Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema (5 stars)

Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema

The work of female directors is used to explore the filmmaking process in Mark Cousins' landmark documentary

For those who've recently found themselves with time on their hands, a 14-hour documentary on female directors could be the ideal way to fill it. Divided into five, hypnotically paced parts, delivered weekly online, it's another labour of love from writer-director Mark Cousins, the culmination of half a decade of craft. Though structured like a road trip, it's not a journey through landmark movie moments – like his acclaimed 2011 TV series The Story of Film: An Odyssey – instead, it's a filmmaking masterclass, with the female perspective used to illustrate what makes great cinema.

Cousins curates a selection of clips from some of the finest films helmed by women (and many of the finest full-stop), his words passionately voiced by a series of female narrators – Tilda Swinton, Sharmila Tagore and Jane Fonda amongst them. With many of these masterworks largely forgotten, or little seen outside their country of origin, it's a treasure trove of female artistic endeavour, criss-crossing the globe, offering tantalising snatches of stories and biographical detail. It's divided into 40 chapters, which discuss familiar aspects of cinema – opening sequences, introducing characters, point of view, creating tension – as well as women's approach to genre, and to themes like sex, politics and work.

The sheer wealth of brilliance demonstrates one of Cousins' early points inarguably: women's contribution to film has been vast and shamefully unrecognised. There are clips from the work of Dorothy Arzner, Kira Muratova, Cecile Tang, Maya Deren, Chantal Ackerman, Mai Zetterling, Elaine May, even Angelina Jolie. Cousins celebrates the genius framing of Agnès Varda and Ida Lupino, Kathryn Bigelow's flair for complex action – and speculates how she may have been influenced by French pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché's seminal string-of-sausages chase. The merits of Wayne's World, Pet Sematary and Big are championed alongside The Seashell and the Clergyman, The Ascent, Daisies, Diary for My Children and Beau Travail. 182 filmmakers feature in total.

There are a few niggles and inconsistencies in the narration and Cousins' take on horror films mostly ignores those actually working in the field to focus on more realistic depictions of hell, while his inclusion of the occasional TV show arguably confuses things. However, these are rare and forgivable missteps in an overwhelmingly impressive whole. As he persuasively interprets filmmakers' intentions, Cousins' turn of phrase is lyrical, idiosyncratic and fawning; he's in thrall to them. Malvina Ursianu's Fleeting Loves is described as 'one of the most autumnal ever made'. There's humour at Fonda's obvious unfamiliarity with the word 'rubbish'. Regular Cousins collaborator and this film's executive producer Swinton is perhaps the most effective of the seven narrators, her dulcet, schoolmarmy tones fitting a film as infatuated as it is educational.

There's something really rather wonderful about contemplating all the wildly different ways women see the world; the breadth of vision and ingenuity of execution frequently astonishes, and Cousins closes on a 'smashing' note. It's a film that's exciting, enlightening and essential, resulting in a watchlist to beat them all. And, rather than ending up exhausted, you'll be left wanting much, much more.

Part one available to watch on BFI Player from Mon 18 May, with four more to follow each week until Mon 15 Jun. The full list of included films can be found at womenmakefilm.net

Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema

  • 5 stars
  • 2018
  • UK
  • 14h
  • 15
  • Directed by: Mark Cousins
  • UK release: 18 May 2020

A grandiose documentary exploring 13 decades of the art of movies told by various female directors and actresses such as Tilda Swinton, Jane Campion, Angelina Jolie, Lynne Ramsay and Agnès Varda.

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