Review: ‘Women Make Film’, and How, In This Epic Documentary Chronicling the Female Gaze

How to condense a 14-hour epic into a respectable article? After finishing Mark Cousins’ documentary ‘Women Make Film’, I sense anything offered will feel middling in comparison. Split up into 5 hefty episodes and further divided into chapters, this “academy of Venus” dips and swerves through 13 decades of cinema, exhibiting and discussing films created by women directors. Art has always been the domain of men, but it has long been acceptable and encouraged for a woman to indulge in playing music, painting, poetry or prose. Film directing still has blokey connotations; one thinks of Marty’s brows or Kubrick’s beard rather than a lady standing behind the behemoth of the camera. Women, if anything, seem to belong in front of the camera, to always be the object of its unblinking gaze. A woman director these days is still an oddity, an exception and exceptional; she will often have ‘woman’ or ‘female’ tacked onto her job title. Her projects are much harder to get off the ground. Her vision will often be compromised, and her films will be scrutinised in ways men’s films aren’t. Then there are the frequently used adjectives: Hitchcockian, Lynchian, Bressonian, Felliniesque, Wellesian…I cannot think of any female equivalents.

Women Make Film doesn’t seek to take a hatchet to the established canon, but slips in sveltely with pen in hand, to scribble in dense sidenotes about the languishing treasures. As is always the case with Cousins, it’s cosmopolitan in outlook, and doesn’t seek to be totally comprehensive, leaving room for the audience to fill in some blank areas themselves.

Known for his expansive and very enjoyable The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011), Cousins has the gift of discussing film in a personable way while resisting academic jargon. His passion for cinema is simply infectious. He feels like a slightly dotty friend or teacher, the kind who keeps piling obscure DVDs into your arms while telling you why they’re all ‘essential viewing’. While Women is narrated by a host of actresses (Tilda Swinton’s soothing patrician voice is the one who first beckons us into this journey), Cousins’ presence is betrayed in subtle ways. It’s still very much his style, his work. For example, the phrase “(insert title here) is one of the greatest films/scenes/sequences ever made” is one you’ll hear more than once. You can almost hear him saying it himself in his lilting Irish accent. Of course, it needs to be mentioned that a man creating a series about the female gaze is a little on the nose, but Cousins’ investment in his subject matter is obvious. Because of his wealth of insight, he’s able to get away with what most men could not.  

There are the usual suspects that are mentioned whenever women’s directors are discussed: Agnès Varda, Chantal Akerman, Kathryn Bigelow, Kelly Reichardt, Sofia Coppola, Maya Deren, Leni Riefenstahl, Jane Campion, Claire Denis, Shirley Clarke, Lynn Ramsey, Miranda July. There are some inspired choices (Sarah Maldoror, Wendy Toye, Margaret Tait, Catherine Breillat, Angelina Jolie, The Wachowskis, Beyoncé), and some strange omissions (Ulrike Ottinger, Lulu Wang, Greta Gerwig, Lina Wertmüller, Shirin Neshat, Agnieszka Holland, Nadine Labaki). A noticeably large amount of them come from former Soviet or Eastern Bloc countries; Iran, Japan, Scandinavia, and Latin America are also fairly well represented. As with any Cousins doco, it’s brimming with rediscoveries and I found out about directors I had either only heard of in passing, or not at all. I can’t wait to become more acquainted with the likes of Kira Muratova, Binka Zhelyazkova, Safi Faye, Cecile Tang, Yasmin Ahmad, Tahmineh Milani, Drahomíra Vihanová, Ann Hui, Pirjo Honkasalo, among so many others.

The film clips plucked from the archive are memorable and potent. In Mai Zetterling’s Night Games (1966), a little boy hungry for his mother’s attention sits at her toilette. By transforming himself with her powders, lipstick and fake lashes he effectively becomes his own mother. “Do you like Huey Lewis and the News?”, asks Patrick Bateman in the infamous American Psycho (2000) before brutally killing Paul Allen; grizzly murder is audaciously depicted here as slapstick comedy. In another American Psycho clip narrated by Jane Fonda, Bateman and others compare their business cards, akin to schoolboys comparing the “lengths of their penises” in Fonda’s assessment.

There are the beautiful swooping shots of Larisa Shepitko’s Wings (1966) and The Ascent (1977); the visual bravura of the works of Samira Makhmalbaf or Yuliya Solntseva. In Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970), the titular character trudges, hungover, through Pennsylvania coalfields. Barely literate and blighted by a lack of opportunity, I suspect there are many modern versions of Wanda in Trump’s America. With Sharmila Tagore narrating, we see Germaine Dulac’s ravishing Invitation to a Voyage (1927) where, bored of her husband, a woman makes eyes at a stranger in a nightclub. Her doleful face is superimposed onto clouds, the atmosphere languorous, intoxicated. “Celestial surrealism”, declares Tagore.

More: in Austrian artist Valie Export’s lo-fi sci-fi Invisible Adversaries (1977), we see a housewife manically chopping fish, fruit, vegetables. Fast cuts hint at her anguish. Slicing, bloodied knife, a decapitated fish head gulping for air. She opens the fridge door; inside is a cooing baby. Being diplomatic, the series wants to spark debate, so personally disliked inclusions are also inevitable. There are Sofia Coppola’s sugary but spiritually empty films, and Maren Ade’s turgid neoliberal nightmare Toni Erdmann (2016), which seems to be universally adored by everyone except myself.

Some of the best chapters are on ‘Love’, ‘Sex’, and ‘Bodies’. There is a quietly moving sequence in Astrid Henning-Jensen’s Krane’s Confectionary (1951); a smiling tradesman in his best clothes offers flowers and a bottle of wine to a woman. In a romantic haze, they don’t seem to notice the disapproving glares of the townsfolk. Teenage awkwardness is shown realistically in Dogfight (1991), where a young guy hides a wrapped condom inside a teddy bear’s dress while waiting for his date to come to bed. In Andrea Arnold’s American Honey (2016), two youths are all over each other on the grass when she interrupts him by shyly pulling out her tampon: “You don’t mind, do you?”. It may feel like a reductive point to mention, but throughout the series is an emphasis on the awry, the unsayable; the moments that interrupt how the narrative in our head pans out. Cinema directed by women is often one of magnified details ― “on a big screen, a teardrop can fall a metre”. National trauma is wrought on the maternal body in Germany, Pale Mother (1980), and in The Last Stage (1947) the director Wanda Jakubowska, who was an Auschwitz survivor, recreated her own experiences only a year after the camp had been liberated. It’s been referenced by Holocaust cinema ever since, most notably by Spielberg, in the movie that won him the Best Picture Oscar.

Admittedly, 14 hours is rather a slog, and repetition is a given. Various films are referenced multiple times, while other worthy ones get a look in just once. Some chapters feel like missed opportunities. The one about ‘Home’ felt particularly lacking, and the decision for the concluding chapter to be on musical numbers felt like an odd choice, almost like a rushed afterthought because Cousins didn’t want to conclude with the more downbeat ‘Death’ or ‘Endings’. Overall, there is much mental and visual pleasure to be gleaned from the series, and it will amply reward anyone that sticks with it at their own pace. Like Story of Film, it warrants repeat viewings, and will be well suited to at home DVD viewership.

The club that is women directors is small and distinguished, but, as I like to imagine, not exclusionary. This make-believe place has its arms flung out wide, always ready to welcome new members. I can’t help but feel that Women Make Film is a kind of love letter, only I’m not sure in which direction it’s going. Is it going back in time, to the directors, or to the present ― to the women directors of the future? Maybe a bit of both. It’s probably not merely a coincidence that Kinuyo Tanaka’s Love Letter (1953) is shown so many times throughout. Most of all, Women Make Film contains an acute sense of the woman director’s wonderment of the world, of other people and of herself. Movies are one of the last pieces of magic left, and maybe it’s better to just sit back and let oneself be embraced, rather than to pry and over intellectualize. As the old sage in Euzhane Palcy’s Sugarcane Alley (1983) says to the wide-eyed child: “All things in creation have their secrets”.

 Women Make Film screened as part of the 2020 Melbourne International Film Festival.

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Matilda Alexander is an emerging arts critic (and wonders how much longer she can use the term ’emerging’.) She majored in History and Philosophy at the University of Sydney, and has just begun her Masters in Film Media.

Matilda Alexander