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  • Carrie Specht

TCM to Present U.S. Premiere of 14-Part Documentary "Women Make Film"

I don’t particularly care for anything that focuses on female artists just for being female. However, I do understand the intent and need for a focus on inclusion due to exclusion from the usual look at history, whether it be Women Filmmakers, Black Filmmakers, Asian Filmmakers or any one else who is and has been marginalized by the main stream. The contributions of anyone who isn’t white and male are often overlooked due to the historical exclusion of the previously mentioned artists and the narrow perspective of many of those who record and report history. The Woman Make Film documetary series attempts to change that.

The whole series is put into perspective within six minutes into the first episode: filmmaking is a “boys” club, sexist by its omission of female participants and their contribution to the history of cinema. In fact, an interesting point is made early on about how certain looks or styles in movies are attributed to male filmmakers marked by turning their last names into a verb, such as “Wellesian”, “Lynchian”, or “Capraesq”. Why do we as a culture use these descriptive words to describe films made by woman years, even decades before the honored male director was even working in cinema? The series presents the answer that it is because we dont know any better.


But don’t be dissuaded by the title, this is a master class in filmmaking, period. A particularly interesting aspect of the TCM (Turner Classic Movies) series is that it actually doesn’t focus on the gender of the filmmakers, but rather the quality of their films, plain and simple. That’s exactly the kind of examination I like. The vehement choice not to refer to the collective filmmakers as “Female” directors is emphasized at the beginning of a chapter as the narrator announces the continuation of exploration into, “What makes a good film?” not, “what makes a good film by a woman.” This is so unusual to hear within a narrative about female filmmakers that it’s as refreshing as it is startling. This perspective expresses something I’ve always struggled to say, but lacked the words to provide a clarified meaning. And that is that female filmmakers should be considered filmmakers first and females second. The age of deminutivising masculine titles to suit female equivalents is dead.


Another aspect throughout the 14-part documentary that I find particularly clever is the device of approaching the series like a road trip “driven” by the narrators. The use of a passing landscape as seen from a driver’s perspective between the explorations of each concept reminds the viewer that this exploration into cinema is a continuing journey. International voices flow cleanly across borders, exposing an astonishing breadth of exploration. It's rather overwhelming, raising the question of where the knowledge of all these artists been all our lives? The answer is that they just haven't been celebrated, promoted, or even valued.


I must say that I am not completely full of praise for this project. For instance, I don't understand why the examination of women in film begins its exploration so late into the twentieth century. Afterall, Women filmmakers were directing films from the very beginning of cinema. Even if Alice Guy (Blache) is looked upon as a mere flicker upon the scope of the one hundred and forty years of cinema, she (as well as Dorothy Arzner of the 1920s-30s) should have been included in this examination in order to be considered a true reflection of the female cinematic influence. Even though, early on it is stated that the production is not meant to be comprehensive and purposely avoids expectations, I think it's a bit of a cop-out. This "oversight" allows for the exemption of the notorious Leni Riefenstahl (Triumph of the Will, Olympia), Adolph Hit;er's favorite German filmmaker. So, this history doesn’t begin until the 1940s. This "omission of historical elements" is ironicly a sitution the filmmakers are trying to rectify.


The depth in which we are plunged into the how and why and good filmmaking is sometimes exceedingly deep. It is pedagogical and is as in depth as any film criticism class I had at film school. And although I find it intriguing, even mesmerizing, the content is likely overwhelming for the average film audience. Eras, genres, movements, and everything else one can consider in the aspects of cinema is considered. No possibility is left unexamined or ignored. From French New Wave, to live action, animation, and documentary filmmakers are all examined in a comprehensive exploration into what makes the best of cinema. I can only imagine that it must have taken years of research and archive diving to create such an inclusive array of examples with which to tell the story.


That said, I don’t think it is something that will appeal to everyone – certainly not the casual old movie fan more use to stories about the glamorous days of old Hollywood. And to be clear, this series does not appear to be aimed at attracting that audience. “A complex tonal recipe” is the kind of stuff I found difficult to fathom as an undergrad. I doubt most viewers will be able to appreciate this kind of in depth examination of film theory. If this were a scholastic paper instead of a film I can only imagine the length of the Bibliography. Set your DVRs and record it all, but do not wait too long to watch it all. The collection will have a much bigger impact if you watch them all within a sensible time frame. The material is so deep, so convoluted, it would be too easy to lose the thread of context with too much distance between episodes.


Written and Directed by Mark Cousins, the eye-catcing, gorgeously produced, and stunningly composed cinematogrphy is beautifully narrated by Academy Award winner Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton, Dr. Strnage), Academy Award winner and Hollywood royalty, Jane Fonda (Klute, On Golden Pond), Award nominated Adjoa Andoh (Bridgerton), Award winner Sharmila Tagore (The World of Apu, Aradhana), Award nomiee Kerry Fox, (Little Joe, Bright Star) Emmy winner Thandie Newton (Westworld, Crash) and Academy Award nominated Debra Winger (Terms of Endearment, An Officer and A Gentleman).


TCM's Women Make Film documentary premieres September 1 at 8:00 p.m. EST.