Locating studio workers: Notes on Italy’s gendered film labour

By Carla Mereu Keating

As our research on the British, French, German and Italian film studios progresses, the STUDIOTEC team have identified a range of empirical and historiographic resources which document working practices and networks of film production between 1930 and 1960. Approaching the specific question of film labour in Italy, a large body of scholarship has been available to us. The majority of previous studies have foregrounded the personal and professional trajectories of Italian ‘movie makers’, the so-called above-the-line, managerial and ‘creative’, figures such as directors, producers, screenwriters and stars. A more limited number of studies focus instead on the activities of the ‘movie workers’ who performed below-the-line, manual and clerical work. This latter field of research is particularly stimulating because of the way it challenges understandings of gender and class discrimination in the Italian film industry. 

Several primary and secondary sources are available, digitally or in archives, to those who wish to research historical aspects of the Italian film industry. The digital film and media libraries of the Museo Nazionale del Cinema and of the Fondazione Cineteca Nazionale – Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia (CSC) are some of the platforms we used to investigate critical discourses in the specialised press, as well as aspects of production and distribution, advertising, and fandom. For the period 1930-60 one could also count on a number of print publications which aim to pass on memories of film production in Italy. Among them, Cinecittà anni trenta: parlano 116 protagonisti del secondo cinema italiano (1930-1943) (1979) (re-edited in 2021 in collaboration with the CSC) comprises three volumes of transcribed oral interviews recorded in the early 1970s with professionals who worked in the industry during (and after) the fascist dictatorship; the richly-illustrated volume La città del cinema. Produzione e lavoro nel cinema italiano 1930-70, also published in 1979, documents above and below-the-line work experiences over many years including through vivid photographs, as in these examples.

Set design workshop, Cinecittà, in La città del cinema

Development and printing laboratory, Cinecittà, in La città del cinema.

Both Cinecittà anni trenta and La città del cinema illustrate what has been remembered and celebrated about Italy’s film production culture as well as what has been left out of the frame, due to conscious or unconscious bias. Looking back at these records, it is also crucial to understand their influence on the formation of a particular historical knowledge, their production of filmmaking memories. As Katherine Groo has provocatively and convincingly argued, dominant regimes of film-historical thought remind us to engage with ‘a spectrum of approaches […] that does not save or salvage but instead acknowledges the permanent absences and “powers of the false”’ (2019: 8). They also remind historians to consider the boundaries of their own argument and their ethical obligations ‘to making visible and apparent the historicity of […] the processes of film historiography’ (9).  

Let’s take one example from the selection of interviews offered by La città del cinema. Of the 58 oral testimonies listed in the volume, only seven come from women, five of whom were actresses. Only the well-connected screenwriter Suso Cecchi D’Amico (belonging to a family of renowned literary and artistic figures) and director Lina Wertmüller, whose work received high critical praise in the United States at the time (e.g., Seven Beauties 1977), were included in this selection (and Wertmüller’s is the shortest entry!). Among the thousands of movie makers and workers active in Italy between 1930 and 1970, only two were deemed ‘worthy’ of inclusion. 

Many established film histories do not acknowledge women’s varied careers and normalise male dominance in the Italian film industry, ignoring pioneering contributions to the field such as Cinzia Bellumori’s Le donne del cinema contro questo cinema (1972), a foundational enquiry into the conditions of the Italian female workforce in film production. Between the late 1960s and the early 1970s, Bellumori conducted a series of interviews with women screenwriters, producers, production directors, costume designers, assistant directors, (dubbing) actresses, script supervisors and workers in film stock development plants to unearth clear evidence of sexual discrimination and of a precarious working landscape.

Some academic studies published in recent years have been more receptive to the gendered relationships governing the film industry, offering a broader range of possible historical epistemologies to help us respond to the specificities of local and transnational studio practice. A growing body of feminist research re-addresses the massive contribution of women to the film and media industries, past and present (e.g., Gledhill and Knight 2015; Hill 2016; Smyth 2018; Liddy 2020; Bell 2021). Key publications for Italy include the path-breaking Non solo dive: Pioniere del cinema italiano (2008) on the pioneers of silent cinema edited by Monica Dall’Asta (coordinator with Jane Gaines of the Women Film Pioneers Project) and Dalila Missero’s research on film editing (2018), which retraces the experiences of Italian women working in a patriarchal environment by focusing on figures such as Ornella Micheli, a prolific genre feature film editor active between the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1980s.  

Existing related literature on Italy does not cover STUDIOTEC’s entire thirty-year timeframe. There is still abundant scope to investigate the characteristics of the Italian film studios’ workforce, engaging with the key questions raised by previous studies from a national but also from a comparative perspective. Beyond archival repositories more (or less) traditionally used to document the history of Italian film production, a variety of alternative resources, digitised and available online, have become, out of necessity during the pandemic, a foundation for research into exclusionary patterns of employment and gender segregation in the studios.

Under-explored sources have offered insights into the Italian hierarchical film industry, quantifying and locating women’s presence in the studios. To give just one example, let us briefly consider the demographic profile of the industry as it emerged from the population and industrial-commercial censuses conducted in Italy between 1931 and 1961 by the National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT). Among the many and various categories of workers registered by these statistical reports, there are shifting employment figures related to the macro-sector ‘industria dello spettacolo’ (an umbrella term for a wide range of cultural activities including cinema, theatre and sport in the performing arts/entertainment industry). These reports sometimes distinguish between the different branches of the entertainment sector, including the sub-sector ‘production, synchronization, film development and printing’ (this label also changes over the years). Here the film workforce is categorised nationally, regionally and by sex, and sometimes by age group and city provenance. I will discuss in more detail elsewhere how Italy’s film industry appears from these latter statistics, but they are important in so far as they help us quantify the contribution of male and female workers in the industry, including those whose labour has traditionally gone uncredited. These anonymous numerical figures present many limitations, one being that they do not tell us much about the professional mobility of this workforce (although they do reveal significant shifts in regional employment). They also lack data on salaries or any type of qualitative information which could shed light on workers’ day-to-day professional practice and help us understand how employment was impacted by (and impacted on) personal lives. In sum, these statistical data cannot provide insights into aspects of emotional labour that shaped women’s experiences in the film industry, such as those which emerge powerfully from the many case studies offered by Melanie Bell for Britain. 

In the attempt to reconsider or re-present women’s contribution to the Italian film industry, and in line with our specific focus on the studios, the spatial dimension of labour, that is to say the actual studio facilities where people worked (the laboratories, the offices, the stages, the workshops etc.), deserve special attention. Inspired by the work of British geographer Doreen Massey, I have begun asking: where did women work inside the studios? What can their workplace tell us about the quality of their occupation and their work routines? And what do women’s physical environments and spatial mobility within the studios tell us about their professional relationships with other members of the studio community, perhaps echoing their social status within the film industry more generally? Architectural plans, photographs taken on and off set and mediated representations of the studios provide additional evidence to corroborate some initial hypotheses.

Cines’ executives and clerical workers in La vita cinematografica, November 1930, p. 9.

In order to locate women’s physical and symbolic place in the industry it is necessary to find out first what were they hired to do. While many female workers remain invisible from the record, traces of their presence in the studios can be detected by following the trajectory of those whose work has been credited on screen, although often only by their surname, for example assistant directors Eugenia Handamir and Annalena Limentani, as seen in the opening credits of Paisà (1946).

The large filmographic datasets that Catherine O’Rawe and I are compiling, which collate opening credits of Italian (and Italian majority co-production) films produced and released in Italy between 1930 and 1960, is one of the tools at our disposal to interrogate structural inequalities in the film industry and their intimate connection with space and place.   

References

Assessorato alla Cultura del Comune di Roma. La città del cinema. Produzione e lavoro nel cinema italiano 1930/70, Roma: Napoleone, 1979.

Bell, Melanie. Movie Workers: The Women Who Made British Cinema. Urbana Chicago and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2021.

Bellumori, Cinzia. ‘Le donne del cinema contro questo cinema’, Bianco e nero, 1-2, 1972.

Dall’Asta, Monica (ed), Non solo dive. Pioniere del cinema muto. Bologna: Cineteca di Bologna, 2008.

Gledhill, Christine, and Julia Knight (eds). Doing Women Film History. Reframing Cinemas, Past and Future. Urbana Chicago and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2015.

Groo, Katherine. Bad Film Histories. Ethnography and the Early Archive. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019.

Hill, Erin. Never Done: A History of Women’s Work in Media Production. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2016.

Liddy, Susan (ed). Women in the International Film Industry: Policy, Practice and Power. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.

Missero, Dalila. ‘Titillating Cuts: Genealogies of Women Editors in Italian Cinema’. Feminist Media Histories, 4 (2018): 57–82.

Savio, Francesco. Cinecittà Anni Trenta. Parlano 116 protagonisti del secondo cinema italiano (1930-1943). Roma: Bulzoni, 1979.

Smyth, J. E., Nobody’s Girl Friday: The Women Who Ran Hollywood. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

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