Cine-Feminism Goes to the Global World

How women directors use a cinema for establishing their voices around the world

Anzhelika Artyukh

Women’s Cinema is a visible phenomenon. Today we can talk not only about female directors from different countries (much as we could a decade ago), but also about a kind of global phenomenon that allows us to think that Women’s Cinema has become world cinema. Female directors have fought for global access for many years by using different methods of promotion and exploiting media and institutions to support their voices and auteur positions in cinema. They used the different platforms to establish their right to be recognized and for a breakthrough into the male-dominated mainstream. Women created the media scandals that blasted the festival world and changed cultural politics in major cinema countries. For example, you might remember a big scandal in 2012 which later became the main reason for changing the whole selection process of the Cannes film festival. British filmmaker Andrea Arnold posed the question that became a media-event: “Why have no female film directors been nominated for the Palme d'Or at Cannes?” The Guardian, Independent, Le Mond and many others media sources published materials which highlighted the fact this major world festival did not acknowledge the fact that female directors had become became a force in cinema, and that they must be represented in the competition. This media scandal mobilized women directors and producers to sign a petition at, and this organized action then changed the politics of this major festival. Since then, year by year, the festival selection committee has been searching much more actively for new films by female directors, promoting names like Claire Denis, Sofia Coppola, Emmanuele Bercot, Jane Campion, Naomi Kawase, Asia Argento, Andrea Arnold, and Jodie Foster, as well as bringing forward emerging players to the world cinema establishment, like Alice Rohrwacher, Maiwenn, Flora Lau, Jessica Hausner, July Jang, Alice Winocour, and others. Moreover, the new film American Honey, by Andrea Arnold (the director who inspired the famous Cannes scandal), received the Jury Prize at the last Cannes festival. Step by step, women have become powerful in the professional cinema world.

About Love (2015), by Anna Melikyan

Festivals like Cannes, Berlinale and Sundance are the best opportunities for female directors to present themselves and their work in the global public space. Moreover, as Shohat and Stam wrote in the introduction to the book Multiculturalism, Postcoloniality, and Transnational Media: “The global nature of the colonizing process, and the global reach of the contemporary media, virtually oblige the cultural critic to move beyond the restrictive frameworks of monoculture and the individual nation-state”[i]. So, winners are those who use international institutions and festivals, and have presented the cosmopolitan gaze in their pictures. Even in Russia, where the economic situation is turning into stagnation in an era of authoritarian “Putinism”, the last decades of using new media – as well as the formation of a “creative class”, which cultivates private property, mobility and independence from the state – have also given rise to women directors. Two of the most famous examples are Anna Melikyan and Oxana Bychkova, who represent big Russian cities such as Moscow and Saint-Petersburg as open cities, and provide an open-world point of view. Russian cinema is evolving into becoming transnational very slowly, and in the last decade only a few films have broken through into an international film context; nevertheless, women directors obviously have a dream about multicultural cities – as can be seen in such films as About Love (2015), by Anna Melikyan, and Piter FM (2006) and Plus One (2008), by Oksana Bychkova – and this makes their cinema a kind of a counter-cinema in this country where modern politics are resurrecting a binary “Russia vs. the West” opposition from the Cold War era. The cosmopolitan gaze in women’s cinema displaces the “imperial gaze” which, as Ann Kaplan noted, cannot be separated from the “male gaze” within Western patriarchal culture. The film About Love especially presents not only an image of a multicultural Moscow – which is still seen as a good place for going on romantic dates, for both Russians and foreigners – but it also presents contemporary cine aesthetics that remind one of fragmentary internet screen images.        

In other countries – especially in the USA, China and Russia – the mainstream is still male-dominated. For example, only 9% of the Hollywood film industry is comprised of women, and Kathryn Bigelow (who won a Best-Director Oscar for The Hurt Locker) is just an exception in this “male club”. Today, American female directors and producers say that they are ready to make blockbusters, but access to big budgets is still problematic. As an alternative to this situation, women create institutions that support their projects – especially in countries which have historically experienced feminist movements. The USA has many institutions that support women – Film Fatales, The Alliance of Women Directors, Women in Film, and other organizations financially support and promote female directors’ projects. Not many of these projects get to the major film festivals, but this type of institutionalization, nevertheless, does help women fight together to be promoted in the global festival world. Festivals are one of the contemporary types of theater distribution that break down the patriarchal stereotype that film directing is a man’s profession. This institutionalization of support for women directors in the USA has led to significant results.

The Diary of the Teenage Girl (2015), by Marielle Heller

Female directors have become stronger as authors, and have broken through into a global context. For example, 2015 was very important for American women with such films as The Diary of the Teenage Girl by Marielle Heller, and Maggie’s Plan by Rebecca Miller, both of which were not only festival hits, but were also well-distributed to theaters around the world by Sony. Marielle Heller’s film was about the norms of sexual liberation in the 70s that affected all spheres of life, including the family and the young generation, by showing the story of a teenage girl as a reflection on the complete cultural change that took place after America’s revolutionary period in the 60s. The film by Rebecca Miller (daughter of the great American dramatist Arthur Miller) showed new aspects of the family crisis in the era of post-feminist culture. Post-feminist culture counters feminist politics and, as Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra say in the introduction to the book Interrogating Post-feminism, it “emphasizes educational and professional opportunities for women and girls, freedom of choice with respect to work, domesticity, and parenting; and physical and particularly sexual empowerment”. Post-feminism is based on the idea of the possibility that women might choose to retreat from the public world of work in a situation of full economic freedom. With irony and vivid details, Miller shows the family relationships of two women with one man, the father of their children, and lets the audience make the conclusion that, for contemporary American middle-class women, to be publicly and professionally successful is not the same as to be loved. Women are always in between self-realization and love, and they need to find very creative ways in which to reach their professional goals in the public sphere while also being able to have children and be happy. This flexibility requires good health and adventurousness, as well as understanding that the seeking of happiness is an ongoing process that continues throughout one’s whole life. As do other films in women’s cinema, Maggie’s Plan says a lot about the contemporary male who realizes that he must not only compete with other men in the workplace, but also with professional and intelligent women – who also want him to be a father to their children as well an intellectual. Maggie’s Plan is decidedly not a “chick-flick” genre film – the kind that are usually widely appropriated by Hollywood and Indiewood women’s mainstream cinema. Chick-flicks traditionally develop according to “heterosexual imagery”, which, according to Chrys Ingraham, “is that way of thinking that relies on romantic and sacred notions of heterosexuality in order to create and maintain the illusion of well-being and oneness”[ii]. Chick-flicks show women seeking heterosexual marriage as the only way to happiness, and often have been interpreted as anti-feminist movies. The Hollywood queen of chick-flicks was Nora Ephron, whose films greatly influenced this sub-genre of the romantic comedy. Maggie’s Plan depicts the family crisis mode ironically, and shows that marriage and having children are only transitional modes of female self-realization in this contemporary, highly competitive world – because motherhood can build only part of one’s self-esteem. Contemporary women need to be professional, just like contemporary men, and the dividing of family responsibilities can be a very difficult task for the modern family. To be a Cinderella is an old-fashioned dream in the post-feminist era. Contemporary women are seeking power in the professional world, and that is modern politics.  

Pussy Versus Putin (2013), by the film collective Gogol’s Wives 

Film directing helps women to have a voice in their respective countries, and this voice has become louder in Eastern Europe as well. And sometimes, it is a political voice. For example, the road-movie That Trip We Took with Dad (2015), by Anca Maruna Dunga from Romania and Germany, re-examines the Cold War in 1968 Eastern Europe, when Soviet tanks invaded Prague – the event became a social tragedy not only for Czechs, but for many Easter Europeans. She shows how this event divided families and radicalized the new generation in Eastern Europe and Germany, and at the same time, how this event prepared the path for the  unification of Europe in the future. In her film, the Soviet Empire as menace provides an association with the current Putin regime, which is trying to reanimate the Soviet Empire’s international policy. Certainly, a documentary that involves women from Leni Riefenstahl’s era is the most appropriate format for conveying strong political message, much like, for example, the film-act Pussy Versus Putin, (2013) by the film collective Gogol’s Wives (i.e., the cine-couple Tasya Krugovykh and Vassily Bogatov, who have filmed all of Pussy Riot’s performances), or My Friend, Boris Nemtsov (2015), by Zosya Rodkevich, which followed the Russian opposition leader before his assassination in Moscow. The first film was awarded the main prize at the Amsterdam International Documentary Festival, while the second one triumphed at the Krakow International Documentary Festival; and both films make reference to Alexander Etkind, who thought that Russian women can act bravely as political activists in the “petro-macho” state. 

 A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), by Ana Lily Aminpour

Women’s mainstream cinema is still rich with chick-flick soft stories, but in the realm of low-budget feature films, female directors try to be radical either in the way that they reflect sexuality, or by delving into “male” genres. One of the most awarded low-budget, Farsi-language festival hits was the American-Iranian horror film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), by Ana Lily Aminpour – it not only imagines Iran as a setting for a horror movie (which makes it reminiscent of the Italian Spaghetti Western), but most notably, it presents a female vampire wearing hijab. The hijab looks like a contemporary Dracula costume, but it also masks the deep female protest that lies underneath the vigilante acts that take place in the murder scenes. The black hijab symbolically refers to a repressive society that taboos female sexuality, but at the same time, it serves as the best weapon for killing corrupted and debauched men out on the streets at night. The male fear of castration has been re-thought as a female protest of male violence and patriarchal domination; this gives women their own weapon with which to attack. The female fights and kills without love, and that is the only state for a heterosexual, gender-peaceful balance. Vampire fangs are used as a dead weapon in a world where man invents and uses real weapons. The vagina has teeth in male fantasies; in reality, it’s only a lure, but teeth can kill, castrate, avenge and horrify. Through its “cool” vampire narrative, brutal murder scenes, and a visual representation of the city as being “in the middle of nowhere”, this stylish film reminds one not only of  Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, or Last Lovers Left Alive by Jim Jarmusch – it also provides a special female sensibility, style, and visual suspense. In the film, a hijab-wearing vampire follows and frightens a little boy on the mean streets, but she does not kill him. The woman gives birth to a child. No reason to get revenge on the innocent. Giving birth is a feminine power. 

Since 2006, when the queer-themed films Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005), Capote (Bennett Miller, 2005), and Transamerica (Duncan Tucker, 2005) were awarded at the Oscar ceremony, queer sensibility films have broken through into the transnational mainstream. But we can still see that it’s a male mainstream. Women continue to work with this subject in independent features not only in the USA, but also in Europe, where they make low-budget movies. These kinds of films that refer to Judith Butler’s concept of “being a man” and “being a woman” are internally unstable affairs”,[iii] and attempt to re-articulate popular film and genre conventions through a queer lens; this means that, as Eve Sedgwick claims, that “the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically”[iv].  A 2014 brilliant example of low-budget queerness is the Swedish film Dyke Hard, by Bitte Andersson. This film traveled from the Berlinale Panorama to the Moscow International Film Festival-2015 program Female Blast (curated by Anzhelika Artyukh). It’s a comical road-movie that portrays a lesbian and transsexual rock-band seeking a prize in a musical competition, and it culminates with a musical show-stopper in a prison camp that looks like a parody of a big orgy and sexual revolution – all at the same time. All of the prisoners, along with the members of the band, have easily broken down the walls of the camp with their playfulness and sexual energy, and this symbolizes not only that Eros still has the power to change a civilization (as Herbert Marcuse says), but it is also the mark of a leading liberal country. Sweden is the most advanced country in the world in terms of women’s cinema. There, gender balance in cinema production (50/50) has been supported by the Swedish Film Institute for many years, and this helps both provide a rich variety of cine-themes and supports the cine-feminism movement.         

The Lure (2015), by Agnieszka Smoczynska

Eastern European women’s cinema also searches for queer sensibility as evidence of a liberated society. But here, this process is more difficult. For example, an experiment in the low-budget genre – The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015), from Poland – premiered at the Sundance Festival in 2016, received the Fipresci Prize at the Tallinn Film Festival, and was screened at The Time of Women program at the Moscow International Film Festival in 2016 (curator Anzhelika Artyukh). In Catholic countries, queerness is being explored through the form of the fantasy genre (e.g., mermaid fairy), and refers its viewers to the past – to the 70s. Two mermaid sisters work at a night club where they entertain the audience to make money. They sing and dance, as well as attract men, and they end up becoming rivals as they vie for the love of a young Polish dandy with golden hair. The nostalgic musical soon transforms into a horror film because mermaids, as we know, can eat men, but notably, the whole message opens up the sisterhood idea – which is important for feminism. Sisterhood is the basic principle behind female collaboration and revenge in cases where a man betrays a woman and makes her a victim. Sisterhood is based on the memory of the trauma of what it means to be a woman in a phallus-centric, patriarchal world. But in this fantasy-interpretation, the mermaid’s tail looks like a phallus, which serves to remind us that gender is unstable, and that men with penises do not always dominate. This gender transition reveals femininity and masculinity as a cultural, rather than natural, construct. This in an important concept for queer-theory, and it can now be found in contemporary cinema.       

A major theme found in many women’s films is “a crisis in masculinity”. In fact, it has also been at the center of “lad flicks” for the last decade. As David Hansen-Miller and Rosalind Gill write, “lad flicks came to prominence in the late 1990s against the backdrop of anxieties about a ‘crisis in masculinity’, and the proliferation of a number of other ‘lad productions’ in different sites across popular culture: for example, radio, television, and ‘lad magazines’”.[v] In the 2010s, women directors began to work on “lad flicks” – a hybrid of “buddy movies”, romantic comedies, and chick flicks that center on the trials and tribulations of a young man, or group of young men, as they grow up and make their way in the world. The king of lad-flicks in Hollywood “male cinema” is Judd Apatow, whose films present “new lads”/“new men” who are funny, struggling, and trying to keep a hedonistic style of life in this post-Playboy era with its strong professional women. In women’s cinema, the “new lad” is mostly presented in films through a romantic lens in which female heroines stand in the center and take part in an ironic “gender war”. For example, in Maggie’s Plan, the character played by Ethan Hawke finds himself between two bright women – one has made a brilliant career as a writer, intellectual, and mother of two children, while the other woman is younger and has a dream about a brilliant future, but spends time with small children and tries to find the opportunity to take a step toward self-realization. The film shows, with a lot of humor, how a man loses his self-respect in relation to a strong woman when he starts to live with her life-goal, and how the choice to achieve a new self-realization in the new family becomes a problem, eventually resulting in the man going through a new life crisis. As do most women’s films, Maggie’s Plan looks upon men with an ironic gaze, but with a romantic one as well. In the heterosexual women’s romantic genre, the man is often a love object who inspires women to create intrigues; he is self-made in order to be interesting and attractive, but at the same time, he’s a kind of “pain in ass”, and this reminds us of his unrealized ambitions and need for support or help.  

Mon Roi (2015), by Maiwenn

A strong life connection with the attractive “lad” – after moving through the stages of the romantic period, marriage and divorce – is what builds the narrative in the French film Mon Roi, by Maiwenn, with Vincent Cassel and Emmanuele Bercot as the leads (Golden Palm, Best Actress in 2015). Masculinity, as a troubled cultural category, can be found in French cinema as well. Cassel’s character, a Paris “lad”,  offers a hedonistic, apparently shameless celebration of masculinity constructed around men’s obsessions with drinking, drugs, money, and sex. He is ready to work as a gigolo in case his wife can’t make enough money as a lawyer; despite their having a little child, he has a sexual affair with another woman who is younger, but also makes good money. Despite all this, his ability to be attractive and manipulative helps him to stay in the heart of Bercot’s character throughout their lives.

It’s interesting to compare the American Maggie’s Plan and the French Mon Roi. Post-feminist culture in the USA portrays American women as professional, autonomous and independent, despite having children and a husband. They are post-Madonna “material girls” who place a high value on money and sex, but not much on love. As the feminist scriptwriter of Thelma & Louise (1991), Callie Khouri, shows in her film Mad Money (2008), American women of different social classes can earn more money than men in our time, and are not afraid to be a criminal in order to “be somebody” in America. American women live in a country where psychoanalysis can answer all questions, and they do not believe much in the mystery of love. Consequently, their urban narcissism makes divorce not as traumatic; they have their own weapons against breaking up: jobs, education and money. The French woman also wants to be professional, but she is still romantic and finds herself in deep relationships with men, despite her professionalism and success. A French woman can’t break off these relationships; they still have a hold on her after the divorce trauma, and continue to traumatize her – as well as inspire her to be strong and beautiful for the rest of her life. In the contemporary world, the American male has more difficulties in terms of the gender war and competition – especially in the professional sphere, where he has the same intellectual interests as a woman. The American “lad” looks pitiful and almost castrated, while the French male character looks playful, bisexual, adventurous, and indifferent; it helps him to remain being seen as the ironic “homme fatale”, a kind of urban handsome devil who constantly attracts women and cannot live without their intellect and help. Maiwenn, through an ironic lens, continues the tradition of featuring the “homme fatale” on screen – all of which began with Rudolph Valentino. This allows one to speak about a reconstruction of the “homme fatale” in cinema, a term that in contemporary film-study language would probably best be reworded as “male fatale” – because women’s cinema tries to overcome the binary opposition between “male” and “female”, and invites gender crossing, transition and performativity, finally attaining queer sensibility with transitional gender roles. This type of a screen image of a man gives an actor rich opportunity to not only reconstruct masculinity in the context of the world cinema tradition, but also to create screen myths and legends. It’s interesting that in contemporary “male” cinema, the “homme fatale” is obviously presented now in such films as the French Un Homme Ideal (Yann Gozlan, 2015), and the American-British The Perfect Guy (David M. Rosenthal, 2015), but these characters also apply to Patricia Highsmith’s identity-swapping killers, thereby moving these films to the thriller genre. Women directors work in urban ironic drama while supporting family values, but they understand that family models have changed, and that inspires their narratives. Women force us to take a different view of women and men on the screen; instead of mythologizing and poeticizing the reality or the subject, they adopt a critical and stereoscopic approach. Women love nuances and details which often add together to form a stereoscopic image of the subject. They seem to keep in mind that cinema is not merely entertainment, performance, or a philosophical and political message, but that it is also the study of a human being and his milieu, an instrument of psychological and social therapy. Films by women directors, which often tackle family problems and offer in-depth studies of sexuality, seem to remind us about humanism at a time of post-humanism triumph, and in so doing, permit the preservation of the balance in our understanding of man, society, and the world.         

While women’s cinema in America still does not believe much in the “male fatale” thinking about them in any other way other than through the lens of American Psycho (referring to the famous eponymous urban thriller by Marry Harron, made in 2000), women’s Western European cinema does. In fact, it delivers a kind of warning about the danger of the “male fatale” – in addition to being fascinated by them – because this kind of character not only destroys a woman, but gives her drive and inspiration. Women want to have adventure in their lives, but they may have to pay a big price for that – sometimes, with their lives. For example, in the Austrian film Jack (Elizabeth Scharang, 2015), the “male-fatale” character goes through the acts of killing a young woman, destroying the life of his lover, and then going to prison – all in order to finally get the desire to create and write. But he only becomes a famous writer with the help of a female agent; she has been attracted by his criminal and sexual charisma. “Some of them want to use you…”, as Annie Lennox sings: men use women for sex and glory, women use men for having children, money and survival in the corporate, highly competitive and manipulative capitalistic world, and this corrupts relationships and  destroys the romantic mode. In this situation, as Jack and Mon Roi show, men become women’s puppy-dogs in the world of increased female professional power, and women’s cinema inspires the spectator’s compassion toward them.

Money Monster (2016), by Jodie Foster 

This last theme is the key to a film by the director Jodie Foster – Money Monster (2016), which depicts George Clooney’s character as a showman and media “puppy”; and not only in relation to big financial corporations, but also to the heroine, Julia Roberts, who is the director of a TV-show that encourages people to invest money. It is only a live, on-the-air invasion of the show by a terrorist – a lower-class member of the target audience who lost money thanks to the bad advice given by the TV show – that causes both of the main characters to think about their personal participation in global media manipulation, and also reminds the journalist about the ethics vital to democracy. It’s interesting that Robert’s character appeals to all possible resources, including hackers, to find the cause of the computer “glitch” that has caused the decrease of share prices by financial top-managers and the boss of the corporation. Foster shows the “new sisterhood” that arises from the collaboration between the female TV-show director and the female P.R. manager of the corporation, as well as the “new brotherhood” that starts to emerge when Clooney’s “puppy dog” bravely supports the lower-class terrorist in finding out the truth and investigating the crime. As a world-famous feminist who is educated and knows very well that each film is political – including those that come from contemporary, transnational Hollywood – Jodie Foster refuses to just thrill and entertain her audience – she uses Hollywood as a public space for this strong political and social message. But just as in the Oscar-winning Spotlight, which was made by Thom McCarty in 2015, Foster’s media-thriller – inspired by a courageous journalist’s collaborative investigation that temporarily stops gender wars, games and competition in order to undertake collective intellectual research and resistance – presents an awareness of the importance of transparency in American democratic society, as well as the need to support democratic processes on a global scale in other countries. Contemporary male and female directors want to say to their audiences: if we have a true goal, we forget about who we are – men or women; we are just together, and we can be brave, honest, playful, sexy, adventurous, political and so forth.

This article is possible thanks to the Small Fulbright Grant-2016.  

[i]           Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, Multiculturalism, Postcoloniality, and the Media. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003). 1

[ii]           Chrys Ingram, White Weddings: Romancing Heterosexuality in Popular Culture, 2nd edn (New York: Routledge, 2008), 26. 

[iii]          Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On The Distinctive Limits of Sex (London and New York: Routledge, 1993), 126.

[iv]          Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Tendencies (London and New York: Routledge, 1993), 8.

[v]           David Hansen-Miller and Rosalind Gill, “Lad Flicks” Discursive Reconstructions of Masculinity in Popular Film. In: Feminism at the Movies. Understanding Gender in Contemporary Popular Cinema. Edited by Hilary Radnеr and Rebecca Stringer. (New York, London. Routledge, 2011). 37