Festival director Clare Stewart has dubbed the 59th BFI London Film Festival “the year of the strong woman”, and one of the most rewarding aspects of programming for the festival is the variety of talent we are able to showcase and highlight. With the statistics for female filmmakers of colour being even more woeful than those of their white counterparts, our annual checklist of new diverse talent feels ever more urgent, and this year we’re splitting across two features highlighting some women to watch across the programme.
In one of the most diverse cities in the world, a plurality of voices is vital, and this year we’re pleased to see some truly idiosyncratic demonstrations of the contribution made to film culture by women of colour. Our UK premiere of He Named Me Malala, a portrait of a truly remarkable strong young woman, sets the template for the strength and determination of the female characters and direction on display. The Arab world gives us some brilliant discoveries (including 3000 Nights, Wedding Doll), while work from Australia and Guatemala explores fierce female determination in indigenous communities in Tanna and Ixcanul Volcano.
Here are another 10 female filmmakers and actors of colour across the programme who have got us sitting up paying attention. From starring roles in beautiful new restorations to filmmakers incorporating the edgiest of new cinematic techniques, this is talent that proves bell hooks maxim that it is the margins that are the “location of radical openness and possibility.”
Seema Biswas, Kothanodi
Renowned for choosing roles that challenge ideals of Indian womanhood, Seema Biswas (Mother India) doesn’t disappoint in her latest film. Bhaskar Hazarika’s debut feature reworks a collection of Indian fables to explore the psychological pressures on four mothers living in a society that values women’s maternal identity above all else. While the film’s roots are folklore, and the tone is one of gothic horror, its setting in Assam – a region in India where as recently as August, five women were killed by villagers who believed them to be witches – gives the film a startling and chilling contemporary relevance.
Thérèse M’Bissine Diop, Black Girl
Ousmane Sembene’s groundbreaking film tells the story of Diouana, a young Senegalese woman whose pursuit of a new reality leaves her bruised and battered. A film about a woman’s struggle to be seen, starring pioneering Senegalese actor Thérèse M’Bissine Diop as Diouana, Sembene’s debut has much to tell us about our need for representation both on-screen and off-screen.
Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, Tangerine
You may have heard about Sean Baker (Starlet)’s latest film described as “the one about the two black trans prostitutes, all shot on an iPhone”. Beyond Baker’s technological resourcefulness, this is also “the one where the world discovers Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor aka Sin-Dee and Alexandra”. Foul-mouthed and LOUD, these powerhouse performances challenge audiences’ reactions to their character’s brazen behaviour and armour of sass. The chemistry between the two leads is electric, ensuring the film’s place among the best of female friendship films.
Fulu Mugovhani, Ayanda
South African director Sara Blecher’s film is set in suburban Johannesburg, among an upwardly-mobile working-class community. At the centre of her narrative is young artist Ayanda, who is pulled back into the struggling family motor repair business after her father’s death. Teaming up with her love interest David, it’s their job to bring the boys to the yard. Ava Duvernay recently acquired Ayanda for her newly launched distribution outfit ARRAY, which supports diverse talent and filmmaking. With Fulu Mugovhani’s Afropolitan vibe and magnetic screen presence, it’s not hard to see what caught her attention.
Deepa Mehta, Beeba Boys
Deepa Mehta’s (Fire, Midnight’s Children) latest, Beeba Boys, is this year’s Thrill gala. Mehta’s razor-sharp social commentary combines with a high-energy thriller about Vancouver’s Sikh mafia, all set to a killer hip-hop-infused bhangra soundtrack.
Meghna Gulzar, Guilty
For her third fiction feature, Meghna Gulzar confidently dives into controversial territory, seeking the truth in a true crime story that is still a hot-button topic in India, where a teenage girl’s parents are currently imprisoned for her murder and that of the servant who police initially pegged as number one suspect. Directing superstar Irrfan Khan, Gulzar weaves multiple perspectives through the storylines, crafting a sophisticated and thrilling police procedural.
Cecile Emeke, Lines
London-based Cecile Emeke has built quite a following with her sharply observed web series Ackee and Saltfish, which takes a humorous swipe at gentrification, cultural appropriation and sexism, and her incisive and confronting documentary series Strolling, which documents the reality of today’s young, intelligent, articulate and black, in various global cities. Her film Lines, which plays as part of our shorts programme Sound Mirrors, is an insightful exploration of song lyrics and their shifting and often ambivalent significance to her female subjects.
Swara Bhaskar, The New Classmate
What if your mum joined your school? Nightmare! The New Classmate goes there, with debut director Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari crafting a feelgood charmer about education and sacrifice. Tender, upbeat and warm, it would work as a great accompaniment to Festival buzz title He Named Me Malala, and at the centre of it Swara Bhaskar shines in the role of a loving single mum battling to ensure her daughter has every opportunity in life, whether she wants it or not. The role scooped her the best actress prize at the Silk Road International Film Festival.
Maïmouna Doucouré, Mother(s)
Maimouna Doucouré’s short Mother(s) is nominated in the Festival’s newly launched short film competition. Exploring her own familial history, Maïmouna Doucoure’s expertly handled narrative centres on eight-year-old Aida, whose father has just returned from Senegal with a second wife. Tackling the thorny concept of polygamy, Doucouré’s film is a beautifully articulated portrait of a young mind making sense of the concept of love.
Sharlene Whyte, Video
In last year’s Festival, we saw Sharlene Whyte in debbie tucker green’s Second Coming, an ambitious and wholly originally portrait of a middle-class black family. This year, the experienced television actor takes a role as a mother who is supplementing her income with a highly unusual night job. Whyte’s choice to collaborate with Eva Riley is especially interesting. Riley’s previous shorts (Patriot, Sweetheart) have explored the impact of judging those different from us – they’ve shown her to be a skilful storyteller able to integrate talent and stories from the margins seamlessly into her work.