Vienna Return, which she wrote and co-directed with Josef
Aichholzer. The film approaches the eras of the Austrian First Republic (1919–33),
Austrofascism (1934–8), and Nazism (1938–45) through the recollections of Jewish
writer, historian and communist Franz West. Her own Jewish identity is explored
in Die papierene Brücke/The Paper Bridge (1987) as Beckermann, the daughter of an
Austro-Hungarian Jewish family, journeys to Czernowitz in Bukovina (now in the
Ukraine) to trace her father’s idealized recollections of his life there. Beckermann’s
reasons for the documentary are both personal and theoretical: ‘What I had in
mind was not only to trace the few clues to my family history but also to find out
how the proven and the narrated historical narrative strands would blend in with
my own experiences and emotions’ (Steiner 1995: 105).
Her next film, Nach Jerusalem/Towards Jerusalem (1990), is a mosaic of diverse
landscapes and ethnic images that examines ‘what happened to the dream of
a Jewish homeland’ (Beckermann n.d.) and completes her trilogy on Jewish
identity. Conflating memory and representation, Beckermann often explores
commonplace locations that do not in themselves display a past in order to re-
imprint them with both personal and historical events. Reassigning the past onto
the present, Jenseits des Krieges/East of War (1996) uncovers atrocities committed
by the German Wehrmacht or army (previously attributed only to the SS) on the
Eastern Front.
In an even more prismatic vision of Beckermann’s own journey as woman and
artist, Ein flüchtiger Zug nach dem Orient/A Fast Train to the Orient (1999) attempts
to take space out of time to free it for memory. Fascinated by the journeys and
significant writing talents of Empress Elisabeth and her iconization as ‘Sissi’ in
Austrian popular culture and film, Beckermann suggests an unseen Elisabeth on
a train, fleeing the constraints of the imperial Viennese court. Contemporary
images of Cairo are accompanied by voiceover readings from her diaries.
Beckermann’s documentary Zorro’s Bar Mitzvah (2006) not only explores the
renewed Jewish culture in Vienna, but also this ethnically mixed group’s main-
tenance of a series of homelands (Guenther 2011: 74–5). ‘This film accompanies
four 12-year-olds – Sharon, Tom, Moishy and Sophie – as they prepare for their
bar or bat mitzvot. It takes a critical and ironic look at Jewish tradition and its
interpretations, questions the significance of initiation rituals, and attempts to
explore the diffuse terrain of adolescence’ (Beckermann n.d.). While American
Austria 231

Passages (2011) offers a panorama of Obama-era America and a wide collection

of Americans discussing their contrasting American Dreams, ‘[it] is an associa-
tive journey through the United States: a disillusioned Iraq veteran, gay adoptive
fathers, black judges, white party animals and a pimp at a casino table in Las
Vegas’ (Beckermann n.d.).
Film historian Christina Guenther describes Beckermann’s films as constructing
a ‘counter memory’, which challenges ‘the dominant narrative of Austrian his-
tory and national identity’. As a screenwriter, Guenther argues, Beckermann is an
experimental ethnographer who is ‘less interested in representing “other” cultures
than … [in] reflecting on the discourse of culture in representation’ (Guenther
2011: 65).

Barbara Albert (b. 1970)

A new era in Austrian film was heralded at the 1999 Venice Film Festival, when
critics praised the work of emerging filmmaker Barbara Albert. After writing and
directing several short films and a documentary, Albert co-wrote and directed
the feature film Alles Bunt und Wunderbar/Slidin’ with Reinhard Jud and Michael
Grimm in 1998. The film is an intertwined trilogy focusing on the countercul-
ture of the teenage world, which foreshadowed her breakthrough, Nordrand/
North Side, aka City Skirts (1999), and also dealt with the topic that most fasci-
nates Albert – the loss of innocence. Written by Albert with cinematography by
Christine Maier, Nordrand focuses on two women (played by Nina Proll and Edita
Malovcic) whose lives attract other young people of different ethnic and socio-
cultural backgrounds: a Romanian immigrant, a Bosnian refugee, and an Austrian
who has just completed his military service. Seeking self-realization, emotional
support, and concerned with bringing children into this world, they live in a
housing project on Vienna’s north side, and flounder between memories of the
war in Yugoslavia, temporary jobs, and unwanted pregnancies until they finally
drift apart. Albert sets inserts from television news, flashbacks, symbolic montages
and spaces of impermanence (bars, discos, underground passages, shopping areas,
streets) against the characters’ desire for stability and control. In a more authentic
manner than Michael Haneke’s French-based ‘Austrian’ cinema, Albert populates
her films with the ethnicities that make up Vienna, and have always been a part
of the city and its culture.
Albert, who had won laurels for her short film work and co-founded the COOP
99 production company, attained widespread critical acclaim for this ‘small’ film,
which also generated significant box-office receipts and garnered Nina Proll the
Marcello Mastroianni Prize for Best Newcomer Actress. There were rumours that
American festivals and the Oscars ignored her film because of fallout from the
EU boycott of Vienna’s government coalition with the xenophobic party of right-
wing politician Jörg Haider. The films success, however, did not launch Albert into
the rapid production of new work. As she explains, ‘I am not a director who con-
siders the shoot the most creative aspect of the production process. I am always
expending a great deal of energy. I first have to feel relaxed enough to think about
232 Women Screenwriters

what I want to say in my next story’ (Schiefer 2000a: 15). Albert’s screenwriting
tends to underscore ‘characters in contemporary Austria who are trapped in diffi-
cult social or political situations and in unfulfilling everyday routines’ (Wauchope
2011: 120). Certainly, as Meyer argues, ‘nostalgia and politically regressive notions
of Austria have been banished’ from Albert’s films, and both public and private
spaces tend to be universal in terms of a postmodern industrialized nation (Meyer
2011: 96).
Zur Lage/Situation Report (2001) is a documentary written and directed by Albert
and three leading male New Austrian Film directors, Michael Glawogger, Ulrich
Seidl, and Michael Sturminger, that critically explores the political and social atmos-
phere under Austria’s neo-conservative coalition government formed in 1999.
Albert’s next fiction film, Böse Zellen/Free Radicals (2003), again shows her vir-
tuosity in writing for and working with ensemble casts on the subject of contem-
porary alienation, this time in a more philosophical film created around the idea
of the ‘butterfly effect’. Her film begins with a plane crash in the Gulf of Mexico,
whose sole survivor, Manu (Kathrin Resetarits), is later killed in an automobile
accident. Manu becomes the hub of several parallel stories involving her troubled
surviving family and friends, haunted by the irony and unpredictability of life as
they fight off abuse and loneliness. A pastiche of the coming-of-age, thriller, and
erotic film genres, the film hovers disturbingly between existentialist choice and
the incomprehensibility of fatalism.
Albert has contributed to or co-written scripts for other women filmmakers
including Ruth Mader’s debut feature (with Martin Leidenfrost), Struggle (2003),
and Nina Kusturica’s feature Auswege/Sign of Escape (2003). She was one of the
twenty-six writer-directors involved with the European comedic-episodic film
Visions of Europe (2004), then co-wrote Slumming (2006) with its director Michael
Glawogger, and was a collaborating writer on Swiss filmmaker Andrea Staka’s
Fräulein (2006). Albert followed these projects with two significant features, which
she also wrote: Fallen/Falling (2006) and Die Lebenden/The Dead and the Living
(2012). Fallen deals with the reunion of five women who have not seen each
other for fifteen years and meet at the funeral of their former male professor. The
film might be considered the final part of a trilogy (begun with Nordrand and Böse
Zellen) focusing on alienation in contemporary Austria, particularly as manifested
in the female experience of a globalist, consumerist society (Meyer: 2011).
Die Lebenden approaches the topic of the Holocaust through the explorations
of Sita, a young Austro-Romanian living in Berlin, who discovers her 95-year-old
grandfather may have been a member of the SS. To trace his involvement with
Nazism she travels to Vienna, Poland and Romania, where she not only wants
to find out the truth but must confront her family’s silence about the past. It
is perhaps Albert’s most personal film to date, as her script is based on her own
discovery of her grandfather’s involvement with Nazism. Albert reflects on such a
terrible heritage: ‘for grandchildren, it’s much more bearable than for the children
because there is already a certain distance’ (Arteaga 2012). Ironically, Albert’s own
‘accidental’ confrontation with this life-changing knowledge mirrors aspects of
her early screenplays and the revelatory experiences of her characters.
Austria 233

Mirjam Unger (b. 1970)

Born in Kosterneuburg, near Vienna, Unger has been a radio and television
journalist, a photographer, and was a student at the Vienna Film Academy. She
emerged from a spell of making short films with her writing/directing feature
debut Ternitz, Tennessee (2000). The film takes on the fanciful and generally out-
moded European notion of escaping a small town for a Hollywood-style happy
ending in America. It suggests the universality of late-twentieth-century popular
culture and parodies the Hollywood road movie, romantic adventure films, and
the female ‘buddy movie’. Unger claims the major influence on her creation of
a postmodern, television-based ‘fantasy in pink’ that plays out in a world that
doesn’t exist in reality, is American underground-turned-camp director John
Waters’ Cry Baby (1990) (Schiefer 2000b: 4). In Ternitz, Tennessee (2000), Betty
(Sonja Romei), a dog groomer, and her friend Lilly (Nina Proll), a car mechanic
who drives a red Mustang and longs for Pamela Anderson-sized silicone breast
implants, set their sights on a television host/Elvis impersonator and an African-
American stagehand and former rodeo performer from Memphis, seeing them
as their love-tickets out of Ternitz. Unger followed this tongue-in-cheek, play-
ful script with two distinctive documentaries. Her 2007 Wiens Verlorene Töchter/
Vienna’s Lost Daughters (written with Sonja Ammann and Lisa Juen) surveys the
lives of eight women who were forced to flee Austria at the Nazi German annexa-
tion in 1938 because of their Jewish heritage, and now live in or around New
York City. Unger attempts to comprehend their view of history and identity as
Austrian-born Americans, but also their relationship to Vienna, its culture and its
history, as women and members of a former Jewish community there. The film
received the Audience Award at the Austrian Diagonale film festival in 2007.
In 2012 Unger co-wrote, with Veronika Weidinger, and directed Oh Yeah, She
Performs, a documentary about four female Austrian pop/rock musicians who will
not compromise their multitalented creativity and non-conformist lives: Gustav
aka Eva Jantschitsch, Clara Luzia, Teresa Rotschopff (a member of the band Bunny
Lake), and Luise Pop, who also fronts a band as singer, writer and guitarist. Unger
explains her motivations for creating the film:

From the moment I had the initial idea for this film, I also wanted to make
it for my daughter, who is 17 now and will go into the world with a new
sense of self-awareness – a world where women strive to create their own role
models and tackle re-emerging stereotypes. This film is a road map to a (yet-
to-be-established) utopian world, where the battle of the sexes no longer exists
because society has outgrown it; a world where men and women respect and
support each other and work together on the vision and sound of a new era of
equality. (Unger 2013)

Whether creating a satire on the driving force of popular culture in self-realization,

tracing the creative desires of women pop/rock singers, or dealing with the memo-
ries of Viennese women who fled Nazism as children in 1938, the commonality
234 Women Screenwriters

in Unger’s writing is her desire to locate and explore a subjective, female-centred

‘normality’ outside male-dominated social conventions and identities.

Jessica Hausner (b. 1972)

Born in Vienna, Hausner began her film writing and directing career as a student
of both Michael Haneke and Wolfgang Glück. Her short films were well received
by the public and press, but it was her debut feature film, Lovely Rita (2000), which
Hausner both wrote and directed, that contributed, along with Michael Haneke’s
Die Klavierspielerin/The Piano Teacher (2001), to the international emergence of
New Austrian Film at Cannes in 2001. Lovely Rita generated much discussion
about Hausner’s vision of the teenage outsider. Unlike the more established
Haneke, and perhaps for financial reasons, Hausner’s early work tends to adhere
to the minimalist dictates of the Dogme movement. As critic Roman Scheiber,
a reporter on the Austrian film scene for Variety’s International Film Guide noted
at the time, Hausner is a ‘good example of how young Austrian filmmakers can
make rapid progress – if they get enough money to put their visions on screen’
(Scheiber 2002: 85). At a reception at Vienna’s city hall celebrating Haneke,
Hausner and producer Veit Heidruschka, the cinema-friendly City Councillor for
the Arts, Andreas Mailath-Pokorny, responded by referring to ‘these historic days
at Cannes’ (OTS 2001) and appealed to the Austrian media, particularly to the
ORF, to maintain its financial partnership with the impoverished film sector.
Film scholar Catherine Wheatley points out that the films of Hausner, along
with those of Barbara Albert and the German-born Valeska Griesbach, who works
in both German and Austrian film, are ‘notable for their deployment of what
might be termed a “feminine aesthetic,” which draws on modernist devices
not to produce a Brechtian alienation effect in service of an ideological agenda,
but rather to encourage spectatorial engagement with a plurality of meanings’
(Wheatley 2011: 137). Hausner moved into more stylized writing and direction
with her second feature, Hotel (2004), also screened at Cannes, in which a young
woman (Franziska Weisz), working as a receptionist in a luxury mountain resort
hotel, stumbles upon the mysterious circumstances of her predecessor’s disap-
pearance. She is pulled into a maze of secrets and false conclusions, until her
own identity and possible fate begins to replicate those of the victim. Although
referencing the crime thriller, Hausner avoids formula and concentrates on more
Hitchcockian themes of perception, the interpretation of reality, and fear of the
unknown. Unlike the almost documentary feel of Lovely Rita, the anxiety and
paranoia of Hotel is aided by a more distant and stylish look, which enforces the
façade of beauty, control and safety (Dassanowsky 2005: 282).
Following her work as producer of German director Benjamin Heisenberg’s
German/Austrian feature Schläfer/Sleeper (2005) and her short Toast (2006),
Hausner returned to feature films with the Austrian-French production of Lourdes
(2009). Once again revealing Hitchcock’s influence on her writing and directing,
Unger’s drama about Christine (Sylvie Testud), a multiple sclerosis patient bound
to a wheelchair, follows her journey to the pilgrimage site of Lourdes despite her
Austria 235

dismissal of faith in God. When a ‘miracle’ does happen and her limbs heal, the
Catholic Church refuses to record the event before medical examination and
advice is given. But the event becomes a near ‘MacGuffin’ as the film moves away
from the ‘miracle’ itself and instead explores the different psychological and emo-
tional effects that it has on those surrounding Christine. Hausner explains that,
just as she made a horror film without a monster (Hotel), so this film is a very un-
miraculous attempt at portraying a ‘miracle’. Lourdes can be seen as a metaphor for
self-realization but also a consideration of the strong forces that have influence in
one’s life, ‘regardless if they are called coincidence, luck or God ...’ (Hausner n.d.).
The film garnered Hausner four major awards at the 2009 Venice Film Festival,
including the FIPRESCI Prize; two awards at the 2009 Warsaw Film Festival, includ-
ing the Grand Prix; and three at the 2011 Viennale for Best Film, Best Director, and
Best Screenplay, as well as other international film festival prizes.
Jessica Hausner revised the historical biopic in her feature for 2014, Amour Fou.
Written and directed by Hausner, her screenplay is, she notes, ‘inspired by the
life and death of the poet Heinrich von Kleist and his partner in death, Henriette
Vogel. However, rather than being a biographical portrait, the film is a parable
about the ambivalence of love’, the inescapability of death, and the desire to
forestall its ultimate isolation. After failing to find a personal formula for happi-
ness and success as a Romantic, German writer Heinrich von Kleist (1777–1811)
came to understand life as a collection of illusions that disallowed fulfilment and
harmony, and his later writings are masterworks on the theme of irony. Hausner’s
overriding theme of the individual’s desire to understand the codes of human
social behaviour has become more philosophical since Hotel, and Amour Fou more
directly approaches the metaphysics that Lourdes suggested.

Ruth Mader (b. 1974)

Ruth Mader was born in Vienna and attended the Vienna Film Academy as a
student of film direction. Her 2003 feature debut, Struggle, scripted with Barbara
Albert and Martin Leidenfrost, underscored her concern for the difficult lives of
the underclass she examined in such early short films as Endstation obdachlos/End
Station: Homeless (1992), Gfrasta (1998), about life in a housing development on
the outskirts of Vienna, which received the 1999 German Max Ophüls Award in
the short film category, and the eleven-minute ‘propaganda film’, Null Defizit/
Zero Deficit (2001), which was screened as part of the official selection at Cannes
in 2001.
Struggle follows the lives of two troubled, even desperate, characters: a Polish
woman (Aleksandra Justa) who has moved to Austria, finds work in a turkey-pro-
cessing plant, as a berry picker and as a cleaning woman, in order to better provide
for her young daughter, and a wealthy, divorced Austrian who seeks diversion
from his unfulfilling life with sex and sadomasochism. Ultimately, their lives are
altered when they meet in a swinger’s club. Abandoning a classical narrative for
the sake of an ‘anti-dramatic’ exploration of the dehumanization and alienation
of various work environments, the intersecting stories also relate to the collision
236 Women Screenwriters

of two classes and geopolitical worlds: the woman represents the impoverished
yet hopeful Eastern Europe while the man embodies a hollow consumerist and
‘emotionally bankrupted’ West.
Mader dismisses the Cannes critics who compare her film style to that of
Michael Haneke, Ulrich Seidl, or a mix of both. Unlike their male gaze, which is
disturbingly voyeuristic and often dialogue-laden, Mader and the other women
of New Austrian Film, such as Barbara Albert and Jessica Hausner, utilize a more
neutral, distant camera, and leave much to the imagination. Since Mader wants to
show what ‘cannot even be conveyed with words’, dialogue is noticeably limited
in her scripts. Mader also rails against television, which in its rapid and expedient
product orientation, she argues, has ‘ruined’ actors for the thoughtful, detailed
work of motion pictures (Greuling 2003: 10–13). Catherine Wheatley considers
Mader’s Struggle, and her work as a whole, to be the most ‘politically engaged’
of any woman working in New Austrian Film and closer to the ‘overt social cri-
tiques of Ulrich Seidl than films such as Lovely Rita (Hausner) or Sehnsucht/Longing
(Griesbach) …’ (Wheatley 2011: 144–5).
Mader returned to documentary writing and directing with her feature What
is Love? in 2012. The film, which is divided into five segments, each depicting
marriage, family, happiness, loneliness and fulfilment, is influenced by the clas-
sical portrait photography of Walker Evans and August Sander. Mader believes
that, although it is a film primarily about Austrian society, it deals with universal
themes about the possibility of love in modern life (Schiefer 2013).

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at: http://cineuropa.org/nw.aspx?t=newsdetail&l=en&did=226698 (accessed 8 April 2013).
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at: http://sensesofcinema.com/2004/great-directors/kolm_fleck (accessed 8 April 2013).
Dassanowsky, R. 2005. Austrian Cinema: A History. Jefferson, NC and London: MacFarland.
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http://sensesofcinema.com/2003/28/expanded_cinema (accessed 8 April 2013).
Greuling, M. 2003. ‘Der Existenzkampf wird härter: Ruth Mader’, Celluloid, 2: 10–13.
Guenther, C. 2011. ‘Cartographies of Identity: Memory and History in Ruth Beckermann’s
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and Oxford: Berghahn.
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DFB767838A629EDE (accessed 8 April 2013).
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www.villagevoice.com/2003-11-11/film/das-experiment/full (accessed 8 April 2013).
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8 April 2013).
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Juden. Vienna: Filmarchiv Austria, pp. 169–71.
Loacker, A. 2003. ‘Kino vor dem KZ. Österreichische Filmschaffende als NS-Opfer’,
Filmarchiv, 7.
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Abriss’, in A. Loacker (ed.) Kunst der Routine. Der Schauspieler und Regisseur Max Neufeld.
Vienna: Filmarchiv Austria, pp. 10–87.
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Filmographie’, in A. Loacker and M. Prucha (eds) Unerwünschtes Kino: Der deutschsprachige
Emigrantenfilm 1934–1937. Vienna: Filmarchiv Austria, pp. 139–98.
Meyer, I. 2011. ‘Metonymic Visions: Globalization, Consumer Culture, and Mediated Affect
in Barbara Albert’s Böse Zellen’, in R. Dassanowsky and O. C. Speck (eds) New Austrian Film.
New York and Oxford: Berghahn, pp. 94–107.
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pp. 11–36.
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Wiederstands, 2: 61–5.
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Variety, p. 85.
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Schiefer, K. 2000b. ‘Go West: Ternitz, Tennessee’, Austrian Film News, 2: 4–5.
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p. 219.
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Filmexil, 4: 50–8
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Berghahn, pp. 108–21.
Wheatley, C. 2011. ‘Not Politics but People: The “Feminine Aesthetic” of Valeska Grisebach
and Jessica Hausner’, in R. Dassanowsky and O. C. Speck (eds) New Austrian Film. New York
and Oxford: Berghahn, pp. 136–47.
Ronald Geerts

As Fowler (2010: 257) notes, the history of Belgian film is a ‘relatively ill-defined
field’. This is certainly true of the history of Belgian female screenwriters who,
despite being in the minority, have played a vital role in the development of
scriptwriting in Belgian film and have gained a prominent place in film history
by taking artistic and producer control over their work. A number of women
writers-directors have put their stamp on Belgian cinema: Anna Frijters was an
early pioneer, as was Edith Kiel who was important in the 1930s and continued
to work into the 1950s and early 1960s, while Chantal Akerman put Belgian
film on the map in the 1970s, and in the 1980s Marion Hänsel’s work has
received great acclaim. In the twenty-first century a new generation of women
writers-directors has emerged who have produced a corpus of highly personal
and intimate films; two of these, Patrice Toye and Fien Troch, are discussed in
more detail below.
The limited scope of this entry leaves out other domains in which women
writers have had some impact, such as documentary film. Lydia Chagoll, for
instance, a Dutch-born Jewish former ballet dancer and choreographer, wrote and
directed documentaries about the Second World War of which In de naam van
de Führer/In the Name of the Führer (1977) is the best known. Anne Levy-Morelle
made highly personal documentary films, for example Le rêve de Gabriel/Gabriel’s
Dream (1998) in which she traces the emigration in 1948 of a Belgian family patri-
arch to inhospitable Patagonia, or Manneken Pis, l’enfant qui pleure/Manneken Pis,
the Child Who’s Crying (2008), about the city of Brussels.
Belgian film, from the beginning of the sound film era, became ‘a “split screen”
divided between its Flemish (Dutch-language) and French-language components’
(Mosley 2001: 5). In the early 1960s, when the Belgian unitary state began its
gradual development toward a federal state with three communities (Flemish-,
French- and German-speaking), the ‘split screen’ became even more evident
(Overbergh 2011: 12–16). Mosley argues that Belgian cinema can be considered ‘as
a cultural system [...] within its own history and in its relationships to the Belgian
nation-state’ (2001: 7).

Belgium 239

The early days

Although cinemagoing had become a very popular pastime, there was no film pro-
duction of any significance in Belgium until the early 1920s (De Poorter 1997: 30;
Convents 2000). Yet, acting and film schools were very popular and it was at one
of these acting classes in 1921 that four film fans from Antwerp met and decided
to produce their own film. The result was Verdwaalde zielen/Lost Souls (1923), a
melodrama about a country girl and a philanderer she meets who takes her to the
big city (Geens 1986: 40–1; Geens 1988: 84). It was two years before the film was
finished and, sadly, only two of the three reels survive today. Besides the four fans,
the screenwriting credits mention two women,’Ms Dubrulle’ and ‘Ms Claes’. The
film was not a success, in part because of the amateurish acting (Geens 1988: 83).
Aimée Navarra (n.d.) was the first Belgian woman director, yet she is largely for-
gotten today and not even mentioned in Sojcher’s La Kermesse Héroique du Cinéma
Belge/The Heroic Fair of Belgian Cinema (1999). Navarra also co-wrote ,with Abbé
De Moor, her 1923 Coeurs Belges/Belgian Hearts, which is considered by Christel
Stalpaert to be more than a patriotic First World War melodrama as it contains the
early signs of a critique of gender equality (2002: 365–6).

Anna Frijters (1889–1966)

A copy of the 1928 movie Leentje van de zee/Peggy of the Sea, once considered lost,
was discovered in 1986. The author of the screenplay was Anna Frijters (née Anna
Velders), who also published in newspapers and journals. She and her husband
François Frijters, a diamond worker, travelled to the United States where they met
Ruth Roland, a Hollywood film star. The meeting turned out to be inspiring and,
on the advice of Roland, Anna Frijters wrote a screenplay in English, which she
entered in a contest held by the Brewster publishing company (which owned sev-
eral film fan magazines) in 1925. It won second prize and, as a Flemish counter-
part of Brewster’s Motion Picture Magazine triumphantly exclaimed, ‘And look, the
puny entry from this tiny country attracted the attention of the jury. In the classic
country of the Silent Art it was not considered as futile as some suggested over
here. It even passed a second selection round and after the third ... it remained
intact and undamaged, claiming the laurel. The puny entry has become a screen-
play, approved by American professionals’ (Geens 1986: 50).1 The Frijters insisted
on keeping artistic control over their project and rejected offers from American
studios to produce the film as well as fielding interest from the UFA studio in
Germany (Geens 1988: 84). Instead they built a film studio near Antwerp with
some help from American friends, and possibly Ruth Roland, who sent make-up
from California. The production itself, despite the destruction of the studio by
a storm, became a media event. It took until 1928 to finish Leentje van de zee/
Peggy from the Sea and by then sound film was arriving. Reviews mention that the
first and possibly only screening was not the success the makers had hoped for
(Geens 1986: 51; Thys 1999: 146). Despite the lack of public success, Anna Frijters
wrote another screenplay, De verloofde uit Canada/The Fiancé from Canada (1934).
240 Women Screenwriters

According to her son, Roland, the main character was written with the popular
Antwerp comedian Louis Staal in mind (Geens 1986: 57). It tells the melodramatic
story of an Antwerp working-class emigrant who, upon returning home, discovers
that his fiancée no longer loves him. The silent film received much public acclaim
and Frijters envisaged a sound version. Unfortunately the film studio was again
destroyed, this time by fire, and only the musical score survives (Geens 1986: 57).
The destruction of the studio also meant the end of Anna and François Frijters’ film
careers. But Anna will be remembered as a highly experimental screenwriter, using
flashback techniques and mixing animation with live action (Thys 1999: 157).

Edith Kiel (1904–93)

In 1934, the same year as De verloofde uit Canada/The Fiancé from Canada
premiered, Edith Kiel, who was to become one of the most influential screen-
writers in Flemish cinema history, wrote De witte/Whitey, an adaptation of the
popular Heimat (regional) novel by Ernest Claes. The production was financed
by Jan Vanderheyden, a film distributor who imported German films and who
asked Kiel to collaborate on the film project. Kiel, also an actress, was to write
the screenplay, and according to a number of sources, including Kiel herself, she
also directed the movie, although the credits note Jan Vanderheyden and Willem
Benoy as directors (Geens 1986 :63; Van Meerbeeck and Van de Vijver 1999). Kiel
thought the novel was too episodic and added a love interest plotline for coher-
ence. The author, Ernest Claes, apparently nearly had a fit when he heard this but
finally agreed to the changes (Geens 1986: 63). Vanderheyden turned De witte/
Whitey into a real media event even before it was finished (Biltereyst and Van
Bauwel 2005: 15). The film became a huge public success, drawing upon Flemish
right-wing nationalist emotions that were already apparent in the novel.
After World War II, both Claes and Vanderheyden were convicted of collaborating
with the Nazi regime and Vanderheyden spent two years in prison. After his release
Vanderheyden lost his civil rights, making it impossible for him to produce or direct
films (Geens 1986: 63; Thys 1999: 248; Biltereyst and Van Bauwel 2005: 29–30;
Stalpaert 1996: 159). Edith Kiel, although German, was neither accused nor con-
victed; however, because she was a legal and financial partner in the pair’s produc-
tion company, the Belgian tax authorities targeted her as well (Stalpaert 1996: 159).
Kiel then founded a company in her own name, the Antwerpse Film Onderneming
(AFO, Antwerp Film Company), and became not only the writer, but also the
director and producer of all her films. She created an oeuvre of popular moving
pictures, rooted in colourful locales and Antwerp dialogue, that were seemingly
‘unexportable’, even to other parts of the country (Fowler 2010). Schipperskwartier/
The Bargee District (1953) is set in the mariners’ quarter, or red light district, of
Antwerp. The film is a melodramatic comedy of errors about a widower with
three children he cannot handle, who – against his will – is helped by his best
friend to find a new wife (Thys 1999: 326). Min of meer/More or Less (1955) can
be considered a Don Camillo and Peppone story situated in Antwerp (Sojcher
1999:143).2 The films were extremely successful in the Antwerp region, not least
Belgium 241

because Kiel used popular revue and vaudeville actors the public knew from the
theatre. Focusing on regional audiences was not unusual after the Second World
War (Fowler 2010). Despite the regional marketing, Kiel’s cinematic productions
had a major influence on the emerging television broadcasting serials in the
1950s, which drew upon the Antwerp themes; an early example is Schipper naast
Mathilde/Skipper next to Mathild (1955–63, 185 episodes), a sitcom about a retired
skipper living together with his sister Mathilde and little niece Marieke. De witte/
Whitey was recycled as a TV series entitled Wij Heren van Sichem/We Gentlemen from
Sichem (1969–72). Though no formal research has been done on the influence of
Kiel’s film production on Flemish television, it seems that the popularity of the
actors who moved from film to TV created a kind of hegemony of the Antwerp
dialect in television comedy.
Recent studies present Edith Kiel as an early model of female entrepreneurship,
though her role diminished during the war, and after her husband, Vanderheyden,
died in 1961 she stopped producing films.
Edith Kiel, once reviled, is now hailed as one of the icons of popular Flemish
cinema. In the 1980s the left wing enfant terrible filmmaker Robbe De Hert paid
tribute to Kiel when he not only remade De witte/Whitey (1981) but also directed a
number of comedies that draw heavily on Kiel’s heritage, even engaging the same
actors. When, in 1989, the first private broadcasting network (VTM) went on air,
it initially achieved success by reverting to Antwerp-inspired comedy. Edith Kiel’s
influence on Flemish television production cannot be underestimated.

Women writers and erotic film

Inspired by the success of erotic films in Europe in the early 1970s, a number
of Belgian filmmakers tried to cash in on the trend. Perhaps surprisingly, some
women writers were active in the genre, though most of these films are forgotten
today. In 1968 Catherine Nelissen is credited as the writer of Hippy Hippy Sex (aka
Der Porno Graf von Luxemburg). Apparently the film was a success in Germany,
since the only two reviews to be found in the collection of the Brussels Film
Archive are German3 (see also Thys 1999: 444). Writer Jeannine De Coster wrote
three erotic scripts for her husband, Guy J. Nys: Pandore (1969), In Love with
Death/Villa Porno (1970), and The Naked D (1970). The first script was loosely
based on marital vicissitudes, the storyline provided by a count who actually
sponsored the production (Geens 1986: 268). A couple travel to Greece in order
to resolve their marriage problems, but the woman falls for a Greek man. The film
secured its place in Belgian film history because the Greek was played by Rik Van
Steenbergen, a former world champion cyclist. De Coster not only wrote the script
but also co-produced and edited the films as well as acting in Pandore. These erotic
thrillers were something of a family business, with brother John De Coster as DOP.
As it became harder and harder to get ‘independent’ films financed, Nys and De
Coster relocated to Swaziland and later South Africa to shoot The Naked D (Geens
1986: 281). According to Sojcher, the cheap and fast production conditions make
these films look rather ‘involuntarily surrealistic’ (Sojcher 1999: 307).
242 Women Screenwriters

Chantal Akerman (1950–)

Chantal Akerman made her first film Saute ma ville/Blow Up My City (1968), when
she was only eighteen and went on to become one of the best-known Belgian
filmmakers. She has been a major influence on Francophone Belgian cinema from
the 1970s well into the 1990s, and along with Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, who
won two Palmes d’Ors at the Cannes Festival for Rosetta (1999) and L’enfant/The
Child (2005), has become Belgian’s most prominent filmmaker. Both the Dardenne
brothers and Chantal Akerman continue a Belgian tradition of a ‘cinema of the
real’, often treading a thin line between documentary and fiction. Akerman has
produced a number of documentaries or documentary-like films, and she made a
nod to the tradition she works in when Belgian documentary pioneer Henri Storck
appeared in her breakthrough movie, Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du commerce, 1080
Bruxelles (1975), a guest appearance that ‘represents the equivalent to the use of
Jean Renoir in French cinema, John Ford in American cinema, or David Lean in
British cinema. Through the figure of Storck, Akerman conjures up a whole history
of Belgian cinema, within which it is inferred Jeanne Dielman should be placed’
(Fowler 2003: 90).
Akerman attended the Institut National Supérieur des Arts du Spectacle et des
Techniques de Diffusion (INSAS) when she was 18 but left after a few months and
went on to make a number of short films: Saute ma ville (1968), L’enfant aimé (1971),
and La chambre (1972). She then left Brussels for New York where she immersed her-
self in the 60s avant-garde. On returning to Brussels she began working on a feature
film, Je, tu, il, elle (1974), that was funded partly by friends and partly by Flemish tele-
vision, where her long-time friend and soul mate, Erik De Kuyper, produced and pre-
sented a show De Andere Film (‘The Other Cinema’) that screened experimental films.
De Kuyper, a writer, director and semiotician also co-wrote a number of Akerman’s
films, including Je, tu, il, elle, La captive (2000), and Tomorrow We Move (2004).
The screenwriting process has always been important for Akerman, even though
she has opined ‘I wanted to make films without narration’ (Sojcher 1999: 141). The
early Akerman movies look more like recordings of art performances, as in Je, tu,
il, elle, or the Warhol-inspired, narrated-time-equals-real-time films Hotel Monterey
and La Chambre. The films might be without narration but Akerman has a love of
the written word and always wanted to write (Martin 1979: 29). As she explains,
‘I believe more in books than images. The image is an idol in an idolatrous world’
(Brenez 2011). Besides screenplays – some of which have been published – Akerman
has written in other media as well as film; her play Hall de nuit was published in
1991, and there have also been the autobiographical texts Une famille à Bruxelles/
A Family in Brussels (1998), Autoportrait en cinéaste/Self Portrait as a Filmmaker
(2004), and Ma mère rit/My Mother Laughs (2013).
Although Akerman made her reputation in the first place as a metteur-en-scène,
her films are carefully scripted (De Kuyper 1983: 12). The early screenplays are very
detailed, without compromise, and what is written has to go in the film. Akerman
describes the screenplay of Jeanne Dielman as written in the style of a nouveau roman
( Jean and La Rochelle 2007: 38). In a documentary about the making of Jeanne
Belgium 243

Dielman, directed by French actor Sami Frey (1974), a passage shows actress
Delphine Seyrig, who plays Jeanne Dielman, rehearsing. Akerman kept the script
and her watch in hand, insisting that gestures and movements be performed
exactly as written in the script, much to the despair of Seyrig who can’t find any
motivation for these gestures (Margolies 2009).
Akerman’s writing practices illustrate the oscillation between fiction and docu-
mentary; between the written and that which cannot be written. Published excerpts
of early scripts reveal her varied approach to film writing. The screenplay of Jeanne
Dielman is a continuous prose text with many hesitations and pauses, and is
strongly focused on the main character, with sentences that often start with ‘She’.
In some films the writing is complemented by the editing phase in postproduc-
tion. In Toute une nuit (1982), which has a mosaic structure, Akerman prepared a
short text that is more like a synopsis, and the actual construction of the narra-
tive was decided upon while editing (Aubenas 1982). Only the beginning and the
thunderstorm that closes the film were written in advance (Jean and La Rochelle
2007: 38).
Akerman has produced a diverse oeuvre. Besides the well-known early films she
wrote and directed such as Jeanne Dielman and Les rendez-vous d’Anna/The Meetings
of Anna (1978), Akerman also made musical films (Les années 80 [1983], Golden
Eighties [1986]), comedies (A Couch in New York [1996]), documentaries (Un jour
Pina m’a demandé/On Tour with Pina Bausch [1983], Sud [1999]), and even adapta-
tions (La captive/The Captive [2000], after Proust, and La folie Almayer/Almayer’s
Folly [2011], after Conrad). As a screenwriter Akerman only occasionally col-
laborates with others, but these co-writers have included the writer-director Erik
De Kuyper on Je, tu, il, elle/I, You, He, She (1967), La Captive (2000), and Demain
on déménage/Tomorrow We Move (2004), and critic/screenwriter/director Pascal
Bonitzer on Nuit et jour/Night and Day (1991). In the 1990s Akerman turned to the
visual arts and started creating a number of installations in which she combines
visual art and video. The installations allow Akerman to approach ‘time’ in new
ways: different screens simultaneously tell the story and narrative time is trans-
lated into spatial terms. (for an analysis, see: Chamarette 2012: 145–6). In certain
ways these installations refer to her first films, the ones that feel and look as if
they were recordings of performances (Saute ma ville/Blow Up My City [1968], La
chambre/The Room [1972], or Je, tu, il, elle/I, You, He, She [1967]). The installation
Maniac Shadows (2013) uses footage in which we observe

Akerman cleaning up her living space while the 2008 Obama inauguration
plays on the television. Meanwhile, another projection offers a darker repre-
sentation of the quotidian and recounts her mother’s daily routine as she stares
out the window of her Brussels’ apartment for what seems like eternity. This is
followed by footage of a street party in New York which lasts late into the night
where no one seems to notice the static camera. (Feldman 2013).

The first fragment might refer to Saute ma ville and the second to Jeanne Dielman,
while the third echoes Histoires d’Amérique. Maybe it is no coincidence that
244 Women Screenwriters

Akerman often ‘recycles’ her old films into installations, thus creating new contexts
for these films. Woman Sitting after Killing (2001), for instance, literally reuses Jeanne
Dielman, as does In the Mirror (2012) with one of her very first shorts, L’enfant
aimé/The loved Child (1971). Some of the films created for these installations also
exist as ‘traditional’ linear films (D’Est/From the East [1993] and Femmes d’Anvers
en novembre/Women of Antwerp in November [2008]). Writing reappears literally
in the installation Marcher à côté de ses lacets dans une frigidaire vide/Walk beside
One’s Shoelaces in an Empty Fridge (2004), when fragments of the diary of her
grandmother are being projected on a wall and a spiral screen.
Many books and articles have been published on the films of Chantal Akerman,
yet her screenplays, stage plays and novels have received little attention.

Marion Hänsel (1949–)

Less well known than Akerman, Marion Hänsel (born Ackermann) is not only
important as a screenwriter-director, but also as a producer, often encouraging young
filmmakers during the 1980s. Hänsel is unusual in Belgian cinema because her
films look very un-Belgian with foreign settings and using international casts
such as Trevor Howard, Jane Birkin, Marianne Basler, Heinz Bennent and Malcolm
McDowell. Hänsel rarely writes original material, preferring to adapt and rework
literature, though her recent film La tendresse/Tenderness (2013) is an exception.
Hänsel explains that she is not a real writer and finds it reassuring to have the
story in front of her (Sojcher 1999: 215). This lack of confidence possibly explains
why her only other original script, Sur la terre comme au ciel/In Heaven as on Earth
(1991, based on a story by Jaco Von Dormael), though having, as Mosley notes,
‘an extremely daring premise of a foetus refusing entry into a damaged world [...]
failed to resolve the representational difficulties of dialogue between a woman
and her unborn child’ (2001: 196).
Hänsel’s early films gained much critical acclaim, though they did not appeal to a
wide audience: Le lit/The Bed (1984) tells the story of a dying man surrounded by the
two women in his life who recall their past; Dust (1985), an adaptation of a Coetzee
novel, relates the suffocating relationship of a father and his daughter; Les noces bar-
bares/The Cruel Embrace (1987), adapted from the award-winning novel of the same
name by Yann Queffelec, develops an even more distant, almost Brechtian approach
to its subject that left everyone, including the critics, puzzled (Sojcher 1999: 216).
Nevertheless, Hänsel gradually built her reputation as a writer and director with
films such as Li: Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (1995), Si le vent soulève
les sables/Sounds of Sand (2006), and Noir Océan/Black Ocean (2010). Her most
recent film, La tendresse/Tenderness (2013), received mixed reactions, especially
because of the lack of conflict and action in the story about a couple who have
been separated for 15 years. They get together again to pick up their son after he
has an accident when skiing. Hänsel often feels she has to defend her work and
explains that she knows about traditional screenwriting, having studied at the
first American Film Institute (AFI) screenwriting seminar in Brussels in 1979. For
La tendresse she wanted a story without ‘big events; there are no major dramas.
Belgium 245

There is a dramaturgy but very, very fine, very subtle and it is not at all fashionable’
(Hänsel 2014).

The new generation of women writer-directors

Belgian film boomed in the new millenium, doubling in output from 30 films
produced in 2004 to 64 in 2012. The popularity of Belgian film also expanded,
attracting four times as many viewers in 2011 than in 2004, and international
festival selections and awards increased accordingly (VAF 2013: 107–20). A new
generation of women writers-directors emerged from this evolution, including
Patrice Toye with Rosie (1998), (N)iemand/Nowhere Man (2008), and Little Black
Spiders (2012); Fien Troch with Een ander zijn geluk/Someone Else’s Happiness (2005),
Unspoken (2008), and Kid (2013), and Caroline Strubbe’s Lost Persons Area (2010),
the first part of a trilogy that tells the story of the survival of a dysfunctional
family working in an unsettling landscape full of high-tension masts and mobile
homes. I’m the Same, I’m Another (2013) is the second part of the trilogy in which
a man and a girl try to come to grips with a tragic past. Though it continues where
Lost Persons Area left off, Strubbe says it is not necessary to have seen the first in
order to understand the second (Mestdagh 2013: 4). I’m the Same, I’m Another is,
even more than Lost Persons Area, founded upon atmosphere more than narrative
development. Dorothée Van Den Berghe had worked for TV, as a documentary
filmmaker, and in theatre before she wrote and directed her debut movie Meisje/
Girl (2002) about three generations of women whose destinations are intertwined.
My Queen Caro (2009) is partly autobiographical and tells the story of a couple
who move with their daughter to Amsterdam to live in a squat in a hippy comu-
nity. The narrative focuses on the experience of the little girl who grows up in
an anti-authoritarian environment. Other female writer-directors of note include
Sophie Schoukens (Marieke Marieke [2010]), Vanja d’Alcantara (Beyond the Steppes
[2010]), Ilse Somers (Weekend aan Zee/High Heels, Low Tide [2012]), and Hilde Van
Mieghem (De kus/The Kiss [2004], and Smoorverliefd/Madly in Love [2010, remade
in 2013 for the Dutch market]).
These writer-directors all have a somewhat minimalist approach to exploring
human relationships, often with little or no dialogue. Loss, grief and mourning
form the threads that link their stories, and they often make references to acclaimed
writers and directors such as Haneke, Akerman, Bresson, and others. Only a few
prefer the romantic comedy genre for telling their stories. Hilde Van Mieghem’s
Smoorverliefd/Madly in Love (2011) and Ilse Somers’ Weekend aan Zee/High Heels, Low
Tide (2012) are both ensemble films with women as main characters. Most of these
stand out because of a more adventurous approach to screenwriting than previous
Belgian writer-directors.

Patrice Toye (1967–)

The central theme of Toye’s work as writer-director is concerned with characters

who create a world for themselves to survive in. Rosie is told in flashbacks and
246 Women Screenwriters

begins with the 13-year-old Rosie in a juvenile prison. The clever flashback struc-
ture allows empathy to be built for the main character, who does some terrible
things to create her new life, stealing a baby and committing murder. Doubts are
raised about her relationship with Jimi, the boy Rosie chooses to be ‘her czar’. In
Toye’s next film, Nowhere Man, the main character dreams of a different reality,
then takes action, stages his death and disappears to a tropical island, only to
decide he wants his former life back, but that this might not be possible. In Little
Black Spiders a group of young pregnant girls are locked up in a nunnery and kept
hidden from society until their children are born. The story is very dark but the
girls’ lives seem remote from reality and, as they don’t understand their situation,
it is not presented as tragic.

Fien Troch (1978–)

Troch is an award-winning screenwriter as well as being highly regarded for her

directing skills. The following quote by Troch refers to her first feature, Someone
Else’s Happiness , but similar themes are present in her other films:

When I started writing the script, my real intention was to portray characters
who are full of words, ideas and stories, but are unable to utter or express
them because they are held back by some strange force. As a consequence, the
unspoken [also the title of her next script] now lies like a veil over the whole
story of the film and is the reason of the pain affecting most of the characters.
(Troch 2005)

The narrative has a crime storyline in which a child is killed in a hit-and-run

accident that acts as a catalyst for the psychological development of the different
characters. The film ends without a resolution and the perpetrator of the crime
remains unknown. At the Thessaloniki Film Festival in 2005, Someone Else’s
Happiness won the award for best screenplay.
Unspoken is Troch’s second feature and a very intimate film about a woman and
man who lost their daughter five years previously and are incapable of communi-
cating their grief and feelings of loss. As the title indicates, there is little dialogue
in the film, which called for a specific writing process. Because of the primacy
of the visuals, with many close-ups, and the lack of physical action, Troch made
cards on which she wrote how the images should look, which resulted in ‘half of
the découpage’ or editing happening at the development stage. As Troch explains,
‘When the screenplay was written, the visuals were finished as well. Because the
two are so intertwined … When I write for instance that two people are sitting
in a living room, nothing much happens than that one looks at the other, and
suddenly the door closes. When you read that, you could say: I can come up with
that as well. Whereas the whole context indicates the how and why ...’ (Troch, in
Sartor 2009).
The screenplay for Kid won the Eurimages Co-Production Development Award
in 2011, which made financing the project much easier. The challenge for Troch
Belgium 247

was to tell the whole story from the point of view of Kid, a boy who loves his
mother above everybody else. When she disappears, Kid and his brother are
forced to move in with their aunt and uncle, a situation that Kid finds dif-
ficult to adapt to. The narrative becomes elliptical because it focuses on Kid’s
viewpoint and we only know as much as he does, which is often very little. For
instance, we do not know what has happened to the father or what the finan-
cial situation of the pig farm is that makes the mother try desperately to keep


More women than ever before are writing for film in Belgium, though their work
remains largely unexplored. Only Edith Kiel and Chantal Akerman have received
scholarly attention, yet the focus has been on their directorial work rather than
their scriptwriting. Nevertheless, women writers have made a significant contribu-
tion to the development of screenwriting in Flanders and Belgium.

1. All translations from Dutch and French are mine. The English translations of film titles
are those in Thys 1999.
2. Don Camillo and Peppone are the prototypical antithetical protagonists in popular
humorous stories created by Italian writer Giovannini Guareschi in the 1950s. Don
Camillo, the village priest, is continuously at odds with the communist mayor, Peppone.
French actor Fernandel immortalized Don Camillo in a number of film adaptations.
3. See: http://www.cinematek.be/index.php?node=54&page=detail_film&id=10673&search
type=film (accessed 11 May 2014).

Aubenas, Jacqueline (ed.). 1982. ‘Chantal Akerman’, Atelier Des Arts, Cahier 1.
Biltereyst, Daniël, and Sophie Van Bauwel. 2005. Regional Cinema, Nationalism and Ideology:
A Historical Reception Analysis of a Classic Belgian Movie, ‘De Witte’ (1934). Ghent: Academia
Brenez, Nicole. 2011. ‘Chantal Akerman: The Pajama Interview’. Available at: http://www.
lolajournal.com/2/index.html. (accessed 14 April 2014).
Chamarette, Jenny. 2012. Phenomenology and the Future of Film. Rethinking Subjectivity beyond
French Cinema. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Convents, Guido. 2000. Van Kinetoscoop Tot Café-Ciné. De Eerste Jaren van de Film in België
1894–1908/From Kinetoscope to Café-Ciné. The First Years of Film in Belgium 1894–1908. Leuven:
Leuven University Press.
De Kuyper, Erik. 1983. ‘Leren Leven, Het Leven Leren/Learn to Live, Learn Life’, Versus, 1: 11–15.
De Poorter, Wim. 1997. ‘From Y Mañana? To Manneken Pis. Thirty Years of Flemish
Filmmaking’, The Low Countries, 5: 130–41.
Feldman, Alaina Claire. 2013. ‘Artists at Work: Chantal Akerman’, Afterall. Available at: http://
www.afterall.org/online/artists-at-work-chantal-akerman/#.U298KC_408Y (accessed 11 May
Fowler, Catherine. 2003. ‘All Night Long: The Ambivalent Text of “Belgianicity”’, in
Gwendolyn Audrey Foster (ed.), Identity and Memory.The Films of Chantal Akerman. Illinois:
Southern Illinois University Press, pp.73–94.
248 Women Screenwriters

Fowler, Catherine. 2010. ‘Cinema That Stays at Home: The Inexportable Films of Belgium’s
Gaston Schoukens, Edith Kiel and Jan Van Derheyden’, Screen, 51 (3): 256–71.
Frey, Sami. 1974. Autour de Jeanne Dielman, France/Belgique, 69 mins.
Geens, Paul. 1986. Naslagwerk over de Vlaamse Film (Dictionary of Flemish Film). Brussels: C. I. A. M.
Geens, Paul. 1988. ‘Eendagsvliegen: De Vlaamse Fictiefilm in de Jaren 1920 Ephemera: The
Flemish Fiction Film in the 1920s’, Vlaanderen, 37: 82–5.
Hänsel, Marion. 2014. ‘La Tendresse. Retranscriptions Interviews’, La Tendresse. Available at:
http://latendresse.be/en/multimedia/interviews/retranscriptions-interviews/ (accessed 14
April 2014).
Jean, Marcel, and Réal La Rochelle (eds). 2007. ‘Entretien Chantal Akerman’, 24 Images, 130:
Margolies, Ivone. 2009. ‘A Matter of Time: Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai Du Commerce, 1080
Bruxelles’, Criterion Current. Available at: http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/1215-a-
matter-of-time-jeanne-dielman-23-quai-du-commerce-1080-bruxelles (accessed 14 April
Martin, Angela. 1979. ‘Chantal Akerman’s Films: A Dossier’, Feminist Review, 3: 24–47.
Mestdagh, Dave. 2013. ‘Interview with Caroline Strubbe’, Knack, 16th October, p. 4.
Mosley, Philip. 2001. Split Screen. Belgian Cinema and Cultural Identity. New York: State University
of New York Press.
Overbergh, Ann. 2011. Voorbij de Vertoning. Analyse van Het Vlaamse Vertoning- En
Distributieveld/Beyond the Screening. Analysis of the Flemish Screening and Distribution Field.
Ghent: BAM, Instituut voor beeldende, audiovisuele en mediakunst.
Sartor, Freddy. 2009. ‘Fien Troch over Unspoken’, Filmmagie.
Sojcher, Frédéric. 1999. La Kermesse Héroique du Cinéma Belge (The Heroic Fair of Belgian
Cinema). Paris: L’Harmattan.
Stalpaert, Christel. 1996. ‘Een Pionier in de Vlaamse Film: Edith Kiel’, in Leen Huet (ed.)
An Unexpected Journey: Vrouw En Kunst/An Unexpected Journey: Woman and Art. Antwerpen:
Stalpaert, Christel. 2002. Belgische Vrouwelijke Filmtaal in Haar Discursieve En Visuele Praktijk/
Belgian Female Film Language in Its Discursive and Visual Practice. PhD dissertation,
University of Ghent.
Thys, Marianne (ed.). 1999. Belgian Cinema. Ghent, Amsterdam: Ludion.
Troch, Fien. 2005. ‘Director’s Statement’, Een Ander Zijn Geluk. Available at: http://www.
eenanderzijngeluk.be/index.php (accessed 14 April 2014).
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Van Meerbeeck, Philippe, and André Van de Vijver (scr., dir.). 1999. Zonder Liefde Gaat Het
Niet. Jan Vanderheyden En Edith Kiel/Without Love It’s Impossible. Brussels: VRT, 60 mins.
Czech Republic
Alice Němcová Tejkalová, Filip Šára and David Sorfa

Czech women screenwriters: from socio-critical films to fairy tales

Alice Němcová Tejkalová

Czech screenwriting has tended to be a male profession, however more women
have written for the screen than have directed. Czech women screenwriters usually
fit into one of the following four categories: screenwriter and director, screenwriter
and actress, successful book writer turned screenwriter, or writer of children’s films
and TV fairy tales.

Early film
Between 1898 and 1930 only eight women screenwriters are in the Czech Feature
Film I (1995) catalogue, even though 388 films were shot in this period. The most
prolific of these eight women, Suzanne Marwille (1895–1962), was well known
to the Czech public as a popular film actress. Born Marta Schölerová, Marwille was
initially a theatre actress in Vienna. When she began her film career, she was pri-
marily supported by the director Václav Binovec, who owned the film production
company, Weteb, for which Marwille worked. She wrote many screenplays in
different genres, ranging from drama to romance and comedy, and in which she
also starred. The most famous were Černí myslivci (The Black Gamekeepers, 1921),
Irč in románek I, II (Irč a’s Little Romance I, II, 1921), Román boxera (The Romance
of a Boxer, 1921), Děvče z Podskalí (The Girl from Podskalí, 1922) and Adam a Eva
(Adam and Eve, 1922). After the arrival of the sound film, Marwille’s career came
to a standstill (Fikejz n.d.a).
Only three other women wrote more than one film in the pre-sound era in
Czechoslovakia: Thea (Tereza) Červenková (1882–1961), Zdena Smolová, better
known as Zet Molas (1896–1956), and Zorka Janovská (n.d.). Thea Červenková