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The Lack of Female Directors: The Deeper Injustice

August 9, 2014

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There’s been a gathering bandwagon in the arts media this year, drawing attention to the meagre representation of women in that most heralded of positions in the film industry – the director. It kicked off with the annual hobby-horse about only four women having ever been nominated for the Best Director Oscar in the awards’ near ninety-year history – and though in many respects it’s a badge of honour not be recognised by the ‘Academy’, the statistic is unquestionably a striking anomaly that not only betrays the disproportionate number of women directing films (assuming very loosely that a male-female population split is 50/50), but more prevalently, the evident underappreciation (possibly even de facto industrial disavowal) of female-envisioned cinema.

Now why is this a problem? I’ve always come from the school of being naturally wary about lazy and simplistic gender-stereotyping – either in generic social ‘banter’ or through more serious discussions about discrimination. Gender (which after all only splits the populace in two), is one of many definers that constitute a ‘culture’ and build in to the determination of a given individual. What about ethnicity, belief system, class, wealth status, nationality, parenting, education, genetics, the ability to self-realise, and the role that simple old ‘fate’ and ‘fortune’ play in how our lives pan out? Life is rarely fair – and sometimes discrimination factions can undermine their own cause by an over-zealousness or misappropriation of argument. Take for example the burgeoning anti-racism movement in English football – full of otherwise totally admirable initiatives, but done no little harm when England manager Roy Hodgson was undermined when a wittily appropriate half-time critique of his players for performing like a bunch of “space monkeys” was leaked to the media in a nefarious attempt to tar Hodgson as ‘racist’ purely through the reactionary, blanket association of “monkey” with black. Similarly, at the recent Oscars ceremony, celebrated actress Cate Blanchett launched into a tirade against the persons in her industry who held it that pictures with women at the centre of them were still something of a “niche”. Where Blanchett failed to draw an appropriate distinction was between the notion of women and ‘femininity’ in general being at the centre of movies (they always have been, and venerated no less right through silent cinema to the present day in all genres and diasporas of cinema), to the proportion of women represented in traditional positions of executive and creative power in the industry – writers, producers and directors. Incidentally, it feels somewhat disingenuous of Blanchett to be jumping on the ‘under-representation of women in film’ bandwagon, when from this onlooker’s perspective, despite her privileged position and the rich pool of up-and-coming female directorial talent around the world who could do with a ‘leg up’ and association with a celebrated actress like Blanchett (the Kelly Reichardts, the Lucile Hadzihailovics, the Andrea Arnolds, and the Jessica Hausners of this world), she seems more than happy to lend her services, name (and presumably, bank details) to the establishment, big-name, nominally patriarchal Hollywood projects, studios and directors (Spielberg, Clooney, Soderbergh, Allen, Jackson etc), she was deigning to criticise.

That doesn’t negate the fact that the lack of female directors in the industry is a stone-cold truth and an institutional malignancy, but elevating the debate still further, as well as it being a statistical injustice (a 50/50 population split – which incidentally mirrors film school graduate proportions – doesn’t fit 90/10 industrial representation), it’s moreover an aesthetic and artistic travesty. When I think of all the great female directors currently working in world cinema (and believe me, they are great): Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola, Sarah Polley, Claire Denis, Lucrecia Martel, Lynne Ramsay, Debra Granik, the Makhmalbaf clan – the list goes on – they are in many respects more advanced than the majority of male directors who deal in what I would tentatively describe as a masculine cinematic sensibility whereby the hegemony of the world we see – politics, power, cerebral matters, physicality, nihilism – is all we get. These great female directors almost indolently take that world view as a given, but ramp it up an extra couple of notches, taking us into a more transcendent, experiential, complex, and quite often more purely existential cinematic universe. As any of you who read my cinematic ramblings in depth will know, I’m always seeking out filmmakers who present diegesis (i.e. the realm of their cinematic ‘story’) as something other than bog-standard genre and dramaturgy. Filmmakers who can take us inside as well as outside, and who understand the medium is as much about sense and spectacle, as it is about apeing literature and theatre, and acting as forum for political tubthumping. Jane Campion gets this – her beautiful homage to Keats, Bright Star, is the most appropriate film about poetry I’ve seen. Claire Denis has been making consistently world-class, high quality mood pieces that function on both intimate and profound registers for over a quarter of a century now. As for Sofia Coppola, say what you like about the somewhat hermetic subject matter of her pieces, but you’d be hard pushed to find a more tonally concentric auteur in world cinema – someone who knows exactly where each of her narratives are going and the importance of the interplay between style and content. Sarah Polley is a cinematic maverick in every sense – juggling, alongside her acting career, a breathtaking directorial portfolio that covers a highly emotive and wise portrait of Alzheimers, Away from Her, and perhaps the most virtuoso confessional documentary in Stories We Tell since at least Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation some ten years’ previous. And in Lynne Ramsay, we have arguably Britain’s greatest contemporary filmmaker (alongside Terence Davies), and her sensuous Morvern Callar is unquestionably one of the most underrated films of the last decade. But how does this aesthetic of female cinema differ directly to the diet of male-envisioned cinema that accounts for the majority of industry output? A marginally simplistic, but nevertheless instructive, example of this contrast is in Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana – a useful work in its own right about the macro-implications of the global oil trade, but one of the most didactic, literary and bombastic American films ever made – versus Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman, a ninety minute half-dream about an Argentine woman not ostensibly doing very much, and whose greatest crime is that she probably ran over a dog….But you tell me which film is the more artful, the more sensory, the more profound, the more sophisticated, the more respectful to the audience? (Incidentally, check out my scene analysis of a key early passage of The Headless Woman, to see why many consider Martel to be the greatest contemporary cinematic storyteller going):

Of course, I’d be contradicting myself if I subscribed in absolute terms to this gender aesthetic paradigm – after all, Kathryn Bigelow has made a career out of dealing in (and in most respects, absolutely triumphing at) American action/thriller cinema, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Terrence Malick are two of the most deliriously hypnotic and lustrous of ‘feminine’ directors I know. But there is a clear and indisputably high quotient between the terms ‘female film director’ and ‘quality’. Even when I did a module in Russian/Soviet cinema at UCL, I was drawn to Larissa Shepitko and Kira Muratova (director of a truly remarkable film called Long Goodbyes) as much as the more heralded geniuses of Mikhail Kalatozov, Andrei Tarkovsky and Alexander Sokurov. Let’s hope that those in the positions of power – naturally the financiers and the producers, but also big-named actors who can through association alone kickstart a filmmaker’s career (yes, I’m thinking of you Ms Blanchett) and us as consumers, who can vote with our money, our algorithmic clicks, and our critical championing – give more female directors a chance. And failing that? Moral righteousness is at least a start…(May 2014)


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