In honor of Women’s History Month, NYWIFT looks back at some of the remarkable women who have shaped the film, television and digital media industries through the decades.
By Mellini Kantayya
Esther Eng was a film director who also worked as a writer, producer, and distributor. She had an international career, making films both in the United States and Hong Kong. She was the first woman to direct Chinese language films in the U.S.
Eng was born in San Francisco in 1914 and began her career in the 1930s. Her career is remarkable because she worked during the Chinese Exclusion Act which limited immigration as a result of growing economic anxiety of white Americans and fostered anti-immigrant sentiment toward the Chinese. However, Pearl S. Buck’s bestselling book The Good Earth and its positive portrayal of Chinese peasants somewhat softened racist attitudes. Her career was outside the U.S. mainstream at the time of thriving Chinese theaters and Chinese opera houses—opera houses with all-female companies who played male roles—factors that impacted Eng being accepted as an openly lesbian filmmaker who often dressed in men’s clothes.
Esther Eng with Grandview actress Marianne Quon and actor Teng Pui, San Francisco, 1947 (courtesy of Women Film Pioneers Project, Columbia University)
Later, Eng left filmmaking to become a restaurateur, owning three restaurants in New York City. She died of cancer in 1970.
You can read more about Esther Eng online at Columbia University’s Women Film Pioneers Project. Golden Gate Girls, the documentary film about Eng’s life by S. Louisa Wei is available through Women Make Movies.
Welcome to NYWIFT, Toby Perl Freilich! Toby is an Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker and writer, focusing on cultural reporting. Her work explores all sorts of perspectives, from senators to artists, spanning across the world. She co-produced and co-directed Moynihan, a film about the late New York senator, policy expert, and public intellectual. She also directed, produced, and wrote Inventing Our Life: The Kibbutz Experiment, about one of the world's longest running and most successful experiments in radical, secular communal living. Right now, she is producing and directing I Make Maintenance Art: The Work of Mierle Laderman Ukeles about the pioneering ecofeminist and the first Artist in Residence at the New York City Department of Sanitation. Read about Toby’s inspiring past and future projects here!READ MORE
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Welcome to NYWIFT, Eileen Wolter! After working as a motion picture lit assistant at CAA, working on the Universal lot, and writing lots of coverage in LA, Eileen brings her creativity to us in New York! She holds a BA in Art History & Film from Vassar College, studied acting as The Atlantic Theater Company and The Actors Studio/The New School, and studied writing at UCLA, NYU, Sundance Collab, Stowe Story Labs, and NJ Play Lab. Eileen tells us about her fascinating family history, covering Fashion Week for Comedy Central in 1993, and attending SNL dress rehearsals.READ MORE
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