Women in the film world

by Kate

Smiling Madame Beudet (Germaine Dulac)

The Smiling Madame Beudet (Germaine Dulac, 1923)

I was having dinner with some friends the other day, and somehow the topic moved to women in film. I don’t remember how, exactly. Chances are I was responsible, because the lack of women in production roles in the film industry is something I think about frequently. I had just gone on a small tirade about Spike Lee, who last summer released a list of essential viewing for filmmaking students. The list contained exactly one woman, and she just happened to be one part of a collaborative team that included a man. Since Lee’s list was not a short one, the exclusion upset me.

The tepid reactions of my dining comrades made me feel as though I had said something wrong. To be honest, I was somewhat shocked, although when I think about it, I shouldn’t have been. Their silence was not out of disagreement. I just don’t think they had really thought about it very much before. I tend to forget that others aren’t as preoccupied by this issue as me. I feel like publications decrying the lack of women in the industry are everywhere, but the truth is, these are a niche group of bloggers that I happen to follow very closely. The dearth of female directors in the American film industry is a problem, and if it’s only a problem that a select few are thinking about, it will continue to be a problem.

One might argue here that Lee’s omission was directly linked to the fact that very few women are filmmakers, so odds are against them being included. That is definitely one reason. But why is that? It’s not just because women don’t want to be directors or that they’re not trying. On the other hand, maybe not enough women are trying. Representation is powerful. If women don’t see other women as directors, it becomes harder to imagine ourselves taking on this role.

Adepero Oduye and Aasha Davis in Pariah (Dee Rees, 2011)

Adepero Oduye and Aasha Davis in Pariah (Dee Rees, 2011)

The importance of representation goes even further. The latest Women’s Media Center report found that female directors tend to put more women in starring roles. For better or worse, the media has a great impact on the lives of young people. When we see ourselves represented onscreen, we see a mirror of what we can be. When we see women playing doctors, engineers and heroes on screen, it becomes easier to believe that we could do those things. Instead, women keep seeing ourselves represented as girlfriends, wives and romantic interests, leading to internalized misogyny and self-doubt. I really believe that putting women behind the camera is a feminist issue, not just within the industry, but within the country as a whole.

Delphine Seyrig in Jeanne Dielman (Chantal Ackerman, 1975)

Delphine Seyrig in Jeanne Dielman (Chantal Ackerman, 1975)

After some backlash, Lee kindly included some more women in his list, including Jane Campion, Julie Dash and Kathryn Bigelow. That was a nice gesture, but it doesn’t make the original oversight smart any less. The fact that mainstream male directors don’t consider any women directors essential viewing until they are pressed to do so is worrying. It just demonstrates how few in the industry consider a female’s point of view as integrally important as a male’s. This is one reason fewer women go into directing in the first place, not to mention the reason so few find success if they do choose to go into filmmaking. That being said, there is a relatively large canon of female filmmakers that I would consider essential viewing, whether or not you are consciously trying to include women on your top 10 or however-many list.

How could you honestly leave Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) off any list of essential films? This isn’t just a groundbreaking work for feminists – it’s a gorgeous formal exercise that all aspiring filmmakers would do well to see. What about the silent films of Germaine Dulac, one of the integral members of the avant garde French Impressionism movement of the early 1920s.  See – women have actually been behind the camera basically since the very beginning of the medium. Why are we consistently excluded from its histories?

I find the concept that there are fewer women artists problematic. Throughout history it may appear there have been fewer women in the arts, but it’s more likely they’ve been written out of the books that create “history.” Just because women don’t garner the accolades or the money doesn’t mean women don’t exist in the art world.

Chocolat (Claire Denis, 1988)

Isaach De Bankole and Giulia Boschi in Chocolat (Claire Denis, 1988)

In general, narrative film is still not a woman’s world. On the other hand, in the realm of experimental film, where budget and box office popularity don’t matter, women have contributed a large amount of amazing work. Think about Maya Deren’s Meshes of Afternoon, a short film full of haunting imagery, or Valie Export, or Carolee Schneemann. Check out Peggy Ahwesh, who has a handful of her films on Vimeo – I recommend She Puppet. I caught Cornered, a video installation about racial identity from Adrian Piper at the MCA Chicago a while ago, and it really stuck with me. I’m also a huge fan of Swedish video installation artist Pipilotti Rist. Check out I’m Not a Girl Who Misses Much. My knowledge is unfortunately mostly limited to European and American filmmakers, which is a sad deficit I’m working to correct. But in the history of Europe and America alone there are too many to list here.

Not enough people think about the lack of women in commercial filmmaking. They consider it an unfortunate fact, maybe. But we can’t let viewers – male or female – off the hook that way. If you don’t see films by women in theaters, seek them out elsewhere. Tell your friends. The same goes for the films directed by and starring all underrepresented individuals. Recognize the void; broadcast it. Create increased visibility for people whose work is under-seen and under-appreciated. It won’t solve the problem, but getting everyone interested in films by women may help break down some of the barriers facing anyone who isn’t a white man entering the filmmaking industry.

headless woman martel

Maria Onetto in The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel, 2008)

For fun, here’s a short list of awesome feature films directed by women, which may or not be essential, because the fact is, women make movies. Not all of them are masterpieces, but some of them are. And next time you’re looking for something new to watch, instead of picking something at random from Netflix, seek out something else and remember that just because you have to dig harder to find these films doesn’t mean they are of lower value or quality.

You can start here, if you want:

The Headless Woman – Lucrecia Martel, 2008
Daughters of the Dust – Julie Dash, 1991
The Smiling Madame Beudet – Germaine Dulac, 1923
Daisies – Vera Chytilová, 1966
Meek’s Cutoff – Kelly Reichardt, 2010
The Hitch-Hiker – Ida Lupino, 1953
Fish Tank – Andrea Arnold, 2009
Pariah– Dee Rees, 2011
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles – Chantal Ackerman, 1975
Fat Girl – Catherine Breillat, 2001
Vagabond – Agnes Varda, 1985
Chocolat – Claire Denis, 1988
Eve’s Bayou – Kasi Lemmons, 1997

More to come at a later date.