Women haven't always been welcome in the director's chair, in Hollywood or elsewhere, and when they have directed films, sometimes their work has been overlooked or trivialized. But a 14-part documentary and weekly film series, beginning tonight at 8 Eastern on Turner Classic Movies, aims to give women behind the camera their due.
TCM is presenting the U.S. premiere of Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema, a documentary highlighting the work of more than 180 directors from six continents over 13 decades. It spans all genres, identities, and eras, going from silent-film pioneers Alice Guy-Blache, Mabel Normand, and Lois Weber to early talkies directors Dorothy Arzner and Leontine Sagan to film noir's Ida Lupino to more recent luminaries such as Lina Wertmuller, Agnes Varda, Ava DuVernay, Cheryl Dunye, and Kathryn Bigelow -- the latter still, amazingly, the only woman to win a Best Director Oscar.
One episode will screen every Tuesday through December 1, followed by a night of films by women directors introduced by a woman director in conversation with a TCM host, either Alicia Malone or Jacqueline Stewart. And LGBTQ+ directors and content are amply represented.
Women Make Film -- directed by Mark Cousins, a man who appreciates the work of women -- isn't a conventional documentary or even a chronological one. It is structured around themes of how to make a movie, dealing with opening shots, believability, point of view, character introduction, editing, and more. It exclusively uses the work of women directors to explore these themes.
"Many films about cinema feature only male directors, so this one is a repost," Cousins says in his director's statement. "It is a film school, where all the teachers are female. The intention of this film is to, as Diaghilev and Cocteau said, 'astonish us.' To campaign for equality in cinema is compellingly right. Part of that campaign must be to celebrate the great women directors, to insert them into the canon where they rightly belong and from which they have been excluded by many film historians, mostly male. Women directors are only a part of that history -- there are the great writers, producers, actors, of course, too -- but there is much ignorance and blindness about women directing film. Our film will boldly challenge this blindness."
Acclaimed actress Tilda Swinton, beloved by indie audiences and LGBTQ+ fans, was a producer on the documentary and is one of its narrators. Other narrators are Jane Fonda, Adjoa Andoh, Sharmila Tagore, Kerry Fox, Thandie Newton, and Debra Winger.
The films and directors covered represent a wide range of subject matter and identities. They are drawn from 44 countries. There are plenty of entries that would be at home in art houses but also some popcorn movies like Penny Marshall's Big and Penelope Spheeris's Wayne's World. Some deal with politics, including such polar opposites as Leni Riefenstahl's defense of Nazi ideology in Triumph of the Will and Ava DuVernay's chronicle of the Black civil rights movement in Selma.
Those of particular LGBTQ+ interest, because of either the content or the filmmaker, are numerous, including Sagan's Madchen in Uniform; Dunye's The Watermelon Woman; Arzner's Merrily We Go to Hell and First Comes Courage; Celine Sciamma's Tomboy; Jamie Babbit's But I'm a Cheerleader; Donna Deitch's Desert Hearts; Sally Potter's Orlando; Patricia Rozema's I've Heard the Mermaids Singing; the Wachowski siblings' The Matrix and Jupiter Ascending; Marleen Gorris's A Question of Silence; Patty Jenkins's Monster; Chantal Akerman's Rendezvous D'Anna, Je Tu Il Elle, Le Captive, and D'Est; and Lucrecia Martel's La Cienaga.
The diversity is also present in the selection of films that TCM will show to accompany the documentary -- some covered in the doc, some not. The first film shown after the doc's first installment Tuesday night will be Arzner's Merrily We Go to Hell, a pre-Code movie about a young couple with an open marriage, starring Fredric March and Sylvia Sidney, and featuring an early appearance by Cary Grant. "Pre-Code" refers to films made between 1930 and 1934, before Hollywood studios began strictly enforcing the Production Code, which banned certain sexual subject matter and other portrayals that were deemed immoral. Arzner was an out and proud butch lesbian who was the most prominent woman director (some sources say the only one) in Hollywood in the 1930s and early '40s. Je Tu Il Elle, Madchen in Uniform, and La Cienaga will be shown as the programming continues into Wednesday.
Other movies with LGBTQ+ filmmakers or content in the lineup include The Watermelon Woman, Diane Kurys's Entre Nous, Gorris's Antonia's Line, Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust, Lizzie Borden's Born in Flames, and two films whose directors spoke to The Advocate about being on-screen to introduce the doc and film series -- Wanuri Kahiu's Rafiki and Kimberly Peirce's Stop-Loss.
From left: Wanuri Kahiu and Kimberly Peirce
Both filmmakers are thrilled to be part of the project. "I'm incredibly excited and honored," says Kahiu,one of the first female directors in Kenya. "I grew up watching musicals on TCM. ... The love stories and the emotion and the music were so universal."
Rafiki,released in 2018, is a love story between two women, and it was a hit at film festivals around the world but was banned in Kenya except for one week last year in which it was shown to qualify for Academy Award consideration, although the nation ended up submitting a different film to the Academy. Kahiu believes Kenya's Film Classification Board objected particularly to the fact that Rafiki, which she wrote as well as directed, told a story about lesbians that was joyous rather than tragic.
She says the situation for LGBTQ+ people in Kenya hasn't improved; since her film came out, the nation's Supreme Court has upheld a colonial-era law criminalizing homosexuality. "It was very painful," she says, but she remains undaunted. "I am fully committed to continuing to create works of joy," says Kahiu, who is a cofounder of Afrobubblegum, "a media company that supports, creates and commissions fun, fierce and frivolous African art," as her website puts it.
She is co-writing an adaptation of Octavia Butler's science fiction novel Wild Seed, and she's set to direct a couple of other adaptations -- of the Broadway musical hit Once on This Island and the Carolyn Hammonds Reed young-adult novel The Black Kids, set amid racial unrest in Los Angeles in 1992.
Kahiu will appear in conversation with TCM's Alicia Malone to introduce episode 7 of Women Make Film October 13 at 8 p.m. Eastern, and Rafiki will be shown at 12:15 a.m. Eastern the following day.
Peirce will appear the following Tuesday, October 20, in conversation with Jacqueline Stewart to introduce episode 8, and then her 2008 film Stop-Loss will be shown at midnight Eastern. The film was inspired by Peirce's brother's experience in the Iraq War; he enlisted enthusiastically (a shock to his family) but eventually became opposed to how the war was being handled, with redeployment of service members who'd already done a tour of duty.
Of the TCM project, Peirce says, "I'm incredibly honored and very excited and think it's such a very special thing that they're doing." Peirce is also a longtime fan of the classic-film channel, having once had a New York City apartment containing five shelves' worth of movies taped off of it -- but the shelves fell in when Peirce was away from New York to make Boys Don't Cry.
Peirce, who identifies as a "trans-ish genderqueer dyke" and uses both male and female pronouns, is an admirer of many of the directors being spotlighted in the documentary and film series, among them Arzner, Normand, Akerman, Varda, Spheeris, Barbara Kopple, Barbra Streisand, Jane Campion, Sarah Polley, and more. "Many of us women directors are friends," Peirce says. "We've learned from each other. There is a community of support."
Boys Don't Cry, the 1999 film about the life and death of transgender man Brandon Teena, brought Hilary Swank a Best Actress Oscar and remains Peirce's best-known work. While the casting of cisgender actors in trans roles is now considered problematic, Peirce expresses no regrets about the casting of Swank as Brandon. The goal was always to cast a trans person, and several trans actors read for the role, the director says, but none brought the magic that Swank did.
"Eventually we found a human being who blurred the gender line and captured the humanity and the warmth and the spirit that Brandon must have had," Peirce says. "It's not discountable." Last year, the Library of Congress selected Boys Don't Cry for its National Film Registry.
Peirce hasn't made a feature film since 2013's Carrie but was keeping busy until lockdown with TV gigs including P-Valley, of which the filmmaker says, "It's such a celebration. I find it very queer." With film and TV production largely stalled now, Peirce is focusing on writing, including a butch-femme romantic comedy. Directing is a "tough job," Peirce adds. "It's amazing that we keep doing it."
Another out director, Lizzie Borden, will appear on TCM November 3, and her film Born in Flames will be shown at 2:30 a.m. Eastern the next day. She was not available for an interview.
See the full schedule of the cornucopia of films at WomenMakeFilm.TCM.com and watch a trailer below.