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Women make film: Female directors in the spotlight at Arsenal Kino

‘Women Make Film’ celebrates the unofficial and overlooked historiography of female directors with a programme of screenings held at the Arsenal: Institut für Film und Videokunst (through to December 18th). We spoke with curator Annette Ling to find out more about the programme, and the documentary that inspired it.

Binka Zhelyazkova. Image: Bulgarian National Film Archive

The series was inspired by Women Make Film: a Road Movie Through Cinema, a 14-hour documentary by the critic and filmmaker Mark Cousins that compiles footage from 183 women across 13 decades and five continents, which you’ll also screen for the first time in Berlin over four instalments. How did you come across this epic piece of film history?

Our colleagues Nicole Reinhardt from Stadtkino Basel suggested that we show the film together with them, because they had made a German translation and subtitling. I wasn’t aware of Mark Cousins’ work before, and it was fascinating watching these film excerpts unfold, over so many decades and so many countries, all made by women, most of whom aren’t known among the general public.

“We are so used to the fact that films considered masterpieces were made by men…”

What I love about it is that it offers an alternative to the film canon we learn about in school. When you study film, you stick to lists of must-sees, mostly all films made by men, and I wish this alternative list had been available when I was a student. There are so many forgotten masterpieces to discover and digging them out is exciting and often a revelation.

Do you have examples of directors or films that were a “revelation”, as you said?

The Kyrgyz-born Soviet filmmaker Dinara Asanova was one of them. The way she portrays youth, counter-culture and the meaning of music for forging an identity, in films like Ne Bolit Golova U Djadla (1975) (Woodpeckers Don’t Get Headaches) and Patsany really stuck with me. The very style of her films is influenced by the rhythm of music. This was one of those revelations…

The Sealed Soil, Marva Nabili (1977)

You ended up picking 13 women out of those 183 Direktor*innen featured in Cousins’ documentary. How difficult was it to choose from over a century of cinematic masterpieces?

Our selection process was fairly simple: we chose directors we hadn’t heard of before! And the guiding question in the series would then be: why don’t we know the names and films of these directors? That’s what we want to learn from this series. We want to give forgotten or neglected female directors their rightful place in film history. So many of them were incredibly innovative in their own right, in spite of all challenges they had to face. We aim to make these female directors visible again – showing their films now.

Do you have some names that spring to mind, films you’d like to highlight?

Someone like Bulgarian director Binka Zhelyazkova managed to make highly innovative films between 1957 and 1988 despite having to face censorship and the bans of her films. Marva Nabili only made two films – the first, The Sealed Soil (1977), could never be shown in her native Iran, where it was shot. It is an atmospherically dense tale about a young woman who refuses to conform to the social norms imposed on her. Ana Mariscal made one of the first neorealist films in Spanish cinema, and with El Camino (1963), a coming-of-age story in a small provincial town, she dissects the confining social structures and hypocrisy of the church with such a sharp, clear eye!

Binka Zhelyazkova (1967) Image: Bulgarian National Film Archive

Women Make Film: the simplicity of the title is a heartfelt homage, yet there is a trace of irony that posits that we should not take this fact for granted. As a woman working in the film industry, was there anything in the compilation that really hit home or surprised you?

Interestingly, the film industry was much more accessible to women in the first two decades of the 20th century than ever after. Until the early 1920s, there were many female directors and scriptwriters. Someone like Lois Weber was a very prolific female director in the 1910s; Alice Guy in France actually made one of the first fiction films in 1896, pioneering in so many ways as Gaumont’s head of production until 1906.

She was hugely influential at the time and made over 1000 films – later she inexplicably fell into oblivion and most of her films have disappeared… So, it was only later, when it became clear that there was money and prestige to be gained from this new medium, that female directors, scriptwriters and producers were pushed back. We are so used to the fact that most films that are considered important masterpieces were made by men. Women Make Film serves to correct this.

The film industry was much more accessible to women in the first two decades of the 20th century than ever after

Were there any directors or films that you wish you could have included?

A retrospective of the films by the Soviet filmmaker Kira Muratova is overdue! We didn’t include her because she is fairly well known, but I’d contend that her films still don’t have enough exposure. Lynne Ramsay recently hit the nail on the head, when she said: “I’ve got a reputation for being difficult – it’s bullshit. If a male director is demanding and difficult, they are a ‘perfectionist’ but a female director gets labelled ‘pushy’.”

Dong Fu Ren, Tang Shu Shuen (1967)

Do you think the mainstream will ever be compatible/comfortable with the female auteur?

These categories – the artistic genius, the auteur are also being strongly questioned right now. I think new artistic ways of working, just as collective ways of working, are becoming more widespread, also in other fields – theatre, visual arts. So yes, there is a greater openness and interest in other approaches of perceiving film art and history.

Mark Cousins. Photo: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

The documentary Women Make Film celebrates the unofficial and overlooked historiography of female directors. And yes, despite its gendered lens, it is also a work of cinema art, which is able to transcend gender. What’s your take on this?

Totally! In an ideal world the question of whether a film is made by a man or a woman (or a person not identifying as either) would be irrelevant. I don’t believe that women make fundamentally different films or have a specifically female gaze. But the more diverse (not only in terms of gender) the people who make films are, the wider and more comprehensive our view of the world becomes.

Looking forward, are there any women behind the camera who we should be looking out for in the near future?

So many, of course, and it’s almost impossible to mention only a few! Since we recently had a small series with contemporary cinema, I’ll name a few Georgian female directors who have made a film so far and whose further works I’m very curious about: Ana Urusahdze, Tamar Shavgulidze, Dea Kulumbegashvili.

  • Click here to view the Arsenal’s programme of screenings for Women Make Film, held from 19 September to 18 December 2022,