Women in Film: Decades of Work Overlooked 

Despite more recent recognition, women are still very much underrepresented in film. JCU Professor Phillips discusses the issue within the context of his class, “Women in Film.” 

Course Spotlight

Written by Julissa Castro-Ruiz / Matthew staff || Edited by Sara Segat

On February 8th, the Academy Awards announced the nominees for the 94th edition of the Oscars. Director Jane Campion made history by being the first female filmmaker to be nominated twice for Best Director at the Oscars. While, for some, this may be exciting and promising news, it puts into perspective the long history of neglect female filmmakers have faced over the decades – an issue that’s slowly being mended through new policies for inclusion that promise new opportunities for underrepresented groups. 

I interviewed JCU Professor Kwame Phillips to discuss his class Women in Film, his thoughts about female filmmakers, and some movie recommendations to commemorate the long trajectory of women in film with movies made by women. 

Jane Campion has become the first female to be twice nominated for Best Director in the 94th-year-old history of the Oscars. What does this mean for female filmmakers trying to get their work recognized and held at the same standard as men? 

The Oscars are in essence, a kind of validation in the industry, but I don’t think we should measure a filmmaker’s success solely by the success of a film in general, or just by the Oscars. During the early stages of the pandemic, I watched every single best picture winner, and more than a few were terrible. It is not as if the Oscars have always gotten it right. So even though it’s a prestigious award it is not the only scale of what a good or bad film is. Historically it has been more challenging for women to gain recognition in the industry, but it hasn’t stopped them from making and creating great films. Our duty as consumers is to seek out different kinds of movies and voices, and distribution spaces must assist in doing that. 

Regarding your class Women in Film, what has been the shift, if there has been a shift, in female filmmakers back in the twentieth century to the twenty-first century? What has changed? 

I don’t know that there has been a shift necessarily in them as women; there has been a shift based on the technology where you can do much more. People often attribute some innovations in terms of filmmaking to men, but if you look at female filmmakers throughout history, they have been doing it since the very beginning. It’s just that these names tend to get lost to history because we tend to follow the men, but it doesn’t mean they didn’t exist before. So, what I will say about how female filmmakers have changed over the years is that women filmmakers are often responding to the lack of representation on the screen and behind the camera and the depiction of women that you see historically in the industry. 

In the present, you can find more easily films by female filmmakers. I caution people from assuming that these kinds of films haven’t been made before. One of the things we spoke about in the class is that before there was a production code in Hollywood, there wasn’t a lot of restriction in a film’s content. So, a part of the reason why I teach the course is to reopen the pathway to that kind of knowledge and history to show that the idea of telling particular types of women’s stories did not just start happening in the last ten years. People have been trying to tell these stories across the world from the beginning and have faced restrictions, experienced pushback against those stories, ostracization because of those stories. There have been different ways these stories have been fought against, but those stories have been told, and those stories exist, and those films are out there. One of the reasons the department teaches courses like these is because we want to give students that knowledge base so that they can then start making informed decisions about the kinds of things that they want to consume and can also pass on that knowledge to other people. Our job as instructors is to present the history, the context, and knowledge base so that you can come out of the class knowing that it exists and why it is essential.  

These women filmmakers that have gone down in history tend to be from the United States or Europe, but there have also been women filmmakers in other parts of the world. How can we get women from different communities more exposure? How can we motivate the viewers to watch films from other parts of the world? 

That must start in the spaces where topics like this are being discussed. In my class and the department, we have committed to showing a variety of stories from all over the world and have a variety of levels represented in the courses. I also teach Introduction to Cinema which is just the elementary intro class, and every time I teach Introduction to Cinema, I choose not to teach the classics. There are ways in which you can teach it in terms of cinema and go with the usual Hitchcock, Citizen Kane, Hollywood blockbuster films from Spielberg or Tarantino. Each time I teach, I have a different theme in terms of cinema, so last semester, when I taught film, I only used Asian films. Each week you are learning another aspect of filmmaking and cinema language, but you can use any film to do that.   

Being exposed to different kinds of filmmaking can be daunting for some people, especially now with how the streaming platforms are set up. The streaming platforms will have ten recommendations, making you settle for not looking for different kinds of films. I’m trying to open people’s minds up a bit to see other things because, when I was in college, that’s what was done for me, and what attracted me to film was seeing things that I’ve never seen before. You never know what’s going to click for a student. So, it’s a matter of just saying, well, we’re going to try this and try that. To make you understand what the filmmaker was trying to do, you come out of this space with more knowledge and hopefully more appetite for seeing other kinds of things. Still, it is important to me, especially with students from different ethnicities and nationalities, that they feel identified and see something that will resonate with them and make them feel like they belong in this space as much as everyone else.   

Any advice for women filmmakers that are trying to be heard, be seen, and get their stories out there? 

Make stuff, complete stuff. I think you can never underestimate the significance of finishing a product. That, more than anything, is what gets some people ahead of other people. Finished garbage is better than good unfinished stuff, because unfinished good things you can’t do anything with; finished garbage you can show it, because it’s finished. Follow through on your ideas, try and finish up what you’re doing. Get yourself a group that can give you critical feedback on your work. Talk to somebody else to see how your work is translated, and then from there, it’s just a matter of deciding what kind of filmmaker you want to be. What type of industry are you trying to go into? Start talking to people, get your work out there, and figure out what your voice is. You must figure out who you are and what your style is. Something that we spoke about last week in class is not getting bogged down into a very narrow definition of what female filmmaking should look like. There is an evident desire to combat the decades of male gaze nonsense, but then I think it’s maybe not just as dangerous, but it is still limiting to create a very narrow version of women. 

The definition of true freedom is the freedom to create different kinds of stories. A weak person, the evil person, the terrible person, the vulnerable person, those stories you need to feel free to create. Recognize those stories as being as valuable to be told. 

Films by women recommended by Professor Phillips 

Suspense(Lois Weber, 1913) 

A woman home alone, a break-in, a husband rushing home to save her. If for nothing else, this shows that women have been making films since Cinema began, that great cinematography existed in the early 1900s, and that simple suspense narratives are as resonant today as they were over 100 years ago. 

Cléo from 5 to 7  (Agnes Varda, 1962) 

One woman’s life in real-time in 90 minutes. Structurally beautiful and perfectly composed. Varda is a master.  

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles  (Chantal Akerman, 1975) 

Much is made about the impatience of modern audiences. This film, at a deliberately paced 201 minutes, is in many ways the ultimate test of that. Butto truly stress the tedium and impact of routine, and its connection to gender, you need an appreciation of time, and Akerman is an expert in this kind of experimentation.  

Salaam Bombay  (Mira Nair, 1988) 

A number of films have been made about child poverty in Mumbai, some romanticized, some offering happy resolutions. Nair opts for realism and unsentimentality, but not without heart, in this film about a boy trying to save money to go home. 

Daughters of the Dust  (Julie Dash, 1991) 

I’ll just copy what I said on Instagram: “I show Daughters of the Dust every time I teach ‘Women in Film’ because I see it as vital for rewiring how cinematic language is used to represent women on the screen. [It’s the] ultimate anti-male gaze palette cleanser.”  

The Piano  (Jane Campion, 1993) 

Anna Paquin was 11 years old when she won a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her portrayal of a mute woman who moves to remote New Zealand for an arranged marriage. As with all Jane Campion films, the focus is uncompromisingly on women, beautifully shot, wholly naturalistic, unflinchingly somber, and morally complicated.  

American Psycho  (Mary Harron, 2000) 

The darkest of dark satirical comedies about the psychopathology of toxic masculinity. As disturbing as it is funny. 

Love and Basketball  (Gina Prince-Bythewood, 2000) 

What it is about is literally in the title. Smart narrative structure. Smart romantic comedy. Genre done well.  

City of God  (Kàtia Lund, with Fernando Meirelles, 2002) 

Brazilian crime drama about two friends moving in opposite directions in life. Known for its kinetic editing, it is less known for being co-directed by Kàtia Lund (who was then also omitted when the film was nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards). 

Tomboy  (Céline Sciamma, 2011) 

Sciamma is my favorite director right now and I’d freely recommend any film she has made. Tomboy is a touching, beautifully done story about a gender non-conforming child figuring out where they belong in the world.  

The Babadook  (Jennifer Kent, 2014) 

Of the recent wave of socially conscious horror films that have been released, The Babadook, about a lonely widow and her challenging son, is my favorite. Genre through gender in a really sophisticated way.  

The Fits  (Anna Rose Holmer, 2015) 

A poetic and mysterious coming-of-age story. It’s hard to describe this film. It’s dreamy and purposeful and is a film I always recommend when someone asks for a film directed by a woman.  

I am not a Witch  (Rungano Nyoni, 2017) 

A film about a child that is banished to a traveling witch camp, that is a mixture of magical realism and satire that is grounded in an exploration of gender and religion.