Mark Cousins on his love-letter to female film-makers

Jane Fonda is among the narrators on an Irish director’s 14-hour epic documentary about female film-makers, writes Esther McCarthy.
Mark Cousins on his love-letter to female film-makers

Jane Fonda is among the narrators on an Irish director’s 14-hour epic documentary about female film-makers, writes Esther McCarthy.

Belfast-raised and Edinburgh-based filmmaker Mark Cousins writes a love letter to female filmmakers in his epic documentary Women Make Film.

It’s all about their work. Spanning fourteen hours and forty chapters, and narrated by actors including Tilda Swinton, Jane Fonda and Thandie Newton, the film is an opus to filmmakers past and present from all over the world.

Following rave reviews on the festival circuit, the documentary, years in the making and spanning thirteen decades and 183 filmmakers, is now on release.

If you had to pick three films that feature among the hundreds referenced here, what would they be?

“The first that I would choose is called Love Letter. It’s a Japanese film directed by Kinuyo Tanaka. What I love about it is first of all, it's a great film, a classic story, about a guy who's writing love letters for women who are not literate immediately after WW2.

“Kinuyo Tanaka was a movie star. But she decided at the age of fiftysomething to direct and she got to direct just at that stage when people were starting to write women off. And she directed, frankly, a masterpiece.

“The second film I would choose is a war movie called The Ascent directed by Larisa Shepitko. I chose it because people again and again say women make great films about relationships and children. But this is the best war movie.

It's devastating, shocking and epic and physical and muscular, not words that are necessarily used about women's cinema. She died far too young. But the legacy of her films is remarkable.

“More recently, Alice Rohrwacher made this film called Happy as Lazzaro. I mention it because it's a film for our times. It's about a naive young man who works on a farm. And he thinks the best of people, and it's about idealism, and he's just a lovely human being and he helps people out.

“At a time when we're hopefully rediscovering the values of community and solidarity and friendship, and generosity, and kindness, this is a kind of manifesto for all of that.”

The move to promote and celebrate diversity in cinema has rarely felt more urgent. Why is this happening now?

“Harvey Weinstein was a horrible man. But he catalysed a kind of crisis of conscience in the film industry around the world, I think, particularly in the Western world.

“Lots of people did a bit of soul searching and realised whether they're an archivist or whether they run a film magazine or a radio show or a cinema, that they hadn't done enough.

“Therefore, there's been been a lot of good work, an undignified scramble, I would say, to acknowledge what films by female filmmakers are in archives around the world, and what can be done to show them and programme them and restore them and subtitle them.

“All of which is good.” Is it true you developed this project after asking about the great female filmmakers in every country you visited?

“I'm always interested in what I don't know, and it's been a long term thing for me. In the arts world, people think that it's all about self expression. I've always been interested in the world outside me, and what else is there?

Mark Cousins with Jane Fonda.
Mark Cousins with Jane Fonda.

“For decades, I've been doing just what you described. If I go to a country, I ask who their great female filmmakers are, make a list and then look them up.

“And it's been great, it's been a joy of discovery and I hope you will agree that this film is a work of affirmation, a work of celebration and that’s what keeps me alive, discovering new stuff, the joy of what's out there, especially when we're in lockdown.

“We're searching, there's a danger that we get a bit depressed or bored. So discovering a new filmmaker, a new story, a new aesthetic, a new worldview is fantastic.”

Did you discover places where female filmmakers thrived?

“Yes. And conversely, where they didn't thrive. If you look at cultures that are quite macho, or quite traditional, then women directors weren't given as many opportunities. I'm thinking Spain, I'm thinking Italy, and dare I say it, Ireland.

If you look at very capitalist countries, countries where the dollar is a bottom line, again, women were squeezed out.

“But if you jump to other parts of the world, like lots of the old Soviet bloc, Bulgaria, Romania, Russia, you find that, despite all the many problems that these countries have had, women assumed that you could train to be a filmmaker, that you would get a job, and you could become the boss.”

It was surprising to learn that Dorothy Asner was the only dominant female filmmaker in Hollywood’s hugely productive Golden Age. Why do you think this was so?

“If you go before her, if you go back to the 1910s, women had a huge creative force in Hollywood. The majority of the writers were female. Mary Pickford co-established a movie studio and so women had power until Wall Street stepped in.

“Once it did, and once it was only asking questions about box office, then all these Wall Street people were men of course, and they were asking the question, what would guys like me want to see?

“So even in America, before the Golden Age, women had significant roles across the creative terrain. But that changed. And they were written out. They were pushed out.”

Hugely successful women including Thandie Newton and Tilda Swinton narrate your film, as well as the iconic Jane Fonda. How did she get involved?

Mark Cousins and Tilda Swinton.
Mark Cousins and Tilda Swinton.

“I had to sell the idea of this film. Then I wrote another email, and I think within two hours, Fonda replied and she said: ‘I'm in’.

“This is not a film which is asking questions about what women are because women are everything and anything they want to be. And she really liked that. I showed up in her house and she made guacamole and writing for Jane Fonda and directing Jane Fonda, it doesn't get any better.”

What Irish filmmakers do you admire?

“I love Sinead O'Shea's A Mother Takes Her Son To Be Shot. And of course, Pat Murphy's Maeve and Nora (Twomey, the Cork-born animator).

“I'm Irish myself and I wanted to put Irish stuff in there, but the story was so big, and I was determined to get as much in as possible but I have not done Ireland justice and I'm sorry.

“I have to say that we have to point the finger at Ireland because it has been terrible at giving women the opportunities to direct film until quite recently.”

WOMEN MAKE FILM: A NEW ROAD MOVIE THROUGH CINEMA is released on Blu-ray by the British Film Institute and is now streaming on BFI Player and on Curzon Home Cinema.

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