Screen grab from silent film What's The World Coming To?
Screen grab from What's The World Coming To? (1920).
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Silent film curation showcases trailblazing women in cinema

On March 18th, 2023, Ottawa’s very own International Film Festival is travelling back in time to showcase selections from a recently released collection honouring female actors and filmmakers during the silent era. Archived silent films about feminist protests, anarchic slapstick destruction, and suggestive gender play are included in the collection Cinema’s First Nasty Women: Gender Adventures, a project co-curated by Laura Horak, a professor of cinema studies at Carleton University.

From 13 archives and libraries worldwide, the four-disc DVD/Blu-ray collection features 99 European and American silent films. Originating from 1898, the silent films exhibit a variety of genres such as slapstick comedy, genteel farce, trick film, cowboy melodrama, and adventure thriller. 

Drawing inspiration from the modern feminist movement, Nasty Women: Gender Adventures challenges gender stereotypes through displays of crossdressing, queer, and gender expression. The assembly of movies seeks to revive the many outstanding performances of legendary female figures while highlighting the importance of women in cinema. The collection’s title, Nasty Women, alludes to Donald Trump’s misogynistic treatment of Hilary Clinton during the 2016 U.S. elections, reclaiming its name as a feminist badge of honour. 

The historical project has been in production since March 2020 and is finally ready for the big screen. With the help of funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and through collaboration with the School for Studies in Art and Culture: Film Studies at Carleton University, the three-year project in the making is now fully taking effect.

Five of these short films on the four DVDs will have their theatrical releases at Ottawa’s very own Mayfair Theatre. The Red Girl and the Child (1910), What’s the World Coming To? (1920), The Girl Spy Before Vicksburg (1910), A Range Romance (1911), and The Night Rider (1920) are among the chosen few. The silent performance will include live music performed by percussionist, Peter Valsamis, and pianist, James McGowan, to completely transport the audience to the 20th century. 

“There is nothing like seeing films like this on a big screen with an audience and live music. It is truly the best way to have the films come alive”, said Horak. 

The mainstream films, which recently emerged from the archives for the general public, shine a new light on formerly well-known female comedians and performers in an effort of giving women of the twentieth century an innovative point of view. Through the collection of films, today’s generation of feminists can honour and further build upon the real legacy that women have left through hundreds of years of protesting for change by learning about women and their lives in the past.