We need to talk about women filmmakers: or, two cheers for the BFI’s Made in Britain season

This is a guest post by Sophie Mayer. She is the author of The Cinema of Sally Potter: A Politics of Love, and a regular contributor to The F-Word and Sight & Sound. She doesn’t think The Hunger Games is a feminist film, but will concede that it at least passes the Bechdel test.

I can see the future. When asked for my key film moment of 2011 by the Sight & Sound end-of-year poll, I said boldly: “The British women are coming, with major new films storming Venice, Toronto, Cannes and the LFF from Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk about Kevin), Andrea Arnold (Wuthering Heights) and Carol Morley (Dreams of a Life), in a year that also saw celebrated films by Joanna Hogg, Clio Barnard, Gillian Wearing and Kim Longinotto. Hopefully this is a new trend that will become a fact of life.” No sooner spoken than made manifest, thanks to the BFI’s Made in Britain season, the first iteration of an annual project looking at new British cinema.

Ramsay, Arnold, Morley, Hogg, Barnard, Wearing and (my one oversight) documentary-maker Lucy Walker are the subjects of a month’s attention on the Southbank, with particularly exciting outings for Arnold’s and Ramsay’s award-winning shorts as well as an opportunity to catch up with their feature careers so far; for Morley’s first feature as well as searing, bittersweet auto-documentary The Alcohol Years; and four programmes of Walker’s internationalist documentaries. Wearing is also the subject of a simultaneous retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery, where early video portraits and installations trace the evolution of her curious and disturbing feature about identity and performance, Self Made.

Yay! A whole month of women filmmakers: take that, Hitchcock (subject of the BFI’s big money-spinning summer/Olympics season). After recent retrospectives of Sally Potter (just finishing production of a new BFI-funded film), Yvonne Rainer and Maya Deren at the BFI, as well as Lis Rhodes at the ICA and Barbara Hammer at Tate Modern, is this ‘job done’ for Claire Johnston, Laura Mulvey, B. Ruby Rich and the 1970s visionaries of feminist cinema? We might be excited that the season could act as both a summary so far and a spur to funders to keep these filmmakers in the picture.

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Because the films are worth it. Not only do all of the filmmakers in Made in Britain make films that feature powerful, intriguing female protagonists (none of whom blogs about cupcakes and wedding dresses while waiting for Mr. Right), but they all do so as independent filmmakers, making small-budget films that place inventive aesthetics and ideas over marketability. Experimenting with sound, light and narration, each of them (including Walker) draws the viewer into close communion with intense, complex characters in chaotic situations that ring true.

So yay again! Let us rush to the BFI’s website and book tickets to see films with characters who are as diverse and thoughtful as us, their audience. The manufactory promise of the ‘Made in Britain’ tag is borne out by the season’s mini-focus on changing working-class identities, with Ratcatcher, Morvern and Fish Tank and above all Barnard’s dazzling docufiction about Andrea Dunbar, The Arbor. Meanwhile, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Dreams of a Life and Joanna Hogg’s Unrelated and Archipelago debunk the perfect ‘Carrie’ middle-class lifestyle, exploring the ways in which the myth of ‘having it all’ still alienates and represses women. Wuthering Heights explodes the romantic misapprehensions around Emily Brontë’s classic novel to create a stirring cry for freedom by casting two black actors as Heathcliff and thus putting images of slavery at the heart of the Eng. Lit. canon.

So… yay yet again? Or not. My feeling about the season (not the filmmakers, who deserve four) is just a little ‘two cheers.’ In celebrating what is being made in Britain right now, it also points to what’s not: feature-length films by women of colour. Feature-length films by queer women, or featuring queer characters. Which is odd, because those films and filmmakers do exist. Just a few days prior to Made in Britain Campbell X’s Stud Life premiered at the BFI London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival: the only British film selected for the festival’s ‘Features’ section and directed by a queer woman of colour. Also at the LLGFF, Pratibha Parmar exhibited her work-in-progress documentary on Alice Walker, funded by a panoply of sources (which will be reviewed on The F-Word shortly).

Most, if not all, of the films in the Made in Britain season were funded or part-funded by the now-defunct UK Film Council, whose funding role the BFI have taken over. It’s undeniably exciting that they are showcasing their new role with a proud exhibition of the increase in women filmmakers who are making it past the ‘difficult’ second feature.

Let’s hope it’s a statement of intent from the BFI to promote equality across the board in filmmaking, so that ‘Made in Britain’ becomes representative of a cinema that is like Britain itself: ethnically diverse as well as class-critical and committed to reshaping the canonical narratives of love and marriage. This Made in Britain season shows that it’s female filmmakers who are driving that change.