An ever-present glass ceiling: women film directors and ten remarkable films

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Director Lucrecia Martel on the set of Zama (Credit: Zama Facebook page)

The 2019 Oscars had no female filmmakers nominated for Best Director and Getintothis’ Chris Leathley picks ten remarkable works by women directors.

The Silver Screen increasingly appears a wizened anachronism in our 21st Century age.

Celluloid has been unceremoniously supplanted by digital; cinemas face an on-going battle with streaming giants like Netflix or Amazon (see Alfonso Cuaron’s poignant, and Oscar nominated, Roma for proof of this); and, most embarrassingly, we have the extraordinary marginalisation of women within film.

Indeed, today’s Hollywood system resolutely (and perhaps, redundantly) represents a demographic that, if it ever really existed, is now decades out of date.

Women, and other minorities, continue to be excluded from the corridors of power in Tinseltown. Nowhere has this been more brutally evident than in this year’s Oscars nominees. In an Annus Mirabilis for female directors, producing such masterworks as Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here and Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, we are presented with the perverse reality that no woman has been nominated for the Best Director gong.

The critical acclaim levied upon the movies mentioned above should have guaranteed recognition by the Academy. The fact that this did not happen raises uncomfortable questions for the mainstream film industry.

Perhaps minority filmmakers can feel better satisfied, with Spike Lee getting a nod for Best Director (for BlacKkKlansman) and both Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk and the Marvel blockbuster Black Panther garnering a clutch of nominations between them.

Nevertheless, for 51% of the wider populace, the Director’s Chair appears off-limits and, even when women get to tentatively take that seat, they remain horribly undervalued.

Take Lynne Ramsay, one of the most prodigious talents working in cinema today. I say working but…since her feature film debut Ratcatcher (1999), she has made just three more movies. A sum total of four films over a period of twenty years.

Four.

In twenty years.

Say what you will about Ramsay’s uncompromising methods and vision (although, which great artists are ever anything but uncompromising?), that is a paltry return for somebody loved by critics and audiences alike.

Would a similarly talented male filmmaker have such struggles in getting their films on to the big screen? One suspects not.

Equally, when you look at budgets (and rarely has any artform been so ruthlessly governed by the strictures of finance as cinema), women are not often trusted with significant monetary backing.

This matters immensely in a world where money buys you the best actors, the most fluent technology and convincing special effects, and the most talented crews behind the scenes. Restricting access to these provides an, at times, insurmountable barrier to female directors achieving the success that they deserve.

Is this lack of studio faith deliberately sexist? In an industry dominated by male producers and studio moguls, it is perhaps a moot point. Whether it be conscious or unconscious bias, the end result remains the same.

Nor can we blame audience sentiment for this distressing state of affairs. Relatively few film-goers choose a movie to watch simply on the basis of something as asinine as director gender or race. The likes of a Penny Marshall (the first female director to make over $100 million in Box Office for a film), Nora Ephron and Kathryn Bigelow have proven that box office success is not solely a gift enjoyed by masculine directors. The fallacy that female filmmakers can’t make money for their dollar-hungry producers is frankly implausible.

One further piece of context which reinforces this way of thinking is the fact that women, whilst not at the helm of enough films, have certainly played crucial roles within the complex teams responsible for bringing great movies to fruition.

Thelma Schoonmaker is one such example. A very fine editor, who has collaborated with Martin Scorcese for over fifty years. Or Margaret Sixel who has worked with her husband, George Miller, on the Mad Max franchise. Or Sally Menke who crafted all of Tarantino’s film output until her untimely death in 2010. And so on and so on…

Why then have they not been offered the opportunities to work as directors?

The prominence, prestige and power accorded to directors, where males are predominant, is at odds with the modest professionalism of those behind the scenes, where women participate in far greater numbers.

It cannot be a coincidence that women are so regularly denied the more visible, preeminent filmmaking roles and it is hard therefore not to come to sinister conclusions about the film industry in regards to its attitude to women.

Compare all of these discussion points with the role that women often play in front of the camera. All too frequently, women are fetishized by the lens of the director, objectified and reduced to tired tropes and stereotypes.

The default position in cinema and Hollywood appears to be to treat women as merely decorative. If they embrace any remotely gender progressive position, it is with casual indifference or cynical tokenism.

Awards seasons therefore bring all this into sharp focus, especially in the era of #MeToo. What though, if anything, has changed in 2019?

Truthfully, the whole unedifying farrago of institutionalised sexism within movie-making could leave you paralysed in rage and frustrated resignation. And yet…

Despite all the roadblocks, both direct and indirect, female pioneers have still emerged and continue to create films worthy of your attention. The point of this piece, more than anything else, is to draw your gaze to the finest directors out there who just happen to be women. We don’t plead for special treatment.

We simply believe that great Art can make statements, and potent ones at that, in support of marginalised minorities and voices. One of the ways that it can do that, most obviously, is to place these marginalised figures at the forefront of the creative cinematic process.

That is not to say that every film needs to be one of overt political activism. Indeed, blunt and emphatic celluloid polemics can be counter-productive if they do not also contain kernels of aesthetic imagination and artistic rigour. After all, if we need unvarnished and direct political education, we can just as easily seek this out in documentaries, books, magazines, lectures and podcasts.

All that we advocate is simply this: That women behind the camera are some of cinema’s finest, most extraordinary artists; that their work is significant and valuable; and that, whilst gender can provide a useful perspective with which to view their work, it does not subsume that work.

A select choice: Getintothis’  best films of 2018

We would urge you all to preach the gospel of gender equality in film. Join the conversation here and make your voices heard.

Indeed, with this in mind, here are GetIntothis’ favourite movies by female directors to get the debate started…

DaisiesVera Chytilova (1966)

This slice of psychedelic esoterica reflects an extraordinary moment in cinema history, where Czech filmmakers of either gender were starting to experiment, at the risk of incurring punishment from the communist authorities.

Vera Chytilova was even more unusual in that, despite the revolutionary manifesto of filmmakers like Milos Forman and František Vláčil, the Czech New Wave (as it became known) did not include many women.

The film itself is one that holds on to only the loosest threads of narrative. It depicts the gloriously licentious lives of two young, defiant girls with outsized appetites for life and experience.

As a consequence, they engage in a series of escapades that make bold statements about the hypocrisies, banalities and materialism of the world that we inhabit. Chytilova presents us with a tapestry of cinematic surrealism, lashed with gaudy colours and jet black humour, and it is a viewing experience that few will forget easily.

A New LeafElaine May (1971)

Elaine May, be it as a screenwriter or as a shamefully under-used director, was a prodigious talent.

She only directed four feature films in her career, thus far, and of those, only one is currently readily available in the UK.

A New Leaf revealed May as an exceptionally assured filmmaker, something that belied the fact it was her directorial debut. It is a deliciously wry black comedy, narrating the gentrified decline of feckless playboy Henry Graham (played with marvellous hauteur by Walter Matthau) and his desperate bid to marry into wealth and, when the time is right, bump off his luckless spouse.

May herself plays the target of Graham’s dubious affections and the wider cast all play their roles with exquisite comic pitch. The fact that the film resolves itself without ceding ground to sentiment or convention is a testament to May’s abilities.

Desert Hearts Donna Deitch (1985)

Women making films in the hyper-masculine world of 80’s Hollywood was difficult enough.

Trying to make a film about a lesbian love affair was even more problematic, especially given the outrageous homophobia prevalent in Reagan’s America.

Despite all this, Donna Deitch was able to cultivate this minor miracle of US cinema, a luxurious love story set in 1960s rural America.

Helen Shaver plays the well-heeled, well-educated Vivian Bell, visitor to a small-town ranch, seeking escape from a life and marriage replete with status but devoid of meaning. During her stay she becomes increasingly attracted to the sexually precocious Cay Rivvers (played by Patricia Charbonneau), a younger woman with a self-confidence that Shaver’s character lacks.

As the film plays out, rather than tortuous repression and self-loathing, we see the intensity of lustful desire and perhaps even love. It is an overwhelmingly positive, life-affirming portrait of a nascent affair and it plays out with a giddy romantic elan that sweeps the viewer off their feet.

 Daughters of the Dust Julie Dash (1991)

If women in general have been denied their legitimate opportunities for cinematic expression, then women of colour have been handed even less chances to work in this medium.

Julie Dash was a rare exception to this arbitrary rule and we are privileged to see the fruits of her work. Daughters of the Dust is an otherworldly exploration of a Gullah community on islands off the coast of South Carolina.

They are torn between the loyalty and affection that they feel for their isolated home and their irrepressible need to seek new lives and new trades on the mainland. It is an elegiac film that was the first movie by an African-American woman to secure wider distribution throughout America.

In that sense, it is a crucial landmark in independent cinema. Just as crucially however, it is a sympathetic and nuanced portrait of a troubled people faced by unblinking modernity which is delivered with an exciting awareness of cinema’s technical and dramatic possibilities.

A fine film by a very fine filmmaker.

Mandy – Nicholas Cage’s horrifying, hypnotic remains of nostalgia

Beau Travail Claire Denis (1999)

Claire Denis has been a revolutionary filmmaker for over three decades now, having honed her skills from her startling debut Chocolat (1988) through to her latest release High Life (2019).

Of the many that one could choose, Beau Travail is the movie that has left the most indelible mark on this film writer. Ostensibly based (loosely) on Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, the film depicts an emerging battle of wills within a French Foreign Legion between Gilles Sentain (played by Grégoire Colin), a raw recruit, and Chief Adjutant Galoup (played by Denis Lavant).

The story transforms into an almost mystical obsession on the part of Galoup, as he reflects on his actions and motives whilst back in France.

Furthermore, like many of Denis’ best works, she interrogates the complex post-colonial relationship that France has with her former imperial possessions.

In particular, Denis utilises the exotic landscape, the surrounding communities and elegant choreography to allow the audience a fully immersive viewing experience. Not only is this a spectacular work of cinema by a female director, it is one of the greatest films ever made.

Ratcatcher Lynne Ramsay (1999)

As referenced in the feature, Lynne Ramsay’s debut is a touchstone of feminist cinema.

It centres upon 12 year-old James, who is struggling to get by, along with his family, on a Glasgow tenement in 1973. Ratcatcher begins with a tragedy, for which James bears some responsibility. His existence from that point on is punctuated by his father’s heavy drinking, dancing to pop music with his loving, but frustrated, mother and seeking escape anywhere he can find it.

This involves tentative relationships with the troubled Margaret Anne and Kenny, a boy with mild learning difficulties, each of which promises release but proves ill-fated. In addition,

James finds solace in a developing new-build estate on the outskirts of Glasgow, a development that embodies a naïve pastoral idyll as far as James is concerned and reflects his own internal struggle for emancipation from grim reality.

Ratcatcher is rich with metaphor and meaning, developing themes in a much more imaginative way than other ‘kitchen sink’ dramas. As somebody who grew up in a working class community on a council estate, films like Ratcatcher are much more resonant.

It will resonate for you too.

Mustang Deniz Gamze Erguven (2015)

One might question why we haven’t included Sofia Coppola’s 1999 magisterial work The Virgin Suicides (or indeed the wickedly funny and poignant Lost in Translation from 2003)

in this selection. It is principally because what Coppola attempted with The Virgin Suicides was done with less kitsch and more emotional intelligence by Deniz Gamze Erguven in the melancholy Mustang.

Erguven initiates us into an intimate, repressive world within an Anatolian village in rural Turkey. This world proffers little release for a family of orphaned girls being raised in a stultifying conservative home, by their grandmother and uncle.

After some innocent play is misinterpreted by the rigid moral guardians of the village, the girls’ find their world recedes, to be ever more narrow and confining. As a result, Mustang becomes both a clarion call for action against patriarchal tyranny and a hopeful aspiration for what life could be.

Special note should also be made of the understated score by Warren Ellis which illuminates the film’s dramatic passages with delicate precision. Given that much of the cast were young and inexperienced, Mustang is an impressive achievement by a gifted director.

The Love Witch Anna Biller (2016)

The sheer dizzying diversity of output by female filmmakers is showcased with gorgeous bravado by Anna Biller in The Love Witch.

This movie revels in the tragi-comic experiences of Elaine, an assertive woman who seeks romance via black magic and increasingly finds her desires and expectations are stymied by the local community. Every attempt to break free from this becomes a further step towards farce and homicidal mania.

At one remove, this is a humorous tribute to the hammy horror films of the past, shot in resplendent colour with costume and set design that is ebullient in its luminescent palette. At another, it is an intelligent dissection of gender roles and sexual politics. For a film to be both is almost unique.

For those who are fans of outrageous Jacques Demy films like Donkey Skin, there are plenty of nods to his work in terms of décor and costume.

Biller is also that rare thing in cinema – a true auteur, refusing to conform to studio expectations. She directed, produced, edited and even scored The Love Witch, demonstrating the extent of this versatile polymath’s capacity to make original movies.

On this basis, The Love Witch should be required viewing for any true cineaste.

Lady Bird Greta Gerwig (2017)

The cinematic path of narratives based upon adolescents engaging in ‘self-discovery’ has been well-worn in recent years. However, few filmmakers have approached this cliché-ridden universe with such freshness and comic vitality as Greta Gerwig.

Gerwig, as stalwart of indie filmmaking, particularly in the work of Noah Baumbach, ushers us into the Sacramento of 2002 and the life of Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson.

As Christine navigates the pitfalls of familial tensions, teenage romance and college applications, we are treated to hilarious and touching scenes of a young woman at odds (or is she?) with her immediate environment.

The cast are uniformly magnificent, not just Saoirse Ronan as Christine, but also Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts as her parents.

In fact, this film becomes almost a 21st Century Meet Me in St Louis, as Christine recognises just what Sacramento, a city that she regularly derides throughout the film, has meant to her and her family.

This affectionate revelation at the denouement of Lady Bird is one of the reasons that, in addition to the sly digs and droll asides, this film elevates itself above the norm.

Zama Lucrecia Martel (2018)

After a long hiatus, the Argentine director Lucrecia Martel unleashed a hallucinatory meditation upon the history of Spanish colonialism in Latin America.

It is loosely based on the book by Antonio di Benedetto but in reality, diverges significantly from the source text.

In simple terms, it tells the tale of Don Diego de Zama, a minor colonial official in an isolated outpost within South America. He increasingly longs for promotion to a role and region that befits his social standing (or what he imagines that status to be).

Whilst his efforts to leave are consistently frustrated by bureaucracy and indifference, his romantic overtures are similarly derailed due to circumstance and amorous rivals. The film then allows the viewer to witness Zama’s disintegration, in the context of a threatening local insurgency led by a notorious bandit.

This is a cinematic marvel, one that indulges in surrealistic imagery and comedic sleight-of-hand with deft confidence without undermining what is a scathing judgement on the amorality of imperialism.

Martel doesn’t offer narrative contrivances nor clear manifestos for change. She simply initiates the audience into a celluloid universe that remains beyond the ken of most other filmmakers at work today.

Zama belongs in the most elite of cinematic canons.

 

  • Picturehouse at FACT have a series of films directed by women on the horizon including the incredible Capernuem directed by Nadine Labaki, Out of the Blue directed by Carol Morley, a film that turns the predomimatly male detctetive drama on it’s head will be shown on March 15 and includes a live Q & A with Morley
  • Additionallu on International Women’s Day on March 7, Picturehouse at FACT will be showing Maiden. including a a live Q & A with Tracey Edwards, who was the first female skipper to sail around the world and did so with an all-female crew.

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    Mary is indeed a fine filmmaker and her adaptation of American Psycho was fabulous (unlike the book). Other great filmmakers to miss out, include Sofia Coppola, Agnes Varda, Ana Lily Amirpour, Kathryn Bigelow, Ida Lupino, Kathy Reichardt and Sally Potter, to name but a few. This is a good demonstration of the wonderful depth and breadth of women directors!

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