'Women Make Film': Film Review | Venice 2018

Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
An eye-opening, tantalizing resource.

Tilda Swinton plays teacher in Mark Cousins’ latest epic documentary, a film class that rediscovers dozens of international women directors.

Moufida Tlatli? Kinuyo Tanaka? Yuliya Solntseva? If those names are not familiar, Mark Cousins’ epic Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema is here to fill in some blanks about those all-but-forgotten directors and dozens more.

The documentary sets itself up as a course in film basics, in which all the examples are drawn from work by women. That approach succeeds well enough, even if it feels a bit stunt-like. The film’s real value is calling attention to so many underappreciated directors. And its international focus — with movies from China, India, Iran and beyond — suggests how myopic our Western view of the film canon has been.  

Narrated by Tilda Swinton in a near whisper, this four-hour installment is the first, with another 12 hours to come. Cousins, the prolific documentarian and film historian (Eyes of Orson Welles) takes his educational role seriously. Women Make Film is broken into topic-oriented chapters, many as lucid as “Openings,” “Tracking” and “Framing,” and some as loosey-goosey as “Believability” (as if that’s an objective standard that can be nailed down).

Swinton carries us through elements such as a traditional film opening, which goes from a wide scene-setting shot to a medium shot to a close-up, as viewers are gradually introduced to a world and its characters. That’s the strategy Dorothy Arzner uses in First Comes Courage (1943), moving from a high shot of a small Norwegian town down to the street and finally to Merle Oberon’s character walking.

Tlatli, a Tunisian director, takes the opposite approach in Silences of the Palaces (1994), starting close on a woman’s face, creating a mystery about her identity, only to have the camera pull back to reveal that she is a singer at a wedding. Step by step, Swinton points out a camera tilt here or a focus pull there. Her soothing, almost unmodulated delivery is a typically off-kilter choice that works for her, and maybe only for her. Jane Fonda, who will narrate the next four-hour installment, is sure to have a different style.   

The narration is sometimes illuminating. Swinton tells us what’s going on inside the character’s minds in Lois Weber’s 1921 silent The Blob, as one woman wonders whether to feed her family by pilfering food from her better-off neighbor.  That segment neatly conveys how the camera and acting work together to create the effect. But the copy Cousins has written can also be pedantic, making Swinton the kind of teacher no one wants to hear as she spells out the obvious. She actually says, “In our last chapter, we …” Yes, we just saw that chapter; let’s move on.

It is easy to argue with some of Cousins’ observations, in the spirit of healthy debate rather than right or wrong. How many truly brilliant films, by men or women, have been neglected? The narration says flat out that Women Make Film is “not one of those lists of the best films ever made.” But when the words “great” and “masterpiece” are thrown around so easily, you have to wonder how much is being overstated.

While it’s impossible to judge these films based on brief clips, almost all of the excerpts are fascinating. Among the most dazzling is the exquisitely shot noirish scene from We Were Young, a 1961 Bulgarian film directed by Binka Zhelyazkova. A circle of light from a flashlight shines on wet, cobbled streets. The camera pans up to reveal a young woman then a young man, their faces standing out luminously against utter blackness behind them. The scene, as Swinton says, brings to mind The Third Man, but that doesn’t make it any less accomplished or intriguing.

Whether the films are great or just worthwhile, their neglect is dismaying. Solntseva, a Soviet filmmaker, became the first women to win the best director prize at Cannes, in 1961 for The Story of the Flaming Years, about Soviet resistance to the Nazis. Tanaka, a mid-20th century actress who often worked with Mizoguchi, directed six films, including The Moon Has Risen (1955), from a script by Ozu. The documentary presents Wang Ping’s extravagant visuals in the Chinese drama The East Is Red (1965) and Alison de Vere’s stylized blocks of color and shadow in her animated British films, such as The Black Dog (1987).    

At times, Cousins makes fascinating connections. In film pioneer Alice Guy-Blache’s 1907 Course a la Saucisse, an entire neighborhood chases a dog that has stolen a string of sausages, running across a backyard; into an open window; and through a room where a woman is plucking a goose, sending feathers flying across the screen in a scene of pure, joyous slapstick. That episode is juxtaposed with a chase from Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break (1991), with Keanu Reeves running through backyards, over fences, into a house where a woman’s armful of laundry goes flying about like the goose feathers in the film made decades before. The connection is a vivid testimony to Blache’s inventiveness and importance.

Such startling observations are relatively few. Like Cousins’ previous extravaganza, the 15-hour Story of Film: An Odyssey, this documentary offers an abundance of information, along with the tantalizing idea that there are many stunning films for viewers to discover. Now all it takes is for Cousins, or someone, to help make those works more available.

Production company: Hopscotch Films

Cast: Tilda Swinton

Director-screenwriter: Mark Cousins

Producer: John Archer

Editor: Timo Langer

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Venice Classics)

International Sales: Dogwoof

240 minutes