Why Being Visible Matters

by Melissa Silverstein
September 27, 2011 3:38 AM
1 Comment
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Who knew aside from folks on the inner world of documentary film that Ken Burns had an equal partner on his most recent epic documentary series?

Not me. But it seems that he has a female partner whose name -- Lynn Novick -- is next to his on his most recent films. His new film Prohibition is listed as a film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick. But still how come all the films are called Ken Burns films?

Ken Burns is a documentary filmmaking icon, when you hear that x is a Ken Burns film you know that it will be good. Damn he even has a page on the PBS site and this is how it starts:

For over 25 years, filmmaker Ken Burns has been producing films that are unafraid of controversy and tragedy. Use this web site to explore the body of Burns' work and to learn more about the subjects of his remarkable films.

It goes without saying that a film does not get made by itself. Mr. Burns has a long time team that has been working with him and many of those names we will only see in the credits. But when I read the NY Times story this weekend it reminded me of what happens so many times to women. How women become invisible.

There are a multitude of reasons why women become invisible while visible. Some don't have the same desire or craving for the limelight. Sometimes it's easier because there needs to be a brand, a singular face. But I don't subscribe to the notion that women don't need the visibility or the credit. Women do need to be visible so that other women (and men) know that they are there. So that they are part of the conversation and the dialogue and the creativity in the public sphere.

Here's a perfect example of what I mean from the beginning of the NY Times piece:

AT a recent press luncheon in Manhattan to promote both the PBS documentary “Prohibition” and the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire,” a fictionalized treatment of the era, all attention was on two men at the head of one very long table: Terence Winter, the HBO show’s creator, and Ken Burns, the PBS filmmaker.

Then it went on to describe the woman -- Ms. Novick -- standing off on the side as Mr. Burns' equal collaborator on his new PBS documentary.

Two men setting the stage for a discussion of prohibition. Not taking anything away from Mr. Burn' work, but the invisibility of Ms. Novick is just not acceptable, especially because the film is hers too.

But the point is even if they are partners Mr. Burns wanted to make clear that he is the brand and the name and that some partners are just, well, a little bit better.

While some partners are more equal than others — i.e., and I think she would agree with this, I have the final creative say if there were a disagreement

You are either a partner and an equal or you are not. Think about that logic. Think about how you could explain that to your teenager. Please. I find that comment so condescending.

But the good news is that while we have been seeing Ms. Novick's filmmaking for some time, we finally get to see her step out in public and take some of her earned credit for her work. It's just taken too long.

A Steady Presence Out of the Limelight (NY Times)

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1 Comment

  • Judy Chaikin | September 27, 2011 11:51 AMReply

    Interesting...I just made a doc about this very subject...THE GIRLS IN THE BAND. Women jazz instrumentalists who received no public recognition in their day, even though their male counterparts knew how good they were.

    Time to stop all this nonsense. If women are partly to blame for not claiming their territory, the this is me stepping out and saying...I did this...with of course, the help of a lot of friends.

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