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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Fall 2018: Female Directors

Unlike this summer, female representation behind the camera is being overshadowed this fall by the Ruben Fleischers, Damien Chazelles, and Bryan Singers. While you can’t expect many women-helmed movies at your local theatre, they’ll be making lots of noise on the festival circuit. Along with a description of the theatrical releases to look out for, this piece compiles a list of the female-directed feature films screening at major film festivals. Listing every film at every fall festival would make for an article as long as Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, so we trust our readers will be on the lookout for women filmmakers at their local festivals, as well as documentary and short films directed by women. All film descriptions are from press materials and all theatrical release dates are for the United States. 

Theatrical releases:

September 21 – NAPPILY EVER AFTER dir. Haifaa Al-Mansour

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Violet has it all: the perfect job, the perfect relationship and the perfect hair. Until an accident at her hair salon makes her realize she’s not living life to the fullest. This romantic comedy, starring Sanaa Lathan, is based on the novel of the same name by Trisha R. Thomas

September 28 – LITTLE WOMEN dir. Clare Niederpruem 

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A modern retelling of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel follows the lives of the same sisters we know so well — Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March — and detailing their passage from childhood to womanhood. Despite harsh times, they cling to optimism, and as they mature, they face blossoming ambitions, relationships, and tragedy, while maintaining their unbreakable bond.

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