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.


Top 5 Pachelbel’s Canon in film part 1 May 27, 2010

   There are very few songs that are used in cinema as frequently as Pachelbel’s Canon and, at the same time, very few pieces of music work as well at invoking such a wide array of emotions. Over the next few weeks I shall be adding the rest of the top five. This week, for the first entry in this mini series, I start with an Oscar winning film.


   When Robert Redford stepped behind a film camera for the first time he did so with an unprecedented assurance. The opening scene to his debut film as a director, Ordinary People, is an example of someone who really understands the potential of cinema as a medium. Beginning with a shot of a clear sky, Redford’s film establishes an area of serene rural idyll, majestic autumnal trees and a calm ocean, as the gentle arpeggio of an orchestrated Canon whisper in the background. As human voices are added to the mix, via a choir, Redford sets about slowly establishing that the voices belong to a diegetic ensemble of young singers. As the song swells the camera pans across the room several times before finally coming to rest on its target for the very last few seconds of the shot. By now the gentle melody has reach a crescendo as the choir exclaim “Hallelujah!” Alas the face of the male singer the camera is now focused on, played by Timothy Hutton, is not wearing an expression that suggests he agrees with the celebratory tone of the song. Instead his eyes betray an ethereal pain that instantly destroys any notion of the tranquility the opening shots suggested. Externally the setting is calm and peaceful but, in a single few seconds, it is easy to tell the film’s protagonist is anything but at peace internally. Redford, in this opening two and a half minutes, has managed to introduce a mood, a vibe to the film and sets the main themes, grief and quiet dignity, with the simple use of a serene song, dissolves between establishing shots and Timothy Hutton’s morose face. Redford has created something that could never be conveyed in any other medium and has, in the first two and a half minutes of his directorial career, created a perfect example of pure cinema.


Friday Favourite: Robin Hood – Love

Each Friday I write a bit about something small I really enjoy. I hope you enjoy these little things as much as I do.

   With the recent release of the Ridley Scott version of Robin Hood, I decided to look back on past filmic representations of the famous outlaw. The most suprising fact brought to my attention doing this was that by far the best version of the tale is the Disney animation. The first release since studio head Walt Disney’s death, Robin Hood represents something of an anomally in the Disney canon. The film, featuring shots repeated more than once and tracings from earlier features, is shockingly low fi and bleak. Similarly the narrative dispenses with Disney’s traditional focus on one protagonist who reaches self awareness as part of the story’s arc; here the tale is centred on a community and a roster of characters. The end result is a kind, soft feature that is both gently moving and delightful. Somewhat overlooked, Robin Hood was a huge inspiration on the latest Wes Anderson feature The Fantastic Mr. Fox. The Texan director even went as far as placing the Ocar nominated song Love, originally recorded for the Disney film, on his Mr Fox soundtrack. The lilting melody, beautifully recited by Nancy Adams, is this week’s Friday Favourite. Embedded below is the wonderful, unashamedly romantic, montage sequence featuring Robin Hood and Maid Marian taking a loving stroll through the most picturesque of forests. Enjoy.


The Dear Leader, The Director and The Director’s Wife

   The story of Kim Jong-Il, North Korean dictator, whose fascination with films led him to kidnapping a director to make a movie for him. A tale of power, rubber monsters and Hulk Hogan. Full film of Pulgasari embedded.

   Kim Jong-Il is perhaps most famous in Western cinema as a lonely marionette in Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Team America. The directing duo show no mercy with their depiction of the diminutive dictator and, just like in South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut, take great pleasure in having reprehensible, almost pitiful characters belt out show-stopping musical numbers. In one of Team America’s most famous scenes the Dear Leader is shown crooning a lament to his solitude brought about through his own personal excellence.

   The remarkable fact is that there is a real, distinct possibility that General Kim may have indeed seen Team America. The dictator in real life, as unlikely as it seems, is a huge movie buff. With a personal collection of over 20’000 titles Kim rates Gone With The Wind as the greatest film ever made whilst also noting an admiration for the likes of Friday the 13th and Rambo. Elizabeth Taylor is his favourite actress. To further his cinephile credentials he has also penned a book on the subject of film – The Art of Cinema.

   As such Kim Jong-Il has used his position of power to stress the importance of movies as a tool of propaganda and has attempted to create a film industry based on North Korea’s juiche ideology. Unfortunately this very ideology created an insular industry where creativity was hard to come by as North Korean directors relied on stories and themes that endlessly regurgitated themselves. So, unable to create a director of his own who could produce work of the standard he craved, Kim Jong-Il decided to undertake an unprecedented decision – he stole one from another country.

   One of South Korea’s most respected directors in the 1970s was a man called Shin Sang-ok who, with his actress wife Choi Eun-hee, had created a spate of movies until the country’s militant leader shut down his studio. Shortly after this event both Shin and Chi were drugged and abducted from Hong Kong. Upon relocation to North Korea Shin and Choi were separated and thrown in prison where they were kept for more than four years. Shin, after an attempted escape, was brutally forced to survive on a diet of rice, grass and salt whilst neither Shin or Choi knew if the other was alive.

   Upon release Choi and Shin were granted an audience with Kim Jong-Il which the actress managed to record. In this conversation the North Korean leader apologised for the length of time they were in jail, he had been busy at the office, and set about outlining his new plan. Kim wanted Shin to become the new figurehead of North Korean cinema with Choi as his star. For the next several years this is exactly what happened – Shin and Choi set about creating a total of seven films in North Korea, with Kim Jong-Il acting as executive producer, including, most infamously of all, a Kaiju (monster) movie called Pulgasari

   Pulgasari, to say the least, is a strange movie. The film tells the tale of a starving village under threat from a selfish leader. The local blacksmith uses a mouthful of rice and a drop of blood from his daughter to bring to life the titular metal eating monster which would help them overthrow the dictatorial bully. (Pulgasari himself looks very similar to Godzilla which can be attributed to the Japanese team who were brought in to work on the feature’s special effects – amongst their number was Teruyoshi Nakano who worked on Godzilla 1985.) Having overthrown the tyrant, Pulgasari himself becomes a source of fear. His insatiable love of metal impoverishes the village and they must once again find a way to defeat an overbearing ruler. The message for the film is confusing – Jonathan Ross remarked it to be a parable of uncontrolled capitalism in which Pulgasari represents the monster of free market democracy. It would, however, not be a flight of fancy to see parallels between Pulgasari and the Kim family themselves. The film is one of the few North Korean films to get a release outside the country’s borders when it was made available in Japan and, due to its unrelenting poor quality, has achieved somewhat of a cult status. In terms of quality Pulgasari rivals Yongary, a 1967 South Korean film, in a battle for the title of  “worst giant lizard creature film of all time”.

   Shin and Choi both managed to escape from North Korea when, having gained the trust of the Dear Leader, they managed to abscond from their guards during a business trip in Vienna. The two migrated to America as they feared that their abduction tale would not be believed by South Korea’s officials and, whilst there, Shin resumed film making by entering the 3 Ninjas franchise as a director and then a producer for two sequels. High Noon: 3 Ninjas Escape Mega Mountain marked the only time in history in which an exile from North Korea has collaborated with Hulk Hogan as the muscle bound wrestler took one of the lead roles in the Shin produced film. It is also one of the few times that Hulk Hogan has appeared in a film role with a full head of hair.

   Eventually, over two decades after their abduction, Shin and Choi returned to South Korea where, with the evidence of Choi’s recorded conversation with Kim Jung-Il, their tale was believed. South Korea’s public radio broadcast the conversation between Kim, Shin and Choi and Shin returned to making his first films in South Korea in twenty plus years. Shin passed away in 2006.

   Below is the full version of Pulgasari. Enjoy.