What’s been so special about filmmaking by women over the last 30 years? Only nine of the films in the top 25 of BBC Culture’s poll of the greatest films directed by women pre-date 1990. A fifth of the films in the top 100 come from the years 1999, 2008, 2014 and 2017. Are we in a golden age for female directors – or is this generation just luckier to be remembered?

Read more about BBC Culture’s 100 greatest films directed by women:

–       What the critics had to say about the top 25
–       Why Agnès Varda got more votes than anyone else
–       Why The Piano is number one
–       The 100 greatest films directed by women
–       Early cinema’s women pioneers

The 1990s certainly spawned hit classics such as The Piano by Jane Campion, Clueless by Amy Heckerling and Point Break by Kathryn Bigelow. They were commercial and critical successes, reflected by their prominent positions in this poll. In France, Clare Denis’ highest-rated film in the poll, Beau Travail, was made in 1999.

The 2000s have seen the rise of English-language filmmakers such as Sofia Coppola, Lynne Ramsay, Andrea Arnold and Debra Granik – also given multiple placings in the top 100; while other filmmakers including France’s Céline Sciamma, Germany’s Maren Ade and Lebanon’s Nadine Labaki have achieved international recognition over the last decade.

Recent classics

Mati Diop, the French-Senegalese filmmaker who made Atlantics, was the first black female  director to have a film in competition for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The ghostly thriller, about young men who migrate from Africa to seek a better life, was bought by Netflix and has just been released worldwide. It’s Diop’s first feature film.

“I do not believe that I would have had these same opportunities even 10 years ago,” she tells BBC Culture. “I am not sure that I would have got into competition in Cannes, had the level of interest and recognition for my film, without the change in focus there has been recently. My first feeling was sadness that it had taken until 2019 for it to happen. But if I represent a new dynamic, I’m very happy about that.”

The time period since the 1990s has been a golden age for women’s cinema… Mostly because it was so dire before then – Alicia Malone

According to Alicia Malone, an Australian critic and presenter based in Hollywood, “The time period since the 1990s has been a golden age for women’s cinema… Mostly because it was so dire before then. In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, there were trailblazers like Hollywood’s Ida Lupino, France’s Agnès Varda, Czechoslovakia’s Věra Chytilová and Australia’s Gillian Armstrong – but more often than not, they were the sole female voice within their country’s cinematic movement,” says Malone, the author of Backwards and in Heels, a history of women working in cinema.

While the labours of US writers and directors such as Nora Ephron and Penny Marshall bore fruit in the late 1980s onwards with worldwide hit films such as Big, A League of Their Own and Sleepless in Seattle (all featured in this poll), they remained the exception – blockbusters designed specifically to appeal to a female audience.

Removing barriers

Malone believes that what really changed the prospects for women who wanted to make films was the rise of independent filmmaking – which coincided with the 1990s. “By then, smaller studios started to form, specifically to make low-budget movies with filmmakers who had something to say,” she explains.

“With the consumer video camera and the popularity of high-definition video, the barrier to making a film suddenly became very low. You didn’t need a big budget, you didn’t need to shoot on film and you didn’t even need the support of a studio to make your movie. This gave women – along with filmmakers of colour and LGBTQ directors – opportunities they never had before.”

Independent British filmmakers such as Sally Potter, Lynne Ramsay and Andrea Arnold benefited from this landscape – with Arnold’s film Fish Tank, a film with a budget of less than $3 million, taking the Cannes Film Festival jury prize in 2009. The Sundance Film Festival, designed to promote independent filmmaking, started in 1985. It gave a director such as New Yorker Debra Granik a platform to promote her own low-budget film Winter’s Bone in 2010, creating a buzz that took its young actress, Jennifer Lawrence, all the way to the Oscars.

Those same Oscars, which started in 1929, didn’t recognise a woman for an achievement in direction until 1977, when Italian director Lina Wertmüller was nominated for Seven Beauties. Similarly, few women working before 1940 are recognised in the BBC Culture poll, the exceptions being early German filmmakers Leni Riefenstahl and Lotte Reineger.

Early pioneers

But that doesn’t mean there weren’t women working, Malone argues – it just means that unlike male figures such as DW Griffith and Charlie Chaplin, their legacy hasn’t been preserved. “There were women like Lois Weber, the most successful female director in Hollywood during the 1920s, a true auteur who created popular films about social issues,” she says.

“Mabel Normand, one of the first female comedians, was also a director – she directed Charlie Chaplin in his first appearance as The Tramp. And there was Dorothy Arzner, the only female director working in Hollywood in the 1930s, who made feminist films and invented the boom microphone.”

There has been an erasure of these women’s stories from film schools and mainstream film books – Malone

There are various historical factors that meant women like them were forgotten, according to Malone. “These early women didn’t always keep good records, film wasn’t thought of as the kind of culturally important medium as it is now – and in many cases, their work was credited to a man; sometimes their husbands or a man they co-directed with. But it can’t be denied that the stories of female film pioneers are not taught like the stories of male film pioneers. There has been an erasure of these women’s stories from film schools and mainstream film books.”

Northern Irish director Mark Cousins has made a 14-part documentary series about female filmmaking, Women Make Film, because, he explains, “women have made so many great movies but their playing field wasn’t level. Their work wasn’t treated fairly”. The reasons he cites for a lot of historical women’s work “gathering dust in archives” are threefold: “They’ve been forgotten because they were made on a low budget and so had little or no marketing behind them; or they were produced in socialist countries and so had political messages unpalatable to the West. And sometimes they were just forgotten because male historians and curators favoured male stories more.”  

The historical canon of female filmmakers, Cousins argues, is still limited, and reflected by the repetition of well-known female directors among the top 25 films in BBC Culture’s poll. “The films on the list are great – and I’m glad that the astonishing Iranian film The House is Black is there,” he says.

“But, of course, these are some of the more famous films directed by women. The net needs to be cast wider. Do that and you include Safi Faye from Senegal, Wanda Jakubowska from Poland, Binka Zhelyazkova from Bulgaria and Kinuyo Tanaka from Japan. These names are less familiar, but they need to become more so.”

It’s really exciting how many more female directors or co-directors are in charge of commercial projects like Frozen 2 or Captain Marvel – Tricia Tuttle

Tricia Tuttle, the artistic director of the BFI London Film Festival, points out that interest is growing in recognising the legacy of female pioneers in film. The British Film Institute had a retrospective of the works of Mabel Normand and Dorothy Arzner, while it’s re-released  the movie Yentl, directed by Barbra Streisand in 1984.

Tuttle thinks that the Metoo movement, which started in 2017, is responsible for recently expanding the horizons of women working in film, as the industry seeks to redress its historical gender imbalance. In 2018, only 4% of the top 100 grossing movies in the US were directed by women.

“It’s too early to say if we are now in a golden age for women’s cinema,” says Tuttle, “but it’s clear that things are really changing. It’s really exciting how many more female directors or co-directors are in charge of commercial projects, such as Frozen 2 or Captain Marvel – and something like Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is getting a lot of awards excitement for 2020.

“What makes recognition possible in the film world is this combination of commercial and cultural success. We work in a reactive business, and risk-averse financial investors have more confidence in putting money into projects by women when they see other women around them succeeding.”

The five female filmmakers who’ve received directing Oscar nominations – Coppola, Campion, Wertmüller, Gerwig and Bigelow (all except Wertmüller’s happened after 1990) – appear near the top of the poll, with several mentions in the list.

“The repetition shows actually just how thin the competition has been,” says Tuttle. “If you had a poll featuring the best films by men, there’d be many different directors. Women’s filmmaking has been a small select club, but that doesn’t reflect a lack of imagination. It reflects what’s been happening globally.”

Read more about BBC Culture’s 100 greatest films directed by women:

–       What the critics had to say about the top 25
–       Why Agnès Varda got more votes than anyone else
–       Why The Piano is number one
–       The 100 greatest films directed by women

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