Your Words, Your History: A Filmmaker’s Perspective

March 25, 2010
Seneca Falls

An image from the film, Seneca Falls. (photo courtesy of Louise Vance)

A few years ago I wrote a script for an episode of Oregon Public Broadcasting’s television series, Bridging World History. The script centered on “family and household” as aspects of world history — a relatively new field of study.

During my research process, I learned something very important. When historians glance backwards, they scour the written record for clues about how societies lived and operated, how they progressed, what they valued, and how economic and political forces influenced them over time. But the written record, then as now, rarely includes the reality of women’s lives. This presents quite a challenge for historians who must uncover other artifacts — personal letters, art, literature, and “unofficial” documents — for clues about the rest of history: events that happened outside of wars and conquests, political campaigns, and the triumphs and missteps of rulers.

As a documentary filmmaker, I contribute to the digital age’s expanded version of the written record: I create programs about real people’s lives and have for nearly three decades. When making a film, my role is to carve out a space for people to tell their stories. Sometimes I put a frame around those stories by writing narration based on my own best understanding of the subject matter. And even though I strive for objectivity, I would be naïve to think that my worldview doesn’t infuse the media I create.

Take for example my first national documentary, the Massachusetts program for the Portrait of America series on TBS. A viewer called in the next day and said, “I knew a woman made that film!” I asked, “How did you know?” She said, “You profiled strong women and sensitive men.” That made me smile. Yes, in fact, I did.

So what happens when the breadth of women’s stories and concerns and viewpoints don’t show up in the media?  What will historians see when they look back fifty, a hundred, two hundred years from now?

On The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, ever notice the parade of male authors interviewed about their current books featured on that show night after night? It’s rare when a woman is interviewed. Occasionally you’ll see Madeleine Albright or Doris Kearns Goodwin on their latest book, or an actress shining light on her good work across the globe. But the vast majority of time, it’s men doing all the talking. The same still holds true for the editorial pages of newspapers today, a phenomenon women’s media groups are trying hard to remedy.

Seneca Falls group on stage

The Seneca Falls group on stage. (photo courtesy of Louise Vance)

So this month, while the focus is on writing women back into history, why not start from today? Why not write that op-ed piece? Write that book you’ve been mulling over? Speak your truth about the world we live in, and shout it loudly? Doing so will not only bring stories and women’s views into the fabric of our cultural and historical memory, it may hold the key to real societal change — because as long as women remain on the margins of the national discourse, our concerns and contributions will languish there as well.

Louise Vance is the producer/director of the new documentary film, Seneca Falls, premiering on PBS stations nationally beginning in March 2010.  A stunning history lesson wrapped inside a teenage road trip, the film is an awakening of young hearts and minds. For more information or to set up a screening, visit www.senecafallsfilm.org.

© Louise Vance 2010

By:   |   March 25, 2010

2 Comments

  1. Marian says:

    Thank you for helping to balance history by including over 1/2 of the population. The voids will become more and more difficulty to fill as the inbalance continues.

  2. Louise says:

    Yes, so true. It is astounding to me that women’s history – in particular the long, peaceful, civil rights movement that was waged to free women and achieve their full citizenship – is still largely absent from middle school and high school curriculum and history books. This recent incident in Texas with some fundamentalists trying to marginalized Jefferson and the separation of church and state explained a lot to me. These people are dictating much of what goes in school history texts across the country, and that would explain why there is ONE LINE about the women’s rights movement in the current sixth grade history textbooks. What can we do to remedy this?

Join the Conversation

You must be logged in to post a comment.