Pictured: Storekeeper Etoro (Eka Chavleishvili) cradles delivery man, Murman (Temiko Chichinadze) in a scene from the Georgian drama, 'Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry' directed by non-binary Elene Naveriani. Still courtesy of Alva Film, Takes Film and Cannes Film Festival
When I started a blog in 2014 writing about fifty-two films directed by women, I didn’t expect to be doing so nine years later. Much has changed. I am writing this on Day 108 of the actors’ strike in Hollywood, led, aptly enough, by a woman (Fran Drescher), over which on-screen talent seek better rewards, a new system for paying cast members of streaming shows, and better protection for actors’ work against artificially generated digital doubles. Film reviewer friends in the UK, no longer able to earn money interviewing big-name stars, are feeling the pinch. I’m also writing this less than twenty-four hours news broke that Friends star Matthew Perry was found dead in his bathtub, aged fifty-four. In the real world, specifically in Gaza and Ukraine, much worse things are happening.
Yet, in the somewhat narrow realm of the entertainment industry, there are signs of improvement. This week, in UK cinemas, there are four new releases directed by women: 20,000 Species of Bees, Typist Artist Pirate King, Cat Person and the straight out of the box hit, Five Nights at Freddy’s. Next week (3 November), there will be three: How to Have Sex, The Royal Hotel and Bottoms. The week after (10 November), another three: the Cannes prize-winner Anatomy of a Fall, The Marvels and Give Me Pity. On 17 November, Saltburn. On 24 November: Girl, The Eternal Daughter and Wish. These are simply titles, in the case of Bottoms, Anatomy of a Fall, The Marvels and Saltburn, these are films I am looking forward to watching as much as any franchise film from or work by a well-regarded male auteur. Admittedly, there are far fewer films directed by women released in December and beyond as Hollywood studios adjust their release schedules, but more and more, the female voice and female experience is represented on screen.
There is no doubt that the success of Barbie – worldwide box-office gross $1.4bn – is a symptom of a changed production environment and perhaps a catalyst for more films directed by women. Although both Greta Gerwig (Barbie) and Emma Tammi (Five Nights at Freddy’s) benefited from IP awareness of their films, their demonstration of a ‘safe pair of hands’ means that studio executives won’t have to think twice about greenlighting films directed by women.
Film directors are one thing. Film producers quite another. There has been a backlash against one female producer in particular, Kathleen Kennedy, accused on ruining Lucasfilm’s output on the large and small screen – Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny attracted particular ire. To those trolls, I say, male producers are far more culpable in acts of destructive interference. Back in the 1980s, my friends and I would dread any film produced by Dino de Laurentiis, as evidenced by Conan the Barbarian, Flash Gordon and Dune. Producers Avi Lerner and Neal H. Moritz fill me with an equal amount of dread. Let us also not forget those arch corner-cutters Menachem Golan and Yoram Globus of Cannon ill-repute. Kennedy does not deserve the amount of online abuse directed towards her. Sometimes a franchise has simply had its day.
For all of the awards given to women directors, for all the box-office success of their films, there is still the struggle for their cinematic follow-up. Where are new films by Lulu Wang, Lorene Scafaria, Chloe Zhao, Julia Ducournau and Patty Jenkins? Not to mention Jennifer Kent, Karyn Kusama, Jordana Spiro, Susanne Bier, and Adina Pintilie? Some of these women have moved into television where it is easier to be recommended for a project than generate one. Real success – real parity – will be seen when women directors are discussed as auteurs as readily as men. There are only a handful of women – maybe five handfuls - whose status as auteurs is uncontested. Chantal Akerman, Andrea Arnold, Kathryn Bigalow, Jane Campion, Gurinder Chadha, Sofia Coppola, Claire Denis, Nora Ephron, Debra Granik, Mia Hansen-Love, Jessica Hausner, Joanna Hogg, Nicole Holofcener, Lucretia Martel, Sally Potter, Lynne Ramsay, Kelly Reichardt, Angela Schanelec, Celine Sciamma, Lynn Shelton, Carla Simon, Agnes Varda, Alice Winocour and Chloe Zhao are on my list. For the rest, we still require a change of critical discourse.
Real change will also be signified by the right of a woman director to fail. Hollywood did not smile kindly on Penny Marshall and Penelope Spheeris when their projects under-performed at the box office; after the opening weekend returns, studios dropped the Penny. I hope that both Gerwig and Tammi will be allowed their failures in the light of past successes. Similarly, Maria Schrader, whose film, She Said, about the investigation into the abuse committed by producer Harvey Weinstein, somewhat underperformed. I was heartened to be on a transatlantic flight recently and a fellow passenger – I should call her a fellow traveller – chose to watch it.
Pictured: Michelle Williams in writer-director Kelly Reichardt's 2022 Cannes competition entry, 'Showing Up', one of the movie highlights of the last eighteen months. Still courtesy of A24 Films
There is another potential game changer that renders efforts to comment upon gender equality in filmmaking pointless, namely individuals born female who refuse to identify as women. Halfway through a review of the film Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry, I found myself unable to consider it for inclusion in this series because its director, Elene Naveriani does not identify as a woman. This is their right. In so doing, they place themselves out of a central binary debate about achieving gender parity. Last year, I read a deliberately provocative list by a male writer declaring The Matrix to be the greatest film directed by a woman, or in this case two men, the Wachowski siblings, who subsequently identified as women (though not in 1999). Gender is considered to be divisible from sex for reasons that have been well argued. Indeed, this is sometimes the subject of films by women, for example, 20,000 Species of Bees. In trying to achieve change, as the actors’ strike has proved, collective solidarity rather than fragmentation of an oppressed group is required.
There is one compelling reason to have written a blog about films by women. The films themselves are so good. Seeking out films I might not ordinarily choose to watch has unearthed to-date an unending series of pleasures. Having one deciding factor makes it easier to choose what to catch when attending a film festival. This is not to say I ignore other films, but I am now more likely to discover films of the high quality of The Apartment with Two Women or Dreissig than not.
In deciding whether to continue this blog, which ultimately, given feedback, is more of a personal record than anything of wider interest, I shall do so for an eighth cycle, so long as Bitlanders.com will host me. As far as the mainstream is concerned, interest in this subject will rise and recede. I should like to continue to reflect on trends. I hope, like many people around the world, for a satisfactory end to the Actors’ Strike and for peace in the Middle East and beyond.
29 October 2023