Mark Cousins on Women Make Film: 'I do think that the revolution is happening, and hopefully the debate is moving on'
- Nikki Baughan
- 20 February 2020
Mark Cousins with narrator Jane Fonda
Filmmaker tells us about how his 14-hour film aims to keep a cultural revolution on track
In this age of Weinstein and #MeToo, the film industry has seemingly been seized with a new commitment to diversity and inclusion, with women being targeted by a variety of equal opportunity initiatives. Yet, despite these efforts and passionate engagement with the discourse, how much is actually changing? Is the cinematic landscape becoming less white, less male, more varied? A glance at the options in a typical multiplex, the depressing statistics of myriad diversity studies, or this year's woefully narrow BAFTA and Oscar nominations would suggest emphatically not.
For every step forward – Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar win, a female superhero finally given her own movie – it seems we take three steps, or often a dramatic plunge, backwards with major awards snubs and diversity panels made up entirely of white men. The most frustrating thing of all is that there has always been legions of women making exceptional movies, seizing the opportunities for themselves without waiting to be asked.
Help in that regard comes in the form of Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema, the comprehensive documentary from Mark Cousins, a filmmaker who has long championed the work of women directors. A true passion project, which Cousins has been making under the radar and with no money for well over a decade, it's a five-part, 14-hour movie covering the work of women directors across the world, from the earliest pioneers of silent cinema to the modern day. This is a film school of sorts, an introduction to 40 filmmaking topics – openings, tracking, tone, framing – with illustrative examples from movie makers who happen not to be men, and narrated by Tilda Swinton, Adjoa Andoh, Kerry Fox, Jane Fonda, Thandie Newton, Sharmila Tagore and Debra Winger.
'The film absolutely is not about how women see the world,' says Cousins when I speak to him ahead of the documentary playing in its entirety at the Glasgow Film Festival. 'There's loads of other good work out there about the female gaze, but that's not what we're trying to do. And we weren't going to talk about these women as being victims of anything. We just wanted to treat them like filmmakers, to look at these people as great practitioners of the art, craft and language of cinema.'
So in the first instalment, the film takes in the likes of American Dorothy Arzner, whose opening to 1943's First Comes Courage is a fluid masterclass in the wide-medium-close-up crane shot, and Tunisia's Moufida Tlatli who, by contrast, begins 1994 drama The Silences of the Palace with an intimate close-up of her protagonist's haunted face. Elsewhere, Cousins shines a light on women including Bulgaria's Binka Zhelyazkova, France's Alice Guy-Blaché, Soviet director Yuliya Solntseva, American Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow and Belgian grande dame Agnès Varda.
If you haven't heard most of these names, you're not alone. Cousins expects that Women Make Film will prove illuminating even for the most hardened cinephile, because it's traditionally been so difficult to find anything out about these filmmakers. 'We have all been weighed down by the lack of knowledge, and the lack of opportunity to discover this stuff,' Cousins notes of the institutional predominance of male directors. 'I think a lot of people don't intend to be sexist. But they have never been on the other side of the fence and therefore they simply exclude. Loads of men that I know, they can go and do something, make a great piece of work, without noticing that there's not a single woman in the room.'
As befits the film's working title, 'Eye Opener', Cousins hopes that Women Make Film will help its audience appreciate all the movies they've been missing and, with the help of a supporting website, be encouraged to seek out more varied work from female directors. 'Every time someone makes a generalisation about the sorts of films women have made, it makes my blood boil,' he says. 'I think there's a real danger that we can straitjacket these great directors if we try to generalise and say they make films about relationships, or childhood, or domestic things. Women make films about everything, and have been for years. We want to shock people into recognition that now is the time, you have to inform yourself about this stuff. You cannot be an activist in the movement for change, you cannot call yourself "woke", you cannot talk about the proportion of women in the industry if you have not also informed yourself about what has happened before. I do think that the revolution is happening, and hopefully the debate is moving on. I think of Women Make Film as a shoulder to that wheel.'
Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema, Cineworld, Glasgow, Fri 6–Sun 8 Mar.