Top 10 Female Filmmakers

The Script Lab posted a list of Top 10 Female Directors just a few days ago. While I admire their intention of giving some much deserved attention to female filmmakers, they could at least try to make the list a little more diverse. After all – it’s called Top 10 Female Filmmakers, not American Female Filmmakers.

Because this was not the first time that I came across such a list (that really had, if I put it mildly, the most obvious choices of female filmmakers you could imagine) and because I’m kind of sick of how ignorant the Americans can be towards foreign films, literature and other forms of arts, I decided to make my own version of the list, that will, hopefully, show you a more diverse and interesting picture of great female filmmakers that you should keep an eye on.

  1. Agnès Varda (France): I think she doesn’t need any special introduction, since she’s one of the most iconic female filmmakers of all time. Watch any film of hers and you won’t be disappointed; however, if you don’t know where to begin, start with Le bonheur; it’s my favourite.
  2. Claire Denis (France): her absolutely brilliant filmography most often deals with themes of colonial and post-colonial West Africa (Chocolat, Beau travail, White Material) and with issues of modern day France.
  3. Chantal Akerman (Belgium): one of the most important feminist and avant-garde filmmakers of all time; her Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is considered the most important feminist film in the history of cinema.
  4. Vera Chytilová (Czechoslovakia): an avant-garde film director and a pioneer of Czech cinema. She is best known for her Czech New Wave film, Daisies, that is one of my favourite films of all time.
  5. Naomi Kawase (Japan): one of my favourite contemporary Japanese directors. Her films are an absolute must-see for anyone who appreciates Asian cinema.
  6. Jane Campion (New Zeland): she was the first female filmmaker in history to receive Palme d’Or for her universally acclaimed film The Piano (for which she also won an Oscar for Best Screenplay). Although she finished a bachelor’s degree in Anthropology and painting first and started studying film when she was already in her late 20’s, she is without a doubt one of the best, most respected contemporary filmmakers, with the most interesting and diverse filmography one could imagine. And let’s not forget about her latest work, the brilliant miniseries Top of the Lake.
  7. Andrea Arnold (UK): Arnold first rose to fame with her feature debut Red Road, and later with her universally acclaimed film Fish Tank. Her latest film was visually breathtaking (and so far, my favourite) adaptation of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights that finally managed to portray Heathcliff (who is described as a “darkly-skinned gypsy” in the literary source, but has for some reason always been portrayed as a white man; Laurence Olivier in the 1939 version is just one such example) as an African man.
  8. Sofia Coppola (USA): one of the best known and critically acclaimed female filmmakers working today. I doubt she needs any further introduction, since you probably all know her films.
  9. Ava DuVernay (USA): a year ago, I had no idea who she was. Now, she’s one of my favourite contemporary American directors. I already wrote about her latest film, Selma, but I also recommend you all to see her 2012 Sundance winner Middle of Nowhere. She’s one of a few American filmmakers who does a thorough research, a whole sociological study of a theme she wants to portray in her film and even interviews certain people to get a sense of what their lives are before writing a screenplay – and for this fact alone she has my deepest respect. She’s amazing.
  10. Margarethe von Trotta (Germany): one of the most important female filmmakers of the New German Cinema and the world’s leading feminist filmmaker.

Honourable mentions:

  • Maya Deren (USA)
  • Samira Makhmalbaf (Iran)
  • Kelly Reichardt (USA)
  • Lynne Ramsay (Scotland)
  • Céline Sciamma (France)
  • Ursula Meier (Switzerland)
  • Catherine Breillat (France) – one of the most provocative female filmmakers, who’s mostly dealing with female sexuality and gender trouble. Her best work is (at least in my opinion) her 2001 film Fat Girl.
  • Cate Shortland (Australia)
  • Sarah Polley (Canada)
  • Mira Nair (India)
  • Gina Prince-Bythewood (USA) – one of the most successful contemporary African-American film-makers. Her best work so far is probably her latest film, Beyond the Lights.
  • Susanne Bier (Denmark) – I’m not a fan of her latest work, but her films After the Wedding and Open Hearts (a Dogme 95 film) are a must see for any cinephile.

Female filmmakers that only released one film so far (but will continue to make great films in the future, I’m sure):

Ana Lily Amirpour: her debut film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night – also described as Iranian Vampire Spagetti Western – is one of the best films of 2015 I’ve seen so far. A truly fantastic cinematic experience.

Haifaa Al-Mansour: the first woman (or rather, a person, since not even a man filmed a movie there before) in Saudi Arabia that made a feature film! Go see Wadjda. Now.

Jennifer Kent: if you haven’t heard about this Australian film-maker and her debut horror film The Babadook yet, stop reading this post immediately and go watch the film! The best psychological thriller/horror from the last decade. And I don’t exaggerate one bit.

Rebecca Thomas: Electrick Children is a stunning feature film by Thomas about a 15-year old girl living in a fundamentalist Mormon community who believes that she got pregnant by listening to a cassette of a rock band.

Dee Rees: her debut film Pariah is a powerful drama about a 17-years old African-American teenager who is trying to embrace her identity as a lesbian while being bullied by her peers and her mother for not being feminine enough. One of film’s best feature is it’s beautiful cinematography by the one and only Bradford Young (one of my favourite currently working cinematographers).

Gillian Robespierre: Robespierre had her major breakthrough last year, when her feature indie film Obvious Child was released. The best rom-com I’ve seen in years that manages to tackle a sensitive subject of abortion with honesty and wit. But since I already wrote about the film, I recommend you to revisit my review.

Gia Coppola: Sofia Coppola’s niece and Francis Ford Coppola’s granddaughter, who released her feature debut Palo Alto in 2014.

Eliza Hittman: her debut It Felt Like Love is one of the most realistic portrayals of how it is to be a teenage girl. Beautifully shot, disturbing to watch, but overall a very rewarding film that will stay with you for quite some time.

Force Majeure (2014)

Ruben Östlund’s fourth feature film is set in a luxury ski resort in the French Alps where a young bourgeois, picture-perfect Swedish family’s spending their much needed vacation. Father Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), a handsome and busy businessman, mother Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) who could easily be a supermodel and their beautiful, enthusiastic and somewhat spoiled children (Clara and Vincent Wettergren) seem like a perfect family that’s spending their quality time together and making memories while posing for a resort photographer. They’re rich, they’re beautiful, they’re happy – what could possibly ever go wrong for them?

This is until a controlled avalanche is triggered on the mountainside while they’re eating lunch in a crowded outdoor restaurant – and while everything seems fascinating and exciting at first, a perfect place to be to take pictures and making videos, the cloud of snow just keeps expanding, until some of it actually reaches the patio. People suddenly panic and start to run for their lives – including Tomas, who instinctively grabs his phone and runs away, leaving his wife and children behind. Everything turns out to be okay in the end – but not for our perfect little family, and especially not for Tomas, whose life suddenly turns upside down. In that split second the façade of their perfect family cracks wide open and what follows is an intense and skilfully executed family thriller (with a hint of dark humour) that would make Michael Haneke proud.

Ebba, who in a moment of crisis tried to protect her children instead of saving her own life, can’t seem to understand her husband’s reaction. How could he be so selfish, how could he just leave them there when he – a man – should be the one to take care of them, to protect them? How could he be so weak, so cowardly?

After the incident Ebba teases him about him running away in front of another couple (not even remotely innocently, but with a fair share of resentment towards his action), but things get even more complicated when Tomas denies that any of this actually happened. This starts Ebba’s passive-aggressive battle towards her husband, since she’s determined to get him to admit the truth, which puts their marriage in a major crisis.

But what Ebba (and most of the film’s audience, I believe) can’t seem to comprehend is that it wasn’t Tomas’ (however wrong) instinct, cowardice, selfishness or lack of manhood that turned their idyllic vacation into a hellish nightmare. It were the socially constructed gender roles that are so deeply implemented into our subconscious that we think of them as part of our human nature. And while Ebba embraced her social role as a mother who sacrifices herself for her children, for her family’s safety, Tomas fails to stand up to the role that’s expected from him. As a man of the family, living in a Western, patriarchal society, he should be taking care of his family, he should be brave and protective. So far he excelled in this role, because all he ever needed to do up to this point, was take care of the family financially. But now an instinctive action that happened before he could even think about what’s the right or wrong thing to do, has made him act in an exact opposite way that is expected of a man, a patriarch. His action made him look weak – what he did was the biggest embarrassment that could happen to him, because he failed not only as a husband or a father, but as a man. He may not show it at first (and this is what drives Ebba so crazy), but he couldn’t be more ashamed of himself. Anyhow, admitting to his action would mean admitting to his inadequacy. And Ebba, who tries to turn herself into the ultimate victim, can’t see that he’s no less of a victim in this situation as her – how we actually all are, because we all need to act a certain way, depending on our gender, to be accepted into the society. There is this one scene that may seem a little off and unrelated to the events at first, when Tomas gets locked out of their hotel room and goes searching for his family. At one point he finds himself in a club, in the middle of what seems to be a crazy tourist (or perhaps even a bachelor’s) party, full of drunk alpha-males – and he couldn’t seem more out of place. A few days before he would fit right in – but now he suddenly seems completely lost and confused in their company, as if he’s not man enough anymore to be in the same room with those drunken brutes that are weirdly perceived as “real men” in our society.

Ebba doesn’t stop until he finally breaks down; but his break is quite more literal than she anticipated. With admitting the most shameful act he ever did the wall he put up around him for all this time finally breaks down and what’s left of him is a grown man crying like a baby in a hotel hallway.

Ruben Östlund is one of the few male feminist film writers/directors – and not only that, he acknowledges that feminism applies to both genders, not only to women. When it comes to showing our feelings and emotions or to being compassionate towards one another, men are actually the ones who are not (or rather cannot afford to be, without being called “soft” or accused of being gay) equal to women. Human nature has been separated into two realms from the Ancient Greeks forward, with men dominating the realm of reason and women the realm of nature (which includes human emotions) – and things haven’t changed much since then. With this modern masterpiece Östlund tries to reverse the gender roles, the usual family dynamic. He makes us uncomfortable and frustrated in the process but this is just what he intended: to show us how we, too, will judge a man who abandons his family in a moment of crisis, who later denies his actions and then breaks down crying, because we are so used of seeing a man as a hero who will risk his life not only for his family, but (at least in the movies) for the whole humanity.

I spent a lot of time trying to find sociological studies that I could use to motivate the actions that take place in the film. There were two studies in particular that were very important to me. One showed how much more likely divorces are after an airplane hijacking and points out how couples have a really hard time getting over how they behave in a crisis situation and how a man usually isn’t the hero he’s expected to be. And the other was about surviving maritime catastrophes. From the Titanic to Estonia, you could see that men of a certain age are the ones who survive. I thought that was very interesting when you compare it to film history, where the main character or hero is always a man. This is so commonly reproduced, but when it comes to reality and a crisis situation, the ones that die are women and children. When people say, “I wonder what you would have done,” I can say for certain that a man is more likely to run away than a woman.

This is a perfectly executed drama: the direction, that at times reminds us of Haneke’s style, will make you feel just as trapped as Tomas and Ebba are at some point trapped by their marriage, and the cold visual palette will only add to the uneasy feeling of an expanding distance between the spouses. And that music! I used to play Four Seasons when I was younger and I know the music by heart. But I will never think of Vivaldi’s Summer (ironically used in the middle of winter) the same way again – if playing it used to relax me after practising Bach’s concertos, this music will now forever be associated with the most brilliant, uncomfortable and frustrating family drama I have ever seen.

List of references:

Kelsey, Colleen. 2015. Ruben Östlund’s Force of Nature.

Lucca, Violet. 2014. Interview: Ruben Östlund.

The Basics:
Directed by: Ruben Östlund
Written by: Ruben Östlund
Starring: Johannes Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Kristofer Hivju
Running Time: 120 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 9