Streaming Spotlight - Contemporary British Women directors

It was International Women's Day earlier this week, so we're looking at some of our recent homegrown talent

by Amber Wilkinson, Jennie Kermode

Theresa Ikoko on making Rocks: 'I think what really happened in this film was that seeing loads of women behind the camera showing what they could become, not only helped the girls but for me, as my first film, it was super-inspiring'
Theresa Ikoko on making Rocks: 'I think what really happened in this film was that seeing loads of women behind the camera showing what they could become, not only helped the girls but for me, as my first film, it was super-inspiring' Photo: Courtesy of London Film Festival
It was International Women's Day on Monday, the theme of which is Choose To Challenge, a subject that many female filmmakers will no doubt find familiar, given that in 2020, the Centre for the Study of Women in Film and Television found that women comprised just 16 per cent of directors working on the top 100 grossing films in 2019 - albeit up from 12 per cent in 2018 - and that number itself skewed towards white filmmakers. It could be argued that the challenge also rests with us, the audience, to look out for women filmmakers when they do come along and try to see the films they produce. Why not choose a challenge yourself and try the 52 Films by Women objective and aim to watch a film by a female director each week?

With that in mind, we're shining a spotlight on some British female contemporary filmmakers this week who are available to stream.

Rocks, Netflix

Sarah Gavron's films have always featured strong female protagonists (Brick Lane, Suffragette) and this BAFTA-nominated coming-of-age drama is a triumph of diversity across the board. She and writers Theresa Ikoko - who describes it as "a love letter to my sister - and Claire Wilson developed the script with the help of their young cast through workshops, which gives the cadence of the language a natural feel. The film tells the tale of youngster Rocks (Bukky Bakray), who finds herself left looking after her seven-year-old brother Emmanuel when her mum disappears to "clear her head", as she tries to stop anyone finding out about their domestic problems even as the situation deteriorates over the course of a week. The film shines a light on the importance of friendship in the face of a system that is creaking at the seams and features magnetic debuts from almost all the youngsters concerned. It's going to be a strong contender on BAFTA night. Read more about those workshops and our full review.

Belle, Disney+, Chili

Jennie Kermode writes: If you think that young mixed-race women struggling to find acceptance in aristocratic circles is a new issues, Amma Asante's handsomely presented 2013 costume drama will set you straight. Asante, who explored related themes in A United Kingdom and Where Hands Touch, By its very existence, Belle points up the glaring absence of black faces in most heritage films and the distorted picture of British history that it represents. The film, which is based on real life events, also explores issues around the ending of the slave trade and the ways in which women engaged with politics before they were able to do so directly. There's a romance at the centre but equally important is the heroine's relationship with her father. Asante's characters are always both politicised and political, vitally connected with a wider world, enabling the director to take on bigger stories through ostensibly simple tales. Read our interview with Asante and her star Gugu Mbatha-Raw and the full review.

We Need To Talk About Kevin, Amazon Prime, GooglePlay and other platforms

Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay declared herself one to watch in 1999, when she made her distinctive debut with Ratcatcher, which charts the aftermath of an adolescent tragedy against the backdrop of the Glasgow bin strikes. Twelve years on, she showed she had lost none of her edge or emotional immediacy with this gripping adaptation of Lionel Shriver's bestseller about the disconnection between a mother and son and the violence that ensues. Why spoil the plot when there's so much craft to talk about? From the fragmented way that Ramsay builds the picture of what has led up to the point where Kevin's mother Eva (Tilda Swinton, on customarily intense form) is now to the strong colour coding that is frequently drenched in red and the feeling of desolation she creates around Eva more generally, it's a masterclass of filmmaking that retains its ambiguity to the last. Read our full review.

I Am Not A Witch, Amazon Prime

Rungano Nyoni established herself in short films - winning the BIFA for her 2013 Z1 and taking home a clutch of festival circuit gongs for her 2014 Listen, with Tribeca Film Festival praising her for its "affecting narrative". The Welsh-Zambian writer/director stepped up to features with ease, with this tale of a young Zambian girl, Shula (Maggie Mulubwa), who finds herself accused of practising the dark arts. Packed off to a witch camp, she is forced to work, tethered alongside her fellow "witches" by gigantic cotton bobbins, which add an edge of the surreal to Nyoni's tale. Her self-declared state guardian Mr Banda (Henry PJ Phiri) embodies the ludicrous elements of the patriarchy as well as the danger, as he brags to the women about how much longer their tethers are since he took office. There are plenty of laughs here but they are mixed with sharp satire about power dynamics and politics that gives way to a moving poignancy as Nyoni slowly tightens the focus on Shula's plight. Read our full review here.

Red Road, BFI Player

Andrea Arnold had an established career as an actress before she stepped behind the camera, becoming well known to kids in the 80s as a regular face on  Saturday morning magazine show No 73. Perhaps that's why she always seems to get such great performances from her cast, whether they're established names like this film's star Kate Dickie, or street cast, as some of her later leading ladies. This film hinges on Dickie's mesmeric performance as CCTV operator Jackie, who works in the impoverished Red Road area of Glasgow - the high-rise flats that dominate would go on to be demolished some years later - and who becomes obsessed with  a newly released ex-con (Tony Curran). Arnold steeps us in Jackie's loneliness and, like Lynn Ramsay, has a way of capturing the darker realities of working class life without slipping into poverty porn. Slowly, methodically, she reveals Jackie's secrets, questions our judgements, tightens the screw. Read our full review.

Shooting The Mafia, Amazon Prime

Documentarian Kim Longinotto has been making films since the Seventies and its just a shame that hers isn't a better known name outside the festival circuit. This is her most recent and it differs from her previous films in that it makes considerable use of archive to build a profile of Sicilian photographer Letizia Battaglia - who has spent much of her life documenting the brutality of the Mafia and poverty on her doorstep. As always, Longinotto has a knack for encouraging people to open up to her and Battaglia's responses are a fascinating mix of personal history and tricks of the trade. Read what Longinotto told us about making the film and our full review.

Darlin', Amazon

Jennie Kermode writes: In 2009, Pollyanna McIntosh played a character knows simply as 'the woman' who was too big to be contained by Andrew van der Houten's cannibal shocker Offspring. In 2011 Lucky McKee gave her her own film, The Woman, and in 2019 McIntosh made her debut as a feature director with this film, which follows up on the same character a few years later as her adopted daughter, who lived wild with her until taken to a hospital to get an abortion, is 'rescued' by a Christian school which aims to turn her into a proper young lady. Lauryn Canny is excellent as the young lead who slowly learns to speak and then to read but never quite loses her wildness, having grown up with very different expectations, whilst the Woman, looking for her, has an interesting encounter with a group of homeless women outcast because they couldn't fit into society. A ferociously feminist film which McIntosh described to us as "free of that societal bullshit about What is a woman?, this is a directorial triumph. Read our full review.

This week's short film is Rungano Nyoni's Listen.

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