MIFF 68½ – Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema (2019)

Women Make Film is an epic 14-hour documentary showcasing the work of over 200 female film directors. Rather than focusing on the directors individually or making a film about the challenges faced by women in film, writer/director Mark Cousins has decided to create a masterclass in how to make a film using only the work of female directors. By taking this straightforward approach, the documentary effectively demonstrates in a non-didactic manner that women are, and have always been, fully capable of embracing the full potential of the filmic medium.

Cousins intends the “road movie” aspect of the title literally. Our journey through the different aspects of film is divided into 40 chapters, linked by interstitial sequences shot through the windscreen of a car, providing a constant forward momentum into the screen and through a variety of landscapes. Each of the 7 female narrators is briefly shown sitting inside a car as they are introduced. Tilda Swinton narrates the first few hours, before passing her duties on to other prominent actresses: Jane Fonda, Adjoa Andoh, Sharmila Tagore, Kerry Fox, Thandie Newton & Debra Winger. Although I would have been happy to listen to Tilda Swinton for the duration, going with multiple narrators makes sense as it reduces the chances of listener fatigue and emphasises a diversity of voices in support of the diverse source material.

The sequencing of chapters creates a clear narrative journey through various aspects of film. Beginning (appropriately) with examples of how to open a movie, establish a tone and introduce characters, we move on through technical aspects such as framing, tracking, editing and close ups. From here we shift to look at different ways of covering common aspects of life such as dreams, sex, work, home, religion and politics before changing gears (in a chapter titled “Gear Change”) and switching to different genres.

While the masterclass conceit might suggest that the documentary has a neutral stance, the simple decision to focus on female directors is of course a political stance in itself, and the selection of both films and individual clips cannot help but carry their own message. Although both men and women are featured on screen, it quickly becomes apparent that there are more women than are usually seen in our male-dominated cinema. The women we see have more complex roles, alternative perspectives are favoured, and there is a broader range of subject matter on display due to the inclusion of topics which are more personal to women.

The narration also uses the selection of clips illustrate particular points as a springboard to seamlessly insert information about the history of women in cinema and the careers of the featured directors. We hear about films which were highly acclaimed in their time, won multiple awards, but are never mentioned today. Casual mention will be made that a clip comes from the director’s 15th film – really? That many films? How can she have produced such a body of work yet remain undiscussed? A fair proportion of the clips on display come from films which are desperately in need of restoration, and I hope this documentary raises their profile sufficiently to attract the attention of those with the necessary money and resources to carry out this work.

As the documentary winds towards its conclusion we take in life, love, death, endings and (in a welcome shift of tone) musicals before the final section. We switch to a sequence of still photos of many of the female directors as the narrative voice begins to shift and intertwine, bringing together each of the 7 narrators as they trade off lines, uniting their voices in solidarity. The road movie terminates at a cemetery, and we track in to a final close up on the gravestone of Alice Guy-Blaché, the first woman to direct a film.

It’s difficult to do full justice to the scope of this documentary and the quality of the material on display without writing a significantly longer response. In closing, I’d like to acknowledge a small selection of the women whose work was featured (taken from a much longer list jotted down during my viewing): women whose work I’ve seen (Kathryn Bigelow, Věra Chytilová, Ana Lily Amirpour, Maya Deren, Sally Potter); women whose work I’ve heard of but not yet seen (Lotte Reiniger, Agnès Varda, Claire Denis, Jennifer Kent, Catherine Breillat); and women unfamiliar to me whose work I hope to track down (Binka Zhelyazkova, Germaine Dulac, Yuliya Solntseva, Marva Nabili, Pirjo Honkasalo).

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