We go to the cinema to see through others’ eyes – to swoon, to laugh, to gasp and to cry – but how often are those eyes male? Well, last year, around 90 per cent of mainstream films were directed by men, and roughly three-quarters of protagonists were male. So, in 2019, we look forward to a new blossoming of women’s voices and viewpoints in film, after a very public awakening and conversation, in the recent form of the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements. While Hollywood scratches its old, white head and gazes at its navel, wondering how to catch up with the exuberant diversity all around, the independent sector has been nimbler, and the results are here now.
There are epic achievements, like Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum, the fleet-footed, heart-shredding tale of a 12-year-old urchin living on his wits on the streets of Beirut. The film looks like a modern documentary, in real jails and slums, with first-time child actors giving performances that leave Oliver Twist in the dust. Labaki, who won the Jury Prize at Cannes, said she was influenced by the classic, The Battle Of Algiers (1966), and it shows. However, there’s also a tenderness to her work, a rich understanding of the human condition, and lifesaving humour: the boy is suing his useless parents for conceiving him in the first place.
Labaki’s was one of three female-directed films out of 21 in competition at Cannes last year. Imagine what might have been had there been more chosen. Imagine what’s missing in the film canon. Although Cannes signed an agreement to aim for 50:50 representation by 2020, the festival’s movement is glacially slow. At Venice, the award-season’s opening juggernaut, only one film in competition was directed by a woman, Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale.
Festivals are the wholesalers for the retail in our cinemas, the testing grounds for independent film, and when they decide to change the line-up, miracles occur. The London Film Festival recently programmed 38 per cent female directors. The Sundance feature competition line-up in 2019 is 53 per cent female, and hopefully many of the outstanding works will come to Sundance London at Picturehouse at the end of May. Time’s Up, which advocates for workplace equality, as well as combatting sexual harassment and bullying, has been part of the 50:50 by 2020 movement, which aims to push festivals into the 21st century.
For Clare Binns, joint managing director at Picturehouse Cinemas, it’s a no-brainer. “It’s always been very clear
from a business point of view that there’s an audience for films that are directed and written by women, and have meaningful and complex roles for women. As someone buying films for the UK, it makes complete sense to look for stories that all audiences want to see, rather than films that are directed to half of the population. I don’t want to miss a trick, and have never understood why the film industry has not woken up to the opportunity.”
Binns got behind Carol Morley’s new film, Out Of Blue, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, at the script stage. The noir, feminist mystery stars Patricia Clarkson as a New Orleans detective with a past so murky she can barely fathom it herself, and gives the genre the shake-up it deserves.
“It’s obvious to me that there is a real appetite for a broader, more diverse range of storytelling, and Picturehouse wants to be front and centre of that,” says Binns, as the cinema group celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.
In terms of female-led gems arriving in UK film, there is no greater joy than watching rising star Jessie Buckley play a Glaswegian country singer in Wild Rose, directed by Tom Harper and written by award-winning television scribe Nicole Taylor. As they say, country music is “three chords and the truth”, and Wild Rose celebrates both – in white cowboy boots and an electronic tag. Plus Maiden is the real-life documentary of sailor Tracy Edwards, who led the first all-female crew on the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race.
If 2019 looks to be an exceptional year for women in film, then there must, of course, be superheroines. Thankfully Hollywood learned, very late, that black and female superheroes like Black Panther and Wonder Woman could top the box office. So coming this March, after 20 male-led Marvel movies, is the franchise’s first gal-in-tights: Captain Marvel, played by Brie Larson. May there be many, many more like her.