Teacher's Guide

Women They Talk About: Documenting Early Women Filmmakers with the American Film Institute

Promotional poster for silent film "Shoes" features profile of blonde woman and text
Photo caption

Promotional poster for silent film directed by Lois Weber

Image by Burton Rice for Bluebird Photoplays (Life time: pre-1925 publication of advertisement by defunct film company; expired copyright) - Original publication: The Moving Picture World (New York, N.Y.) 

"I would trust Miss Weber with any sum of money that she needed to make any picture that she wanted to make. I would be sure that she would bring it back.”

—Carl Laemmle, Founder of Universal Pictures 

Women actively participated in shaping the nascent film industry of the early twentieth century, both as screen stars and behind the camera. But why is this history missing from our understanding of early Hollywood? A comprehensive catalog from the American Film Institute and their "Women They Talk About" project offers an opportunity to discover these forgotten stories and the powerful women who shaped the industry. This guide features an introduction to the rich database from AFI, classroom activities highlighting the work of filmmaking pioneer Lois Weber, and strategies for incorporating film study — including silent films — into your curriculum.

Guiding Questions

What role did women play in the development of the motion picture industry?

What role did Universal Pictures and Universal City have in supporting women filmmakers during the silent era?

How does the film Shoes address themes such as poverty and the changing role of women in society in the early 20th Century?

How can we share stories that might otherwise go unheard? 

"Women They Talk About" from the American Film Institute

In 2019, the AFI Catalog of Feature Films embarked upon a new, three-year initiative titled “Women They Talk About” to support unprecedented empirical research about the role of gender throughout the first century of the American film industry, 1893-1993. Funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the project repurposes AFI’s uniquely comprehensive, academic data to secure early female filmmakers in the historical canon.  

Women They Talk About,” named after the 1928 feature film, is specifically designed to use data as a narrative tool to engender the true story of women as forerunners in the industry. When the project launches to the public in 2022, user-generated and application-driven reports will be presented with data visualizations on the AFI Catalog homepage and at AFI.com to illustrate, and authenticate, women’s contributions, and to position gender parity as a foundational element of cultural, economic and labor history. 

AFI Catalog researchers are revisiting records for pre-1930 releases to enhance documentation and add previously uncredited names to be integrated in report outcomes. Concurrently, AFI Catalog developers are creating database upgrades specifically for gender research. For example, AFI Catalog users will be able to evaluate actual data for the first time about widely circulated but unsubstantiated theories that women represented 50% of silent era story and scenario writers. The project aims to open doors beyond these immediate applications to prompt discoveries yet to be imagined. Collaborating with historians, educators and research institutions worldwide, AFI will bring the pioneering work of female filmmakers into the vernacular to ensure they are, indeed, “Women They Talk About.” 

“Women They Talk About” is one of AFI’s pioneering efforts to empower female filmmakers, including the AFI Directing Workshop for Women, the AFI Cinematography Introductory Intensive for Women and the Young Women in Film Intensive. Read more about these programs at AFI.com.  

What is the American Film Institute?

The American Film Institute (AFI) is a nonprofit organization with a mandate to champion the moving image as an art form. Established in 1967, AFI launched the first comprehensive history of American film and sparked the movement for film preservation in the United States. In 1969, AFI opened the doors of the AFI Conservatory, a graduate-level program to train narrative filmmakers. The Conservatory, which counts Susannah Grant, Matthew Libatique, David Lynch, Melina Matsoukas and Rachel Morrison as Alumni, is ranked the #1 film school in America. AFI’s enduring traditions include the AFI Life Achievement Award, which honors the masters for work that has stood the test of time; AFI AWARDS, which celebrates the creative ensembles of the most outstanding screen stories of the year; and scholarly efforts such as the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and the AFI Archive that preserve film history for future generations. AFI exhibition programs include AFI FEST, AFI DOCS and year-round exhibition at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Maryland. AFI Movie Club is a destination for movie lovers from around the world to celebrate and engage with the art form every day. Other pioneering programs include workshops aimed at increasing diversity in the storytelling community, including AFI DWW+ and the AFI Cinematography Intensive for Women.

Classroom Activities
Black and white photo of filmmaker Lois Weber, seated behind camera with man

Introduce students to the work of women filmmakers in early Hollywood with a comprehensive lesson plan developed by AFI. This curriculum has three objectives: for students to develop research skills by using the AFI catalog and other online databases; for students to critically analyze the film “Shoes” by Lois Weber (1916); and for students to explore the important role that women played in the development of the motion picture industry. 

Tips for Watching Silent Movies

Students may not be familiar with the experience of watching silent films. AFI offers these helpful tips:

  • Films made over 100 years ago have a much slower pace than contemporary blockbuster movies. Settle in and enjoy the tempo. 

  • Silent movies use visual storytelling almost exclusively. A lot of information is conveyed through characters’ facial expressions and gestures – much more so than what they say. Watch them carefully.   

  • Get ready to read. Silent films use “inter-titles” (written text placed between images) to show us dialogue between characters or to convey expository information (“Once upon a time,” etc.). 

  • Turn up the sound!  So-called “silent” movies were never watched in silence. When Shoes was originally screened in 1916, it would have been accompanied by live, improvised music. The musical soundtrack provided with the restored version of Shoes is a contemporary score that significantly enhances the experience of the film. 

Film Terminology

Whether you are teaching film literacy as part of a media arts course or using films to complement your social studies or English language arts curriculum, you will want to arm your students with the terminology to understand film criticism and share their own thoughts and analysis using a shared vocabulary.