A Life at the Movies

By Joe Castrovinci

Sunset resident celebrates women’s growing prominence in film

Technically, Mary Scott retired from teaching at San Francisco State University nine years ago. But one of the subjects she taught—film—is also her lifelong passion, so Scott has continued to learn and teach her way into a very active retirement. Today the long-time Sunset resident is deep into a second career teaching 50+ seniors at San Francisco’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. And most of the courses she leads now celebrate our fascination with motion pictures, and the growing (and long overdue) prominence of women in the film industry.

Why are we so fascinated with film? Scott offers this explanation: humans have an instinctive need to tell stories through moving pictures, and that need has been with us for as long as we’ve been here. Forty-thousand years ago our remote ancestors drew cave paintings they viewed by firelight because that created the illusion of motion. Today we see that same instinct in our children, who love flipbooks and comics because they too seem to move. Our need to tell stories in this way is so strong that motion pictures appeared as soon as technology made them possible, and they immediately loomed large in popular imaginations.

Also quick to emerge: classic films. Two of Scott’s early favorites are Buster Keaton’s “Sherlock, Jr” (1924), the story of a young man who dreams of becoming Sherlock Holmes, and “The General” (1926), the tale of a Civil War soldier’s efforts to find his abducted girlfriend. Among Scott’s more recent favorites are 8 ½ (1963), the story of a man seeking to revive his failing creativity, The Godfather (1972), an epic about the rise and fall of a criminal family empire, and Main Streets (1973), about life and redemption in New York’s Little Italy.

While our love of film is constant, some things do change. And the biggest change Scott sees today is the growing prominence of women in an industry long dominated by men. It’s the theme of her most recent class at the SF Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, “Women Behind the Camera.” 

“Women have always been active as producers, directors, and editors,” Scott explains. “They edited all of the films of Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, for example, and their editing skills shaped an enormous amount of what we see on the screen and how we react to it.”

While women have long been featured in front of the camera, they are now also playing important—and very visible—roles behind the camera, while showing us new ways to do things. Women are, for example, eager to mentor other women. The people best known for this include Ava Duvernay, Alma Har’El, and Chloe Zhao

Duvernay, for example, used her clout to hire women to direct all the episodes of the series “Queen Sugar,” and every one of the women she picked has gone on to direct many other shows and films. Har’el, an Israeli-American music video and film director, is best known for the documentary “Bombay Beach” (2011) and the film “Honey Boy” (2017). “What’s less well known about her,” Scott explains, “at least to the public at large, is her creation in 2016 of Free the Bid, a database that fights gender bias in advertising by helping studios find women directors.”

Har’el also extracted a pledge from ad agencies to have at least one woman director bidding on all commercial jobs—something Ad Age called “groundbreaking,” in part because many of our largest ad agencies stepped up and took the pledge. This approach has been so successful, Har’el says, that later this year she’s launching a similar Free the Work website for film and television directors. 

Chloé Zhao, who recently won several awards for “Nomadland,” shattered a lot of glass ceilings in one big blow. She was the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Picture, only the second to win for Best Director, and only the sixth to win multiple Academy Awards in one year. If that’s not enough, she’s the first woman of color to win Best Director.

“It’s a whole new world out there, and people like Duvernay, Ha’rel, and Zhao are making it possible,” said Scott.

Information on courses taught by Mary Scott is available at In addition to “Women Behind the Camera,” her most recent offerings include “Women in Comedy,” “Women at Work,” “Unruly Women,” and “Men, Women, and Hitchcock.”

Categories: Film

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