The Female Directors I Love

A Twitter conversation last night with Anna, who blogs at Defiant Success,  got me thinking: who are my favorite female directors?

Having studied film at a women’s college, a significant number of the courses I took centered on women’s cinema. Women experimental filmmakers dominated my course of study. (I can talk your ear off about Marie Menken, Joyce Wieland, Marjorie Kellor, Peggy Ahwesh, but I will spare you.) I was exposed to everything from the MadCat Women’s International Film Festival to the work of German feminist filmmakers to a weekend well-spent at the Anthology Film Archives. This has all come together to help me truly appreciate the work of female directors who are often cast aside by the system.

I always found it painfully ironic that Alice Guy-Blaché directed the first narrative film, La Fée aux Choux,  in 1896. She directed more than 100 films, was the first woman to own and run a film studio, but her impact on film history was largely forgotten until recently.

Guy-Blaché’s career is representative of something greater. Female directors typically have to work twice as hard as their male counterparts to get their films made. This has changed only slightly in the last 20 years, even as more and more female directors gain international recognition and even Academy Awards. Women are still most likely to be found working in the independent and avant-garde film circles, where there is a system – so to speak – established that makes it easier for female directors to get films made. Because female directors often work on the edge of the mainstream film industry, their films are sharper, feminist critiques on society than seen in most films.

Here is a list of female directors whose work I always seek out, along with one of their films I recommend.

Chantal Akerman – Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)
Andrea Arnold – Red Road (2006)
Susanne Bier – After the Wedding (2006)
Jane Campion – Sweetie (1989)
Julie Dash – Daughters of the Dust (1991)
Maya Deren – Meshes of an Afternoon (1943)/ At Land (1944)
Doris Dörrie – Cherry Blossoms (2008)
Su Friedrich – Sink or Swim (1990)
So Yong Kim – In Between Days (2006)
Courtney Hunt – Frozen River (2008)
Samira Makhmalbaf – Blackboards (2000)
Deepa Mehta – Fire (1996)
Mira Nair – Salaam Bombay (1988)
Sally Potter – Orlando (1992)
Kelly Reichardt – Wendy and Lucy (2008)
Helma Sanders-Brahms – Germany Pale Mother (1980)
Agnes Varda – Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962)
Margarethe von Trotta – The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1975)

I could keep going on and on with this list. Who is your favorite female director? Comment away!

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Hirokazu Koreeda: A Neorealist Approach to Filmmaking

I first watched Hirokazu Koreeda’s Nobody Knows after it was released in the U.S. I remember this being an emotionally draining viewing experience. This cinematically simple yet absolutely gut-wrenching film about 12-year-old Akira who is left to care for his three younger siblings when their mother abandons them lingered in my mind. Even though I found Nobody Knows to be moving, the film did not launch any sort of study of Koreeda or Japanese cinema on my part.

I revisited Nobody Knows five years later when I was researching independent filmmaker So Yong Kim’s 2006 film, In Between Days.  Kim and her husband, filmmaker Bradley Rust Gray (The Exploding Girl) have a wonderful creative partnership that has produced some of the best American independent films of the last five years. They often hold various roles on each other’s projects. Ben Howe, a producer on their films, has explained, “It’s almost as if [Kim and Gray] think together. It’s definitely one or the other’s film, but every decision is made with the other one close in mind.” This only strengthens Gray and Kim’s commitment to making great films no matter the struggle to get them made. In Between Days was made over a two-week period on a limited budget. The result is an aesthetically beautiful and poetic portrait of a teenage Korean girl as she struggles to assimilate to American culture. It’s an overwhelmingly naturalistic representation of female  existence and teenage isolation.

Nobody Knows comes into focus when examining So Yong Kim’s second feature Treeless Mountain. Both films have strikingly similar themes. Like Nobody KnowsTreeless Mountain deals with children who have been abandoned. The film follows two sisters, ages 6 and 4, as they deal with their mother’s absence and are sent to live with various family members. The story is loosely based from Kim’s childhood experiences in South Korea.

When Kim began to work on this film, she sought out the advice of Koreeda about directing children and shooting in 16mm. With the help of a translator,Koreeda gave a long and detailed answer. At the end of the conversation, the translator turned to Kim and said, “Eda-san says 16mm very good!” Her question might not have been answered but there is no doubt the influence that Nobody Knows had on Kim and her approach to Treeless Mountain.

During the 2009 Tribeca Film Festbaival, Gray and Kim interviewed Koreeda about his 2009 film Still Walking. It’s a fascinating and revealing conversation between the three filmmakers about Koreeda’s background, influences, and techniques. One of So Yong Kim’s questions, I think, shows how Koreeda’s work has influenced her approach to filmmaking.

So Yong Kim: I think interviews are mostly for other filmmakers to learn from directors. Back when it came out, I read an interview about Nobody Knows, because I wanted to learn how you made the film and worked with your actors, and with the camera, etc. The question I have about Still Walking is about working with an ensemble of professional actors. How is that different than working with nonactors, like in Nobody Knows?

Hirokazu Koreeda: In the case of Still Walking, I wrote a very, very detailed, hammered-out screenplay, and then I read through it with the actors, and then based on that I revised the script. Then I did blocking on the set, and then I had the actors read, just to make sure they could read the lines in the time it took to walk across the set. I did all this before shooting to ensure that the atmosphere would look lived-in by the actors.

And with Nobody Knows, you know, it’s the same goal as with Still Walking. But because I had essentially nonactors, even though there was a script, I never gave it to actors at all. I never gave them dialogue until I was in the room, ready to roll the camera. And then I would say, “Why don’t you try saying something like this?”

So, I took the opposite approach with actors in opposite situations. With the veterans, I timed it within an inch of its life to make it look natural and lived-in, and with the nonactors, I did it 100% spontaneous to make it look lived-in and spontaneous.

So Yong Kim: Which way do you prefer to work?

Hirokazu Koreeda: I don’t really have a particular filmmaking style or method. The goal is finding how to make a particular character in a particular film or setting look as charming and appealing as possible. So whatever it takes.

Personally, I prefer the Nobody Knows method, but there is the guilt that I am stealing laughter and smiles from children for my movie. I have genuine guilt about that, and I had none of that for Still Walking, because I hadn’t stolen anything from anybody.

Even though Koreeda says that he doesn’t have a particular filmmaking style or method, here Koreeda is broadly discussing a neorealist approach to filmmaking. You can see how Koreeda’s style, however you may define it, has influenced Gray and Kim’s work. These three filmmakers aim to create the most realistically feeling films imaginable, as if life is unfolding on the screen as it naturally occurs. More importantly, from Koreeda’s work and even this interview, you can see how far reaching the director’s lens is when it comes to who his work and his filmmaking techniques influences stateside.

This post is part of the Japanese Cinema blogathon hosted by Cinema Fanatic and Japan Cinema. Please donate if you can.

Here I Go: Thesis Away

Months ago I posted that I was writing a senior honors thesis on film. At the time, I didn’t know what it would be on. But after months of deliberation I finally figured out, more or less, what I am researching: American Identity in post-9/11 American Independent Cinema. (Sometimes I wonder if this topic makes me sound way more intelligent than I really am, but I digress.)

I am focusing on three films: Frozen River (2008), In Between Days (2006), and Goodbye Solo (2008). On the surface, these three films seem completely unrelated but what I have found that they are linked by a foremost a common character and narrative: the immigrant. This films question how American identity and the American Creed are changing in the twenty first century as a result of immigration. Or at least, that is what I am trying to show.

Here are the trailers for Frozen River and Goodbye Solo:

And here is an interview with filmmakers So Yong Kim and Bradley Rust Gray. The more I research their work, the more I admire their dedication to independent filmmaking as a way to produce quality and exceptional stories and works of art.