What if you went to film school and never watched a movie by Chaplin, Kubrick, or Scorsese? Never examined the techniques of Eisenstein, Kurosawa, or Kiarostami?
What if instead the masters you studied were Guy-Blaché, Tanaka, and DuVernay?
What if, in other words, you studied films directed only by women?
That’s the approach of Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema — a fourteen-hour cinematic masterclass directed, ironically, by a man.
The film, which premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, is anchoring an eponymous series rolling out on Turner Classic Movies, with a new hour-long episode playing every Tuesday over the next three months.
Covering 183 directors across six continents, the documentary isn’t a best-of list. Some of the best-known women filmmakers — such as Julie Dash, Mira Nair, and Nora Ephron — aren’t even included.
Nor is it a biographical profile of women filmmakers. Nor a treatise on sexism in the film industry.
What is it, then? Women Make Film seeks to examine how films are made across forty chapters with themes such as openings and endings, framing and editing, comedy and melodrama — and then leave you to draw your own conclusions after watching more than 500 clips from films by women.
You’re guided, of course, by director Mark Cousins, the British-Irish filmmaker who previously helmed another epic cinema survey called The Story of Film: An Odyssey. He was inspired to make this follow-up of sorts after curating a documentary series in the 1990s and realizing he’d programmed only one film made by a woman.
His tastes span the globe, though they feel like they lean European, and toward art-house films, with some of the more obscure titles unavailable on physical or streaming media, at least that I could find. He’s not a snob, though, either, including the poorly rated “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” in his comedy chapter and “Jupiter Ascending” in sci-fi.
It’s telling that the latter segment is short and that there’s not one on Westerns. And that anytime he’s highlighting anything approaching action, he turns to the films of Kathryn Bigelow. Though he doesn’t focus on romantic comedies, either, so he can’t be accused of going the obvious route.
Cousins doesn’t assert himself in the film, though. Women Make Film is narrated by women, starting with executive producer Tilda Swinton followed by Adjoa Andoh, Jane Fonda, Sharmila Tagore, Kerry Fox, Thandie Newton, and Debra Winger. Their dialogue is academic and overly descriptive, literally calling out every camera move, every cut, until some analysis sings through.
Cousins’s analysis. There’s no consensus that the films we’re watching are indeed “masterpieces” or how they rank among “autumnal” movies, but you have to appreciate his reverence for these filmmakers and their craft. And I could listen to Jane Fonda coo about movies all day.
The chapters are awkwardly connected via the film’s subtitle “A New Road Movie Through Cinema” with introductory shots of each narrator in a car and then windshield footage from roads all over the world. But the conceit offers little more than something to cut to between chapters with no clear tie to what’s being discussed.
What is being discussed is some intense cinema geek stuff — the kind of analysis that film bros apply to Hitchcock and Tarantino, only there are more women at the center of the frame. It’s an academic exercise, but an exhilarating one.
I’ve been watching movies by men my entire life. Not exclusively, but mostly. Women Make Film makes clear I have a lot of catching up to do.
Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema (2018), directed by Mark Cousins (Turner Classic Movies, Tuesdays, September 1–December 1)