As we open the eighth part of the 100 Films Made By Women with three movies in black and white, we also include the oldest film on the entire list (and one of two short films). Continue to salute with us these extremely talented women bringing exceptional films to our attention:
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) – Ana Lily Amirpour — Robin Write @WriteoutofLA
Written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour (proving yet again there’s some incredible film talent deriving from Iran), and seemingly talked about with high anticipation long before many had even seen it (due to an appalling limited release), A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is an exceptional, infectious film experience. Immaculately lit, framed and focused in its black and white, you would really struggle to find a frame of film here that is not unquestionably pleasing to the eye. And why should you, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night catches your gaze and holds your attention from beginning to end. Subliminally taking to you in and out of great movies gone-by depicting many specific eras by acclaimed film-makers, too many to mention here perhaps, this pays the highest respect and homage to some of cinema’s finest memories without appearing as copy-cat or wanna-be. It also expertly drifts through genres of horror and western with its dead town landscape and dark, clandestine places. Somehow both eerie and comforting simultaneously, Amirpour’s execution feeds our subconscious reminding us in no certain way what draws us to the enigmatic lure of vampires. The remarkable soundtrack takes me back to my alternative days of youth at times, while always adding to the movie’s composure and elusive tone. Catchy songs are used in a less conventional way in accompanying the mood, yet the music and the scenarios feel familiar and real. This is an exquisitely made little film, beautifully atmospheric and captivating, with ample drops of chills and romance in all the right places, it is always at ease in fulfilling our appetite for cinematic indulgence. A motion picture to relish and cherish.
Midwife to the Upper Classes (1902) – Alice Guy-Blaché — Desirae Embree @ZeeSayre
Midwife to the Upper Classes is the story of a young, bourgeois couple of discriminating tastes. The film follows them in their attempts to purchase the perfect baby from their local midwife, which proves no small feat. Like most early films, this one features a deceptively simple narrative under-girded by complex social commentary and decorated with whimsical mise-en-scène. The result is half satire, half fairy-tale – all fun. While Guy treats the film’s anxieties with a light touch, they will resonate with the contemporary viewer nonetheless. The couple’s revilement at being offered a Black baby, the undertone of contempt for engineered parenthood, and the subtle lampooning of upper-class privilege all prefigure the racial, economic, and sexual revolutions that would followed the rapid technological advancement of the era. Midwife also stands as an early example of the film remake, as it was based on Guy’s 1897 directorial debut The Cabbage Fairy. Both films show a unique commitment to the cinematic treatment of women’s experience that is perhaps Guy’s most important and lasting contribution to early film history. Like many of her films, Midwife to Upper Classes is available on YouTube, and remains a powerful example of the singular delights offered by the work of early cinema’s female pioneers.
Go Fish (1994) – Rose Troche — Robin Write @WriteoutofLA
Go Fish is a film I won’t forget for many reasons. Back in college this was shown to us young celluloid nerds as part of the film studies course. I’m not sure it was official syllabus material, but when you think twenty years later we still have a minority issue with films by women, about women – gay women – it was quite an extraordinary thing. Being a sucker for the indie flick I was never complaining. Go Fish also looks and feels like a film someone at college would make, the kind of vibe that came from those films I and colleagues were trying to make more often than not. That low-key, amateur tone is by no means an insult to this film, far from it. Rose Troche directed Go Fish, and co-wrote the screenplay with Guinevere Turner, who also plays the lead, Max. The plot develops when Max meets another woman who is currently in long distance relationship. That main thread-line is linked with various quirky and observational scenes of lesbian friends dissecting each other, their sexuality, and its place in their social circle, and their outlooks on current relationships. The dialogue is thought-provoking for the most part, we’re interested in the banter and the theories, regardless where the story is going. The narrative does roll forward however in fine pace, lurking closer to it’s rather explicit, but satisfying closure. There is a jazzy score and some rather nifty editing to boot.
Frozen River (2008) – Courtney Hunt — Steve Schweighofer @banjoonthecrag
Courtney Hunt’s brilliantly simple writing and direction of this indie labor of love gave us of one of the best films of its decade. The border spanning Akwesasne reserve is the setting for her human smuggling drama that not only shines a non-judgmental light on the issue at hand, but also on the plight and living conditions of First Nations/Native Americans living in this autonomous region that recognizes its own sovereignty over that of the US or Canada. Every winter, the St Lawrence River freezes over and provides a frozen bridge that is used to smuggle everything from drugs and cigarettes to, in the case of Hunt’s story, desperate illegal immigrants attempting to pass from one side of the border to the other. Hunt perfectly conveys the tension one would expect in such an endeavor and manages to add some harrowing layers to each occurrence, none more so than a scene where a duffel bag, suspected of containing explosives, is left out on the frozen river and we subsequently discover it contains the infant child of the Pakistani refugees making the crossing. And this is not even the climatic event that allows for the full reveal of the film’s themes of sacrifice and redemption. Melissa Leo should have won the Oscar for her portrayal of Ray Eddy, a mother who pursues the answer for her families comfort and security – a new double-wide trailer – and she is more than ably supported by the late Misty Upham in a heartbreaking performance as Lila Littlewolf, also a mother, who is at odds with both the white mans’ law and her own tribe. In 97 short minutes, Courtney Hunt obliterates cultural and racial boundaries without once being political, while at the same time providing us with a thrilling story set in the dark corner of our own backyard where nobody ever goes.
Tiny Furniture (2010) – Lena Dunham — Robin Write @WriteoutofLA
Before the HBO bawdy, breakthrough comedy Girls, Lena Dunham wrote, directed and starred in the feature film Tiny Furniture. In an ever-so-similar ballpark to the successful TV show, Dunham plays Aura, who arrives back at her family home from her college having been dumped by the guy she was supposedly going to marry, thus now stuck in a bit of a rut. Figuring out the state of your life at a crossroads is an important thing to focus on, and can be pretty enlightening given film space. Dunham has created something more than interesting enough, keeping light on the drama and humor, while allowing her characters to speak elaborately and observantly. Though there are authentically funny moments, as well as those were you really feel for Aura, Dunham never goes for the throat with emotions or giggles. She is a compelling screen presence, carrying plenty of charm, vulnerability, and performs witty, dry comedy rather efficiently. There are times here we get little whiffs of the kind of social, anxious commentary we know of Noah Baumbach or Woody Allen (to name just two), though not quite in their league of course, they are both very enviable comparisons indeed for what is a well-rounded, intriguing satire on life’s little bumps.
Luck by Chance (2009) – Zoya Akhtar — Asif Khan @KHAN2705
Zoya Akhtar is an Indian filmmaker and writer who made her directorial debut with this acclaimed 2009 feature about an actor’s journey to become a movie star in Bollywood. All of her three films (including the acclaimed Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and the recent Dil Dhadakne Do) are ensemble pieces. Unlike other mainstream Bollywood filmmakers, Akhtar champions storytelling of this variety rather than simple boy-meets-girl love stories that the industry is known for. Akhtar comes from a hugely talented family. Her father, brother, mother and stepmother are either actors, writers, directors or poets, lyricists and singers. Luck by Chance works both as a love letter to the Indian film industry as well as a serious-minded/subtle satire. Akhtar pokes fun at working of the industry effectively and keenly. There is an immense understanding of the subject as well as the film’s story that comes with Akhtar’s experience as well as her observant eye. At the center of this film are two main characters whose personal ambitions, individual paths and distinct understanding as well as consequences provides for the films main conflicts. Packed with good performances (Konkana Sen Sharma for life), impressionable variety of supporting turns and uncountable Bollywood cameos, Luck By Chance is about the huge film industry where stars are made overnight at the expense of other true gems. Bittersweet, deftly handled with layers and layers of nuances, Luck by Chance is surely one of the best films to come out from India about its own industry.
Sita Sings the Blues (2008) – Nina Paley — Paddy Mulholland @screenonscreen
Simply put, Sita Sings the Blues is among the most joyous, entertaining experiences that the world of film has produced so far this century. You’ve seen a lot like it, in little bits and pieces, but nothing at all like it on the whole: an animated adaptation / discussion / re-imagining of something or other – real life, parable, fantasy. If Sita Sings the Blues is all of the above, it wouldn’t surprise you, so complicated is Nina Paley’s conceit. Yet it functions with the smooth simplicity of the most finely-finessed Old Hollywood capers, an example of intricate construction bearing forth a multi-faceted product with a single, superb purpose: to make you smile! Animated in a variety of styles, each one delightfully rendered despite a minuscule budget, taking on a variety of storytelling forms, each one as charming and persuasive as the last, and set to the most fabulous soundtrack, buoyed by a selection of Annette Hanshaw classics, you’ve truly seen nothing like Sita Sings the Blues. So see it, and love it!
This short Swedish film booms in immediately with a pulsating dance beat as our protagonist Line, a worried, hesitant looking young woman enters what appears to be a gay night-club. She is alone for now, and soon picked up by another girl, Julie, who was seemingly left stranded herself in the club moments earlier. Outside, the rather timid Line is given gloves and scarf from Julie to warm her up – how very romantic indeed. Back at Julie’s place they have drinks and flirt, this time echoed by a chilled-out music track, a couple of times their ambiance disturbed by Julie’s ringing phone – turns out to be a partner who may well have hurt her. Both girls seem aggrieved, but trying to hide it and seek comfort in each other. Josephine Adams directs every one of the twenty-two minutes running time with a sharp precision, an intimacy reminding us that the lead-up to a sexual encounter can often take some courage and personal preparation. When things do heat up, personal insecurities put a halt on the physical proceedings, but the girls sleep side by side in the same bed, and embrace. It’s a tender, warm sequence (and film overall), only the rustling of the bedding prevents the complete silence. They whisper song choices to each other, from an earlier ice-breaking question about the type of music they like. They wake the following morning and before Line can leave they snuggle back into bed, start kissing, and eventually undress each other. The last couple of shots with Julie playing her guitar and Line half-smiling on her walk home signifies some potential release from their own personal troubles. Short and sweet, Adams has crafted a small gem here, giving value to the realm of short films but also the tiny chapters of companionship in our lives.
The Milk of Sorrow (2009) – Claudia Llosa — Asif Khan @KHAN2705
Claudia Llosa’s 2009 sophomore feature is a Peruvian film that looks back at the harsh and damaging recent history of the country’s abuse against women. It went on to win Golden Bear and FIPRESCI awards at the Berlin International Film Festical and was nominated for best foreign language Oscar, first for a film from Peru. The impact of its storytelling was clear then. The Milk of Sorrow isn’t a perfect film but it makes up for an impactful experience. Peru’s very real past and the film’s magical realism filled narrative makes up for an unforgettable experience. A film both a vivid projection of what it represents and a bit lost in the attempt. Llosa feels a responsibility to address the sexual violence that was committed against women by the army during a 12-year period in the 80’s and early 90’s. Based on the book “Entre Prójimos” which recounts number of testimonials by women who were raped, the film uses a folk belief to tell a sociological story of how violence has far more reach than the very people directly affected. The central character in the film is suffering from a rare and mysterious illness which is transmitted through the breast milk of pregnant women who were raped. Her life is shrouded by hopelessness, confusion and extreme fear. A tragic existence. The Milk of Sorrow is slow-paced and a little oblique, likely to turn off certain viewers. It is nevertheless filled with beautiful imagery and tells a haunting story of society’s deeply harmful tendencies. Other notable film by Claudia Llosa is her debut film Madeinusa.
Declaration of War (2011) – Valérie Donzelli — Robin Write @WriteoutofLA
In no way an adaptation of the Shakespeare play (although there is a fragile love story here), Declaration of War begins the tale of Juliette (director Valérie Donzelli) and Roméo (Jérémie Elkaïm) in the flourishes of early romance – kissing in public, riding bikes, a bottom slap, the care-free excitement of new love. With the eventual responsibilities of a new baby son, comes the tensions that test a relationship. It’s a convincing, observant piece of film-making to set the pace. What is to come, and the bulk of the film, is the knowledge they have to come to terms with that their baby has a brain tumor. In a vivid, emotive scene, Juliette impulsively starts running down endless hospital corridors, and it seems a somehow appropriate way to vent the anguish. The first act suffocates us with the couple trying to figure out what is wrong with their baby. Early scenes in particular as the camera close to eyes waiting for news, a hand rubbing the tension of the neck, almost dragging us right into the turmoil. Having both written the script, the acting by Donzelli and Elkaïm is sterling, allowing the anxiety and heartache of parenthood to show on their faces as though the performers themselves were actually suffering. Donzelli in her film-making adds some deft touches too. In one scene a concerned consultant wanting to make an immediate call briefly picks up the toy baby phone by accident. There’s some acute dialogue between the couple, not intending to criticize one another, all the while trying to remain focused and calm. There is one terrific exchange between the parents as they wait for their baby’s operation, they fret what will happen to their son. In turn they say they are afraid after the op he will be blind or deaf or mute, and it becomes a spontaneous game to alleviate the stress – they laugh as they ask what if their son becomes a dwarf or queer or black – or a right-wing nutcase? In a time of unimaginable worry and wonder, this can only be sheer pain-relieving amusement, and natural human responses. In a film that, although presses a serious, enduring subject, tries hard not to be too bleak, but rather bring home some joy or faith.