The Updated List of Female Directors
|[On the Reel Equality panel last week.|
Photo by Tommy Draper.]
I was recently given the opportunity to appear on a panel at Reel Equality’s celebration of International Women’s Day, co-organised by Beeston Film Festival. It was great to have a platform to share my experiences of being a woman working in the film industry, and they also screened Hidden by director Jess O’Brien, who was on the panel with me. I wrote the first draft of that film, and I’m still very proud of it, so it was great to see it with an audience again.
And as part of that Reel Equality event, I was asked the question “which female directors have inspired you?”
For a while now, I have taken up the baton and tried to raise awareness of the lack of female directors in the public eye – and in particular, the lack of many women working in the Hollywood system. As part of this, five years ago, I set myself the challenge of naming as many female directors as possible in a blog post – but it didn’t go quite to plan. I wasn’t quite walking the walk, so to speak. Although I was aware and supportive of my fellow female filmmakers on the local independent circuit, I couldn’t actually name more than six woman whose work I had actually seen in cinemas.
Whether this highlights the lack of diversity in cinemas or not, I took it upon myself to broaden my knowledge of female directors, and to watch more of their work. Luckily, in the years since I wrote that blog post, things do seem to be moving in the right direction, and I had the opportunity to see some great mainstream films which were directed or co-directed by women, including Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel and, more recently, Birds of Prey.
And so, in honour of International Women’s Day, here’s an updated list of female feature directors (and one famous shorts director), with examples of their work for you to check out:
1. Agnes Varda
I’m starting with Agnes Varda because she was one of the first female filmmakers I was ever made aware of, back when I attended film school in the late noughties. It’s also one year this month since we lost Varda, and I found it particularly difficult to see her name during the ‘In Memorium’ section when I attended this year’s BAFTAs. I’ll admit, I’ve only ever seen her non-fiction work (such as The Gleaners & I), but her final work - a personal miniseries called Varda by Agnes – has recently been released, so that’s definitely one to look out for. Varda was loved for her quirky personality as much as her work; she first created an Instagram account when she was aged 90, and she released this fun video to share that news.
2. Jane Campion
Jane Campion is one of only five women to have been nominated for a directing OSCAR, and the only woman to have won a Palm D’Or at Cannes (I was also lucky enough to attend a talk with her when I visited the Cannes Film Festival in 2013). She has a wonderful way of working with actors where she gets them to improvise the script, then amends the script to feature the actors' own words. Her work is stunning, and although she’s most known for her masterpiece The Piano (which garnered her the OSCAR nomination), my favourite film of hers – and one of my top 20 films of all time – is the beguiling Bright Star (pictured above).
3. Sally Potter
Potter is another director who I was lucky enough to see in conversation, when I won a ticket along with a copy of her book, Naked Cinema: Working with Actors. Naked Cinema is a brilliant book for anyone who wants to know more about directing, as it goes through the process from start to finish, through Potter’s nuanced and experienced perspective. Orlando is the obvious film of hers to watch (it features a time-travelling, gender-hopping performance from the always-great Tilda Swinton), but I’m also a fan of Ginger and Rosa, a much smaller film shot by the amazing DOP Robbie Ryan. Her next film, The Roads Not Taken, is out in May.
4. Sofia Coppola
For a while, Coppola was the most well-known female director, in no small part down to her famous father, Francis Ford Coppola. Sofia Coppola is also one of the five women to have been nominated for the directing OSCAR. I love all of Coppola's steady indie films, but the ‘one to watch’ is definitely Lost in Translation, followed very quickly by her debut film, The Virgin Suicides (which makes it onto many of my sizzle reels!)
5. Andrea Arnold
Andrea Arnold has only done a handful of films, but all of them feature a subtle elegance, casting a unique and beautiful light on people living in poorer situations. She even managed to bring her own style to Wuthering Heights, a story which has been done numerous times, and made it into a raw, 4:3 portrait of racism. Her most famous and successful work is the film Fishtank, starring Michael Fassbender, but I adore her recent film American Honey (pictured above - also shot by DOP Robbie Ryan, as with all of Arnold’s films).
6. Ava DuVernay
I’ll admit that I don’t know as much about Ava DuVernay as I should, but I have a lot of respect for her; as well as making films for years, she’s also been very active about promoting the rights of female filmmakers, frequently sharing useful and important articles on her social media feeds (like this one). Her work is starting to become more well-known in mainstream cinema, as she was recently given the job of directing Disney’s big-budget production A Wrinkle in Time – but she’s most known for her hard-hitting drama Selma, which was nominated for Best Picture at the 2015 Oscars.
7. Lone Sherfig
What I love about Lone’s Sherfig work is that it always looks like hers. Even though the productions are small, she works with a distinct colour pallet of blues and golds – only introducing reds in shocking moments, such as the destructive dinner party scene in The Riot Club. Her most critically acclaimed work is An Education (pictured above), which thrust Carey Mulligan into the spotlight and gained her an OSCAR nomination (the film was also nominated for Best Picture, which makes Sherfig's lack of directing nomination all the stranger). I also find a lot to love in Sherfig's adaptation of One Day, starring Anne Hathaway.
8. Greta Gerwig
Greta Gerwig is the new female director everyone’s talking about; after making only her second film, Lady Bird, she became the fifth woman nominated for a directing OSCAR. Her work is so popular that her exclusion at this year’s awards caused a lot of controversy – particularly as her clever, feminist adaptation of Little Women was still selling out seats. Gerwig has proved herself to be a very safe pair of hands with a clear vision for each film she directs – but I also love every film she made as an actor. So although I recommend you watch Lady Bird as an example of her directing work, don’t miss out on watching Francis Ha as well!
9. Floria Sigismondi
Floria Sigismondi established her career as music video director in the early noughties, where she made visceral, near-disturbing pieces for the likes of David Bowie and Marilyn Manson. I remember seeing her video for Christina Aguilera’s Fighter in 2003, before I knew exactly who had made it, and being so blown away by the creativity. Her most recent release is the gothic horror The Turning, which I haven’t seen yet, but I know that her first feature film The Runaways (above) is definitely worth a watch. She also directed some of the best episodes of The Handmaid's Tale.
10. Kathryn Bigelow
Kathryn Bigelow is, to date, the only woman to have ever won an OSCAR for her directing – and a friend of mine pointed out that this could be because she only makes films which are tailored to a stereotypically male audience. While I don’t know whether or not this is true (I haven’t actually seen any of her films), I hope that it isn’t the case; Bigelow’s work is renowned, and I can only assume that she was awarded for her skill. Her big OSCAR winner was The Hurt Locker, but she also made Zero Dark Thirty starring Jessica Chastain, and Point Break.
11. Nora Ephron
Nora Ephron was the writer behind some of the biggest romantic comedies of the early nineties (such as When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail), many of which she also directed. Ephron sadly passed away in 2012, and although she may not go down in history of one of the greatest, most creative female directors of all time, she delivered a plethora of well-written, witty films which brought joy to many over the decades. She was also directing movies long before #WomenInFilm was a thing. My personal favourite of hers is her last film, Julie & Julia, featuring a fantastic turn from Meryl Streep.
12. Desiree Akhavan
Desiree Akhavan is an up-and-coming name in the indie film world. I was first made aware of her work when I attended a talk with her (gushing) producer at Underwire’s Wired Women Weekender in 2018. This inspired me watch her then-latest film, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, a film which is charming, with a memorable ensemble of characters, but which isn’t afraid to point fingers at corrupt sexual conversion practices. It was a near flawless film which wasn’t even noticed at the awards ceremonies that year – the same year in which Greta Gerwig was nominated for Lady Bird. While I enjoyed both films, I’m sorry to say that Cameron Post was a much greater achievement. It deserved more accolades than it got.
13. The Wachowskis
A twin duo who created the most memorable original sci fi saga of the 90s; Lana and Lilly Wachowski will always be famous for making The Matrix Trilogy, and I’m intrigued to see what they will do with the fourth instalment. Even though the quality in the films dipped, they were always keen to try new things and to push boundaries with technology. I’d also recommend watching Cloud Atlas – an adaptation of a book deemed ‘unfilmable’ - as another, slightly undervalued example of their work. You’ll need a few hours spare to watch it, but I admire the creativity on show throughout the film, and I promise that it will stay with you.
14. Clio Barnard
I was made aware of Clio Barnard’s work when I attended a talk at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. In spite of the fact that her film was screening in competition there, she appeared very grounded and humble, to the point of self-deprecation. As with Andrea Arnold’s films, Bernard's work offers a gentle and affectionate look at people in lower class situations. I recommend The Selfish Giant, which is a rare portrait of the volatile early teenage period for young boys, but the film never loses its emotional touches or the sense of subtle fairytale inspirations. She also directed Dark River, which I need to see.
15. Maya Deren
As with Agnes Varda, I was introduced to Maya Deren’s work when I was studying at film school, and it was the first time I’d ever felt inspired by the work of a short-filmmaker. Her avant-garde, black-and-white images of mirrors and hooded, deathlike figures were so striking and haunting. I immediately went about trying to recreate some of her incredible shots, and her influence is clear in my 2008 university film, Deep Red Sun. Most active in the forties and fifties, Deren passed away far too young in 1961, aged 44. Many people are still inspired by Deren today (just look at this 2014 music video by Agnes Obel), and much of her work is still available to watch online. I recommend Meshes of the Afternoon (pictured above), her first and most popular film.
16. Lulu Wang
The absence of Wang's The Farewell was very much felt at this year’s OSCARS, and many people thought it should have been nominated for more than just ‘Film Not In The English Language’ at the BAFTAs as well (particularly in light of their newly launched ‘Best Casting’ award). The Farewell won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance film festival, before going on to win a Golden Globe and two Independent Spirit Awards, among numerous others. Wang’s name is one of those embroidered into the cape Natalie Portman wore at the OSCARS, to honour the snubbed female directors.
17. Patty Jenkins
It could be said that, as with Kathryn Bigelow, Patty Jenkins is a woman who directed the type of film that’s typically made by men – and as a result, proved that women are perfectly capable at doing the job. Jenkins was the first woman to direct a superhero movie, Wonder Woman (pictured above), at a time when they were the most popular form of cinema, and the film managed to make 200 million more at the box office than Justice League, another entry in the struggling DC cinematic universe. It also received higher reviews than other films in the saga. I think we’ll look back on Jenkins as a bit of a game changer for female directors, and her second DC film – Wonder Woman 1984 – is out this year, so go see it. It’s worth mentioning that Jenkins also directed Monster, the film which won Charlize Theron an OSCAR back in 2004.
18. Crystal Moselle
Moselle is another director whose work I discovered by attending Underwire’s Wild Women weekender. Although she’s early into her directing career, Moselle has worked in the industry for nearly two decades, having first worked as a visual effects intern on 2002’s Frida. Moselle’s first directorial feature was the documentary The Wolf Pack, and she’s used her documentarian skills to good effect in her first narrative feature, Skate Kitchen (above) – a film which is inspired by a real skating group, using almost all non-actors and an observational camera style. Although it has a minimal plot with very little peril, the film is a gorgeous treat for the eyes, and Moselle’s ability to work with non-actors shines through.
19. Amma Asante
Asante is another woman who’s been in the film and television industry for a while, having worked as a child actor on Grange Hill in the late eighties. She’s steadily becoming known for her directing work, having won the Most Promising Newcomer BAFTA in 2015 for her film A Way of Life. I’m still in the process of discovering Asante’s work myself, but I have watched and can recommend her period drama Belle. Another popular and renowned film of hers is A United Kingdom.
20. Olivia Wilde
Better known as an actor, Olivia Wilde released her debut feature film, Booksmart (pictured above), last year – and she immediately proved her skills as a director. It won the Best First Feature award at the Film Independent Spirit Awards, and I wish it had been greater acknowledged at other awards ceremonies. With Booksmart, Wilde showed us that she really understands the language of cinema, taking classic teen comedy tropes but showing them through clever set pieces, dream scenes, unique situations and lovable, affectionate characters. I look forward to seeing what she does next.
21. Cathy Yan
Our second superhero movie director on this list, Cathy Yan is best known for having just made Birds of Prey (above) – only her second directorial feature film. I adored Birds of Prey, and I thought it found the perfect balance between showing feminist touches (there’s a great moment where one character has to stop and tie her hair up before a battle scene) and incredibly well choreographed, violent action sequences. There’s a really important article online about how the film managed to avoid the ‘male gaze’ during a scene in which a woman is humiliated and forced to undress. I’ll go into more detail about Birds of Prey (particularly its design elements) at my end-of-year movie review, but for now, I cannot praise Cathy Yan enough, and I’m excited to discover more of her work.
22. Deborah Haywood
Deborah Haywood’s short film Sis was one of the first professional shorts I saw when I left university, and I thought it was excellent – so it seems completely justified for Haywood to have finally directed her first feature, Pin Cushion. Pin Cushion gives a view of the teenage experience which is at once unique and recognisable, magical but brutal. Haywood is also a Midlands-based filmmaker, as am I, which makes her journey all the more inspirational to me. I hope she gets the opportunity to make another film soon.
23. Anna Boden
The third superhero director on this list, and also the only co-director, as Anna Boden shared directing duties (as well as writing duties) on Captain Marvel with Ryan Fleck. However the task of making the film was shared, I feel so grateful that Captain Marvel exists. It portrayed a female superhero who was strong without being overtly sexy, and its message of ‘accepting your emotions makes you more powerful’ is so inspiring. I wish this film had been around when I was growing up! Boden has directed some other films with Ryan Fleck, including It’s Kind of a Funny Story and Sugar, so they’re clearly a strong filmmaking team.
24. Catherine Hardwicke
25. Miranda July
There’s so much to love about Miranda July. She is an actor and dancer as well as an Indie director, and she brings all of those skills together in her films, which sometimes feel more like installation pieces than traditional narrative work. She’s also very humble, honest and funny on her Instagram feed. Perhaps her most well-known film is Me and You and Everyone You Know, but I have personally seen and can recommend The Future, a film which cleverly shows the split perspectives from a man and a woman as they go through a break-up.
26. Autumn De’Wilde
As with Floria Sigismondi, Autumn De'Wilde has proven herself time and time again as an incredible music video director (check out her amazing work for Florence and the Machine), but Emma (pictured above), her adaptation of the Jane Austen classic, is her first feature film. There’s a great article about how, at aged 49, she finally won the pitch to make the film, after years of heartbreak and near misses. She’s an incredibly visceral director with a rock and roll soul, and I have tickets to see Emma this evening (providing I can shift the illness that’s plagued me all weekend), which is the perfect way to celebrate International Women’s Day.
So, in one sitting, I have nearly tripled my list from the last time I attempted this challenge. There’s also so many other directors I haven’t included because I don’t know their work well enough to discuss, such as Alice Guy Blache (the first known female director), Sam Taylor-Johnson, Josephine Decker, Celine Sciamma, Alice Lowe, Dee Rees, Joanna Hogg, Angelina Jolie, Lina Wuertmuller (first female director nominated for an OSCAR), Suzann Pitt, Elizabeth Banks, Jennifer Kent, Melina Matsoukas, Alma Har’el, Lorene Scafaria, Drew Barrymore, Waad Al-Kateab, Harry Wootliff and Ana Lily Amirpour. (I’m sure there are many more that I haven’t named, so if you have someone to recommend to me, please get in touch!)
This list also hasn't named all the brilliant short and web series directors I know personally, such as Kate Madison, Kel Webster, Laura Roe, Kelly Holmes, Jess O’Brien, Emmaalouise Smith, Michelle Bailey, Sam Moore, Sophie Johnson-Hill and Rebekah Fortune (who has also made a feature film, Just Charlie, which I recommend you all watch). Then there's the wonderful directors I know through other people, such as Aurora Fearnley, Maud Forget, Luna Carmoon, Kate Herron, Amy Coop... the list goes on. I’m also lucky enough to consider myself a female director among these amazing peers, and if any of you want to check out my work, you can do so here.
All of the women on my list come from different countries and different walks of life – and they all have a variety of stories which are worth telling. A mixture of ‘feminine’ stories and ones which are more stereotypically ‘masculine’; some indie films, some Hollywood blockbusters, a couple of experimental pieces, and even films you can take your Mum to! So there’s no reason not to find and watch a piece of work that was directed by a woman.
The length of my list (and the size of this blog post) compared to five years ago also gives me hope for the future. It feels like we’re approaching the time when there will be too many female directors to name, the same as men. It'll be such a common occurrence that we won’t need to identify and label their work as ‘directed by a woman’ anymore. I don’t even feel the need to make this list again. There’s plenty of them out there, working hard to tell their stories – now we just need to see their work integrated seamlessly into the film industry. If you want to make that happen, all you need to do is seek out the work of a female filmmaker, and wherever possible, watch it in your local cinema.