Women directors screened out

Christopher Silvester on Mark Cousins’s latest documentary

On Cinema

This article was taken from the September issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Back in May, the Spectator’s film reviewer Deborah Ross mocked the latest Sight & Sound poll of 1,206 critics, directors and academics about their choice of the top 100 films. “Might this also explain why, of the top 100 films, only two are directed by women? Do you want to sit with that a while? The fact that 98 per cent of the best films are by men, say men.” (The two female directors included in the poll were Chantal Akerman and Claire Denis.)

Almost as a reproach to the Sight & Sound poll, film critic and documentary-maker Mark Cousins has directed Women Make Film: A New Road Movie rough Cinema, which was premiered at the Toronto Film Festival a year ago and was released in May on Blu-ray and for subscribers to the BFI Player.

To sidestep a charge of sexism he has asked a group of international actresses to voice the narration

It is 14 hours long, but you needn’t find that daunting since it is divided into five episodes of around three hours each, and divided further into 40 chapters on topics or themes such as openings, framing, meet cutes, tone, reveals, etc.

In this cornucopia of pleasures, plucked from six continents, Cousins shows us more than 700 clips from 183 different directors linked by shots of driving forward through every kind of landscape.

To sidestep a charge of sexism he has asked a group of international actresses (Tilda Swinton, Jane Fonda, Sharmila Tagor, Adjoa Andoh, Kerry Fox, Thandie Newton, and Debra Winger) to voice the narration. This also means that we don’t have to listen to Cousins’s own voice — an acquired taste — that will be familiar to viewers of his earlier documentaries.

“Cinema history is sexist by omission,” Cousins declares (through Swinton). But he fails to explain why so many of these women directors are absent from the canon or at the very least under-appreciated.

Often, their works are hard to find, as too are works by male directors, because they are not deemed commercial enough for international DVD distribution; and their careers have sometimes been curtailed or derailed by factors other than sexism.

Russian director Larisa Shepitko would probably have gone on to do greater things, but she died in a car crash at the age of 39. Again, only her two greatest films (out of five full-length features) are available on DVD with English subtitles, both of them extraordinary films about World War II: Wings (1966) and The Ascent (1977).

The ICA put on a retrospective of her work in 2005, which followed a season about women in Soviet cinema at the NFT back in 1985.

French director Jacqueline Audry’s Olivia (1951), a lesbian love story between pupil and headmistress set in a girls’ boarding school, is available on Blu-ray and Amazon Prime, though not on DVD. Audry may have made films with feminist themes or sympathies, but she was a formal traditionalist eclipsed by the New Wave.

British director Wendy Toye, whose 1955 comic Technicolor short film On the Twelfth Day… Cousins admires, had a very minor career in film, but was a hugely successful choreographer and stage director.

At one point in the commentary, Tilda Swinton describes a moment in a Kira Muratova film as “Lynchian” (i.e., typical of the director David Lynch) before asking: “Why ‘Lynchian’? Why not ‘Muratovian’?” To which the obvious answer is that Muratova’s work is not common currency among students of film, let alone wider international audiences.

Cousins calls the director Ukrainian when she is more accurately described as an Odessa-based Russian filmmaker. Muratova (1934-2018) was banned from making films by the Soviet authorities several times because her maverick visual style unnerved them, and while her features were shown at international festivals during perestroika and beyond, only one feature, Two in One, is available on DVD with English subtitles.

Having glimpsed a couple of amazing clips, I am desperate to see Bulgarian director Binka Zhelyazkova’s debut feature We Were Young (1961), a neo-realist tale about a young couple resisting the Nazis. But not a single one of Zhelyazkova’s  features is available from Amazon in any format, and I shall have to make do with the DVD of Binka: To Tell a Story About Silence, a 48-minute documentary about her life and work by Elka Nikolova. But that too is currently unavailable.

And why is almost every film directed by Ida Lupino available on DVD except Outrage, her 1950 melodrama about an office girl’s traumatic rape on the way to work and its debilitating aftermath?

Nonetheless, there are some puzzling inclusions. In the chapter on sci-fi Cousins chooses two clips from movies by the Wachowski sisters, The Matrix (1999) and Jupiter Ascending (2015). The only problem with this is that the first film and its sequels were made back when the Wachowskis were brothers, since Laurence transitioned in 2010, and the second film was made the year before Andrew transitioned to Lilly. I suppose you could argue that their gender dysphoria predated their transitions, but it’s pushing it somewhat to classify them as women directors when they still identified as men.

Inevitably, some female critics have responded by saying that a woman should have directed this documentary instead of Cousins — the modern orthodoxy that only “lived experience” can produce truly authentic art. But culture is as much about curation as it is about creation. It was Cousins who had the idea to make this mammoth documentary series, not a woman. More power to him. Presumably they will only be satisfied if he follows the example of the Wachowskis and decides to transition.

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