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How Kathryn Bigelow changed the face of cinema forever

“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.” – Kathryn Bigelow

At a momentous moment during the 82nd Academy Awards in 2009, when Barbra Streisand uttered the profound “the time has come”, it sent ripples of goosebumps across my skin. It was a monumental event in the history of the Academy where a woman director had won an Oscar for the Best Director for the first time. Kathryn Bigelow, in her humble and somewhat flustered speech, thanked everyone who helped her reach the milestone while we appreciated her for paving the way and smashing the misogynistic stereotypes that prevailed in the Academy. A trailblazing director, she cannot be pigeon-holed into a particular genre as she continues to make films that are experimental and subverts the stereotypes associated with female-directed films. From venturing into the world of intimate relationships to portraying violence in her noir films, Bigelow’s creative vision and versatility births a wide range of films that transcend a particular stylistic genre. 

Shot in Jordan and starring Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie, The Hurt Locker dealt with the US army who was stationed in Iraq as they dealt with their daily trials and tribulations. It focused on a revolutionary Sergeant with intense bomb diffusing capabilities whose squadmates were at odds with him over his bizarre way of dealing with trouble. Beautifully shot with an element of pervading suspense, the film captures the atrocities of the war and the conditions of the soldiers while celebrating the work of the unsung heroes in the bomb squad. Amidst intense violence, the film explores military issues as well as other important topics such as PTSD. 

Bigelow’s film Strange Days, written by her ex-husband James Cameron, had received severe criticism for being a commercial failure and a product of Cameron’s vision where the director’s voice seemed to be lacking. She avenged herself by winning against Cameron in the same race and the latter was seen clapping heartily at her success. Allegedly, he had convinced her to do the film even when she had been unsure and was quoted saying that Bigelow’s film would be “The Platoon (1986) for Iraq”. 

Bigelow, an inspiration for women all over the world, especially within the world of cinema, belonged to humble origins. Bigelow started off with a 20-minute short film The Set-Up where she had apparently asked her actors who were fighting in the movie to engage in actual blows to add authenticity to the film that was shot all night. Her debut starred Willem Dafoe in her co-directorial feature full-length 1981 film The Loveless, a story about an outlaw biker. Bigelow, whose eventual breakthrough came in the form of a 1991 action film Point Break, established herself as a visionary auteur as she dabbled in the action genre, subverting stereotypes and delved into politics of gender and power. 

Ever-experimental, she confessed how she “spent a fair amount of time thinking about what my aptitude is, and I really think it’s to explore and push the medium. It’s not about breaking gender roles or genre traditions.” Despite certain obstacles in the form of criticism for her film Strange Days, she quickly gained ground with her most acclaimed film The Hurt Locker where her audacious and bold directorial venture helped her bag numerous awards and accolades, groundbreakingly making her the first woman director to win an Oscar for her incredible work. Having faced abhorrent and offensive comments wherein her vision and the violence in her films have been heavily criticised, she has constantly immersed herself into various genres and produced well-crafted works. Followed by her meteoric success, she dramatised the persecution of the notorious terrorist Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty. Although she was called out for her pro-torture stance, Bigelow won the Best Director award at the National Board of Review which made her the first woman to win such an award. 

Kathryn Bigelow on the set of Point Break, 1991. (Credit: Alamy)

Bigelow’s unique visual aesthetics and visceral filmmaking techniques set her apart from the rest of the crowd. Her films serve as a social commentary while dealing with violence and complex human emotions. Her pictures cannot be gendered; they are violent, suspenseful, riveting and usually end on a nail-biting note. Bigelow keeps on asserting how she is not a feminist filmmaker as she does not want to be typecast as one. However, she has often said, “There should be more women directing. I think there’s just not the awareness that it’s really possible” while acknowledging that “the journey for women, no matter what venue it is- politics, business, film- it’s, it’s a long journey”. Of course, Bigelow would definitely know as she had travelled a long and arduous path laced with insults and sneers that tried to bog her down. 

Her films are based on extreme realism and portray the grim realities and utter despair of life. To add a sense of authenticity and raw honesty to the movie, Bigelow had apparently kept the actors in the dark about the placement of multiple cameras while shooting The Hurt Locker. Her films challenge stereotypical perceptions and raise important questions for the audience to ponder over while she raises awareness of various issues including torture, violence, racism, crime and more. Although Bigelow has often stated that “violence in a cinematic context can be, if handled in a certain way, very seductive”, her films are scathing commentaries on the realities of such violence, exposing the devastation and despair that follow. 

Bigelow relishes adding visual imageries that resonate with the viewers. Her love for complex filming environments, POV shots and handheld shots are easily spotted in her filmography. Her stories are gritty and nerve-wracking and manage to smash preconceived notions. What Jeremy Renner said in an interview regarding Bigelow’s vision as a director is profound and hilarious: “What does a set of ovaries have to do with directing a film? She sees through her eyes, not her mammaries”.

Kathryn Bigelow is fearless, indomitable and proud. Despite the industry being hostile and sneering, her perseverance and creative genius helped her shine through. Bigelow rewrites a more appropriate response to society’s notion about female-directed films by transcending all boxes and reinventing the inherently masculine genre of crime and violence. Her films are heavily laden with socio-political critiques and relentless strife for realism while battling the constant criticism she has to face in the male-dominated industry. Her deconstruction of the male gaze and masculinity is indeed ground-breaking, unique and thought-provoking. 

Nearly a decade after her historic win at the Academy, the dearth of female directors is equally palpable. Although she has set an example by winning the Oscar, it is a pity to see her doing so by recounting a man’s story. As Karyn Kusama rightly pointed out: “What will truly be exciting and groundbreaking is when a woman wins for telling a story about women and their lives. As it is, it’s as if the Academy doesn’t believe women’s stories matter.”

However, one can only hope for the Academy to change its regressive mindset and recognise the unsung talents of various female filmmakers all over the world. Kathryn Bigelow, with her “high impact movies”, has definitely managed to set the car rolling yet a long-distance needs to be traversed to get the female directors their deserved respect and appreciation. To quote Streisand yet again, “It is about time”!

“I choose material instinctually – at the heart of it are characters that I feel are fresh and original, and allow for an opportunity to, I suppose, explore the uncharted ground.”