WOMEN WITH MOVIE CAMERAS

I recently relaunched my Independent Study in World Cinema series, in which I'm planning to work my way chronologically through an arbitrarily assembled list of great foreign films. I was excited to tackle this project when I first thought of it back in 2013, and I've been reinvigorated by taking it up again now in 2016. I keep finding more films I want to add to the list, and buying more and more DVDs to stock on my shelf in gleeful anticipation. (My tentatively ambitious syllabus has now swelled to over 70 films. At the proposed pace of roughly two per month, I should conclude my coursework sometime in 2019.)

The original impetus for this project came from my growing awareness that—having never gone to film school—I was rather weak on movie history in general, and appallingly ignorant of foreign films. This presented something of a conundrum, however: it is hard to come up with a comprehensive course of study in a subject on which you yourself are painfully uninformed.

So, naturally, I sought out a lot of other lists for guidance. Sight & Sound's decennial poll of critics and directors was a chief inspiration, and I made most of my selections from it, supplemented here and there with films I came across on other lists of the supposed "greatest films of all time."

And, when I was done, I discovered I had a long list of universally acclaimed movies…by men.

Sight & Sound's critics' top 100 had exactly two movies directed by women: Chantel Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), and Claire Denis's Beau Travail (1998). (I added both to my tentative schedule.) The directors' top 100 choices were even narrower: Beau Travail snuck in at #95, surrounded by 99 movies all directed by men.

And I had the same experience with nearly every list I consulted: most lists had no woman directors. At best, they had one or two. On many lists, the only influential woman mentioned was Leni Riefenstahl, who directed the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will (1935). (After some careful deliberation, I decided to add this, too, to my schedule.) Was it possible that there simply weren't more than a handful of great movies by female directors?

Of course not. Inequality being what inequality is and always has been, the ratios were just predictably off: half of the human population might be women, but they had never been given the opportunity to direct half the movies. (Or a third of the movies. Or a tenth of the movies.) But there had to be more great movies from female directors, ones that were just never mentioned on most of the damn lists.

So I dug a little deeper, and lists like this one introduced me to directors of whom—I confess—I had mostly never heard. Agnés Varda (b. 1928), whose work helped usher in the French New Wave. (That's her, in the fabulous image that adorns this post.) Věra Chytilová (1929–2014), one of the most influential figures of the Czech New Wave. Samira Makhmalbaf (b. 1980), considered a pioneer of the Iranian New Wave. German filmmaker Lina Wertmüller (b. 1928), the first woman nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director. Soviet director Larisa Shepitko (1938–1979). Haifaa Al-Mansour (b. 1974), who in 2012 directed the first narrative feature ever shot in Saudi Arabia, let alone by a woman.

A lot of these director's films, predictably, are hard to find: most of them are not streaming on any mainstream service, and many of the DVDs are out of print in the U.S., and therefore rather expensive to procure. (Thank Heaven for Criterion: though only 20 or so films in the "Criterion Collection" are directed by women—out of over 800 releases—my journey through film history would be even more of a sausage-fest without them. And their "Eclipse" sub-brand has made available a lot of foreign films—including those by women like Akerman, Varda, and Shepitko—that were nearly impossible to see until recently.)

This, too, presents a conundrum, however: should I plan to write about a lot of movies that I know very few of my readers will be able to see?

Yes, I think I should. It would trouble me to think that my Independent Study in World Cinema series might become part of what seems to be a general erasure of women from film history. I recently wrote about Luis Buñuel's surrealist short Un Chien Andalou, for example, and it bothers me that I only now came across the name Germaine Dulac (1882-1942). Dulac began making movies in 1915, and her La Coquille et le Clergyman (1928)—released a year before Buñuel's—is considered by many to be the first surrealistic film. Somehow, in my (admitted sketchy) research on surrealism, I never took note of her name. (Je suis désolé, Madame Dulac. Je ne savais pas.)

Which brings me to the real point of this very long-winded post: who else should I be careful not to overlook? I will continue to do research, but I have no doubt—no doubt—that many of my readers are far more knowledgeable about cinema than I am. As I plan out my very long journey through film history, I would love to hear suggestions of influential female directors I should visit along the way. Any ideas?

The Unaffiliated Critic

Michael G. McDunnah is a freelance writer, a recovering lit major, a pop-culture junkie, and an unaffiliated critic. He lives in Chicago.

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