If you’re a film buff but the only female director you know is Sofia Coppola, here’s a list that might help you rise above the darkness.
In an interview, Jill Soloway, creator and director of Transparent, gave an amazing answer regarding the lack of opportunities in the film and television industry for directors who happen to be women: “Women are naturally suited to being directors. We fucking grew up doing it! It’s dolls! How did men make us think we weren’t good at this? It’s dolls and feelings. And women are fighting to become directors?” When I read that quote, I was astounded by how obvious it is: it sounds silly at first, but it makes perfect sense. Since this epiphany, I’ve been trying to expand my knowledge of cinema to include more female filmmakers and recommend them as much as possible. If you’re a movie buff, but the only female director you know is Sofia Coppola, here’s a list that will help you rise above the darkness.
Agnès Varda was born in Belgium in 1928, but she spent her adult life in France. She’s one of Roger Ebert’s favorite directors, and he described her films as soulful masterpieces that are valuable by themselves instead of fitting in with the other films of the French New Wave. Her experimental movies aren’t always considered in the high-ranks of film history because, as Ebert mentioned, she’s a woman who has never been afraid to take a stance through feminism and social criticism.
Ava DuVernay was born in California in 1972. Her films tackle the subject of female empowerment and racial dynamics with astounding insight. Her indie dramas, like I Will Follow, focus on the details that go unnoticed between people in intimate relationships. Even when she’s directing such a well-known and prominent story like Selma, she shows us that big historical events are always made more powerful by the emotions of individuals, never by the so-called masses.
Maren Ade is a German director that became famous after the release of Toni Erdmann, a film that focuses on the inadequate relationship between a serious daughter and a very, very silly dad that wants to reconnect with her. After he notices that she’s working too much, he visits her and sets up a series of disorienting jokes to take her out of her professional mind-set. The film has a strange sense of humor of it own, and Ade is never afraid to cross some strict boundaries.
Desiree Akhavan is an Iranian-American writer and director that uses her own life as inspiration for her work. In her film, Appropriate Behavior (2014), she explores experiences she’s had without making it strictly autobiographical, like her experience as the daughter of immigrants, and the difficulties of expressing her bisexuality in a conservative community. The movie's protagonist, played by Akhavan herself, has to deal with the end of her first relationship on top of all those things.
In mainstream cinema, young women's experiences as they grow up are often idealized by male directors' ideas about women. So, basically, women who love cinema have to get used to seeing flat or outright wrong representations of what they go through. That’s why a director like Andrea Arnold is so refreshing, even when one of her films (Fish Tank) depicts a deeply bleak but compelling story of neglect and abuse.
Mariella Heller's first movie, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, is another example of a story about a young girl and her first sexual experiences. This movie is radically different from Fish Tank, but the events are almost parallel. I recommend seeing both of them, one after the other, to understand the way in which the same events can be told with totally different tones and stylistic techniques.
Miranda July is not only a film director and screenwriter, but also a novelist, short story writer, artist, and actor. She dropped out of college when she was 23 to move to Portland and focus on her art. Even since, she’s successfully made several projects that involve performance art and experimental film. Her movie Me and You and Everyone We Know won the Caméra d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Just like Maren Ade with Toni Erdmann, Miranda July has created a unique sense of humor, which is playful, tender, and simultaneously interested in gross bodily fluids.
Sarah Polley is a Canadian actress, writer, and director. In her 2012 documentary, Stories We Tell, she investigates her mother’s life and the story of her own birth. The documentary focuses on a particularly mysterious period of her mother’s youth before her death in 1990. Polley’s direction manages to keep us intrigued and at the same time it makes us wonder about our own history: the mysteries, interpretations, and fragmentary memories.
Lucrecia Martel is a film director and screenwriter from Argentina. She’s known for her 2001 film, La Ciénaga, which portrays the tense and decadent days of a family vacation. Martel’s directorial skills create the suffocating atmosphere of a blazing summer as the members of the family stop being able to maintain the seemingly peaceful façade. The themes of the movie, and her character’s particular flaws, show Martel’s interest in the dark sides of what is usually perceived as everyday.
Chantal Akerman was a French film director. Her films, which are considered masterful by many film critics, never had a lot of commercial success. As we watch the cult classics in her filmography (like Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles), we should wonder if she didn’t become such an iconic figure in cinema, like Orson Welles, because her gender, or because she wasn’t afraid to experiment with the medium.
After watching these films, your ideas about what we’re allowed to discuss and depict in movies will grow and expand. And with it, your own life and what is possible for you will grow as well.
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