Back Row Banter

From explosions to pathos

A brief history of female film directors May 28, 2010

A short look at why, despite their important role in the evolution of cinema, female directors aren’t as prominent as their male counterparts and why history has ignored them. From Alice Guy to Kathryn Bigelow via Leni Riefenstahl and Kinuyo Tanaka.

   As Kathryn Bigelow made the stage to collect her Academy Award for directing The Hurt Locker at this year’s Oscars, the moment marked a pivotal stage in a current and exciting trend towards female-helmed films in modern cinema. In recent times the British film industry has seen the emergence of such talent as Lone Scherfig (An Education), Sam Taylor-Wood (Nowhere Boy), Gurinda Chadha (Bride and Prejudice), Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher) and Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank) and has even seen the creation of a London-based festival, Birds Eye View, with the sole aim of promoting and celebrating female directed films. Elsewhere, Claudia Llosa, the Peruvian film maker, made a huge splash on the international festival circuit with her sophomore feature The Milk of Sorrow and in the mainstream, Nora Ephron (Julie and Julia) and Amy Heckerling (Clueless) continue to thrive whilst more edgy directors like Karyn Kusama have been given the reigns to tackle heavily marketed fare such as Jennifer’s Body. The trend towards females getting behind the camera appears to have even begun to influence the starlet’s in front of it; Drew Barrymore has just helmed the Ellen Page starring Whip It and a cavalcade of younger stars, including Natalie Portman, Julia Stiles, Kirsten Dunst and Scarlett Johansson have all dipped their toes into directing by shooting short subjects.

   Yet, Bigelow’s Academy Awards victory also acted as some what of a stark reminder. Her triumph was heavily trumpeted as being the first by a female director in the Oscar’s eighty two year history and – behind Sofia Coppola for Lost In Translation, Jane Campion for The Piano and the Italian Lina Wertmuller for Pasaqualino Settebelleze (Seven Beauties) – only the fourth to so much as gain a nomination. Rather than this being an anomaly amongst awards ceremonies it is also worth noting that Jane Campion is the only female to have picked up the top prize, the Palme d’Or, at the prestigious Cannes film festival. Similarly, commercial figures also further highlight the disparity between male and female success for directors; of the 241 films that have grossed more than $100m at the box office in the last ten years only seven were directed by women. A lot of the reasons for this gulf can be attributed to the sheer difference in ratio of male and female directors despite the current wave of more prominent women film makers.

   Many of the gender inequalities can be traced to the creation of the “Classic Hollywood” studio system; as film-making became more standardized in Hollywood with the implementation of strict censorship rules known as the Hays Code, and studio productions began to mirror mass marketed production lines, female directors became less and less prominent. The male heads of the old studios gave many reasons for favoring male film makers: the macho culture of the industry; struggles with juggling work and family life in a job with very antisocial hours; the myth that there’s no market for “women’s films”. Yet, as female directors have begun to play an important part in cinematic history, it is easy to see that this is a very antiquated notion. And, even at the time, the notion most have seemed ludicrous due to the hugely important role women played in the genesis of the movie industry. The very first fictional film, a sixty second piece entitled La Fee aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy), was directed by Alice Guy-Blache in 1896. A prolific, but largely forgotten film maker, Guy-Blanche is one of the most important figures in cinematic history working in both France and America as a director, producer and head of studio. During this time she pioneered and developed the theories and practices of narrative film making as well as introducing special effects such as double exposure to the cinematic world. She also invented the practise of running film stock in reverse.

   Since Guy-Blance, female film makers have continued to inspire and create astounding, yet often over looked, pieces of work. French cinema of the 1960s, long an area of academic study, seems to concentrate almost wholly on the more immediate work of male directors such as Jean-Luc Goddard and Francois Trufautt despite the exemplary features being crafted at the same time by talented women such as Agnes Verda, whose documentary Beaches Of Agnes was nominated for an Oscar this year, Claire Denis and Catherine Breillat. This can in part be attributed to the fact that, like in the field of film direction, the majority of film critics are male.

   The lack of foresight in giving women film makers their proper due can be seen in many other areas too. In Asia, Kinuyo Tanaka became the first Japanese woman to work as a film director despite much widespread criticism for stepping over perceived gender boundaries. Having starred in a series of films by the greatest directors of the day in Japan, not least amongst them Kenji Mizoguchi, Kei Kumai and Akira Kurosawa, Tanaka was able to use her fame as leeway to make her own projects and began by directing the sumptuous Love Letter; a movie that would become an official entrant at the 1954 Cannes Film Festival during a period in which Western knowledge of Asian film was still in its infancy. Whilst Ozu, Kurosawa, et al are all frequently remembered for their contribution to popularizing Eastern cinema, Tanaka is largely forgotten for her directorial contributions.

   Other problems can too lead to omissions in chronicling the important role women have played in movie history. In Germany, Leni Riefenstahl became one of the first directors, male of female, to combine ground breaking visual aesthetics synonymous of fictional features with the documentary format; many of her cinematic techniques have been aped endlessly since she introduced them in the 1930s in both sports coverage and epic fictional narratives. However Riefenstahl has largely been ignored as a film maker of any value due to her most famous films, The Triumph Of The Will and Olympia, being state sponsored propaganda films for Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party. More recently, despite her films receiving two Oscars, Barbara Kopple has been largely looked over as a superlative documentarian due to her unfashionable lack of narcissism in her approach to film making; whereas contemporaries such as Michael Moore, Nick Broomfield and their ilk have found fame by plastering themselves all over their own movies and their material, Kopple seems more concerned on the rather quaint notion of allowing her films to tell the story of her subjects.

   As film-making has began to move away from the old studio production model, female directors across the world have began to find their niche and, whilst at one point, this could be seen to be mostly in art or independent films, female directors have found their home in both smaller, intimate projects as well as at the head of international blockbusters such as Mama Mia! and Twilight. With the success of Bigelow and The Hurt Locker, the continual box office smashes of films targeted at women, such as the aforementioned Mama Mia!, and the emergence of a new wave of female directing talent, hopefully the staggeringly uneven figures of the past detailed above will begin to plateau.


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