celebrating the new female voices in cinema

On International Women’s Day, we look to the women shattering the film industry’s glass ceiling.

by Colin Crummy
08 March 2016, 4:12pm

The female gaze is not a mirror image of the male gaze; it is not the objectification of men on screen. Very few female directed films go down a route so obvious. So, if not that, what is the female gaze about? In a word: presence. The subject matter, the themes, and the characters on screen do not necessarily have to be entirely about women or for women, but it is the fact they are made by women that's the game changer. As Selma director Ava DuVernay has said of women in cinema: "Our presence is a political statement. When a woman makes a film, that is a radical act in itself." To celebrate the power of a female perspective in film, here's just some of the many women behind the camera offering a different view.

Haifaa Al-Mansour

On first pass, the story of a young girl who wants to buy a green bicycle to race against her friend doesn't sound like a particularly radical premise. Except that the setting is Saudi Arabia, where as a female, she's forbidden to do so. But Haifaa Al-Mansour's Wadjda is a lesson in the gently-does-it school of political persuasion. The director created a film that addresses both local traditions and Western stereotypes, and made in a way that inspires everyone to listen. The first film in Saudi Arabia to be directed by a woman, Al-Mansour told the Telegraph: "I wanted to have a voice, and I wanted to say something." With Wadjda, mission accomplished.

Ava DuVernay

Ava DuVernay's accolades speak volumes about the kind of glass ceilings she's had to break through. She was the first African American woman to win the directing prize at Sundance for her Compton-set film about life for the wives of young black men in incarceration, Middle of Nowhere. Her black emancipation drama Selma made DuVernay the first African American female director to be nominated for a Golden Globe and Oscar (the latter where the film was up for Best Picture). Next up, a Hurricane Katrina drama starring David Oyelowo. Prepare for more glass shattering.

Claire Denis

Claire Denis is one of France's leading cinematic lights and a woman unafraid of tackling a difficult subject. Her films have riffed on race, murder and incest since her 1998 debut Chocolat. But it's her next film -- an English language debut that she's writing with Zadie Smith, High Life -- that suggests Denis's canon of work is far from passing into the familiar. Keep your eyes peeled for the forthcoming project, starring Robert Pattinson and Mia Goth. 

Andrea Arnold

British director Andrea Arnold began her film career with Red Road, a film that turned the lens firmly on men, as her female protagonist monitored the comings and goings of a man she had a past with from her job in Glaswegian CCTV control room. Arnold coaxed an electrifying performance from first time actress Katie Jarvis in Fish Tank, where the gaze was most certainly from an underprivileged teenage girl's perspective. She has recently directed episodes of Transparent. Next up is American Honey, starring Shia LaBeouf.

Carol Morley

In Dreams of a Life -- Carol Morley's acclaimed docu-drama -- a woman's body lies undiscovered for three years in her North London flat. The film is inspired by a real life story that the director thought needed some questions -- specifically about her relationships with men -- to be asked of. In The Falling, a drama about an outbreak of hysteria at an all girls school, the female body is going through changes that have a devastating psychological effect. Each time Morley asks us to look again at the story afresh from a female perspective.

Jill Soloway

Jill Soloway won Best Director at Sundance 2013 for her feature Afternoon Delights, but she has spent more of her career writing and directing for the small screen, first on Six Feet Under and currently on her own, award-winning creation Transparent. That said, her concerns can in no way be called small.Transparent's second season charts the complicated lives of an L.A. family after its father comes out as trans, pushing buttons about gender and identity in ways that were confrontational to all comers.

Lena Dunham

It is easy, given Dunham's ubiquity, to forget just what a singular force for presenting the female perspective on screen she is. In Girls, she broke taboo after taboo about the female body, sex, and politics and was both gracious and open when taken up for the show's lack of racial representation. She's said the next series of Girls will be the last; what she does next is bound to be enveloping-pushing.

Deniz Gamze Ergüven

In Mustang, Deniz Gamze Ergüven's Oscar nominated debut, a family of five Turkish girls are subject to small town rumors over an innocent episode with local boys in the sea. Their uncle and grandmother, reeling from the scandal, keep the girls housebound. The sisters become prisoners in their own home who will only be let out when marriages are arranged for them. This Oscar-nominated film is the director's first and beneath its beautifully shot scenes of sisterhood lies a fiery agenda.

Céline Sciamma

The sexual awakenings of three 15-year-old Parisian girls. A 10-year-old transgender child comes out in their new neighborhood. Four African French teenage girls tough it out in the banlieues. Given the subject matter of Céline Sciamma's Water Lilies, Tomboy and Girlhood, the French director is very much an obvious choice to include, but it's the fact that she delivers on those narrative promises with such style that really marks her out as a filmmaker.

Kelly Reichardt

Kelly Reichardt is one of the most exciting independent filmmakers on the U.S. scene right now, but don't take our word for it. Hear out Kristen Stewart, one of a number of A-list actors who has sought to work with Reichardt. "I love her movies," Stewart told Variety, "I think she focuses on things that people don't focus on in film." In Certain Women -- Reichardt's latest which stars Stewart, Michelle Williams and Laura Dern -- three women's lives obliquely intersect in quiet, ruminative ways. What is fascinating about the work is its extraordinary staying power; Reichardt has a way to make a story keep a hold of you long after the credits have rolled.


Continue to explore our International Women's Day content by following Molly Bair and Natalie Westling on a great American road trip to discover what it means to be an American woman in 2016.


Text Colin Crummy

female directors
international women's day