When we talk about the early years of cinema, there is no separating “the history of women in film” from “the history of film.” Women have been there from the beginning, and have shaped the medium in transformative ways.
The idea that films could tell stories as opposed to documenting reality was hit upon by a woman, Alice Guy-Blaché, who made the very first narrative movie, the 60-second-long ‘La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy)’ in 1896. (It was also the longest film made up to that point.) And the filmmaker who arguably created the modern documentary form was Leni Riefenstahl with 1935’s ‘Triumph of the Will.’ (More on her and that film in a bit.) Women have always gotten short shrift when it comes to acknowledging their contributions, but that’s not a reflection of the inestimable value of their work. Movies simply would not look and feel the way they do today without the input of women artists and innovators.
The very first films of any kind, in the late 19th century, documented mundane events: surgical operations; studies of people with physical ailments; and most famously, those clips of workers leaving a factory and a train pulling into a station. The first film generally considered, in retrospect, to be a documentary — though the word had not yet been coined — is 1922’s ‘Nanook of the North,’ an ethnographic study of an Inuit family in the Canadian Arctic. But just as the field was being born, women were already starting to be erased from it. Filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty is credited as the sole creator of ‘Nanook’ as well as other similar, successful films — including 1926’s ‘Moana,’ about a young Samoan man in the South Pacific — but the evidence is strong that his wife and creative partner, Frances H. Flaherty, was in fact very much his co-director, co-writer, and co-producer on many if not all of “his” films.