Five women to watch

Rebecca Miller, Chloé Zhao, Céline Sciamma, Susanna Nicchiarelli and Ana Lily Amirpour

by Anne-Katrin Titze, Amber Wilkinson, Andrew Robertson, Jennie Kermode

Chloé Zhao
Chloé Zhao Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Anne-Katrin Titze on Rebecca Miller and Chloé Zhao

Two filmmakers, Rebecca Miller and Chloé Zhao, came to mind for this celebration of International Women's Day because their work intrinsically, casually, devastatingly shows an awareness of what women still are up against - in the personal, all-encompassing details.

Rebecca Miller
Rebecca Miller Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Most of the time when being asked about favourite films or highlights in a festival, I pick my choices without consciously thinking of the director's gender. Only afterwards do I notice how many of them are made by women. For example, at last year's New York Film Festival, two of my top picks were Rebecca Miller's fabulously structured documentary Arthur Miller: Writer and Chloé Zhao's fictional portrait of the world of rodeo riders on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in The Rider (follow-up to the exquisite Songs My Brothers Taught Me) that gets closer to the truth than most documentaries could achieve.

There is horse trainer Brady's little sister Lilly (Lilly Blackburn), who is on the autism spectrum. She wants to take care of her brother, not the other way around, and at age 15 decides that growing up is not much fun. Zhao, without a thimble of sentimentality or pathos, turns this girl into an inspiration for everyone.

Rebecca Miller's terrific sense of humor and smart timing shine through in her fictional works as well as in her very personal homage to her father. It is the women, though, who also leave an unforgettable impression. Rebecca's mother, the perpetually young photographer Inge Morath, Marilyn Monroe,"the saddest girl in the world" and the artistic Gussie, Arthur's mother who went with her little son to have oysters when he faked a limp and didn't want to go to school. When defiance is genuine, there is no need for superpowers to make a story interesting. Enlightenment comes in surprising ways from the films of these two directors.

Amber Wilikinson on Céline Sciamma

Céline Sciamma
Céline Sciamma Photo: Georges Biard

Céline Sciamma may have a fairly short CV at the moment but it packs a punch. She has built her career on telling strong coming of age stories from a female perspective. After two shorts, she stepped immediately up to the big time with her first feature Water Lilies - which had the more enigmatic title Birth Of Octopuses (Naissance Des Pieuvres) in French - which premiered in Cannes Un Certain Regard section in 2007. Its themes of adolescent sexuality are explored with a minimalist subtlety - and it's fair to say that less is almost always more in Sciamma's films.

In her follow-up, Tomboy, we're immersed in the pre-pubescent world of 10-year-old Laure, who tries on the identity of a boy for one summer. Where some directors might have presented this as a journey of confusion, Sciamma is more interested in ideas of self-determination, the natural ambiguities of being young and the freedom to simply be yourself. These are all themes she would return to again in her third film Girlhood (again the French title Bande Des Filles/Gang Of Girls is more appropriate). Through the film, she explores the way that the group dynamic of the central character Mariame helps her to sculpt her own individualism. Men appear in Sciamma's films - including Laure's accepting father and Mairame's less pleasant experiences at the hands of various patriarchies - but they are generally on the periphery, in itself a refreshing reversal from what we more often see on screen. She is also a founder of the 5050 Pour 2020 (50/50 by 2020) group, which is campaigning for improved film diversity and gender parity in funding.

Andrew Robertson on Susanna Nicchiarelli

Susanna Nicchiarelli
Susanna Nicchiarelli Photo: HartemLijn

I wanted to highlight a recent film made after a significant hiatus by an incredibly talented writer/director. Nico, 1988 is a film about a woman, written and directed by a woman, which explores to significant effect the particular challenges of femininity in an arena both quite different and achingly familiar.

Susanna Nicchiarelli's film portrays the last year or so of Nico, Chrysta Paffgen's existence, her attempts to restore her relationship with her son, her attempts to establish her own identity as an artist. Opening with a radio interview, the film starts with her rejection of a definition of herself generated by others, by men - her career, even her name.

Part of the reason for highlighting this film is its limited visibility and, sadly, its limited availability - despite being a prize-winning film it’s hard, if not effectively impossible, to see. It came after a gap of several years in its director's career, and sadly that's all too common - it's hard for female writers and for directors to secure funding for their projects, as highlighted by Frances McDormand in her recent Oscar acceptance speech. It's hard for their films, once funded, to secure distribution. It's absolutely the case that those of us who are fortunate enough to get to festivals can discover and enjoy them, but film of this quality deserves better. The saddest thing in cinema is talent that goes unseen.

Jennie Kermode on Ana Lily Amirpour

Barbara Crampton introducting Ana Lily Amirpour
Barbara Crampton introducting Ana Lily Amirpour Photo: Moritz Barcelona

One of the great joys of working as a film critic is discovering new talent. Critics often grow cynical because they compare the ‘great’ directors – people (almost exclusively male) who have had decades over which to hone their talents – to the new generation, and conclude that there’s no equivalent talent in the latter. So it has been particularly exciting to see the arrival of Ana Lily Amirpour, whose style shows an assurance and visual imagination rarely found in any filmmaker of her tender age.

Amirpour burst onto the stage in 2014 with A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. Although, as an ‘Iranian skateboarding vampire western’ it offers plenty of distraction, what’s really notable about it is its dreamlike imagery and a sense of rhythm that has led to comparisons with Quentin Tarantino. Her second film, The Bad Batch, doesn’t quite live up to it but is equally interesting in that it takes its own direction, showing her range rather than simply reinforcing what we already know she’s good at.

With several impressive short works out there as well, Amirpour has demonstrated the kind of gift that comes along once in a decade. Women are still desperately underrepresented among directors whose work is supported by influential studios or picked up by film festivals. How much other raw talent might we be missing?

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