Film

A 14-Hour Documentary on Female Filmmakers Illuminates and Frustrates

Seeking to upend the male-dominated canon but directed by a man, Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema defies some hierarchies while reinforcing others.

French director Jacqueline Audry (all images courtesy Dogwoof)

In his 14-hour, five-part series Women Make Film, which recently premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, Mark Cousins takes viewers on a celebratory grand tour of cinema history. The breadth and ambition match that of his 2011 15-hour documentary The Story of Film: An Odyssey, but this one is told using clips exclusively from films made by women. It stresses scopophilic pleasure while mostly putting aside political questions of gender-based prejudice. Since “cinema history is sexist by omission,” as the voiceover puts it, the film’s corrective strategy is to revel in the sheer variety, boldness, and ingenuity of films by women. Extensively researched and passionately told, at its best, Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema is a jazzy, Whitmanian hymn in praise of collective female genius.

Narrated at turns by Tilda Swinton, Jane Fonda, Sharmila Tagor, Adjoa Andoh, Kerry Fox, Thandie Newton, and Debra Winger, the series is structured around 40 questions, leading to 40 miniature filmmaking modules. These segments range from the practical (staging, framing, and editing) to the more conceptual (tone, tension, discovery, and reveals) to the topical (home, family, religion, and later, life and death). The most illuminating focus on technical elements, demystifying filmmaking for lay viewers. In a segment on framing — one of three chapters dedicated to the visual aspects of shots — we see how Barbara Loden casts her eponymous character in Wanda (1970) as infinitely small in a vast industrial landscape, visually reinforcing her marginalization. The camera “isn’t just following the actors … it’s making shapes out of them. It’s carving a space like an abstract sculptor.” The thrill of cinema is primarily visual, as spatial effects shape our thoughts and elicit feelings. As the narration puts it, “Film doesn’t need to be story, action, or psychology. It can be its own shape.”

Ukrainian director Kira Muratova

The documentary abounds in such revelatory visualization. There’s Chantal Akerman’s astonishing, mysterious tracking in From the East (1993), Joanna Hogg’s effective staging in Unrelated (2007), Céline Sciamma’s subtle discovery in Tomboy (2011), and Kinuyo Tanaka’s visual economy in The Eternal Breasts (1955). It simply isn’t possible to enumerate but a tiny fraction of the fantastic case studies. The film features clips from 700 films and 183 directors. All these women understood that cinema can help reinvent our world, and Cousins and his narrators elucidate how the medium’s plasticity and evolving technology facilitate this.

Unlike The Story of Film, Women Make Film isn’t arranged chronologically; after all, for many decades, hardly any women got to make movies in the mainstream industry. The chapter dedicated to close-ups, for example, uses a clip from Australian silent film director Paulette McDonagh’s The Cheaters (1929). Swinton’s narration notes that even though some of the films of the McDonagh sisters “did better at the box office than Charlie Chaplin’s … [after them] it would be 40 years before another Australian woman would direct a mainstream feature.” The history of women filmmakers is not just one of omission, but also deliberate exclusion. Had this been a history of editors or tech department mavericks, it would have been somewhat different, but the focus is on directors (although some editors and cinematographers do receive attention). For the sake of concision, wider cinema movements and sociopolitical contexts are also mostly elided, getting at most marginal notes, or recaps of material previously seen in The Story of Film.

Soviet director Larisa Shepitko

The film doesn’t always maintain its revelatory effect, particularly in chapters on thematic ideas. A section on religion in film caves under too grandiose a scope. Talking about Sumitra Peries’s The Girls (1978), a religious moment is compared to “a spider’s web,” and the narration describes how the camera “weaves its way through a Buddhist scene,” which isn’t saying much. We’re told that Vera Stroyeva’s epic Khovanshchina (1959) presents “a scene of genuine religious intensity,” which again lacks critical weight. In general, the series’ brisk pacing isn’t as well-suited to tackling complex concepts as it is to technical details — which, by happenstance, also demonstrates how form is content in cinema. A chapter dedicated to the horror genre comes off as similarly slight. Amid naturally fitting examples, such as Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014) and Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), there are much more tenuous ones. These include Joanna Hogg’s Archipelago (2010), a gorgeous film I would have loved to see discussed elsewhere, and Deepa Mehta’s Earth (1999), with the commentary on the latter even admitting that it’s “sliding into real-life horror, so be it.” To compensate for this section’s paltriness, Jacqueline Audry’s Huis-Clos (1954), an adaptation of Sartre’s No Exit, is mentioned twice, but that too is a wan nod to the genre.

To his credit, Cousins doesn’t pretend to be comprehensive. In fact, he invites us to be angry at the omissions, anticipating that even a vast compendium of the work of women directors cannot satisfy in a world where so many have been excluded for so long. There is no way to be happy with how historically few women there are to represent from Africa, Latin America, Asia, or the Middle East. It’s no surprise that European auteurs, such as Agnès Varda, Claire Denis, and Chantal Akerman, preside over the series. They are, after all, the rare women who made it into the boys’ club. It is similarly no surprise that American filmmakers (Kathryn Bigelow, Ava DuVernay, etc.) also lead the way. But in a film whose underlying theme is representation — or the lack of it — it is hard not to want to see some of that prevailing disparity rectified, or to have a more profound acknowledgement of the underlying conditions that have created these great disparities between the (predominantly white) West and the rest of the world.

Canadian director Nell Shipman

Some other hierarchies prevail as well. Features trump shorts, fiction trumps documentary, and just about anything trumps experimental cinema or video art (with some notable exceptions, such as Valie Export, Barbara Hammer, Marie Menken, and Trinh T. Minh-ha). This hierarchy reflects just how segmented the idea of “film” can often be. The divisions between cinema and video art have blurred in recent years, but they are nevertheless still quite felt at festivals, where experimental fare (and sometimes documentaries as well) are delegated to the fringes.

Admittedly, robustly including any one of these broad categories could have easily doubled the series’ running time. But the bigger picture lost in these omissions is the extent to which women had historically been making inroads in experimental and nonfiction cinema, as well as video art. They worked with smaller budgets, but also with more autonomy and more political (often feminist) stances. Thinking of this left me again asking if this history of women’s film would have been more inclusive, both geographically and racially, if these marginalized realms of filmmaking had been given more weight. There are also some oddities in scale, with certain films given outsized importance. Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Evolution (2015) is referenced in at least five chapters, for instance. In general, the series leaves one craving more, and more varied, examples from contemporary cinema. After all, the pool is so much wider these days that there doesn’t seem to be any need to repeat the citation of the same films.

Senegalese director Safi Faye

Yet for all the documentary leaves out, it’s tremendously satisfying to see the forgotten or still-underrated masters it does feature, such as Ukrainian filmmaker Kira Muratova, the Czechoslovak Chytilová, the Albanian Xhanfize Keko, the Soviet Vera Stroyeva, and the Bulgarian Binka Zhelyazkova. Although again, all those examples are European. But on the world stage, it at least puts a spotlight on the likes of Iran’s Samira Makhmalbaaf, China’s Zhang Nuanxin, and Korea’s Park Na-mok (the first woman in that country to direct a feature). Seeing demonstrations of their greatness and then thinking about how sparingly their films have been shown, we’re left to speculate on their omission from the canon — whether that’s down to vagaries of history, the difficulties of distribution, the indifference of programmers, or all of the above.

The questions Women Make Film asks directly are often more practical than philosophical. How does one create an engaging beginning, start a conversation, have characters meet, inject tension, or upend viewers’ expectations? The result is a wide-ranging compendium of techniques. For the most part, Cousins doesn’t claim that women filmmakers have done anything unprecedented, but rather he shows how skilled, inventive, and varied their visual language can be. It’s a significant move away from the usual auterist approach, much more focused on the nuts and bolts of film craft.

The series does acknowledge how difficult it is to brush off male auteur theory. Discussing Muratova, Swinton calls a moment in one film “Lynchian.” “Why ‘Lynchian’?” she then asks, “Why not ‘Muratovian’?” It’s a reinvigorating gesture, and it’s disappointing to see it jettisoned so quickly. So throughout the series, when women filmmakers do things particularly well, they are still “Hitchcockian,” “Lynchian,” or “with a touch of” Godard, Chaplin, or Bergman. That’s disheartening solipsism for a film with a premise so scintillatingly brazen. Couldn’t we do without men, even for just 14 hours? We might say that canon is canon, and it does one no good to pretend otherwise. But how else can we make room for new forms and new imaginings in a world so stubbornly preset? If there’s one thing we learn from film — particularly the films made by women — it’s that to make something new, one must be able to absorb canonical wisdom, but then also imagine that there are no rules or canons. No Hitch, David, Ingmar, Charlie, or Jean-Luc peering over one’s shoulder, unless it’s to scratch their head.

Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema has been split into five parts to screen during the Toronto International Film Festival.

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