BBC examines why women are left out of cinema history

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Agnes Varda

The No. 1 pick of the BBC Culture’s world cinema poll – Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” – wasn’t much of a surprise.

The lack of women filmmakers on BBC Culture’s resulting list of the 100 greatest foreign-language films, unfortunately, wasn’t either, provided you pay any attention at all to cinema’s lingering representation issues.

According to the BBC, 209 critics sent in their 10 greatest foreign-language films for the poll. Of these respondents, 94 were women – 45 percent –yet there are only four female directors with titles in the top 100: Chantal Akerman (“Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels”), Claire Denis (“Beau Travail”), Agnès Varda (“Cleo from 5 to 7”), and Katia Lund (co-director of “City of God”).

As Ana Maria Bahiana rightly observes in her BBC report, “This troubling result puts the current conversation about the dearth of women film-makers in a wider context: by being barred from the exercise of their craft in cinema, women run the risk of being excluded from its history.”

“The fact that so few directors who are women made it to the top of the poll isn’t surprising to me,” Gabrielle Kelly, screenwriting faculty at AFI, and author and editor of “Celluloid Ceiling: Women Film Directors Breaking Through,” said in the report. “Film studies have always focused on men because men have controlled most aspects of film, ever since it became a profitable business in the U.S., back in the early days of cinema.”

“It’s a matter of volume,” said producer Deborah Calla, Chair of the Diversity Committee of the Producers Guild of America, the West Coast Chair of Women’s Impact Network, and adviser to the Geena Davis Institute. “There are fewer films directed by women, and so there are fewer films directed by women winning awards or being picked by festivals. Women directors end up having a smaller footprint.”

A 2017 report by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film showed that 23 main festivals in the 2016-17 period screened an average of six feature films directed by women, compared to an average of 18 films directed by men. In the same period, U.S. festivals averaged 13 documentaries directed by man against seven directed by women.

“In the end, what you have is a pool of eligible films for canon fandom and financial and critical success that does not include many films directed by women,” said Heidi Honeycutt, head of the Nightfall Section for the Los Angeles Film Festival. “Therefore, there are more films directed by men pulled from this pool for worldwide recognition.”

Arguably the saddest part about women becoming left out of cinema history is the fact that women pioneered the art form: As Bahiana notes, in late 19th-century France, Alice Guy-Blaché became not just the first female director but also the first-ever director of a narrative film. She would remain the only female director in the world until the early 20th century, when dozens of women took to the new innovation.

In the United States, there were Lois Weber, Mabel Normand, Ida May Park and Ida Lupino. In Europe, the women filmmaking trailblazers were Louise Kolm-Fleck, Muriel Box, Germaine Dulac, Marie Louise Droop, Elvira Notari and Olga Preobrazhenskaia. In Latin America, it was Carmen Santos, Gilda de Abreu, Mimi Derba, Adriana and Dolores Herlers, Candida Beltrán Rendón and Gabriela von Bussenius Vega making early-day movies.

But as moviemaking became more a business, women were pushed out of the frame.

“Aside from actresses, women were discouraged from active roles in film-making until the 1960s shook things up through the dismantling of the studio system, the creation of new avenues of film distribution, the diminishing effects of the Hays Code, and the civil rights and women’s rights movements. Prior to that, there just weren’t any women directing anything past the 1920s,” Honeycutt said.

“But, in general, women were not common in many affluent and highly-paid industries. They were also discouraged from, you know, being astronauts or surgeons.”

Even the ones who managed to break through in the second half of the 20th century came up against significant obstacles, especially financing.

“If a woman director manages to raise financing for one film, that is usually all she gets,” Calla said. “There are a number of statistics that substantiate that –  most women who direct one film don’t direct a second, or a third. It’s incredibly hard for a woman director to create a body of work.”

According to a study from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg’s Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative, 80 percent of female directors made only one movie in the period from 2007 to 2016, while 54.8 percent of male directors stopped at just one film during that same period.

Financing can be especially challenging for American women filmmakers. According to reports featured in “Celluloid Ceiling,” it’s actually easier for a woman director to have her film made in Iran than in the United States.

“The U.S. has a largely privatised arts industry that is closed off to most people,” Honeycutt said. “In most other first-world nations, there are government-sponsored film and arts grants that empower citizens to make films without the barrier of corporate gate-keeping. Women have a distinct opportunity in these nations that they just don’t have in the United States.”

Bahiana points to recent career achievement recognition for Varda – including the Frenchwoman becoming in 2017 the first female director to receive an Honorary Academy Award – and some of the films by women helmers that didn’t make BBC Culture’s top 100 but were on the critics’ ballots. Those included Vera Chytilová’s “Daisies” (1966), a Czechoslovakian feminist ode to the power of young women, promptly banned in its own country; Lucrecia Martel’s “La Ciénaga” (2002), an unflinching Argentinian portrait of Latin American bourgeosie; and Marjane Satrapi’s (and Vincent Paronnaud’s) animated feature “Persepolis” (2007), a poetic biopic of her childhood in Tehran in a time of profound change.

“We are on the cusp of great change, not just in Hollywood and the West, but worldwide,” Kelly said. “We are half the world and we need to tell at least half the stories because up until now we have been hugely outnumbered. The exclusion is systemic, and the change will not be easy, but it is happening. I look forward to a time when it isn’t an issue and a director doesn’t need the prefix ‘woman’ in front of that title.”

Let’s all hope we get there sooner rather than later.


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