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The Slits

How the female experience dominated London Film Festival

A league of filmmakers power through to examine gender dynamics, capture iconoclastic legacies and tell thrilling, nuanced stories of complicated women

Last month the BFI launched the BFI Filmography – the inaugural living record of UK cinema. The filmography features films dating back to 1911 through to the present day, with data from over 10,000 films and the 250,000 cast and crew members. Perhaps unsurprisingly – the data reveals the yawning gender imbalance prevalent in UK film. This gap is surely felt at this year’s London Film Festival – with only a quarter of films being shown directed by women (though this is compared to just 13.8 per cent in the commercial marketplace). It’s a disheartening statistic; particularly during a moment in which the effects of an industry dominated by men, where women are made to feel fortunate for having a foot in the door, are resonating with a grim clarity.

Of the London Film Festival’s headline films, three are directed by women: Valerie Faris’s much-anticipated The Battle of the Sexes, Dee Rees’s Mudbound and Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here. The Battle of the Sexes makes for Faris’s third directorial outing,  depicting the iconic tennis match in which self-appointed “No 1 (chauvinist) pig” Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) taunted female players, resulting in multiple Grand Slam-winning Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) taking him up on a lucrative offer of a match. An ostensible sports-film is perhaps strange territory for a director known for sun-dappled and personable indies, and Faris foregrounds King’s search for her sexual identity, and relationship with her secretary Marilyn Barnett.

Mudbound is an adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s novel-of-the-same-title, about a white family relocating to rural Mississippi in the 1940s, and the black family that leases part of their land. Sons from both families go to war, while others are left behind and struggle to farm the barren land. Dee Rees’s previous films include the Bessie Smith biopic Bessie and the semi-autobiographical Pariah, and Rees returns to topics such a race, gender identity and disparity - this time with a considerably more broad scope in an epic, ensemble drama. Lynne Ramsey’s You Were Never Really Here is noirish thriller, her first feature-length film since We Need To Talk About Kevin, and is similarly preoccupied with brutality, violence and their origins.

And then there are the films which interrogate the female experience; particularly those which ask questions about what it means to be a woman in 2017. The much-anticipated Ingrid Goes West features a troubled Aubrey Plaza contriving to befriend her Instagram obsession (Elizabeth Olsen), deconstructing the hyper-performativity of social media and its anxiety-inducing, atomising effects. Stærmose’s Darling is part of a micro-tradition of films about ballet, centering on ballerina Darling (Danica Curcic) taking up the title role in the Royal Danish Ballet’s production of Giselle, though forced to pull out after developing cysts on her hip bones. She insists on co-choreographing the performance from home, with her husband; and Darling is about the peculiar thrill of jealousy and an inherent fear of being replaced.

There are also a number of films about women making art, particularly about important female musicians. Here To Be Heard: The Story of The Slits began as a project documenting the iconoclastic band’s legacy, led by The Slits’s singer Ari Up and their manager Jennifer Shagawat. The production company Molasses Manifesto completed the work after Ari Up died in 2010. Susanna Nicchiarelli’s Nico, 1988 is a biopic about the former Velvet Underground singer, tracing the final year of her life: her experiences on tour and her grapples with drug addiction – and Danish actress Trine Dyrholm offers a gloomy and bodily performance as the troubled artist.

BFI Film Festival Director Clare Stewart is “committed” to improving representation in UK film.

“There are also a number of striking, visionary women directors with work throughout the programme such as Chloe Zhao’s The Rider, Valeska Grisebach’s Western and Barbara Albert’s Mademoiselle Paradis” Stewart says. “While we can see a correlation between women directors working with higher percentage of female crews and creating stronger and more varied roles for women, it is important to establish that women directors are making great work in all genres and working with a variety of stories, themes and visual styles.”

“But we will not see a significant upswing in the volume of films directed by women until financiers, studios, commissioning executives and producers, the people who are making decisions about what films get made also focus their attention on the issue.”

The pervasive Harvey Weinstein horror stories have demonstrated one way an entrenched culture of sexism and misogyny manifests in the film industry. Consistent among many of the women describing encounters with Weinstein is the notion that there are comparatively few opportunities for women in film; that they are aware of competing to occupy such a small space – and how alienating the men calling those shots might impact on that. Despite the misogynistic culture permeating the industry, and the senior male figures that abuse their power, the films and filmmakers spotlighted at LFF showcase the driving importance of women-centric narratives.