Seven female directors you should know about

By Cherry Ng

We are often confronted with appalling statistics on the lack of women working behind the scenes in the film industry, or horror stories about how female directors are shoved into ‘movie jail’ after one critical or commercial failure, while their male contemporaries still receive prestigious job offers in the same situation.

The most effective way to combat such discriminatory treatment is to support female filmmakers. Apart from the names we all know — Kathryn Bigelow, Sofia Coppola, Jane Campion — here is a short list of both exciting and accomplished female talents behind the camera, and a select few of their works you should be checking out:

Ava DuVernay

Ava DuVernay is a trailblazer. She became the first African-American female director to have her film nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards two years ago, though she sadly missed a well-deserved Best Director nomination.

Selma, her immensely powerful civil rights drama is fiery and reverberating. DuVernay as a director exudes such confidence — whatever she does, it will surely make an impact on you.

That brings me to her critically-acclaimed documentary feature 13th (available on Netflix) — a robust and poignant discourse on mass incarceration and racial tensions in the States that is a must-see in this political climate.

DuVernay is looking to diversify her resumé as well — her next project is Disney’s live-action adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time, the beloved fantasy series written by Madeleine L’Engle. This project makes her the first woman of colour to helm a production with a budget exceeding $100 million.

If you follow her on social media, her enthusiastically-filmed Instagram stories are an exciting glimpse into the filmmaking process.

Patty Jenkins

Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad weren’t exactly the hits Warner Brothers/DC were hoping for, and the current behind-the-scenes drama concerning The Batman and The Flash does not help moviegoers to restore their faith in the DC cinematic universe either.

All eyes are on Wonder Woman (in theatres the coming June) right now: a film 75 years in the making. Now the world is finally ready for the most iconic superhero of all time.

While this film is subjected to an unfair amount of pressure, the fact that Patty Jenkins is the commander of this ship is a comforting sign. Her most famous work to date, Monster, which earned its leading lady Charlize Theron an Oscar, is a chilling story of a real-life serial murderer. The film is incredibly hard to watch, but I enjoyed Jenkins’ female sensibilities that are a rarity in the crime genre.

She sure knows how to craft a character-driven film, and judging by Wonder Woman’s trailers thus far, she has a knack for action and spectacle too. Couple that with her strong vision and an unfaltering passion for the character and I cannot imagine Wonder Woman to be anything near a critical failure. It’s going to be a supremely wonderful film.

Mira Nira

The Indian-American filmmaker has an extensive filmography, and I can’t say I’ve seen most of her earlier works; but the few I’ve seen, I’ve loved. Her niche is definitely cross-cultural stories, but they are incredibly versatile in subject matter.

The Namesake is an emotional journey of two generations of Indian immigrants and a story of loyalty and heritage. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is an underrated political thriller that provides a much-needed perspective to the post-9/11 world (Riz Ahmed is brilliant).

Then there is the ultimate crowd-pleaser Queen of Katwe, starring Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo. It is unabashedly a feel-good movie, but Nair’s execution is solid and charismatic.

Niki Caro

Her name might sound familiar to you, for it was announced a few weeks ago that she has been recruited by Disney to direct the live-action adaptation of the beloved animation Mulan. This makes her, like DuVernay, one of the very few female directors who are taking charge of big-budget productions.

The New Zealand-native impressed with her directorial debut, Whale Rider — a family drama about female empowerment and indigenous culture (think Moana, un-Disneyfied). Somehow Caro has managed to avert all the clichés that come easily to this kind of story, offering an uplifting and authentic tale of bravery and defiance.

Apart from Mulan, she also recently directed the pilot episode of Anne, the newest adaptation of Anne of Green Gables by Netflix (premiering in May), and a Holocaust drama starring Jessica Chastain and Daniel Brühl: The Zookeeper’s Wife.

Lone Scherfig

The Danish director is known to be part of Dogme 95 — a film movement promulgated by Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg that asks filmmakers to rely solely on the orthodox film languages of story and acting, and reject any ‘unnatural’ elements of filmmaking such as special lighting or fabricated set design.

Therefore all of Scherfig’s films are hyper-naturalistic with a touch of feminine delicacy. Her ensemble romantic comedy Italian for Beginners is slightly satirical and loaded with Scandinavian quirks, but you will be charmed.

Brits might remember her for An Education, the film that launched Carey Mulligan to stardom. This quietly-provoking coming-of-age tale resonated with my then 13-year-old self so much that I think it’s safe to say it was a life-changing watch.

Scherfig later directed One Day and The Riot Club, and the upcoming wartime comedy Their Finest (UK release in April), starring Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin and Bill Nighy.

Amma Asante

Asante is a great British talent. Belle is an elegantly-directed period drama about Dido Elizabeth Belle, a mixed-race aristocrat, and her struggles to find a place in the society as the illegitimate daughter of a Royal Navy officer and an African slave.

Asante brought out amazing performances from a remarkable ensemble cast, especially that of Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who plays the eponymous heroine of the film with such subtle passion.

Asante’s most recent feature, A United Kingdom, is another thoughtful discourse on racial relations bolstered by two incredibly strong performances from David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike.

Andrea Arnold

To cap off this list is the brilliant Andrea Arnold. A regular at international film festivals, Arnold is one of the giants of the British independent film scene.

Red Road is a voyeuristic, slow-burn thriller that will unsettle you for days; Fish Tank is an intense bleak and unflinchingly honest coming-of-age tale set in an equally bleak neighborhood in London; her take on Wuthering Heights has some of the most profound cinematography I have ever seen.

It is, however, last year’s American Honey that turned me into a fan — Arnold’s poignant deconstruction of contemporary American culture is an escapade of a movie. She understands youth (and the many pains that come with it) like no other director.

Watching her films is always a profound experience, and I think she truly is one of the best working directors in the 21st century.

Image: Katie Butler


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