Under and through the celluloid ceiling

Please note: this article was updated by the author on 16 January 2015, see the addition at the bottom of the text – Ania Ostrowska

As the main competition lineup for Cannes 2014 only featured two female directors, and this was triumphantly presented despite being a year-on-year increase of two, Celluloid Ceiling seems both timely and necessary. Celluloid_ceiling_cover.jpg On the one hand, the book reveals, to quote Cate Blanchett, that “the world is round, people!”: women have been telling their stories on film since the beginning of the medium, internationally. On the other hand, that historical continuum and its present expression in the current generation of female filmmakers – from Hollywood blockbusters such as Catherine Hardwicke to indie auteurs such as Andrea Arnold to local heroes such as Nandita Das – keeps failing to make inroads on public and critical consciousness. This is a book to smack down on the desk of Thierry Fremaux, the director of the Cannes Film Festival (or any programmer, professor or snotty cinemagoer who claims women aren’t as good at making films, or aren’t interested in making them), as abundant evidence not only of international female filmmaking, but its dynamism, ambition and complexity.

There tend to be larger numbers of women filmmakers in countries where education in film and other arts is state-subsidised

Editors of Celluloid Ceiling, Gabrielle Kelly and Cheryl Robson, prefer to focus on a global roster of female filmmakers who evidently exist and make work rather than to question why they are excluded from both distribution circuits and the canon. There is particular attention, three chapters’ worth, given to Kathryn Bigelow as a female filmmaker who has succeeded in the paradigmatic film industry, Hollywood, while making films that are arguably feminist. The best chapters here, though – the brilliant Beti Ellerson on Francophone African women filmmakers; Anchalee Chaiworaporn exhibiting her expertise on women filmmakers in South-East Asian and South Korean cinema, including a consideration of trans filmmakers in Thailand; Elhum Shakerifar’s lively and excellent compendium of interviews with women directors from the Middle East – offer a compelling celebration of feminist art, politics and film criticism beyond the Anglocentric focus of the industry.

From this portrayal of a diverse and energised international community, some broad conclusions arise; the editors summarise some of these at the end of the book, with observations about common career trajectories for female filmmakers internationally being inflected by social class, and/or by family relation to men working in the industry, and – something that is more prevalent for women than men – either performing or documentary-making as gateways to feature film. Another conclusion, which remains implicit but seems obvious, is that there tend to be larger numbers of women filmmakers in countries where education in, and production of, film and other arts is state-subsidised.

The tokenism and the gatekeeping seem like they would be better addressed by espousing and practising feminism

The glass is, of course, also half empty. The vicious cycle of commercial funding – in which women are presumed to be niche audiences and tellers of niche stories – persists in the largest national film industries, as well as in international exhibition and distribution, which is why many of the fascinating films in this book will remain only tantalising descriptions for most readers. The book offers no consideration of the ways in which women’s films drop out of circulation, even critically-acclaimed films such as Born in Flames (Lizzie Borden’s) or Tina Goes Shopping (Penny Woolcock’s), and says little about how the film festival circuit’s expectations of ‘auteur’ cinema is highly exclusionary and how this relates to the well-documented everyday sexism, including lack of affordable childcare, that affects film internationally, as it does every industry.

Depressingly, Kelly and Robson conclude that this is why most of the female filmmakers covered prefer not to identify as feminists, or call their films “feminist”, or consider themselves “women directors”, in order to avoid tokenism, marginalisation and being pigeonholed. It’s depressing both because the tokenism etc. continue to occur, as most of the gatekeepers in international cinema are white and male, and because the tokenism etc. (and the gatekeeping) seem like they would be better addressed by espousing and practising feminism: an understandable defensive move, but one that shies away from making actual change.

The book is a powerful instrument for asserting the existence and achievements of women filmmakers against the apparently endless sexism of the film industry

This is a problem that affects the book as a whole, with most chapters offering catalogues of names and films, with little attention to what they share as an aesthetic or politics (Dina Iordanova’s chapter on Balkan filmmakers is an exception) or offering remedies and strategies for the future. Few of the chapters consider LGBTQ filmmaking in relation to women’s cinema, or mention class or other intersectional issues of access to technology and audiences. Some chapters are compromised further: Amy Kronish’s chapter on Israeli women filmmakers recapitulates the state’s apartheid, addressing only Jewish filmmakers, and then only those who do not challenge the status quo, either in cinematic terms (they make romantic comedies and dramas) or political terms. And so Vardit Bilu and Dalia Hager’s internationally acclaimed and distributed Close to Home, which questions army service and the occupation, goes unmentioned. The chapter on British cinema, in addition to being unfocused and largely anecdotal, appears to have been written or researched before the (largely) UK Film Council-funded emergence of the “new wave” of British women feature filmmakers such as Joanna Hogg, Clio Barnard, Carol Morley, Tina Gharavi, Sally el-Hosaini and Amma Asante. Partisan and partial research somewhat undermines the book’s credibility, not helped by poor proofreading.

Women filmmakers, past and present, have been the subject of recuperative catalogues since the 1970s, and Celluloid Ceiling is a new entry into this heroic history of rediscovery and advocacy. It’s a handy way to discover new films and filmmakers to watch out for (including “new” older filmmakers such as Alice Guy-Blaché, subject of Tania Field’s chapter), and to feel inspired and empowered as an emerging filmmaker. Even if it doesn’t fully address the reasons for the continuous erasure of women or offer a definitive resolution, it’s a powerful, if blunt, instrument for asserting the existence and achievements of women filmmakers against the apparently endless sexism of the film industry.

Celluloid Ceiling: Women Film Directors Breaking Through, edited by Gabrielle Kelly and Cheryl Robson, is the latest title in the Women and the Arts series from Supernova Books.

Update from Sophie Mayer after communication with Beti Ellerson

I was very excited when Beti Ellerson, the founder of African Women in Cinema blog and contributor of Celluloid Ceiling‘s first chapter, reblogged this review supportively, as her work is a continual inspiration.

That’s why it was distressing to see that she had recently added an important note to her post , in which she says:

Since recently receiving a copy [of Celluloid Ceiling], I have read the contribution by Maria Williams-Hawkins entitled: ‘Speak Up! Who’s Speaking?: African Filmmakers Speak for Themselves’. Her chapter, under the section on Africa, immediately follows mine.

I must say that I am extremely disappointed in what in fact is a mere adaptation of my chapter, ‘Africa through a woman’s eyes: Safi Faye’s cinema’, published in Focus on African Films, Françoise Pfaff, ed. (Indiana University Press, 2004).

Although Williams-Hawkins’ chapter does cite Ellerson’s essay on a few occasions, it does not acknowledge that all of its content is derived from Ellerson’s earlier work, including every quotation bar one, and even some turns of phrase. Other sections of William-Hawkins’ chapter also lift material from Ellerson’s blog and other published work. This raises some serious questions about editorial practices.

While I continue to recommend the book as an introductory compendium, I join Ellerson in recommending strongly that readers, viewers and curators seek out information on women’s cinema around the world from sources of proven depth and expertise, such as Ellerson’s ground-breaking Centre of the Study and Research of African Women in Cinema.

Sophie Mayer is currently writing Political Animals, a study of twenty- first century feminist cinema, due out from IB Tauris next year, and getting ready to host SHE MUST BE WIKI, the first-ever feminist film Wiki edit-a-thon, at the ICA on 25th July: all welcome!