For all the recent talk of inclusion riders, gender parity, and increased opportunities for female filmmakers in Hollywood, progress is slow. According to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, of the top 100 grossing films of 2019, women represented only 12% of directors, 20% of writers, and 2% of cinematographers. TV isn’t much better: During the 2018-2019 TV season, women only accounted for 31% of creators, directors, writers, and other behind-the-scenes professionals, also according to the Center. There is so much further left to go forward that it might be worthwhile to look backward, and the 14-part documentary Women Make Film aims to fill in the gaps of our cinematic education.
An ambitiously expansive documentary, Women Make Film (which will begin airing weekly on TCM on Sept. 1) often feels like a mini film school. With 40 “chapters” that organize films by similar themes, Women Make Film asks practical technical questions about filmmaking with hundreds of cinematic answers that span decades of content from myriad countries and creators. The narration from Tilda Swinton, Thandie Newton, Jane Fonda, Debra Winger, British actress Adjoa Andoh, New Zealander actress Kerry Fox, and Indian film legend Sharmila Tagore is engaging and thoughtful, and the deep well of knowledge that the documentary offers is enthralling. You might find yourself with a lengthy list of must-watch films after each episode, a certainty for which TCM has already prepared: The documentary’s airing will be supplemented with 100 films from female directors, including Mira’s Nair Salaam Bombay!, Sabiha Sumar’s Silent Waters, Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki, and many more.
But: Does it matter that Women Make Film is both written and directed by a man? It might. From its opening minutes, the documentary is clear about filmmaker Mark Cousins’ mission statement: Women Make Film is not about the politics of filmmaking as a woman, or about sexism in the industry, or even really about the female filmmakers themselves. Describing itself as a “new road movie through cinema” that endeavors to “look at film again, through the eyes of the world’s women directors,” the documentary is explicitly about what is on film and only what is on film. Each episode, which includes two to three chapters of the total 40 (some of which are technique-focused, like “Openings,” “Framing,” and “POV,” and others that are thematic, like “Bodies,” “Work,” and “Time”), is packed with film clips explained by the female narrators.
Hundreds of films are featured: In the chapter “Openings,” Swinton speaks about the abruptness of Kathryn Bigelow’s intro to Strange Days, the surrealness of Alison de Vere’s animated The Black Dog, and the metaphorical and literal veils of Marziyeh Meshkini’s The Day I Became a Woman. On “Tone,” Patrick Bateman’s axe murder set to Huey Lewis and the News from American Psycho is discussed, as is By the Sea, Angelina Jolie’s melancholy marriage drama, and Beau Travail, Claire Denis’ complicated portrait of masculinity. Andoh and Tagore pull double duty on the sixth episode in analyzing questions of perspective and point of view, including how Kelly Reichardt places us on the side of the women going west in Meek’s Cutoff; the way Sofia Coppola frames Nicole Kidman’s increasing arousal while giving Colin Farrell’s unconscious soldier a bath in her remake of The Beguiled; and the socially critical works of Soviet filmmaker Larisa Shepitko, including The Ascent and Wings.
Some directors come up over and over again (including Bigelow, Reichardt, Denis, Agnès Varda, and Elaine May) and some films are featured in more than one chapter, like Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (in “Meet Cute,” “Conversation,” and “Horror and Hell”), Varda’s One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (in “Conversation,” “Framing,” “Economy,” “Bodies,” and “Song and “Dance”), and Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood (in “Introducing a Character,” “Conversation,” “Staging,” “Gear Change,” and “Song and Dance”). Those repeats make clear what films the documentary considers masterpieces, but also chew up time that could have been given to lesser-known works. With the entire point of the documentary being that there are countless female filmmakers who have been forgotten or overlooked, it seems counterintuitive to return to certain films repetitively when there are so many others to consider. And although the documentary does an appreciable job featuring films from all over the world, there seem to be fewer works by African and Latin American directors in particular, which becomes increasingly noticeable whenever another film we’ve already seen pops up in an additional chapter.
Which brings us back to: Does the documentary’s frame, as being only about the films, do it a disservice? On the one hand, this is theoretically what equality is: Judging a work on its own merits in order to shove aside any presumptive biases or subjective opinions. But on the other hand, it feels like a disservice, or at least willful ignorance, to act as if many of the films portrayed here were not created by female directors who were through their work specifically channeling or reflecting their own gender identity, or addressing sexism, or deconstructing the unique struggles and complex joys of being a woman. To try and divorce any film from its filmmaker in that way allows for a more singular focus on technique, but in a project of this type, seems like an unnecessarily narrow ideology. Cousins has an undeniably impressive resume, especially in cinematic history, but his status as the documentary’s sole credited writer seems like a misstep.
One must assume because of his writing credit that these female narrators are reading analyses exclusively by Cousins, and certain patterns begin to emerge, episode to episode, that suggest outside perspectives might have added some variety. Scenes are often compared with paintings (Impressionism, Cubism, “a Victorian painting,” “a van Dyck painting”), but those descriptors aren’t further contextualized. Certain adjectives are used once, then repeatedly (“honeyed lighting” sticks out). The scripts are written as if all viewers have the same level of art and cinematic knowledge as Cousins, which results in an eventual sameness that slightly flattens the documentary.
Is Women Make Film for diehard cinema aficionados who aspire to be completists in female-crafted film, or for casual fans who might get hooked by the themed chapters and famous narrators, and end up learning along the way? Cousins can’t quite decide on a consistent approach toward those audiences, but it is inarguable that the documentary is an astonishing collection of content that demonstrates the role of women in shaping cinema as we know it. The documentary’s frame of proclaiming objectivity in a deeply subjective world might be flawed, but Women Make Film is a treasure trove of film that deserves your attention.
The 14-part documentary Women Make Film airs on TCM from Sept. 1 through Dec. 1.