How TCM and the 'Women Make Film' documentarian are trying to change the film canon
These terms evoke a distinctive, immediately recognizable visual form and approach to filmmaking. But they also define visual style and point-of-view through the eyes of men. "The very film techniques that all filmmakers use regardless of gender, have been so gendered, and that feeds into the general bias that movies are the domain of men," says Turner Classic Movies host Alicia Malone, speaking to the subtle ways we practice sexism in curating and celebrating the film canon.
But Malone, TCM, and documentarian Mark Cousins want to change all that. With the groundbreaking new 14-part documentary Women Make Film, and accompanying programming on TCM that features 100 films from women filmmakers across six continents, they're celebrating and shining a light on the vast numbers of women who've been making movies since the beginning.
Cousins previously made The Story of Film: An Odyssey, taking viewers on a guided tour of the art and craft of the movies. Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema does the same with exclusively female filmmakers, narrated by Tilda Swinton, Jane Fonda, Adjoa Andoh, Sharmila Tagore, Kerry Fox, Thandie Newton, and Debra Winger.
Cousins, a British-Irish filmmaker who has the names of female directors like Kira Muratova tattooed on his arms, says the idea came to him as a "slow burn" while making The Story of Film. "I kept discovering more female directors and more female filmmakers," he explains. "And I became frustrated that they weren't being talked about enough. So, a seed was planted."
The documentary doesn't take a traditional chronological approach, but instead, it's organized by broad themes like Beginnings, Tone, Framing, Tracking, and Staging. It uses the works of female filmmakers around the world to demonstrate the broad range of effective techniques women have employed over a century of filmmaking. "What follows is not about the director's lives, it's not a chronological history, it's not an analysis of how women filmmakers are different from men, and it's not one of those lists of the best films ever made. No, it has cleaner lines than that. Our film is about the films, the seams, it answers practical questions," explains Tilda Swinton in her opening narration.
Cousins says he deliberately chose to go against the grain of what he calls a BBC or PBS approach to the storytelling. "I thought it was far more important to talk about the work," he says. "The work of these filmmakers is so powerful that we need to get a tasting menu in front of people's eyes first."
He's much more interested in whetting people's appetites for these filmmakers and allowing them to explore at their leisure via the internet. "Stories of these people's lives are on your screen. And on my screen. That's not what I had to provide," he says. "We had to provide a desire for the cinema, a longing for the cinema."
With this staggering lineup, including numerous films that have never been shown on television or released in the United States, TCM is helping him do just that. Malone, who is co-hosting the four-month-long series with her TCM colleague Jacqueline Stewart, knows a lot about female filmmakers. She's written two books on the subject: Backwards and in Heels and The Female Gaze. But this programming is so extensive, it's even offering her a wide range of discoveries.
"Even though I have made an effort throughout my career to seek out movies made by women, there are so many of these films that I've never seen before and so many of the movies mentioned in Mark's documentary that I'd never even heard of, which is maddening and exciting all at once," she reflects.
The episodes and accompanying films are also accompanied by nightly context from Malone and Stewart, including conversations with special guests, filmmakers that include Wanuri Kahiu, Barbara Kopple, Mira Nair, and Claudia Weill.
This programming (and her job at TCM more broadly) is the first time in Malone's career she's been able to freely explore women in film to the degree she wants. "Usually in my previous jobs I've been told, 'Shh, don't talk so much about women. You've got to broaden things out; otherwise, the men won't listen.' I love that at TCM I've been given free rein, and Jacqueline as well, to speak about any subject we like with these special guests," she says. "How exciting it is to speak to another filmmaker, a woman, about film technique, and craft, and not about what it's like being a woman and how they survive being a female filmmaker in the industry."
The line-up didn't come without its challenges. Cousins and the TCM programming department, led by Charles Tabesh, had to scour the globe to find some of the films they feature. Even then, there were films that have simply been lost — a common phenomenon for the fragile art form, but even more so when it comes to movies made by women. "So many of those films weren't kept, but also when you look at the sexist nature of the film industry, many films by women haven't been preserved as well as films by men have been because they haven't been deemed to be as important because we haven't given them [the same] analysis," says Malone.
But they're hoping this will help change that and get film schools and those who dictate what makes up our film canon to shift their viewpoints."This is an opportunity not to point the finger of blame, but to say we need to now, in a really enthusiastic way, change the way we teach cinema," notes Cousins.
Though the programming itself is monumental, the overall effect, as audiences take it in over several weeks, is a subtle one. "Our programming and Mark's documentary doesn't say, 'This is the new film canon,' but it just makes you question the existing film canons and who have been the traditional tellers and keepers of film history and how that has all fit into the gender inequality behind the scenes in Hollywood," remarks Malone. "I love the fact that it just covertly makes you think about these ideas. Nothing's overt, but you have to walk away from seeing this programming and think, 'So, why don't we know about these names?'"
For Malone and Cousins, it's about shifting the conversation, moving it away from a focus on discussions about the challenges of being a woman working in Hollywood. Inequities have been exposed, now it's time to center the conversation on the work. "[It's about] celebrating the work that we already have made by women, right from the very beginning of cinema all over the world," concludes Malone. "To start to think about how to put them back into their rightful place in film history and to give a serious analysis to their work as we normally do to the work of men."
The documentary and films are airing now through December on TCM. Check out the full schedule here.