Women Behind The Lens: Female Filmmakers From Around The World
2011’s Cannes Film Festival was a record-breaker in a strange way. Never before has there been such an amount of female directors in competition for the prestigious Palme d’Or. The grand total? Four out of twenty – the largest number of women there have ever been featured in the competition since it began in 1946. A marked improvement from the previous year, which featured no women in the main twenty at all. But what about across the pond in Hollywood? Katheryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker triumphed at the Oscars in 2010, but she was only the fourth woman to have ever been nominated for Best Director, out of more than 400 men throughout the history of the awards. These accolades paint an ugly and archaic vision of the film industry, where according to a 2010 study of the top 250 grossing films in the US, women made up only 7% of all directors working in Hollywood. These statistics are by no means reflective of the average cinema-goer, so it is difficult to not feel as a woman somewhat unrepresented and misaligned by filmmakers. Even successful ‘chick-flicks’, such as the Sex And The City films, are nearly all directed, produced and shot by men.
If we turn away from Hollywood and English-language films for one moment, historically female directors have not always been so marginalised in other cinemas of the world. One of the earliest examples of fictional filmmaking was by French filmmaker Alice Guy Blaché, who made La fée aux choux in 1896. Since then, other female European directors such as the prolific Elvira Notari (Italy), Edith Carlmar (Norway) and Jacqueline Audry (France) have been making films right through to the 1960s. Film Studies became a major part of the Second Wave of Feminism during the 1970s, with Laura Mulvey’s explosive ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ article, that began unravelling the tangled relationship between sexuality, the gaze and cinema.
With the emergence of experimental film and video art, the lines between narrative cinema and visual art began to be more and more blurred. Artists such as Joan Jonas and Doris Totten Chase began experimenting with short film, incorporating moving images and video sequences into artistic installations. At the same time, filmmakers also began to experiment with different styles of storytelling, with directors such as Chantal Akerman creating films that challenged the formalist and plot-driven narratives of the past.
Considering the historical connection between feminism and cinema, it is surprising that after this period, the number of women working in Hollywood today is still so unapologetically tiny. However, for female filmmakers around the world, is the story any different?
A country which recently has seen a renaissance in female filmmakers in the last few decades is, surprisingly enough, Iran. It has been suggested that for a country which is generally regarded by many as inherently misogynist, that there are a larger percentage of women directors working in Iran then in most countries in the West. Rakhshan Bani-E’temad, one of the most prolific female directors, has been making films since the 1980s, as well as the illustrious Makhmalbaf film dynasty, comprising of sisters Samira and Hana and wife Marzieh Meshkini, all trained by father, husband and auteur Mohsen Makmalbaf himself.
In the 1990s, disappointed with the lack of professional film schools in Iran, Mohsen Makhmalbaf started his own independent school, the Makhmalbaf Film House, taking in eight members of his family and friends as students, and holding lessons in his own house. Older daughter Samira Makhmalbaf made her feature debut aged 17 with The Apple, and was the youngest ever director to have been entered into the Cannes official selection. Samira’s second film, Blackboards, about a group of Kurdish refugees during the Iran-Iraq War, won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes 2000. Not to be outdone, younger sister Hana Makhmalbaf released her first feature length film Buddha Collapsed Out Of Shame in 2007, aged 19, about an Afghan girl living in the remote caves near the infamous destroyed Buddha statues.
The Makhmalbaf Sisters’ films do share certain similar qualities; the tendency to employ real people instead of actors, limited dialogue, a focus on children, and very allegorical stories. However, many of these qualities are not stylistic choices, but born out necessity. Due to the extremely tight rules on censorship in Iran (no female body parts must be shown on screen except the hands and face, no touching between men and women, no tight clothing…the list is endless), it is simply easier sometimes to use child or elderly actors to avoid controversy. In addition, to avoid portraying any situations which may be construed as politically sensitive, directors often use veiled allegories and metaphors as a way of critiquing society or government.
It is also surprising that so many Iranian films have been made about women.
In a country where filmmakers are subject to so many rules and regulations regarding what they can and can’t show onscreen, it is also surprising that so many Iranian films have been made about women (though many are banned inside Iran). From Jafar Panahi’s The Circle (2000), to Abbas Kirostami’s Ten (2002) and Marzieh Meshkini’s The Day I Became A Woman (2000), such films all focus on telling the unheard and private stories of mothers and daughters, wives and sisters in Iran. Perhaps it is the very restrictions imposed on these filmmakers that encourages them to focus on the marginalised, oppressed and silenced members of society. The female body therefore becomes a symbol for all those victims of oppression – her plight, an allegory for the suffering of the nation.
I tried to end this article by making a list of all the other notable female filmmakers from around the world, but found the task far too exhaustive and vast to complete. To list only a selection from each continent was also too restrictive; are only the ones who have won accolades in the West worth mentioning? What about international women of the global Diaspora, who may study and live in the West, but make films which reveal a glimpse into their distant homeland? And what about the countless other women writers, editors, producers, assistants and designers who also work in different film industries around the world, or transgender and/or transsexual filmmakers?
Seeing the world in terms of gender has its problems, but one cannot deny the monopoly of the global film industry (and most of the world) by largely white, Caucasian males. The moral, therefore, that I leave you with, is that if you feel frustrated by the lack of female directors, try looking outside of Hollywood and Western cinema. Just look at what the female filmmakers in Iran are capable of achieving, in an environment that is infinitely more hostile and difficult then here in the West. Some of the most exciting, challenging and powerful women filmmakers in the world today can be found working in the most surprising of locations, speaking the most curious of languages, fastidiously producing their own extraordinary visions of the world. Go and seek them out, because they need your support.
Some links that may be of interest:
Bird’s Eye View Festival – birds-eye-view.co.uk: Annual film festival in London showcasing new women filmmakers from around the world.
St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival – womensfilmfestival.com: Women’s film festival based in St. John’s, Canada.
Femina Fest – feminafest.com.br: International Women’s Film Festival based in Rio de Janeiro.
Women Make Movies – wmm.com: Non-profit organisation based in US aimed at helping the production, distribution, exhibition and promotion of independent women’s films.
Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film – womenintvfilm.sdsu.edu: Based at San Diego University, this organisation produces the annual Celluloid Ceiling report which looks at the percentage of women working in American film and television industry.
Wikipedia list of Female Directors with their respective nationalities – en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_female_film_and_television_directors: A great starting place for finding out about female directors.
Women in the Contemporary Audiovisual Media – mujeres.cinelatinoamericano.org: Database of all Latin American women filmmakers funded by the New Latin America Cinema Foundation.
Makhmalbaf Film House – makhmalbaf.com: Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s website, with information about his wife and daughters.
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