The dA-Zed guide of female filmmakers

Kick off Females First with our need-to-know guide to women behind the camera

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Still from Věra Chytilová’s Czech New Wave masterpiece Daisies (1966)

In a bid to encourage young women to pick up the camera, Dazed Vision is launching Females First, a new collaborative film strand that champions wider diversity in storytellers and perspectives. The ongoing project will see industry figureheads like Jane Campion, Joanna Hogg, Sarah Solemani and Sienna Miller select their favourite emerging female filmmakers to create a specially-commissioned and funded short film for Dazed. Head here to find out more about Females First. 

Bad news first: only 9% of directors are women. In the whole history of the Academy Awards, only four female filmmakers have been nominated for Best Director – and The Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow was the only one to win. (77% of Oscar voters are men, by the way.) According to Gamechanger, a film fund aimed at female directors, women represent 50% of film school graduates but only 18% of directors screening narrative features at film festivals.

But here comes the good news: the number of women directors responsible for the top 250 grossing movies increased by 4% in 2012. Half of the directors at this year's Sundance Film were women. But that’s nothing surprising for those who know where to look in the lushly diverse pool of exciting female filmmakers. Here’s our dA-Zed guide to women in film. 

A IS FOR ACTRESSES

Despite his formidable intelligence, François Truffaut used to believe "cinema is the art of making beautiful women doing beautiful things". Even today, a woman in the film industry is first and foremost an actress. Think about Valeria Bruni Tedeschi (A Castle in Italy) or Maïwenn (Polisse), two rare women who made it to the main competition of Cannes, not to mention Angelina Jolie (In The Land of Blood and Honey) and Mélanie Laurent (Les Adoptés). Regardless of the quality of their films, those who experiment the other side of the camera always get the label “actress who can make a movie”. 

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Mélanie Laurent in Les Adoptés (2011)

B IS FOR THE BECHDEL TEST

Named after graphic novelist Alison Bechdel, the test helps to highlight gender bias in films. One of the main conditions of an A-rating is to have at least two named female characters talking to each other about something other than a man. Last winter, four independent cinemas in Stockholm decided not to show films that failed the test

C IS FOR CLÉO

In 2013, Toronto-based writer and film critic Kiva Reardon founded Cléo, a quarterly online journal of film and film culture, informed by feminist perspectives. The journal takes its name from the protagonist of Agnes Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7, a disconcerting character study that follows a young singer awaiting the results of a biopsy. 

D IS FOR DAISIES

In late Věra Chytilová’s Czech New Wave masterpiece, Marie I and Marie II are two teenage girls tired of the meaninglessness in their lives. Their favourite pastime is getting restaurant invitations from older men, but their little game finally reaches a crescendo and provokes more and more scandal... You can read more about Chytilová’s life in our obituary here

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Marie I and Marie II from Daisies (1966)

E IS FOR EUZHAN PALCY

A director, writer and producer from Martinique, French West Indies. Her first film is also her best: Sugar Cane Alley (1983) documents the life of a black family living on a sugar cane plantation in the 1930s, as seen through the eyes of a young boy. But what landed Palcy in the history books was the fact that she was the first black woman director produced by a major Hollywood studio, MGM, for A Dry White Season

F IS FOR FILM CRITICISM

Let’s not forget a link in the chain of responsibility: film critics are also supposed to ensure that gender equality is respected and consider the space they give to men’s and women’s work accordingly. British film theorist Laura Mulvey is a shining example of this: her provocative work mixes film theory, psychoanalysis and feminism, calling for the eradication of the patriarchal Hollywood system.

G IS FOR GENDER

A topic beloved by female filmmakers, especially when it comes to debut features. Look at the amazing Water Lillies (2007), about the sexual awakenings of three teen girls in a swimming pool; same goes for Lucía Puenzo’s XXY (2007) or Julia Solomonoff’s El último verano de la Boyita (2009), both of which are about intersex youths.

H IS FOR HAIFAA AL MANSOUR

She’s not only the first female Saudi filmmaker, but the first director to have shot a feature in a country that’s totally abandoned cinema. In her debut Wadjda, Al Mansour follows a ten-year-old heroine’s attempts to get a bike, even though girls aren't allowed to ride them on the streets of Riyadh.

I IS FOR IDA LUPINO

Nickname: the Bulldozer. Born in London in 1918, Lupino played in 59 films, served as a lieutenant in the Women's Ambulance and Defence Corps during WWII. Hollywood snubbed her, so she became the first actress to produce, direct and write her own films in The Filmmakers, the production company she founded with her husband. Most of her films deal with women’s independence and the consequences of their desire for sexual freedom. 

J IS FOR JOKESTERS

Humour is still a male territory par excellence, in the film industry even more than on TV. But Bridesmaids and The Heat, two of the wittiest recent comedies and huge box-office successes, were written by women: the first by Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig, and the second by Katie Dippold. 

K IS FOR KELLY REICHARDT  

A muse of American indie cinema who challenges genre codes with minimalistic setups. Reichardt has a faultless career, from a pastoral buddy movie (Old Joy), road trip (Wendy & Lucy), a western (Meek’s Cutoff) and this year’s eco-thriller, Night Moves.

L IS FOR LINA WERTMÜLLER 

The prolific Italian film writer and director (she made around 30 movies) was the first female director nominated for an Academy Award thanks to Seven Beauties, a 1976 film about a deserter captured by the Germans. 

M IS FOR MEN

Not the men that women talk about, but those whose fascination for the second sex is so deeply sincere that you could watch their best films without ever guessing the sex of the director behind the camera. Those rare creatures deserve their own dA-Zed guide, but let’s start with the three first letters of the alphabet: A is for Almodovar (High Heels), B is for Bergman (Cries and Whispers) and C is for Cassavetes (A Woman Under the Influence, Gloria).

Pedro Almodovar onset with Penelope Cruz
Pedro Almodovar on set with Penelope Cruz

N IS FOR NORA EPHRON

Too much cheese would make you queasy. But why not a few slices, if directed by the late rom-com queen behind When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle

O IS FOR ORGASM

More intense than the quest for the Grail is the quest for pleasure – especially now that national film institutes have thrown their support behind feminist-directed porn (in Sweden, at least). Last year, young Swedish director Ninja Thyberg even won the prestigious Critics’ Week award at Cannes with her short Pleasure, about a young actress whose porn ambitions are challenged by the competition posed by a colleague.

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Still from Ninja Thyberg's Pleasure (2013)

P IS FOR THE PIANO

Written and directed by Jane Campion and starring Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin, The Piano received the Golden Palm and the Best Actress award at Cannes, along with three Oscars. Campion’s third film is a haunting story of passion and pride, set in a rainy muddy backwater village in the 19th century. With stunning performances and thrilling erotic tension, The Piano is a true masterpiece directed by one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. (Who, by the way, had already won a Palme d’or in 1986 for her first short film, Peel.)

Q IS FOR QUEER

No-limits sex is on the programme for some of the most recent exciting and proudly queer directors like Emilie Jouvet, who directed the French lesbian and transgender porn One Night Stand, followed by a sexy road trip documentary called Too Much Pussy. Another breakthrough is Desiree Akhavan, who wrote, directed and starred in Appropriate Behaviour, which premiered at Sundance. Her autobiographical character, Shirin, is an Iranian-American bisexual hipster who tries her best to get over a bad breakup, find a job and become a perfect Persian daughter. 

R IS FOR REMODELLING REPRESENTATIONS OF FEMININITY

Why is this such an essential task for filmmakers? Because beliefs about women’s roles in society are obviously influenced by the fact that movie watchers – male and female – all too rarely see a female superhero or an über-charismatic AND brilliant female character who challenges their vision of the world.

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Scarlett Johansson in The Avengers (2012): one of the few female superheros

S IS FOR SOFIA COPPOLA

Being the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola could have been a full-time job (some call it being an It girl), but since The Virgin Suicides, Sofia Coppola has always traced her own cinematic path – exploring intimate fears and questions, from father-daughter relationships (Somewhere) and celebrity and its alienating effects (The Bling Ring, Marie Antoinette). 

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Kirsten Dunst in Marie Antoinette (2006)

T IS FOR TINY BUDGETS 

Why are there so few women filmmakers? Part of the answer is drearily simple: money. Too many producers and investors refuse to back female filmmakers, arguing that they don't have a track record of proven successes. On the other hand, women can't build the requested track record without being backed to make movies. 

U IS FOR UNITY 

In an ideal world, there would be no need for associations or unions to promote gender equality and defend the rights of female filmmakers. For now, help and information can be found from associations like the European Women’s Audiovisual Network, Le Deuxième Regard in France or in the US, from the mentorship program started by the Sundance Institute and Women in Film Los Angeles.

V IS FOR MRS VARDA 

The only female director of the French New Wave. Varda’s debut, the fiction-documentary hybrid La Pointe Courte (1956), is often considered the unofficial first film of the movement. But it was 1962’s Cléo from 5 to 7 that brought Varda international fame. Since then, Varda has built an unclassifiable, audacious career with radical, political and feminist statements.

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Still from Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)

W IS FOR WANDA

The first and only film by Barbara Loden, a meditative film noir and road trip movie about a Pennsylvania housewife who abandons her family. Until this masterpiece was rediscovered, Loden was unfairly reduced to the status of A Streetcar Named Desire director Elia Kazan's "young and pretty wife".

X IS FOR EXPERIMENTAL CINEMA

Performing in front of the camera, using semiautobiographical content, meshing literary, psychological, and ethnographic disciplines... Maya Deren and Barbara Hammer are still two of the biggest inspirations for experimental and avant-garde filmmakers.

Y IS FOR GENERATION Y

We’ve already had young geniuses like Sarah Polley, Mia Hansen-Love, Céline Sciamma and Dee Rees. And then appeared the freshest one yet: Lena Dunham, born in 1986, with a smart and cute first feature (Tiny Furniture) and a game-changing TV series under her belt (Girls). A bright future beckons. 

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Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) in Girls

Z IS FOR ZERO DARK THIRTY

An impressive and explosive blockbuster made on a $40 million budget by the powerful Kathryn Bigelow, the first woman to win the best director Oscar for 2010’s The Hurt Locker. In the male celluloid world we live in, this movie shouldn’t have existed. But it does.

 

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