From early pioneers to modern-day auteurs, James Oliver counts down some of the most influential female film directors and revisits their most interesting works: from bawdy exploitation flicks to sensitive cinematic musings.
Movie-making has always been a bit of a boys club behind the scenes: even in our supposedly enlightened times, only a fraction of feature films are directed by women: about seven per cent last year—a statistic both depressing and bewildering.
Image via raindance
But women have been making movies since very nearly the beginning and, as the list below demonstrates, some of them have done it really rather well. Indeed, there are so many that you’d need a register many times the length of this one even to begin to do justice to them.
So what follows isn’t a “best of”. Rather, it’s an attempt to show something of the range of female accomplishment in film, and highlight some damn good movies along the way.
Alice Guy-Blaché was the first lady of cinema. Literally. She was the first woman who ever directed a movie—La Fée aux Choux (above) and she did so mere weeks after the first public film showing in December 1895, an event generally taken as “the birth of cinema”.
Nor was she a mere dilettante: she carried on making pictures until 1913, racking up hundreds of credits until her last in 1920. She has, though, often been overlooked by film historians; while that is (slowly) being remedied and her achievements acknowledged, it’s enough to make one wonder how many other significant female filmmakers aren’t getting their due.
Lotte Reiniger. Image via alchetron
“Filmmaking” covers more than just live-action narratives; it encompasses documentary and animation too, and women have made important contributions to both. Lotte Reiniger was an animator rather than a documentarian—indeed, it’s hard to get someone further from the Just-The-Facts school of movies: she loved fantasy and escapism and fairy tales.
She specialised in “silhouette” animation, whereby cut-out figures were given life one frame at a time, and she made her films virtually single-handed, something to remember when you watch The Adventures of Prince Achmed. This Arabian Nights fantasia wasn’t the first full-length animated film but it endures in a way its predecessors don’t, an enchanting marriage of craft and art.
Only three films in and I’m cheating already: this list is meant to be in chronological order, so a film from 1993 is well ahead of schedule. Plus, it was directed by a man which might be an even more egregious breach of the rules.
But no matter! It’s included because its subject (Ms. Helene ‘Leni’ Riefenstahl) was not just the most significant female filmmaker of her lifetime (1902-2003) but maybe ever. Originally an actress, she installed herself in the director’s chair very nearly by force of will and there demonstrated a remarkable talent for composition, editing and dynamics.
Leni Riefenstahl. Image via hellstormdocumentary
Trouble is, she was also an avowed Nazi and her work is contaminated by ideology. Even the ostensibly non-political Olympia (about the 1936 Olympics) resolves into a glorification of physical aesthetics, reminding you with every frame that there’s a fascist behind the camera.
This documentary, directed by a male though it be, is the best way to experience this most controversial figure, a woman that its title describes so well.
Ida Lupino. Image via historymaniacmegan
The 1930s to the 1960s was the “Golden Age” of American filmmaking but it was a “Golden Age” fashioned almost exclusively by men: only two women sustained directing careers of any significance. One was Dorothy Arzner (whose films aren’t quite as good as we’d like them to be); the other was Ida Lupino.
British by birth, Lupino started in movies as an actress but she wanted to direct, and if the cigar-chompers at the studio weren’t going to let her—well, she’d just do things by herself. So it was her films were low-budget affairs, necessarily tough and hardboiled but interested in social issues, especially those relevant to women: Outrage is a brave, serious film about the consequences of a rape while The Bigamist... well, you can probably guess.
There’s not much social content to The Hitch-Hiker: it’s a full-on crime film—a “film noir", no less. But it’s a good one, and it shows what a pity it was that Lupino was never given the resources to do more.
Cléo from 5 to 7. Image via RogerEbert
Although she’s generally lumped in with the French New Wave, Agnès Varda actually started making movies a few years before Truffaut, Godard and their gang. Cléo From 5 to 7 is her best-known film, following its title character between the titular hours while she waits for the results of medical tests.
Like all films of the nouvelle vague, it’s a celebration of cinematic freedom, but it is also more—Varda was less interested in movie minutia than were the boys, and rather more concerned with people and feeling.
This list is getting more than a touch respectable, so it’s time to lower the tone: Doris Wishman is not one of the more prestigious grand dames of cinema. She made exploitation films, and especially disreputable exploitations films at that—the very title of Bad Girls Go To Hell gives a fairly good example what you might expect even before you get to the film proper. Or, more accurately, “film”.
So her inclusion here is not down to merit. But her place is no less deserved for that: she represents the diversity of women’s filmmaking possibly better than anyone else on this list. After all, women can be no more expected to limit themselves to genteel and decorous works of art than chaps. They should make whatever the hell they want.
You can say one thing for communist regimes: their film studios were (a bit) more open to promoting female talent than their equivalents in the west. Věra Chytilová was one of the beneficiaries, a still-underrated genius whose films were every bit as radical as those of Jean-Luc Godard, and a lot more fun to boot.
Daisies is her best known film. There’s not much of a plot—two friends have fun, cause trouble and cock a snook at traditional authority—but what it lacks in storyline, it makes up with energy and invention. Good enough to be banned by the commies, it is possibly the most purely entertaining art film ever made.
This list has been light on laughs so far. Let us remedy that with this wonderful black comedy written and directed by Elaine May. It concerns a would-be Bluebeard, played by Walter Matthau. He’s a man of expensive tastes but increasingly limited means and so hatches a plan to continue living in the style to which he is accustomed: he will marry an heiress and bump her off when she has remade her will. He selects his unfortunate victim (she’s played by May) but you may be assured that his dastardly plans go awry, and in thoroughly amusing ways too.
Kathryn Bigelow has had the most conventionally successful career of any woman on our list: she was, for instance, the first woman to lift the Best Director Oscar, a trophy she took for her acclaimed Iraq drama The Hurt Locker.
If her proficiency with action has allowed her to thrive in Hollywood, she’s a more thoughtful filmmaker than her reputation might suggest, interested in her characters and their inner lives in ways few other action filmmakers are. The vampire movie Near Dark illustrates this nicely, tracking a bunch of blood-suckers across Texas, and the struggles of a fresh recruit with his new family.
An indifferent actress she may be (exhibit “A”: The Godfather Part III) but Sofia Coppola is a helluva director. She’s best known for her dreamy sort-of romance Lost in Translation but let’s go for her equally good follow-up instead. Her biopic of the ultimate poor little rich girl is a life story like no other (and all the better for it). A superb, sumptuous movie, its cinematic excess reflects the dissipation of pre-revolutionary Versailles.
Of course, some folks carped, it’s a lot easier to get a film made when you’re the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola (how do you think she made it into The Godfather Part III?). But when you make films this good, it doesn’t matter who your dad is.
Image via slashfilm
As we creep into the 21st century, so this list takes on a different character for it features filmmakers for whom the “female film director” tag is a bit reductive: they deserve consideration for reasons other than sex.
Jane Campion is the most obvious example of this. She is, after all, one of the world’s leading filmmakers—she won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for The Piano and there are those of us who think she should have taken it for Bright Star too. It’s a life of John Keats, presented here as a near-ethereal poet, watching him fall in love as death grows near. It is, if you’ll excuse a spot of hyperbole, a perfect film so it’s almost insulting to qualify Campion’s achievement in any way when she’s a better director than very nearly everyone else.
Mia Hansen-Løve is one of the great prodigies of modern movies; she’s made five excellent features and she’s still only 36. Father of My Children, her second film, is probably her best to date. Like many of her films, it is based on a real person, in this case her acquaintance Humbert Balsan, a film producer who killed himself in 2005.
Father of my Children is a fictional response to this tragedy. It’s to the film’s enormous credit that it doesn’t try to explain its act. Rather, it focuses on the bewilderment of those who have to cope with the loss—his wife and daughters. Hansen-Løve’s patient, gradual handling cannot be praised too highly; she understands people and the messiness of real life in ways that too few filmmakers do.
Apparently, the average gap between films for a female film director in the US is about eight years (it’s rather better in countries with state-subsidised industries). So Kelly Reichardt, who’s made six features in 22 years is doing a bit better than most.
Meek’s Cutoff is her most adventurous film—a Western, no less: a group of pioneers travelling west find themselves lost in the wilderness. Since the lady pioneers are more resilient than the men-folk, it’s been called a feminist spin on a masculine genre, which it is but don’t think Reichardt isn’t doing more besides: these pioneers—a weird-mixture of over-confidence and paranoia—are the folks who’ll settle America, bequeathing their characteristics to their descendants.
Kelly Reichardt. Image via sensesofcinema
Incidentally, Reichardt’s latest film (Certain Women) is in movie houses NOW. So if you fancy a trip to the pictures...
Kim Longinotto. Image via theknowledgeonline
It’s probably a bit presumptuous to oblige Kim Longinotto to represent every female documentarian that ever there’s been but space is limited. And she is, after all, one of the very best—something that her latest film Dreamcatcher proves all over again.
Its subject is Brenda Myers-Powell, a community worker in Chicago. Her caseload is made up of women who have suffered the most terrible things: they are addicts and prostitutes and victims. Some will spurn her services, most will relapse. But Brenda is there for them, again and again. To say this is an “inspirational” film might make it sound trite, for such things are usually coated with more sugar than Longinotto allows here, but there’s no better description: it turns out there really are still saints, after all.
One of the big arthouse hits of the year, Toni Erdmann brings things very nearly up to date. It’s the story of a father with a taste for practical jokes and his more conventional daughter. Although it’s been billed as a riotous comedy, it’s not quite the yuck-fest that the trailers promise: amongst the plentiful laughs (see clip for proof), there’s an insightful study of the sometimes-awkward relationship between parents and their adult offspring.
No doubt all that will be jettisoned for the forthcoming American remake which we may reasonably expect to be a cruder and less interesting thing. All the more reason, then, to cherish Maren Ade’s original.
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