Back in July 2019 I decided to challenge myself to watch 52 films directed by women over the course of one year. Here’s what I learned!
How many female directors can you name? How many films directed by women have you watched recently? As my answer to these questions was “not so many”, in July 2019 I pledged to watch 52 films directed by women as part of the #52FilmsByWomen initiative launched in 2015 by Women in Film, an organisation dedicated to promoting equal opportunities for women in the film industry. This campaign challenges film fans to watch one film directed by a woman every week for a whole year in an effort to support female filmmakers around the world and to draw attention to the many obstacles that women still have to face to thrive in a space still dominated by men.
Of the top 250 grossing films of 2019, 87% were directed exclusively by men, according to the latest “The Celluloid Ceiling” report from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. What’s more, 81% had no female writers and 95% had no female cinematographers.
This lack of female voices in cinema translates directly into the stories we consume. The underrepresentation of women in creative roles (directing, writing, cinematography, producing) leads to a misrepresentation of female characters and the prominence of films made from a male point of view. Gender equality and diversity in films are essential to reflect the different perspectives and experiences of all groups in society. We need more stories told by women!
My #52FilmsByWomen challenge
Throughout the year of #52FilmsByWomen I watched 52 films (some good, some not so good and a lot of great ones), directed or co-directed by women – including features, shorts, documentaries, fiction and animation. LGBTQ, female empowerment, human rights, social and political issues were the most recurring themes of the films that I watched. The full list can be found here on Letterboxd.
An important guideline that I set for myself for the challenge was to guarantee a geographic diversity in my selection. I explicitly avoided watching mainstream Hollywood films, precisely because I wanted to broaden my own film experiences and to be exposed to new filmmakers and new ways of storytelling.
I have a deep interest in Latin American cinema, so it’s not surprising that I ended up watching 17 films directed by Latin women. 14 films were by European filmmakers, 12 films by Asian directors (including South East Asia, East Asia and the Middle East) and 6 films directed by Anglo-Americans. Sadly, I only watched 3 films from African filmmakers. I know that there are incredible female directors from various countries in the African continent and it will remain a personal challenge for me to watch more films by African women.
Where did I find the films? I tried to not only select films from diverse streaming platforms, but I was also interested in watching films at film festivals to see whether they were achieving gender parity in their lineups. For this reason, last year I volunteered at the Zürich Film Festival, where I had the chance to watch many new incredible films: For Sama, One Child Nation, The Farewell, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Las Buenas Intenciones and Rocks. I also had the opportunity to attend two wonderful film screenings in the presence of the filmmakers: Canción sin Nombre, directed by Peruvian Melina León and Son – Mother, by Iranian filmmaker and women’s rights activist Mahnaz Mohammadi.
Another in-person highlight of the #52FilmsBywomen experience was interviewing Manuela Irianni, a young film director from Argentina, while she was presenting her debut feature “Vera, Nunca Más el Silencio” in Zürich. You can find that interview here.
I went through part of this #52FilmsbyWomen experience during Covid-19 lockdown, so I also watched many films from online film festivals, such as the Iranian Film Festival Zurich and We are One: A Global Film Festival. From the Visions du Réel Festival online edition I found some great short films by emerging young directors, like Obāchan (by Nicolasa Ruiz), Jesa (by Song Kyungwon) and Mat et les Gravitantes (by Pauline Penichout).
Some stats: Women on- and off- screen
I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that none of the 52 films that I watched were written exclusively by men. In 94% of the films, the directors themselves were credited as screenwriters or co-screenwriters, while the remaining 6% had other female screenwriters. A far cry from the results published by the “The Celluloid Ceiling” report, which showed that women accounted for only 19% of all writers working on the 250 top films of 2019.
This report also found that films with female directors are far more likely to employ women in key roles than are films directed exclusively by men. Of the 500 top grossing films of 2019, 59% of those directed by women employed female writers, while on films with exclusively male directors, women accounted for only 13% of the writers.
And what about women on-screen? According to a study titled “It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World”, the percentage of top grossing films featuring female protagonists rose from 31% in 2018 to 40% in 2019, reaching a recent historic high. Films with at least one woman director and/or writer were more likely than films with no women in these roles to feature higher percentages of females as protagonists, in major roles, and as speaking characters.
Of the 52 films that I watched, 82% had female protagonists! In spite of their different contexts, these female characters often shared the same struggles, exposing the patriarchal oppression that women still face. This oppression took the form of gender inequality, discrimination, domestic violence and limited access to education, as well as homophobia and repressed sexuality.
A few final thoughts
If I hadn’t been actively pursuing films directed by women, would I have ever come across directors like Petra Costa, Haifaa Al-Mansour or Sandi Tan? By doing the challenge, I have discovered how many incredible female filmmakers are out there of whom I was unaware. I have found new and exciting female voices that opened me up to different perspectives.
It is very easy to automatically reproduce the unequal gender patterns in our society without even realizing it and #52FilmsByWomen was a constant reminder to pay attention to the artists I’m supporting. Without a doubt, this experience has also changed my viewing habits. Whether looking for something to watch online or going through film festival lineups, I am now actively looking for opportunities to watch films directed by women.
Hopefully one day there will be no need for this campaign. Until then, I will try my best to continue amplifying the voices of women by watching their films!
Last but not least: My Top 10
Of #52FilmsByWomen that I watched, my top ten (in no particular order) would be….
- Portrait of a Lady on Fire, directed by Céline Sciamma
- The Farewell, directed by Lulu Wang
- Elena, directed by Petra Costa
- Wadjda, directed by Haifaa al-Mansour
- One Child Nation, directed by Nanfu Wang, Jialing Zhang
- Song Without a Name, directed by Melina León
- Happy as Lazzaro, directed by Alice Rohrwacher
- Son-Mother, directed by Mahnaz Mohammadi
- Shirkers, directed by Sandi Tan
- For Sama, directed by Waad Al-Kateab, Edward Watts