The Female Gaze: Mark Cousins on Women Make Film

With his epic 14-hour documentary Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema, Mark Cousins offers a rapturous celebration of women filmmakers

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 03 Mar 2020
  • Women Make Film

Women make films. As statements go, this one seems pretty irrefutable. Yet every year, festival programmers and award bodies defend the paucity of women-directed films in their competition lineups or award nominations by trying to claim that women directors simply do not exist. The most recent peddler of this blatant porky was Marc Samuelson, the chair of BAFTA’s film committee, who suggested that the reason no women were nominated in the Best Director category this year was that the work just wasn't out there. “BAFTA voters can only vote for the films that are put in front of them,” he said. We presume the award screeners for Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell and Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers – to name just three examples of excellent films directed by women in 2019 – got lost in the post.

Mark Cousins' epic Women Make Film is a perfect antidote to this perennial form of gaslighting. Women Make Film not only confirms that yes, women make films, but also these films are some of the most remarkable in all of cinema. “If you accept the idea that there aren't enough women making films, which is absolutely true, then there's a danger of thinking that there's never been enough," Cousins says when we visit his book-lined office in his Edinburgh flat. “It's sort of true, but we have to be really careful of not having blind spots.”

Cousins has made a career out of eliminating blind spots; for three decades he’s been shining a light in corners of world cinema that even hardened cinephiles haven’t bothered to look. He’s made films on Iranian cinema and children’s films from across the globe. With his ambitious The Story of Film: An Odyssey, he told a passionate, idiosyncratic and staggeringly comprehensive history of the moving image, taking in films from practically every country with a filmmaking scene. His endless enthusiasm for seeking out cinema both new and old is infectious. “There used to be an old phrase: the inquiring mind,” he says. “We have to look over our shoulders into the past and think, 'Are we sure that we're not ignoring great filmmakers?'

"And we are ignoring great filmmakers – loads and loads of them.”

The scale of Women Make Film makes this last point abundantly clear. Spanning 14 hours, split into five parts and 40 chapters, it’s been forensically researched and takes in films by over 180 women filmmakers from across the globe. The hugeness of the undertaking is in stark contrast to the project’s financing. “There was not a penny of funding for this film,” explains Cousins. Counterintuitively, a less ambitious project would have been more likely to receive backing. “If we'd made a 90-minuter or even a three-hour film, I'm sure we could've got funding. But then what that would do is make this history much smaller than it is. So you just have to go for it and say, ‘No, I'm sorry. This is a big thing.’ And it's far bigger than this film – the history of the great female directors is huge, so we at least had to do something on a reasonably big scale.”

Unlike The Story of Film, Women Make Film is not a chronological trip through the last 13 decades of movie-making. Instead, we’re on a quixotic road movie with seven charismatic actresses as our guides, beginning with Cousins’ regular collaborator Tilda Swinton in Part 1 and closing with Debra Winger in Part 6. In between, you’ll find Jane Fonda, Thandie Newton, Adjoa Andoh, Sharmila Tagore and Kerry Fox.

The film follows these international stars as they hit the open road, taking it in turn to explore scenes from films directed by women that demonstrate different aspects of filmmaking. Swinton, Fonda et al’s narrations are essentially blocks of textual analysis. The subjects they muse on range from filmmaking techniques (tracking shots, editing, POV) to movie genres (comedy, horror, sci-fi) to the representation on screen of subjects like work, sex and religion.

Cousins had a couple of basic questions in mind when writing the film and choosing the scenes to be discussed: What is great cinema? And what’s been buried or lost? There was one question that was verboten, however. “Never, never, never is this film asking, 'How do women make films?' Or 'how are they different from men?'” Cousins tells me. “I respect people who want to ask those questions. I respect people who have that polar view, but I don't have that, and the collaborators on this film certainly don't. Think of Tilda Swinton and the roles she’s played; think of Debra Winger, who was one of the most boyish girls in cinema. None of these people really think that women will make an incredibly different type of cinema.”

Cousins argues that generalising about men and women, whether in the movie world or in real life, can lead to pigeonholing. “I've met loads of people who haven't seen many films directed by women, who say things like, ‘Women make films about relationships,’ or ‘Women make films about childhood,’ or ‘Women make films with more empathy.’ The more you watch, the less you want to generalise, and I think that's a good thing.”

Despite the generous running time, there’s a pleasing urgency to Women Make Film; it vibrates with the feeling that something needs to change about the film industry – and fast. Cousins compares this thirst for women filmmakers to be fully recognised and celebrated to young people’s attitude to the climate crisis. “It feels like a global movement,” he says of the activists demanding parity between male and female filmmakers. “There is a sense in this generation of 'enough already'. Just because men have dominated the cinema frame, it doesn't mean that that's the nature of the frame at all.”

This urgency is reflected in the enthusiasm with which Women Make Film has been received. “This has sold far better than anything I've ever done,” says Cousins, “including The Story of Film. So it's going all around the world, including China and India.” Disappointingly, there is one territory that Women Make Film has failed to crack: here in the UK.

“We're still working on it,” says Cousins of the film's British distribution. "The producers and salespeople have been a bit frustrated. It’s playing in cinemas in Spain at the moment, and then we'll go on TV in France and Germany and all over Europe and further afield. But in the UK it's tricky because the UK is in a very insular place at the moment.” All the more reason to reserve your seats for Women Make Film's screenings over three days at Glasgow Film Festival.

If you do make it to these screenings, we advise bringing a notepad and pen, because you’ll want to rush to Google as soon as the lights go up to find out where you can get hold of films by many of these filmmakers. And of course, this is exactly the response Cousins is hoping for. “The job of this film is to say, 'OK, if you're interested in catching up on the history of films by women, here are 183 filmmakers.' Maybe a third are reasonably well-known, but a lot of them are not at all.”

Cousins' ultimate aim is that these unfamiliar names will find their way on to cinema programmes, festival retrospectives and Blu-ray catalogues. “If in ten years time we're talking about filmmakers like Binka Zhelyazkova or Kira Muratova, that would be the hope. That's where we need to get to, because these are not marginal figures, these are central figures. And so anything to achieve that, it's a means to an end.”

Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema screens at Glasgow Film Festival in five parts
Part 1: Fri 6 Mar, Cineworld, 5.50pm; Part 2: Sat 7 Mar, Cineworld, 1.15pm; Part 3: Sat 7 Mar, Cineworld, 5pm; Part 4: Sun 8 Mar, Cineworld, 12.30pm; Part 5: Sun 8 Mar, Cineworld, 4.15pm