Film’s Female Powerhouses — Part 3: The International Cineastes

(Re-posted from LimitéMagazine.com)

This Women’s History Month, we’ve spotlighted just some of the contributions to film made by some of the industry’s most interesting and powerful female voices. The first part of the “Film’s Female Powerhouses” series covered some of “The Hollywood Hitmakers,” including such heavyweights as Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight, 2009) and Nancy Meyers (It’s Complicated, 2009). The second part turned attention to “The Indie Darlings,” celebrating the contributions of such directors as Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, 2008) and Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation, 2003) to the independent film scene. In this third—and final—installment, we look at “The International Cineastes,” just some of the contemporaries of famed international female directors as French-born Alice Guy (regarded as the first female filmmaker) and Italian Lina Wertmüller (the first woman nominated for a Best Director Oscar).

Among the 16 women we’ve covered throughout the duration of this series, their films have netted a combined 55 Academy Award nominations and 13 wins, among countless other nominations and wins. More important than awards are the points of view these and so many other female filmmakers bring to the situations and characters that grace our movie and TV screens. It just goes to show us all, “sisters are doin’ it for themselves.”

SUSANNE BIER

by Janice Y. Perez

While the world knows that Kathryn Bigelow was the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Director, not many are aware that the year following that historic moment saw another female achieve a historic feat; Susanne Bier of Denmark was just the third woman to direct a film (In a Better World, 2010) to the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award.

Bier credits her Jewish parents’ harsh experiences eluding the Nazis as inspiration for her stories that mostly center on family tragedies. She has been a celebrated director in her native Denmark since her breakout film, The One And Only, in 1999. Bier started off as a set designer after having studied art and architecture, but after reading screenplays for her design assignments, she slowly realized she had the potential to direct her own works.

Her fascination for family dynamics has led her to co-write and direct films about tragedies within families that ultimately affect society as a whole. The filmmaker crossed into the American market with the Halle Berry/Benicio Del Toro picture, Things We Lost in the Fire(2007), which flopped at the box office. She will give Hollywood another shot with Serena, a Depression-era drama set in North Carolina that reunites Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper following their starring roles in last year’s Silver Linings Playbook. The film is slated for a September 2013 bow.

For her next release this May, however, Bier will unveil a comedic film that’s very different from her usual oeuvre of drama, but will still focus on the family unit. Set in Italy, Love Is All You Need stars Pierce Brosnan as the lead character’s love interest.

JANE CAMPION

by Saidah Russell

Jane Campion was born in Wellington, New Zealand into a family heavily influenced by the arts. Her mother was an actress and her father worked as a director of theatre and opera. In her early life and education, Campion was somewhat hesitant about pursuing a career in the arts, choosing to focus instead on studying anthropology in college. As moviegoers, critics, or simply admirers of the industry and art of cinema, we should consider ourselves lucky that she changed her mind.

Campion has come to establish herself as an incredibly poetic, challenging, and fearlessly truthful director. The stories she relates to her audience tend to address deeper, universal themes of family, love, and gender politics. In her early work especially the theme of familial relationships is pervasive. Her first short film, “An Exercise in Discipline – Peel” (1982), about a family road trip from hell, won Campion the Palme d’Or for Best Short Film at Cannes, making her the first woman to receive the honor.

Campion’s feature film breakthrough came in 1993 with the release of the romantic drama The Piano. A deeply haunting, but also fiercely romantic film, The Piano brought Campion back to Cannes for a repeat performance. She was awarded the Palme d’Or and was once again the first woman to claim such an accolade. The filmgained much critical attention in the US, as well. For her writing, Campion won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay; she was also only the second woman to be nominated for the Best Director prize. Her most recent film, Bright Star (2009), the biographical story of poet John Keats and his star-crossed relationship with Fanny Brawne, regained critical attention and favor. Her next project is an HBO mini-series, entitled Top of the Lake, which is to premiere in 2013.

MIRA NAIR

By Daniel Quitério

Although Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008) ignited interest in Indian culture on the big screen, Mira Nair (last name rhymes withfire) has been gracing us with the vibrant colors and rhythms of the subcontinent since the ’80s. Originally from the Indian state of Odisha, the filmmaker now calls New York City home, but she hasn’t forgotten her roots. Nair’s earliest works were in the form of documentaries before making her debut narrative feature, Salaam Bombay! (1988). The story of a boy left at a circus by his mother received international accolades, including awards at Cannes and an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film—only the second Indian film to achieve this feat.

Nair’s sophomore effort was Mississippi Masala (1991), an interracial love story starring Denzel Washington as an American who falls in love with a Ugandan Indian woman. A decade later, the director brought us the story of a wedding day gone awry, with Monsoon Wedding (2001). Nair continued exploring Indian themes, characters, and settings with follow-up films Vanity Fair (2004) and The Namesake(2006). But her prowess expands beyond her national roots. She released the critically lauded HBO movie Hysterical Blindness in 2002 and the not-as-successful Amelia in 2009.

Perhaps feeling a sense of responsibility to give back, Nair has demonstrated her altruism towards her homeland and emerging filmmakers. Using the proceeds earned from Salaam Bombay!, she established the Salaam Balak Trust, an organization benefitting Indian street children. In 2004, she founded Maisha, a film lab that teaches filmmaking to East Africans and South Asians. That same year, Nair took on a protégé for the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. Finally, Nair has served as an adjunct faculty member at Columbia University, imparting her knowledge to young filmmakers in the making.

The director’s next film is The Reluctant Fundamentalist, based on the novel by Mohsin Hamid. It’s scheduled for an April 26 limited release.

LYNNE RAMSAY

by Stephanie Dawson

In 2011, the dark drama We Need to Talk About Kevin pushed Lynne Ramsay into the spotlight as a screenwriter/director/producer who prefers daring material, but she has been tackling the hard stuff from the start. Originally from Scotland, Ramsay graduated from the UK’s National Film and Television School. Her graduation film, “Small Deaths,” won the 1996 Jury Prize at Cannes. Her first feature,Ratcatcher (1999), won her the BAFTA Carl Foreman Award for the Most Promising Newcomer.

When her second feature Morvern Callar (2002) debuted at Cannes, critic Elvis Mitchell, then of The New York Times, wrote that it was “one of the most important pictures” of the year. Ramsay established a foothold as a visual director who adeptly uses images and sound—rather than relying on dialogue—to tell intense stories.

The director next embarked on an adaptation of The Lovely Bones, based on the novel by Alice Sebold. When the book became a best seller, the studio replaced Ramsay with Peter Jackson, leaving Ramsay bittered by the experience. In all, Ramsay spent nine years in development on projects that went nowhere until Kevin.

In February of 2012, the Harvard Film Archive featured Ramsay’s films and described her as “an uncompromising filmmaker fascinated by the tremendous power of cinema to appeal directly to the senses and awaken new depths in our audio-visual imagination.”

Recently, Ramsay made headlines upon her abrupt dropping out of directing indie western Jane Got a Gun, following a “three-day standoff with producer-financier Scott Steindorff,” as The Hollywood Reporter describes it. The beleaguered Natalie Portman-produced and starring film hit a roadblock when Ramsay failed to show up on the first day of shooting and dropped out, causing Jude Law to also back out of the project, just days after he stepped in following the earlier exit of Michael Fassbender.

LONE SCHERFIG

by John Lee

It’s hard to believe that Lone Scherfig had been working successfully in the advertising business for years before she directed her first film. The accomplishment of her work would lead you to believe she’s had years of experience, but it wasn’t until 1984, after she graduated from the Danish Film School, that she started her movie career. Her first project was directing a television film, with her feature debut coming shortly after, in 1990.

A decade later, after becoming involved in Dogme 95, a Danish avant-garde filmmaking movement, Scherfig wrote and directed Italian for Beginners (2000). Using the principles of Dogme, the film was set almost entirely on location within a small space, using sound only found at the source, and was shot on video. As opposed to other Dogme 95 films at the time, the mood of the film was upbeat and comedic. It became the most profitable film in Scandinavian history.

Scherfig’s most critically lauded film was An Education (2009). The story revolves around 16-year-old Jenny (Carey Mulligan) as she is picked up one night by David (Peter Sarsgaard) and brought into the bustling London society. It went on to win numerous awards on the festival circuit and was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It was while filming the movie in London that she fell in love with the city. She said, “I love British actors, the scripts, the architecture, the nature! I would rather make films here than in America.”

Staying true to her word, Scherfig’s next project was the 2011 filmOne Day. The London-based story follows the lives of two romantically engaged individuals as they meet one day each year. The film received mixed reviews, but it was still a moderate success at the box office. The director’s next project is the Oxford University-setPosh, which is set to open next year.

LUCY WALKER

by Stephanie Dawson

“I’m really a failed narrative director,” said two-time Oscar-nominated documentarian Lucy Walker when she sat down withLimité.

Walker started directing theater while in high school in her native London, England. After graduating from Oxford University, she received her MFA in film from New York University on a Fulbright Scholarship. Her first directing gigs included a Cowboy Junkies music video and several episodes of the children’s favorite Blue’s Clues, for which she received two Emmy nominations.

Although a talented documentary filmmaker, Walker has also demonstrated her acumen for music, going as far back as college when she DJed to support herself. She continues to remix tracks for her film scores and enlisted good friend Moby for the soundtracks of her feature and short documentaries Waste Land (2010) and “The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom” (2011).

The filmmaker’s work has not gone unnoticed by some of the world’s most established film bodies. She is the first director to have two films in the same year at the Sundance Film Festival. She’s also the first director to win the Audience Award twice at the Berlin Film Festival with Blindsight (2006) and Waste Land. The latter, about how Brazilian contemporary artist Vik Muniz transforms garbage into art, is the first film to win the Audience Award at both the Sundance and Berlin festivals. In addition, Waste Land and “The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom” granted her Oscar nominations in consecutive years, while Blindsight was shortlisted in 2006.

In February of 2011, Walker told The Telegraph, “I like to take people into places they can’t access on their own … If you can get inside worlds that are closed to people, then it’s an opportunity to give audiences a window they can’t get somewhere else.”

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