AFI receives National Endowment for the Humanities grant to study gender parity in U.S. film history

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The American Film Institute has received a $350,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to study gender parity in the history of American film, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

The study, which takes its name from director Lloyd Bacon’s lost 1928 film “Women They Talk About,” will explore how gender parity was nearly achieved in the early decades of film — an era during which more women held positions of power than at any other time in the U.S. motion picture industry, according to the AFI.

The project will be led by the research team at the AFI Catalog of Feature Films, the freely accessible database of every American film released in the first 100 years of the art form.

“‘Women They Talk About’ is a game-changer for the story of women’s roles in film,” said Sarah Blankfort Clothier, manager of the AFI Catalog. “This essential project will bring forgotten female film pioneers into the cultural vernacular, and secure their contributions in the canon of American cinema.”

“Women They Talk About” will use what is described as cutting-edge technology to discuss gender roles in the AFI Catalog’s collection of more than 500,000 credits in the first century of the film industry, providing new empirical evidence about employment and gender parity in the film industry.

“These new NEH-supported projects will help shore up the nation’s most valuable assets,” NEH chairman Jon Parrish Peede said of the newly announced grant recipients. “NEH is proud to support the advancement of learning and sharing of knowledge nationwide.”

An independent federal agency created in 1965, the NEH is one of the largest funders of humanities programs in the country: It has awarded in excess of $5.7 billion through more than 65,000 grants in the past five decades, leading to the creation of books, films, museum exhibits and more, plus helping to preserve significant cultural resources.

In a recent interview on my BAM’s Blog, Peede told me that when people ask him what the humanities are, he often answers with a question of his own: “Do you like Ken Burns documentaries?”

“Everybody understands what we’re talking about, whether that’s baseball, the Civil War, the Vietnam War. … That is the humanities, and we fund him. In fact, we have funded every single film that Ken Burns has done since his first film on the Brooklyn Bridge. With the humanities … the anchor fields are certainly history, literature, but also political science, government, archaeology, anthropology. In the university, (it’s) what we think of is the liberal arts. It comes close to the arts: It’s criticism of arts, it’s evaluation of arts, it’s biography, but it’s not the creation of art. It’s not the creation of music, but it’s the history of music,” Peede said.

“It’s a branch of learning that basically says what has the history of people and culture been and who are we now? That, as much as anything, is what the humanities are about: where have we been and where are we going?”

Plus, Peede said every federal dollar awarded from the NEH generates $5 in additional economic activity.

“So, it is a strong multiplier. There is strong economic development reason to do this, period,” he said. “In a lot of communities, cultural tourism, which occurs year after year after year, is anchored in art shows and festivals … so there’s a very, very compelling, strong, evidence-based argument for the funding of the arts and humanities.”

Still, when the Trump administration recently released its comprehensive federal budget for fiscal year 2020, it proposed for the third time in as many years shutting down the NEH and the National Endowment for the Arts. The White House requested that Congress appropriate $38 million to each agency for their orderly closures; both were funded at $155 million this year.

“Congress looked at the president’s (first) budget request for closure, and instead, gave us a budget increase. They looked at it a second year, a budget increase. … I don’t take that lightly,” Peede said.

“I think we’re in the midst of a time where a lot of people are talking about what do we want the direction of our nation to be? I do not believe you can answer that question if you do not know the foundation of the nation. If you don’t know our ideals, and at the same time you have to have a sense of when did we fall short of those ideals – how did we get to a Civil War, why was the Civil Rights Movement necessary, what was going on in our society? – so the humanities are a way to talk about that.”



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