At the Dublin Film Festival in February 2020, myself and my fellow film students, Giorgiomaria Cornelio and Niamh Muldowney, got the opportunity to interview Mark Cousins, a director and film critic from Belfast, best known for his 15-hour 2011 documentary The Story of Film: An Odyssey. At a time before our lives were structured by social distancing protocols, the three of us sat down with him to discuss his newest work, Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema. The film is 14 hours in length and features work from female directors from all over the world. Split up into 40 sections, such as close-ups, religion, and horror, the film is narrated by Tilda Swinton, Jane Fonda, Thandie Newton, Adjoa Andoh, Kerry Fox, Sharmila Tagore and Debra Winger.
Before the interview, we were invited to sit in on his introduction prior to the screening of the first three hours of the film. His passion and enthusiasm for the film and subject matter were instantly transparent, as he paced around the room, recounting how he pitched the project to Jane Fonda whilst the two of them made guacamole together. Following this, he asked a volunteer at the festival to help him as he took out a stapled stack of papers, upon which were the names of the directors whose work features in the film. He proceeded to spread the papers out until they stretched all the way across the room. He presented pictures of many of the directors to us, and as he discussed their work, a sense of urgency and excitement radiated from him, something that remained throughout the interview.
“Cousins spoke about his frustration with the assumption that women only make films about children and relationships.”
After the introduction, we were shown to a quiet room where he sat down with the three of us so that we could discuss the film. Cousins spoke about his frustration with the assumption that women only make films about children and relationships. “Women make films about war and epic and history” he stated, along with the fact that he was proud that the film does not succumb to generalisations about “the sort of films that women make as opposed to men make”. He went on to talk about the androgynous nature of cinema, and how it allows us to “shed our male selves, our female selves and step into the world of cinema where there are no boundaries and no categories”. A disbelief in gender stereotypes is also shared by the narrators who worked on the film.
The film, which was initially titled An Academy of Venus, is highly educational. Cousins’ aim was to create a “learning tool, like a tool box almost” for the art of cinema, almost like a film school where all the teachers are women. “I wanted to capture that feeling that we filmmakers have when we are sitting and having a pizza together and say ‘see that shot!’ … The practical talk of how you do something”. It explores and analyses various techniques and styles female filmmakers have used in their work. When I wasn’t busy scribbling down the kinds of shots that were being depicted, I was writing down the names of the directors, many of whom I had never heard of. Luckily for me, and for anyone who watches the film, a breakdown of each section and the names of the directors can be found here.
“Contrary to common belief, he said the research for the film was very simple. He just googled ‘great female filmmakers from…’ and input names of countries.”
Discovering new, or in most cases already established, filmmakers is also something Cousins himself experienced while directing the film. Contrary to common belief, he said the research for the film was very simple. He just googled “great female filmmakers from…” and input names of countries. This left him with an incredibly long list of directors, some of whom he is even in touch with. He recounted contacting Sri Lankan director, Sumitra Peries, who is 86 years old and has been making films since the 1970s, to arrange an interview with her. He recalled being close to tears as Peries informed him that she had not been contacted by anyone from the UK or Ireland in over 30 years.
He emphasised that each of us have a responsibility to cognise female filmmakers and that it is our ignorance that prevents us from doing so. He remarked: “We can’t point the finger to the industry, cause the industry doesn’t give a fuck, the industry wants to make money.” While he agrees that contemporary and future female directors should have more opportunities, he believes we must also acknowledge and celebrate the work done by women in the past and not assume that just because we may not know of many female directors, that they do not exist.
“…‘we need to teach more, we don’t need a little section here saying ‘women’s studies’, don’t modulise it’.”
“We on the left, we the passionate feminists, there is a danger that unless we inform ourselves about what has been done before, we re-victimise these people, it’s very dangerous.” He also spoke about the lack of female directors being taught at universities and the fact that if they are, it is usually in a single “Female Directors” module, to which his response is clear: “We need to teach more, we don’t need a little section here saying ‘women’s studies’, don’t modulise it.”
The entire film resembles a road trip. In between the film scenes, we see shots of roads and the occasional glimpse of one of the narrators in the car. Cousins did this in order to have some footage to break up the clips and because he felt that it gives the film a “passionately global” feel. When you get to the end of the film, you will find that the destination is both momentous and heartfelt, often evoking emotion in audiences at screenings.
“‘The more we can ignore the questions about box office or distribution or Oscar winners or any of that stuff, the more we can take the scales from our eyes and see films as films’.”
The film really is an homage to cinema created by all women in the film industry. Cousins never makes too sharp a distinction between more famous directors, such as Kathryn Bigelow or Agnès Varda, and directors the audience may never have heard of, such as Kira Muratova, the Ukrainian director who made films from 1958 until 2012, or Ana Mariscal, who made 10 feature films in the 1950s and 60s in Spain. “The more we can ignore the questions about box office or distribution or Oscar winners or any of that stuff, the more we can take the scales from our eyes and see films as films.” He also recalled something the great Hollywood movie star Lauren Bacall once told him: “The industry is shit, it’s the medium that’s great.”
The structure of the documentary, being split into 40 sections of genres or techniques, gives a level playing field to all directors, showing snippets of various films that are relevant to each category. This way, we see many films side by side, no matter how much acclaim their directors may have received. Cousins refers to it as a “boundaryless approach”, which he felt was particularly necessary in a time where politicians such as Boris Johnson or Narrendra Modi are putting up boundaries constantly.
“Cousins believes it is important to show the work of infamous filmmakers, as their work ‘happened and some of it was brilliant’.”
The film features work by women from different historical periods, including some controversial directors. The clips that were particularly contentious were from films by Leni Riefenstahl, who shot propaganda films for the Nazis and had a friendly relationship with Hitler. Cousins believes it is important to show the work of infamous filmmakers, as their work “happened and some of it was brilliant”. He named Roman Polanski a another example of this.
However, he went on to affirm that it was important to include ample information about these directors, and the crimes they committed, in the film. “I would not want Leni Riefenstahl’s work shown without an introduction, because there could be people in the audience who don’t know that she used people from concentration camps in her films … We need to tell the audience that, to make sure that’s not forgotten.” On Riefenstahl’s work, Cousins says that “In terms of the language of cinema it’s really remarkable”, referring specifically to her work that can be seen under the categories “Bodies” and “Melodrama” in the documentary.
Women Make Film has been shown at many festivals, including the Toronto International Film Festival and the BFI London Film Festival, in different forms. Some choose to show the entire 14-hour film in one go, whereas others have split it up into shorter segments. Cousins said that it does not even need to be shown chronologically, and that he purposefully did not give guidelines to festivals on how to screen it. He spoke about the film being almost hypnotic and that “people can really choose to be hypnotised for five minutes or five hours, I don’t mind”. The film is being distributed all around the world and has even been available on the BFI Film Player since last month.
“…Cousins noted that if we can only get one thing across in our write-ups, it is that educating ourselves about these amazing directors is our responsibility and we must take the initiative to do so.”
At the end of the interview, Cousins noted that if we can only get one thing across in our write-ups, it is that educating ourselves about these amazing directors is our responsibility and we must take the initiative to do so. Talking to Cousins would awaken, or re-awaken, a love for cinema in anyone. Watching the film is a fantastic and emotional experience that reminds audiences how fascinating filmmaking can be, and that we should never turn a blind eye to such precious talent.