5 Game-Changing Female Directors

Ava DuVernay

By now, many of us are familiar with the cold, hard facts on gender inequality in film – and they don’t get any less troubling the more we read of them.

Across the movie industry, women make up a mere 10 per cent of directors, 15 per cent of screenwriters and two per cent of cinematographers.  And let’s not get started on the ludicrously unlevel playing fields of actor roles and pay cheques… nor the god-awful gender bias in our awards ceremonies.

What we want to know now is whether the industry is waking up to the issue and doing anything meaningful to turn things around. 

Based on the growing media focus on equal rights in film, and high-profile support from big names like Meryl Streep, Reese Witherspoon, and Patricia Arquette, there’s at least some hope – plus a healthy array of inspirational women – to push females forward in this male-dominated field.   

Here are 5 such women who seem set to bring about exciting change to the world of female film directing, and who I, for one, will be watching closely…

   SARAH POLLEY 

Canadian actress, writer and film director, 36.    [Away From Her (2006), Take This Waltz (2011), Stories We Tell (2012).]

Sarah Polley

INSPIRING US BECAUSE…    At the age of 30, Sarah received her first Oscar nod (Best Adapted Screenplay) for her feature film debut Away From Her which she both wrote and directed. Her 2012 documentary, Stories We Tell, in which she traces her own family history (and uncovers the true identity of her biological father), won widespread critical acclaim and earned her the Writer’s Guild of America Award for Best Documentary Screenplay.

She’s also well-known for being highly principled and artistically-driven, even in her film choices as an actress, which gives us even more reason to like her.

WHAT ELSE?  Politically progressive from a young age, Sarah wore a peace sign to an awards ceremony at 12 to protest against the first Gulf War. When Disney executives asked her to remove it, she refused.

Look out for two exciting, major adaptations that Polley’s working on;  she’ll be writing and directing a six-part mini-series of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace and a big-screen adaptation of the popular literary classic Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, which Sony’s reportedly signed her up for.

WHAT SHE SAYS:

…Having thrown the form up in the air to see where it landed – playing with structure in very different ways than I had before – it’s going to be hard to make a straightforward film again.

  SALLY EL HOSAINI

British-Egyptian film director and writer, 37. [My Brother The Devil (2012), The Fifth Bowl (2008), Babylon (2014)]

Sally El Hosaini

INSPIRING US BECAUSE…  Two words:  Sheer talent.  Sally’s scooped a heap of international awards from world-famous festivals like Sundance, BFI and Berlin for her debut feature film My Brother the Devil, which explores male gang culture and the importance of masculinity in society.

She’s won a number of Newcomer awards, been named a ‘Brit to watch’ by Variety, and selected by Danny Boyle to direct Babylon, the TV series he co-created for the UK’s Channel 4 and SundanceTV.

WHAT ELSE?  Born in Swansea, Wales, and raised in Cairo, she had her first story published at just 7 years of age. Before making films Sally taught English Literature at a girls school in Yemen and worked for Amnesty International.   

WHAT SHE SAYS:

I’m interested in people on the margins of society; outsiders and outcasts. Being Welsh-Egyptian – half from one place, half from another – you always see both sides of everything.

   AVA DUVERNAY

American director, screenwriter and distributor, 42. [I Will Follow (2011), Middle of Nowhere (2012), Selma (2014).]

Ava DuVernay

INSPIRING US BECAUSE…  Aside from being the first woman to win Best Director at Sundance, and the first black female director to have a film nominated in the Oscars’ Best Picture category, her statement below signals just some of the daring, drive, and determination that makes Ava a stand-out..

My mission in all of my work, truly, is to magnify the magnificence of black people, which is basically a longer way of saying, ‘black lives matter’. If we don’t do it, who’s gonna do it? If a woman filmmaker doesn’t take special care of a woman character, who does it? It’s not gonna be the man. … It’s not gonna be the filmmaker that doesn’t know it. There are some instances where special things shine through, but overall, it’s no one else’s responsibility to make the things that I want to see. If I want to see them, then I need to make them, if I’m able.. and I am.

WHAT ELSE?   This woman will be plenty busy in the months ahead.  Moving more towards TV, DuVernay has a number of projects in the pipeline including For Justice, a CBS drama pilot centering on an FBI agent, her own drama series Queen Sugar (which she’s co-executive-producing with Oprah), and a movie on 2005’s Hurricane Katrina that she’s writing, producing and directing.

   DEE REES

American screenwriter and director [Eventual Salvation (2008), Pariah (2011), Bessie (premiering May 2015)]

Dee Rees

INSPIRING US BECAUSE…  The number of honours Pariah picked up say it all. Let’s just say there were a fewThe New York Daily News’ Joe Neumaier described the film as “…something so honest and touching that you’re instantly drawn in to its feelings and sense of place”. The movie also earned Dee a spot on the New York Times’ ’10 Directors to Watch’ list in 2013.

On Spike Lee (who was one of her NYU professors and became a mentor):

“From him, I learned that it all has to be on the screen. You don’t get to hand footnotes to the audience, or explain what you were trying to do and what it’s supposed to be. Everything has to be on the screen and it has to be clear.”

On Pariah:  “As I was writing, I didn’t worry about universality. I knew that the more specific I was, the more true it would ring and the more people from all different backgrounds could relate to it…

WHAT ELSE?   Dee has an HBO TV series in the works starring Tony award-winning actress Viola Davis. She’s also just finished writing two feature film scripts – a thriller for Focus Features called Bolo, and a second, titled Large Print about a 50-something insurance adjustor.

   HAIFAA AL-MANSOUR

Saudi Arabian film director and writer, 41.  [Women Without Shadows (2005), Wadjda (2013)]

Haifaa Al-Mansour

INSPIRING US BECAUSE…   You mean, aside from the fact that she’s pioneering and courageous?  Haifaa is the first female filmmaker from Saudi Arabia, and in spite of fierce criticism and death threats, has pushed ahead to direct important films about women and the custom of the abaya ‘cloak’.

Haifaa began her filmmaking career with three shorts before directing the documentary Women Without Shadows, about the hidden lives of women in Arab states. Her feature debut, Wadjda (which she both wrote and directed), was the first feature film to be shot entirely in Saudi and the first Saudi Arabian film to be submitted for a Best Foreign Language Film oscar.

WHAT ELSE?   Throughout the making of Wadjda, Haifaa sometimes had to hide in a van (in areas where the locals disapproved of females mixing with men), and on occasion was forced to direct her male actors via walkie-talkie.

WHAT SHE SAYS:

It’s easy to say it’s a difficult, conservative place for a woman and do nothing about it, but we need to push forward and hope we can help make it a more relaxed and tolerant society.


More honourable mentions…

  • MIA HANSEN-LOVE  –  French film director and screenwriter, 34.  [All is Forgiven (2007), The Father of my Children (2009), Goodbye First Love (2011), Eden (2014)]  – Won Cannes Special Jury Prize.
  • KELLY REICHARDT  –  American film director and screenwriter. [Wendy and Lucy (2008), Meek’s Cutoff (2010), Night Moves (2013).
  • LENA DUNHAM  –  American writer, producer, director, actress, author, 28.  [Tiny Furniture (2010)] Creator of TV series Girls (2012-present).
  • JANE CAMPION  –  New Zealand director, 60. [An Angel at my Table (1990), The Piano (1993)]. Second woman to be nominated for Best Director Academy Award. 
  • KATHRYN BIGELOW  –  American film director, 63. [The Hurt Locker (2008), Zero Dark Thirty (2012)]  First woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director.
  • SOFIA COPPOLA   –  American film director, 43. [The Virgin Suicides (1999), Lost in Translation (2003), Marie Antoinette (2006), Somewhere (2010), The Bling Ring (2013)]. Won Best Original Screenplay for Lost in Translation Third woman (first American woman) to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director.
  • LUCIA PUENZO  –  Argentinian film director, 39. [XXY (2007), The Fish Child (2009) Wakolda/The German Doctor (2013)].
  • MIRANDA JULY  –  American film director, writer, actor, author, 41. [Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), The Future (2011)].
  • CLAIRE DENIS   –  French director and writer, 69. [Chocolat (1998), Beau Travail (1999), 38 Shots of Rum (2008), White Material (2009)].
  • LAKE BELL  –  American film director, screenwriter, actress, 36. [Worst Enemy (2010), In A World (2013), upcoming: What’s The Point].
  • LYNN SHELTON  –  American film director, writer and producer, 49. [Hump Day (2009), Your Sister’s Sister (2011)].
  • NICOLE HOLOFCENER    American film director and screenwriter, 55. [Enough Said (2013), Please Give (2010), Friends with Money (2006)].
  • KIMBERLY PEIRCE  –  American film director, 47.  [Boys Don’t Cry (1999), Stop-Loss (2008), Carrie (2013)].
  • DEEPA MEHTA  –  Indo-Canadian film director and screenwriter, 65.  [Elements trilogy: Fire (1996), Earth (1998), Water (2005);  Midnight’s Children (2012)].
  • PHYLLIDA LLOYD  –   British theatre and film director, 57.  [Mamma Mia! (2008),  The Iron Lady (2011)].

Who would make it into your Top 5?

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