Not only divas

Not Only Divas: Women Pioneers of Italian Cinema is an international conference taking place in Bologna, Italy, 14-16 December. The event is being promoted by the University of Bologna, the Biblioteca italiana delle Donne, the Associazione Orlando and the Women’s Film History Association. I haven’t been able to find any information about it online except in Italian, so here’s a translation from a flyer:

Until recently, the issue of women’s contribution to the creation and development of the film industry has been largely ignored in historiographical research, producing an image of silent cinema as a territory exclusively dominated by male agency and desire. In the last few years, however, a new line of international research has revealed a surprsing number of traces of women’s creative and professional participation in the silent film industry, showing clearly that the very few feminine names that have been traditionally credited in official film histories are in fact only the visible part of a much larger iceberg. One of the most interesting results of this research is actually to have revealed that in all national cinemas during the silent period the women working in the film industry in non-acting roles were far more numerous than in any other period of film history.

Though peculiar in many aspects, the case of Italian cinema is no exception. Besides Elvira Notari, pioneer of Neapolitan cinema, who has no doubt to be recalled as one of the most productive women directors of all times (second, perhaps, only to Alice Guy) and Francesca Bertini (the widely celebrated Diva, who in her late years repeatedly claimed for herself the maternity of her films), many others are the women who succeeded in entering as professionals the sphere of a mainly masculine industry. We can think as an example of the nowadays forgotten names of directors like Diana Karenne, Gemma Bellincioni, Giulia Cassini, Elettra Raggio; of screenwriters like Renée de Lion or Nelly Carrère; or even of a film distributor like Fanny Kluge.

The Not Only Divas Conference is the first step in a multiannual research project aimed at producing new knowledge on such pioneering figures by means of an articulated series of events, including film retrospectives, film restorations and publications.

More generally, the International Conference intends to stimulate a reflection on the scope of movement that was available in Italian silent cinema, in a particularly conservative socio-cultural context, for all the forms of feminine expression or women’s representation that are impossible simply to reduce to the tradiditional figure of the Diva.

The following thematic and methological issues will be considered :

  • Reconstruction of Italian women film pioneers’ biographies and production
  • Forms of women’s representation in Italian silent cinema
  • The anti-Divas: comic actresses and muscle-women
  • Women’s professional agency in the Italian socio-cultural context of the silent period
  • Italian silent cinema and female audiences
  • Relationships among women across film, theater and literature
  • Comparative analysis of the women’s role in Italian and foreign cinemas
  • The feminist movement in Italy during the silent period
  • The problem of sources: women’s history in the Italian film history

Conference director: Monica Dall’Asta, Università di Bologna

Please write for information to angelita.fiore [at]

Excellent stuff, all part of a major re-investigation of women’s roles in silent cinema which is taking place worldwide at the moment. But I would like to know who it is can say for certain that there were more women working in the film industry in the silent period than at any other time. How has this been determined? If they mean behind-the-scenes roles (office workers, early film processing etc) and not just ‘creative’ roles, perhaps this may be right. But I’d like to see the evidence.

2 responses

  1. Dear Luke, thank you for highlighting the NOT ONLY DIVAS event on your website. We now have a complete programme, both for the film retrospective (December 2-15) and the International Conference (14-16). I’ll be happy to send you all the documents and the promotional material if you get back to me with an e.mail. The great news about the whole project is that it allowed us to promote two very important restorations: Elvira Notari’s ‘A santanotte (1921) and Elvira Giallanella’s Umanità (1919).
    A website will be put online in the next few days ( It’ll be in Italian, but English-speaking audience are welcomed at the Conference; we’ll provide a simultaneous translation throughout the whole event.
    Finally, you’re certainly right to point out that to say that the women working in the silent period were more numerous than in any other period of film history is probably a bit too much of a hazard, but I think you will agree on this: that they were many many more than they would be in the next three or four decades. Much recent research converges on recognizing what Karen Ward Mahar in her book on women filmmakers in Hollywood has called “the masculinization of the film industry”, starting around the end of the Tens and the beginning of the Twenties. Italy is no exception, though of course the role of Fascism in pushing the women back at home is a quite specific national variable. At any rate, nothing can prove the extraordinary multiplication of women filmmakers throughout the silent years better than your excellent filmography of British women film pioneers, which reveals a really astounding richness of figures and activity!
    I’m glad that the Bioscope has given me a chance to get in touch with you again — I think I never wrote to thank you for the very nice booklet on Colour in silent cinema you sent me, now a long time ago.
    I’m sincerely admired of the quality and quantity of the work you have been doing in the last few years and quite honoured to be included in your online review.
    Best wishes,

  2. Monica,

    I’d be delighted to add extra information on the conference, and I look forward to seeing details of the programme. We’re agreed that the silent era was a remarkably active period for women filmmakers, whose history needs bringing to the fore, and it may indeed be that the ‘masculization’ of the industry started occur at the end of the teens. However, I’d still like to see the evidence – which would have to include measures for determining influence over and relevance to film production, beyond the expected director or scriptwriter roles. This is surely what is valuable about women’s history, that it does not simply look for parallels with male-oriented history but redefines the parameters. So, I would argue that the most influential woman in British film in the silent era was not a director like Ethyle Batley or scriptwriter like Blanche McIntosh, but Ada Aline Urban, co-owner of the Natural Colour Kinematograph Company, producers of Kinemacolor. Not a creative role as such, but of far greater significance than most – to what was seen, and what was understood as being important. And I want to know about women across all facets of the industry – lab workers, office staff, title designers, projectionists, reviewers, cinema owners, musicians … and audience members. Which is the tack that Antonia Lant’s volume, Red Velvet Seat takes, a book which I’ve already praised on The Bioscope, and need to return to.

    Good luck with the conference and film programme.


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