A Woman’s Work is Never Done

Reviewed by Liz Czach

The Gendered Screen: Canadian Women Filmmakers is an important contribution to Canadian film studies, ensuring the centrality and significance of Canadian women’s contribution to filmmaking. This new collection of essays tackles the intersections of film authorship, gender, and nation, and while these terms may be undergoing challenges as organizing principles for the study of film, as the editors note in their introduction, they “had not lost their troublesome fascination for us as teachers and scholars of film.” The editors refrain, however, from employing any rigid definitions, encouraging the debates and tensions that arise from the various usages of these potentially vexing terms to shape the anthology. A wide range of filmmakers, regions, and filmmaking practices are covered, and this expansiveness is easily the book’s greatest strength.

The Gendered Screen is organized into three sections: the first, “Feminist/Feminine Binaries and the Body Politic,” features an essay each on four different directors (Andrea Dorfman, Lynne Stopkewich, Anne Wheeler, and Joyce Wieland) from different regions in Canada; the second section, “Queer Nation and Popular Culture,” as the section heading suggests, deals with filmmakers whose queer identity shapes their filmmaking practice, including two of Canada’s best known feminist filmmakers, Léa Pool and Patricia Rozema; and the final section, “Transiting Nationality and the Battlefield of Otherness,” delves into work of Aboriginal and minority filmmakers including Alanis Obomsawin, Loretta Todd, Christine Welsh, Mina Shum, and Deepa Mehta. The Gendered Screen thus performs a twofold function, devoting attention to emerging or under-explored filmmakers while furthering the inquiry into some of Canada’s key female auteurs.
The majority of the essays in the volume take an auteurist approach to the examination of individual Canadian women filmmakers and this tactic varies in success. The Gendered Screen is strongest when devoting attention to emerging or under-explored filmmakers. For example, Andrew Burke’s article on the films of Andrea Dorfman is exemplary in focusing on a little analyzed filmmaker and employing a well-chosen prism through which to analyze her work—the idea of craft. Likewise, Shana McGuire and Darell Varga’s essay on the documentary work of Sylvia Hamilton draws attention to the important work she has done in documenting Black Canadian history. Jean Bruce’s essay “The Art of Making Do: Queer Canadian Girls Make Movies” similarly approaches the work of queer video artists Dara Gellman, Thirza Cuthand, and Dana Inkster to underscore how their low-budget aesthetics can be productively linked to what de Certeau called the “art of making do.” These essays bring much-needed attention to filmmakers who have previously garnered little scholarly discourse. Correspondingly, essays that deal with filmmakers with smaller bodies of work are often more satisfyingly in-depth such as Brenda Austin-Smith’s focus on the transnationalism and hybridity in the films of Mina Shum or Lee Parpart’s analysis of the feminist adaptation in the films of Lynne Stopkewich.

Given the small corpus of monographs and edited collections devoted to Canadian women’s filmmaking, it is understandable that The Gendered Screen sometimes sacrifices depth for breadth. Thus while some of the essays provide an excellent overview of a filmmaker’s work, this expansiveness occasionally comes at the expense of deeper analysis. Directors with lengthier filmographies, such as Anne Wheeler, Patricia Rozema, Léa Pool, or Deepa Mehta, are thus occasionally disadvantaged as authors attempt to account for an entire oeuvre, moving quickly through a large corpus of films. This isn’t necessarily a failing of the anthology but an indication of the impulse of some scholarship on Canadian women filmmakers, that is, to cover as much ground as possible because so little work has been done. Jerry White’s article “Les Québécoises” is indicative of this direction as he discusses the work of Denise Filiatrault, Manon Briand, Catharine Martin, and Lucie Lambert amongst others. This overview is impressively comprehensible given that few of these directors have had any significant scholarship devoted to them in French, let alone in English, but it does forfeit more sustained critique.

As the editors of the volume note, “No collection such as this can be complete or comprehensive.” And while they acknowledge the inability to be comprehensive, this is an ambitious volume that covers a lot of ground. Many of the essays function as excellent introductions to a filmmaker’s work and are easily adaptable to course curricula while also yielding some new insights and approaches to Canadian women’s cinema.

This review “A Woman’s Work is Never Done” originally appeared in Spectres of Modernism. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 209 (Summer 2011): 146-147.

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