Women have always been great storytellers. The word “saga” is also the name of the Nordic goddess of storytelling and poetry, whose moniker we now use to describe a long, leisurely narrative. When it comes to telling stories on film, women have always had their sleeves rolled up. Pioneering director Alice Guy-Blaché made hundreds of silent films in the late 1800s, inspiring a sisterhood of filmmakers such as Mabel Normand, Zora Neale Hurston and Lois Weber.
As in most industries, commercialism has a tendency to fade out the women who engineered its success, and with Hollywood’s big-buck rise came the suppression of females in film. Women’s Work politely reminds us that movie-making isn’t just a man’s game, and that women are as at large now as they were then. The eight-week season shows new films from intriguing new directors, and nods fondly to those who’ve paved the way.
As lauded now as it was in 1993, Jane Campion’s The Piano (30 July) has been turned into an essential watch as it celebrates its 25th anniversary. Its revival is more than a marketing milestone – it’s a dexterous telling of brooding, understated sexuality, and the stifling of expression in young women. Campion became the first woman to win a Palme d’Or and the enchanting drama also won Oscars for Best Screenplay (Campion), Actress (Holly Hunter) and Supporting Actress (Anna Paquin).
Indie empress Desiree Akhavan is living proof of the reverberations you can make after making just one film. 2014’s Appropriate Behaviour, which she wrote, directed, and in which she starred, was Akhavan’s breakout. It showed nuanced representations of bisexual women, and Persian New Yorkers, with wit, humour, and its heart on its sleeve. It provided a promising start for Akhavan’s career, and created a genuine thirst for what she would do next. Starring Chloë Grace Moretz, The Miseducation Of Cameron Post is that anticipated follow-up, set in a Christian camp set up to “pray the gay away”. With flattering reviews from the Sundance Film Festival, Cameron Post is another cutting-edge film that pierces preconceptions of how the stories of sexuality, identity and young trauma can be told with compassion.
With Women’s Work comes the discovery of new British talent, such as Jenny Lu’s The Receptionist – centring on Asian migrant sex workers in London with rare and tender focus – and Deborah Haywood’s darkly eccentric look at bullying at all ages in Pin Cushion. These ambitious debuts may trace some unsavoury themes, but in the hands of these visionary directors they are explored with benevolence and masterful storytelling. An early opportunity to catch Chloé Zhao’s rodeo drama, The Rider, is also on the list of tantalising previews within the season.
Age ain’t nothing but a number for Women’s Work, as the Women Over 50 Film Festival exclusively selects its favourite shorts that reveal women of a certain age owning the screen. Glenn Close’s charge in the Oscar-whispering The Wife brings novelist Meg Wolitzer’s leading lady to lumescent life, and the evergreen Agnès Varda gives as good as she gets beside young photographer JR as they seek out the humble heroes of rural France in Faces Places.
Threading together rookies and veterans, the season explores the countless dimensions that women bring to the big screen. Enjoy their work from 30 July to 30 September.