Women and film

Women have always made up a large part of film audiences and in most mainstream films there is a female lead yet in the area of film directing and making women have been, and still are, woefully underrepresented. It was not until 2010 that a woman, Kathryn Bigelow, finally won Best Director at the Oscars. Prior to Bigelow scooping this coveted prize only one American woman had ever been nominated for Best Director before (Sofia Coppola, 2003) and three in total. It is telling that the only two American women who have made it as far as being nominated for Best Director are both frequently referred to as the wife or daughter of other male directors.

The situation in Europe is similar, for example since the Palme D’or was re-launched in 1975 there has only been one female winner, Jane Campion in 1993. It should however be noted that it was given jointly that year to two directors, the other being a man. It could be argued that it does not matter about awards or mainstream cinema as long as women are making films but awards bring in wider audiences and guarantee funding for future films so, rightly or not, they play a big part in the industry.

In the UK women directors have been just as sidelined although since there has been a film industry in this country women have played a role in directing and producing but they are a minority in the male dominated film industry. The Second World War allowed women to fill the fighting men’s shoes as vacancies arose at the Ministry of Information. These films, largely propaganda in nature, were sometimes scripted and directed by women. For example Muriel Box made her directorial debut with the Ministry of Information making short documentaries.

The post war period saw little improvement with women film makers largely ignored and underfunded. The arrival of Channel Four in the eighties was the first step toward a little more visibility and more crucially, funding, for women directors. This was followed by some support from the British Film Institute (BFI). The recession in the early nineties meant funding dwindled for almost a decade. Directors such as Antonia Bird were able to continue making films for TV but wider box office success for women during this period was modest. Gurinder Chadha has been making films since the early nineties but she did not manage to make it into the mainstream until 2002 with ‘Bend it Like Beckham’.  The new millennium has seen a modest flourishing of women directors gaining critical acclaim. Alongside Gurinder Chadha there have been others like Lynne Ramsay, Andrea Arnold, Beeban Kidron and more recently Sam Taylor Wood making mainstream films for big box office audiences.

The lack of female directors was once attributed to the lack of female film school graduates. But, writes Kira Cochrane, in 2010 34% of directing school students are women. On graduation many make short films but few go on to make feature length productions.

As in other spheres where women are underrepresented, women are creating their own film festivals and prizes. In London there is the Bird’s Eye View film festival which showcases women directors and film makers. Now in its sixth year and hosted at the BFI on the Southbank, it acknowledges women’s contribution to film and awards prizes for best feature, best documentary and best short. There are also the annual Women in Film and TV Awards which have been running since 1991 and have awarded women such as Verity Lambert, Julia Davis and Tilda Swinton. Both are partly funded by the soon-to-be axed UK Film Council so surviving the austerity years may prove a challenge.

Short film festivals are often show cases for women’s work and there are some women only short film festivals such as Lunafest in America and Film Directing 4 Women in the UK. The organisation of Lunafest is worth noting as it selects ten short films and then is hosted in numerous locations. The last Lunafest saw 140 events happening all over America with people viewing short films for, by and about women. All money raised is ploughed back into women’s community projects and charities.  At the Oscars and Cannes short films are awarded separate prizes and women have fared slightly better in this section of competition than in the feature length equivalent but short films, much like short stories in publishing, are not considered serious money making ventures by much of the industry and so are often viewed as second class.

So the good news: more women than ever before are training to direct films, many go on to make short films and a few are making it in a very competitive and sexist industry. There is still a long way to go but the more women there are directing and producing will eventually mean more female film executives who control the purse strings of the industry which could lead to a tipping point. Until then a few women film directors will make it while an awful lot more will be denied the funding they need, never more so than in a recession.  On their page dedicated to women and film the BFI list the top British female film makers. The first thing to note is how short the list is for nearly a hundred years but they have omitted many more recent women previously mentioned so it is not by any means exhaustive. The second thing to note is how few names are recognisable to anyone who is not a film buff. On the up side the list demonstrates that women have and always will be great film makers no matter how sidelined we are by the industry.

Lotte Reiniger (1899 – 1981)
A German born national who took British Citizenship after the Second World War and settled in an artist’s community in North London, Reiniger made more than sixty films. She pioneered silhouette animation as used in China and Indonesia. Her first feature length film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed was released in 1923 and challenges the idea that Disney was the first to make a feature length animation. She was awarded prizes at the Venice Film Festival and was honoured by her native Germany with an Order of Merit. Reiniger continued making films into her late seventies and though the work was intricate she was still adept at cutting the shapes needed for her animations.

Jill Craigie (1911 – 1999)
Born of Scottish and Russian parentage Craigie first became a journalist and then started acting in films. By the nineteen thirties she turned to film making and made numerous short films and documentaries. Craigie was one of the first directors to show that films about ordinary people could be interesting and successful. Her subject matter often focused on poverty and inequality. Her film about coalmining ‘Blue Scar’ broke box office records in Wales when it was released in 1948. Craigie wrote and researched around feminist issues particularly women’s suffrage in her later years although she did make a final film in the nineties.

Ngozi Onwurah (1964 – Present )
Born of Nigerian parentage Onwurah graduated from the UK’s National Film and Television School and has gone on to make acclaimed short films. Her films tackle subjects of race, class and gender and topics such as body image. She has managed to mix a career in short art house films with directing for popular TV series. Her first feature length film, ‘Welcome II the Terrordome’ gave Onwaruh the title of the first black woman to direct a feature length film in the UK. The film was controversial and divided critics, with many panning it outright but this did not stop it winning prizes at the Birmingham, Cologne and Verona Film Festivals. Her short films have also scooped prizes at Berlin, Toronto and Melbourne Film Festivals.


Copyright: Becky Ridgewell, 2010