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‘For those who still ask, ‘What do women want?’ the cinema seems to provide no answer.’

This quote by Mary Ann Doane is still relevant today, as even after decades of feminist film criticism, cinema is not able to represent women and their concerns. They are also still tremendously underrepresented at film festivals, amongst directors, producers and even actors. To this day, only four women have been nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards.

Only 6% of the big studio films that competed at film festivals during the past year were made by women. Even though women have been present in film from the start of its mainstream exploitation, they were mainly used as actresses to depict the patriarchal order that undermines them, reducing them to mere figures that are there to be looked at.

Let’s have a look at women in film, and their amazing work.

Alice Guy-Blaché made one of the first narrative films in the world in 1896. Sixty seconds long, La Fée aux Choux pictures a woman in a cabbage field, taking babies out of the plants. Though it may seem insignificant today, Alice Guy-Blaché went on to make hundreds of films in France and the US.

A few decades later, Dorothy Arzner rose from being a stenographer at Paramount, to becoming one of the only female directors of her time. Even though it was difficult to work with the restrictions of the Hayes Code, she managed to portray some strong female characters, and she is credited with hiding a lesbian undertone into her work.

In the 1940s, Maya Deren became one of the most influential experimental filmmakers. She was the first female avant-garde filmmaker who not only made her own films, but also ran a cooperative from her apartment to support women filmmakers. She took a stand against Hollywood and its corrupt standards and propagates the idea of making a film ‘for what Hollywood spends on lipstick’ as she phrased it. She combined her love of dance, voodoo and her belief that every film should be an experience, and made one of the best short films to date. Meshes of the Afternoon is an elusive stream of consciousness that conveys the protagonist’s subconscious experiences. 

meshes-of-the-afternoon-1943-2

Meanwhile in Europe, Leni Riefenstahl produced stunning films under the Nazi regime. As they convey powerful messages with her precise camerawork, The Economist declared her the best female director of the 20th Century. In France, Germaine Dulac made experimental films, such as La Coquille et le Clergyman, said to be the first surrealist film. 

Women filmmakers of the 60s and 70s organised cooperations in film and festivals. They wanted to change the system in which women are victimized and do not represent reality. ‘Within a sexist ideology and a male-dominated cinema, woman is presented as what she represents for man,’ said Claire Johnston. Women in film could not do right; they are either too emotional to be taken seriously, but as soon as a woman takes control and loses traditional characteristics, she is seen as a cold monster. By taking back their bodies and sexuality, a new range of filmmakers created films that gave new meaning to women’s cinema.

The Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman put her character Jeanne Dielman in her eponymous film from 1975 into a mundane setting, but gave the power to take action.

Sally Potter’s Thriller (1979), depicted the lives of poor women who had to prostitute themselves in a 19th Century setting. The deep insights into the character of Mimi, and the repetition are used creatively to challenge the traditional ideals of the patriarchy. 

The theme of prostitution was picked up again in 1986 by Lizzie Borden in Working Girls. As a strong and independent woman, Molly chooses to work in the sex trade.

Although there are some women in the trade these day, it is still a male-dominated business. Jane Campion (The Piano), Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation) and Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty) are notable directors, as their films have been commercial successes, and they have been nominated for Best Director at the Oscars. Sofia-Coppola

Less well known, Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy), Miranda July (You and Me and Everyone We Know), and Sarah Polley’s (Take this Waltz) films portray strong and independent women. With their smaller budgets, they rather target an independent film audience.

Of course, there are more filmmakers than this short exploration allows to list but the fact is that during the past 25 years, only 7-9% of films were made by women. Hopefully in the next 25 years that percentage will have risen significantly. Here’s hoping.

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Lynn Klein is a journalist currently doing a print journalism MA at Sheffield. Unsurprisingly, she's a film buff with a love for art and indie film. Her favourite cinema is the Duke of Yorks in Brighton. Other interests include books, coffee and travelling.

Posted on Jun 6, 2014

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