Film festival: The lady thrillers

In an industry still dominated by men, a new festival celebrates the work of top women film-makers, writes Leslie Felperin
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The Independent Culture

A festival devoted entirely to women film-makers, in 2005? How deliciously Eighties retro, some might think. In recent years, gynocentric arts events have become rare, as society assumes that the gender gap is closing. But just as statistics in the business world paint a dispiriting portrait of inequality, so the film industry is still, in creative terms, largely a boys' club. According to figures released in December 2003 by the Film Council, out of 350 films in the UK in one year, only eight were directed by women.

This year, The Independent will be the media partner for the first Birds Eye View film festival (BEV), from 8 to 13 March, a week-long celebration of women film-makers that will showcase work ranging from Oscar-winning shorts and features to documentaries, from all over the world.

BEV grew out of a touring programme of short films in 2002 under the stewardship of Rachel Millward, a film-maker and BEV's director and curator. It's now a registered charity, with sponsorship from Coutts and the patronage of Mira Nair, Anthony Minghella, Mike Figgis, Juliet Stevenson and Joanna Lumley (whose quip, "If this is what being a bird is, I'm proud to be one", is something of a motto), and the festival will be the UK's first to showcase only women's films. Venues will include the NFT, ICA and Curzon Soho, while highlights from the programme will tour nationwide later in 2005.

Over in Hollywood, the statistics on women in film tell the same story. Every year, Professor Martha Lauzen publishes a report measuring the representation of women behind the camera on the top 250 highest-grossing films. The stats for 2003 show that women still make up just 17 per cent of individuals working in key behind-the-scenes roles. According to Lauzen, "Women comprised 6 per cent of all directors working on the top 250 films, and 4 per cent of directors working on the top 100 films of 2003".

So, while some may feel sorry this week for Martin Scorsese, who lost out yet again on the best-director Oscar, hardly anyone bats an eyelid at the fact that the five nominees this year were all men. Last year, Sofia Coppola, director of Lost in Translation, was but the third woman in the history of the Oscars to be nominated for best director. When asked why she thinks there are so few women directors, BEV's Millward suggests that men seem to have the "confidence that borders on arrogance that women aren't encouraged to possess". It takes determination to become a director, and when that's coupled with a celluloid ceiling of sexism that subtly locks them out, it's no surprise that few women fight through the barriers. Plus, there's that old chestnut of child-rearing, which, Millward notes, "just doesn't hold as many men back".

One of the very few Oscar victors from Britain this year was Andrea Arnold, director of the best short live-action film Wasp, which will be showing in Birds Eye View on 10 March at the Curzon Soho. Wasp's taut, tough script focuses on a neglectful mother of four (played by My Summer of Love's Nathalie Press) who leaves her starving children unattended in a pub car park while she's inside with Danny Dyer. A gritty work, soaked in handheld immediacy, it makes one hope that it won't be long before Arnold tries her hand at a feature film.

Short films make up a strong strand in BEV's programme, and demonstrate the heartening diversity of style and subject emerging from women directors, from the mini samurai movie Bushido: Way of the Warrior by Susan Jacobsen and Hattie Dalton's offbeat, Bafta-nominated sperm-bank story The Banker, to Harry Wootliff's award-winning Nits, a moving minidrama about a seven-year-old boy dealing with a family tragedy. It's not surprising that this strand should be so strong, given BEV's close ties to shorts directors, and the greater access to funding in general for women in this field. However, the feature films are no less eclectic and impressive. Although the Chinese film Electric Shadows by Xiao Jiang sounds exotic, it's as accessible as Cinema Paradiso, with its tale of a water-carrier who becomes bewitched by the personal film archive and story of a young woman whose mother lived through the last gasps of the Cultural Revolution. More properly exotic, perhaps, is Anastasia Lapsui and Markku Lehmuskallio's Bride of the Seventh Heaven, about a Nenet woman from the remote Yamal peninsula in Russia who marries a god, a story told with stately grace.

Representing homegrown talent, BEV offers another chance to catch Shona Auerbach's Scotland-set Dear Frankie, in which Emily Mortimer plays the mother of a deaf boy. BEV may also be the one place it will be possible to see Tracey Emin's debut Top Spot on a big screen. A bolshie story of working-class girls getting screwed over by men in Margate, it looks unlikely to get a theatrical release.

Philippa Lowthorpe's The Other Boleyn Girl was, like Emin's film, shot on digital stock, the most affordable means of film-making for women directors, and it offers an offbeat, semi-improvised take on the costume drama, starring Natascha McElhone as the more famous Anne's sister Mary. The boldest and most bizarre film must be Susannah Gent's weird and wonderful low-budget Jelly Dolly, a dream-like mix of body horror, kitchen-sink drama and surrealism about a woman stuck in a dead-end relationship who develops weird issues with her navel.

There's no navel-gazing in BEV's documentary strand, however, which features a strong line-up of hard-hitting films from across the globe. In addition, BEV will host other events, including an evening of silent films rescored by the pianist Joanna MacGregor, panel discussions and parties. It all adds up to what promises to be an important celebration of women film-makers.