Editorial: Recognising Women’s Work as Creative Work

Karen Pearlman and Adelheid Heftberger

Keywords: Ėsfir’ Shub; Elizaveta Svilova; Dziga Vertov; Rose Smith; D.W. Griffith; film editing; Soviet montage; early film; female editors; new cinema history; film history; feminist film studies; film production processes; creative practice; écriture féminine; film credits; authorship; collaboration; cultural invisibility.

The idea to publish a themed issue on female editors goes back to 2014. When Adelheid Heftberger, one of the editors of this special double issue was still working in the Austrian Film Museum (Vienna) as the curator of the Collection Dziga Vertov, she noticed an increasing number of requests about Vertov’s collaborator Elizaveta Svilova. Scholars visiting the archive were asking about the specifics of collaboration in Vertov and Svilova’s work, and whether there were documents written by Svilova about her roles as well as processes in their collaboration. Their inquiries and insights led Heftberger to the realisation that more research is needed into editing processes and female editor’s work on films. Questions remained unanswered about the actual percentages of female editors in contemporary documentary and drama film productions, how these numbers vary over the course of film history, and, importantly, why. Further, there are gaps in knowledge about theorising editing. Heftberger wanted to know: how can we as film scholars, practitioners and archivists contribute to collecting factual knowledge about the involvement of women in filmmaking on the one hand, and on the other, discuss the editing process in terms of a possible “écriture féminine”?

One of the researchers who was asking Heftberger about Svilova was Karen Pearlman, the other editor of this issue. As a film editor turned lecturer, Pearlman had been screening Chelovek s kinoapparatom / Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929, USSR) for her students every year. With each year’s screening the question “shouldn’t it be called Woman with an Editing Bench?” grew more pressing. There Svilova was, onscreen, literally making the movie we were watching, and yet only credited as an “assistant”. What did this mean? Why were Svilova’s self-evident creative contributions overlooked? Why wasn’t there film history and theory recognising the obvious skills and striking innovations of the women of the Soviet Montage era? Were there more ‘invisible’ or ‘unrecognised’ women in Russian and Soviet film history and in contemporary film production, in Russia and in Central and Eastern Europe to be revealed and theorised? Together, we decided to start looking and gathering contributions which would shed light on some of these issues.

One reason these questions are so important right now is that the construction of the historical narrative of film editing has the cultural invisibility of women and of collaborators embedded within it. Film histories regularly spend whole chapters describing editing as a significant revolution in the medium (see for example Thompson and Bordwell 2011: 35-39). However, while the names of “great directors” are evoked in these discussions (see Orpen 2003: 6), the names of editors are not mentioned: “…for the most part, the women who cut film in the silent era remained unacknowledged in film credits or the trade press. Their work was considered to be merely technical rather than creative” (Hatch 2013: 2). In other words, when D.W. Griffith claims credit for moving the camera in closer to catch the actor’s emotion more vividly, no one asks whether there was a conversation in the edit suite where one of the editors, Rose Smith, who worked side by side with Griffith on his most well-known films (see Wright 2009), might have said: “Wouldn’t it be great if we could see the actor more clearly?” Histories of the Soviet Montage period, which rarely fail to mention the influence of the film Intolerance (D.W. Griffith, 1916, USA) on the editing revolution that was taking place there, consistently fail to mention Rose Smith, the woman who collaborated on editing it.

It is not possible to know what was said or who said it during the editing of these early experiments in film form. We can look at memoirs, biographies, stories, and interviews by the people involved, as they have been published over the years e.g. in the Soviet Union. However, it is important to read these carefully, if possible analysing them with tools of critical discourse analysis. As will be discussed below, the job titles with which people are credited and the actual work that they do changes a great deal from year to year, and project to project. Add to this the shifting socio-economic hierarchies and cultural perspectives, particularly on women, and the necessity in the Soviet Union of shaping any statement very carefully to conform to the shifting requirements of the political regimes. The narratives that emerge from this complex cocktail may seem to offer one perspective if taken at face value. However, if one considers, for example, that it may have been customary for women to memorialise their husbands (see Ryabchikova, 2018) but not for men to memorialise their wives, one may consider the rhetoric of the stories or the lack of documents celebrating women’s contributions from quite a different perspective.

So, another approach to revising the narrative that effaces women would be to try to look at the actual work that women were doing and re-classify it. The first step in this process is to take the words ‘merely’ or ‘just’ away from the word technical. Watching, sorting, remembering, selecting, and composing (Pearlman 2018) shots in to films is never “merely technical” (Hatch 2013: 2). It is expertly technical, and it is creative.

Given the importance of this claim to revising the histories of women in film, it is worth pausing here to define a few terms: first “expert”, then “creative”, then the two together when applied jointly to editing.

When we say expert we mean sufficiently trained and practised in a skill to execute it fluently and to exercise reliable professional judgment in the process of executing it. Expertise may be with tools, however, following contemporary cognitive theory it is not “merely” the work of hands. Rather, this fluent, professional dexterity with tools and hands is itself a ‘form of cognizing’ (Sutton 2006: 238) An example of this would be when Esfir Shub writes about the ‘visual memory’ the women handling film must possess. (See Gadassik 2018). Visual memory is an integrated, embodied mental or cognitive aspect of their expertise with tools of editing and film objects.

To define ‘creative’ in film editing we begin with Margaret Boden’s definition of creativity as “the ability to come up with ideas or artefacts that are new, surprising and valuable” (itals in original) (Boden 2004: 1). From there, we draw on editing theory being generated in the Soviet union in the 1920s. Soviet montage theory generally proposes that editing creativity includes not just creativity at the level of making a whole film that is “new, surprising and valuable” (Boden 2004: 1), but at the level of each specific shot to shot juxtaposition, too. Each edit is a creation, new and potentially valuable to the whole. When making a new film, the precise choices of shot selection and timing are made through a series of individual expert judgments that form the edited patterns. Thus, the editor’s “technical” work is the work of embodied expertise shaping the edits. Editors’ timing, pacing and trajectory phrasing, in other words their design of the temporal and kinetic flow of a film, is manifested through the work of physically cutting and joining shots (see Pearlman 2016). Here we argue that the expert judgment of fluent execution of work with the tools of editing will necessarily, at least in some instances, overlap with the expert creative judgment that results in a film’s form. But which instances?

This case for an editor’s creative expertise is explicitly made about Svilova by Pearlman, MacKay and Sutton. They analyse visible evidence to demonstrate Svilova’s expertise and creativity in her processes with Vertov. The same understanding of creative expertise is reinforced by editor Vera Popova’s contemporaries, such as Kuleshov, when they say she was indispensable to their work. (See Izvolov 2018). Creative editing expertise is also the specific kind of artistic judgement that can, on a Soviet montage account of the power of editing, result in the creation of whole films from diverse and otherwise unstructured footage, sometimes called compilation films. (See Kaganovsky on Shub and Svilova, 2018, and Heftberger on Brik, 2018).

What is unknown is where, when and how often the fluent work of hands and visual memory participated in the decision making that generated unique, precisely selected and timed individual shot to shot juxtapositions and patterns of shots. We know, from Shub’s testimony, that in the case of the women called montazhnitsa this kind of creative participation was rare, if it occurred at all. On the other end of the spectrum we can see from their work and their own writings that in Svilova and Shub’s cases it was ever-present. However, the sliding scale in between is where the work of editors is occluded. This is in part because, as will be discussed below, the names for editing workers did not keep up with the rapidly changing roles being performed and technologies through which expertise is expressed.

Collectively, the articles in this issue are shifting understanding of the editor’s work from ‘merely’ technical or ‘just helping’, which is a gendered erasure of women’s work, to understanding it as expert collaboration in filmmaking. In other words, creative work. Why is this important? Because by obscuring the creativity of the work of the hands of women who watched, sorted, cut and pasted frames of film together we obscure the women themselves.

As Gaines and Vatsal note about film in Hollywood before 1925: “some departments became exclusively organized along gender lines, with editing or joining being the most visibly gendered work” (Gaines and Vatsal 2011: 2). They also note that editing was seen as “a purely mechanical and tedious undertaking” (2011: 37). Now it may be the case that film splicing could make only a very limited creative contribution to storytelling in the earliest days of film, when the job was more or less to join the shots end to end. However, that does not excuse the glaring oversight or possibly even motivated blindness of the historiography of film: that as soon as editing takes on formally unique characteristics and becomes part of expressive narration of ideas, it involves creative decision-making.

Why have the cognitive actions of editors been so often overlooked as creative contributions? This begins to smell distinctly unsavoury when we realise it is work that may have been done by women. There are cultural and historiographic questions to be grappled with. As Orpen notes: "editing as an expressive technique is largely taken for granted" (2003: 3). Were women eventually excluded from most jobs in filmmaking but able to work in editing departments because the creative decision making of editing was unrecognised? Or could it be that the creative decision making of editing was unrecognised because it was work done by women?

In order to tackle questions like these, it is helpful to first of all find out, to what extent editors were credited at all in film production, particularly in the early years. Some film archives are also beginning to recognise the potential of their filmographic records as source for statistical analysis. The British Film Institute has published their project BFI Filmography in 2017, which is “a comprehensive list of UK feature films released to cinemas from the beginning of film history until now.” The archive has decided to present their data on gender, among other topics like production countries, genre, productivity according to years etc.

Sources like the BFI Filmography reveal that we have little data to work with. Searching the BFI’s catalogue we come up with only four credited female editors before 19301 compared to 68 male editors before 1930s2. This ratio of course relies on editors being credited in the data sources and won’t be 100% correct. Also, it applies to British film production only at this point.3 Nonetheless, it is necessary to enhance information about editors and thus increase our knowledge about the scope of women being actively involved in filmmaking. Only then we can really judge statements which either overestimate the percentage of women editors or underestimate it. In a second step we can analyse the exact job descriptions and creative involvement of women as well as come up with explanations why due credit was not granted and/or how that information got lost in the course of film history (see Smyth 2018).

The lack of sufficient data for analysing the amount of female contribution to filmmaking has been noticed and some scholarly projects are trying to address the gap in knowledge. The emerging discipline New Cinema History operates on the interface between Film History and Digital Humanities and thus provides useful data for film historians as well as scholars from other disciplines (like political sciences, history or sociology) to work with (see for example Olesen, van Gorp, Masson, Noordegraf, and Fossati 2016). One of the most promising research initiatives is “kinomatics”, in which contemporary film production is analysed (Verhoeven 2018).

Perhaps the historical mis-recognition of editing expertise lies with the underlying cultural assumptions inherent in one of the most common claims about film editing: that it is hard to write about because it is ‘intuitive’. Let us consider this word ‘intuitive’, a word so often associated with women, for a moment. Intuition is a highly-prized quality in creative work, and there is no need to reduce or belittle its significance, but there is a need to understand how it may be being used culturally, whether intentionally or not, to obscure the work of editors.

Intuition is not the same as instinct. It is learned, developed, and strengthened through cultural practices with culturally specific tools (see Sutton 2007, McIlwain and Sutton 2014, Theiner and Drain 2016). Intuitive is a word often used by expert practitioners of any skill as a blanket term for expertise that has been developed and is executed through fleet, embodied processes. Intuition is the word practitioners use for the “intrinsic and entirely worldly aspect of certain forms of real-time, on-the-fly engagement in complex, culturally embedded physical activities” (McIlwain and Sutton 2014: 656) Speaking from first-hand experience and many reports by editors (see Oldham 1992 and Oldham 2012), it is possible to say that editing is one such complex physical activity.

Intuition is also, however, a word that experts use to draw a protective veil over practices, to “terminate discussion rather than open inquiry” (Schon 1983:1). It is generally thought that this veil of secrecy is protective of artist’s intuition, that ‘thinking too much’ at a conscious level will disrupt their expert intuitive processes. This, again speaking from first-hand experience, can sometimes be true. It is vital that flow of creative decision making not be interrupted by asking how the decisions are being made while in full flight of creativity. However, when reflecting on editing processes outside the editing suite, the general tendency to keep the veil in place with the word ‘intuitive’ is not protective, it is obstructive. It obstructs recognition of the embodied intelligence, insight, and expert ability involved in editing. It allows the words ‘just’ or ‘merely’ to creep into the discussion of technical and creative expertise involved at all stages of the process.

Two other aspects of the historical obscuring of women’s and editors’ work worth mentioning are the complexities buried in the multiple names given to the job as it evolved, and the tendency in the discussion of the continuity style to evaluate good editing as ‘invisible’.

Naming conventions first. In three of the languages of the Apparatus journal, Russian, English and German, a short list of some of the terms discussed in this issue or used across the three different cultures/industries and over 120 years of evolving history includes:


Most of these words refer either to taking apart (splicer, cutter, cutterin, and Schnitt) or putting together (gluer, joiner, Kleberin, склейщица, монтажнитца, монтажер). These job titles are derived either from the physical actions, for example cutting, or from the equipment needed to perform the action, for example, the glue needed to put shots together in the early days of film.

Only some of the terms: “editor”, “Filmeditorin” or “Editorin” and in part pежиссер монтажа do not derive from physical actions or from equipment in the film editing suite. According to Etymology Online, “editor” derives instead from the Latin “edere: to bring forth, produce” and was originally used to describe a publisher. (https://www.etymonline.com /word/editor) “Editor” in other words, derives from the task of producing a text. This is important, because it clearly points to the conceptual work of choosing and shaping expression, which is what, although few people realise it, a film editor actually does. The work of an editor in producing a text – a written or filmed text – involves both cutting out and glueing in, and it involves using judgment about what to cut out and what to put in, where, and for how long. Through its etymology, “editor” points squarely to the fact that these actions – taking out and putting together, are how the text achieves its final form. Similarly, by adding the word pежиссер (director) in front of монтажа (montage) the term pежиссер монтажа reveals the conceptual work of directing as part of the physical work of assembling the film. It explicitly articulates what is implicit in the English and German words editor and Editorin: the authority of the editor in bringing the text into being4.

Looking at the names for this work, it might be tempting to say that the jobs named for actions or equipment are technical and the jobs named for producing a text are creative. However, this temptation needs to be most strenuously resisted.

One reason to resist is that separation of technical and conceptual leads to the diminishment of one and the elevation of the other. It brings us back, in other words to ‘just’ or ‘merely’ technical. Editors’ physical expertise is profoundly entangled as Pearlman, MacKay and Sutton (2018) argue, with their cognitive work of shaping structure and rhythm, solving narrative problems and delivering a film.

Another reason to resist identifying only certain kinds of work with certain terms is that the actual jobs evolve much more quickly, and much more often, than the names. “Cutter” for example, which is still used very commonly, does not refer to scissors now that we edit digitally. Cutter is now interchangeable with “editor” and refers both to the physical and to the conceptual work of choosing and shaping expression. Even in early film, when the word editor was not in usage, cutters were doing many things that did not involve scissors. As Hatch (2013) notes, they “screened dailies with directors and producers to help decide what footage should be used, what cut, and whether additional footage needed to be shot. They attended test screenings to determine where a film’s pacing flagged, where the drama might be heightened with a close-up, or where a sequence needed to be cut.” These jobs are the work of editors involved in creative decision making. They happened to be called cutters because the terminology did not keep up with the evolution of filmmaking techniques and forms.

Similarly, монтажа or montager, is derived from the French word “to assemble”. This may have started out meaning the physical action of assembling, as in to assemble a bicycle according to the instructions that come come in a box with the bicycle parts. However, when Shub or Eisenstein or Vertov write about the centrality of montage to the art of film they do not mean in any way that it is something done according to instructions, rather they emphasise the plasticity of the material and the importance of responding to its affordances in the process of shaping a film. (See Kaganovsky 2018, for a brief discussion of their resistance to scripts as possible instructions for how films would be shot or edited.)

This question of instruction leads to questions about how directors work with editors. Do they provide direction or give instruction? As this issue highlights, there is substantial variation in every director/editor relationship, and in the history of film. There is a spectrum of directing styles from picking up the scissors oneself and doing the editing, to telling an editor exactly which shot to use and exactly how many frames to include, to telling editors generally what shots and for roughly how long, to asking editors what shots they think should be used and where, to describing an emotional tone or narrative sequence, and asking the editor to give it a try, to simply handing over the material and coming back a few weeks later to see what the editor did. There are more variations, too, and a given relationship or project may glide seamlessly across a multiplicity of these processes. So, while we can say that all of these variations involve some degree of creative decision making and expert working with tools, we cannot say that any particular name, used at any particular point in history, describes all of the possible range of actions and relationships, the varying levels of creativity and expertise or the dynamic evolution of new tools, processes, and cultures of editing.


Fig. 1: “Filmkleberinnen in der Friedrichstadt” (Film gluers in the Friedrichstadt), from Filmkurier, 232, October 1, 1927.

Another aspect of the story worth reflecting on is why and how the art of editing came to be valued for its ‘invisibility’. Unlike Soviet montage, edits in what is sometimes called the Hollywood continuity system are designed, through rules of shooting and composing sequences of shots, to direct the eye away from the joins between shots and focus the eye, and mind, on the flow of movement of events, emotions, images, and sounds across cuts. Thus, it is not unusual to hear it said that good continuity edits are themselves ‘invisible’. However, such a formulation ignores the fact that what the editor has constructed is not really the join itself, but the flow across the join (see Pearlman 2016: chapter 5). The flow of movement is not invisible and to valorise, even briefly, the invisibility of the join rather than to develop depth understanding of the aesthetic and affective nuances designed into the flow of movement, is to minimise the creative input of the editor. The editor who is, to this day, more likely to be a woman than is the director or cinematographer. Is there a correlation between the cultural valuation of invisibility of edits and the cultural invisibility of women in all other spheres of public life?

While data collection and analysis are beginning to address some of the gaps in knowledge about numbers of women contributors, there are some parallel gaps in knowledge about who the women are, and what particular, unique, creative contributions they have made and continue to make. In order to address these gaps, contributors to this special issue on Soviet women and editing of the 1920s and 30s have unearthed some hidden histories and biographies and begun the work of theorising the expert creative actions of the heretofore ‘veiled’ women.

The themed issue is dedicated to female pioneers in the Soviet montage era. It brings together contributions from scholars from different disciplines such as Film Studies, Gender Studies, Slavic Studies, and Cognitive Studies, and it also includes reflections from practitioners in the field. Cumulatively, it aims to tell a new story of women and editing, one which recognises the work of editing as a key creative and collaborative part of filmmaking.

In the ‘non-peer reviewed section’ Alla Gadassik contributes a translation of a short piece of writing by Ėsfir’ Shub. In this statement, Shub drew attention to the expert skill and intelligence required to do the work of editing, and to the skill and intelligence of the women doing it. Gadassik’s translation lets us hear Shub’s voice, which has too long been muffled by the noisy theorising and proclaiming of her male contemporaries. It also unearths an authentic ratification, by someone who was there at the time, of a key principle of this special issue: that the work of women editors contributes value to the creative work of Soviet filmmaking and beyond.

In “Creative editing: Svilova and Vertov’s Distributed Cognition” Karen Pearlman, John MacKay, and John Sutton bring together perspectives from diverse disciplines to provide a detailed cognitive analysis of Svilova’s working processes as seen in Chelovek s kinoapparatom / Man with a Movie Camera. Their argument is that the scenes reconstructing Svilova’s working processes reveal Svilova expertly navigating the cognitive complexities of editing. Close analysis of each of her actions, and the sequence in which they are done, reveals that her work of watching, sorting, remembering, selecting, and composing is the work of organising the diverse film shots into a rhythmic and engaging whole. In other words, although her thoughts are not recorded in written documents, it is possible to see that her editing is her thinking and to evaluate the edits as her creative thoughts.

Lilya Kaganovsky’s contribution to the issue, “Film Editing as Women’s Work: Ėsfir’ Shub, Elizaveta Svilova, and the Culture of Soviet Montage” juxtaposes the biographies of Ėsfir’ Shub and Elizaveta Svilova. Through this comparison, Kaganovsky suggests a re-consideration of what it means to recognise film editing as “women’s” work. She argues that although Shub and Svilova both created and collaborated on key works of the period, “because they never insisted on their status as ‘auteurs,’ their contributions were subsumed by the larger historical narratives that took place around them”. The article begins the process of disentangling Shub and Svilova from the male-dominated Soviet film industry and placing them in the larger context of feminist film histories and women’s creative participation in filmmaking.

Natalie Ryabchikova is also concerned with the unspoken thoughts of a woman of the Soviet montage period, and the muffling of her voice by the proclamations of her male contemporaries. In “The Disappearing Theoretician: From Anna Li to A.N. Pudovkina” Ryabchikova looks closely at the diverse and mostly unrealised works of Anna Pudovkina, whose archives reveal her under-appreciated talents in acting, her regular (and uncredited) consultation with Pudovkin during the processes of editing his films and, though she is not an editor herself, that she did theorise some aspects of film editing, and that Kuleshov is likely to have been influenced by her writing on rhythm. Through close examination of Pudovkina’s own writing and the comments of people around her, Rybachikova reveals that, although frequently disparaged by casual observers, Pudovkina seems to have had significant potential for artistic and theoretical achievements. As with other women discussed in this issue, the question of whether being married to a highly visible male film director contributed to her invisibility, or perhaps even in this case impossibility of her having an autonomous career, arises.

As a professional film historian in Russia, Nikolai Izvolov offers something unique: acknowledgement of the creative significance and influence of women editors of the period by an expert in the otherwise male dominated Soviet filmmaking histories. Izvolov’s profile of little known editor Vera Popova (“Female editors in Russian Cinema: Vera Dmitrievna Popova-Khanzhonkova”) reveals the culture in which Popova’s expertise was acknowledged as essential to the men’s success, and how the acknowledgement of her expert incursions was effaced. The question arises: how differently would the story of Soviet montage be told if Popova’s work with Kuleshov, Svilova’s work with Vertov, and Shub’s influence on Eisenstein were revealed? By bringing Popova’s work to light, Izvolov adds a key piece to the gender balanced revision of history that this issue is proposing, referring to Popova as the link between pre- and post-revolutionary film industry in Russia and the Soviet Union.

Finally, in “Stekliannyi Glaz and Karmen – The Actress, Editor and Director Lilia Brik” Adelheid Heftberger moves beyond theorising women filmmakers in relation to each other and to the men with whom they worked, and proposes a reading of Lilia Brik’s film Stekliannyi Glaz / The Glass Eye, as grounded in the constructivist ideals of “creative editing and re-combination”. Heftberger thus re-positions one of the most pejoratively feminised figures of the period, someone rarely mentioned except as the ‘muse’ of male artists, as an artist in her own right with something to say and the capacity to say it.

Cumulatively, this special issue of Apparatus aims to reveal the invisible. Its methodology is to bring to light the skills, intelligence, expertise, accomplishments, significance, and influence of women on film form through their work as editors and beyond. By bringing together, for the first time ever, ideas and information about Ėsfir’ Shub, Elizaveta Svilova, Anna Pudovkina, Vera Popova, and Lilia Brik, under one cover, the issue lays the ground for new narratives of Soviet filmmaking, narratives that account for the essential creative work of women in bringing Soviet films and theories in to being.

We look forward, from here, to the issue 7 of Apparatus in which articles on the achievements of women editors in Central and Eastern Europe reveal some of the contemporary manifestations of this powerful cultural heritage.

Karen Pearlman | karen.pearlman@mq.edu.au | Macquarie University

Adelheid Heftberger | adelheidh@gmail.com | German Federal Archive / Film Collection


We would like to thank Natalie Ryabchikova and Keith Sanborn for providing crucial information. We also like to thank the editorial team of Apparatus for their support throughout the publication process, namely Franziska Schubert, Alisa Rethy and John Leman Riley, and in particular the editor-in-chief Natascha Drubek for the opportunity to guest-edit this issue and for her expert advice and encouragement.


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Suggested Citation

Pearlman, Karen and Adelheid Heftberger. 2018. “Editorial: Recognising Women’s Work as Creative Work.” Women at the Editing Table: Revising Soviet Film History of the 1920s and 1930s (ed. by Adelheid Heftberger and Karen Pearlman). Special Issue of Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 6. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2018.0006.124

URL: http://www.apparatusjournal.net/

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