Faces, Places

Discovery and availability: Agnès Varda and #52filmsbywomen

Naturally it properly began with a Varda film. My determination to be better intertwined with Faces, Places. I fell in love.

In 2017 I made my first attempt at a #52filmsbywomen. This initiative was started by Women in Film in 2015 with the aim of getting people to watch one film a week made by women over a year. In 2017 my total came to a rather pathetic 31 films. There was some reasons behind that (college for one thing) but this brought home to me a real problem with the idea: namely if we are too passive with our watching a relatively low total of 52 films in one year is not achievable. If you see a lot of new releases at the cinema you are likely seeing a film directed a man. If you want to be part of the conversation around the new Marvel, DC, Star Wars, Fast and Furious or Transformers films those films will nearly always be directed by men. Women directed 8 of the top 250 films of 2018 for example.

So if passive consumption was not going to get it done what was? In 2017 it was clear that a bigger effort needed to be made. In 2018 I kicked off the year in a determined mood. I would aim not only to hit the 52 films but hopefully go beyond it. 2018 began with the anthology horror The XX and a steady pace continued through the early part of the year. This was helped by two factors. I prioritised films directed by women at the Dublin International Film Festival in February (an excellent policy I have continued at subsequent festivals) and a subscription to the now sadly departed Filmstruck. It was on that format that I discovered the films of Agnès Varda. I had watched Faces Places on the 18th May 2018 and it was a watershed moment for this effort. Humane, funny and touching it was a film about creation and recreation. At that point I was 41 films in but it seemed that here was where I needed to be. That Filmstruck had more of her films meant that I devoured them. Ten from Varda alone in 2018. Another 16 directed by her in 2019 (so far) (now on The Criterion Channel). I have still have another 27 shorts, documentaries and features to watch. On March 29th this year Agnès Varda died aged 90. Her death was the inspiration for this article. What could I say about watching films directed by women? Should I even be the one writing this? Perhaps not. But it meant (and means) quite a lot to me and I felt the need to try and explore my observations, inspirations and failings.

Jacquot De Nantes - Agnes Varda
Jacquot De Nantes – Agnès Varda

What is about Agnès Varda that makes her so special? The beautiful, deft and surprising way she moves a camera both in both her fiction and documentary. The formally daring structures she employs, often drifting between fiction, non-fiction, photographs and animation in the same film. Her delicate way of finding empathy for all but especially for ordinary people. The thematically rich areas she delves into, that, despite her late blooming reputation for being fun and lovable, are often harsh and brutal. The exquisite meditations on the passing of time and the concept of life ending. But there is also so much love too. Her cats! The four films that deal with the death of her husband, the filmmaker Jacques Demy, are an extraordinary grieving process on camera. The dream like and formally radical Jacquot De Nantes, his youthful life onscreen, rushed to the finish before his untimely death. The relatively standard documentary The World of Jacques Demy, a talking heads film about his career, given a jolt by the pick ‘n mix nature of clips and a devastating final moment. The Young Girls Turn 25 is a moving essay about looking back through footage in retrospect, full of tiny, fragile moments of great emotional depth. Finally The Beaches of Agnès, somewhat foolishly considered to be final cinematic work, a look back at a life shared and a legacy made.

But what Varda brings to stark illustration is that if you want to hungrily devour the feature filmography of a woman director it will likely take you less time than watching a season of Stranger Things. This is for a variety of reasons. Studios not giving women work, the nonsense of ‘difficult’ women and the result being that many great women directors have tiny filmographies. Varda (55) along with Chantal Ackerman (48) being two of the rare exceptions. As part of my #52filmsbywomen over the last few years I have devoured filmographies of Kelly Reichardt (6), Lynn Ramsay (4), Elaine May (4) and Andrea Arnold (4). If we look back in time the films directed by women are fewer in number and access becomes a real difficulty. There is the imminent and welcome release of an Ida Lupino (7) boxset on blu-ray featuring four of her films but this is not nearly enough. In Ireland it is worse. We have some incredible women filmmakers such as Carmel Winters (2), Aisling Walsh (4), Nora Twomey (2) and Pat Murphy (4) but the main problem here is access again, with the Irish Film Institute showing welcome retrospectives often the only way to see some of the films. Where are our boxsets in Ireland?

So what is there to be done? As the excellent Dean Van Nguyen points out more actors need to seek out women directors for their films. A-list actors can package films and the abysmal numbers in this thread shows serious failings in this regard. Male filmmakers also need to champion women filmmakers, in particular lending their name to debut and low budget films where name recognition as producer is a real bonus. Male film fans (including the dreaded #filmtwitter) need to move beyond the usual conversations around Tarkovsky and Kubrick and branch out with both their watching and discussions (no rows or ‘well actuallys’ please).

Move beyond the usual films and you will find remarkable films by women and, with another degree of difficulty in getting seen, by women of colour. It is quite shocking that the brilliant 1991 feature Daughters of the Dust became the first full-length film directed by an African-American woman to obtain general theatrical release in the United States. That film and the director Julie Dash may well have remained unknown if not for the homage paid to it by Beyoncé in the also brilliant Lemonade. Thankfully there are filmmakers such as Ava DuVernay and Dee Rees leading the charge now but again it is not nearly enough. DuVernay’s work around only hiring women filmmakers to direct episodes of her TV show Queen Sugar should be highlighted (including hiring the aforementioned Dash). Pulling the ladder up should not be an option.

Funding needs to better, with programmes dedicated in particular to younger women with little experience looking to get a foot in the door. Writers need to be supported and developed. Talent needs to be brought to the fore. Time and money needs to be invested. There is not a single doubt that serious talent is out there.

Critics need to really step up and play their part. In the 2012 Sight and Sound Poll of critics’ best 100 films of all time, a laughable two are directed by women. This is beyond pathetic and it will be interesting to see if this will change at all in three years time when the next poll is due. I am not hopeful. There needs to be long form articles on women filmmakers from women film critics in particular. Naturally this also goes for women of colour. Please read the brilliant Angelica Jade Bastién here. This lack of representation is also very important with regard trans writers. The superb Willow Catelyn Maclay is essential reading. Both of these writers will lead you to many more worth seeking out.  But the bigger internet sites and news outlets need to take more chances in terms of hiring. A diverse writing staff means a diverse writing landscape that will only enrich the filmmaking and film watching community.

Snap - Carmel Winters
Snap – Carmel Winters

This article is not written with the intention of sounding holier than thou and smug about my change of viewing habits. I don’t have to look back too far back in my watching history to know how bad I was at this. My younger viewing habits had me arrogantly dismissing ‘girls TV shows’ such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Gilmore Girls etc. Thankfully that change and a smack upside the head from many women in real life and online put me straight.

I have deliberately named only a few filmmakers in the article to begin a conversation. There are more filmmakers with a decent filmography (though not too many more) and there are others whose films I have watched that I left out as I have still to see more of their work. My #52filmsbywomen lists for 2017, 2018 and 2019 are here, here and here respectively. Have a look at these lists for inspiration if you like or go exploring. Here is a list of nearly 17,000 films directed by women. Yes really. I have watched 1%. Always more to do. It has to be said (though it really shouldn’t have to be in 2019), the gatekeeping must stop. A phrase I have used a lot in the last couple of years feels apt and worth repeating now to finish: FUCK THE CANON.