Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema



The work of women filmmakers is only one aspect of an extraordinary documentary


Women Make Film A New Road Movie through Cinema

Mark Cousins is both a critic and a filmmaker and to date his finest achievements have come about when he has been exercising both functions simultaneously. First of all we had The Story of Film: An Odyssey, the TV mini-series which he made back in 2011, a survey of cinema which consisted of fifteen hour-long instalments. Now we have this new piece hardly less gargantuan. It is a work which will be issued on Blu-ray but which is first appearing on BFI Player where its forty chapters are divided into five parts that are being made available one by one. What I have to say here is a response to the first eight chapters which make up Part 1 and I can't know for sure whether or not they are fully characteristic of the work as a whole. Nevertheless, much about the project seems clear from this segment since even this single instalment lasts for virtually three hours. But it's worth noting too that when Cousins first sketched out the work which he had in mind he thought that it would last for as long as twenty-two hours although in the event the total length is 840 minutes. Like the 2011 work this is a deeply felt labour of love, but to have plunged into such an enterprise uncertain as to how it would work out was extraordinarily audacious.


No less personal than The Story of Film, what the new work lacks is a spoken commentary from Mark Cousins himself and I rather miss that beguiling personal delivery of his although in 2011 there were some who took against it. Here the words are his but they are spoken by others and throughout Part 1 the voice over comes from Tilda Swinton who seems ideal for it. In introducing Women Make Film she describes the work as being a film school of sorts, an academy of Venus, and in that phrase we find an implied acknowledgment that the project being undertaken has two distinct aims melded together. It is, of course, being promoted as a work centred on what its title indicates, a movie about films made by women and we are told that no less than 183 female directors will be represented here. The introduction confirms too that the focus will be directly on their work rather than touching on any biographies of these filmmakers or pontificating about the attitudes in the film industry which have sidelined them. Indeed, judging by Part 1 almost everything that we see will take the form of clips from their films rather than new footage. Nevertheless, taking its cue from the second half of the title, Women Make Film does from time to time insert road shots as from a travelling vehicle but these are, in effect, little more than apt breathing spaces.


Because Cousins gave birth to both The Story of Film and this new piece they have a number of features in common. The detailed critical insight on display is a key example of that, but so is the way in which these films reflect the extraordinary range of the filmmaker's knowledge of cinema history. It is certainly   characteristic that part 1 of Women Make Film should start with an out-of-the-way film from Bulgaria, Binka Zhelyezkova's 1961 offering We Were Young and should close with a 1993 documentary D'Est (From the East) which must surely count as one of the most obscure works by the late Chantal Akerman. Nor does Cousins limit himself to full-length features being willing to take in such shorts as Jane Campion's Peel (1982) and Alison De Vere's animation The Black Dog (1987). Even within the realm of British cinema he can surprise us. It is perfectly apt to include the late Wendy Toye whose 1952 film The Stranger Left No Card made far more of a mark than most shorts do, but instead of picking that work he chooses another short piece of hers to praise, the virtually unknown On the Twelfth Day... (1955). On top of that he astonishes by adding the opening scene from her comedy All for Mary (also 1955) despite that being a feature which made no impact when it appeared. Indeed, it is a striking fact that he is not averse to including works which were unfavourably received by many critics (Angelina Jolie's 2015 venture By the Sea is featured here not once but twice). Even so, it does not necessarily follow that Cousins admires unreservedly all of the films from which he quotes although he is very free in acclaiming many of the extracts with superlatives. In any case the space given to them in Part 1 serves to suggest that Agnès Varda, Kira Muratova and Ida Lupino have a special appeal for him.


It is self-evident that in spotlighting notable work from 183 directors Women Make Film will stand as an important reminder of this under-recognised contribution to cinema and it should also help to ensure that these names, now often overlooked as in the case of Wendy Toye, are not forgotten. But for the ordinary viewer what stands out when watching Women Make Film is its other function, the one less trumpeted but nevertheless given a degree of recognition in that phrase in the introduction which declares that what follows will be a film school of sorts.


When Cousins gave us The Story of Film he offered a continuous narrative surveying the history and growth of cinema, something to appeal to every film enthusiast save those uninterested in any film not in the English language. This time the chapters into which the film is divided do not follow a chronological order but instead deal step by step with the various ways in which technique can be applied to create a truly effective film. Thus the first three chapters, each titled, cover `Openings', 'Tone' and `Believability'. Next Cousins turns to how filmmakers handle their characters, first introducing them, next bringing them together and then showing them in conversation. After that Chapters 7 and 8 deal specifically with examples of framing and tracking shots (that this is set up as a sequence of three chapters, the 9th being 'Staging` which will appear in Part II, suggests that the division into five parts for streaming is arbitrary and according to length rather than shaped meaningfully).


On occasion films are compared: unsurprisingly the lesbian school dramas Mädchen in Uniform (1931) and Olivia (1952) are linked in this way, but it is decidedly unexpected when American Psycho (2000) comes together with A New Leaf (1970). But for the most part each film clip stands on its own with plenty of revealing analysis and interpretation. Here one should congratulate Cousins on finding extracts that are not only apt in themselves but have enough gaps between dialogue to allow for detailed comments to be fitted effortlessly into those spaces. But, while all this is done in an exemplary way, it does also confirm that, in contrast to The Story of Film, Women Make Film may well have more of a niche appeal. If one is a critic, viewing a film involves some appreciation of technique, an awareness of it. However, that is present alongside the involvement that comes with discovering how a story will develop. Here the concentration is constantly on technique without that wider context even if the individual scenes are introduced informatively as regards characters and situations.  Taking a few chapters at a time might make a difference, but watching the first three hours in a single stretch suggests that we have here a film absolutely invaluable for those studying to become filmmakers but also one with too much exclusive stress on the use of techniques to satisfy viewers whose interest in that is less exhaustive than that of Mark Cousins. That is not, of course, a criticism of this extraordinary venture but an indication of why the audience with an appetite for the whole fourteen hours are likely to be those with a specialist interest in it. That said, one can only admire Mark Cousins for undertaking a work as formidable and as valuable as this.




Featuring  the voices of Tilda Swinton, Jane Fonda, Adjoa Andoh, Sharmila Tagore, Kerry Fox, Thandie Newton and Debra Winger as narrators.


Dir Mark Cousins, Pro John Archer, Screenplay Mark Cousins, Ed Timo Langer. 


Hopscotch Films/Dogwoof-BFI.
840 mins. UK. 2018. Rel (Part 1): 22 May 2020. Available on BFI Player. Cert. 15.