I recently wrapped up a year-long project of watching 52 films by women directors. 52 Films by Women is the idea of Women in Film, and anybody can take part at any time (in other words, you don’t have to wait for January 1 to roll around).
It was a fantastic experience, so I thought I’d offer a few thoughts about what I got out of it, along with just a few more about my one quibble with it, and then some final thoughts about the films I most enjoyed.
The gist of the project is that you commit to watching an average of one movie a week directed by a woman. You can go to the Women in Film web site and register, you can tweet with the #52FilmsByWomen hashtag on twitter, you can chart your films with reviews and ratings at letterboxd. Or you can just do it for the experience of it. The one rule I set myself was that every film I watched had to be one I hadn’t seen before.
I promise you, you’ll find the experience incredibly rewarding.
Why did I take it up? I’ve been consciously seeking out films directed by women for decades now – I got hooked on Nicole Holofcener films twenty years ago, and like any ‘90s guy I’ve been into Kathryn Bigelow for ages (although, I’ve gotta admit, Point Break just isn’t my thing). Even still, like most movie goers, the vast majority of films I see are directed by men (and written by men, and shot by men, and – even with the high number of women editors – edited by men, ad infinitum . . .).
At the risk of tripping down an overly deterministic, gendered rabbit hole, I’ll go out on a limb and say . . . dum dum dum . . . films directed by women are different. It’s not necessarily that the “stories” are different – a lot of the films I watched were written by men – rather, that the approach to narrative, the contextualization of the narrative via film form and style, these things are different.
Some of this has to do with things that are only secondarily related to gender – at least on the surface. For example, a film’s budget should not necessarily be a mark of whether it was directed by a woman or a man, but it often is simply because the sexist economic conditions and production history of Hollywood dictate that women directors will be given smaller-budgeted films, and will not (with extremely rare exceptions) be given blockbusters to direct. Thus, while there are plenty of men working with low or indie-level budgets, women are invariably forced to do so.
So their films often tend to focus on character and narrative development, but also – at least in my experience – on performance. This is often chalked up to their being “women’s films,” that women are somehow inherently more interested in story than spectacle. I guess there could be some truth to that. But also true is that women as directors are often forced to focus on story because they don’t have the budget for spectacle.
One result is a vast array of films – from across countries and continents and throughout time – that offer an alternative kind of filmmaking, one that’s often much more pleasurable to watch than most films directed by men, as well as being more thought provoking, more concerned with questions of ethics and morality, and more willing, I’d argue, to take risks by breaking away from conventional forms of narrative and conventional societal mores.
I knew all this before – or at least I’d guessed it – but watching a film a week directed by women and really thinking about the “woman” part of the “by women” equation brought it home (I’ll get to the “by” part of the equation further down). It’s one thing to seek out the latest Kelly Reichardt film every two or three years, but it’s another thing completely to ensure that half the films or more that you watch in a year are directed by women. It’s the steady, regular progression of the films week to week that reveals how different cinema can be when different voices have access to production and distribution.
I didn’t actually watch a film a week. Some came in chunks, and there were some dry stretches – during summer holidays, or during marking crunch time. And it ended up taking me 55 weeks to complete my list. As I said above, every film I watched was new to me. I tried to spread the list across time (although most of the films were from the ‘90s or later) and country/language. In the end, though, only 6 weren’t entirely in English, and none were by filmmakers outside of the Americas or Europe. Other gaps: I tried to watch films by women of color, but didn’t get to nearly as many as I would have liked (only 6) and Latina directors (only 2). Some of this had to do with difficulty of access, some with the fact that there just aren’t a lot of films in those categories, and some, I have to admit, due to ignorance and laziness on my part. But it also gives me something to aim for in the future. While I won’t take up the 52 Films by Women project this year, I’m resolved to seek out films directed by women regularly and consistently from now on.
But not only directed by women. And here I’d like to raise my one issue with the project – a small one, but one that is at the very heart of my current research project on women in Hollywood. This quibble is by no means meant as a criticism of the project as a whole. I loved it, I learned a lot, and I would recommend taking part in it to anybody who cares about cinema. I’m completely aware of how underrepresented women are as film directors – in Hollywood and elsewhere. And I’m completely on board with the argument that this underrepresentation has more to do with entrenched sexism in the industry than any other limiting factor (like the specious argument, often trotted out, that women “just don’t want to make movies”).
However, I do wonder if the “by” part of the equation could be expanded. “By” has long been a contentious term in Hollywood. Known as the “possessory credit,” or to its detractors as the “vanity credit” (which also includes forms such as “Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho” or “A Christopher Nolan Film”), the “by” tends to imply that a film is solely the work of a director, thereby glossing over or erasing the collaborative effort that goes into making a movie (see this for more on my thoughts about the relationship between “ownership” and auteurism).
Since the 52 Films by Women project is about expanding our appreciation of who actually makes films, why not allow the “by” to include non-directing talent as well. If the project could be expanded to include women writers, editors, production designers, cinematographers, and so on, wouldn’t this be a great opportunity to cast light on a huge and hugely marginalized group of incredibly talented filmmakers? Couldn’t an argument be made that When Harry Met Sally . . . is as much a film “by” Nora Ephron as it is “by” Rob Reiner? Or, due to the importance of its editing, that Bonnie and Clyde is as much a film “by” Dede Allen as it is a film “by” Arthur Penn? And while there is yet to be a Star Wars film directed by a woman, couldn’t it be argued that producer Kathleen Kennedy has been fundamental to the resurgence of the series’ popularity?
In short, it’s vital to our understanding of filmmaking and film history that we better understand the contributions that women directors have made and continue to make. At the same time, I’d hate to see an increasing attention to women directors continue to entrench the auteur paradigm.
But whatever one’s stance on auteurism, I highly encourage readers to take up this project. You’ll see a ton of great movies and learn more than you’d expect about filmmaking and cinema.
I thought I’d highlight five films that most surprised me, or that I most enjoyed, throughout the project. These aren’t necessarily the “best” films; rather, they’re the ones that I had the strongest reaction to at the time of viewing. To see the full list, check out my letterboxd list (click the “Read Notes” button for my capsule reviews). And it was so hard to choose only five, that I’ve included an “honorable mention” list as well.
Fish Tank (dir. Andrea Arnold, 2009): This film has to be seen – in brief, Mia is a teenage girl growing up with a single mom and younger sister in a housing estate outside London. Her precarious financial situation causes her to have to grow up too fast, sometimes in ways she’s not equipped to deal with. The untrained Katie Jarvis is mesmerizing as Mia. Fantastic film, definitely watch it
Jeanne Dielman 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles (dir. Chantal Ackerman, 1975): What to say about an acknowledged masterpiece – it would be hard to add anything new. This is a slow film that requires patience (there is a lot of “slow cinema” on my list – I’m a fan), but it rewards that patience in unexpected, tragic, fierce ways. The story of a single mother and housewife who goes about her days with meticulous regularity (including “entertaining” gentleman callers for money), and the small events that bring about that regularity’s unravelling. It’s a post-Friedan film of a piece with many other from the ‘70s that examines the soul-crushing expectations of conformity in the life of the housewife.
Desperately Seeking Susan (dir. Susan Seidelman, 1985): How did I never see this film before starting this project? Rosanna Arquette is luminous in every iteration of Roberta – naive and tough, lost, and then finding herself. It’s a wonderful performance. And the rest of the cast is just as strong, including Madonna as the street-smart Susan who sees all the angles and has no problem working them. Aidan Quinn is also great as the headstrong and befuddled Dez who gets caught up in the web of mistaken identity.
A superb ‘80s New York film, alongside After Hours and Something Wild. Really, if you haven’t seen it or it’s been ages, watch this again. Great filmmaking from top to bottom!
I Am Somebody (dir. Madeline Anderson, 1970): I watched this documentary as a companion to Integration Report One – since both are short, and both were directed by Madeline Anderson. Hard to describe how powerful this documentary is. The film documents a strike by an African-American nurse’s union in late ‘60s South Carolina as they struggle to achieve equal wages and more respect in the work place. It’s a powerful piece that conveys the courage and strength of these women who are up against fierce resistance. Strong endorsement of women’s rights, black women’s rights, labor rights.
It’s a great companion piece to Integration Report One, but also seems to foreshadow Harlan County, USA, both in terms of style and subject.
Mikey and Nicky (dir. Elaine May, 1976): Another “I can’t believe I haven’t seen this yet” movie. A fantastic portrayal of friendship, betrayal, abuse, and (mis)trust, Mikey and Nicky is the sort of “anti-gangster” pic that the ‘70s was so good at producing.
Nicky (Cassavetes) plays a hoodlum on the run from the mob – there’s a hit out on him because of money he owes. Mikey (Falk), plays one of his best friends, who’s also got mob connections – he’s trying to get Nicky out of town before the hit can take place. Or is he.
This is basically a two-man show. Nicky and Mikey spend the night walking the city, visiting dive bars, making pit stops to visit girlfriends, and jumping the fence at a cemetery, all while ostensibly getting Nicky out of town. The shallowness of their supposed friendship, the depths they’ve gone to humiliate each other, their overinflated senses of importance and betrayal all come out. It’s not a pretty film. But it’s a fascinating, gritty, mean film that swirls around these two men’s pathetic attempts to justify their lives and make excuses for their behavior.
(With Ned Beatty’s fantastic hair cut playing the hit man and a heartbreaking performance by Carol Grace as Nicky’s possibly-a-call-girl girlfriend – which, warning, the entirety of that sequence is as nasty as can be).
Honorable mentions: Wanda (Barbara Loden, 1970); Harlan County, USA (Barbara Kopple, 1976); Waitress (Adrienne Shelly, 2007); The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marielle Heller, 2015); Mosquita y Mari (Aurora Guerrero, 2012); Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2012); The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel, 2008); The Hitch-Hiker (Ida Lupino, 1953).