Film Review | Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema - Timely celebration of women’s global contribution to the art and craft of of film-making
WOMEN MAKE FILM is an episodic exploration of the craft of film-making following the cuts, pans, frames and tilts of some of history’s greatest films all directed by women. It’s been made by director and producer Mark Cousins, who enjoyed considerable success with his previous anthologies The Story of Film in 2011 and A Story of Children and Film a few years later.
Women Make Film’s 14-hour run time is broken up into 40 chapters, exploring more than 1,000 clips taken from 183 international films. It’s a marathon but it feels like a proportionate response to the old myth — recently taken up by Bafta’s Marc Samuelson — that there just aren’t many female film-makers out there.
In true road-movie tradition, the film explores the hinterlands while Tilda Swinton, Jane Fonda, Debra Winger, Adjoa Andoh, Kerry Fox, Thandie Newton and Sharmila Tagore take turns in playing teacher in this “academy of Venus.”
The significance of the open road is fairly vague — one interpretation might look to Gloria Steinhem’s autobiography, in which she describes the road as that “messy” conveyor that brings us “out of denial and into reality, out of theory and into practice, out of caution and into action, out of statistics and into stories.”
Cousins brings these women directors from their closeted domestic obscurity onto the open thoroughfare where their male counterparts have been enjoying the thrill of recognition ever since Georges Melies stuck a spaceship through the eye of the moon in 1902.
Avoiding didacticism, each of the 40 chapters focuses on a different theme, in sections such as Openings, Tone and Framing as well as more enigmatic designations such as Meet Cute, Believability and the Meaning of Life.
The three sections previewed at the British Film Institute last month, Bodies, Sex and Sci-Fi, come across as no-frills analyses of brilliant films made by brilliant directors, and Cousins skirts the elephant in the room — that he’s a male director — while making a concerted effort to evade the murky language of feminist aesthetics or the “female gaze.”
Each section presents snippets of works by a list of formidable directors from pioneers Lina Wertmuller, Wang Ping, Dorothy Arzner, Alice Guy Blache, Ida Lupino and Binka Zhelyazkova to the better-known Chantal Ackerman, Agnes Varda, Ava DuVernay and Kathryn Bigelow.
Even Beyonce makes the list. And while it’s always gratifying to see these later names rightfully celebrated, the majority of Women Make Film’s extraordinary credit list is an example of how much crucial work has been overlooked, to the detriment of the entire canon.
As Tilda Swinton asks in her iconic sinewy whisper: “Why do we call it Lynchian? Why not Muratovan?”
On the whole, Cousins’s is a fascinating foray into the world of film-making. It’s a visual feast, an odyssey exploring the craft and yet another reminder — in case it were needed — that women do indeed make films. And great ones too.
Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema is released on BFI Player, player.bfi.org.uk and other digital platforms on May 18, with a four-disc Blu-ray box set released on the same day.