Women in Film

In the last few years, the role of women in the film industry has become a burning issue. And not before time. The statistics are dismaying. Although women have always been represented on screen, they have often played uninteresting and demeaning roles. When it comes to the crafts of film-making, their representation is vanishingly small.

A survey of the highest-grossing 250 films in America in 2018 showed only eight per cent directed by women; 16 per cent were written by women;  four per cent had female cinematographers. Although the number of female writers, producers and editors had increased since 1998, the percentage of women directors had actually decreased and cinematographers stayed the same.

If you look at the prizes the industry awards itself, you will not be surprised that these have also overwhelmingly gone to men. No woman was nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards until Lina Wertmüller in 1977 for Seven Beauties, a film few have seen. Jane Campion received the second in 1993 for The Piano. She is still the only woman to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Films were 100 years old by then. No woman won the Oscar until Kathryn Bigelow in 2009. Her feat has not been repeated.

What makes this strange is that in the early days of the industry, film-making was seen to some extent as women’s work. The hand-skills needed for editing were delicate and women were also seen as naturals for writing and lettering title cards, designing sets, costumes and so on. The first narrative film, La Fée aux Choux in 1896 was directed by a Frenchwoman, Alice Guy-Blaché. The Swedish director Anna Hofman-Uddgren made her debut, Stockholmfresteiser, in 1911. All that tended to change when the men came home from the First World War. There were female film directors and writers in the silent era, but they were eclipsed in the 1920s when the production companies passed from individual entrepreneurship to larger corporations headed by the usual men in suits. Some important female craft-workers clung on. Among those, it is important to recognise Alma Reville, who was a film-cutter in London’s Twickenham Film Studios in 1916 before becoming a script writer and director’s assistant. Later, she would marry Alfred Hitchcock and made a vital contribution to his films, with a remarkable eye for continuity. It is said she spotted that Janet Leigh was still breathing after her supposedly fatal encounter in the shower at the Bates Motel.

We are, though, in a new era in which female directors and writers are receiving both the commercial green-light and critical praise. Kathryn Bigelow was a pioneer in this respect by avoiding supposed women’s genres and capturing male territory. Her Iraq War film, The Hurt Locker, did not do particularly good business but it won the Academy Award. Others have been more commercially successful: Catherine Hardwicke’s films, including Twilight, won’t win any Sight & Sound awards but have earned $551.8m. Nanci Meyers has helmed five features, including the slyly-titled What Women Want, and brought in an astonishing $1,157.2m.

Leaving Hollywood aside, feminist film theory has become a powerful influence. This argues that films have traditionally been created to satisfy the “male gaze” and are hence belittling. One extension of that is the so-called “Bechdel test”. To pass it, a film must have two named women characters who talk to each other about something other than men. It is a surprisingly tough hurdle, and film programmers in cinemas and cable channels are increasingly taking it into account.

The female film makers featured in the Cheltenham International Film Festival are in the vanguard of current developments. They include the British director Josie Rourke, who has moved across from theatre to make Mary Queen of Scots; Nadine Labaki, a Lebanese actor and director, whose third feature Capernaum won the Jury Prize at Cannes last year; Italian-born Alice Rohrwacher, whose Happy As Lazzaro won best screenplay at the same festival; Valérie Müller, writer and co-director of Polina, which was screened at Venice; Małgorzata Szumowska, born in Poland, who received the Jury Grand Prix at Berlin in 2018 for Mug; and Cristina Gallego, making her co-directorial debut with Birds of Passage, a feature about drug-trading in Colombia. We are confident that this strong strain of women-led programming will be one of the memorable highlights of the Festival.

John Morrish


©  |  Cheltenham International Film Festival  |  2023