Legacy Of Prolific Female Silent Filmmaker Celebrated In Documentary

Oct 27, 2017

Silent film director Lois Weber made more than 200 films between 1908 and 1934, including "The Blot" and "Where Are My Children?" She developed some techniques still used in filmmaking today.

But the Pittsburgh native’s legacy has received little recognition. Now, a new documentary looks at Weber’s life. The film “Yours Sincerely, Lois Weber” was produced by Benjamin Alfonsi, a University of Pittsburgh alum who is bringing the movie to the August Wilson Center on Saturday, Oct. 28 at 3:30 p.m. 

90.5 WESA’s Katie Blackley asked Alfonsi how Weber went from growing up on the Northside to directing in Hollywood.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

BENJAMIN ALFONSI: She was born in Pittsburgh and would actually sing hymnals and was almost, at the time, like a missionary in the red light district of Pittsburgh and then eventually in other cities, including New York and then from New York, she went to Hollywood. So you could say she got her show biz start in Pittsburgh singing literally on the street corner.

KATIE BLACKLEY: Where do you see evidence of her directorial voice in her films?

ALFONSI: I think that what I found was that she was a great storyteller. The fact that some of her stories confronted, head on, not only women’s issues, but social issues, was really a testament to her artistry. She was an incredibly technically innovative filmmaker. She pretty much invented a split screen technique that has evolved, obviously, since then. But she was innovative in the filmmaking craft itself and very advanced, I think, as far as the topics that she wanted to explore in her films.

Trailer: Yours Sincerely, Lois Weber V2 from Benjamin on Vimeo.

BLACKLEY: What would it have been like for her, as a woman, to be directing in Hollywood in the early 20th century?

ALFONSI: For as much as the films that she made were socially conscious and definitely address women’s issues, I don’t think that the fact that she herself as a female director was almost secondary. But the work that she did and what seems like the topics that she was interesting in, wage inequality, even birth control and some of the more controversial topics then and now, definitely, I think, were tied to her perspective as a female filmmaker.

BLACKLEY: What was the thought behind producing the documentary through the young photographer’s lens?

ALFONSI: Because Lois Weber was a silent filmmaker, we wanted to sort of pay homage to that in the look of the film itself and we didn’t want to, no one on our team was interested in making a droll documentary that was just talking heads and kind of the expected. So we really wanted to make use of the element of surprise, sort of surprise people and hopefully thrill them by presenting the documentary about Lois as a modern day silent film-even though it isn’t a silent film, there’s scoring, there’s voiceover and performance, but it has the look of it.

Using the young photographer as sort of our lens to Lois was a real choice to tell her story through the eyes of someone who, at that time, was really inspired by Lois and sort of to evoke how we ---to evoke the feeling that we should be inspired by Lois, as well. So we are all that photographer, in a way, because we’re just observing her work and taking it in as the young photographer.