One of the less reported stories of this August’s film schedule is that the month not only saw three films released that were directed by women, but they were in fact three feature debuts — Lake Bell’s “In A World” opened to a rapturous reception (including ours) on the 9th, Jerusha Hess’ “Austenland” bowed the following week, and this Friday Jill Solloway’s “Afternoon Delight” begins its run (our review is here). One swallow, or even three, may not make a summer, but these green shoots must certainly be promising for those in favor of changing the current female:male ratio in the film directing profession (which runs at 1 to 15.24 in the U.S. according to a Sundance Institute report) to a number that isn’t so outrageously out of whack that you have to keep double checking it. Yep, it’s 1:15.24.
Of course, there’s an evergreen debate in the film industry, as there is in the whole wide world, about whether regarding female directors, for example, as a group, and say, putting together a list of 20 of their debut films, is a help or a hindrance in the ongoing struggle to attain something closer to gender parity. Is it a healthy way to foster interest and promote otherwise underrepresented filmmakers, or does it contribute to a form of ghettoization in which women who may have very little else in common, can be even more easily marginalized for being lumped into one catch-all category? It’s not something we have an easy answer for, but in a year when two festivals made headlines for their contributions, positive and negative to this debate (Sundance boasted an all-time-high with 1/2 of its U.S. competition titles being directed by women; the Cannes competition line up, by contrast, featured just one — one up from the previous year), and attendant accusations of positive discrimination or tokenism flew back and forth, it’s not an issue that will go away soon. And so we’ve decided to embrace it, and use the Bell/Hess/Solloway trifecta as an excuse to celebrate some of our favorite debut films from women through the decades.
So it's not simply a list of pioneering women in film (though we're delighted that the Indiewire-recommended Kickstarter for the documentary on near-forgotten filmmaking icon Alice Guy Blaché has been funded, and we're still a bit gutted that we didn't make room for Ida Lupino who actually deserves a feature all to herself one day). No, our highly arbitrary ground rules were not to include documentaries or co-directing credits, and after that to simply choose 20 of the films that made the deepest impressions on us. So let’s dive in, shall we?
“Chocolat” (1988) — Claire Denis
Similarly to several other women on this list, French auteur Claire Denis had established herself elsewhere in the industry prior to taking on her first directorial project. In Denis’ case it was as an Assistant Director to several high-profile independent filmmakers (Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmusch, Costa-Gavras), and her first film, 1988’s “Chocolat” certainly betrays none of the usual neophyte’s hesitance or unfamiliarity with the process. In fact, Denis’ debut is remarkable not only for its fluidity and assurance, but also for being a near-perfect early incarnation of the unique sensibility and thematic concerns that Denis would display repeatedly in her subsequent illustrious career. Detailing, mostly in flashback, the story of a short period in the life of a young French girl (called France, in fact) in 1950s, pre-independence Cameroon, this semi-autobiographical tale is in fact a conduit to explore the intricacies and contradictions inherent in the colonial experience. What is remarkable from the very first frame is how unsentimental Denis is in her approach: while the film is part coming-of-age story, part culture-clash examination and part a drama of unspoken, clandestine desires, already her touch is sublimely light, cool, with a detached, observational intelligence that is as critical of its characters and their situations as it is compassionate. Bookended by scenes of France returning to Cameroon as a grown woman, the film really follows, through her childhood eyes, the relationship between house servant Protée (Isaach de Bankolé) and her beautiful mother (Giulia Boschi) made increasingly fraught with conflicting desires and expectations by a series of visitors who come to stay. Evoking with rich yet economical photography the wonder and isolation of the setting, Denis lays out with deceptive simplicity the intractable complexity of the divisions, real and imaginary, that exist with almost palpable physicality between colonizer/colonized, master/servant, white/black, woman/man, child/adult in that very specific time and place. Is the desire that exists between Protée and the white married Frenchwoman in spite of all the racial, cultural and social divides that colonialism draws so definitively, or because of them? It’s to Denis’ credit that the question is posed so compellingly and thoughtfully, and answered only ambiguously. For anyone else, a film of this beauty, power and subtlety might be a career-crowning achievement. Denis, however, was only getting started.
“Ratcatcher” (1999) — Lynne Ramsay
A startlingly gritty, melancholic debut that’s saved from all-out depressiveness by the gentleness of its insight and the director’s extraordinary eye for a beautiful image even in the midst of so much squalor, Lynne Ramsay’s utterly heartrending “Ratcatcher” has to be counted among the most impressive first features in recent memory. A slowly unfurling tragedy, littered with the kind of painful detail that makes it feel utterly authentic, “Ratcatcher” tells the story of a young boy, James (William Eadie), growing up in the slums of 1970s Glasgow as his family waits to be relocated during a particularly grim period when the rubbish collectors are on strike and trash and rats multiply on the sidewalks and courtyards. Playing by the murky canal one day, some childish horseplay results in the death of another boy, for which James’s sense of guilt becomes increasingly apparent over the following days and weeks. A great deal, and also very little happens; James hangs around with friends, occasionally takes off alone, dreams, tentatively befriends a young girl who is constantly abused by a local gang, interacts with his family — loving mother, alcoholic father and two sisters. But Ramsay takes the tradition of British social realism and delivers it to new heights with her exceptional imagery which is so artfully constructed as to feel totally naturalistic and yet tells the story with such fluidity and lyricism than it has to be the result of almost supernatural control and sureness of vision. It’s an undeniably tough watch, perhaps more so for Ramsay refusing ever to demonize any of her characters, no matter how wrong their behavior. But it’s also completely compelling and emotionally powerful; nothing that can simply be written off as miserabilism could ever have this piercing affect on the viewer’s heart.
“Madeinusa” (2006) — Claudia Llosa
Somehow, Claudia Llosa's second feature "Milk of Sorrow" had the honor of being Peru's Academy Award nomination despite its fairly critical look at contemporary Peruvian life. These claws of hers, however, weren't a recent growth, as her first film "Madeinusa" is even more overtly scathing of her homeland, taking place in the fictional town of Manatacycuna during a religious holiday in which God is absent and all sins are ignored. And if you think that lacks subtlety, hold on to your undies: the 14-year-old Madeinusa (Magaly Solier), wishing to run off to Lima just like her escaped matriarch, is crowned Virgin Mary for the weekend and is regularly molested by her father, an act her sister takes as a slight to her own ego. Attitudes change when geologist city-boy Salvador gets stuck in the little village and comes across Madeinusa, fueling her desire to leave this primitive, futureless life behind. This all likely sounds incredibly maudlin, but credit Llosa's determined restraint for making evident ideas feel understated. Despite her critique on this dead-end, narrow-minded life — one clinging to a religion that was forced on them through colonialism — she is also able to portray the society's passion for its culture; Manatacycuna has a lived-in quality, with Llosa putting an incredible amount of care into the village life and making things, as wrong as they are, feel real and important to the characters. While the story generally goes where you assume, there's one final turn that is unexpected and packs a pretty heavy blow, suggesting a reevaluation of the titular character we've come to know for the entire film. Llosa would continue down this road of slow-burn cultural dramas, sharpening her skills in the process and taking the tremendous Magaly Solier (a non-actor actually — what a find) with her, but one could easily mistake "Madeinusa" for the work of a director with a few much lengthier CV.