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The Feminist Filmmakers Changing Cinema For The Better

Ginger and Rosa, 2012
For a long time, it's felt like there’s been an absence of female role models in cinema, both on screen and off. According to reports, a total of 21 of the 100 top films of 2014 featured a female lead or roughly equal co-lead, and across the 100 top films of 2014, women only accounted for 1.9% of directors, 11.2% of writers, and 18.9% of producers. When you see it put like that, the inequality in the industry is startling.

However, a new book by academic and film journalist Sophie Mayer observes a sea change. In Political Animals, she argues that more and more women are getting senior positions in the industry: you simply have to know where to look for them. Mayer guides us through the landscape, pointing out the likes of British director Sally Potter and the brilliant Céline Sciamma – the French director of 2014 arthouse hit Girlhood and the stunning 2011 Tomboy. Filmmakers like these, says Mayer, are creating exciting and alternative viewing to the sexist stereotypes we're so used to seeing on screen.

It's not all happening on the fringes though. In 2010, Katherine Bigelow was the first woman to win an Academy Award for best director for her film The Hurt Locker; in 2013 Disney broke box office records with with the female-fronted cartoon Frozen; and it was announced just yesterday that the ever-loveable J-Law is to direct her first feature film. With all that in mind, we asked Mayer what it is about these films that mark progression, and why female filmmakers are only hitting headlines now.
Why are there so few well known female filmmakers and so few Hollywood films with strong female protagonists?
You don’t need the stats to see the truth of Stacy L. Smith’s observation that, “as U.S. studio money comes in, females are pushed out.” There are few well-known female filmmakers and fewer female leads in blockbuster films for the same reason there are few female CEOs and world leaders: because women are still excluded from money and power. So even when women do succeed with brilliant films – like Jane Campion winning the Palme d’Or for The Piano; or Sophie Hyde winning Best Director at Sundance for 52 Tuesdays – they aren’t showered with praise and opportunities. I think Hollywood is the problem, not the solution, as far as a more diverse and exciting film culture is concerned. It’s too stuck in its ways to change – we need to look elsewhere.
What has started to change for the better over the last decade?
There are more elsewheres and more ways to learn about them! Digital media bring global film cultures to the fore – we can see brand-new work such as Cecile Emeke’s Strolling series and pay the filmmaker directly; we can use MUBI or BFIPlayer (check out their Female Gaze collection) to get deep into back catalogue and discover lost films. Making those connections back and forth is essential: we can watch Jill Soloway’s series Transparent, then check out co-director Nisha Ganatra’s 1997 film Chutney Popcorn.

I also think we’re more conscious that there are stories everywhere, particularly about women’s lives, that have powerful claims on our attention: Kim Longinotto is finally being celebrated (as she deserves) for pushing at this for decades – making films in Japan, Iran, Kenya, South Africa, and India. And filmmakers from those countries like Naomi Kawase, Hana Makhmalbaf, Wanuri Kahiu, Sara Blecher and Shonali Bose are seeing their films travel to film festivals, get reviews and win awards – now the final piece of the puzzle is getting them distribution to wider audiences.

Why did you call your book Political Animals?
Because of the blog Confused Cats against Feminism! Not really: but in part because of what that blog (and the hours I spent reading it, crying with laughter) points to – media is where contemporary feminist activism is at. Protests in the streets and on Twitter go hand in hand, and feminist cinema is part of that, from the meme to the silver screen.

When I saw Jehane Noujaim’s film The Square in 2013 (filmed in Tahrir Square) I felt like here was a new feminist cinema that was totally, boldly out there, shouting its demands. It starts from a concern with gender equity and brings in other issues; it links domestic settings and stories with public spaces, and it’s full of women who are strong, complex and articulate, rather than just carbon copies of male heroes.

You know how the Male Hero will often have a pet to show he’s good and kind (even if he spends the whole film killing people?) and the pet will often be killed to give us feels about him? That’s how I felt that female characters were treated in a lot of cinema: so for me, feminist cinema is the opposite of that. It’s those characters getting organised, protesting against that. Sometimes – like in Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy – with an animal who is more than a narrative twist or sidekick.

You talk about Elsa from Frozen a lot – what does she represent for you?
I’m not alone in feeling like Elsa is a protagonist I could side with: it was amazing to watch how “Let It Go” became a global anthem not only for children, but for people in the LGBTQIA community. She is a female protagonist who doesn’t die, and doesn’t have to kiss a guy at the end: sisterhood is more important for her.

These are really, really low bars for a film to jump: but it’s astonishing how few films do. Finding a film that I could love but that I could share with my sister, my goddaughter (who I interviewed about the film for the book!), and a million singing kids everywhere was a rare experience. I love feminist films I can sing along to – Jennifer Reeder’s A Million Miles Away is my new go-to.

Finally, what else needs to happen if we're to combat sexism in cinema?
How about a moratorium, just for a year, on films about male heroes saving things by killing other things? We can’t get Hollywood to agree to that, but you can do it in your life: sign up to the initiative #52FilmsbyWomen and be the change by watching films made by women in 2016.

There’s 500 discussed in Political Animals, across different genres and countries. If you like fantasy/horror, you could start with Danis Goulet’s short film Wakening, which is a brilliant post-apocalyptic vision of female heroism; follow up with Carol Morley’s mysterious The Falling (initially released on DVD without Morley’s name on the cover!); and close with Gulshan Omarova’s Baksy, in which a wily female shaman returns from the dead – as feminism and feminist cinema always does and always will, however much the big boys with their big bucks try to ignore it.

Political Animals is available here.