“One nice thing about being a woman in Hollywood is that the women tend to be very close-knit,” Diablo Cody once said. “All of us writers and directors know each other and cling to each other for safety and support, and it’s really a completely different vibe than the men experience out here, where they’re all trying to murder each other.”
Cody’s observation is quite contrary to popular beliefs where women are always pitted against each other to bring each other down; Hollywood films and TV shows have contributed to this notion by a great deal. Despite Hollywood’s claims about slowly increasing representation and diversity by incorporating more and more people of varied races, gender and sexualities, there exists a predominant hierarchy and a distinct and unbridgeable pay gap, not to mention the unbridled amount of vicious, lecherous and misogynistic comments that are often emotionally plummeting.
While I, personally, vehemently protest against using a separate term to denote the women directors in Hollywood, I have gradually come to realise that perhaps a separate grouping is the only way to make the female voice be heard. Representation is still a myth and if this uncomfortable reality is not aligned with your views of Hollywood, then you have probably forgotten to take off your misogyny-coloured glasses. Brilliant female directors have provided us with films that are heartwarming and beautiful. There is something extremely poetic about these films, something that cannot be explained in words. These films are a product of the female sensibility that is embedded in their journey and experiences while navigating through a highly partial and patriarchal world. The films often subvert tropes and challenge stereotypes.
We often forget the women who create magic behind the screen. From female cinematographers to writers, producers to directors, they all have a massive contribution to making a film. To celebrate International Women’s Day, we decided to take a look at 10 female directors whose revolutionary and visionary approach to filmmaking as well as the courage to bring forth their stories and opinions changed the face of cinema forever.
Here are 10 female directors whose immense contribution changed the face of cinema:
10 female directors who changed the film industry:
Alice Guy-Blaché (1873-1968)
“There is nothing connected with the staging of a motion picture that a woman cannot do as easily as a man.”
An early influence on legends like Alfred Hitchcock and Sergei Eisenstein, Alice Guy-Blaché was a pioneering figure in the history of cinema as she was the first female filmmaker to direct a feature-length film. She is also considered the mother of narrative filmmaking. Having directed over 1000 films and shorts and having overseen many other films, most of her work remains lost as many films released before 1910 remain irrecoverable. Guy-Blaché worked as a secretary in a French camera and photography company, where she was introduced to various marketing strategies and other elements that piqued her interest in filmmaking and would serve as the foundation to a fruitful career spanning over the next few decades.
She was bored with the idea of using “demonstration films” to stir up camera sales and introduced the concept of blending elements of fiction, thus laying the foundation for narrative filmmaking. She was revered for having used Gaumont’s Chronophone system in her films, besides employing other tactics, including double exposure, masking, rewind and more. She explored various themes in her films and was arguably the only female director up to 1906. She was the first woman to start a pre-Hollywood studio named The Solax Company with her then-husband Herbert Blaché, whom she later separated from yet maintained a highly professional relationship with.
Guy-Blaché’s first narrative film was the 1896 release La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy) which was followed by a series of dance and travel films as well as the much famed The Life of Christ, which boasted of 300 extras on-set and was one of the biggest productions at that time. Guy-Blaché remained long-forgotten till Pamela B. green’s 2018 documentary Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, where Jodie foster featured as the narrator, was released which brought her back into the spotlight, decades after her demise.
Dorothy Arzner (1897-1979)
“My philosophy is that to be a director you cannot be subject to anyone, even the head of the studio. I threatened to quit each time I didn’t get my way, but no one ever let me walk out. When I went to work in a studio, I took my pride and made a nice little ball of it and threw it right out the window.”
A pioneer in the silent era of filmmaking in Hollywood, Dorothy Arzner reigned supreme as the only female director active in Hollywood well until the 1970s. While she started as a mere script-typist fro paramount, she soon rose to the position of an editor. Her clever usage of stock footage in shooting various film sequences saved the studio huge costs and garnered attention in her favour. Arzner, however, was not satisfied with the back-office job and had set her mind on being a director as he was usually the one commanding the staff around. Despite initial resistance and hiccups from the studio, after she threatened to resign immediately, she was allowed to direct her first film; its success led her to receive prolonged contracts from paramount which enabled her to advance forward in her directorial career.
Arzner has directed a variety of films helming varied topics, including college parties and frivolity. She has upended the popular trope of women bringing down women and introduced the fun concept of “female buddy” films. She took special pleasure in ostracising the society by challenging their conventional views of women and a running theme in her films often reflected her views regarding heterosexuality, marriage and monogamy, which, together, formed a repressive prison, according to her. Her films often confronted the audience as well as the characters on the issue of the male gaze, challenging and interrogating it in the boldest ways possible.
Known for having launched the careers of famous actresses including Katherine Hepburn, Rosalind Russel and Lucille ball, Arzner had taught Francis Ford Coppola at UCLA and had an indelible influence on him. Some of her most notable films include Fashions for Women, Ten Modern Commandments, The Wild Party, Christopher Strong, Craig’s Wife and more.
Agnès Varda (1928-2019)
“In my films, I always wanted to make people see deeply. I don’t want to show things, but to give people the desire to see.”
Agnès Varda is inarguably considered the pioneering contributor to the French New Wave cinema movement. Referred to as the “God of cinema” by Martin Scorsese, Varda was the first woman to have received an Academy Honorary Award. Her distinct style predates the French New Wave and locates her within the Rive Gauche (Left Bank) cinema movement due to her experimental style and leftist orientation as opposed to the Cahiers du Cinema. Varda aimed to make films that had a distinctly feminine voice which was “not like a man”. She transcended the common masculine tropes of filmmaking by embracing her femininity and, influenced by the auteur theory, described her style as the “cinécriture”, where she used the camera as a pen to write on the film.
Inspired by the works of Wiliam Faulkner, Franz Kafka and Nathalie Sarraute and with a steep interest in surrealism, Varda’s films were aimed at being social commentaries on women’s issues, women’s liberation movement, the 1960s counterculture, social realism, marginalisation and ostracisation of the poor and other important socio-political events in a documentary-meets-avant-garde style. While her works have often been considered feminist, she has always emphasised how she was not aiming for theoretical perfection. She wanted to have a distinct and unconventional non-masculine voice and succeeded in doing so by introducing strong female protagonists who channelled their feminine cinematic voice.
Varda was a passionate photographer which piqued her interest in filmmaking. Her directorial debut in the 1954 film La Pointe Courte was followed by the most highlighted film of her career Cleo From 5 to 7 in 1962. She was known for her bold feminine voice and did not shy away from controversial topics, including directing a documentary about the Black panthers while living in Los Angeles with her husband Jacques Demy.
Lina Wertmüller (1928-)
“I am a director. I’m the one who can order men around.”
Lina Wertmüller belonged to a deeply religious family but was a devout rule-breaker and anarchist who got expelled from 15 different schools. Her love for comics and the desire to find the elements of the cinematic within the panels reflected her interest in cinema from a very young age. She travelled throughout Europe, working as a puppeteer, stage manager and scriptwriter while producing various avant-garde plays. She has often commented on the core of her creativity and distinct aesthetic, which is a blend of a musical comedy and grave, socio-political issues. Inspired by the works of the famed Italian playwright Giorgio De Lullo, she later worked as an assistant director on Federico Fellini’s 8½ film sets. Fellini’s enigmatic presence and auteurial aura inspired Wermüller in more than one ways.
Wertmüller’s characters often mirror her own conscious by being leftists, feminists or anarchists. Fellini’s influence can be noticed distinctly in her works as she views the predicament of the Italian working class with empathy and compassion and brings out the sufferings of the downtrodden to the forefront. Her films are often romantic odes to the beauty of Italy and the wonderful concoction of local consciousness that is accentuated by the wonderful and colourful cinematography. The element of critique is omnipresent in her films and she often subverts the tropes by disrupting traditional concepts and criticising them. Her class conscious films are often gendered, with an intricate look at gender and sexuality. Her characters have the grandiose and exuberance of theatrical elements and often create a bizarre crossover that redefines the genre of Italian comedy.
Best known for films like The Seduction of Mimi and Swept Away, Wertmüller was the first woman to have received a nomination for the directing Oscar for her 1976 film Seven Beauties. The film was heavily criticised for her so-called insensitive portrayal of the survivors but has since then been viewed as one of her greatest works to date. Wertmüller received an honorary Oscar in 2019 and will continue ruling hearts with her bizarre selection of film titles.
Chantal Akerman (1950-2015)
“When people ask me if I am a feminist filmmaker, I reply that I am a woman and I also make films.”
Chantel Akerman was first inspired by Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou which, at 15, told her that she had to become a filmmaker. Daughter to Polish Holocaust survivors, her mother’s trauma had somehow been a large part of her sensibility. She was extremely close to her mother who encouraged her to pursue a career of fruition and the maternal imagery was nearly omnipresent in all her films. Her final film was centred on the intricacies of a mother-daughter relationship and was a grieving response to her mother’s demise. The feeling of hopelessness and desolation was palpable and she often blurred the lines between the voice of her mother as well as her own voice.
Akerman’s work is considered to have had a substantial contribution to feminist filmmaking. However, the filmmaker herself was quite opposed to such categorizations and often protested against them. She believed that associating oneself with the labels was often quite restrictive. Her works are often slow-paced and take their own sweet time to highlight the dull and mundane nature of life. Her quest for the multiplicity of expressions was often confined within intimate settings of the household which have been interpreted as an intersection of the domestic sphere and the underlying principles of feminism. Her characterisations are realistic and the films have a distinct language to express her emotions.
Some of Akerman’s most notable works are Je Tu Il Elle, Les Rendez-vous d’Anna, Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles and more, of which the Jeanne Dielman is considered to be her masterpiece, where she documented the stifling daily routine of a housewife trapped within the shackles of marriage, domesticity and prostitution.
Julie Dash (1952-)
“I’m hopeful. There are still a lot of people waiting at the gate, but things are moving forward.”
Julie Dash was the first African American woman whose full-length feature film obtained a theatrical release in the United States. Conscious of the racism and lack of representation and diversity plaguing Hollywood, Dash never gave up on her dreams while pursuing an MFA at UCLA. She was a part of the new generation of African and African-American filmmakers who constituted the Black insurgents, challenging the existing tropes and stereotypes regarding Black women in her films. She was primarily concentrating on making documentaries before discovering the works of Black women authors like Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and the like who instilled this desire in her to direct narrative films.
Dash’s filmography reeks of her anger and resentment against the portrayal of Black stereotypes, especially those about women. She serves the harsh reality in her films without sugar-coating it, exposing the systemic racism and oppression pervading every sphere of life, with a focus on Hollywood and contemporary American society. She does not shy away from making bold comments on the sexual discrimination meted out to women. Her most notable work is the 1991 film Daughters of the Dust where she explores her father’s Gullah background and the tribulations of immigration via a non-linear narrative structure. She defied audience expectations by not including subtitles- the language barrier served as a mystic and immersive experience and the overall surreal setting of the film won hearts.
Despite her directorial genius, Dash has not received her due in Hollywood which has often angered fans and critics. However, Dash has accepted the lack of traction in Hollywood and said, “I’d written many, many additional screenplays and pitched ideas and optioned screenplays – all of those wonderful things that one does after making a film that clearly had a wide audience. It didn’t happen for me. There’s no reason given, but of course, it’s race and gender. Gender plays a huge part in all of this. I did not fit into the mould.”
Kathryn Bigelow (1951-)
“If there’s specific resistance to women making movies, I just choose to ignore that as an obstacle for two reasons: I can’t change my gender, and I refuse to stop making movies.”
If Barbra Streisand’s “the time has come” response to the name inside the envelope at the 63rd Academy Awards did not send goosebumps on your skin and shivers down your spine, we suggest you witness the monumental moment once again. Kathryn Bigelow is the first and only woman to have won the Best Director award for her film The Hurt Locker which also won the Best Picture while competing against heavyweight films like Avatar and Inglorious Bastards. Bigelow made a breakthrough with a well-stylized thriller action flick starring Keanu Reeves in 1991 named Point Blank. She has been the butt of severe criticism when her film Strange Days that was written by ex-husband James Cameron was a commercial failure and the work was attributed to being a product of Cameron’s creative genius. Bigelow avenged herself by defeating Cameron in the Oscar race and the proud colleague was seen clapping and cheering for her momentous win.
Bigelow has always capsized stereotypical notions about female-directed films. She has been experimental with her filmmaking themes often delving into the noir genre and then oscillating to the genre of examining intimate relationships. She deservedly won the Oscar for The Hurt Locker where she dealt with buff military issues as well as PTSD. She is famed for using ultra-violence in films and her next venture Zero Dark Thirty which dealt with the assassination of Osama bin Laden was criticised for being pro-torture. She often dabbles in the genre of the supernatural and the erotics, challenging stereotypes regarding homosexuality and the white man’s illusion of their power and safety.
Bigelow’s vast variety of films cannot be pigeon-holed into one particular stylistic genre. She is experimental and bold and loves going to extreme lengths in her films. She dips her directorial arm into every ocean of genres and presents wonderful and neatly crafted works that make her one of the most versatile film directors in Hollywood.
Sofia Coppola (1971-)
“My movies are not about being, but becoming.”
Born to a successful family associated with films for the longest time, great things were expected of Sofia Coppola whose romantic heart pushed her to make films that bore meaning to her. Previously having tried her hand at acting she decided to quit after heavy backlash to her role as Mary Corleone in her father’s 1990 film The Godfather Part III. She tried her hand at directing which clicked for her. She directed various films such as The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette, The Bling Ring, Beguiled, Somewhere, Lost in Translation etc. Lost in Translation was an artistic masterpiece due to the beautiful implementation of the trope of time and silence to portray the loneliness and desolation amidst the element of subtle romance which is a highlight of Coppola’s filmography. The film won four Academy Award nominations, including the Best Original Screenplay Award for Coppola.
Coppola has been very vocal about the pervading sexism in Hollywood that has led her to be more comfortable in the independent sphere. She has received severe criticism due to her privileged background but the hate and negativity have hardly deterred her from bringing to the fore beautiful aesthetically stimulating pieces of art. She has often credited her own desire and imagination, talking about how she was interested in making films she would want to see. Although she is a part of the prestigious Coppola family, Sofia Coppola has forged her won path in the industry and has created a distinguished signature in her filmmaking.
Her films are emotional rollercoasters which are painstakingly bitter-sweet and melancholy, taking their own sweet time to plant the seeds of loneliness and doldrum. Dream-like sequences are a major part of her aesthetic which also highlights female beauty and the idea of missed chances and fleeting moments in life. Coppola has always emphasized that “It’s about moments in life that are great but don’t last. They don’t go on, but you always have the memory and they have an effect on you. That’s what I was thinking about.”
Ava DuVernay (1972-)
“I’m not going to continue knocking on that old door that does not open for me. I’m going to create my own door and walk through that.”
Ava DuVernay has been a raging inspiration for women, especially black women, all over the world for her outstanding contribution to cinema. She was not only the first Black woman to be nominated for a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for her film Selma but also the first Black woman to have won the Sundance Film Festival award for it. DuVernay, whose film Selma was based on her childhood experience of hearing tales about her father witnessing the 1965 marches about the African Americans protesting for their constitutional right to vote, has always indulged in making films about scathing social issues. A harsh critique of the ever-present systemic racism and oppression, DeVernay never shies away from opining on controversial topics.
Previously a journalist, she was disillusioned and put off by journalism while covering O.J Simpson’s murder trial. She soon turned her attention to film where she presented real-life issues with a scathing assessment of the justice system. Films like 13th and When They See Us shed innovative light on the dehumanization th\at continues to exist despite the apparent awareness. Her films document her rage which often gains validation via documentary-style filmmaking. DuVernay is bold and brave and features black protagonists who deal with personal grief while battling marginalisation. She often critiques the prison system as well while highlighting the work of artists and artistic voices.
Her works are informative and historically accurate. DuVernay is not here to please by making films in accordance with the white sensibility. She is here to serve the truth and debunk myths regarding the saviour complex while emphasizing the ubiquitous problem of racism and oppression.
Celine Sciamma (1978-)
“I think all movies are political. The ones that are not political intentionally are the worst and have the worst politics, I think.”
Blue Is the Warmest Colour is the perfect example for the male gaze as the make director reinforces his point of view while narrating a lesbian relationship, and that is exactly the kind of film a filmmaker as bold and gutsy as Celine Sciamma does not “give a fuck about”. An out-lesbian, Sciamma is vocal about her feminist views and is one of the founding members of the French branch of 5050 where they advocate for parity in film. She is audacious and does not hesitate in calling out the inherent sexism and misogyny in the French film industry. She challenges and subverts the male gaze by portraying homoerotic and homosocial stories documenting intense female passion on-screen.
Sciamma considers Virginia Woolf and Chantel Akerman as powerful women and David Lynch as her cinematic inspiration. She is known for casting non-professional actresses and often her ex-lover and ardent compatriot Adele Haenel makes frequent appearances. Her films reflect her fearlessness and idiosyncratic nature as she brings to light realistic characters- women exploring their identities in terms of gender and sexuality. She often uses stylized cinematography and mellow music that heightens the emotional upheavals in the film. Her feminist sensibility helps her push forward her ideas and values. In 2020, Sciamma and Haenel, along with some others, displayed extraordinary courage when they extended their solidarity to the victims and expressed disgust at the French Academy’s apparent nonchalance to the crimes committed by the pedophilic rapist Roman Polanski after he won the best picture award. They exited the show publicly which was seen as a powerful action against the abuse of power.
Sciamma has four films to her name which have already made her the vanguard of brilliant feminist filmmaking. Her debut film Water Lillies was followed by Tomboy and Girlhood which became a brilliant coming-of-age trilogy exploring adolescence. Her 2019 film Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a personal and heartbreaking tale that challenges heteronormativity while highlighting the evolution of a passionate lesbian relationship.