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'I started asking the question - who are the great female directors?'

A new multi-part documentary aims to address the perception that women haven’t been directing films for decades.

Image: Diff.ie

MARTIN SCORSESE. QUENTIN TARANTINO. Orson Welles. Start thinking about who western culture deems its greatest directors, the icons of the film canon, and your mind will inevitably go straight to the men first.

Jane Campion, Kathryn Bigelow – they will probably get a mention too. Maybe you’ve been seeking out filmmakers who aren’t on the tips of tongues, but should be: Elaine May, Barbara Loden. But for the average cinema-goer who isn’t on the lookout for them, female directors can feel very absent, not just in Hollywood but beyond.

The canon, as we know, is overwhelmingly male. But at the same time, women have made films for as long as the medium has existed. 

Now, a new documentary by cinephile Mark Cousins – the Belfast-born, Scotland-based expert and filmmaker behind the epic documentary The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011) and The Eyes of Orson Welles (2018) – will help clear up any blinkered misconceptions about women and filmmaking.

Called Women Make Film, it’s pitched as a ‘new road movie through cinema’. Instead of trying to ‘prove’ that women make films as good as the boys, it takes it as fact that female directors make great films on their own terms.

That welcome assumption means that the documentary is able to rest on the technical ability and nous of the directors. The viewer feels from the off they’re in safe, gender-balanced hands. Anyone waiting with clenched fists for their moment to shout “why should women have to prove they’re good at directing?!” won’t get their moment. Phew.

‘Who are your great directors?’

Source: Avalon/YouTube

Cousins adores cinema, and is clearly insatiably curious about it. It’s that curiosity that led to the film being made. Speaking to TheJournal.ie as he prepared for the documentary to be shown in five parts at the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival, he explained that every time he’d go to a new country, he’d ask people “the simple question: who are your great female directors?”

Whether Albania or Romania, he’d seek out answers, and be directed each time to something exciting and fresh.

“Again and again, if you ask open questions you get answers,” he said. Gradually, he could feel the pull of another documentary. “It was like a pressure cooker that built and built in a way, as you read about more and more great filmmakers who are left out of the story of film history.”

In his own A Story of Film, about 20 filmmakers are female. With Women Make Film, he wanted to focus fully on women, and on “treating these filmmakers as filmmakers, not as female filmmakers.”

Gender is both a focus of the documentary and also treated as beside the point, which is a tension that brings its own questions and answers to mull over. A recent study found that more women than ever are directing major films, which makes a documentary like this feel like it couldn’t be more timely. And yet, it feels so late that the world is finally catching up. 

“It’s about the technical and thematic, and love and death and all that, but we did not want to tell a victim story,” said Cousins. So the documentary posits that a sexist industry has deliberately left women out, but it doesn’t treat the women as “victims”, as he said: “To tell a victim story would be to revictimise those filmmakers.”

“I know female filmmakers, and again and again they are sick of being asked about what it’s like being a woman in the industry,” said Cousins. “They want to talk about their work.”

The film is broken into five parts, each at least two hours long. There are multiple female narrators – Tilda Swinton (also an executive producer), Debra Winger, Kerry Fox, Adjoa Andoh and Sharmila Tagore among them – who lead the viewer through different themes (like staging, introducing a character, tone, believability) via an exploration and examination of hundreds of female directors’ work. With 40 different chapters and 700 film clips, it’s an intense watch. But there’s a lightness to it too. 

The same playing field

Source: Avalon/YouTube

Cousins recalled studying a class on literature and noticing how they studied “‘women’s literature’ – as if it was a subsection or minority thing”. While he said he understood and respected why that was the case at the time (usually to address the fact that women had been almost obliterated from the literary canon), it made him question: why? 

“We see it everywhere – I can understand why people did that to at least get women into the conversation, but surely we have to get to a point where we are a bit more gender blind and put them into the same playing field as we do with any other filmmaker,” said Cousins. 

He added that he gets “fed up” when people throw out gendered assumptions about female filmmakers – like how Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Point Break), “makes films like a man”. As the documentary shows, women make films like men make films: in various genres, in various styles. 

Watching the documentary, you find yourself constantly struck by observations like “why have I never heard of this woman before?”. You suddenly realise how much wider the world of film is than you assumed – that there’s a place on the shelf, and in your mind, for the work of Kira Muratova, or Binka Zhelyazkova. You find yourself reminded that it was Penny Marshall who made Big, and Mary Harron who directed American Psycho. 

A lot of the work Women Make Film is doing is highlighting women who have perhaps not had their films viewed in decades, and Cousins and his team hope that their work can now be rescued and reshown. 

While Cousins finds himself troubled about stories of female filmmakers who make one feature and then have to leave the industry for jobs elsewhere, he described himself as an optimist. 

“It’s never too late – better to be talking about these filmmakers, better now than not at all. We wish so much they were more celebrated in their time and hopefully more and more organisations are restoring their films and bringing them out on blu ray. One of our aims is to push for that – lend our shoulder to the wheel.” He praised Gráinne Humphreys at DIFF for making a specific effort in highlighting female filmmakers at this year’s festival.

The documentary has sold to many countries, with TV stations globally inquiring about showing it, which will spread the work of these sometimes forgotten women further. In the #MeToo era, it’s no surprise that people are eager to recover women’s work. 

Cousins called his work both “satisfying” and “frustrating”. He said much of the time, finding women directors was as easy as typing ‘great female filmmakers’ + ‘country name’ into Google. That alone shows that sometimes the information we need is right there, hovering nearby. We just have to look for it. 

Hollywood domination

Cousins maintained that you need to have an “inquiring mind” to do the work he does. You can’t just assume there were no great female filmmakers in Venezuela, or Austria. You need to do the work and look outside America or Europe. 

“I think in the English-speaking world we are really dominated by Hollywood,” he pointed out. “When I was growing up in Belfast, cinema was just Hollywood for me. There was no way I had to find out about [things outside it]. But then once I started to see films from other countries, I was excited – it felt like a revelation, an opening up almost to cinema.

“And when I realised it was a global artform, my love of cinema remained but I realised other things – it could have cultural, political impact. Which is particularly relevant in the times we are currently living in, where politicians around the world are insisting on national boundaries and building walls… it’s quietly radical to love cinema because cinema has no barriers, has no walls.”

The clips in the documentary come from a range of places – some are lower quality than others, underlining the rarity of them. There were letters to archives in some cases, to ask them to release precious prints to be used. 

“It was important for us to show a clip that is bad quality than not at all,” said Cousins. The work was ‘stop-start’ and took place over a few years, involving “a lot of quite intense editing work”. Cousins and a number of other people spent hours watching films they’d never seen before, to pick out parts for inclusion. 

There was no funding for the project, and the production company Hopscotch took no fee. “Between us we were driven by a passion for the project and this indignation when someone says no to you – you say ‘I’ll show you’,” said Cousins. “Therefore we have got a very happy smile on our face given the film is going across the world.”

He said that today, the film industry is “trying to catch up because it feels pretty embarrassed about how little it has done for female filmmakers”. Work on Women Make Film started long before the Harvey Weinstein scandal – it didn’t take #MeToo for Cousins to recognise there was a dearth of women being represented in discussions around filmmaking. “Now the industry is suddenly looking at itself,” he said. 

Indeed, we see again and again questions about why the Oscars has such a bad history with gender representation (and race representation), and why it’s the same with the Baftas. Women are writing and speaking out about the challenges of working in Hollywood, forgotten female filmmakers and reassessing what the movies say about gender.

It is a zeitgeist moment, and Cousins is glad people are catching up. “I do think: better late than never,” he said. “I can understand the filmmakers, female and male, who are just so angry at all of this and how bad it’s been for female directors. But you have to turn your anger into something useful and that’s what we’ve tried to do with this film: turn anger into something really celebratory.”

It’s not that Cousins thinks people shouldn’t be angry, or make films decrying sexist attitudes towards women in film – it’s that Women Make Film has its own space, where it’s solely focused on celebration. He sees it as “part of something”, and lending its voice to a bigger conversation. 

“It will take a while. This is a long film – people will watch it, and bit by bit the impact will be felt in years’ time,” he said.

“Already universities around the world and film schools around the world are changing film programmes and introducing some of these women to film studies students. We think we will have an impact.”

What’s another few years, when women filmmakers have already been waiting decades for recognition?

Women Make Film will be shown in five parts at the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival across Saturday 29 February and Sunday 1 March. You can book into one or multiple screenings – for bookings see here. To view some of the directors’ work, visit WomenMakeFilm.net.

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