Sunday, May 18, 2008

GUEST POST:Making 'Women's Power'

Note from Medusa: We are proud to have this guest post by Max Dashu, in which she shares the inside story of the challenges of putting together the newly released DVD, Woman's Power, which now makes available to a wider audience the information that Max has been including in her famous slide shows for years.

by Max Dashu, Suppressed Histories Archives

I've been doing slideshows on global women's history and Goddess veneration since 1973. That was when Donna Deitch asked me to be historical consultant for one of the earliest feminist documentaries. We went through various university libraries in Los Angeles and photographed several hundred slides. This is how I got started using images to teach women's history, doing slideshows at women's bookstores and coffeehouses. Those first 300 photos became the seedlings of the
Suppressed Histories Archives, a collection that now contains some 15,000 slides and one hundred slideshows.

In 1976 I created a show called Women of Power. It was a very international look at cultures that honored public female leadership and professions--what I call female spheres of power--and also showed women who overcame the multiple barriers thrown up by patriarchal society. It became the most-requested and most-performed of all my presentations. It was also the most comprehensive.

Before long, there was a magazine called Women of Power, and that phrase began popping up everywhere, to the point where it was becoming a cliché. So I decided to shift the emphasis a little farther and renamed the show Women in Power. Over twenty-five years of presenting it at women's bookstores and coffeehouses, universities and public schools, I kept refining its contents, adding and changing images and stories. New shows hived off from it and grew: "Female Rebels and Mavericks" and "Rebel Shamans: Indigenous Women Confront Empire," among others. Finally, because so much of the original show covered women dealing with patriarchy and empire, I wound up changing the title one last time, to Women's Power. Simple, basic--and yet still so problematic in this world.

About two years ago I decided to take advantage of new computer technology, namely the iMovie program on my Mac, and make a DVD of Women's Power. A techie friend told me, "It's simple; just scan the images and format them to 640 by 480 at 72 ppi." My slide scanner was broken, so he scanned the images for me, and I spent weeks formatting them. Then I imported them to iMovie and started editing. I didn't get very far. Turned out that 72 ppi is for the web, and not high-enough resolution for the video. So I reformatted everything again at 300 ppi. This was still no good. It so happens that iMovie has its own quirky aspect ratio, which is 2880 x 2112. Anything else results in black banding, which was undesirable. For a third time, I reformatted everything. We're talking weeks.

This time things were looking good. But there was a new problem: I couldn't get the pan and zoom function to work. (This is where the "camera" passes across the image or draws in close or pulls back.) For months I was practically banging my head against the wall trying to figure out what could I be doing wrong. I asked everyone who might know about iMovie or computer video what could be causing the problem. No one had an answer. Finally, the explanation was revealed when I tried the same operation on a Mac laptop. Now the pans and zooms worked fine. It was my old, donated G4 that was the problem; it had no video card and lacked enough RAM to run those operations. And that was why all my savvy advisers hadn't been able to diagnose the problem; they couldn't imagine anyone working on such minimal, outdated equipment.

Long story short, I had to get a new computer with sufficient power and storage space for video production. Thanks to a generous donations from a supporter of the Archives, this was accomplished. All that remained was to go deeper into the quirky ways of iMovie and progressively solve the various tech problems that appeared along the way, in editing, sound recording, and other arcane digital mysteries.

By now I had passed several deadlines by which I'd hoped to have the movie finished. Ah, the innocent optimism of the unwary. There were more deadlines to be missed, and more programs to be tussled with: Garageband for sound and the real dragon, iDVD, for disc formatting. No matter: I kept plodding along, cleaning up muddy images, colorizing dull monochromes, adapting vertically-oriented images for a horizontal screen format, editing in transitions, creating title stills.

Actually, tech problems aside, I had a lot of fun designing the movie and creating custom graphics where no suitable images could be found. For the Alexandrian astronomer and philosopher Hypatía, for instance: I ransacked the Web looking for a decent picture, and all the sites featured the same insipid drawing of a fashionable Hellenistic lady. Finally I found a somewhat usable picture, a Renaissance painting showing Hypatía as the lone female amidst a crowd of male philosophers. But it was too low-res, and it also made the Egyptian look rather pallid, with an expression lacking depth. So I imported the image into Photoshop and painted overlayers to make it look good at 300 ppi. The red hair went to black, her eyes became dark and penetrating, and I placed her against a backdrop of Ptolemaic astronomical figures. Voilà: a Hypatía I could believe in. Another image needed to be created for the section on female chieftains in North America. I wanted to talk about how the Shawnee, Miami, and Illinois peoples had parallel tracks of chieftainship for males and females. Yet the European conquest had decimated these peoples and suppressed their culture and history. Finally I located a beautifully painted buffalo hide of the Illinois, which may well have been created by a female artist, and created a still combining this image with text.

Once the basic sequence of images was lined up, it was time to craft a final version of the script and record the voice-overs. Problem was, I had no access to a sound studio. I went to the basement where it was quieter, and recorded a bunch of tracks on my laptop, crouching close to its built-in mic. But this method added unacceptable levels of white noise. I got a USB mic, but it didn't work well with the laptop. So it was back upstairs to the desk computer. There I sat, recording voice tracks--until a car drove by, or someone started talking on the street 8 feet from my window, or a door slammed. Do over. Do over. It was a slow process.

With two months to go before my absolute, final deadline, I scrambled to finalize contributions from the various musicians who had offered to donate their work. The very gifted Terri Rivera Piatt composed and sang a special recording, "The Calling," for the theme music, and contributed other music from her CD, Contemporary Native American Music. Julie Hammond, my talented sister, recorded several songs on Irish harp, some a capella vocals, and the beautiful Sofrimento track that underlays a passage on female liberators. Laney Goodman recorded a haunting passage on Double Native Flute, as well as chimes and bells. The redoubtable rumbera Matú Feliciano assembled her drummers, Rumba Mezclao, and I recorded them on my laptop. Their congas potentize several of the chapter transitions in the movie, and Matu's drumming and singing accompanies the African queens and female shamans.

All this had to be edited into the video, which led to further struggles with iMovie and the Garageband program. At this point, I was working with an extremely complex document: over 200 stills, each with its own voiceover track, and a large number of them with added pan and zoom edits, and on top of all that, dissolves or fades that connected one image to another in a fluid sequence. This is a lot of data, and things can go wrong at that level of complexity. (Yet more RAM would have definitely helped, but I had already exceeded the boundaries of contemplatable debt.) And things did go wrong.

Most movies are made up video recorded with a camera, with sound automatically linked to picture. Mine was like a mosaic made up of many tiny facets. At a certain point, the sound I had so carefully pegged to each picture began to slip, throwing the whole sequence off. I kept lining them back up, but further edits and additions would cause it all to get jumbled up. So I had to carefully calculate the length (in frames, not seconds) of anything that got added or cut, and then compensate accordingly.

Suffice it to say that the whole experience of making the movie was an exercise in tech problem solving. Hardest of all was pouring the movie into a DVD-formatting program, which behaved in incomprehensible ways. I will spare you the details, except to note that it was necessary to burn six master copies before it came out right. The same went for learning enough about the InDesign program to produce the cover graphics.

It was a moment of pure joy to hand over the completed disc for replication. Even better was receiving a shipment of 1000 DVDs in perfectly printed covers, just two days before the release party here in the San Francisco Bay Area. Women in other places, including Britain and Australia, convened showings of the DVD. These were planned as Women's Empowerment Councils, so that after seeing the video women could discuss the issues raised.

For decades, whenever I presented this slideshow, someone would always ask the same questions at the end: How did this happen to women? How did we end up in this severely patriarchal and colonial society? How come we don't know about these female spheres of power, these women and their deeds, their influence, their courage? So Gariné Roubinian, an editor of the feminist journal Rain and Thunder, and I dreamed up this idea of having community screenings of
Women's Power as a catalyst for discussion, and for strategizing about what needs to be done now. You are invited to convene more showings and councils, whether women-only or multiple gendered, and to expand the conversation, and the push for change.

For more information about Women's Power, placing orders, and to view video clips from the DVD online, see
For articles, see

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At Saturday, May 31, 2008 7:12:00 AM, Anonymous Glenys Livingstone said...

Hi Max ... this is great information! and thanks to judith too. all the best with it now - may the work flourish.
Happy forthcoming Solstice


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Judith Laura

More blogs about /goddess/feminist theology/spiritual feminism/pagan/feminist spirituality/.