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International Women’s Day – when is there a better time than to take a few hours, get comfortable, and immerse yourself in the evocative cinematic worlds carved by sublimely talented female directors? Not only do these five films showcase the work of some of the best female directors, they also weave nuanced and intimate stories that highlight and celebrate multifaceted, diverse and dynamic women who overcome adversity, challenge authority, push back against the boundaries of expression, and dare to put themselves first.
Girlfight (2000, 110 mins) – Karyn Kusama
Diana Guzman is a spirited New York teenager with a fire in her gut who decides to pursue boxing for one reason and one reason alone: because she wants to. With a strained home life and a temper that gets her in trouble at school, boxing becomes the perfect way for Diana to channel her hot-headed anger and come to terms with her mother’s death, as well as with the woman she herself is set to become. Wise-cracking yet wary, Diana’s defensive front begins to drop as the movie – and her own realisation of self-worth – unfolds, and we watch her triumphantly fly in the faces of all those who claim a girl can never become a successful boxer.
Karyn Kusama is an Asian-American director who graduated from New York University with a BFA in film and television. She won a Mobile Prize for her student film Sleeping Beauties, and spent several years editing documentary films and producing independent movies and music videos. Girlfight, released in 2000, was her first feature film and reportedly took two years to finance due to Kusama’s insistence on the film as a vehicle for a Latina actor rather than a pre-established white actor. The film premiered at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival, where it received the Grand Jury Prize. Other works by Kusama include Jennifer’s Body (2009), a dark teen comedy starring Megan Fox as a possessed high school girl, and The Invitation (2015), a horror film about a sinister dinner party. Kusama recently directed a section of the 2017 film XX, a horror compilation showcasing the work of four female directors.
A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story (2006, 96mins) – Agnieszka Holland
Based on the true story of Gwen Araujo, a woman who was murdered by four men in 2002 after it was revealed that she was transgender, A Girl Like Me highlights the struggle of some women just to exist. Made during earlier understandings of what it means to be transgender, elements of the film follow the outdated narrative that trans people are “born in the wrong body”, but for a piece made in 2006 it manages to handle the subject matter surprisingly sensitively in spite of this. While the film fails to feature a trans actor in the lead role, it does celebrate Gwen’s powerful insistence on living her life as her true self, in spite of the heartbreak and resistance she endures along the way. The film also speaks volumes on the transphobia faced by women like Gwen and the stance that must be taken against it, with some moments painfully honest to watch.
Agnieszka Holland is a Polish director and screenwriter who started her career as an assistant, before emigrating and establishing herself as a director eminent for her political contributions to cinema. Holland directed A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story for television in 2006, and the film went on to win the Outstanding Movie for Television Award at the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) Media Awards in 2007. Other works by Holland include The Secret Garden (1993), a film based on the book of the same name by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and In Darkness (2011), a drama inspired by the true events of the German occupation of Poland, as well as her best known work Europa, Europa (1990), a film based on the autobiography of Solomon Perel, a German Jew who escaped the Holocaust by masquerading as a Nazi.
Pariah (2011, 86 mins) – Dee Rees
Pariah follows 17 year old Alike, an African-American girl growing up gay in Brooklyn who feels forced to dull her true self so as not to not upset her parents. Quiet and thoughtful, this film is a funny and subtle exploration of the ways women restrict themselves in order to please others: Alike’s mother is exhausted in her attempts to hold her husband’s attention, while her daughter is hiding her shades of self in order to ease tensions. A coming-of-age story that is also a coming out, Pariah tracks the confusing liminal space between friendship and lovers, as well as the insatiable urge to find ways to express difficult emotion. Alike’s soft yet determined embrace of her lesbian identity is as strong as it is poignantly tender, and she pushes through loss, pain, and self-doubt to put herself, and a chance at living unrestricted, first.
Dee Rees is an openly lesbian African-American director and screenwriter who originally wrote and directed Pariah as a short film for her graduate thesis project at New York University. She has served as an intern for two Spike Lee films, and has been praised for her own work’s unflinching authenticity. Pariah premiered as a feature length film at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, and went on to win the Outstanding Independent Motion Picture award at the 44th National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) Image Awards. Other works by Rees include Bessie (2015), a biopic about blues singer Bessie Smith which stars Queen Latifah, and Mudbound, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2017.
Middle of Nowhere (2012, 101 mins) – Ava DuVernay
Middle of Nowhere is a soft-hearted glance into the life of Ruby, a medical student whose life has been put on hold as she works to come to terms with her husband’s eight year prison sentence, as well as her own personal tensions between maintaining the role of supportive wife and the pursuit of her own inner peace. Ruby lives with her mother and sister, and each woman seems to be leading a life that, if not stuck, is dragging, and we watch as Ruby learns to release herself from expectation and self-imposed standards. The film is a nuanced look at self-sacrifice, endurance, and the patience required in coming to terms with letting go.
Ava DuVernay is an African-American director and screenwriter who graduated from UCLA with a double major in English and African-American studies. Originally a journalist, DuVernay turned to filmmaking in 2008 with her film This is the Life, a documentary which tracks the development of the alternative hip-hop scene in Los Angeles. Middle of Nowhere is her second fictional feature film. It premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, where DuVernay received the Directing Award for what she herself describes as a study in “the texture of the lives of the women” who live and work in Compton. Other works by DuVernay include the Academy Award Nominated Selma (2014), a film centering on the 1965 Civil Rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, and 13th (2016), a documentary on the intersections of race and mass incarceration in the United States which was nominated for Best Documentary Film at this year’s Academy Awards.
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014, 99 mins) – Ana Lily Amirpour
A chador wearing, skateboarding vampire girl who attacks the men who cause harm to women – I don’t know what more you could ask for. Ana Lily Amirpour’s stylish black and white flick draws inspiration from the generic conventions of horror and the spaghetti western, expertly melding the two for an edgy, dreamlike film that is romantically moody, and which turns the expectations of its title on its head. As the action unfolds in Bad City, a town full of cats, drugs, and dimly-lit streets, it becomes very clear that it is men who should be afraid of venturing out in the dark, lest they run into a woman who quite literally bites back.
Amirpour is an Iranian-American director and screenwriter who is a graduate of the UCLA School of Theatre, Film and Television, and has been making films since she was 12 years old. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, before being picked up and distributed by VICE films. The original short version of the film won the Best Short Film award at the Noor Iranian Film Festival in 2012, and Amirpour received the Citizen Kane Award for Best Directorial Revelation at the Sitges Film Festival for the 2014 feature. Her next feature film, The Bad Batch, described as a cannibalistic apocalypse romance, is scheduled to be released in June of this year.