Women with a movie camera

Behind every great female-directed film is a female director. It’s time to make them iconic.

Part of our Female Gaze special coverage. Buy the issue now.

Isabel Stevens
Updated:

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Agnès Varda directing La Pointe courte (1955)

Agnès Varda directing La Pointe courte (1955)

The October 2015 issue of Sight & Sound resurrects and celebrates 100 overlooked films directed by women, and includes contributions by many filmmakers, Agnès Varda, Claire Denis and Jane Campion among them. It was born from the desire to show the diverse range of great films made by women through history, so many of which are unduly obscured and under-seen. But what about the makers of these films themselves? How visible are they?

Think of the many iconic images of film directors – those myth-making pictures that let you peer behind the illusion to see the artist at work. What comes to mind? Orson Welles illuminated by a shard of light? Hitchcock holding a replica of his own head? Ingmar Bergman with his viewfinder? Spike Lee with his confrontational gaze eyeballing us? Kubrick, next to his camera, with that possessed look in his eyes? A skinny Scorsese peeking from behind De Niro in Raging BullCoppola standing over Brando’s Godfather? Godard (or indeed Wong Kar-wai) looking elusive in sunglasses?

What about Varda standing on someone’s back to film her first feature La Pointe-courteEuzhan Palcy talking with Brando on the set of A Dry White SeasonBarbara Kopple covered in mud filming Harlan County U.S.A.Lois Weber surrounded by her male crew? Shirley Clarke on the streets of Harlem? Edith Calmar presiding over the set of Norway’s first film noir? Ida Lupino ordering actors on set of her noir thriller The Hitch-hiker?

Women have always directed movies – but images of them in that role are sadly not the stuff of legend or the immediate response of image searches. How does it blinker our perception of cinema’s history when picture after gorgeous monochrome picture of elaborate movie sets have as their focus a white male director? What corruption does that have on our understanding of the word ‘auteur’?

To expand our visual associations with the word ‘director’, to spur the emergence of more images like these online (check out Columbia University’s Women Film Pioneers Project) and to give you a sense of the scope of our special issue, here are some great images of the creators of S&S’s 100 overlooked films, and a few others besides: at work, with cameras by their side, in control, pointing, directing and making art. A few of these figure on our issue cover (bonus points if you can identify all of them). As you’ll see, they encompass the silent era to the present day and feature filmmakers from over the world making anything but just ‘women’s pictures’.

Early French cinema pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché, who directed hundreds of films between 1896 and 1920

Early French cinema pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché, who directed hundreds of films between 1896 and 1920

Alice Guy-Blaché directing Fra Diavolo (1912)

Alice Guy-Blaché directing Fra Diavolo (1912)

Prolific silent film actress, screenwriter, producer and director Lois Weber, described by historian Anthony Slide as, ‘alongside D.W. Griffith… the American cinema’s first genuine auteur’ 

Prolific silent film actress, screenwriter, producer and director Lois Weber, described by historian Anthony Slide as, ‘alongside D.W. Griffith… the American cinema’s first genuine auteur’ 

Lois Weber and crew

Lois Weber and crew
Credit: Photofest

Dorothy Arzner, Hollywood’s most prolific female studio director, directing Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)

Dorothy Arzner, Hollywood’s most prolific female studio director, directing Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)
Credit: Photofest

Lillian Gish wrote and directed one film, the now-lost Remodelling Her Husband (1920), with intertitles by Dorothy Parker, before pronouncing directing to be ‘a man’s job’ 

Lillian Gish wrote and directed one film, the now-lost Remodelling Her Husband (1920), with intertitles by Dorothy Parker, before pronouncing directing to be ‘a man’s job’ 

Nazi iconographer Leni Riefenstahl

Nazi iconographer Leni Riefenstahl

American independent film poet and pioneer Maya Deren shooting A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945)

American independent film poet and pioneer Maya Deren shooting A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945)

Deren with composer Teiji Ito

Deren with composer Teiji Ito

Chinese-American producer and director Esther Eng, who shot films in both Hong Kong and the USA between 1937 and 1949

Chinese-American producer and director Esther Eng, who shot films in both Hong Kong and the USA between 1937 and 1949

Matilde Landeta directed 110 shorts and three features in Mexico in the 1930s and 40s

Matilde Landeta directed 110 shorts and three features in Mexico in the 1930s and 40s

Norway’s first female film director, Edith Carlmar made ten films between 1949 and 1959

Norway’s first female film director, Edith Carlmar made ten films between 1949 and 1959

Post-war French director Jacqueline Audry

Post-war French director Jacqueline Audry

Hollywood star cum director Ida Lupino

Hollywood star cum director Ida Lupino

Ida Lupino

Ida Lupino

Ida Lupino

Ida Lupino

British dancer, actress, theatre and film director Wendy Toye

British dancer, actress, theatre and film director Wendy Toye

British screenwriter and director Muriel Box, who won an Oscar with her husband Sydney for their screenplay for The Seventh Veil in 1945

British screenwriter and director Muriel Box, who won an Oscar with her husband Sydney for their screenplay for The Seventh Veil in 1945

Italian-born Lorenza Mazzetti shooting the 1956 British Free Cinema feature Together with sound recordist (and editor) John Fletcher in London’s Docklands

Italian-born Lorenza Mazzetti shooting the 1956 British Free Cinema feature Together with sound recordist (and editor) John Fletcher in London’s Docklands

Japanese actress and Mizoguchi muse Tanaka Kinuyo directed six films in the 1950s and early 60s

Japanese actress and Mizoguchi muse Tanaka Kinuyo directed six films in the 1950s and early 60s

American film great Shirley Clarke made independent documentaries and features for over four decades

American film great Shirley Clarke made independent documentaries and features for over four decades

Soviet director Larisa Shepitko on the set of Wings (1966)

Soviet director Larisa Shepitko on the set of Wings (1966)

Czech New Wave director Věra Chytilová

Czech New Wave director Věra Chytilová

Norwegian writer-director Anja Breien directed 14 films between 1969 and 2005

Norwegian writer-director Anja Breien directed 14 films between 1969 and 2005

Comedian, writer and director Elaine May filming 1971’s A New Leaf

Comedian, writer and director Elaine May filming 1971’s A New Leaf

Senaglese director and ethnologist Safi Faye

Senaglese director and ethnologist Safi Faye

Barbara Kopple and cinematographer Hart Perry shooting Harlan County U.S.A. (1976)

Barbara Kopple and cinematographer Hart Perry shooting Harlan County U.S.A. (1976)

Claudia Weill directing Girlfriends (1978)

Claudia Weill directing Girlfriends (1978)
Credit: Photofest

Former bacteriologist and journalist Jessie Maple was the first black woman to gain entry to New York’s camera operator’s union, and with Will (1981) directed the first independent American feature by a black woman

Former bacteriologist and journalist Jessie Maple was the first black woman to gain entry to New York’s camera operator’s union, and with Will (1981) directed the first independent American feature by a black woman

Jessie Maple

Jessie Maple

Martinique’s Euzhan Palcy became the first black woman to direct a Hollywood studio feature with A Dry White Season in 1989

Martinique’s Euzhan Palcy became the first black woman to direct a Hollywood studio feature with A Dry White Season in 1989

Euzhan Palcy

Euzhan Palcy

Claire Denis and cinematographer Agnès Godard

Claire Denis and cinematographer Agnès Godard
Credit: Photofest

Sophia Coppola

Sophia Coppola

Haifaa Al-Mansour filming Wadjda (2012)

Haifaa Al-Mansour filming Wadjda (2012)

Ava Duvernay

Ava Duvernay

Ava Duvernay directing Selma (2014)

Ava Duvernay directing Selma (2014)

 

In the October 2015 issue of Sight & Sound

The female gaze: 100 overlooked films directed by women

Over 20 pages we celebrate a selection of remarkable works by female filmmakers that have unjustly slipped from public view – including Year of the Woman – in the hope we can correct their place in film history and help them find a wider audience. Introduction by Isabel Stevens, with contributions from Jane Campion, Greta Gerwig, Claire Denis, Isabelle Huppert, Agnès Varda, Tilda Swinton and more.

  • Sight & Sound: the October 2015 issue

    Sight & Sound: the October 2015 issue

    The Female Gaze: 100 underrated films directed by women, with contributions from Agnès Varda, Jane Campion, Claire Denis, Isabelle Huppert, Tilda...

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    Women on Film – all our coverage

    A window on our ongoing coverage of women’s cinema, from movies by or about women to reports and comment on the underrepresentation of women...

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