I’m not sure when I first became interested in films directed by women. Maybe it was in 1993 when, as a programmer at the Edinburgh Film Festival, I saw Antonia Bird’s realist masterpiece Safe. Antonia then asked me to join a production company she was setting up. I’d read the feminist film theorists Laura Mulvey and Annette Kuhn by then, and then came across Cari Beauchamp’s 1997 book Without Lying Down, about the screenwriter Frances Marion and the other powerful women in early Hollywood.
I know that by the time I went to Iran in 2001, I was aware that the great poet Forough Farrokhzad had influenced a generation of directors with her poignant documentary portrait of a leper colony The House Is Black (1962). My interest increased sharply when I started watching the movies of Soviet filmmaker Kira Muratova. Her worldview and use of imagery was unlike anything I’d seen. From then on, every time I went to a country I’d not been to, I asked about their female filmmakers. And, simplest of all, I googled. I typed “Great female film directors from…” and then added country after country: Colombia, Portugal, France, Germany, Finland…
My list grew. The discoveries mushroomed. I felt joy at finding so much great cinema, and anger that a lot of it wasn’t being talked about or shown or taught. I wanted a film to take me on a guided tour of what I was missing. As I couldn’t find one, my producers at Hopscotch Films and I decided to make that film. No one commissioned us, or gave us money; we did it off our own backs. I knew that what we made should be about the work of these filmmakers rather than their gender or the film business. Antonia Bird wanted to be treated as a director, not a female director. Many other filmmakers I got to know felt the same, and were tired of being seen as a symbol of the (huge) inequalities in the film industry.
Years passed. Weinstein happened. #MeToo grew. I’m sure some people would have wanted us to reference these events in Women Make Film, but we stuck to our plan to show the work, the art. This would be our contribution, our shoulder to the wheel. Others were better at talking about the more theoretical aspects, such as the female gaze.
We kept watching and watching, month after month. The editing was exhausting, but fascinating. It’s great to insert a Kathryn Bigelow chase scene next to an Alice Guy-Blaché chase scene. We loved cutting between song or dance scenes directed by experimental filmmaker Maya Deren, Chinese feminist pioneer Huang Shuqin, Soviet screenwriter and director Vera Stroyeva, Scottish poet of the cinema Margaret Tait, Belgian dynamo Marion Hänsel, Brazilian Oscar nominee Petra Costa, groundbreaking Norwegian filmmaker Edith Carlmar, Western director Valeska Grisebach and Portrait of a Lady on Fire director Céline Sciamma, Brazilian singer, writer, actor and filmmaker Gilda de Abreu, Hester Street and Crossing Delancey director Joan Micklin Silver, Afro-French trailblazer Sarah Maldoror, radical documentarian Shirley Clarke, nouvelle vague luminary and grande dame of French cinema Agnès Varda, early Hollywood pioneer Dorothy Arzner, Greek filmmaker Athina Rachel Tsangari, Hungarian Cannes Grand Prix winner Márta Mészáros and superstar Beyoncé Knowles.
Even typing that list is exciting. It conjures images, visual collisions and affinities.
Below are images from ten of the 183 movies we feature. The original title of our film was ‘Eye Opener’.
1. The Day I Became a Woman
Marzieh Meshkini, Iran, 2000
This is the opening shot of Iranian director Marzieh Meshkini’s The Day I Became a Woman (Roozi ke zan shodam). Told in three sections, the first part follows the last day of a girl’s childhood. A stick in the sand casts a shadow; when the shadow is at its shortest, when the sun is at its highest, the girl will enter adulthood and, according to strict tradition, must cover herself.
Meshkini’s opening scene, set in the small coastal village where she lives, brilliantly symbolises the story. The sail here is like a black chador. It half blocks the horizon, just as the girl’s life will be occluded by her covering. The pole is like the stick in the sand, it’s like the young girl. Lots of films use their opening scenes to set up their story, but this image is a great movie overture.
2. The Girls
Sumitra Peries, Sri Lanka, 1978
This image looks like a cut-out, like lace, but it’s a frame grab from one of the best films of the 1970s: The Girls (Gahanu lamai). When we think of the 70s, The Godfather (1972), The Exorcist (1973), Taxi Driver (1976) come to mind, but in Sri Lanka, around the same time, Sumitra Peries made a film about this young woman enmeshed in her shyness and in religion.
Peries zooms in and out like in a Robert Altman or Nicolas Roeg film. She creates dazzling images and uncertain emotions. The director of If…. (1968) and Britannia Hospital (1982), Lindsay Anderson, and the critic David Robinson admired her work. Why did we forget her?
3. Concrete Night
Pirjo Honkasalo, Finland, 2013
Here you can see two naked young men sunbathe in an industrial setting in Finland. It’s an image like a Fernand Léger painting: the hard metallic cranes and pipes, the soft bodies. The film is Concrete Night (Betoniyš), and is directed by Pirjo Honkasalo.
She was a cinematographer, and this image, shot by her director of photography Peter Flinckenberg, shows how good she is at composition. More than that, it shows that filmmakers aren’t defined by or limited to our own experiences. Honkasalo is queer and female, yet her film is one of the best there is about young men.
4. The Wayward Girl
Edith Carlmar, Norway, 1959
Liv Ullmann’s debut, in Norwegian director Edith Carlmar’s first film The Wayward Girl (Ung flukt). Ullmann sits apart from the posh lad with whom she has run away. She wanted to escape her parents and their conventions, and he was a route out. But, here in the countryside, her lust for life, for adventure, is unsated. The lad runs out of steam, but she doesn’t.
Carlmar’s film is a coming-of-age classic – fresh, alert to landscape and light, and beautifully framed.
5. We Were Young
Binka Zhelyazkova, Bulgaria, 1961
Bulgaria in World War II. A world of partisans, fear and shadows. At night, a man and a woman have ventured out in search of each other. Each has a torch. Director Binka Zhelyazkova shows us the light of those torches. They edge towards each other, touch, then overlap, like a Venn diagram, like the eclipse of two moons.
When film noir is discussed by critics and film lovers, few female directors are mentioned, yet lots of women directed noirs. We Were Young (A byahme mladi) is one of the best – penumbral, tight as a drum, unafraid of despair.
6. Night Games
Mai Zetterling, Sweden, 1966
What a career Mai Zetterling had! She began acting aged 17, worked for Ingmar Bergman, became a movie star in the UK, and directed her first feature Loving Couples – in 1964. Kenneth Tynan famously called it one of the most ambitious debuts since Citizen Kane (1941). Glamorous, innovative and unpredictable, she acted for Nicolas Roeg (in The Witches, 1989) and even did a stint narrating the kids TV show Jackanory.
Here a man is remembering his boyhood, when he used his mother’s make-up and watched her give birth. Sexual and daring, Night Games (Nattlek) was denounced as pornographic. The Venice film festival jury was shown it in private. It is beautiful and bold.
7. A Question of Silence
Marleen Gorris, Netherlands, 1982
An ordinary clothes store, everyday lighting. An image that could be in a documentary, except that the woman is attacking a man, a man she doesn’t know. She’s helped by two other women, and the man dies. The tension is palpable. Dutch director Marleen Gorris uses the sort of music you might expect in a John Carpenter film, and there’s a touch of Halloween (1978) in the anonymity, the randomness of the assault. Why do the women kill? Because of pent-up rage, because of years of condescension and sexism. A Question of Silence (De stilte rond Christine M.) is a feminist explosion – disturbing, deadpan and hard to forget. Its unapologetic rigour won it a number of awards, and it has become a classic of feminist cinema.
8. The Asthenic Syndrome
Kira Muratova, USSR, 1989
A young man lies on a sofa in an apartment. A cluttered shot – flowers, cushions, ornaments. Outside, the whole of society seems sick. The world is diseased, mourning, conflicted and aggressive. In these few moments alone, he looks around his room. Respite from the anxiety of his times.
Like Marleen Gorris’s A Question of Silence, Kira Muratova’s masterpiece The Asthenic Syndrome (Astenicheskiy sindrom) is flooded with unease. Her film boldly depicts a social malaise without diagnosis or cure. It so unsettled the authorities in the Soviet Union that it was perhaps the only film to be banned in the years of Gorbachev’s glasnost – transparency.
Kira Muratova obituary: a great, fearless filmmaker who poked at open wounds
Ida Lupino, US, 1950
What an expressionist image! A young woman has been followed after work. Nighttime. No one’s around. Shards of shadows. Deep space compositions. We see her feet, then her tears, then we’re below a steering wheel. Here we glimpse her in a strip of light, between slats. She falls.
Director Ida Lupino builds a sequence of graphic shapes as if the woman’s fear has invaded the frame. A low-budget B movie, Outrage was one of the first films in the era of the Hollywood’s restrictive Motion Picture Production Code to look at rape.
10. Love Letter
Tanaka Kinuyo, Japan, 1953
Love Letter (Koibumi) is the first film of legendary actor turned director Tanaka Kinuyo. The man writes love letters to make a living. One of the women who asks him to do so is someone he’s been searching for. He pursues her, almost like James Stewart pursues Kim Novak in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). Here they are chess pieces. Their sadness is the sadness of post-war Japan.
The geometry of Tanaka’s staging is masterful. Camera positions and eyelines capture the mood, poetry, expectation and uncertainty of the story. Tanaka had worked with the greatest Japanese directors, but her style was less reserved than Ozu, less heroic than Kurosawa. She was closer to Michael Curtiz, perhaps, in her depictions of love and heartache, her brilliant scene breakdowns and her total control.