Almost 20 years in the making, and running at 14 hours on screen, Mark Cousins’ epic documentary Women Make Film: A New Road Movie through Cinema could legitimately be described as a passion project. An in-depth and exhaustive exploration of the work of female filmmakers from across the decades and continents, it’s presented not, as you might expect, as a specific study of the female gaze but, rather more proactively, as a 40-chapter masterclass in the art and craft of cinema.
It could also be something of a daunting viewing prospect for some viewers, many of whom may be wondering how best to embark on this lengthy road trip through cinema and make the most of the considerable opportunities it offers.
For anyone who shares Cousins’ thirst for celebrating and championing female filmmakers, the temptation may be to devour the whole thing as quickly as you can get hold of it, either in one mammoth watch on disc or in the five weekly parts that are rolling out over the next month on BFI Player. That’s certainly an easy and rewarding thing to do, as the film is as effortlessly entertaining as it is insightful and informative; an expertly curated treasure trove of well-known and forgotten works. With insightful narration from leading industry lights Tilda Swinton, Jane Fonda, Debra Winger, Kerry Fox, Thandie Newton, Adjoa Andoh and Sharmila Tagore – themselves all advocates for gender parity in film – each chapter spurs the viewer onto the next with clarity, energy and ease.
If time is of the essence, however, you can take another approach. In putting his film together, Cousins has not only thought carefully of content, but of form. Divided into 40 chapters, each dedicated to a practical or thematic element of filmmaking, the documentary is designed to work not only as a cohesive whole, but also in individual chunks. “Something of this scale, you have to plan it carefully otherwise you would just get lost,” Cousins explained when we spoke ahead of the film playing in its entirety at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival. “I chose the themes up front, those basic subject matters like tracking shots and questions like how do you film sub-scenes?”
That means that just as you can start at the beginning and work your way through, you could just as easily dive straight into the chapter that most readily piques your interest – whether that be ‘Tone’, ‘Introducing a Character’,’Framing’, ‘Tracking’, ‘Surrealism and Dreams’ or even ‘Death’. And with other chapters being cross-referenced throughout, it may be that the film itself leads you down a route of discovery that you hadn’t previously contemplated.
That’s the most crucial thing to remember when watching Women Make Film. It’s deliberately presented not as a definitive resource on female filmmakers – you’d certainly need more than 14 hours for that – but as an in-depth introduction to some of the great masters of cinema; one that will take the large majority of viewers into deliciously uncharted territory.
While some of the filmmakers included here are generally well-known – the likes of Kathryn Bigelow, Agnès Varda, Rachel Talalay, Ava DuVernay, Celine Sciamma and Dorothy Arzner, for example – many will be unfamiliar names even to the most ardent cinephile. The documentary’s greatest achievement is that it opens the door onto an entire world of international cinema, populated by luminaries like Kira Muratova (from the Soviet Union), Astrid Henning-Jensen (Norway), Wendy Toye (UK), Cecile Tang (Hong Kong) and Kinuyo Tanaka (Japan); in a way that is accessible even to the most uninitiated of viewers. “We were looking for [film] scenes that stand alone, that don’t need too much explanation for people who haven’t seen the whole film,” Cousins told me. “A scene that will strike them as interesting, or understandable, without knowing the whole story.”
These well-chosen scenes are, however, just the start of the journey. The documentary (and its accompanying website, which lists each film discussed in every chapter, along with its director, country and year of release) should be used as a stepping stone for further research; something that Cousins is actively encouraging viewers to do.
With so many of the women featured in his documentary having been woefully ignored and/or forgotten – the last Cousins heard about Cecile Tang she was working in a pizza restaurant in San Francisco, for example, while Muratova’s passing in 2018 failed to be recognised by the Academy at that year’s Oscars ceremony – it’s time for film fans to take individual responsibility for expanding their knowledge and, by doing so, push back against an industry that is, as Swinton notes early on in her narration, “sexist by omission”. “We want to shock people into the recognition that now is the time to inform yourself,” Cousins stated.
It’s certainly shocking to think that so many of the filmmakers highlighted here by Cousins – and myriad more beside – have not been given the opportunity to have their work experienced and appreciated by a wide audience, particularly when so much of it is extraordinary. But, however you choose to consume it, Women Make Film offers a unique opportunity to right that wrong; giving you the tools to widen your film knowledge at your own pace.
So, if you have been enthralled, like you surely will be, by Muratova’s evocative framing in Brief Encounters (1967), Helma Sanders-Brahms mastery of character in Germany Pale Mother (1980), Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s exquisite use of close-up in Evolution (2015) or Lotte Reiniger’s beautiful shadow-puppet animation Thumbelina (1954), you are encouraged to seek out their body of work. This, in turn, can only lead you to make your own discoveries.
As Woman Make Film reminds us, female filmmakers have always been out there, making great art. We simply need to look.