VOD film review: Women Make Film (Mark Cousins)
Ivan Radford | On 21, May 2020Reading time: 3 mins
Director: Mark Cousins
Cast: Tilda Swinton
Watch Women Make Film online in the UK: BFI Player / Curzon Home Cinema / iTunes
Katherine Bigelow. Ava DuVernay. Andrea Arnold. Jane Campion. Lulu Wang. Ask anyone to name a list of women film directors and they’ll likely name filmmakers you’ve heard of. That even these well-known directors are underrated and underserved by decades of male-dominated industry says all you need to know about the systemic bias in Hollywood. But what about the filmmakers you’ve never heard of? Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema promises to put at least that part right, stretching over 14 hours to try and document a history of 183 women filmmakers from around the world, from Alice Guy-Blaché, who make Course a La Saucisse in 1907, to Hollywood pioneer Dorothy Arzner and breakthrough 1950s helmer Ida Lupino.
It’s a jaw-dropping feat of cataloguing and preservation, amassing almost 1,000 clips to pay tribute to the many women forgotten and overlooked by filmgoers and film studios alike. Divided into chapters, the epic tapestry of talent is so stuffed and expansive that the BFI is releasing it in five parts, staggered over weekly instalments. Part 1 makes it clear that this is a work to be cherished, taking us from Bigelow’s kinetic style to Agnès Varda’s signature style.
It’s sadly ironic, then, that the one thing lacking from Women Make Film is a female filmmaker: this is a Mark Cousins joint through and through, and he doesn’t even broach the topic of how and why these women were sidelined by history. Instead, his focus is on craft and technique, exploring how to open a film, set a tone, introduce characters and frame shots. If you’ve seen The Story of Film, you know what to expect.
But that decision to be apolitical is, itself unavoidably political, and it’s one that Cousins is evidently aware of, as he teams up with Tilda Swinton, Adjoa Andoh, Sharmila Tagore and more to provide his film with women narrators. His voice is nowhere to be heard, but you can tell his words are on the page of the script, resulting in an experience that can occasionally feel a bit didactic, as he tells us what a tracking shot does and means.
And yet there’s no doubting Cousins’ good intentions here, and his passion to celebrate women filmmakers is as infectious as it is tangible. His breadth of references and knack for tying them together, albeit sometimes tangentially, into an essay on film composition is never less than compelling. By focusing on technical aspects on a micro-level, he essentially rewrites the film school textbook but with only films by women directors. The result is a wonderful chance to remember the genius of Elaine May or admire the deft tonal juggling of Mary Harron’s American Psycho.
It’s here that Women Make Film really works, as it immerses you in film after film to the point where there’s nothing to distract you from simply revelling in the artistry on display from a plethora of storytellers – most thrilling of all are the discoveries of directors you don’t know, leaving you with an ever-growing watchlist of filmmakers to explore and tell others about. Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema may not be as radical as it could be in its own right, but as a road trip to other filmmakers, it’s an absolute delight.
Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema: Part 1 is available now on BFI Player, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription. Parts 2 to 5 are released weekly from Monday 25th May 2020.