As it stands, the film industry is overwhelmingly male. Having recently become aware of my lack of knowledge of female directors, I thought I’d provide an alternative watch list of films that deserve a wider audience. This is not just a list of canonical film director’s sisterly equivalents – I do not want to equate or compare – but, rather, an exploration of how male and female visionaries explore similar themes differently. These are some of the most pioneering women of the past few years who have responded to the demands of this new female film audience and produced film which starts to question its patriarchal ancestry.
Wadjda (2012) is Haifaa al-Mansour’s debut film and the first feature film to be entirely shot in Saudi Arabia – the land without cinema. Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is an eleven year old girl whose dream is to be able to race Abdullah (friend and love interest) on a bike of her own. Despite facing opposition on this matter from her mother she eventually finds the money needed to buy a bike for herself, battling the prejudices of the country she was born into.
Throughout the film, al-Mansour warns us never to take freedom for granted. Saudi Arabia’s hostility towards young women pervades every shot, both in front of and behind the camera. On set, al-Mansour had to shoot some of the scenes from the inside of a van using a walkie-talkie to give directions in order not to get caught by the authorities.
However; Wadjda became the country’s entry into the Academy Awards which, occurring within the same year that Saudi Arabia entered their first female athlete into the London Olympic Games, this film marks a turning point in a country’s social priorities. The film is touching and uplifting, but most of all: it is hopeful.
I like to think of Wadjda as a reimiaging of Boyhood (2014). Linklater’s come-of-age drama collected several awards at the Oscars, partly due to the scale of its production: Richard Linklater spent twelve years filming Mason (Ellar Coltrane) growing up. Its emotional capital is largely generated from Linklater’s loyalty to a depiction of adolescence we are already familiar with. There is nothing necessarily wrong with nostalgia for these standard rites of passage, but this is whitebread America which tends to bore quickly.
Signe Baumane’s Rocks in My Pockets (2014) proclaims itself to be ‘a funny film about depression’. Hand-drawn animation is combined with papier-mache stop motion tell the tale of grandmother Anna’s children and their troubled upbringing in the context of twentieth-century Latvia.
The plot is divided into the five daughters’ stories of their crazy quest for sanity which emerge from what seems to be their struggles to avoid pre-destined domesticity; to quote from the film ‘life seems random without any purpose, you procreate and then you die.’ Upsetting, sardonic and cynical, the film sees doctors self-medicate before they prescribe their patients with anti-depressants – patients who have most likely sought refuge in the Soviet mental hospital from certain death in the Afghanistan war.
Although it is a sensitive treatment of mental suffering, the film isn’t always an easy watch. It does reassure us though that if you ignore the voices that only you can hear for the ones of the people who love you, staying sane isn’t so hard. It is difficult to find a perfect comparison to such a unique and unforgettable film, but the one that came to mind is Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Besides Baumane’s feature, Burton’s take on the mad underworld of normality appears rather gimmicky – the comedy is rather less effective.
Released in 2014, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook sees Amelia (Essie Davis) struggle to raise her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) after his father’s sudden death. They are haunted by the Babadook monster which finds its way into their home through the passages of a children’s book. The premise of the film may abide by certain conventions – the haunted house, the unwanted, unruly son and the ghostly father – but it unsettles in unexpected ways.
Amelia relationship to Samuel is troubling; her alienation from him questions whether maternal love is as instinctual as we might assume. Her duty to mother her son is crossed by a need to grieve her husband’s death in a road traffic accident on the way to give birth; reading Amelia’s psychological state troubles in the most intimate ways. Her characterization grapples with questions of a woman’s identity as a mother, and a widow’s identity as a nurturer. The Babadook represents how years of malign grief will eventually surmount to psychological collapse, despite the attempts one makes to ignore it.
I chose it as a point of reference to Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). The sinister Overlook Hotel also provides the confined, claustrophobic space that suffocates symptoms of psychological disorder; the multitude of corridors and tight passageways that present possible escape routes are in fact labyrinthine and don’t let you get any further away from the horrors you’re really running from. In this film we have another young family torn apart by its pre-existing demons, most of all by Jack (Jack Nicholson) – the father’s – alcoholism whilst the son seems to possess a supernatural power with which he can access horrific premonitions of the future. Like Amelia, Jack regresses back into something more primal; a blood-thirsty, axe-wielding psychopath. What I think The Babadook does more effectively is in its portrayal of motherhood unlike the relationship between Wendy and Danny in The Shining that is left largely unexplored.
Out just last year, Mistress America was co-written by and stars Greta Gerwig. This film is about Tracy (Lola Kirke) a lonely college freshman who encounters her thirty-something soon-to-be stepsister (Gerwig) during their mutual crises of self. Tracy struggles with rejection from a cliquey college literary society, as she does from various romantic partners. Brooke (Gerwig) is equally vulnerable. Despite having secured her position as New York socialite – she teaches a spin class, is an interior designer and is looking for an investment to open a restaurant – she seeks validation from the younger generation, Tracy’s generation, who she becomes a host for.
Being directed by Gerwig’s off-screen partner Noah Baumbach this film shouldn’t technically make the list but I thought it illustrates how women feel an unnecessary pressure to conform to roles in different stages of their lives really well. If you have seen Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine Cate Blanchett’s character can be thought of as a foil for Gerwig’s; a Blanche du Bois socialite fallen on hard times. If you like the way Allen employs farce in his films, you’ll like Mistress America as well.
And so it seems: the time for female film directors is nigh. Watch these films and if that isn’t enough, go through this list published by Little White Lies of 100 great movies by female directors. That should keep you going.