TORONTO — At this year’s TIFF, the running joke was the number of testosterone-heavy titles: Beautiful Boy, White Boy Rick, Boy Erased, First Man. This was, after all, a year that saw a record number of women-directed films in the fest, from Claire Denis’s superb High Life to new films from Karyn Kusama (Destroyer); Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?); Patricia Rozema (Mouthpiece); Carol Morley (Out of Blue); and Amma Assante (Where Hands Touch), among many others.
But a highlight of TIFF for me was the endurance test of Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema. At four hours, it was never tedious; it was exhilarating. Filmmaker and historian Mark Cousins created this epic packed with clips solely from movies directed by women that spans decades and continents. Cousins has described the documentary, the first section of a planned 16 hour project, as “a film school, where all the teachers are female.” It is eye-opening on many levels. There are familiar names, of course, Agnes Varda, Dorothy Arzner, Elaine May, Denis, Chantal Ackerman, Barbara Kopple, Ava DuVernay. But even as a lifelong passionate filmgoer, I had never heard of dozens of other filmmakers from all over the world — from Auschwitz survivor Wanda Jakubowska who created classics of Polish cinema to Japanese actress-turned-director Kinuyo Tanaka who directed six films including The Moon Has Risen (1955), from a script by Ozu. Of course, it’s rewarding to be introduced to them, at last; but it’s maddening that it didn’t happen sooner.
The film’s narrator, Tilda Swinton (also its executive producer), says at the start, “Film history has been sexist by omission.” Swinton and Cousins then correct this with a deep dive into cinema history focusing on the artistry of women directors. The documentary is divided into chapters, examining techniques such as framing, composition, exposition and character introduction, using a stunning cavalcade of clips to compare, illustrate and illuminate. There’s Bulgarian director Binka Zhelyazkova’s exquisitely shot opening scene from We Were Young (1961) which Swinton likens to the opening of The Third Man. We’re introduced (at least I was) to Kira Muratova, whom Cousins calls one of the greatest filmmakers who has ever lived, evidenced by tracking shots as complex and powerful Scorsese’s.
Sometimes it feels a bit academic, and the driving car metaphor tiresome, even if it’s Swinton that supposed to be behind the wheel. But then, suddenly, there are moments that astonish: Leni Riefenstahl’s framing of a footrace in 1938’s Olympia, juxtaposed with the ballet animation from Thumbelina (1954) by Lotte Reiniger, a German film director and the foremost pioneer of silhouette animation. There’s an amazing silent slapstick sequence from Alice Guy-Blaché’s Course a la Saucisse (1907), centering on a dog that has stolen a string of sausages, leading the entire neighborhood on a wild chase through a backyard, scrambling through an open window and past a woman plucking a goose. Cousins cuts this with a chase from Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break (1991), with Keanu Reeves dashing through backyards, over fences, and barreling into a house. It artfully connects filmmakers across history.
Taken as a whole, the scope and breadth of the films represented in the documentary is likely to make one wonder, as I did, why aren’t Muratova, Zhelyazkova, Reiniger, Lois Weber and Barbara Loden as famous in the film canon as Scorsese, Orson Welles, John Cassavetes and on and on? We know why. Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema goes a long way toward correcting a glaring omission.