On- and Off-screen. The ‘New Woman’ in Early Russian Cinema (1907-1921)

Early cinema and its role in modernity are closely linked to the transformation of the role and image of women. This is also the case in Russia, where cinema has occupied an important place in the public life of women in the big cities, at the latest since its institutionalization around 1908. It is the place of the entertainment industry, permitting access to women regardless of their social class - even alone without male company. At the same time, the difficult entry of women into public life becomes a central subject on the screen. The new Russian silent film heroine of the 1910s is an heiress of the femme fatale, who is characterized by a (sexual) self-confidence, but she is also a variant of the 'New Woman', who often emancipates herself – economically independent – in the process of a professional and artistic self-realization.

Apparently, the discourses, topoi and figures of the ‘New Woman’ are strongly engendered by the cinema as a cultural technique in itself. This relationship is to be further examined and refined in the present project. Furthermore, the project will focus on an important question that has received little attention in research to date, namely that women have in fact entered the new space and market of cinematography as professional filmmakers - as scriptwriters, editors, directors, producers and distributors.

In recent years, the review of female contribution in early film has become an important concern of international film studies. However, with regard to the cinema culture of the late Tsarist Empire and the early Soviet Union, we are confronted with a massive gender data gap - even though the available, albeit scarce, sources indicate a broad and significant creative participation of women. The central object of research is the personal archive of Vera Popova-Khanzhonkova (1892-1974), editor, wife of the influential film producer Aleksandr Khanzhonkov and research associate of the Gosfilmofond, Soviet State Film Archive in Moscow.

Starting from this representative case, a group of experienced and young researchers – film historians, slavists and archivists – will evaluate previously marginalized or unexplored sources of various female protagonists and re-contextualize them with already known material. In addition to the meetings in Russia and Switzerland, the participants will work with an annotation tool that will allow them to share and discuss preliminary results, as well as enable networked and multimedia editing of the archive material (text, image, film) - despite the geographical distance.

The aim is to present and discuss the results at various relevant platforms, including the database "Women Film Pioneers Project", the peer-reviewed journal “Apparatus” and selected international conferences. Furthermore, in a follow-up of the project, we aim to migrate the compiled and edited archive material into a database developed in collaboration with the DaSCH (Data and Service Center for the Humanities), based in Basel.

Critically examining aspects of inclusion and exclusion of women in early cinema, the project does not intend to repeat the male-centric concept of "author-greatness" under female perspective, but rather to take into account the complexity of film, a fundamentally collaborative medium.


University of Basel:

University St. Petersburg:

Gosfilmofond Russia: