I mostly grew up watching action and drama films that were rampantly available in VCR and Cassettes in my school days. We could rent it at just Rs. 10-15 apiece, so it wasn’t difficult to choose from variety of commercial cinema. The video showroom named ‘B.I.L.L.B.O.A.R.D’ was located just about 200 meters from my home. The way to the showroom passed through the busy street with small portable shops laying across the both sides. The crowd at the street then was as large as it is now, but there were fewer vehicles back then.
My yore was basically shaped by seeing the highly fictitious action films of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, and sometimes melodramatic and cheesy romantic Hindi films. Amidst this, there were less likely chances of encountering a movie with sensible content. It wasn’t until I watched Deepa Mehta’s ‘The Earth’ and Mira Nair’s ‘Kama Sutra’ (Adult rated filmed weren’t completely banned from the TV back then) that I realized I could see a film from female’s perspective. It was an artistic and thoughtful experience and it entirely shaped my future course of film-viewing. I delved into Art-house cinema and devoured works made by some of the greatest and sensible filmmakers, ranging from; Shyam Benegal, Satyajit Ray, Bimal Roy, Mani Ratnam, Deepa Mehta and Aparna Sen.
Compared to the films made by men in the last 100 years, female films are only handful. It took a long road for some of the most quintessential female filmmakers to pave their way and challenge the prevailing male hierarchy in cinema. Although only handful, their work stands out against the many films made by their male counterparts,
Avant-garde and Feminism in Cinema
Although Alice Guy-Blanché, who made La Feé aux Choux in 1896, became the first women to ever make a film, it took another 25 years before any other woman could do the same. The new wave in Cinema was brought by the Avant-garde movement in Arts, Literature and Music. It gave birth to some of the most important female filmmakers that we know today. They came to be the one to built a stronghold for the equally capable female filmmakers to come.
World War I left an undying impact on the arts and culture of Europe. The political and social strife gave birth to new form of movement, better known as Avant-garde. The upheaval in the European society birthed many great creators and artists, including some of the pioneer women-centered filmmakers.
Germaine Dulac, who started her career as a writer in the feminist magazine and impressionist movies, and Maya Dereen, one of the Experimental filmmakers and the advocate of Avant-garde cinema, became the major influence in film-making. Their work challenged the existing mainstream film culture and introduced social and political edge in judging cinema.
The only other person at that time experimenting with his film/genre was Charlie Chaplin, and he was quite successful doing it.
The Second Wave feminism in 1960s brought the grave issues faced by women into cinema. The films started making impact by delivering message to the audience and for advocating the change in justice, social and commercial states of the nation. The movement started in America and lasted for roughly two decades.
The cinema during second wave feminism touched the taboo subject of female sexuality; and Lesbianism found its way into mainstream films.
Barbara Hammer, the American feminist filmmaker, was one of the pioneers in lesbian films whose career spanned for over 40 years. She dealt with the controversial titles of lesbianism, menstruation and female orgasm.
A still from Nitrate Kisses
Mädchen in Uniform
Female Filmmakers in the Mainstream
The modern cinema that we see today birthed from the social upheaval brought by former filmmakers. People started to accept the introduction of sensitive contents in films. Today, there are many renowned female filmmakers and artists who have succeeded in bringing the finest and unique films into the mainstream.
Kathryn Bigelow, Patty Jenkins, Ava Duvernay, Dee Rees, Deepa Mehta, Mira Nair, Mika Nishikawa, Agnes Varda and Jane Campion are few of the flag-bearers of modern cinema. Their works are popularly known for being experimental and for tackling social issues mostly faced by women, LGBTs and racial minorities. They made films with male lead presented through female’s perspective. These ideas were less or none exploited by the male filmmakers before.
Kathryn Bigelow, an American filmmaker and writer, is the first female director to receive the Academy Award for Best Director. She made couple of films before getting a big break through The Hurt Locker (2008). The film received universal acclaim and landed her first Academy Award win, beating James Cameroon’s highest grossing movie of all time ‘Avatar’. Her other works include, Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and Detroit (2017), which are highly acclaimed by the critics.
Patty Jenkins, an American film director and screenwriter, made her first feature-length debut with the highly acclaimed Monster (2003). The Academy award nominated film was based on the life of an infamous serial killer/prostitute who killed 6 men in the late 1980s and early 1990s. (Charlize Theron went to win Academy award along with many other accolades for her role in the movie.) Patty was presented with multiple awards and recognition for the same. Her recent and most overwhelming project came in 2017 as ‘Wonder Woman’, a Superhero movie. The film is the highly discussed subject regarding the appearance and representation of females in superhero genre and female power in general. The film was highly praised by critics and global audience. Patty is equally praised for tackling the prevalent sexism and pay-gap in Hollywood.
Ava Duvernay and Dee Rees are both African-American filmmakers and screenwriters. Ava did her double Major in BA English Literature and African-American studies. She humbly started her career filming documentaries and short movies. Selma (2014) based on the short life event of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr became her highest acclaimed film. The film went to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, making her the first African-American women to have her film in the nominee’s circle. Dee Rees found critical success with Pariah, Bessie and Mudbound.
Zero Dark Thirty
Charlize Theron in Monster
Their works advocate rights for African-American community, marginalized group and women. They with few others have been credited for starting the Black film renaissance.
Jane Campion is a New Zealander filmmaker and screenwriter. She is one of the five females ever to be nominated for Academy Awards for Best Director. She also won Palm d’Or, the only female recipient so far. Known to be the most unconventional filmmaker, she started her career with short films. She made her debut in feature-length film with Sweetie (1989). Her best work so far is known to be The Piano (1993), a film based on the life of a mute pianist and her daughter.
She unveiled female sexuality in her films. The eccentric female roles were rarely seen before and were mostly pushed away from the award circles. Her 4 major Oscar category wins came as a surprise to many.
Deepa Mehta and Mira Nair, Indo-Canadian and Indo-American filmmakers respectively, are equally praised for their unique work and taste. Deepa made Elements Trilogy; Fire (1996), Earth (1998) and Water (2005), her most famous work showcasing the issues of homosexuality, racial conflict, partition and war, widowhood and prostitution in the Indian subcontinent.
Mira Nair is known for her quintessential Indo-American films. Few of her famous works include; Monsoon Wedding (2001), The Namesake (2006), Kama Sutra (1996), Salaam Bombay (1988) and Queen of Katwe (2016).
A still from Fire (1996)
Filmmaker Deepa Mehta
A still from Kamasutra
Their crafts are known for bringing rich flavor and issues of Indian subcontinent into world cinema. They have been highly regarded by critics and audience alike, however, they have equally been shunned by certain groups for showcasing taboo and controversial subjects endemic to India.
The use of sensible content, reference to dark history, subjects of women, LGBTs and oppressed citizens, and aesthetically appealing stories help them in making their films the unique work of art.
Nonchalant Appearance of Nepali Female Filmmakers
In Nepal, we have hardly handful of female filmmakers. The first feature film ever directed by a women was Prem Yuddha in 2005. Since then, only few projects have ever been handled by other female directors. It is mostly because the entry of female filmmakers is constrained due to the prevalent male hierarchy in the cinema, practical problems of finding a benefactor, creating a niche film or assembling sensible audience.
On the other hand, the theater in Nepal is well led by female playmakers. The budding interest of the audience in theatrical plays lately and highly ethical work space has given an advantage to female artists. They have managed to create assertive plays on social, political and racial issues. The female theater artists are on the rise for the same reason. However, the theater based audience is way lesser compared to the cinemagoers, hence, the plays made by and with women remains limited to only a small number of people.