TIFF Review: ‘Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema’

A female filmmaker reflects upon this cinematic opus about women in film…made by a man

11 mins read

Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema
(UK, 840 min.)
Dir. Mark Cousins
Programme: TIFF Docs (World Premiere)

“Most of the recognized so-called movie classics were directed by men,” contends film historian Mark Cousins in his latest opus Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema. “But for thirteen decades, and on all six filmmaking continents, thousands of women have been directing films too. Some of the best films…What can we learn about cinema from them?”

The comprehensive series – 14-hours, five episodes and 700 film clips from the work of 183 female filmmakers – premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, and completes a trilogy of sorts (his previous cinema anthologies include The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011) and A Story of Children and Film (2013).

Cousins usually narrates his own work, but in Women Make Film his script is voiced by stars, namely Tilda Swinton (also an Executive Producer), Jane Fonda, Debra Winger, Thandie Newton, Kerry Fox, Sharmila Tagor, and Adjoa Andoh. It’s a good move, as the actors infuse his words with emotional range and nuance, and, more importantly, add a chorus of women’s voices to the storytelling.

Cue: “Man on the land!” “Man on the land!”, the outcry from women’s music festivals of the 1980s. In these times of #MeToo, #TimesUp, and #50/50by2020, it’s impossible to ignore the elephant in the room. Cousins’ knowledge of cinema is extensive, but the question lingers…in this climate, does it matter that a man is at the helm of this story?

Given that so many women have been left out of the canon, including, by the way, by Cousins himself (in his 15-hour series, The Story of Film, women filmmakers were a minority), he has now taken it upon himself to explore this “forgotten history,” describing the series as a “film school of sorts in which all the teachers are women.”

The pioneers are all here, from Alice Guy Blaché, Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino to Maya Deren, Lina Wertmüller, Liliana Cavani, Kira Muratova, Safi Faye and Shirley Clarke, as well as the next generation of Jane Campion, Sally Potter, Gillian Armstrong, Euzhan Palcy, Marleen Gorris, Julie Dash and Catherine Breillat, among others. Contemporary talents include Haifa al-Mansour, Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Lynne Ramsay, Andrea Arnold, Samira Mahkmalbahf, Céline Sciamma, Lucrecia Martel, Jennifer Kent, Johanna Hogg, as well as several Canadians, namely Mary Harron, Sarah Polley, Patricia Rozema and Deepa Mehta.

Although Cousins widens the sphere beyond narrative filmmaking to include animators, experimental, and documentary filmmakers, there are still omissions, (inevitable in any anthology), but, unless I blinked and missed them, why Anne Claire Poirier but not Alanis Obomsawin? And what of Mira Nair, Pascale Ferrand and Nadine Labaki?

Some of the filmmakers, such as Chantal Akerman, Agnès Varda, Claire Denis, Ava DuVernay and Kathryn Bigelow are already celebrated, but what becomes apparent in the viewing is how much extraordinary work has been bypassed, ignored, diminished and, yes, forgotten. Given the extent of the cinematic talent on display here, it’s hard not to feel angry that female filmmakers have not been recognized to the same degree as their male colleagues.

The concept of “the female gaze” is perhaps implicit throughout, but never directly addressed, except in reference to how women portray children and mothering. As for “the male gaze,” which one could argue encompasses most of film history, Cousins directly refers to it only when discussing films about “war.” It’s a binary distinction – women and domesticity, men and war – but he seems to be doing his best to steer clear of gender politics (probably wise, given the elephant in the room).

His interest is strictly what’s on screen, not the context of how or why. But the personal, rather than analytical, becomes a notable absence in the narrative, particularly in the chapters on “Point of View,” and “Bodies,” where the filmmakers’ perspectives as women cannot but have a profound influence on their point of view, their depiction of the body, and their choice of narrative focus. The gaze does become self-evident, at times, at least to those of us searching for it, but I found myself yearning to hear what the filmmakers themselves had to say about their work. What did they have in mind when writing, shooting or editing a scene?

The series, consisting of forty chapters, each on a specific theme—“Staging”, “Editing” “Close-Ups”, etc—is strongest when Cousins technically deconstructs a scene (ie. how Kathryn Bigelow choreographs an action sequence). Given the episodic nature of the work, it’s best to dip in and out, as this is not structured and paced as a long form film, or even as series of films, and the cumulative effect of wall-to-wall film clips and narration can be fatiguing.

Structurally, Cousins has constructed the piece as a “road movie” of sorts, and intercuts POV driving shots throughout to make this point. It’s a simple visual linking device, but it feels random at best, as we don’t actually visit any locations. One could argue it’s a metaphor for the series as virtual road movie, but there is no sense of a destination, hence, no momentum. At times, he places the narrator/actors in a car but, given that we’re not travelling anywhere, I found myself wondering, “Where is Tilda going? Is she on her way to meet Cousins at the studio to record her narration?”

Finally, endings, as any storyteller knows, are as critical as openings—some would argue more so—and Cousins devotes chapters to both. Given how well crafted his opening is, by the end he seems to have run out of steam. Late in the series, he inexplicably introduces two examples from television (The Handmaid’s Tale and The West Wing) without any context for why he is doing so. There is certainly a lot of brilliant work created by women for television (FleabagKilling EveGentleman Jack, to name current examples), but he doesn’t discuss those, and we don’t expect him to, as the stated focus is film, which makes these two inclusions feel arbitrary.

Following the chapter on “Endings,” for Cousins’ own eccentric reasons he tacks on a final chapter called “Song and Dance,” a mish mash of clips culminating in Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” video. Huh?! Beyoncé is credited as “Creative Director”, but she’s not a filmmaker and this is not a film. Given the rigorousness of his earlier choices, it’s a poor cheat.

In his closing narration, Cousins, who has been careful throughout to avoid any social/gender commentary, seems to feel a need to address everything in one go. “There have been fewer car crashes or battle scenes,” he observes, in an attempt to find a link amongst the women filmmakers, then adds quickly, “but we’re wary of generalizations.” He then goes on to make another gendered observation: “There are far more female protagonists, far more women at the centre of the movie.” It’s an important point, one that was sorely missing in the “Point of View” chapter.

But in this last section, he also attempts a curious sleight of hand: “One of the few clear differences between our films and the male dominated movie history is…” he begins….Wait? What? Who is this collective “our” that has slipped into the narration? The speaker is Sharmila Tagor, but the words are Cousins’. It’s a false note and it’s jarring. The elephant cannot help but rear its head. Men have dominated cinema since its inception, and as a female filmmaker, I cannot help but feel somewhat conflicted about this. Cousins’ credentials are impeccable, of course, and if there’s a man for the job, he’s clearly the one. But my hope is that people will view this series not as the last word, or even, THE WORD, but rather as an opening, in which “the female gaze” may finally present herself, without a filter, in her own voice.

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