21 must-see debuts by female directors from the last 10 years

On International Women’s Day, we celebrate the gold rush in new female filmmakers emerging over the last decade with a round-up of some of the era’s most distinctive debuts.

8 March 2021

By Anjana Janardhan

The Fits (2015)

With female directors now increasingly receiving critical acclaim and (long overdue) recognition on the awards scene, the wealth of talent behind the camera has never been so apparent. While directors such as Kathryn Bigelow, Patty Jenkins and Ava DuVernay continue to break industry barriers and enjoy wider recognition, there’s an exciting new generation of international female filmmakers bringing fresh perspectives and unique creative visions across every genre to the screen.

In honour of International Women’s Day, we’ve compiled a list of 21 notable feature debuts by female filmmakers released in the last 10 years. While no means comprehensive, the list includes everything from moving coming-of-age dramas and wry sociopolitical commentaries to psychological thrillers and body horror. Spot nascent cinematic signatures in early works by directors whose profiles have since risen and hidden gems from international talents that may have slipped under the radar the first time round.

Pariah (2011) 

Director: Dee Rees

Pariah (2011)

Expanded from a short film of the same name, Dee Rees’s moving debut dramatic feature tells the tale of Alike (Adepero Oduye), a shy Brooklyn teenager seeking to both embrace her sexual identity and be truly accepted by her family and friends. With exquisite cinematography by Bradford Young (Selma, When They See Us) and a heartbreaking central performance by Oduye, Pariah announced a bold new talent and earned a rightful place in the queer Black canon.

Corpo celeste (2011) 

Director: Alice Rohrwacher

Corpo celeste (2011)

When 13-year-old Marta moves from Switzerland to a small town in southern Italy with her family, she is thrown into preparations for her Catholic confirmation and exposed to the strange rituals of the local church. Shot on Super 16mm by Hélène Louvart, Alice Rohrwacher’s first feature was meticulously scripted but feels near-documentary in style. Its exploration of identity, faith and morality introduced philosophical concerns that would resurface in her subsequent films.

Wadjda (2012) 

Director: Haifaa Al-Mansour

Wadjda (2012)

With the release of Wadjda in 2012, Haifaa Al-Mansour made history as the first female Saudi filmmaker to make a dramatic feature (she’d made the 45-minute documentary Women without Shadows in 2005). Her charming debut drama centres around a 10-year-old girl who has her eye on a forbidden green bicycle and embarks on an adventure to make it her own. With its feisty protagonist and emotive score by Max Richter, the film broke barriers and won the hearts of audiences everywhere. 

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

Director: Ana Lily Amirpour

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

Cheekily billed as an ‘Iranian vampire western’, Iranian-American director Ana Lily Amirpour’s confident debut tells the tale of a lonesome chador-clad vampire in an Iranian ghost town out for revenge. With its stark black-and-white cinematography and eclectic soundtrack, the film references everything from German Expressionism and graphic novels to spaghetti westerns and Jim Jarmusch, but the resulting vision – shot in California and entirely in the Persian language – is utterly Amirpour’s own. 

The Wolfpack (2015)

Director: Crystal Moselle

The Wolfpack (2015)

In 2010, Crystal Moselle was walking down a New York street when six long-haired boys ran past. Intrigued, she struck up a conversation. That chance encounter led to her debut documentary, a fascinating portrait of seven siblings raised in confinement for 14 years. Shot over five years, The Wolfpack uncovered a complex family history and private universe the cinephile brothers had created in their apartment in lieu of access to the outside world.

Mustang (2015)

Director: Deniz Gamze Ergüven

Mustang (2015)

Turkish-French director Deniz Gamze Ergüven made her feature film debut (co-written with Alice Winocour) with a feminist tale of teenage rebellion. Caught splashing in the sea with boys, five sisters are locked away at home in their conservative Turkish village. Mustang drew comparisons to The Virgin Suicides (1999), but Ergüven’s touch is subtle; the girls’ perspective is centred, thereby heightening the claustrophobia, and the film’s sinister undertones are enhanced by Warren Ellis’s beguiling score.

The Fits (2015)

Director: Anna Rose Holmer

The Fits (2015)

Eleven-year old Toni (Royalty Hightower) is awed by the local all-female dance troupe, but when a mysterious epidemic of fainting spells afflicts the team, things take a strange turn. Anna Rose Holmer’s astounding debut has a modest budget, short runtime and single location, yet becomes a highly cinematic exercise in existential dread. An accomplished performance by Hightower (in her first acting role), punchy visual language and masterful sound design together create magic. 

Raw (2016)

Director: Julia Ducournau

Raw (2016)

French filmmaker Julia Ducournau won the Sutherland Award at the BFI London Film Festival in 2016 for her bold and accomplished feature debut Raw. Lifelong vegetarian Justine enters veterinary school and, after being forced to taste meat for the first time, develops a craving for human flesh. Raw’s graphic imagery proved controversial, but Ducournau’s genre-defying tale artfully explores themes of female empowerment, body image and sexual awakening as much as it dishes out the gore. 

The Levelling (2016)

Director: Hope Dickson Leach

The Levelling (2016)

When tragic circumstances bring Clover (Ellie Kendrick), a veterinary student, back home to Somerset, she finds her family farm in disrepair and her father’s spirit broken. Cinematographer Nanu Segal captures the bleak beauty of the flood-ravaged landscape while Ben Baird’s minimal soundscape complements the emotional journey on screen. Social realist in approach, Hope Dickson Leach’s debut is a haunting exploration of grief, trauma and tangled family relationships as seen through the lens of farming life.

I Am Not a Witch (2017)

Director: Rungano Nyoni

I Am Not a Witch (2017)

Zambian-born Welsh director Rungano Nyoni’s feature debut I Am Not a Witch is a daring tragic-comic drama set in a rural community in Zambia. When nine-year-old girl Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) is denounced as a witch, she is given the choice to face life in a witches’ camp or attempt escape and be turned into a goat. This social satire attracted critical acclaim and singled Nyoni out as a director to watch.

Dead Pigs (2018)

Director: Cathy Yan

Dead Pigs (2018)

Cathy Yan made recent history as the first Asian woman to direct a superhero movie, but her feature debut was a decidedly more quirky affair. Based on a real-life incident in 2013 when 16,000 dead pigs were found floating in the Huangpu river, Dead Pigs is a brash social satire, set in Shanghai and with a cast of colourful characters connected by multiple interlocking narratives led by an ensemble cast including Zazie Beetz and Vivian Wu.

And Breathe Normally (2018)

Director: Isold Uggadottir

And Breathe Normally (2018)

Icelandic director Isold Uggadottir’s debut premiered at Sundance to critical acclaim, but this humanist drama, exploring themes of poverty and immigration, has since floated somewhat under the radar. Lara is a struggling single mother living in her car with her young son near an airport. When she secures a job as a border security guard she encounters Adja, a traveller from Guinea-Bissau escaping persecution, and the two women form an unexpected connection.

Shirkers (2018)

Director: Sandi Tan

Shirkers (2018)

In 1992, Singaporean teenager Sandi Tan and her friends made a movie with the help of a friendly American mentor but found themselves left empty-handed when he mysteriously disappeared with all the 16mm reels. When they resurface decades later, Tan opens the cans (and painful memories) to reclaim her creative spirit and uncover the truth. Shirkers is a poignant reflection on creativity and ‘lost chances’, and a colourful celebration of DIY spirit.

Island of the Hungry Ghosts (2018)

Director: Gabrielle Brady

Island of Hungry Ghosts (2018)

Australian/British filmmaker Gabrielle Brady’s feature debut is a beguiling hybrid documentary set on the Australian territory of Christmas Island. As millions of crabs prepare for their yearly migration to the coastline, and locals perform rituals to appease lost souls, therapist Poh Lin Lee counsels detainees at the island’s high-security detention centre. Brady uses lingering shots to capture the eerie landscape and a haunting soundscape to obliquely signal the idyllic island’s dark underbelly.

The Chambermaid (2018)

Director: Lila Avilés

The Chambermaid (2018)

Eve (Gabriela Cartol) is a chambermaid in a luxury hotel in Mexico City, whose days are filled with repetition as she cleans up the detritus of strangers’ lives. Lila Avilés’s debut is an understated yet powerful study of the invisibility of female labour. Inspired by the 1981 artwork The Hotel by Sophie Calle, the film was released the same year as Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, which also centred on a Mexican domestic worker, but Aviles evokes a sense of empathy with a cooler (but equally effective) approach. 

House of Hummingbird (2018)

House of Hummingbird (2018)

Written and directed by South Korean director Kim Bora, House of Hummingbird follows 14-year-old Eun-hee (Park Ji-hoo) as she grapples with friendships, a tentative first romance and family conflict, with the help of a kind tutor. Set in 1990s Seoul, at a pivotal moment in the country’s history, the film was inspired by Bora’s own childhood. The film’s gentle pace – like Eun-hee’s demeanour – hides intense emotions. It unexpectedly breaks your heart.

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (2019)

Directors: Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (2019)

Taking its name from an essay by Indigenous poet Billy-Ray Belcourt, Canadians Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers (making her debut as director) and Kathleen Hepburn co-wrote and directed this quietly powerful drama about a chance encounter between two Indigenous women on a Vancouver street. Shot on 16mm by cinematographer Norm Li, the film’s simple premise is elevated to greatness by stirring performances by Tailfeathers and Violet Nelson in a series of long single-takes.

Saint Maud (2019)

Director: Rose Glass

Saint Maud (2019)

Featuring on countless ‘best of’ lists last year, Rose Glass’s first feature is a visually rich and stunning psychological horror. Following a traumatic incident at work, Maud (Morfydd Clark) is hired as a hospice nurse for a former dancer (Jennifer Ehle) and soon becomes obsessed with ‘saving’ the soul of her dying patient. A thrilling performance by Clark, an atmospheric score by Adam Janota Bzowski and stunning cinematography by Ben Fordesman make this a must-watch.

Make Up (2019)

Director: Claire Oakley

Make Up (2019)

Eighteen-year-old Ruth (Molly Windsor) moves to a holiday park in Cornwall to stay with her boyfriend, but is soon thrown into a state of jealous confusion when she discovers a single red hair on his pillow. British director Claire Oakley’s compelling feature debut takes viewers on a gripping ride through Molly’s nightmarish psychological journey as she struggles to find a foothold on the truth while grappling with her sexual awakening and growing paranoia.

The Earth Is Blue as an Orange (2020)

Director: Iryna Tsilyk

The Earth Is Blue as an Orange (2020)

Anna and her children have been living during armed conflict for five years in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. When her daughter (and aspiring cinematographer) Myroslava brings home a camera, she ignites her family’s passion for cinema and they begin to record their daily lives. In her powerful feature debut, Ukrainian filmmaker Iryna Tsilyk intertwines fact and fiction to create a deeply moving portrait that celebrates creativity and the resilience of the human spirit.

Identifying Features (2020)

Director: Fernanda Valadez

Identifying Features (2020)

Mexican director Fernanda Valadez’s powerful first feature deftly explores the subject of immigration from the less-documented perspective of those left behind. When Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) hears no word from her son, months after he left for the border, she embarks on a journey to find out the truth. Striking cinematography by Claudia Becerril Bulos, a powerful score by Clarice Jensen and rich sound design add to the simmering tension of this dream-like thriller.

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