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Women Film Directors: Taking Inventory

These days we regularly hear it said that women are a small percentage of the people hired to direct films, at least big budget high profile films like those made in Hollywood. There are a much greater number of female producers. I remember, some years ago, reading an article - Was it in the New York Times? - which stated that one of the reasons for this is that men tend to be more willing to drop everything and move to the other side of the world for six months to make a film, whereas women tend to prefer more balance between work and homelife and want to be able to go home to their families everyday. Whatever the reason, there is a push these days for more female film directors to be hired, and for women who are directing films to receive more recognition for their work. Already this year, The Hollywood Reporter, pursuing this agenda, writes that women directors are being "shut out" of the Golden Globes and Deadline reports that they are being "shut out" - the same phrase again - of the Oscars.

I know a fair amount of female filmmakers, more women than men actually. But when I point out how many there really are, they tend to clarify that it's not that women don't make films. It's that things are generally just more difficult and that the work they have done is not as recognized as it should be. One said that she did not feel this in film school but did later on working in the professional film world. Others have said that it is much more common for men to be offered major film projects early on their careers, that women tend to work for lower pay on less prestigious projects, and that it tends to take women more time to get the financial backing they need to make their films. Statisca reports that in 2021, 22% of film directors in the U.S. were women, a rise of 1% compared to the previous year.

Just as important is the lack of knowledge that the general public has about women filmmakers, some of whom have been much more successful than many people realize.

Women have always made films, starting from the very beginning with Alice Guy Blaché who was the head of production for the first film production company in the world, Gaumont. She went on to work with Thomas Edison, and then founded her own company, Solax Films, in New York City. Guy Blaché personally directed over 1000 films. Women directors were especially prolific and financially successful during the silent film era, but it became much more difficult for many of these women who had been so successful to find work starting in the thirties, and the number of women directors dropped drastically and only began to slowly increase again much later.

I cannot talk about the situation of women directors everywhere in this short essay but Australia is interesting to discuss since, during the 1970s, there was a dramatic rise in films made by women. Producer Jan Chapman felt that she was "very fortunate" to start getting involved in filmmaking during the late 1960s and early 70s and mentions a number of opportunities that became available for women then. The Sydney Women's Film Group, founded in 1971, focused on teaching production skills and on producing films told from female perspectives. They also pushed for a women's film fund. Another group of women formed at the Australian Broadcast Commission successfully promoted allowing women to work on documentaries and fiction films, not just the children's programming and educational films that had traditionally been assigned to them. Both groups together lobbied for providing education for women at the Australian Film and Television School, with the result that 50% of the students who enrolled in the school in its first year, 1973, were women. ("Some Significant Women in Australian Film – A Celebration and a Cautionary Tale," Senses of Cinema). Among them was Gillian Armstrong who directed the film My Brilliant Career (1979), about a rebellious young woman at the end of the 19th century who refuses to marry because she is planning to have a "brilliant career" instead. Below is a 2013 conversation about women in film in Australia between the 1970s and the contemporary period, featuring Gillian Armstrong and two other Australian women directors - Ana Kokkinos and Louise Alston - in which they make the point that Australia has been a good place for women filmmakers to work compared to many other countries (47:17):

A film viewer could easily think that if they are not familiar with the work of a director that it is because their work is not especially interesting. Television channels and streaming

Marie Louise Iribe

services show many of the same "classics" over and over again, and so these are the films become points of common reference. It can be a surprise to go back over the history of film and discover all that we have missed.

For serious students of film The Criterion Channel is extremely useful for understanding movements, trends and patterns over time because it curates collections of films on topics that are more specific than the general categories used by streaming services like Netflix or Amazon, categories like "comedies" or "foreign films." The collections on The Criterion Channel are curated by people not algorithms, and the curators often record introductions to the collections in which they discuss the significance of the films selected, and

Dorothy Davenport

sometimes converse with filmmakers about them. Films are contextualized and the technical quality is good - no struggling with low resolution or alternative soundtracks on Youtube This makes it easier to appreciate these films and come to your own conclusions about them, whether it be about their historic significance or about whatever it is about them that appeals to you personally.

There is alot to discover about women filmmakers who have slipped under the radar in the Criterion Channel collections. Early Women Filmmakers includes many more female

filmmakers from the Silent Film Era than can usually be found in one place. There you can watch films by Madeline Brandeis, Germaine Dulac, Lois Weber, Olga Preobrazhenskaya, Marie-Louise Iribe, Dorothy Davenport, Alice Guy Blache, Mabel Normand, Lotte Reiniger, Claire Parker, Mary Ellen Bute, and Maya Deren.

Camille Billops

Another important collection that fills in gaps by making available and contextualizing hard to find work by female filmmakers starting in the 1970s and moving forward is Tell Me: Women Filmmakers, Women's Stories, curated by Nellie Killian. In an introductory conversation between Killian and actor Jenny Slate, the curator explains how she searched for films by women that documented aspects of female experience not always seen in films. Many of these films have not been seen by large audiences before being made available by Criterion. The

Julia Reichert

Claire Denis

It was interesting to watch the short documentary in this collection about Julia Reichert and the feminist film collective New Day Films founded to distribute women's films in the 1970s, when women were having a great deal of trouble getting their work seen. New day is still active. Learning about Reichert's films, which give protagonism to women and working class Americans like midwest factory workers, became more significant for me since shortly afterwards I had the opportunity to attend screenings of Reichart's films in Cincinnati presented by other women filmmakers who had worked with her at New Day, which is located in Yellow Springs, Ohio, not far from Cincinnati. One of these filmmakers

Kelly Reichardt

was Melissa Godoy, who worked as a camera person for Reichert and is a documentary filmmaker herself, The other was Jaime Meyer Schlenk, who edited Reichert's films and is currently the president of the Cincinnati chapter of Women in Film, the organization that sponsored the screenings. At the time Reichert was sick with cancer, and the series was clearly meant as a celebration of her life and work. Because of her illness Reichert was not able to attend physically but we were able to see a video recording of her speaking to the audience on the night of the first film via Zoom. She died during the series.

Criterion also has collections that focus on the films of individual women filmmakers. Some of them, like Claire Denis and Kelly Reichardt, are established and wellknown to people who like art cinema. Some are filmmakers included in Killian's collection: Joyce Chopra, Christine Choy. Some collections acknowledge the work of women who worked with their partners: Faith

Athina Rachel Tsangari

Hubley with her husband John, Jeanne Claude who worked with her partner the artist Christo. There is also Elisabeth Subrin who has been making films about women for quite a while, the documentarian Marina Zenovich, as well as contemporary directors Sofia Bohdanowicz, Lori Felker, Sophy Romvari, Caroline Monnet, Jennifer Reeder, Athina Rachel Tsangari, and Nikyatu Jusu whose debut feature, Nanny, won the 2022 Sundance Grand Jury Prize. There is a new collection of female directors from Iran: Shiva Sanjari, Azadi Moghadam, Firouzeh Khosravani, Sahar Mosayebi.

Short films by a director may be included collections together with feature films by a director, or a collection may consist only of short films. For example, although Mira Nair has made many feature films, there is a collection that focuses only on her short films. In creating a good number of collections of short films by young

contemporary directors, both male and female, Criterion seems to be seeking to call our attention to up and coming filmmakers they appreciate. Perhaps it is a way of helping these filmmakers, many of whom are female, move up the ladder a little faster.

The number of female filmmakers in Puerto Rico seems quite high to me. Sonia Fritz who has been making documentaries since the eighties, Glorimar Marrero whose first film The

Kisha Tikina Burgos

Fishbowl debuted at Sundance in 2023, Gisela Rosario whose comedy Gardenia Perfume debuted in Tribeca in 2022, Juliana Maité whose first feature Without a Prescription won the audience prize at SXSW in 2022, the documentarians Karen Rossi and Teresa Previdi, Kisha Tikina Burgos, Carla Calvino, Frances Negron Muntaner, Mariana Emmanuelli, Beatriz Santiago, Michelle Malley, Raisa Bonnet, Noelia Quintero, Stephanie Camacho, Arleen Cruz, Maite Rivera, Margaret Mair, Llaima Suwani, Rosa Emmanuelli, and Diana Quiñones.

Johanné Gomez

Women filmmakers with strong independent voices have also come to the fore in the Dominican Republic in the last ten to fifteen years: Laura Amelia Guzman, Johanné Gomez, Yanillys Perez, Natalia Cabral, Leticia Tonos, Victoria Linares.

Of course, there are many more women making films. Some of the most wellknown ones are not listed here, but then you already know them. There is also alot more that could be said about the work of each of the filmmakers mentioned here. But getting into all that would turn this into a much bigger project. For now, just doing some inventory. There are people listed here doing good work and you should at least hear their names mentioned. Visibility is good.

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