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‘Women Make Film’: A Parallel History of the Movies, Told by Female Filmmakers

How TCM’s showcase around a docuseries charting the evolution of film — as seen solely through female-directed movies — changes our conversation about the art form

A still from the first episode of the 14-part docuseries 'Women Make Film.'

Turner Classic Movies

There’s an accepted story we tell ourselves about the history of the movies, which goes something like this: Technological inventions in the late 1800s lead to a new type of mass entertainment and a burgeoning art form in the early part of the 20th century. Though the epicenter and main exporter of moviemaking is earmarked by many to be Hollywood, USA, this “moving pictures” phenomenon spreads far and wide outside of America’s borders — not just in France (who’ve been making films since the very beginning and is considered the birthplace of cinema) and Italy (whose feature-length historical epics predate The Birth of a Nation by several years), but throughout Europe, Asia and beyond. Stars are born; so are genres. Studios are formed, the silent era gives way to the “talkies,” an entire visual vocabulary is crafted and added to over the years. The concept of the director as auteur goes from crackpot cinephile theory to de facto film-nerd cult fodder. It is a club conspicuously, and almost exclusively reserved for men.

Except there’s a parallel history that peeks between the cracks of the official story, one that suggests a slightly different and somewhat less blinkered version of events. In this alternate take, the movies still go from being a disreputable distraction to an art form, a multi-million-dollar business and a cultural pacesetter. The language it uses to express emotions and ideas — the close-up, the tracking shot, the elevation of performers to icons, the numerous ways of telling a story through sound and vision — is still there. The folks yelling “action” and “cut” are still stationed behind the cameras. Except this time, female filmmakers play a key role. They may not be the norm, numbers-wise, but they aren’t one-off novelties either. In fact, there are hundreds of them, from 44 countries and six continents, who have contributed to the baby steps and long-legged forward strides that medium has taken over 12 decades. They have, in several cases, made masterpieces every bit the equal as the ones made by their male counterparts that we loudly lionize today.

But don’t just take our word for it. Seeing is believing. And Mark Cousins has 14 hours worth of proof.

An expansive look at the evolution of film as seen solely through the work of female directors, Cousins’ Women Make Film is a multipart docuseries divided into 40 chapters, with topics ranging from the formal (“Introduction of Character,” “Framing,” “Sci-Fi”) to the philosophical (“The Meaning of Life”). It pulls from the vast archive of world cinema, interspersing clips from both well-known filmmakers and names that may draw quizzical looks from even the most hardcore fanatics; something by Ava DuVernay, the Wachowskis, Kathryn Bigelow or Sofia Coppola may brush up against a snippet from Norway’s Edith Carlmar, Iran’s Forugh Farrokhzad or Bulgaria’s Binka Zhelyazkova. And while you won’t get a chronological breakdown of the milestone moments and broken glass ceilings that have dotted the path of female filmmakers from Alice Guy-Blaché to Beyoncé, you will get something equally invaluable: a chance to let their work speak for itself. “The film industry is a boys’ club,” says Tilda Swinton, the doc’s executive producer and one of several narrators, at the outset. “Film history is sexist by omission.” This series is a direct challenge to that second notion. It’s kept all of the receipts and presents each of them to viewers, one hour-long chunk at a time.

This is where TCM comes in. In honor of Women Make Film getting its U.S. TV premiere starting September 1st, the cable network is not only running individual episodes for the next 14 Tuesdays in a row — it’s also supplementing them with a slew of the featured films (including some genuine rarities) around each of the broadcasts. Viewers will actually have a chance to dig into the doc’s century-plus of female artistry, courtesy of a wide-ranging, 100-movie sampler platter. “It changes the conversation about film history on such a massive scale,” says Jacqueline Stewart, one of TCM’s hosts who’s introducing the series. “It forces us to ask why we’ve under-appreciated so many of these pioneers and visionaries for so long.”

This was the exact question, it seems, that was haunting Cousins when he first started to envision the project. A Scottish critic, writer and documentarian, he’s long specialized in extending the history of the movies by elevating marginalized filmmakers and long-neglected regional movements. (See: his miniseries The Story of Film, based on his 2004 book of the same name.) It was in the late 1990s, around the time he was working on a collection of the greatest moments in documentaries, that it occurred to him that there was only a single female name listed among the entries’ creators. Surely there were a lot more women involved in nonfiction filmmaking, right? After some research, Cousins turned up a number of key women who’d been casually left out of the history books. In fact, the more he began to go down world-cinema wormholes, the more previously unrecognizable female names kept popping up. Their work wasn’t tied to one era, style or geographical location. The common thread was simply their gender — and the extraordinary quality of their output. So why weren’t these artists considered canon-worthy? He began keeping a list in his head every time he came across an undiscovered woman director. It kept growing and growing.

“I was kind of waiting for somebody else to do it,” Cousins admits, speaking over Zoom from his flat in Edinburgh. “I thought, ‘Well, it seems like it should really be a woman telling this story.’ But it started to feel like there was this pressure cooker in my head that was going to explode. I was getting angry that whenever the topic came up, because you’d just hear the same 10 or 12 names. And while those filmmakers were indeed great, it’s not just 10 or 12 women who’ve made movies — it’s literally hundreds, from all over the world!

“What I knew I,” he continues, “was that I didn’t want to make something about the industry, because it’s a given that the industry has been traditionally bad about the way it’s handled the issue. I didn’t want to make it about ‘the female gaze’ — you know, ‘is this sex scene different because a woman made it?’ Woman make all kinds of films, in all kinds of styles and manners, so it’s impossible to impose that kind of narrow parameter. And I didn’t want to make it about how women have been left out of the picture. You risk turning the whole thing into a victim narrative, even if your intentions are good; they become defined by their left-outed-ness. I wanted to define them by what I found so interesting about them, which was the filmmaking itself.”

So around 2014, Cousins began jotting down ideas around potential chapter headings and themes — at one point, he pulls out a sheet of paper during the Zoom call, displaying a haphazard list of scrawled words and phrases; it’s simply one of many he used during the production process — and tracking down films he wanted to mine for clips. He reached out to his friend Tilda Swinton, who came on board as a producer (she was also the one, Cousins admits, who suggested Women Make Film as the title). He began writing the script for the voiceover portions, as he had for his previous documentaries, but he knew he wanted to female voices leading the proceedings. In addition to Swinton, Cousins approached Thandie Newton, Debra Winger, Kerry Fox and several female filmmakers to act as onscreen guides to what he called “a new road movie through cinema.” After he managed to record Jane Fonda reading narration for the third and fourth episodes, he told her was heading to a bar to drink a celebratory martini because he was so giddy over finally getting to work with her. Oh, can I come along? she then asked. “She was ready to go until an assistant reminded her she had some other appointments that day,” Cousins says, laughing. “But I’ve seen her a few times since then. She’s a force of nature.”

He eventually edited a slightly shorter cut, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2018; the longer 14-hour version of Women Make Film debuted at the Toronto Film Festival in 2019. Charles Tabesh, a friend of Cousins and a programmer for TCM, began reaching out and securing copies of 100 films to help showcase the series’ months-long run. (Asked if he had a hand in the programming, the filmmaker starts chuckling. “They have a crack team of professionals there, they don’t need me!” he jokes.) And while Cousins doesn’t view the doc or the run of movies accompanying it as a corrective — “it sounds like a wrap on the knuckles when you put it that way,” he says — the impact of retelling the history of movies solely through the work of women behind the camera is not lost on the program’s presenters.

“There have been so many misnomers when it comes to female directors, which has a direct effect on them getting hired,” says Alicia Malone, who’s co-hosting the programming alongside Stewart. “There have been studies where people talk about filmmakers, it’s as ‘dictators’ or  ‘generals of an army,’ exhibiting all these masculine traits — and anyone who doesn’t have those traits isn’t invited to the party. What I love about the series is that tells you, No women have been a huge part of this party since the silent era. It’s called Women Make Film…full stop. No question mark. No exclamation point. No debate or explanation. And not only that, but women have always made different kinds of film, not just the soft, intimate movies people associated with female filmmakers. In terms of craft and creativity, they can do anything. They have done everything.”

“You know, I love Casablanca,” Cousins says. “I love The Godfather. I love Citizen Kane, Vertigo, Preston Sturges, Sam Fuller, Howard Hawks. But the conversation we have around the great movies, and the great moviemakers — it’s incomplete if you’re not talking about Claire Denis, or Chantal Akerman, or Kinuyo Tanaka as well. We have to acknowledge all of the shoulders that we’re standing on. But so many people don’t even know who they’re leaving out, or what they’re missing. That’s why what TCM is doing is exciting to me. I get to share everything that I’ve discovered with viewers now. We can finally start to have that conversation once and for all.”

From Rolling Stone US