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20 essential feminist films that you need to watch

In the current discourse of sociopolitical cinema, many dramatic investigations are often categorised as feminist films even though they often lack a politically coherent subtext. Many films directed by men are also referred to as examples of feminist cinema which raises some important philosophical questions about the very definition of feminist art.

For the purposes of this list, I have made a distinction between feminist cinema made by women and films made by male directors that are often lumped into the same category. While some of the works of masters such as Carl Theodor Dreyer and Kenji Mizoguchi can be described as proto-feminist or pro-feminist, this article will focus on the contributions of female artists towards the evolution of the feminist consciousness.

In a fantastic essay about this central paradox of feminist cinema, Anna Biller – the director of acclaimed films like The Love Witch – argued that there were many classic films produced in the 1930s and the ’40s which possess more feminist momentum than many modern productions that are marketed in film festivals and on streaming platforms as feminist art.

“By using the word feminism so often and indiscriminately, we are erasing feminist discourse,” Biller wrote. “The over-use of the word feminism has rendered it entirely meaningless as a serious political topic, making it easier and easier for everyone to think of it as just a trendy subject or a buzzword rather than the very fabric of women’s lives. This is an effective way to kill a political movement, and it’s working.”

The films listed below were made by female directors with vastly differing sensibilities, spread across different periods of history who worked within highly specific sociopolitical frameworks. Although many might consider new Netflix productions such as Amy Poehler’s Moxie to be more politically charged than a short film from the beginning of the 20th century, historical contexts are crucial for a more complete understanding of the rapidly diluting oeuvre of feminist cinema.

Check out the full selection below.

20 essential feminist films:

The Consequences of Feminism (Alice Guy-Blaché, 1906)

In the entire history of the cinematic art form, Alice Guy-Blaché’s contributions are revelatory and pioneering. Unfortunately, her films have been relegated to the dusty domain of obscurity due to the futile exercises of canon formation that mostly focus on male accomplishments.

Guy-Blaché was one of the first to explore the narrative potential of the cinematic medium and through this short film, she envisions a subversive society where gender roles have been reversed. Although the idea might seem tame to modern viewers, it must have been revolutionary at the time since she was probably the only female director during a period when women’s rights were a myth.

The Smiling Madame Beudet (Germaine Dulac, 1923)

Germaine Dulac was another one of those early pioneers who helped pave the way for future practitioners of feminist cinema. While Dulac’s prominence faded away with the rise of sound films, her body of silent gems are just fascinating cinematic experiences.

The Smiling Madame Beudet is definitely among Dulac’s finest works, telling the story of a woman who feels stifled in a marriage that is abusive and completely devoid of love. Almost structured like a dream, Dulac’s 1923 work is an important step in the formulation of feminist sensibilities in cinema.

Dance, Girl, Dance (Dorothy Arzner, 1940)

One of the most important figures in Hollywood during the first half of the 20th century, Dorothy Arzner’s place in the history of cinema is firmly cemented. Arzner directed multiple gems but Dance, Girl, Dance is nothing short of a feminist revelation from the ’40s.

The narrative revolves around two dancers who are struggling for subjectivity in a male-dominated framework. Dance, Girl, Dance explores the demeaning objectification of women by male voyeurs and even features an empowering confrontation that has been interpreted as a direct response to the male gaze.

Cléo from 5 to 7 (Agnès Varda, 1962)

When we discuss the history of feminist cinema, Agnès Varda’s filmography definitely needs no introduction. A prominent artistic force from the Left Bank of the French New Wave, Varda asked piercing questions about sociopolitical conditions through her cinematic masterpieces.

Cléo from 5 to 7 is probably one of the most famous films from Varda’s extensive body of work, following a young woman who struggles with accepting human mortality. A great example of the thought processes behind French feminism, Varda explores how a patriarchal society forms various perceptions of women.

Daisies (Věra Chytilová, 1966)

Věra Chytilová is among the boldest voices in the avant-garde movement of the Czech New Wave. After deciding to become a director because she could not relate to the films that were being produced in her country, Chytilová ended up changing the medium forever.

A surrealist masterpiece, Daisies is a scathing indictment of the patriarchal morality that is enforced by conservative societies. In the film, the protagonists are two young girls who decide to react to the corruption and decadence of the world they inhabit by exercising their agency and engaging in bizarre pranks.

Wings (Larisa Shepitko, 1966)

Larisa Shepitko’s legacy is not only defined by her contributions to Soviet cinema but also to the history of cinema as a whole. Often cited as one of the most talented directors to have ever worked on the medium, Shepitko’s work provides fascinating insights into the prevalent cultural elements of her time.

While Shepitko left behind a relatively small oeuvre, the films she produced are magical. Wings was her first feature after graduating from film school and it focused on the life of a celebrated female war hero who leads a monotonous existence after assimilating into the social fabric.

Wanda (Barbara Loden, 1970)

The highlight of Barbara Loden’s career and one of the most neglected masterpieces from the New Hollywood era, Wanda chronicles the condition of a young woman who decides to escape with a bank robber after managing to flee from a depressing marriage.

“I really hate slick pictures,” Loden once said. “They’re too perfect to be believable. I don’t mean just in the look. I mean in the rhythm, in the cutting, the music — everything. The slicker the technique is, the slicker the content becomes, until everything turns into Formica, including the people.”

The Hour of Liberation Has Arrived (Heiny Srour, 1974)

Feminist cinema can mean a lot of things to different audience members, ranging from glimpses of liberation from oppression to reflections about the pernicious ramifications of oppressive existences. This 1974 documentary captures the optimism of that fabled feminist revolution.

During the ’60s when western feminist intellectual movements took rapid strides, other parts of the world had different concerns. This documentary focuses on the feminist guerrilla movements of the Dhofar Rebellion that had a significant impact on the Civil War in Oman.

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (Chantal Akerman, 1975)

Chantal Akerman is certainly counted among the leading figures of feminist cinema and this brilliant 1975 film has to be her magnum opus. More than three hours long, Jeanne Dielman is an uncompromisingly mundane incursion into the female experience through the life of a housewife.

The camera follows the woman as she engages in the repetitive, laborious activities of cooking and cleaning on a daily basis while selling her body to earn enough money for her son. An unprecedented investigation of the politics of gender, Jeanne Dielman is a truly unique cinematic spectacle.

Be Pretty and Shut Up! (Delphine Seyrig, 1976)

One of the most important feminist documentaries ever made, Delphine Seyrig’s pioneering work raises several piercing questions through interviews with widely recognisable public icons such as Maria Schneider, and Jane Fonda among others.

Although it was shot in 1976, Be Pretty and Shut Up! was finally released in 1981 and it has become essential viewing since then. The film’s title refers to the patriarchal expectation that is imposed upon actresses by a male-dominated industry where misogyny is omnipresent.

Girlfriends (Claudia Weill, 1978)

A surprisingly accomplished comedy-drama by Claudia Weill, Girlfriends explores the subject of female friendship through the lives of a photographer and an aspiring writer. An example of the brilliance of independent filmmaking, Girlfriends is a welcome change from the male-centric cinematic visions that were being produced in America during the ’70s.

While expressing his admiration for Weill’s work, Stanley Kubrick said: “That film, I thought, was one of the very rare American films that I would compare with the serious, intelligent, sensitive writing and filmmaking that you find in the best directors in Europe.”

Born in Flames (Lizzie Borden, 1983)

A transgressive masterpiece by Lizzie Borden, Born in Flames takes a new approach to age-old issues of race, sex, gender and class by imagining an America where the government is actually a socialist democracy. Despite that social organisation, feminist groups continue their struggle for equality.

“After Born in Flames, I realised a lot about how the structure of a movie affects an audience,” Borden admitted. “That movie was structured the way it was for various reasons: lack of money, having to shoot things over five years as opposed to being able to do it all at one time. A lot of the complaints I got about Born in Flames – I got complaints about everything-had to do with the structure”.

Diary for My Children (Márta Mészáros, 1984)

A masterpiece by the Hungarian filmmaker Márta Mészáros, Diary for My Children is an extremely personal story about a young teenager whose father became a casualty during Stalin’s authoritarian reign of terror which wiped countless innocent people from the face of the planet.

After her father’s death, she is raised by a relative who still believes in the idealist fantasy of communism even though the reality outside has morphed into a grotesque nightmare. Determine to find subjectivity on her own, she embarks on a perilous journey towards independence.

An Angel at My Table (Jane Campion, 1990)

Jane Campion has recently become a vital part of the public discourse after she made her return to the world of cinema with The Power of the Dog which has managed to garner a record number of accolades and nominations over the course of this Awards season.

However, people who are getting into the works of Campion now should note that she made much more accomplished gems in the first half of her career like An Angel at My Table. A dramatisation of the autobiographies of Janet Frame, the film follows the literary icon’s journey from childhood suffering to international recognition.

Privilege (Yvonne Rainer, 1990)

Yvonne Rainer is known for her experimental investigations in the realms of dance as well as cinema but Privilege definitely remains of the greatest projects she ever worked on. An avant-garde drama, Privilege is a powerfully elusive film that touches upon various genre frameworks.

Ranging from a documentary approach to a subject that has largely been absent from the world of cinema – menopause – to dizzyingly autobiographical metafiction, Privilege is a highly subversive work that is still among the largest leaps in the evolution of feminist cinema.

Orlando (Sally Potter, 1992)

A widely respected effort by a leading practitioner of feminist cinema – Sally Potter, Orlando stars Tilda Swinton in a stunning adaptation of the eponymous novel by modernist writer Virginia Woolf. An intelligent visual spectacle, Orlando captures Woolf’s curiosity about the structures of language, society and the institutions of gender.

“My task,” Potter said. “Was to find a way of remaining true to the spirit of the book and to Virginia Woolf’s intentions, whilst being ruthless with changing the book in any way necessary to make it work cinematically…The most immediate changes were structural.”

The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye, 1996)

The Watermelon Woman is not only an indispensable part of the history of feminist cinema but also an important work within the fabric of New Queer Cinema since it is the first film that revolves around a Black lesbian which was actually directed by someone from the same community who understood the experience.

“For me it was never, ‘in to be out.’ I was never, ‘in.’ I was always, ‘out.’ So it’s very important not to hide aspects of yourself,” Dunye said. “I don’t think I ever did. I never subtracted any of the titles of who I am from the work that I do. I wanted to have the ability not just to tell the ‘Black lesbian’ story but to tell everybody’s story—especially if it’s a powerful one, one that’s about the people.”

The Day I Became a Woman (Marzieh Makhmalbaf, 2000)

Structured in the form of three connected segments that portray various stages in the existence of Iranian women, Marzieh Makhmalbaf’s 2000 gem is a stunning exploration of the very concept of “womanhood” and the philosophical connotations of such a loaded term.

It is considered by many to be a modern masterpiece because it successfully deconstructs the domestic domain through surreal techniques, oscillating between the sociopolitical realities of the women’s lives who come to terms with their social identities as well as the spiritual symbolism of what it means to be a woman.

I Am Not a Witch (Rungano Nyoni, 2017)

A fantastic breakthrough debut by the talented Rungano Nyoni, I Am Not a Witch is a modern masterpiece from Zambia that explores the social injustice against women due to widespread prejudices against female members of the community as well as accusations of witchcraft.

In order to make the film, the director actually went to a real witch camp – a place where alleged witches are condemned to after their societies turn on them. I Am Not a Witch is about one such individual, a young orphan girl who is sent to a terrifying camp like the ones that Nyoni studied.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma, 2019)

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is among the greatest cinematic achievements of the 21st century and is revolutionary in terms of feminist film theory. Sciamma, one of the most important filmmakers in the current landscape of cinema, manages to carve out a space for women that is defined by their magical presence rather than the presence or absence of men.

“I see [the movie] as a manifesto about the female gaze,” Sciamma explained. “I see this as such a strong opportunity to make new stuff, new images, new narratives. They are such powerful images, and they are so not seen. And you are in charge. You have a strong responsibility. But also, there are so many opportunities to be playful. To embody ideas that matter a lot to myself, but also to a lot of people. I see it as a really great dynamic for creating and also very fun visually.”