She's Gotta Have It – Pioneering Women Filmmakers

Sara Gomez – Image by Agnès Varda

Women have had a long, complex and much-contested relationship with cinema, one that has exploded over the course of the last year with the emergence of #MeToo and protests by prominent female filmmakers and actors at the film industry’s ultimate stages, the Oscars and Cannes. If for the bulk of cinema history women have functioned primarily as muses for male producers and auteurs, women have declared loudly that they’ve had enough, that the status quo must change, glass ceilings be broken and casting couches be thrown on the dustbin of history.

In fact, women have had a long and active involvement with cinema since it’s earliest days, and not simply in the role of starlets. In those early days, before cinema was recognised as an artform or its full commercial potential had been realised, it wasn’t particularly unusual to find female script editors or even camera operators working on films. It could be argued that when cinema became both more prestigious and more commercial that men muscled their way in on the action, relegating women to more traditional roles such as makeup and costume design. Nevertheless, female filmmakers were still active in the silent era; indeed, the first narrative fiction film, La Fée aux Choux (The Fairy of the Cabbages) was made by Alice Guy Blaché in 1896, and was so popular she remade it twice! Blaché would be one of the most successful directors of the first decade of cinema; if her films are now strictly of historical interest, she would mentor other female filmmakers, including Lois Weber, who would be one of Hollywood’s top directors of the day.

The first major female filmmaker of more than historical interest would be Germaine Dulac, who straddled the world of commercial and avant-garde filmmaking with her proto feminist La Souriante Madam Beudet (The Smiling Madam Beudet) and her anti-clerical collaboration with Antonin Artaud, La Coquille et le Clergyman, which is arguably the first surrealist film. This film would have a major impact in France (although the surrealists, often more comfortable with child-like muses than rivals, would scream ‘vache!’ – ‘cow’ – at Dulac at the premiere) but not in Britain, where the censor banned it with the memorable injunction that it was “so cryptic as to be almost meaningless. If there is a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable”. High praise indeed.

With the advent of sound female filmmakers would be thoroughly relegated to the sidelines, even although there was much massive female audience for the talkies that they would be catered for by their own genre – the ‘women’s picture’. These melodramas would often offer great roles for the likes of Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck or Bette Davis, but were generally directed by men, often gay men such as George Cukor or Douglas Sirk, who could code their own sexuality through the genre trappings. One exception was Dorothy Arzner, herself a lesbian, who was the only female director during the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Sisters, of course, can do it for themselves, and this is what the greatest female filmmaker of the period, Maya Deren, did. Her biography is as unconventional as her films – a Ukrainian-born, Jewish exile devotee of voodoo who hung out with John Cage and Marcel Duchamp, her first film Meshes of the Afternoon would create a new dream language of cinema, an obverse of Hollywood made in L.A., one which would influence directors as diverse as Kenneth Anger and David Lynch, which she would investigate in further films. Too few, as she died tragically young from a combination of malnutrition and amphetamine abuse.

Maya Deren in Meshes of the Afternoon

Perhaps Deren’s most important influence would be to prove that one can make entirely personal films completely on one’s own terms totally outside the mainstream – by the 1950s, women like Marie Menken in the USA or Margaret Tait in Scotland were doing precisely this, the first in a long lineage of remarkable female artist/filmmakers, still going strong to this day.

During World War II, women had enjoyed greater emancipation as they’d taken up traditionally male roles in the men’s absence. Film noir, with its cynical, manipulative femmes fatales, is in some senses a reaction to this, and an attempt to put the genie back in its perfumed box. One woman who refused the restrictions placed on her was Ida Lupino, who would be dropped from a studio contract for, among other things, refusing to star alongside Ronald Reagan. Having starred in such classic noirs as Roadhouse and On Dangerous Ground decided to direct her own. If her directing break came when a male director suffered a heart attack, allowing her to take the reins, she was too polite to take the credit. She would, however, make a series of hard-hitting films on her own, including Outrage, which tacked the subject of rape, and The Bigamist, where she directed an all-male cast to critical acclaim. With limited access to resources, she had to shoot in real locations and even use product placement to finance her films, which makes them ahead of their time in more ways than one.

Shirley Clarke in Lions Love

Shirley Clarke was another hard-hitting director of the day, if an entirely independent filmmaker who graduated from Oscar winning documentaries to make a groundbreaking depiction of the lives of heroin addicts in The Connection. If, after Drugstore Cowboy and Trainspotting et al, this film looks a bit dated and stagey today (it was based on an off-Broadway play), it genuinely shocked viewers in 1961. Clarke would go on to explore Harlem in The Cool World, which alongside her greatest film, Portrait of Jason, would subsequently earn her some criticism as a wealthy Jewish filmmaker exploiting a group even more marginalised in cinema and society of the time, African Americans.

In 1967, no less than Ingmar Bergman called Portrait of Jason the most interesting film he’d ever seen; by 1969, Clarke was adrift in Hollywood, unable to get financing for any project and suicidal, as memorably captured by Clarke playing herself in Agnès Varda’s semifictional portrait of the LA scene, Lions Love.

Varda was certainly the most successful female filmmaker of the sixties; while she was in LA because her husband, Jacques Demy had a Hollywood gig at the time, she was fully recognised as an integral, founding member of the French New Wave in her own right, working with top French stars such as Catherine Deneuve and Michel Piccoli, and creating such extraordinary explorations of female subjectivity as Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cléo from 5 to 7) and Le Bonheur (Happiness).

Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7

Still working today at the age of 90, she has become primarily known as a documentarian, a genre she had always worked with, but which she concentrated on when she lost her touch with narrative (Werner Herzog’s career might make an interesting parallel).

It was while working in Cuba on a documentary in 1963, Salut les Cubains, that she hired an assistant director Sara Gomez, who go on to become Cuba’s first and most significant female director, in a series of documentaries leading up to her first feature, De cierta manera, a radical rethinking of the consequences of the Cuban Revolution through the intersection of race, gender and class.

Gomez, would be one of many female directors whose careers would be cut cruelly short ; if in her case it would be through an early death, emerging directors in the US, such as Barbara Loden and Elaine May, both of whom would make brilliant debuts in 1970 (with Wanda and A New Leaf, respectively) would find their gender getting in the way of being taken seriously as filmmakers.

All this at the height of second wave feminism too, when male filmmakers were taking advantage of the freedoms of the age to strip their actresses, come to the UK to make explicit films about rape (Peckinpah and Hitchcock) where there was a mini cycle of films about the subject, or even stage and film a real sexual assault (Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris).

It was in this heated atmosphere, where porno chic and giallo with their intricately choreographed, intensely fetishistic murders of beautiful women were lurking at the cinematic margins, that Laura Mulvey published one of the most influential pieces of film writing ever, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. Here, she introduced the notion of the male gaze, beginning from the premise that “the gender power asymmetry is a controlling force in cinema and constructed for the pleasure of the male viewer, which is deeply rooted in patriarchal ideologies and discourses.” The result, in cinematic terms, is that films are constructed from the viewpoint of a heterosexual male spectator, with women consigned to the role of “the bearer of meaning and not the maker of meaning”. The challenge was on to find a new cinematic language that would privilege a female viewpoint, and challenge the dominant order of cinema, one that was already being undertaken in France.

Marguerite Duras’ India Song

Marguerite Duras perhaps had it easiest; a highly respected writer, whose screenplay for Hiroshima Mon Amour was one of the key early films of the French new wave, she would make her debut in 1969 with Détruire, dit-elle (Destroy, She Said). Inaugurating one of the most austere and uncompromising bodies of work in cinema, Duras would also inspire one of John Waters’ best visual gags in Polyester.

Another, younger novelist, Catherine Breillat, would see her scandalous debut Une Vraie Jeune Fille (A Real Young Girl) banned in France for its exploration of adolescent female sexuality. Nevertheless, Breillat would go on to a long, successful career showing what it felt like for a girl, if always dogged by censorship. British viewers today still can’t see her most forceful statement, A Ma Soeur (To My Sister, perhaps tellingly titled Fat Girl in the States) uncut on DVD. I’ll never forget the impact of seeing the uncut version of this film at a press screening, with an audience of hardened critics emerging shellshocked into the daylight.

Klonaris and Thomadaki’s Double Labyrinthe

Maria Klonaris and Katherina Tomadaki were a young Greek lesbian couple who, on escaping the strictures of the Greek junta, enjoyed the freedoms of Paris, formulating a theory of ‘un cinema corporeal’, a cinema of the body, first exemplified by Double Labyrinthe, an intensely fetishistic and hypnotic rewriting of the rules of cinema, entirely filmed in their apartment. While they would have a long and celebrated career, they would be recognised by the art world and ignored by the film world – Chantal Akerman couldn’t be ignored by either.

Chantal Akerman in Je, Tu, Il, Elle

Akerman would burst onto the scene in 1974 with Je, Tu, Il, Elle (I, You, He, She), daringly casting herself in the lead in a brutally honest film about the nature of compulsion and desire. Already, at the age of 16, she had made a short, Saute Ma Ville (Blow Up My Town) imaging herself destroying that most archetypal female space – the kitchen. Her next feature Jeanne Dielmann, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, would, as the title implies, be the most rigorous exploration of how a woman relates to a physical space and time, chronicling the daily routine of a single mother (played by arthouse goddess Delphine Seyrig) in real time, focussing on all the activities that male filmmakers would elide as ‘boring’, leading to a devastating ending. Women’s filmmaking wouldn’t be the same again, though to be fair, neither would men’s. Directors such as Gus Van Sant and Bela Tarr would be equally influenced by Akerman’s radical reworking of cinematic grammar, and in a long career covering narrative films, documentary and gallery work, Akerman would see herself recognised as the most important female filmmaker ever.

Today, however, the notion of a gendered cinema privileging female subjectivity may seem endangered. The most successful female director working, Katherine Bigelow, makes films that would be hard to assign to a woman – her first feature, the Kenneth Anger-influenced The Loveless, feels very like the work of a man, and a gay one at that.

Whether Bigelow’s conquering of Hollywood to make such apologias for war as The Hurt Locker, or its more clear sighted follow up Zero Dark Thirty, are a triumph for feminism is not for me to say.

Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann

Certainly today, the debate seems to have shifted on to the quantity of women making films, rather than the quality of the work. Undoubtedly, it is shocking that sixty six years elapsed between a woman winning best director at Cannes (Yuliya Soltsneva for Story of the Flaming Years in 1961 and Sofia Coppola for The Beguiled in 2017). Many however, were shocked that Coppola should win any major prize, let alone one that should have obviously gone to another woman the previous year, Maren Ade, for her dazzling comedy on love in the time of globalisation, Toni Erdmann, and who was inexplicably shut out.

It’s interesting that the first award should have gone to a Soviet, rather than American director, and a Ukranian at that. Larissa Shepitko and Kira Muratova were two other Ukrainian directors who made great films under the Soviet system; indeed, Muratova’s The Asthenic Syndrome is the most convincing film on what it would have been like to live under that system, if one that proved too much for the regime.

Until recently, the countries with the highest percentage of female directors were France and Iran – that’s right Iran, perhaps the only country in the world whose first major film was made by a woman, Forough Farrokhzad, and where Samira Makhmalbaf could make a masterpiece, The Apple, by the age of 18.

Ulrike Ottinger’s Freak Orlando

Clearly, much work remains to be done, both retrospective, in the work of discovering neglected female filmmakers (my big discovery this year being that of the New German Cinema queer cinema genius that is Ulrike Ottinger), and of promoting new ones. As we’re eagerly awaiting the new films of Clare Denis, Mia

Hansen-Løve and Joanna Hogg, the state of women’s filmmaking is obviously in rude health. However, the film world is notoriously male, geeky and bro-dominated, one where beautiful young women are traded as commodities, and access to them are status symbols. What is to be done?

Fifty years ago, the art world was completely male-dominated, with women largely functioning as muses for older, male heterosexual artists. Now, if you go to a contemporary art gallery, you’re just as likely to see work by a woman as by a man. If this can be accomplished in the art world in the space of half a century, can the same be done in cinema? Watch this space.