The Women’s Film Project:
an international collective in the career of Helena Solberg

by Marina Cavalcanti Tedesco

translated by Bethany Parham

International Women’s Film Project (New York, 1977) (Helena Solberg archive).

In the past decade, studies on women’s cinema/women in cinema have gained new momentum. This phenomenon has been observed in various places around the world and has led to the “discovery” of Helena Solberg in her own country. Prior to the publication of the thesis Helena Solberg: Trajetória de uma documentarista brasileira (Tavares) [Helena Solberg: the career of a Brazilian documentary-maker] and Solberg’s retrospective exhibition at the 2014 festival É Tudo verdade, the director was relatively unknown in Brazil, even amongst cinema enthusiasts and academics. Now comprehensive analyses, both Brazilian and international, have been published on Helena Solberg, including, among other works: “This Woman which is One: Helena Solberg-Ladd’s The Double Day” (Foster); “The Migrant in Helena Solberg’s Carmen Miranda: Bananas is my Business” (Félix); “Cineastas brasileñas que filmaron la revolución: Helena Solberg y Lucia Murat” (Tedesco) [Female Brazilian filmmakers who filmed the revolution: Helena Solberg and Lucia Murat]; and “Interseccionalidade em The emerging woman (1974)” (Holanda) [Intersectionality in The emerging woman].

Here I wish to contribute to the research on Helena Solberg through a further exploration of the Women’s Film Project (WFP), which was later expanded and renamed the International Women’s Film Project (IWFP). It was the only collective to which Solberg belonged throughout her career, and it was unique for several reasons. Based in the United States, the collective distinguished itself from others not only due to its commitment to internationalism, but also because the role of directing was assigned to a woman from the Third World. Moreover, I intend to expand the studies on the pioneering feminist cinemas in/of Latin America, particularly in their collective forms. To accomplish this, I consider several relevant aspects of Helena Solberg’s life prior to moving to the United States. I address the collective’s formation and changes, its principal members and the first three films that Solberg produced under its name (known as the feminist trilogy). My focus then turns to a discussion on collective production as I examine Helena Solberg’s perspective on the creative and collaborative processes and the dynamics within the WFP/IWFP. In addition to written sources, I will draw on films, interviews, photographs and notes from the time.

A picture included in the promotional material written to accompany The Emerging Woman. Collective planning for The Emerging Woman (Helena Solberg archive).
Booklet written to accompany The Emerging Woman (Helena Solberg archive). [Click on image to see more]

Who was the Helena Solberg
that moved to the United States?

Born in 1938, Helena Solberg studied at Sacre Coeur de Jesus College in Rio de Janeiro, which was attended by girls from upper-middle class families. Despite receiving a good education, she was brought up during a time of traditional gender roles, which dictated that a woman’s life should be dedicated to getting married and having children (Tavares). Contrary to her family’s expectations, the future director surprised everyone with her desire to continue her studies at the university level. She attended the Neo-Latin Languages course at Pontificia Universidade Católica (PUC) in Rio de Janeiro, where she met Davi Neves, Arnaldo Jabor, Cacá Diegues, amongst others who would become key members of the Brazilian film movement known as Cinema Novo. However, her own association with Cinema Novo is questionable for various reasons. Primarily, her first short films, produced in Brazil, do not have a strong thematic, aesthetic or stylistic affinity with those associated with the 1960s movement. Moreover, the members of Cinema Novo never acknowledged her as one of their own, as it was known to be a club for “The Fellers” (an exclusive group for men from the cartoon Little Lulu). On several occasions, the filmmaker herself has spoken about the patronizing attitudes that she faced from her male friends—though her contacts were something she took advantage of to facilitate her own projects. Nonetheless, it was within this group that she became a reporter for the newspaper O Metropolitano (a newspaper funded by student organizations), progressed into filmmaking, and assembled the team for her debut work: A entrevista (1966) [The Interview]. Furthermore, it was at this newspaper that she met Affonso Beato, who would shoot The Double Day (Helena Solberg, 1975) some years later.

While she belonged to the same generation as the names mentioned above, Helena Solberg’s career took longer to get off the ground. In an interview with Julianne Burton, the filmmaker stated that after working for O Metropolitano, she married (which was a big event in a woman’s life at that time in Brazil) and subsequently had her first child. At that point, she began to realize that the development of her career would differ to that of her male friends. They also had just had children, yet fatherhood did not prevent them from filming nor travelling as childcare was the responsibility of their wives.

After directing A entrevista (1966) and Meio-dia (1970) [Midday], Solberg moved to the United States in 1971 for the second time, accompanying her husband and two children (since her husband was from the United States, the couple had already stayed there for a period of time a few years before). In conventional terms, as societal norms demanded, by becoming a wife and a mother, she had fulfilled her gender role. However, the director wanted more—something that had been made clear in her short film A entrevista. In the same interview with Burton, Solberg said,

“That personal crisis [the frustration of being just a wife and a mother, as well as realizing that your career would be different because you are a woman] provoked my first film, a documentary called A entrevista [...]. I interviewed between seventy and eighty women who had the same upper-middle-class background as I did. [...] I went around to different houses with a questionnaire. I asked about their aspirations during adolescence and about their attitudes toward two critical decisions: whether to go to the university, and whether to get married. [...] Despite their comfortable economic and social situation, these women were very, very unhappy. Though they were quite bright, they weren’t able to envision much of a future for themselves. Their lack of options left them with a sense of hopelessness and futility” (82-83).

It was in the United States that the director first encountered a structured feminist movement. According to Ceiça Ferreira, the feminist movement was at its height in the United States, which included everything from awareness-raising groups to Women’s Studies in the universities (11). Solberg was fascinated by such ebullience; she wanted to understand everything that she was seeing and what had led to this historic moment. Thus, given that cinema was her form of expression, she chose to make a documentary to investigate the new reality in which she found herself. Ferreira also noted that producing a film (which was called The Emerging Woman) on the history of feminism in the United States within a female collective was, for Solberg, a very rich experience, since her previous films were made following traditional modes of production, where the hierarchy is greater and the division of labor fixed (11). Nevertheless, it is crucial to remember that Helena Solberg joined this movement with a background of her own. In addition to her analyses on the condition of women from her social class (presented through her talks and in A entrevista), she had interviewed Simone de Beauvoir for O Metropolitano and read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963). These are authors that she keeps in her library to this day.

Solberg's preference for a largely women's crew was unusual at the time.

Women’s Film Project /
International Women’s Film Project

Originally named the Women’s Film Project, the collective was initially composed of Helena Solberg, Lorraine Gray, Melanie Maholick and Roberta Haber. Maholick and Haber were academics studying the history of feminism in the United States at George Washington University. Solberg met the pair through an advertisement in the university’s department of Women’s Studies. She met Gray, who was at the time a still photographer with some experience in film, during May Day protests.

The WFP’s first production is The Emerging Woman (1974), in which Helena Solberg is credited as director, Roberta Haber and Melanie Maholick for research and script, Lorraine Gray for photography and Jane Stubbs (who already had experience in the making of films) as editor. However, in the first slide following the opening title, the film is credited to Solberg, Haber, Maholick and Gray; it is not until the end that the division of the aforementioned roles becomes explicit. I will address below how this was a collective work with defined and credited roles and the way in which this was presented to the public through image and sound.

The 40-minute documentary was put together in chronological order and had an informative purpose. In the film there are hundreds of images, including photographs, engravings, drawings and moving pictures. The sound is non-diegetic. Different voices bring context to the women’s struggles. It also features iconic speeches from various women who helped construct the feminist movement. More details of the process are seen in one of the promotional materials for The Emerging Woman that circulated at the time.

This promotional material emphasizes that the medium-length film was a collective effort by the WFP, that had required one year of archival research by its members, in addition to the six months of filming, editing and recording of the voices and soundtrack. The same promotion material states that the premiere took place on May 1, 1974, and from then on, the documentary’s successful circulation began. In addition to exhibitions and festivals, the production made the selection for the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission and sold around 400 copies in 16mm format to schools, universities and libraries. Moreover, the team was invited to visit the White House (Tavares 52). In an interview with Mariana Tavares, Helena Solberg stated that The Emerging Woman was, for her, a watershed moment because up to that point, there had not been anything that established her position as a filmmaker in the United States. In fact, upon demonstrating her ability to narrate a piece of the United States’ history, which the people of the United States themselves had never encountered, doors began to open (52).

According to Solberg’s interview with Burton, it was inevitable that during the process of The Emerging Woman she would draw parallels with the situation of Latin American women—or, in her words, the other side of the coin. Her issues as a Latin American woman, albeit a white upper-class Latin American woman that lived in one of the country’s largest cities, were somewhat distinct. As a result, it was proposed that the collective’s next film would relate to Latin American women. And so the ideas for The Double Day (1975) were born.

In an interview Iconducted in April 2021, Helena Solberg explained that, whilst there had not been a conscious decision to have a female team during the production of The Emerging Woman, the opposite was true in the production of The Double Day. She believed that the topic and the characters to be interviewed called for this approach, and she understood the impact that a film made with a female camera operator and sound technician would have. Speaking about the impact, she admitted that when all the women came onto the shooting location carrying the equipment, it caused a commotion; no one had ever seen a team composed almost exclusively by women. In an interview in 1976 with the iconic feminist publication Off Our Backs, Solberg judged that she had been right. Many people had commented that it was surprising to see Latin American women speaking so much and, in her opinion, having a production team of women was fundamental for this. If the barriers such as class, race, amongst others were already obstructing communication between the women themselves, having an extensive male presence on set would have inhibited this even more.

The small team that would travel around Latin America for approximately three months was, of course, made up of women from the IWFP. The collective adopted this new name as it had expanded beyond the four original members and was joined by members of other nationalities, even though this was just for short periods at a time. Lisa Jackson, who had studied cinema in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was responsible for sound; Dolores Neuman, already a photographer and activist whose photographs had been used in The Emerging Woman, was one of the still photographers; and Jane Stubbs, who had been an editor in The Emerging Woman, is credited as a producer, but also took on the role of camera assistant at certain points.

A problem arose with the cinematography, which is still one of the areas of filmmaking that suffers the greatest under-representation of women. This was Solberg’s first filming trip; it was a long and demanding journey on which she had to shoot on film without the conditions for developing and viewing the material. Faced with this issue, the filmmaker chose to call on the only man that become involved in the team: Affonso Beato. As I have already mentioned, Beato had worked as a photographer for O Metropolitano. A good friend of Solberg, he had been living in New York and had filmed, amongst other productions, the iconic O Dragão da Maldade Contra o Santo Guerreiro (Glauber Rocha, 1969) [The Evil Dragon against the Holy Warrior].

Technically, Solberg was in safe hands with Beato, but as she indicated in an interview, she was not satisfied as she had been unable to fulfil her initial idea for a team made entirely of women. Consequently, the pair began to search for a woman that could at least take on the role of camera assistant and, via a recommendation, they found Christine Burrill. Although they did not know her, they had watched some of her work and were aware that she had lived in Brazil and so ultimately they chose her. However, they only became acquainted properly in Mexico during the first stages of filming for The Double Day. The director remembers how Beato was apprehensive to have an assistant that he did not know, especially in the conditions of this shoot, but she affirmed that the two became great friends and that occasionally Burrill even operated the camera. Burrill, who came to be a permanent part of Helena Solberg’s life, is credited as the second camera operator and one of the editors of the documentary (the other was Suzanne Fenn, who had already worked as an assistant editor since around 1970). It is also worth highlighting, that Melanie Maholick, who also worked in The Emerging Woman, is credited as assistant editor.

Many other women contributed to The Double Day at various stages, but I deal with this later in the article. For now, I shall turn the attention to its synopsis and circulation. The Double Day is a 53-minute production which compiles interviews with women from four different countries (Argentina, Bolivia, Mexico and Venezuela). The women in the documentary come from diverse backgrounds, from rural areas, cities, and different classes. This panorama gives insight into the double oppression of working women, as well as the enormous inequalities between the Latin American women themselves (although this aspect is not addressed directly in the narration).

The documentary was well received at festivals, including the International Film Festival Mannheim-Heidelberg, the American Film Festival and the International Film Festival of India. It enjoyed successful distribution in the United States, albeit less so than  The Emerging Woman. Moreover, it was widely shown in Latin American militant feminist circles, especially in countries where the team had filmed. In a debate Helena Solberg described:

“I went to film another film in Bolivia, and I was filming an interview with a chola […] and she suddenly spoke to me, she said “la doble jornada” [the double day, in English]. And I said: “where did you hear about that?” And she said, “don’t you know the film?” [Laughs] It was my film, she didn’t know, but she knew the film really well. She said that the film was a film that they used in the union.”

It is also important to highlight that The Double Day premiered in Mexico at the opening of the United Nations’ First World Conference on Women in 1975. The tight deadline for editing and finishing the vast amount of material resulted in the production of the final film in Solberg’s feminist trilogy: Simplemente Jenny (1977) [Simply Jenny]. According to Solberg’s interview with Burton, she had intended that The Double Day and Simplemente Jenny would comprise a single production. This documentary would have addressed the issues of Latin American women from different approaches; the first more theoretical and grounded in feminist Marxism (what ultimately came to be The Double Day), and the second more poetic.

In Simplemente Jenny we are introduced to the stories of three teenage girls (Jenny, Patricia and Marli) who have been victims of sexual violence and exploitation and are in a Bolivian reformatory. Their journeys stand in stark contrast to the romantic ideals and widespread gender roles of society, and despite not being presented with those fantasied opportunities, these are still ideas that fill their dreams. The film presents a critique of the portrayal of women in religion and the cultural industry. Whereas the issue of religion features more heavily in A Entrevista, in Simplemente Jenny there is greater emphasis on the influence of advertising, media representations, and unreachable beauty standards set for the overwhelming majority of Bolivian women. In one of the promotional materials for Simplemente Jenny, Christine Burrill appears as the sole editor. However, in the credits of the film itself several women appear having been involved in the editing process: Burrill is credited as editor, Grady Watts for the final editing, Melanie Maholick as editing assistant, and the Brazilian Rose Lacreta for additional editing. This is important to note, because it attests to the collective dimension of this crucial aspect of film production. The participation of Lacreta and other Brazilians will be discussed in the next section of the article. The documentary, which is around 30 minutes in length, was premiered in the American Film Festival, in 1978, and was selected for festivals in Jamaica, Leipzig, and in the George Pompidou Centre in Paris in 1979 as well as being shown on television in the United States and on alterative circuits.

Considering the overview of the three productions presented, several points become clear. First, there is evidence that certain roles are repeatedly performed by some professionals and secondly, it is obvious that the WFP/IWFP plays an important role in the productions’ viability at all levels (whether that be for training, or for funding).[1] [open endnotes in new window] Therefore, I shall provide a deeper discussion into the creative and collaborative processes and the dynamics of the WFP/IWFP.