How and why the BFI is rewriting the canon for our female-focused month

The BFI’s Head of Cinema and Events, Gaylene Gould, joins season programmers Anna Bogutskaya and Aga Baranowska to talk about the female-focused programming at BFI Southbank this month, planned to celebrate Vote 100.

• Explore the programme at BFI Southbank

Ava DuVernay directing Selma (2014)

Ava DuVernay directing Selma (2014)

June 2018 sees BFI Southbank honour the Vote 100 campaign with a female-focused programme, including major seasons dedicated to the inimitable Agnès Varda and the pioneering actor, director and producer Ida Lupino. We’re also celebrating one of the most important filmmakers working today, Ava Duvernay, as well as pioneering women animators as part of the BFI’s year-long Animation 2018 programme.

Here, the BFI’s Head of Cinema and Events Gaylene Gould joins season programmers Anna Bogutskaya and Aga Baranowska to discuss the female stories they’re putting in the spotlight.

Why is now the moment to dedicate the entire month to women’s stories?

Gaylene: Programming is an alchemical mixture of design, accident and opportunity. The design here was to explore the question, how does a venue like ours centre women’s work? Often such work sits on the periphery because the film canon, prior to the last 40 to 50 years, has been dominated by European men. However, women have always been part of the story of cinema, just in the shadows.

So, our provocation is: what if you were to centre that story over a month, what would happen? That was the design.

The accident was that this thinking took place in the year of Vote 100, which is 100 years since women fought for the vote and won. And we were part of a series of conversations with our cultural partners about what we could do to mark that moment.

Agnès Varda

Agnès Varda

Aga: I think it’s important that BFI Southbank uses its stature to make a statement, to take those conversations and amplify them throughout a month then continue them throughout the year like we do with the Women with a Movie Camera strand, our Close-Ups on contemporary, urgent filmmakers like Ava du Vernay and our major seasons.

Anna: There is the need to try to rewrite the way film and the history of culture has been written so far, which, as you say, has been dominated by one particular point of view. Then there’s also the desire to prove a point that female-focused projects do sell tickets and that actually audiences will respond positively to female-centred projects.

Also there is a moment brewing in the film scene, with so many interesting new voices that are ripping apart what we had been taught was the history of film.

We’re seeing practitioners, tastemakers, gatekeepers, women in the industry in general really embrace female-focused storytelling, particularly a new generation.

Instead of just complaining or talking about the negative statistics (and they are abysmal, don’t get me wrong), we want to champion work by women that has rarely been preserved or nurtured by institutions, historians, archivists to audiences who may not been able to easily access the work as a consequence.

Aga: There is also a growing desire from audiences to have women’s voices at the centre of film programming. The BFI Future Film group [made up of young people aged 16-25] always ask how many female-directed films we are including in each season. They were excited about the recent Girlfriends season and then similarly about this month’s focus. I think young audiences want to prioritise seeing films made by women.

Ida Lupino

Ida Lupino

Why are films directed and made by women important to you on a personal and professional level?

Anna: Personally, I have an affinity for outsiders and underdogs. Any woman who’s ever tried to make a film has had to go through so much rejection and jump so many hurdles, that the fact they have managed to make a film at all is very inspiring.

I’m also endlessly curious, and the films and literature I was exposed to and studied are only a sliver of everything that’s out there, so discovering, rediscovering and sharing these films with people is the ultimate thrill. It’s akin to discovering new worlds.

There are a lot of people who care, and the audiences  – us – are now more vocal than ever. Perhaps now we can finally get to see and appreciate work, even historical work with a much more interrogating gaze as opposed to just saying, “Nobody wants to hear this.” We do.

Gaylene: To understand myself and the world where I exist, I turn to art. Growing up, I read, watched telly, went to see movies and plays, because I needed to see a projection of an experience that was relatable.

Over the last 10 years, the small screen has become an important place for that. TV began to gather great independent voices like The Good Fight’s Michelle King, Issa Rae, Lena Dunham, Michaela Coel, Sharon Horgan, Shonda Rhimes, Phoebe Waller-Bridge. In terms of contemporary cinema, it’s also an exciting time thanks to Debra Granik, Ava DuVernay, Chloe Zhao. Those writer/performer/directors, probably due to their outsider status, like Anna’s says, produces stories that are incredibly complex and nuanced – which is, of course, the foundation of all great art.

Aga: When I was doing my undergraduate, I took a course in women’s literature, and read so many books by women that I didn’t know about. Then I looked back on my film course and asked similar questions: “What are the films made by women that we are not learning about? What happened with them?” And that’s where it started for me.

Gaylene: I hear that. Once you see the unbalance, you can no longer un-see it. But that’s exciting – there’s a wealth of work and art that is to be, as Anna said, discovered.

What do you want audiences to take away from this month at the BFI?

Aga: That films made by women are part of the canon. I would like the audiences to think that for us it’s easy to spotlight women’s cinema and for them, it’s easy to come and watch women’s films because it is part of the canon, the film culture, period. It should be as easy to go and see a film by a female director as by a male director.

Jane Campion, whose The Piano is rereleased at BFI Southbank from 15 June

Jane Campion, whose The Piano is rereleased at BFI Southbank from 15 June

Gaylene: Hopefully audiences will leave not only having seen remarkable work, but having had the chance to really digest and process it through discussions and dynamic gatherings. I hope people grow their ideas, their intellect, their emotion and their passion.

Anna: I want people to discover films and filmmakers that inspire them and write their own film canon. I want them to dig even deeper after this month because this is just the tip of the iceberg, a starting point. I want them to be inspired to dig deeper, to quite literally and metaphorically blow up what they thought the canon was, and realise that there’s a wealth of different films that they can discover – hopefully here.

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