Reclaiming women’s position in film making history: Sarah St Vincent Welch reviews three films by Karen Pearlman

Woman with an Editing Bench (2016), After the Facts (2018), and I want to make a film about women (2019), directed by Karen Pearlman. I want to make a film about women is a finalist in the Dendy Awards for Australian Short Films at the first online Sydney Film Festival https://www.sff.org.au/

The heart of Karen Pearlman’s short film trilogy Woman with an Editing Bench (2016), After the Facts (2018), and I want to make a film about women (2019), is the work and art of women in film editing. The trilogy brings to light and celebrates the role women editors had in early Russian cinema, and what should be acknowledged as their central achievements in the development of the language of film. Pearlman does this by engaging with the work and lives of Elizaveta Svilova (1900-1975) and Esfir Shub (1894-1959) in 1920s and 1930s Russia.

There is an opportunity to view I want to make a film about women between June 10-21 at the first online Sydney Film Festival: https://ondemand.sff.org.au/ film/i-want-to-make-a-film-about-women/ (it is a finalist in the Dendy Awards for Australian Short Films). Do it. All these films have won a slew of awards.

Elizaveta Svilova (who edited the acclaimed documentary Man with a Movie Camera) and Esfir Shub (known as director of The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty, The Great Road and The Russia of Nicholas 11 and Lev Tolstoi) both managed to continue their work under Stalin’s persecution and suppression of artists, and to have long careers. Too valuable, too hardworking, more adroit, less visible than peers like Vertov, we don’t know, but they kept working. Svilova ended up supporting Vertov as he fell more and more out of favour.

Over the course of the trilogy, Pearlman, in a sense, engages in a conversation with them, editor to editor, director to director, filmmaker to filmmaker. She does this in a number of ways; by making their lives and work the subjects of her films, by incorporating and working and thinking with their actual footage, and by overtly using and developing their techniques. Montage and overtly rhythmic editing are characteristics of all three films. And all the montage sequences are thrilling, as are Caitlin Yeo’s scores.

Karen Pearlman (right), directing Woman with an Editing Bench.

In Woman with an Editing Bench we follow Svilova and her husband Dziga Vertov grappling with a hostile bureacracy, being denied resources, raided and obstructed, discussing the aesthetics of a way to proceed, and trying to salvage their project. I relished the physicality of the film making that was depicted, the editing room filled with cuts, the editing and viewing machinery, the flick and pull of the film stock, Svilova searching the film to find exactly the right shot, sharing them with Vertov, all under pressure of time, other work, and the suspicion of their art by the authorities. All those ideas, thoughts, possibilities, on the editing bench, the passion of their endeavour, and the tension around the threats to them, is compelling.

‘The editing room is where documentary is made,’ says Vertov. We experience this in watching the drama of editing, and in the editing of Woman with an Editing Bench itself. Svilova’s flashes of thoughts and emotions are revealed in montage (the mind of the editor) in a poetic and exhilerating characterisation and point of view. This is a story inspired by Svilova and Vertov’s work together, and makes central the role that Svilova played, with her skill, her savvy, and determination. Later, she ensured Vertov’s legacy by smuggling his archives out of Russia, allowing their work to continue to inspire the rest of the world. Pearlman is repositioning Svilova’s vision (and her female colleagues) as central to the revolutionary film movement. Leanna Walshman and Richard James Allen play the lead roles and their energies depict a convincing creative, working, and intimate partnership. Marcus Graham is suitably noirish and gnarly as the evil bureaucrat. Woman with an Editing Bench is available for viewing on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/womanwithaneditingbench

After the Facts at first adopts a familiar documentary style to discuss Esfir Shub’s work and aspirations. She wanted to make a film about women, and a film capturing the rhythm of work, and though she worked on and made many films, Shub’s aspirations (and those of her colleagues Svilova and Vertov) were unable to continue to be realised under Stalin’s regime, we can only imagine and reflect on what she left behind in her archive that infers what else might have been, in different circumstances. Pearlman helps us do that. Pearlman’s reflexive and daring handling of her own thoughts, editing thoughts, rendered in montage and compilation, are an ecstatic conclusion to her observations and arguments throughout the film. It firmly reclaims women’s position in film making history. It is a sweet nugget of a film. After the Facts can be viewed at the Women Film Pioneers Project: https://wfpp.columbia.edu/2020/03/16/after-the-facts/

I want to make a film about women explores the subject of Shub (and her friends) in another style. An imagined kitchen, rendered in a constructivist theatre style set, with back projections, and levels, is choreographed with revolutionary artists working together, their comings and goings and conversations, and Shub is right at the centre of it all. The likes of Varvara Stepanova (designer), Lilya Brik (filmmaker and actor), and other creative women join them, working, experimenting – like the editing room this kitchen of the imagination is another place where it all happens. (These were real kitchens too – humanity’s traditional meeting place.) Sergei Eisenstein (director of ‘Battleship Potempkin’ and many other films) drops by and briefly plays out the ‘huge public disputes’ he had with Vertov. (Shub taught Eisenstein how to edit in her kitchen.) This is a well-researched, intelligent and playful imagining of creative workers, how their ideas and practice might have inspired each other, and it works to diffuse history’s favoured story of the dominant male author. The women are integral. Of course they were. And we delight in the energy of the women working together. This film has a light touch in its humour. It is evident that these partnerships may have provided some salve to the burden of society’s roles and categories (and of course these are still around) .

Victoria Haralabidou shines as Esfir Shub. Your eyes can’t leave her face; her Shub is comfortable in her own skin, witty, knowing, wise. Richard James Allen plays Dziga Vertov again (another link that travels through the trilogy), and Tug Dumbly is Sergei Eisenstein. These characters are drawn affectionately in their zest and intensity (and even their capacity for taking over a bit?). The whole ensemble captivate the audience with their diverse expressions of this creative and revolutionary movement.

This film is not just about what happened, but the what ifs. What if this potential was not supressed by the politics of the time? It relocates the ‘less visible’ work of women revolutionary artists (which strangely enough is highly visible if we only observe and acknowledge it), to a place it deserves. It is research in action, and a film that brings to life ground-breaking filmmakers. It is also wonderful entertainment, as are Woman with an Editing Bench and After the Facts. I hope there are more opportunities to see them all.

 – Sarah St Vincent Welch

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Sarah St Vincent Welch is a Canberra-based writer, editor, writing teacher and image-maker. She is known for chalking her poetry on the footpath at arts festivals and then tweeting them  to the skies not knowing where they may land. Her #litchalk poetry will be in the upcoming  Contour 556 biennial free public art festival beside Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra in  October 2020. Her chapbook OPEN was published by Rochford Press in 2018 https://rochfordpress.com/open-by-sarah-st-vincent-welch/. She writes about time and place  and reading and writing at sarahstvincentwelch.com.

During the 2020 Sydney Film Festival I want to make a film about women  can be viewed at  https://ondemand.sff.org.au/ film/i-want-to-make-a-film-about-women/

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