Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema Review
The cinema is a century and a quarter old, but women were there from the start. On 22 March 1895 in Paris, the Lumière Brothers held the likely first ever demonstration of films projected on a screen to an invited audience of two hundred, nine months before their first public showing on 28 December. In the audience was Alice Guy (later, with her marriage, Alice Guy-Blaché), then working for Gaumont, a camera-manufacturing company.
Within a year, she was directing her own films, the first woman to do so. The Cabbage Fairy (1896, remade in 1900 and 1902 – the original is lost but the remakes survive) was the first ever narrative film, as opposed to the actualities shot by the Lumières and other pioneers. Yet you may have to search for film histories mentioning, let alone discussing, Guy, while her contemporaries (R.W. Paul and Birt Acres in the UK, Georges Méliès in France among them) are amply represented. Why is this? (For more about Guy, see the documentary on her, Be Natural. Also of interest is the BFI’s Early Women Filmmakers box set, reviewed here by Zoe Crombie.)
As Tilda Swinton’s narration says in the introduction to all fourteen episodes of Women Make Film, most of the world’s directors are men and most of the acknowledged classics of cinema were directed by them. Yet women in their thousands have made films, on all six continents and for thirteen decades. Mark Cousins’ documentary looks at film and how they are made and the techniques used, through the eyes of the world’s women directors.
It’s easy to say what Women Make Film is not. It’s not a history of women filmmakers and doesn’t discuss why so many women have been excluded from the major film industries for so long. It does touch upon this by, for example, pointing out that Dorothy Arzner was the only woman making films for Hollywood major studios in the 1930s and 1940s and the only one to join the Directors’ Guild of America before Ida Lupino followed suit. (Not quite: Arzner was the only female solo director then, but Wanda Tuchock co-directed one film and Jane Loring was credited as “associate director” on two.) What it is, is a fourteen-hour- film school, in forty thematic chapters with an introduction and conclusion, where all the instructors are women. The narration may have been written by a male ally (Cousins) but it is delivered by seven women: in order of appearance, Swinton, Jane Fonda, Adjoa Andoh, Sharmila Tagore, Kerry Fox, Thandie Newton, Debra Winger.
And what extracts they are. I defy you to end this documentary without a long list of directors you’ve never seen films by or even heard of, from countries whose filmmaking is new to you. It’s a pity that many of these films are so hard to get to see. Yes, there are notable women directors omitted – off the top of my head, Gillian Armstrong (Australia), Agnieszka Holland (Poland) and Margarethe von Trotta (Germany) among them – but there are many who simply haven’t had their due, at least not outside their native countries. Cousins clearly has his own favourites, the Soviet/Ukrainian Kira Muratova being one of them. Transwomen are included, as the Wachowskis feature, naturally, in the chapter on science fiction. And while the documentary focuses on cinema, it doesn’t do so exclusively. You could certainly argue that Antonia Bird’s Safe, for example, is a television production and twice Cousins uses examples from episodic small-screen work, The Handsmaid’s Tale and Westworld. In the song-and-dance section there’s an extract from Beyoncé’s “Lemonade”.
The documentary begins with openings and examples of setting the tone of a film. It ends, naturally, with death and endings, but Cousins does send us away with a song and a dance. In between the extracts are shots from the front of a moving vehicle, as we travel down a physical road in this road movie. Other than that, the narrators (except Fonda) are introduced with a shot of them at the wheel of a car and at the end, we see still photographs of several of the women whose films have been featured over the last fourteen hours.
So, what conclusions can we come to? Surprisingly few, as it turns out, other than the obvious - women have made as much a proportion of good, excellent and great films as men have. Maybe - as the chapter on sex suggests -women will treat the subject differently, though talk of male and female gazes (hetero- or homosexual or otherwise) is absent. But the techniques demonstrated can and have been used by men as well, all things, such as talent, notwithstanding. Maybe an increased number of female protagonists, is the conclusion that Cousins comes to.
And then, after fourteen hours, we read the end of our journey, and the culmination of our exploration, and we – to paraphrase T.S. Eliot – return to where we started, maybe to know it for the first time. Women Makes Film ends with a visit to the grave of the first woman to make film, Alice Guy-Blaché.
Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema is a four-disc Region B Blu-ray release from the BFI. At the time of writing, it is also available on BFI Player in five parts, here. The documentary is divided into fourteen hour-long episodes, four per disc for the first three discs, two plus the extras on the final one. Women Make Film has a 15 certificate while Together has a U.
The documentary is presented in a ratio of 1.78:1. The new material – mostly shots from behind the windscreen of a moving vehicle – are in HD and look pristine, as they should. The film extracts are understandably a mixed bag, down to their sources and those sources’ state of repair. While many are full HD, others are standard DVD and still more come from video sources or 16mm prints, some of them with burned-in subtitles. Sarah Maldoror’s Angolan-made Sambizanga is probably in the worst shape – 16mm print with colour fading and several splices even in a short extract. What this says about the possibility of future streaming or disc releases is anyone’s guess.
The soundtrack is available in either DTS-HD MA 5.1 or LPCM 2.0, though there’s not a great difference between either. Much of the film is composed of narration or extracts from films many of which have mono soundtracks. English subtitles for the hard of hearing are available. I spotted a couple of typos: “hoards” for “hordes” and “Van Dyke” for “Van Dyck” (the artist).
With a Play All option, the extras begin with a making-of video essay (12:32) in which Cousins talks about his inspiration for making this film and his process. The latter often began with contacting a foreign country’s archive and asking who their leading women directors are or were. Next up is a Q&A (17:42) with Cousins and Barbara Kopple (whose Oscar-winning documentary Harlan County U.S.A is featured in the film), interviewed on stage by Kiva Reardon at the Toronto Film Festival after a showing of the first part of Women Make Film. Also on the disc is the BFI’s trailer (1:42) for the documentary.
Finally on the disc is one of the films featured in Women Make Film, Lorenza Mazzetti’s (credited as in collaboration with Denis Horne, also the writer) Together (48:22). This film was significant as it was premiered at the first Free Cinema showing at the National Film Theatre, London, on 5 February 1956. Free Cinema was a movement led by Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz and Mazzetti, backed up by polemical articles, calling for a cinema that could not be too personal and incorporating documentary techniques. (For more on Free Cinema, see the BFI’s previous DVD set, reviewed here by Anthony Nield.)
Together was the longest of the three films on the programme and the only fictional one, and it’s fair to say it’s less well known than the other two (Momma Don’t Allow, directed by Reisz and Richardson, and O Dreamland, directed by Anderson). The two central characters are two deaf-mute dock workers living in a London East End still bearing the scars of War devastation. Mazzetti uses very little dialogue and often drops the sound out completely, either to just the music score and sometimes to silence. The film succeeds in bringing us into its characters’ world and their friendship, which is the motor of this affecting film.
The BFI’s booklet runs to twenty pages and begins with an introduction by Cari Beauchamp and continues with a short piece by Cousins which says much the same as his making-of video essay. As well as full credits for the film, biographies of the principals and notes and credits for the extras, there is a checklist of all the directors and their films featured in Women Make Film, and their availability – very useful if likely soon to be out of date.