Perhaps it’s because of the way that time seems confoundingly elastic during lockdown, but the 14-hour running time of Mark Cousins’s epic journey through the cinema of women no longer seems quite so daunting. A long-haul voyage of discovery that spans 13 decades, five continents and 183 female film-makers, this absorbing film might be the closest thing we’ll get to an escape for quite some time.
Cousins’s marathon essay is pitched as “a film school of sorts, in which all the teachers are women”. This is not entirely accurate. At least one of the teachers is Cousins himself: it is he who selects the curriculum and who shapes the lessons. This is not a comprehensive list of female directors; it’s a view of cinema history that is filtered through his taste. Fortunately Cousins’s taste is broad and adventurous, his passion infectious.
The approach is more concerned with the craft of film-making than with personalities, biographies and the politics that saw so many female film-makers drowned out of the cultural conversation over the years. It addresses 40 questions in 40 chapters, through illustrative clips from big hitters (Kathryn Bigelow, Ava DuVernay, Jane Campion) and numerous lesser-known names (Cousins is a particularly vocal cheerleader for Ukrainian director Kira Muratova).
And it’s here, in the glimpses culled from careers curtailed by indifference, that politics is implicit. The narration, delivered by, among others, Tilda Swinton, Jane Fonda and Thandie Newton, but written by Cousins, is prone to fervour at times. The word “masterpiece” is used so often it starts to feel like the plastic medals that get handed out at children’s birthday parties. But the work speaks for itself and the fact that it is not more widely known is a tragedy. I was particularly struck by the exuberant kitsch of the films of British director Wendy Toye, who won a prize at Cannes but was unknown to me until I watched this film. What Cousins offers here is a map to a whole world of undiscovered cinema. It’s up to us how far we travel.
Women Make Film will be released as five blocks across five weeks, the first of which streams from 18 May, on BFI Player
Source: The Guardian