As I write this, Lynne Ramsay is poised to sweep the boards at all major awards shows for her most recent film You Were Never Really Here (2017, although it was given wider release in 2018) — except, of course, no she’s not, for various systemic reasons which are all far too obvious and have been written about widely. Indeed, aside from a single BAFTA nomination, she is not even nominated, which is absurd given how much more directorial flair she has than most other living British directors. Of course, I don’t imagine my keenly amateurish post here will change much, and she’s already well regarded in the critical community, but it’s always worth paying her films some attention. Many other talented women haven’t had the career trajectory of Ramsay, and she’s still only managed to make a film every 6-8 years or so, which is a real shame, but at least it means when they do come they are mostly exquisite. Certainly that most recent film has a taut focus that’s lacking in too much filmmaking, coming in under 90 minutes and with a narrative economy that elides as uninteresting many of the generic conventions she’s working within, instead going straight for a character portrait of a comprehensively broken man.
I’m going to kick off my (hopefully regular) Wednesday series on women filmmakers with the one to whom I’ve most recently been introduced, courtesy of the streaming platform Mubi, whose canny programming has brought my attention to a number of directors I’d never previously encountered. Latin American cinema, in particular right now, seems to be booming with talented women directors, and in that regard one may look to the career of Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel, who came to prominence at the turn of the millennium with La Ciénaga (2001), and about whom I shall undoubtedly write in coming months. She is hardly the first woman to direct films in the Latin American world, but she is among the most rigorous and visually precise of all active filmmakers in the region, and one of the foremost (and most championed) auteurs in the world, I would say. In her wake there has been no shortage of excellent films by women working in the cinemas of Mexico, Chile, Venezuela, Brazil and Peru, amongst others.
Lina Rodriguez was born in Bogotá, Colombia, though she left after school to pursue further education in the UK and then in Canada, where she has lived for several decades, meaning she is perhaps as much a Canadian filmmaker as a Colombian one (and I gather from interviews that her next feature may be set in Canada). However, for her first two feature films, she has drawn on her life in Colombia, and it’s notable that her mother (Clara Monroy) has appeared in both her films, suggesting a semi-autobiographical patina to the events depicted within them.
Happy New Year!
I used to put up more film reviews over on this site, but now most of that is over on Letterboxd, so my blog is currently limping by with its weekly Criterion Sunday posts. This is hardly a huge amount of content to thrill my regular readers (hello, are there any?) and it also misrepresents my filmic interests, given that the Criterion Collection has been often criticised in the past (and not entirely unfairly) for its focus on a certain strand of largely Eurocentric arthouse filmmaking, driven by prominent male auteurs (Bergman, Fellini, Fassbinder: the usual suspects), and neglecting even major non-Western film-producing cultures (aside, arguably, from Japan). In fact, the number of films directed by women which are featured in their collection has always been very low, even compared to the number of directors working in the industry, though it appears they are making efforts to correct this somewhat (there have been recent releases of films by Barbara Loden, Elaine May, Euzhan Palcy and Susan Seidelman, amongst others), but it will take, er, decades for that to filter through here given my one-a-week posting schedule…
So, I thought it would be good to start a new regular strand to focus on some filmmakers whose work I’ve enjoyed or found interesting, who aren’t featured often enough in the usual lists. It is almost certain this year that my Letterboxd list of every feature film I’ve seen directed by a woman will pass 1000 entries, and yet too often I’ve barely read anything about some of these directors. Even a cursory internet search for ‘films by women’ tends to bring up the same names all the time (Ava DuVernay, Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola), which doesn’t represent nearly enough of the really great work that women filmmakers have been putting out in the last decade or two, not to mention historically (I have yet to really get stuck into Kino Lorber’s recent “Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers” box set, but it’s just one of a number of such releases recently, and looks likely to help change some of the conversation around film history and how it’s understood and taught).
I’m quite sure plenty of people will be familiar with a lot of the names in my series — anyone who has made an effort to keep up with the most interesting world cinema — but, as with my Films by Women page (a list that I try to keep updated regularly), I just wanted to add a little bit, however amateurishly, to the writing about the work of all these creators. I also hope it will be a spur to my own watching habits, as many of these women’s films can sometimes be quite hard to see.
(I shall update this post each week as I add new directors, and link it from my Films by Women page.)
The records I keep show that I’ve seen this before, but I don’t remember anything about it (admittedly, it was 17 years ago). However, I don’t think that’s from any inherent lack in the storytelling: it presents a tale of a woman being hounded by the police and the press for her possible complicity in a terrorist’s actions from little more than meeting him at a party and sleeping with him. It hardly seems to have aged in 40 years in the ways that women are so often made to publicly feel shame for the act of desire and for events which continue to saturate our headlines, so in that sense it remains very much topical. The heavier-handed thread is about abuses committed in the name of journalism by an out-of-control yellow press intent merely on splashy, exploitative stories that sell papers; this also has hardly aged but the way the film presents it can be a little on the nose, especially in the hypocritical words that form the epilogue. I suspect instead that my absence of memory of seeing this film is perhaps more a stylistic one: it’s shot well, but feels a little prosaic in its cutting, something of that socialist realism of the 70s coming through. And perhaps that’s not itself a failing, really. Like other Margarethe von Trotta works I’ve seen it’s almost too self-effacing stylistically, and deserves greater praise.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta (based on the novel by Heinrich Böll) | Cinematographer Jost Vacano | Starring Angela Winkler, Mario Adorf, Dieter Laser, Jürgen Prochnow | Length 106 minutes || Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, August 2000 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 29 October 2017)
It’s very easy, I think, to imagine all of Lynne Ramsay’s films as being suffused with bleakness, especially when you cast your eye over any given plot summary. Ratcatcher, after all, starts with a classic bit of misdirect as Ryan, a cherubic young boy being dragged off by his mother to see his dad, spots his friend James (William Eadie) playing by the canal, and so hides from his mum and goes down to James, where they get in a play fight and Ryan drowns while James runs off in confusion and guilt. Almost as quickly, then, we realise that it’s James who is the centre of the film, a gaunt angular boy who even at the best of times seems to be carrying the woes of the world. Other characters are hardly having less of a time of it than James, not least Margaret (Leanne Mullen), the slightly older girl he meets, who is callously exploited by the older boys around them, but who forms a quite playful friendship with James. And therein I think is a lot of Ramsay’s storytelling power, in contrasting the bleakness of the narrative and the setting (a dour early-70s Glasgow during a binmen’s strike), with moments of pure escapism and fantasy, or the occasional respite of innocent play. The key recurring motif is of James in a field of long grass as he imagines the perfect home the family will move to, away from the decay and the rot and the dereliction. Somehow this balances the Bressonian sense of doom, or a grim fatality reminiscent of many Russian filmmakers, leaving an indelible impression of the debut feature of one of Britain’s finest working filmmakers.
- Ramsay’s three earlier short films are included, best of all being Gasman (1998), a really fine bit of storytelling done in 15 minutes, a fractured family story set at Christmas against a background (familiar from her other short films) of an impoverished Scottish milieu. It’s seen through the eyes of the kids — low camera angles, lots of telling details caught by the camera — who are confused by new developments in their emotionally distant father’s life. Bleak, but great.
- Alongside it are Kill the Day (1996) — which has a nice sense of fractured time, bleak shards of a story and a reverie-like atmosphere that would find fruition in the feature — and Small Deaths (1996) — a little collection of vignettes from a young girl’s life suggestive of the pain of growing up and becoming socialised into a world of violence.
- There’s a 20-minute video interview with Ramsay, as she talks through her (at that point, fairly brief) career and the inception of Ratcatcher from story to production, and notably the casting of her young non-professional actors.
- Finally, there’s a gallery of still photographs taken during production, which further emphasise the sort of aesthetic Ramsay was aiming for, based as much in photography as in film.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Lynne Ramsay | Cinematographer Alwin Küchler | Starring William Eadie | Length 94 minutes || Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Thursday 27 July 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Sunday 27 January 2019)
A sweet romantic comedy about a young Chinese-American doctor, Wilhelmina (Michelle Krusiec), who has trouble coming out to her community and to her mother (Joan Chen), just as her mother has become pregnant by a man whose identity she refuses to reveal, causing her to be kicked out of her home by her elderly parents. So yes, as you can tell, it has plenty of soapy melodrama. However, the strength of the acting and writing is such that it remains sweet and uplifting throughout. It moves towards an ending that tries to tie everything up happily, and in the context of too many films focusing on the burden and heartbreak of being gay in communities with more ‘traditional’ ideas that’s welcome, not that it hides the difficulty its protagonist goes through. However, on the most part everything is kept light and enjoyable, and it’s easy to identify with Wil’s struggles.
Director/Writer Alice Wu | Cinematographer Harlan Bosmajian | Starring Michelle Krusiec, Lynn Chen, Joan Chen | Length 91 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 5 August 2017
A film about an enormous maternity hospital in Manila, it doesn’t take long to realise how crowded things are when you see expectant mothers rolled on to the edges of beds already occupied, even playing with their babies two to a bed as well. Indeed, by the end we see the hospital celebrating the birth of the 100 millionth Filipino, and you get a sense that a fair few of them have come through here. The lack of funds means those with weak babies — which is the area of the hospital this film largely focuses on — don’t get incubators but are instead encouraged to wear tube tops to hold their babies close to them as part of the ‘kangaroo medical care’ programme. The women are admonished for not using them 24/7, while a nurse on a microphone at the end of the ward dispenses life advice like a Greek chorus. From out of this chaos the film starts to introduce individual stories and eventually we get to know the situations of a few of the (very poor, very Catholic) women, some of whom are very young, others of whom have five or more kids already. We see them turn down free contraception for frustratingly vague (but obviously religious) reasons, and we see the struggle to come up with even the very small fees being charged, though some of them at least have supportive husbands who are allowed to visit briefly and get to wear the tube tops as well. Like the best documentaries it’s a fascinating look into a world most of us won’t see and it’s a compassionate one too.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Ramona S. Diaz | Cinematographers Clarissa delos Reyes and Nadia Hallgren | Length 94 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Monday 7 August 2017
There’s nothing particularly polished about this documentary, a sort of extended making-of feature, but it shines in what it captures of the struggle Samira Makhmalbaf undertook to make her film At Five in the Afternoon (2003). It’s also made by Samira’s younger sister Hana (yet another woman making excellent films under the Makhmalbaf Film House banner), herself a teenager at the time, which makes it all the more fascinating. Basically, we see a series of scenes of Samira battling to convince local Afghan actors to take roles in her film (which is primarily about the setbacks in educating women after the Taliban have been ousted from the country). She tries to convince a mullah to drive a cart, and when he starts to feel foolish or inadequate to the task (presumably), she has to convince him not to renege on his word as a cleric. Then there’s her lead actor (Agheleh Rezaie), who takes quite some persuading of the film’s merit, as baseless rumours fly around of the production’s immorality, and that it will kill kids (not to mention require people to wake at four in the morning for several months). Still, we know from the existence of the finished feature (which is excellent) that Samira prevails — the documentary finishes before shooting begins — and we have this document to prove it’s possible for women to make thought-provoking and polished films even under intolerant regimes.
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Hana Makhmalbaf | Length 71 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 31 May 2017
For all that it sounds on paper like some kind of heist film, in fact this is a story centred in female friendships, primarily the one between our title character (one of those involved in the heist, which is only seen obliquely in flashback) and her friend in Portugal (Silvia Reize), to whom she turns when things start going wrong. Yet there’s also the relationship between her and the young female bank teller (Katharina Thalbach) who witnesses her crime, and whose identification of Christa is key to the prosecution’s case. It turns out Christa’s motives were solid — she just wanted to help out a kindergarten she’d started for impoverished mothers, but it had run into financial difficulties — and, as played by Tina Engel, she presents a compelling central figure. It’s only a pity that the print this DVD is transferred from is so patchy; Margarethe von Trotta’s films may not be trendy or flashy, but they are definitely in need of some preservation.
Director Margarethe von Trotta | Writers Margarethe von Trotta and Luisa Francia | Cinematographer Franz Rath | Starring Tina Engel, Silvia Reize, Katharina Thalbach | Length 89 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 18 May 2017
There’s something to Anocha Suwichakornpong’s filmmaking, a sort of dreamy, elliptical oddness that has long stretches of quiet watchfulness (long takes with a fairly static camera, though often handheld so a bit shaky)… but then there are these little flares of strangeness (and I still can’t help but thinking about fellow Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul in this regard). This is a story of two men: Ake, from a rich family, who has mobility issues (Phakpoom Surapongsanuruk); and the other, Pun (Arkaney Cherkam), his carer, from somewhat lower down the rungs of society. There’s almost an upstairs-downstairs dynamic (we also see the family’s cook), but that’s not really dwelt upon. What unfolds is largely this slow evolution of feeling between the two, with sort of mystical asides to astronomy and an unexpected scene of childbirth at the end (even the appearance of the opening credits 15 minutes in took me by surprise). I can’t explain what it’s doing, but it’s interesting enough for me to want to watch more by the same filmmaker (her more recent film By the Time It Gets Dark had much the same effect on me).
Director/Writer Anocha Suwichakornpong | Cinematographer Ming-Kai Leung | Starring Arkaney Cherkam, Phakpoom Surapongsanuruk | Length 82 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 1 March 2017