Filmmaker Alexis Krasilovsky filled a major void in film history with her 1997 book Women Behind the Camera, a collection of interviews with 23 camerawomen that challenged the commonly held view that cinematography is a discipline best left in the hands of men. Krasilovsky has expanded on that work with a film of the same title, a documentary that goes beyond the largely American focus of her book to capture the struggles and obsessions of camerawomen all over the world. By interviewing American cinematographers such as ASC members Ellen Kuras and Nancy Schreiber as well as female cinematographers from South Korea, Austria, India and elsewhere, Krasilovsky provides an eye-opening global perspective on the current state of women working in film.
Indeed, the greatest strength of Women Behind the Camera is its breadth, not just in terms of the dozens of women interviewed and their varied backgrounds, but also in the filmmaking traditions from which they hail. The documentary is loosely divided into sections on the pioneers (such as the late Brianne Murphy, ASC, the Society’s first female member), the struggle, survival, balancing motherhood and work, and cinematic point of view. But for the most part, Krasilovsky adopts a free-flowing approach that allows her to jump from subject to subject and country to country. Interviews are interspersed with film clips and footage of the women at work, and within this framework, Krasilovsky positions a range of personal and professional topics against a vast historical and cultural backdrop.
The most fascinating thing about this approach is the way Krasilovsky compares and contrasts working conditions in different societies; as one might expect, the worries of a female cinematographer in Afghanistan are considerably different from those of one in Hollywood. Yet there’s a unifying theme of individuality and triumph over the odds that makes Women Behind the Camera inspiring for male and female viewers alike, and a perfectly calibrated balance between the different types of camerawomen (TV, film, documentary, etc.) and conditions under which they work. Krasilovsky and editor Katey Bright explore each topic in depth, and they’re especially great at contextualizing the stories for the casual viewer without boring those who might already know a great deal about the subject.
As one might expect, there are a number of first-hand accounts of sexism and sexual harassment that range from the amusing to the mortifying. And in case anyone suspects that the women are exaggerating for comic or dramatic effect, Krasilovsky includes a few interviews with male filmmakers that are simultaneously hilarious and shocking, revealing the speaker’s own sexist attitude. The only downside to this material is the fact that Women Behind the Camera tends to disproportionately emphasize the struggles of these camerawomen over their creative achievements — there’s a great deal more material about the difficulties involved in getting the work than there is about the work itself, a problem exacerbated by the fuzzy transfers of many of the film clips.
Nevertheless, the film’s value as a work of film history is undeniable, and the amount of content Krasilovsky crams into the 90-minute running time is staggering. Given the paucity of information available about female cinematographers, her ability to summarize an entire international movement is impressive. She also provides a number of supplements that add detail and texture to the individual stories: The DVD contains 15 minutes of additional interview footage with the documentary’s subjects along with a fascinating 20-minute interview with Krasilovsky on the production of her film. In addition to the regular-edition DVD, which retails for $24.95, a special two-disc edition designed for educators and libraries is available for $250. It contains about 40 minutes of additional interviews and a teaching guide.