A love letter to female filmmakers
Director and writer Mark Cousins has a passion for film and travel and, in his new ‘road movie’, Women Make Film, they come together magnificently. The documentarian talks about his journey through the world of female filmmakers that spanned six continents and more than a century
I spent five years making a movie called Women Make Film. It’s 14 hours long, features extracts from nearly 1,000 films by 183 different directors from across six continents. For me it’s an epic road trip, designed to show every corner of the world and shine a light on the female filmmakers who have, and continue to, live in it. So what made me do it?
The film came out of love and anger: a love of cinema (this is a very affirmative film – an act of joy and celebration) but also out of anger because most of the filmmakers it features are not in the film ‘conversation’. Movie lovers do not talk about these people in the way that Scorsese or Almodóvar are talked about. I felt a kind of fury at the unfairness of the film world, which has left these talented filmmakers out.
Also, I travel a lot. I spend my life on airplanes, and whenever I go to a new country – whether it’s Albania or Mauritania or wherever – one of the first questions I ask movie lovers is, “Who are your great female directors?” I’ve been doing that for at least a decade. The list grew and grew and at a certain point I thought, “I have to do something about this.” I thought, “Where is all this information? I wish somebody would put all this work out there.” Nobody was doing it, so it was up to me.
More than anything, I wanted the film to be passionately international. This story was a global one that went all over the world and, more and more in my work, particularly in my collaborations with Tilda Swinton, we’re trying to say that cinema is a global artform. I wanted to make something that ignores boundaries and shows film as a kind of universal language. You don’t need a passport to travel in cinema.
I wanted to make something that ignores boundaries and shows film as a kind of universal language. You don’t need a passport to travel in cinema
To make sure the international feel came across, I wanted to feature voices from every continent. I needed global figures, women with real credibility. When you think of Tilda Swinton and Jane Fonda, these are women who have been pushing boundaries. When it came to India, I was lucky enough to know Sharmila Tagore. My film sold in India because she’s essentially the Elizabeth Taylor of Indian cinema. I’m so fortunate that Tilda Swinton, Jane Fonda, Adjoa Andoh, Sharmila Tagore, Kerry Fox, Thandie Newton and Debra Winger agreed to work with me on the film.
It was also important to me that the film felt like a journey. When I’m in a car, I’m often mesmerised by the way the road constantly stretches out in front of me and so decided to start filming out of my car windscreen years ago – maybe a decade or so. I have thousands of these shots. I decided to use these, rather than talking heads between film clips, to show the views from my travels, while narration ran over the top. I wanted to show the world in which these films took place and using this footage enabled me to make the film a journey of sorts.
My years of travelling meant that I had all these countries in my head. I’ve driven from Scotland to Iran, Scotland to India. Crossing those distances by car gives you a real sense that the world isn’t centred on Europe, which, if you’ve had an education in the Arts, is often what you’re taught. You hear about Paris and obviously New York and maybe a bit of Moscow, but actually the centre of the cultural world is Tehran, Istanbul or Tokyo. There are all sorts of centres. Once you decentre yourself then you become a bit humbler about everything. It’s like what Copernicus said: what if we’re not the centre of the world? What if it’s elsewhere? It made me incredibly curious and so, when I go to a place, I’m passionately curious about the films that are made there. It was inspiring to go to Albania and ask, “Have you any great female filmmakers?” And they say, “Have you heard of Xhanfise Keko? One of our main streets is named after her.” I had not seen her films but, boy, did I watch them afterwards, and did I learn. Another room opened up in my mind that’s permanently there now.
There’s a danger as we get older (I’m 54 now) that we think we’ve seen life, we’ve seen the world, that we’ve experienced everything. But when you embark on a project like this you realise that’s not the case. I feel rejuvenated and young again as a result of making this film because I’ve learned so much. I have fresh knowledge. For me, producing this film was like being a boy and seeing a Gene Kelly musical for the first time. It was that good. I think at the deepest level for me it’s about transforming – turning into somebody new and having your eyes opened again and again.
At the end of Women Make Film, after 14 hours of interviews, film clips and destination shots from all over the world, the camera emerges from the car and settles on the ground. We read the name Alice Guy-Blaché on a tombstone. She was one of the world’s first filmmakers (she made more than 1,000 films between 1894 and 1920) and the first studio owner. I’ve found that when viewers get to the end of this journey there’s often tears because they think, “Actually, we’ve been travelling somewhere.” Is it some big memorial to one of the greatest people in cinema? No. It’s a little thing in a field in New Jersey.
Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema is available on BFI Player (subscription service) and on BFI Blu-ray. A companion film season curated by Mark Cousins, featuring work by a selection of the female filmmakers that he championed, can be viewed on BFI Player now