This article was originally published January 2, 2017.
Disclosure: Tim League co-owns NEON and Birth.Movies.Death.
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Why do we need to talk about female filmmakers? Why should we bother to highlight the ladies behind the camera? After all, it’s not like this is something new. If you look back at the history of cinema, you’ll see that women have been sitting in the director’s chair since 1914, back when Lois Weber rose above traditional standards to take on Shakespeare and adapt The Merchant of Venice, a film she wrote, shot, and even starred in. So, given this knowledge, why is it still so important to touch on the presence of women directors?
In truth, it’s more about perspective than representation. Where you come from, your experiences in life, how you’re treated based on your social status – these are the things that shape a person and influence the film he or she is going to make. Therefore, doesn’t it make sense that to create new and exciting stories that differentiate sharply from what we’ve seen before, we’d need a different kind of person in the role of storyteller? There have been noteworthy accounts of women directing movies sprinkled sporadically throughout the years, and women have undoubtedly made massive strides forward; now, more than ever before, things are really changing. Female filmmakers are coming to the forefront, turning out in greater numbers and helming bigger, more popular projects – and most importantly, crafting cinema that is divergent. That’s why it’s necessary to keep talking about them. That’s why Sarah Adina Smith of Buster’s Mal Heart, Ana Lily Amirpour of The Bad Batch, Lucile Hadzihalilovic of Evolution, and Julia Ducournau of Raw are some of 2016’s most inspiring and inventive filmmakers.
In Buster’s Mal Heart, Smith tells the story of a man named Buster who becomes split in two in the wake of a horribly tragic event, one part of him charging out to sea, hell-bent on a reckoning with the powers that be, and one running away from the confrontation, but swept out by the current to meet his maker regardless. This movie dares to ask dangerous questions, the unpleasant ones we’d rather ignore so as to better accept our confinement – is freedom really ever possible, especially when a person becomes tied down by a lifestyle that revolves around raising a family? Can someone born with a bad heart ever really love another person and be good to them? Can you outwit your fate? And, if freedom is actually attainable, would we even want it once we got it? Director Sarah Adina Smith has somehow managed to create a genre-bending film that’s both touching and terrifying, philosophically profound, and at the end of the day, just downright entertaining to watch – all at the same time. This deeply layered special piece of work is so wonderfully unique and interestingly told that it serves as the perfect example of what happens when you give someone with a different point of view a chance to tell their story.
Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Bad Batch features a lead female character whose identity has been betrayed one too many times. Labeled a troublemaker, tossed out into a dystopian wasteland and handed a bleak new life, Arlen’s only friend left is survival. Unsure of who she is in this new world, and just trying to get through this day and the next, she is forced to confront and find herself, here in this cannibal coated wasteland where everyone is expendable and no one is spared an ounce of mercy. A ride from start to finish, Amirpour’s latest shows the ease with which she explores the subjects in her films, because to her, making a movie is like choosing how you’ll dance to a song. You just have to feel it. In a way, she, just like her character Arlen, is out chasing the American dream, forever trying to capture that elusive ideal that is as desirable as it is unattainable.
Evolution is a riveting and wholly inventive piece of filmmaking. Set in a remote village by the sea, Evolution revolves around a kid named Nicolas who grows up in this strange city which is only populated by little boys and fully grown women. Nicolas is told repeatedly by his mother that he is sick despite the fact that he looks perfectly healthy – and he isn’t the only one. Soon, it becomes clear that something is amiss within this odd little seaside community, when every single boy in the neighborhood becomes hospitalized for their supposed illnesses, and the nurses charged with taking care of them begin performing something akin to experiments upon their prepubescent patients. What’s so cool about this movie is that nearly every person who sees it has a different interpretation of what’s happening to the boys. Some say that the kids are turning into creatures, some argue that it doesn’t even take place within reality, but is actually all happening within the confines of one long dream. Some call it a feminist tale and argue that it’s a commentary on innate male fears, such as the loss of control and penetration. Others are convinced it’s just a coming of age story about how scary growing up can be. So how does a person craft such an unusual an innovative film? Director Lucile Hadzihalilovic says she does what you’re not supposed to do as a filmmaker – she works from the images first, and creates a story to match the pictures in her head. It doesn’t necessarily make for a cohesive narrative, but that’s not really what she’s after anyway. Lucky for her, her talented cinematographer Manuel Dacosse (who also shot The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears) understands her process, and does an incendiary job of bringing her vision to life.
Julia Ducournau is a smart, smart lady. Her words on film echo some of the most brilliant minds who have ever gotten their hands on a camera. In her film Raw, a young vegetarian turns cannibal when she gets a taste for blood during her Veterinarian school hazing ritual. Unlike Hadzihalilovic, she is extremely purposeful with whatever image she is showing the audience at that particular moment, but she’s also very open to interpretation, and would usually rather hear what a viewer has to say about her film than try to explain the significance of each scene herself. Ducournau and her lead actress Garance Marillier have been working together for six years, long before the up-and-coming thespian earned a spot in Ducournau’s first feature length film. It’s a good thing, too, because the two have developed a tight bond over time, and when it comes time to shoot, no one else might understand what in the world these two women are saying to each other, but Marillier understands exactly what her director is looking for. Scenery is important and the script is crucial, but the story is told mainly through a series of changing body movements, in which Justine transforms from a loving human into a ferocious animal.
So what do all of these films have in common? Well, besides the fact that they were all directed by women, it’s worth noting that all of these ladies wrote their own scripts, as well. Three of the films represent sophomore efforts (all of them if you count Ducournau’s TV movie Mange as her first film), and what’s really cool is only one of them is actually from America.
We are made better people by the films we watch. By exposing ourselves to the unfamiliar, we gain perspective of the world, and not only learn about other cultures and perspectives that differentiate from ours, but also learn more about ourselves and our place in society along the way. However, despite the fact that it’s important to grace female filmmakers with their much deserved spotlight, the truth is all of these directors are just talented people who happen to be women. Their voices are a very necessary addition to a world that’s been overrun with much of the same over the years, but no matter their gender, their strength as storytellers is what should be recognized and celebrated.