Voices of Vision, Identity, and Activism in Women’s Film History: A Roadmap to Films #DirectedbyWomen

Developmentally Edited by Alexandra Hidalgo
Copy Edited and Posted by Jessica Gibbons

I teach Women and Film Studies at City College of San Francisco and have been actively engaged as an experimental filmmaker, organizer, and educator since my early 20’s. My lifework is dedicated to the history of women behind the camera, both within the film industry and in feminist organizations. I seek to find women’s voices in feminist film theory, film criticism, and at film festivals. The films I select to screen illustrate a matrix of work on race, class, gender, and sexuality. Female authorship—films written and directed by women—is being increasingly validated at the A-list film festivals I attend and metered by national and independent funding, which attests to a growing transnationalism in film with feminist reverberations. As we celebrate the #DirectedbyWomen Worldwide Film Viewing Party this year, I wanted to provide a list of films that will help viewers enter the world that women see from behind the camera.

December 28th 1920: Actress Mary Pickford (1893 – 1979) and director Frances Marion (1887 – 1973) sitting on their personalized canvas chairs on the set of the United Artists war drama ‘Straight is the Way’. (Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)

The following films are illustrations of how the representation of film in Hollywood has evolved since the beginning of the 20th century until today. All films have specific feminist film historical and theoretical foundations or have been studied by feminist film scholars and activists. The emphasis of these films in the selection is not the subject matter, rather it’s how the film form has been used by directors and how they represent concepts in feminist film theory such as the “male gaze” and the “imperial gaze.”[1] My focus in this selection is not on “stories” but on how film style shows the representation of women through the cutting, shooting, framing, and use of sound. These are all landmarks in women’s film history.

Before 1925, women made over 50% of the films in Hollywood. This was before the “studio system” was created by East European Jewish immigrants or sons of these immigrants: Paramount’s Adolph Zukor, Universal’s Carl Laemmle, the Warner brothers, MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, 20th Century Fox’s William Fox, and Columbia’s Harry Cohn.[2]

In France, Alice Guy Blaché (1873-1968) and Germaine Dulac (1882-1942)  are both notable. Dulac for creating a cinema movement and working in the avant-garde idiom in the 1920’s, and Blaché, who was the first narrative filmmaker and the first director to use sound (1913).[3] There were only two women directors working in the Hollywood studio system in the first half of the 20th century: Dorothy Arzner (16 features films between 1929-1943) and Ida Lupino (seven features between 1949-1953 and TV director through 1968). Outside the studio system, we have Maya Deren who made films from the early 40’s to the early 1960’s. In France, Agnès Varda mixed documentary with narrative form in the 1960’s and still continues to make films today at the age of 90.

It was the women’s movement in the 70’s that inspired women to rediscover their roots—the forgotten and neglected history of women behind the camera—and to make films. Some of these were documentaries about the movement, and others were examples of new uses of film form influenced by cinema movements such as the French New Wave and cinema verité. Important filmmakers who were a part of this movement include Barbara Loden, Chantal Akerman, Laura Mulvey, and Lizzie Borden. The following list is meant to provide viewers with a sense of how this history unfolded from early cinema through the films of today, and I hope you enjoy these foundational films.

Reel Herstory: The Real Story of Reel Women

by Ally Acker (2014)

Research by Ally Acker, who has dedicated her life work to removing women in the business from obscurity, is the subject of Reel Herstory: The Real Story of Reel Women, a documentary that looks at women in Hollywood from 1896 until 2014. Acker and Marc Wanamaker discovered a box of photographs at his studio, Bison Archives, of countless women working in Hollywood who were filmmakers, producers, writers, and editors. The documentary voice-over and clips illustrate how women in early cinema were responsible for many of the basic camera and editing techniques used today, as well as how they introduced sound and the construction of mise-en-scène for film that is used today in narrative films. This documentary, hosted by Jodie Foster, gets the herstory right.

The history of women in film before 1925 was forgotten because the first histories of Hollywood were written in the 1940’s by male historians. Those historians neglected to mention women, did not know about them, or glossed over their careers. Frances Marion was one of those forgotten pioneers. Together with Mary Pickford, who selected her as her official scriptwriter, she won two Oscars for her screenplays in the early 1930s. Mary Pickford was not only an actor, but also a director and studio boss, who together with Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and DW Griffith formed the movie studio United Artists. They were also the creators of the Academy Awards. The film shares this vital history with viewers in exciting detail.

Still from Germaine Dulac’s The Seashell and the Clergyman.

The Seashell and The Clergyman

By Germaine Dulac (La Coquille Et Le Clergyman, France 1926)

This avant-garde film was commissioned by surrealist writer Antonin Artaud, but he was upset with what Germaine Dulac created.  Dulac was a filmmaker whose work started the first wave of the avant-garde film movement. Artaud, who belonged to the primarily male echelon of surrealists whose work often compartmentalized the female body, distanced himself from the finished film. This didn’t bother Dulac who distanced herself from surrealism and Artaud and whose work stands on its own merits. Her influence is clear in the work of Deren, who is credited with the second wave of the avant-garde film movement. In her 1946 film An Anagram of Ideas of Art Form and Film, Maya Deren compared the dreams of the surrealists to the destructive force of an atomic bomb.

What Dulac did in her film is provide an impressionistic portrait of a woman kept captive by her husband, a general, and the ‘peeping tom gaze’ of a priest of the Catholic Church, who hears her confession and desires her. Dulac invites the spectator to open the door to her work. In the introduction, the priest sits and meticulously breaks glass, fashioning it into a seashell in a process that resembles alchemy, but it is Dulac who is the true alchemist.

Dulac creates a female language in the film where women in unison symbolically sweep away the patriarchal order of the Church and military—and the surrealist fantasies of Artaud.

Christopher Strong

By Dorothy Arzner (USA 1933)

Still from Dorothy Arzner’s Christopher Strong.

Dance Girl Dance

By Dorothy Arzner (USA 1940)

Dorothy Arzner was the only woman working in Hollywood in the late 1920’s and early 1940’s. The first major, and largely anecdotal, accounts of American cinema by male film historians omitted or glossed over her career. In Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968 (1968), Arzner was completely omitted. In Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By (1968) and Lewis Jacobs’s The Rise of the American Film (1939, reprinted 1967) the focus was on her work as an editor, not as a director. Since the 1970s, however, her films have been the subject of scholarship and film retrospectives, richly documented in essays and books by feminist film theorists and historians.

Feminist film scholar Claire Johnston theorized that in Arzner’s films, the woman determines her own identity through “transgression and desire” in a search for an independent existence outside the discourse of the male.[4] According to Johnson, “Arzner’s characters assert their own discourse in the face of the male one, by breaking it up, subverting it and in a sense rewriting it.”[5] The articulation of a subtext makes Dorothy Arzner’s films especially important to feminist film criticism as they create sufficient contradiction to traditional studio films with fixed relationships for men and women. Subversion of the dominant discourse of the classic Hollywood film text is obvious in close readings of many of her films, and her female characters question their fixed roles through “transgression,” breaking explicit patriarchal rules and going against the grain. Lady Darrington flies a record-breaking aircraft, though Christopher Strong forbids it. Johnston finds that this rewriting of patriarchy is the principle structure of Arzner’s film texts.[6]

An example of this can be seen in Christopher Strong (1933), which, in Swedish, is translated as A Big Man’s Lover. This title gives a better sense of the chief protagonist, Lady Cynthia Darrington, played by Katharine Hepburn. In the mise-en-scène, Cynthia lights Christopher’s cigarette and often stands taller in relation to him. The French title proves to be the best translation: La Phalène d’argent – the silver moth. In a famous scene, she enters the room in a costume wearing a silver lamé body stocking—an insect-like gown that can be seen as a chrysalis—a blueprint for a modern woman yet to emerge, though one that, for 1933, takes great strides in self-achievement. After operating outside patriarchal law and bearing the child of a married man, Cynthia courageously breaks the aviation record while doing something she loves. Zoë Akins, who often worked with Arzner, wrote the script.

Trailblazing fillmmaker Dorothy Arzner.

In Dance Girl Dance, one of Arnzer’s most successful films at the box office, Judy O’Brien (Maureen O’Hara) is forced to play the “stooge” of exotic dancer Bubbles (Lucille Ball) in a burlesque show. She defiantly walks out and addresses the male audience on their demeaning treatment of women, all within the context of a “theater” where the audience claps afterwards. In Tis Herself: An Autobiography (2005), O’Hara credits Arzner for rescuing Dance Girl Dance from an incompetent male director and breathing life into the narrative. O’Hara was glad that the film was important for feminists (‘Tis Herself: An Autobiography, Maureen O’Hara, 2005).

Short Films By Maya Deren

(USA 1943-1959)

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943, in collaboration with Alexander Hammid)
At Land (1944)
A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945)
Ritual in Transfigured Time (1945-6)
Meditation on Violence (1948)
The Very Eye of Night (1952-59).

Haitian Footage

By Maya Deren (USA 1943-1954)

Maya Deren made “dance” films—to be more precise, rituals predicated on dance and movement. They are examples of “choreocinema,” an excellent designation given to her films upon their release by New York Times dance critic John Martin. A central concern of Maya Deren was to liberate dance from the stage and provide it with “cinematic form.” Deren claimed that the artist/magician, like the scientist, uses the creative process to make the invisible visible, using tools to manifest “something new.”[7] For Deren, the tools of the filmmaker were the camera—for the capture of images—and editingfor assemblage of the temporal and spatial form of film. She called dramatic films—“horizontal” or linear, and films which plunged into the symbolic matrix—“vertical” or poetic.

During the 1940’s and 1950’s Maya Deren worked in the poetic idiom and has been credited with launching the postwar American avant-garde film wave. Based on her artistic intentions and how carefully she plans her films, there is much to consider when approaching her work.

According to Deren, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) is a film about “a dream that becomes reality.”[8] It is shot partially in slow motion to allow a sense of temporal duration. Repetitive elements are woven into the editorial process creating a spiral-formed mystery that bears a resemblance to dramatic logic. Yet, she stressed that the emphasis in Meshes is not in the progression of events. The appearance, dislocation, distortion, disappearance, or reappearance of the central repetitive elements—the key, bread, knife, phonograph, telephone, “dream girls,”[9] “man,” and “mirror figure”—serve as bookmarks in several dream ‘sequences.’

At Land (1944) is an exercise used to approximate relative relationships, blending nature with urban landscape in a sort of physical chess game. There is a feminine order of logic to the game. The protagonist, played by Deren, is in search of a pawn. She transitions from the beach to a formal dinner party, where she crawls over the entire length of the table, retrieves the pawn, and magically ends up at an in-progress beachside chess game. The two women playing this game are oblivious to the rules.

Maya Deren in Meshes of the Afternoon (1943).

In A Study in Choreography for the Camera, Deren focused on the cinematic convergence of space. In this film, she achieved an epistemological break from dance films that only ‘recorded’ movement. This form was a unique contribution to the advancement of experimental and ethnographic film. Deren called Ritual in Transfigured Time and The Very Eye of Night “choreographies for camera.”

Ritual in Transfigured Time is a rite of passage where “a widow becomes a bride.” Ritual archetypes juxtaposed with images of modernity and frozen matter—freeze frames, statues, bodies—are ‘spiritualized’ through movement, similarly to how symbolist poetry (one of Deren’s poetic influences) ‘spiritualized language.’ With this film, she began to solidify a connection between art and ethnography. The film was made before she went to Haiti in 1947 to make a film on Haitian dance. She called Ritual in Transfigured Time a rite of passage—a metamorphic journey from one part of life to another.

When Deren completed Meditation on Violence, she had just returned from her first trip to Haiti, partially financed by a Guggenheim fellowship. She intended to study the elements of ritual in the dance-oriented ceremonies of Haitian Voudoun (Creole spelling of “voodoo” employed by Deren). Meditation on Violence is part of that voyage and explores the Wu Tang (contemplative, interior) and Shaolin (forceful, exterior) elements of Chinese boxing in ritual dance.

The transition to the dark abyss is fully achieved in The Very Eye of Night, edited entirely as negative film. In choreographic work, relationships are established between Uranus (the father of heaven) and Urania (his muse); the satellites, Ariel, Ambriel, Oberon, and Titania; and Gemini (the twins created to represent the “archetypal self”). The exploration of physical space by the somnambulist was a continuation of the trajectory first created in Meshes.

Divine Horsemen, the Living Gods of Haiti

By Maya Deren, posthumously edited by Teiji and Cherel Ito, 1977

Maya Deren’s ethnographic study Divine Horsemen, edited by Joseph Campbell, was the first form for her work in Haiti from 1946 to 1954. It includes a reference to plans for a film on the ceremonies of the African spirit religion in Haiti, Voudoun, that was somewhere among her belongings. Her footage for this unfinished project was kept in “a fire-proof box in her closet.” One of the most frustrating setbacks of Deren’s career was her failure to release the footage. She tried countless times to have it accepted for anthropological use and was denied because she was an outsider to the field. Ironically, Divine Horsemen is still considered a classic study of Haitian Voudoun.

Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, taken from the title of Deren’s monograph, was released in 1977. Maya Deren’s original 20,000 feet of footage was shot in Haiti during trips in 1947, 1949, and 1954. It is stored at the Anthology Film Archives in New City and is currently being digitized. The original footage has been screened at Anthology in the past but has never been put out on video to the public. I studied this footage carefully on a Steenbeck editing table in the 90’s and saw it screened once at Anthology in the 1990’s. I was grateful to be able to observe this footage closely and look for important details that are impossible to note when the footage is projected.

The documentary by Teiji and Cherel Ito is an assembled film that contains some of the best parts of the footage with sound added. (Parts are read from Deren’s monograph Divine Horsemen.) It should be understood, however, that this is Ito’s editorial work since Deren insisted that a film was a product of both the camera and editing.

The Haitian Footage is an important component of the filmmaking oeuvre of Maya Deren, and serious study of this shows the virtuosity of Deren’s work with dance, ethnography, and a mobile camera.

Still from Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames.

Born In Flames

By Lizzie Borden (USA 1976)

When she received the Grand Prize at Créteil Films de Femmes in Paris in 1983, Lizzie Borden said that Born in Flames took over four years to make because they ran out of money. The total production cost for this 16mm film was $40,000. French feminists were so moved by the film that they called it a dream and believed it accurately reported their reality and the issues they were struggling with at the time. It lives on as one of the best feminist films ever made.

Born in Flames evokes the spirit of 70’s feminism and is set in the future after the socialist (actually social democratic) revolution in the USA. The socialist party is ineffective, however, and still unable to provide jobs or stop violence against women. As a result, a women’s army is formed, which is a grassroots movement that patrols on bicycles and intervenes when women are being sexually assaulted or harassed on the subway. The film weaves connections between racism, sexism, and classicism into a powerful futuristic story by editing documentary footage with staged and actual newsreel footage interwoven in narrative form.

Hillary Hurst, who plays herself, is a white captain joined by African American Adelaide Norris (Jean Satterfield) and several white, brown, and black women to form the previously mentioned women’s army that protects women from assault. Monitoring the efforts of the women’s army is the “Socialist Youth Review” paper with three editors played by Becky Johnston, Pat Murphy, and Kathyrn Bigelow. Two competing feminist pirate radio stations have dedicated followers that follow the news of the women’s army.

Born in Flames is important as a historical document because it depicts interracial alliances that evolved and co-existed during 70’s feminism. Commentary by the police who investigate the women’s army positions women in terms of color and sexual orientation. Queer women of color were a threat, and alliances made to unite queer women were suspect. These women were forgotten, excluded, and targeted for attack. In the making of this film, Borden was influenced by the editing techniques of the early Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, as well as Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers.

Jeanne Dielman

By Chantal Akerman (Belgium 1976)

When Chantal Akerman made Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles in 1975, she was only 24 years old. The road to making the film began with industry contacts, including French filmmaker and cinematographer Babette Mangolte. Akerman and Mangolte met in New York, a city that would later become the young Belgian director’s adopted home. Mangolte introduced Akerman to experimental filmmaking, a small and exclusive world she grew to love.

Still from Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman.

Success came early to Akerman, whose film was selected for the the Cannes Film Festival Fortnight in 1975. Suddenly, 50 international festivals wanted to screen it. The film starred the brilliant French actress Delphine Seyrig as a housewife and widow who stays at home to take care of her teenage son. Once a week, she solos as a prostitute for one of her regular clients. Akerman said that, in the film, she wanted to value the rare subject of a housewife whose ritualistic work is at home. She explained that a woman almost certainly would have had to make the film, since a man barely pays attention to his wife’s work at home. To that extent, Akerman does a meticulous study of the daily motions of Jeanne Dielman, and as she later explains, the film was based on watching the routines of her mother—a survivor of Auschwitz whose parents died in the camp—at home.

Jeanne Dielman is 200 minutes long and is a fascinating film which breaks down and compartmentalizes Jeanne’s various chores and activities such as putting coffee into a thermos, boiling potatoes, shining her son’s shoes, making up his bed, or putting the money from her clients into a large covered dish in the living room. Each day the routines are shot in steady, long takes and the procedures are given extraordinary importance. This is especially evident in Akerman’s framing of the kitchen and the hallway, an almost claustrophobic environment, where we as spectators engage in Jeanne’s activities. Because of the strict camera focus, we are forced to acknowledge how the order is exact and strictly kept in Jeanne’s schedule. On the one day when, unlike previous days, Jeanne has some time to think for a bit, we notice how Akerman is careful to present this change in the film’s trajectory. This is the compelling force of the film that remains an enchanting narrative construction to this day.


By Sally Potter (UK 1992)

Orlando is probably one of the best renditions of the work of Virginia Woolf to date. Tilda Swinton as Orlando looks in the camera as if to say: “Here I am, and this is what I believe. So what do you think?” This self-reflection is a literary technique used by Woolf in her novel, and it is put to good use by Potter. The story of a nobleman who lives 400 years—200 as a man and 200 as a woman—is an epic piece of literature. The transitions are artfully shown through fashion and how the world that surrounds Orlando changes with time. Orlando inherits an estate from Queen Elizabeth I (Quentin Crisp) as a man in 1600, and later in 1850 as a woman, she loses all the property she owned as a man. How Potter shows these transitions is a magnificent cinematic creation of costume and set design and creative camera work and editing. The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 1992 and won the “Elvira Notari Prize,” named for Italy’s first female filmmaker. It was theatrically released during the emergence of Queer Theory in academia, which has special significance for ways of seeing in film. The “Queer cinema spectator” was coined by feminist film theorist Teresa de Lauretis who proclaimed that the LGBT spectator had different ways of looking at film than a heterosexual spectator.[10] Potter’s Orlando is a rich document of imagery and sound that illustrates the voice of women left behind in the past while remaining defiantly vocal about equality and empowerment today. The narrative is a visual panorama of gender differences illustrated through exquisite scenes from Virginia Woolf’s classic tale.

Actress Tilda Swinton as the title character in Sally Potter’s film Orlando.

Daughters Of The Dust

By Julie Dash (USA 1991)

Daughters of the Dust has long been considered an extraordinary film within a story space perfect for the range of what cinema can do beyond merely recording moving figures. It is the first feature film directed by an African American woman distributed theatrically in the US.[11]

Daughters of the Dust is about the descendants of the saltwater slaves from Africa, the Gullah, and members of a small community on St Helena Island who have decided to go up north and leave their 88-year-old matriarch Nana Peazant (Cora Lee Day) and remaining members behind. The Gullah settled on the coastal sea islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia and were able to preserve their language known as Gee Chee and their traditions because of their remote location. These customs are shown in the film, many of which are from African spirit religion including the vessels used for the souls of the elders. The younger Gullahs have heard the oral history of their ancestral culture from their elders, but they are also anxious to leave the island to learn about the world outside of those customs. Set in 1902, the story takes place during the Great Migration of six million African Americans from the south to the northeast, midwest, and west. This is a time after slavery, but the living presence of their enslaved ancestors remains in the waterways. One example is a wooden statue of a slave who serves as a reminder of those who drowned themselves at Igbo Landing rather than face enslavement.

The story is told through the voice-overs of Nana Peazant and The Unborn daughter of Eula Peazant (Alva Rogers). Dash proclaims that the narrative construction of conventional films is not suited for the oral traditions of Africa—that saltwater slaves passed down their heritage to their enslavement lands through these stories, so the film is created with many voices that weave and join with the other passages of history. The film style has a dreamlike quality, with testimony, stories, and voices each creating a tapestry of memory and recall.  Most of the film takes place on a Sunday picnic on the beach prior to some of the settlers leaving to head up north.

Dash incorporates the ancestry of the Gullah in an authentic way by reflecting the experiences of the early settlers that were separated from their families but ultimately returned, as well as those who set out, never to be seen again. The film’s beautiful cinematography is by co-producer Arthur Jaffa, and the original music is by John Barnes.

Still from Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust.

At Five In The Afternoon

By Samira Makhmalbaf (Afghanistan 2003)

Samira Makhmalbaf’s film At Five in the Afternoon, part of the 56th Cannes official competition, is set in Afghanistan and was made when the Iranian director was 24. It concerns a young Pakistani immigrant named Nogreh who is attending school in Kabul and wants to become the “President of the Republic.” This was the first film to be made by a foreign director in Kabul since the end of Taliban rule. It was hard to find a woman to be in her film because even though in the autumn and summer of 2002 women were liberated and could go to school and work, they were still afraid of Taliban in their culture. Makhmalbaf is brilliant in her film style by taking a symbol and building a story around it. In this film, Nogreh’s white high heels are concealed and then secretly displayed to illustrate her hidden and defiant posture.

Makhmalbaf refuses to be a silent observer as an Iranian situated between the tragedies of Afghanistan and Iraq and demands to know her country’s neighbors. She had traveled in the area and spent time at its border taking photographs since she was a child, and she has much to say about the plight of women and a war-torn country mediated by images that convey little of its people.

The filmmaker’s interest in Afghanistan goes back to her father’s film Cyclist (1989), which was made when she was eight years old. The film has her father’s stamp as far as filmmaking techniques and narrative form. A writer and filmmaker from post-revolutionary Iran, her father Mohsen Makhmalbaf started Makhmalbaf Film House in 1996, taking a break from filmmaking to teach film to selected students, including his three children: Samira, Maysam, and Hana.

At Five in the Afternoon is a human interest story, and Makhmalbaf acted in the film made at the Pakistani border of Afghanistan. Her knowledge of the area inspired her sympathy and subsequent work in cinema where her storytelling reveals the personal lives of people in war torn territories.

Still from Samira Makhmalbaf’s At Five in the Afternoon.

Films by Agnès Varda

Cléo From 5 To 7 (France 1962)

Jane B. by Agnès V. (France 1988)

The Gleaners and I (France 2000)

Faces Places (France 2017)

Agnès Varda likes to say that she has a lion, a bear, and an “Honorary Palme d’Or” presented to her by Jane Birkin at the Cannes Film festival in 2015. At 90 years old, the outstanding signature of Varda’s work is “cinéma libre”—free cinema with each production as a unique creation. Varda does not regard her profession as being a filmmaker: “I haven’t had a career: I’ve made films; I haven’t succeeded because I’m not rich.”

For someone who does not see herself as a filmmaker, she is the recipient of many awards: “I’ve a bestiary of prizes—a Golden Lion from Venice film festival, a Bear from Berlin, dogs, and so on—but never money.” Hers is a typical situation for a woman in the film world who makes independent films and works in the poetic idiom. For Varda, film is an art, and although she has made films that have garnered attention, her work is not done in a commercial vein but rather for the sake of independent cinema.

Cléo From 5 To 7

Varda photographed the wedding of filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard and actress Anna Karina in 1961. She was at the forefront of the revolution of filmmaking that was transforming French Cinema. At the advent of the French New Wave, Varda mixed fantasy with realism in films such as a classic feminist film, Cléo From 5 To 7.

The film takes place in an afternoon in the life of a popular vocalist who goes by Cléo Victoire. Cléo is given medical tests by a doctor that may indicate cancer. The results will come later in the afternoon, but in this two-hour reprieve, she examines her life with a young man from the military who has to go back on duty. During their time together, Cléo takes note of the life around her that she has not paid much attention to. There is a break in the film, almost like a curtain being drawn between the life of a singer wrapped up in her work and a young woman whose every moment becomes important.

Jane B. by Agnès V.
In Jane B. by Agnès V., Varda looks at the career of vocalist and actress Jane Birkin, mixing documentary and vivid Renaissance portraits of Birkin in a fantasy-filled film language. Varda is often present in the film as an interviewer displaying her camera. The borders between Birkin’s life and the contemporary and historic roles she plays in the documentary create provocative junctures of time and space, which is a trademark of Varda’s work.

The Gleaners and I
In 2000, Varda made an important and thought-provoking film about the waste we discard in society, bringing attention to the historic tradition of “gleaning.” Historically, the leftovers from the harvest were picked by citizens to be used for their meals. Varda examines this practice from the point of view of several modern-day gleaners who survive by collecting perfectly healthy produce and perfectly usable objects left behind in the fields, in the streets, and in open air markets.

Still from Agnès Varda’s Faces Places.

Faces Places
Agnès Varda won L’Oeil d’Or, le prix du documentaire (The Golden Eye), at Cannes in 2017 for her latest film, Faces Places (Visages Villages), produced by Varda’s production company, Ciné Tamaris, and her daughter, Rosalie Varda. The style of the film is not unlike The Gleaners and I (2000), for it emphasizes the things we take for granted, the people we don’t know about, and the heroic people behind the scenes who are worthy of our attention. Varda teams up with French street artist JR and travels throughout parts of France in a van with a huge camera painted on the side. They take note of the virtues of work and those whose work is virtuous. The two meet by chance, it would appear—at least that is what the documentary would have us believe—and both are enraptured by each other’s artistry. JR is known for creating huge posters on buildings or objects, even though they may later disappear due to the forces of nature.

Some of the projects they undertake are mesmerizing. Varda and JR meet women whose husband’s work for a cargo ship container company, and each of them is photographed and has their image pasted onto a container. The containers are then stacked on top of each other, reaching an incredible height. The brick homes of a mining ghost town that was once thriving are brought to life when a woman who refused to move is photographed. Her image is pasted onto her home, and the neighbors remark how it has made a difference to be remembered.

The films #DirectedbyWomen in this selection span early cinema through today and are generally considered classics. They are written about and analyzed by new generations of women and frequently screened at retrospectives. One of the most recent was a joint program of the films of Dorothy Arzner in Paris at the Cinémathèque Française and Créteil Films de Femmes in April 2017. The publicity at the the Cinémathèque Française written by a male rock journalist trivialized Arzner’s films, and feminists protested this revisionism causing such a stir that there were lines around the block to see them. Arzner’s films and the films in this selection are praised for providing a woman’s discourse. As you encounter each film, you will come into contact with some of the most brilliant filmmakers who have had an immeasurable impact on the history of women and the history of film.

To learn more about Moira, check out her profile.


[1]See E. Ann Kaplan, Looking for the Other: Feminism, Film and the Imperial Gaze, Routledge, 1997.return
[2]Historian and documentary filmmaker Cari Beauchamp interviewed in Women Who Run Hollywood, Julia and Clara Kuperberg, Wichita Films, 2016.return
[3]Ally Acker, Reel Women: Pioneers of the Cinema 1896 to the Present, Continuum Intl Pub Group,1993).return
[4]Claire Johnston, Dorothy Arzner: Towards a Feminist Cinema (ed. Claire Johnston 1975), p.4.return
[7]Maya Deren, New Directions in Film Art, in Essential Deren, MacPherson & Company, p.208.return
[8]Maya Deren, in Film Culture, Winter 1965, Nr 39, p. 1.return
[10]De Lauretis retracted the term three years later when it became institutionalized and altered in mainstream culture. David Halperin, The Normalization of Queer Theory, 2008.return
[11]Interview with Julie Dash, NPR, 2016. https://www.npr.org/2016/11/20/502797705/daughters-of-the-dust-re-released-following-attention-from-beyonc.return