WORDS OLIVIA SAVAGE
Although women should always be celebrated, March 8th is International Women’s day, and today we dedicate ourselves to ‘celebrating women’s achievements, raising awareness against bias, and taking action for equality.’ Here at F Word we wanted to talk about 5 female directors who have helped shape us, empowering us to be whoever we wanted to be. Each artist places women at the centre of their films, tackling the intricacies of girlhood and shining light on the tribulations women face within prejudicial societies. We hope you enjoy our curated list of film picks, one for each of these amazing female directors, and find representation and strength in at least one.
1. AGNÈS VARDA
Agnès Varda is one of the most beloved female directors in the history of film. Her work was at the heart of the French New Wave cinema movement of the 1950s and '60s. Varda’s films were distinctive with their experimental style and documentary realism, tackling themes of social commentary and women’s issues. Amongst the most prestigious awards Varda received for her films was the Honorary Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival and Academy Honorary Award, making her the first female director ever to be awarded with an honorary Oscar.
Film pick: Vagabond (1985)
Varda’s 1985 feature film Vagabond has been hailed as one of her most notable narrative films and her greatest feminist work. It earned Varda a Golden Lion at the 1985 Venice Film Festival – one of the most prestigious awards in cinema.
Vagabond is told in a non-linear fashion, beginning with the discovery of Mona Bergeron’s (Sandrine Bonnaire) deceased body. From here, we flash back through the events of Mona’s life that led her to this bitter end. In keeping with Varda’s experimental style, Vagabond is shown through forty-seven episodic parts, each episode punctuated by the reflections of people who encountered Mona on her journey.
Essentially, Vagabond is a story of a woman who has completely alienated herself from the expectations of society, changing her name from Justine and abandoning her secretarial job. By doing so, she also strips herself of restrictive female stereotypes that demand her to be polite and respectful. Mona is neither of those things. In fact, she evades any sort of categorisation. She is a mystery to all those she encounters, and no-one can keep a hold of her, no matter how hard they try.
Mona’s characterisation is often perplexing to the audience and those she meets. In one regard Mona’s freedom to roam inspires envy as they admire the way she is unphased and seemingly in control of her life. Nevertheless, they feel she is foolish. She never washes, her clothes slowly deteriorate, her belongings are set alight. They envy her freedom but fear it’s that freedom that kills her. Would you rather die free or live a long life unfulfilled?
2. ANDREA ARNOLD
Women who exist within the confinements of impoverished conditions frequently feature at the centre of British filmmaker Andrea Arnold’s films. Her filmography so excellently documents the lives of those we choose to forget, who fall between the cracks of governmental concern. With her movie camera, she sees beyond the hard exteriors of women under threat and shows the world their humanity. Such films include Red Road (2006), Fish Tank (2009), and American Honey (2016), all of which have won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
Film pick: Wasp (2003)
Even in Arnold’s earlier works, such as her Academy Award Winning Short Wasp (2003), the strains and repression of the female working class are prominent. The 26-minute short film stars Natalie Press as Zoë, a struggling single mother of four, whose morality is questioned when she runs into an old friend Dave (Danny Dyer). During their catch-up, Dave asks her out on a date and Zoë is forced to choose between being a responsible mother or chasing desire. Arnold’s social realist, documentarian style plunges us into the lives of these people, bridging the gap between fictionalised characters and the disadvantaged women they represent. By examining them, she is forcing us to reflect upon our own privilege and see Zoë as not just a mother, but a young woman whose youth has no place in this society. The performances, paired with Arnold’s masterful direction, create a difficult but must-see watch.
3. CHERYL DUNYE
Cheryl Dunye’s achievements and influence in the film industry knows no bounds, her accolades including directing and producing, as well as editing and acting. If you’re watching a Cheryl Dunye film, you will find issues of race, sexuality, and gender at its core. With exciting and experimental filmmaking techniques, Dunye uses her platform to elevate black lesbians onto the screen, documenting their struggles and asking important questions.
Film Pick: The Watermelon Woman (1996)
Dunye’s feature film debut The Watermelon Woman (1996) felt like a milestone for queer women cinema as it was the first feature directed by an ‘out’ black lesbian. In the film, Dunye plays the lead herself, a 25-year-old black woman also called Cheryl. Although her dream is to be a filmmaker, she pays the bills by working a day job in the video store with her best friend and flatmate.
At the beginning of The Watermelon Woman, in a documentary style, Cheryl tells the viewer about her desires to make films, although up until this point she has struggled to think of a subject matter. Her only criteria have been ‘it has to be about a black woman because our stories have never been told.’ Therefore, her discovery of a black actress nicknamed the ‘Watermelon Woman’ was imperative to her as a creative. After becoming enamoured with this woman, she discovers that like most black actresses’, her name was stricken from end credits of films and archival sources. With this fact burdening her, Cheryl sets out to discover more about the Watermelon Woman.
What comes as a result is a hybrid of documentary and narrative filmmaking, interwoven with discussions about interracial relationships, police discrimination and the erasure of blackness. Although in the present day, there may be some improvement on a few of these issues, The Watermelon Woman is a wonderful study on the history of queer female blackness.
4. GRETA GERWIG
Although Greta Gerwig’s directorial filmography may be short and sweet, she has already more than proven herself as an accomplished director in Hollywood. Starting her career as an actress, Gerwig featured in many films of the Mumblecore genre, a style that favours dialogue over plot and relies upon naturalistic acting. After meeting her now partner Noah Baumbach, they collaborated on an abundance of films that Gerwig both co-wrote and starred in. Such titles include Greenberg (2010), Frances Ha (2012) and Mistress America (2015).
In recent years, Gerwig had progressed onto solo-directorial ventures, including the critically acclaimed Lady Bird (2017). This coming-of-age drama earned Gerwig five Academy Award nominations at the 2018 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.
Film Pick – Little Women (2019)
Greta Gerwig’s 2019 film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women feels like the ultimate celebration of womanhood, each March sister so uniquely different, and played by the most promising young actresses of this generation.
The beloved tale of Little Women follows Jo March (played here by Saoirse Ronan), as she reflects on the story of her life and her beloved sisters. Jo and youngest sister Amy (Florence Pugh) are similar in temperament as they are both headstrong in youth and adulthood. Nevertheless, they butt heads when it comes to their desires in life. Meg (Emma Watson) and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) are homebodies, with piano being Beth’s one true love whereas Meg yearns for nothing more than a husband and children.
Despite their differences, Little Women is a tale of fierce familial love, Gerwig’s Mumblecore roots obvious with their overlapping dialogue and energetic riffs between the five March girls. Jo challenges the expectations of women, particularly in the 19th century, Saoirse Ronan and Greta Gerwig collaborating to create a fictional figurehead for the women of any generation. It is almost guaranteed that when watching these girls, you’ll find yourself staring right back.
5. SOFIA COPPOLA
Sofia Coppola, daughter of filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, first appeared in the film world as an infant in the critically acclaimed gangster film The Godfather (1972). Despite appearing in a few other films and music videos after that, Coppola eventually found her strengths lay in filmmaking.
Although her father is one of the most famous film directors of all time, Sofia has stepped out of her father’s shadow and has earned her place in the film industry in her own right. Despite some controversy within the world of white, male film criticism, Coppola’s films tend to receive high praise. Lost in Translation (2003), a touching tale of two lost souls who meet in Tokyo, earned Coppola four Academy Award nominations at the 2005 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. This, quite unbelievably, made her the third woman ever to be nominated for the achievement in directing.
Film Pick – The Virgin Suicides (1999)
Coppola’s directorial debut The Virgin Suicides (1999) is told from the perspective of adolescent boys, who become entranced by the five sisters who live across the road. Set in Detroit in the mid 1970s, the girls are smothered by their religious parents, which only fuels the sisters’ desire to break free.
The film has received criticism over the years for being vacuous, non-progressive in the depiction of teenage girls who seem only to be concerned with wearing pretty dresses and losing their virginity. The aesthetic of The Virgin Suicides, they say, only elevates this with its pastel colour palettes and dream-like sequences. However, these analyses fail to reach further than the exterior of The Virgin Suicides, as under closer inspection we see the struggles of female adolescents felt in abundance by its target spectatorship. Coppola strays from the other depictions of women discussed here, as she shows five sisters who are both delicate and tormented in equal measure. Just like Meg and Beth in Little Women, Coppola makes it clear women don’t have to give up their gentleness for their stories to be told.