Review: Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema
by Kaleem Aftab
- Mark Cousins’ masterful look at the art and craft of constructing a film solely using examples from the work of female directors is a must-see for all movie lovers
Forget about the 14-hour running time (albeit released in five weekly instalments on the BFI Player, available now); Mark Cousins' Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema [+see also:
film profile] is essential viewing for anyone interested in how to read or make a film. It is a visual film school that tells its story by guiding us through the art and craft of movies. It starts by looking at how characters are introduced and meet, then goes on to look at how visual information is delivered to the audience through staging, camera movements and framing, before dealing with significant life experiences, sex, work and home. There's also a sneaky look at genres, before asking more existential questions on the meaning of life and what love is. Finally, at the three-quarter mark, it moves into the home stretch, dealing with endings. There are 40 chapters in all, and the result is far more satisfying than his previous film-history opus The Story of Film: An Odyssey. The documentary essay uses 1,000 extracts from 13 decades and five continents. These examples come from cinema, television shows and the odd music video, all directed by women.
Women Make Film would be an outstanding achievement in and of itself even without the desire to tell the story of the wonder of the movies solely through the female gaze. That it only uses the work of women elevates it to masterpiece – or, more accurately, “mistresspiece” – status. Women Make Film is a political statement about how female filmmakers have been written out or overlooked in our misogynistic world. The impact is all the greater because the point is made not by posturing or pointing fingers, but by showing and analysing. Through the examples, it becomes clear how one has to look beyond the United States to tell the story of female directors and how often major festival prizewinners are celebrated in the present only for the filmmakers to then be sidelined and forgotten. Without labouring the point at all, the film asks hard questions about the canon and the critical fraternity. One particular strength of Women Make Film is how it calls attention to many filmmakers from behind the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain who, according to Cousins' script, made some of the best movies in cinematic history. Step forward Binka Zhelyazkova, Larisa Shepitko, Kira Muratova (a clear favourite of the filmmaker), Vêra Chytilová, Wanda Jakubowska, Dinara Asanova, Yuliya Solntseva, Malvina Ursianu, Márta Mészáros, Drahomira Vihanová, Olga Preobrazhenskaya, Esfir Shub, Xhanfize Keko and Vera Stroyeva. Conversely, there is a noticeable absence of directors from the Arab world.
The idea of the film taking the viewer on a journey is backed up by the use of travelling road images between the chapters. The global perspective is reinforced by the use of Tilda Swinton, Jane Fonda, Adjoa Andoh, Sharmila Tagore, Kerry Fox, Thandie Newton and Debra Winter as narrators. Director Cousins often narrates his own words himself, but here his florid narrative style seems more real and touching coming from these narrators, and the changing voiceover also gives the film a nice jolt. The particular forte of the documentary is when it comes to describing the framing and construction of the visual. Cousins is an expert on how we look at images.
Admittedly, one chapter that does seem bewildering is the one on “Comedy”. It makes you realise what a delicate emotion humour is and how laughter really depends on the eye of the beholder. There is a lovely touch in ending the whole shebang with a chapter on “Song and Dance”, which, especially in this time of lockdowns, reminds us of the magic of socialising.
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