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Distaff DPs

By Bob Fisher

Women Behind the Camera ( probes behind the scenes and explores the role that female cinematographers and crewmembers have played during the relatively brief history of the motion picture and television industry. Alexis Krasilovsky culled the 90-minute documentary from around 100 hours of interviews conducted with some 70 women and a few men. She filmed in 17 countries and augmented the dialogue with archival images from cinematographers’ work.

Her ambitious endeavor paints a portrait of a historically male-dominated profession with progress still being made at a snail’s pace. According to a study by Dr. Martha Lauzen cited in the documentary, no 2007 episodic television series and only two percent of the top-billing 250 feature films seen in US cinemas in 2006 had women cinematographers.

The situation seems similar in most other countries, though Krasilovsky has the impression that filmmakers in France and India are more open to female cinematographers. While narrative filmmakers are the main focus of her film, it also includes interviews with TV commercial, news and documentary cinematographers.

Krasilovsky was born in Juneau, Alaska, and raised in New York. Both of her grandmothers expressed their artistic instincts by painting, and her mother wrote children’s books. Krasilovsky went on to study filmmaking at Yale University, where she was the first undergraduate to produce a thesis film instead of writing a paper. Her documentary, End of the Art World, focused on Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and other people in the New York City art scene.

After graduation, Krasilovsky worked as a freelancer on camera crews in New York, but soon decided to make her own films. She wrote, produced, directed, shot and edited Blood, a 1975 narrative film about the exploitation of women. After her film received rave reviews, Krasilovsky was contacted by agents and producers, including Roger Corman, who offered her an opportunity to direct a science fiction film.

“I was arrogantly thinking of myself as an art film director, so I told him that’s not my genre” she says. “That’s probably why I’m a professor today. I’m trying to make certain my students don’t make the same mistakes.”

Soon afterwards, Krasilovsky hitchhiked to Los Angeles in a quest to find broader opportunities. She continued making her own films, and also earned an MFA degree from the California Institute of the Arts. Krasilovsky has been on the faculty in the department of Cinema and Television Arts at California State University, Northridge since 1987.

The idea for Women Behind the Camera was sparked when she joined Behind the Lens: An Association of Professional Camerawomen, where she met Brianne Murphy, ASC, the first female member of the International Cinematographers Guild. Murphy was allowed to join in 1973 because Gloria Steinem insisted on a female camera crew when NBC-TV wanted to produce a documentary about the women’s movement in the United States. Just to put that into perspective, the Guild’s West Coast Local was organized in 1928.

Murphy subsequently segued into shooting narrative films for television and the cinema. In 1980, she was invited to become the first female member of the American Society of Cinematographers. The ASC was founded in Hollywood in 1919 by 15 male cinematographers for the purpose of advancing the art and craft of narrative filmmaking.

 “Brianne was my inspiration because she had the tenacity, the courage and sense of humor that enabled her to survive at a time when the industry was inhospitable to camerawomen,” Krasilovsky says. “She was a true pioneer. I was a cinematographer and felt a lot of passion for that work, so her story touched me on a personal level.

“I originally thought about making this film during the late 1980s,” she continues. “I applied to the American Film Institute for a grant. I was very disheartened when we were turned down, so I decided to write a book instead.”

Women Behind the Camera, Conversations with Camerawomen was published by Praeger in 1997, but Krasilovsky never gave up on the idea of producing a documentary. She began production in 2001 after securing the Roy W. Dean Video Award, followed by grants from the Fledgling Fund, California N.O.W. Foundation, Walden Trust, the Women in Film Foundation Film Finishing Fund and California State University, Northridge.

Krasilovsky also met Haskell Wexler, ASC, at a film seminar, and he later checked out her 16mm Bolex camera and gave her advice for filming a Special Olympics competition. Wexler subsequently advised her to get in touch with Kristin Glover, a camera operator who went on to become a head of the Camera Guild’s diversity committee. “Kristin was a faithful supporter of this project, who also became my friend,” Krasilovsky says. “. “She shot interviews with Steadicam operator Liz Ziegler and camera operator Michelle Crenshaw, and suggested other camerawomen for me to interview.”

After interviewing approximately 30 cinematographers and crew members in the United States, Krasilovsky decided that it was important to tell a broader, global story. She conducted or arranged for approximately 40 interviews in India, Mexico, Canada, China, Austria, Afghanistan, England, Germany, France, Iran, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Senegal and Spain, sometimes with the aid of interpreters. “In the US and everywhere else, it was a bit difficult getting most women to address the main issue because when they are normally speaking with journalists, they want to be known for their work and not for gender issues,” Krasilovsky recalls. “Others were simply not used to talking about themselves.”

She knew from experience that there is no textbook formula for getting people to share experiences and feelings that are difficult for them to talk about in front of a lens. “Even though I had already interviewed Brianne Murphy for my book Women Behind the Camera, she and I spent three to four days talking with each other and with some of her friends before she was comfortable with how she wanted to address the issues on camera,” Krasilovsky explains. “That made for a more compelling interview.”

There generally wasn’t time to establish that type of relationship with most people she interviewed. In those cases, Krasilovsky usually began interviews with “comfortable” questions such as, “When and why did you decide to become a cinematographer?” and “What was your favorite moment behind the camera?”

Krasilovsky feels things are slowly getting better, but points out that changing perceptions is an arduous process. “If you are a talented, young and beautiful film school graduate, I believe that there are more opportunities to break in as a camera assistant today, but moving up to camera operator and cinematographer is still rough.”

Her documentary includes an interview with a successful male Bollywood filmmaker who states that the problem is that women have to go home and feed their kids and families at night. But Krasilovsky also filmed interviews with husband-and-wife cinematographer couples in Bollywood who happily share child care responsibilities. “In Asia, servants are generally more available,” Krasilovsky adds.

“Some of the women we interviewed said that there are still perceptions that cinematography is a man’s world, because the cameras and other equipment are heavy, and you have to manage mainly male crews,” Krasilovsky says. “There were also many mentions of sexist attitudes they have to cope with during interviews and on the job.”

She also cites perceptions about women not belonging in war zones. Krasilovsky belied that perception by including interviews with camerawomen who had filmed in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Kosovo and Vietnam.

“It was very painful breaking it down to a two-and-a-half-hour rough cut, and do right by everyone interviewed,” Krasilovsky admits. “That was the hardest part. We had a great editor, Katey Bright.”

Women Behind the Camera is earning accolades on the festival circuit, including the 2007 Best Documentary Feature Award at the Moondance Film Festival in Los Angeles. Krasilovsky recently screened a pristine 35mm print for hundreds of cinematographers from around the world at the 2007 Plus Camerimage International Festival of the Art of Cinematography in Poland. As Documentary went to press, screenings were scheduled at festivals in Bangladesh, Canada, Sweden and the US.

The film is available in DVD format along with a teachers’ guide for use in women’s studies, labor history, film studies and mass communications classes. Krasilovsky is also planning a 52-minute version for television distribution.

“The reality is that the percentage of women who are working on films as cinematographers is still pathetic,” Krasilovsky maintains. “The Writers Guild of America commissioned a report on the status of women, minorities and older people in the industry. All three of those groups are obviously discriminated against in terms of employment practices. There is a section that addresses what it would take to change the statistics for the better. The conclusion was that producers need to be presented with mentorship programs and timetables for improving statistics for the numbers of women, minorities and older people who are working on feature films and television programs.

 “I think there are producers who aren’t aware that there are talented women cinematographers with very impressive reels who have demonstrated an ability to handle projects with large budgets,” Krasilovsky concludes. “There needs to be a proactive effort to educate them.”


Bob Fisher has been writing about democracy and narrative filmmaking for nearly 40 years, with a main focus on cinematography.