Female Director Spotlight: The Surrealist Female Gaze of Maya Deren

Lost in thought, a woman pulls a key out of her mouth. As she holds it in her hand, it transforms into a knife. She enters another room using the key, where two women, who look exactly like her, scrutinize the situation and carefully take a seat. She comes up to the table and places the knife in the middle. The knife turns back into a key. The women raise their heads in surprise.

As Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon progresses, we realize that the key plays a big role in the main character’s state of mind. It’s an image that has spread itself throughout visual arts in multitudes. Whether it be the weird key to the Dead Man’s Chest from Pirates of the Caribbean or the thin triangle shaft to the blue box in Mulholland Drive, it often illustrates the threshold between unknowingness and realization, a state of mystery — entrancing, very evocative, yet also hazy. In that, it mirrors some of Maya Deren’s most present sensibilities as a storyteller.

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Female Director Spotlight: Desiree Akhavan Tackles Sexuality with Refreshing Honesty

Often semi-autobiographical in nature, Desiree Akhavan’s work unabashedly celebrates what it means to be an Iranian-American bisexual woman. As an openly bisexual filmmaker who centers her experience of bisexuality in most of her works, Akhavan has had to frequently deal with critics expecting her to deliver a “taboo-breaking drama on bisexuality.” To this, Akhavan responded in an interview for the Independent that she is merely trying “to figure shit out for [her]self” rather than put forth a “taboo-breaking” narrative on the matters of gender and sexuality. Indeed, it is worth questioning why gay artists are expected to deliver ground-breaking work when the film industry persistently denies funding, access, and support for gay artists. When gay people are still fighting for their right to simply exist, ground-breaking becomes a luxury reserved for the most privileged. 

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Female Director Spotlight: Julie Dash’s Legacy is Rooted in Black Heritage and Extraordinary Women

Deeply poetic, and rooted in her heritage, Julie Dash’s work showcases extraordinary women from the past and present. A pioneering director, Dash places historical heroines—both known and unknown—front and center in her filmography. Her refreshing work places a lens on black women, and showcases them in a way that doesn’t follow society’s (or Hollywood’s) rigid standards. Dash’s women overcome obstacles, and exhibit a resilience and grace no matter the circumstances. She doesn’t allow her leads to follow traditional narratives, in fact she allows them to follow a narrative of her own design.

The heart of Dash’s work are the complex women that she paints a vivid picture of, both real and fictional. While she often explores the complex relationship of racial identity, at the same time she is a visionary that refuses to place her heroines in a box. Dash cites that her films were influenced by authors such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Toni Kay Bambara.

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Female Director Spotlight: The Radical, Feminist, and Czech Filmmaking of Věra Chytilová

Film history classes may pound the French New Wave into the heads of cinema students everywhere, but not much is said about the Czech New Wave. Unsurprisingly, this movement was in direct response to the French version and was an attempt to showcase the filmmaking talents emerging in Eastern Europe. These films were made in the 1960s and featured nonprofessional actors, long dialogue, and dark humor. One of the integral figures in this movement was director Věra Chytilová, whose 1968 film, Daisies, put her on the map as a daring feminist filmmaker. As described by Criterion, “No director pushed the boundaries of the Czechoslovak New Wave further than Věra Chytilová.” Her work pulsates with an anarchic energy, each frame saying something new and explosive. While not all of her work is as overtly political as Daisies, each of her films makes a political statement about women, the Soviet Union, economics, socialism, and more.

All of the films mentioned here were made before the 1968 invasion of the Soviet Union into Czechoslovakia. Due to her controversial filmmaking, it was impossible for her to find work as a director during this time. Daisies was banned from Czechoslovakia, so she had quite the reputation for her filmmaking style. While not all of her films are described here, Chylitová worked in a wide range of genres, making a sci-fi horror film called Wolf’s Hole and a rape-revenge film called Traps.

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Female Director Spotlight: Elaine May, Renegade Improv Comedienne

A natural performer from the start, director Elaine May allegedly began her career in 1935 at the tender age of three, performing in her father’s Yiddish theater company (although she conceded in 2010 that this origin story isn’t “strictly accurate”). At age 16, she married a toy inventor, with whom she had a daughter, then divorced him a few years later. After holding a series of odd jobs, including as a private detective and a roofing salesman, she decided she’d like to enroll in college—the problem was, she lacked the high school diploma that California colleges required by law. With just $7 in her pocket, she hitchhiked to Chicago, where this rule didn’t exist, to pursue an education.

Here, she met future legendary director Mike Nichols through mutual friends. The pair bubbled with comedic chemistry, and in 1955, they joined the off-campus improv group, The Compass Players. Two years later, Nichols was asked to leave the team for being “too talented,” and May quit with him. Soon, they developed their own act, forming stand-up comedy duo, “Nichols and May.” Their undeniable talent eventually landed them their own Broadway show, and “An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May” became a bonafide hit, performing for full house shows and even winning a Grammy for Best Comedy Performance. Sadly, Nichols and May disbanded in 1964, citing difficulties with keeping their act consistently fresh. Over the next several years, Nichols would go on to begin a wildly successful film directing career with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and May would try her hand at playwriting. She also acted in various screen roles, including an uncredited cameo in Nichols’ The Graduate, until she gained the experience to direct her first feature.

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Female Director Spotlight: Dorothy Arzner and Making Films for Women in the 1930s

Hollywood of the 1920s and 1930s was a male-dominated space, with men like Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin, Jean Renoir, and countless others receiving credit for their illustrious place in film history. But, one person that film history largely forgets is Dorothy Arzner, who has the largest oeuvre of any woman filmmaker. She was the only female director working during this time and the only female filmmaker whose work moved from the silent era into sound, showing her strength in filmmaking as well as her creativity. But it isn’t just her technical prowess that deserves praise; it is also her desire to portray nuanced and complicated women, rather than the stereotypical women-as-objects seen in that era of cinema. Her films explore women, how they’re represented in classic Hollywood narratives, and how supportive friendships between women flourish, which can be seen in Dance, Girl, Dance. She made films about women for women, and addressed the many facets of being a woman, from societal standing to romantic relationships to what it means to work. Arzner was also a lesbian filmmaker, which can be seen in her critiques of heteronormative relationships and their consequences, particularly in her 1933 film, Christopher Strong.

Despite a prolific career, Arzner is not commonly mentioned with this era of Hollywood cinema and she is rarely studied. I was lucky enough to be introduced to her work by a TA in grad school, who told me only one book has been written on Arzner and how difficult is to find many of her films — only a few of them are available to stream or even purchase. I believe Arzner deserves a larger place in the canon, and more recognition for the types of films she was creating, particularly with her focus on catering to a female spectator. The films I detail below are some of her more easily found work and exemplify Arzner’s key themes around social class, work, friendship, and critiques of heteronormativity.

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Female Director Spotlight: Sally Wainwright on the Importance of Solidarity Amongst Women

I first encountered Sally Wainwright through watching a series that she wrote, created and produced entitled Scott and Bailey, which revolves around the powerful friendship forged between three women detectives in a police unit despite their stark differences in hierarchy, age, and personalities. I haven’t looked back since, continuing to watch as much of her filmography as I can. What I received out of it was a profound understanding on the myriad of ways women lift each other up, and how important it is for us to recognise that the bonds between women have to be strong, necessarily so. They have to be filled with kindness, empathy, and love for us to quite literally, survive in a world that isn’t in any hurry to stop men from hurting us. In short, what summarises my tender fondness for her work is this quote put forth succinctly by Wainwright herself:

“Women do have very strong relationships with each other and you don’t often see that dramatised on telly. In fact, friendship itself isn’t dramatised terribly well on television. I’d suppose I do like reflecting on friendships. A lot of warmth and humour can come from the relationships women have with each other.”

For this spotlight, I have decided to focus on Sally Wainwright because I am, frankly, exhausted of seeing women pitted against each other on television. Most shows can spend up to seven seasons churning out feuds between women, reducing our identities to pure cattiness and jealousy, with harmful implications. Such representations perpetuate the false sentiment that there is no room for women to succeed because other women exist, which distracts us from the truth — there is no room for women to succeed because we live in a patriarchal world that simply doesn’t want us to. As a result, it’s all the more imperative that the portrayal of women on television affirms the strength that can be drawn from our love for one another, and this is exactly what Wainwright’s writing offers. I know that my relationships with other women have saved my life, and continue to do so.  Continue reading “Female Director Spotlight: Sally Wainwright on the Importance of Solidarity Amongst Women”