Women directors on the right track

Kathryn Bigelow has a good chance of becoming the first woman to win the Best Director Oscar. But, says Holly Williams, she's not the only female film-maker on the verge of a breakthrough

There's a lot of buzz about female film directors right now. Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker and Lone Scherfig's An Education are up for Oscars and have already had success at the Baftas; Claudia Llosa's The Milk of Sorrow has been nominated for Best Foreign Film. Andrea Arnold won awards for Fish Tank at the British Independent Film Awards and in Cannes. Sam Taylor-Wood's Nowhere Boy and Jane Campion's Bright Star proved popular with critics, while Nancy Meyers's It's Complicated, Drew Barrymore's Whip It and Karyn Kusama's Jennifer's Body all came out of the big Hollywood studios.

Our response should surely be: so what? Of course women make great films. But the statistics show it is still embarrassingly rare. Women accounted for seven per cent of the directors and eight per cent of writers who made the top 250 grossing American films in 2009, according to Martha M Lauzen, from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.

Bigelow may be about to become the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar – she's only the fourth to have ever been nominated. She was the first to win a directing Bafta, while Campion is the only woman to have won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. Of the six big Hollywood studios, two didn't release a single film directed by a woman in 2009 (Paramount and Warner Bros). Website IndieWire reports that, of the 241 films that have grossed more than $100m in the last decade, only seven were directed by women.

But it's not just Hollywood. "Normally, the statistics in the UK show that seven per cent of film directors are women," says Rachel Millward, who runs London's Bird's Eye View female film festival. "But that's a pretty international figure. In 2008, in the UK it was up to 15 per cent – that's considered really good!"

With such howling figures, it's hard to say gender is irrelevant. There are many reasons bandied around about why there's a lack of women in film: the macho culture of the industry; struggles with juggling work and family life in a job with very antisocial hours; the myth that there's no market for "women's films". But what about the women who have managed to smash the celluloid ceiling? Is the recognition received by the recent swathe of female-directed films pointing to a new industry culture?

"When I was young, I was quite concerned that being a woman would cause problems. I thought it was strange that there are hardly any women – are they less talented, or do they get fewer chances?" says Austrian director and screenwriter Jessica Hausner, whose latest film, Lourdes, has been gaining attention on the film festival circuit. "But it has not really been a problem for me." Yet the co-producer of the Oscar-nominated An Education, Finola Dwyer, said: "you have to be tough every now and again. I made a conscious decision not to give being a woman too much thought."

Other problems arise for female directors, as Millward explains: "I'm always amazed at the stories I hear about male actors and crew who have issues with working with female film directors – it can be a nightmare. Women have to come up with ways to set the tone, so they're not treated as either a dragon or someone to be flirted with."

But the UK industry is slowly changing from the inside. Much has been made of the "three musketeers" of independent film finance – Christine Langan of BBC Films, Tessa Ross at Channel 4 films, and Tanya Seghatchian, who takes control of the UK Film Council's funding in April. "There are definitely more women working at a higher level – whether it's producing or directing," says Langan.

Amanda Nevill, director of the British Film Institute, also insists that "the onus is on us to lead the industry to support women. We do also have to fit in having children and we need an environment that supports women on that. The BFI was seen for a long time as a male environment. But now it really isn't – it wasn't intentional, but the executive team is 75 per cent women."

Amanda Berry, CEO of Bafta, points to her organisation: "Five out of seven of the senior management are women; the majority of people on our film committee are women. From where I'm sitting, women in the film industry are in a very healthy situation."

Yet Bigelow's recent success served as a sharp reminder that a female director winning awards is still news – and that a seam of sexism still runs through the foundations of the film world. Bigelow also bagged the top prize at the Directors Guild of America awards in January. According to tweets by Steve Pond of entertainment website The Wrap, Precious director Lee Daniels said in a speech to Bigelow, "Your movie is as beautiful as your legs." Would any other director get their work praised through direct comparison with their legs?

Yet The Hurt Locker, hotly tipped for Oscar success, is also rolled out as evidence that woman can make more than just rom-coms, garnering praise for being a tense, adrenaline-pumping war movie. "The tendency might be to think that female film-makers will create more sensitive, emotion-based films, but look at the grittiness of Fish Tank and The Hurt Locker," suggests Debbie Rowland, from independent distributors Curzon Artificial Eye.

Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham; Bride and Prejudice) is convinced that women-helmed films do really speak to female viewers: "Women multi-task on so many levels, and that is a women's perspective. We can employ that, we can tell deeper, richer stories that are more resonant, and more moving. It's not a rule, but if I see a film by a female film-maker I feel more satisfied after by the portrayal of the women in it."

Hausner made a similar point: "On a political, societal level it is important. It's only fair that you have women directing female characters sometimes – you know what it is like to be a woman. It's also about the way women portray women in films. Men do show women as victims much more, that they are poor and need to be protected, whereas women show women who are confident and strong."

In recent releases from female film directors, this is frequently proved. Central female characters are allowed to be more ambiguous, not falling into the neat cinematic categories of femme fatale or wounded victim, saintly mother or young innocent. Consider Mia in Fish Tank, or Li in Xiaolu Guo's She, A Chinese, or Jenny in An Education. All three are young girls engaging in relationships which could be interpreted as abusive, but rather than becoming victims or vamps, they are instead allowed their own complicated sexuality and individuality.

Diablo Cody also had a hit by refusing to female stereotypes: the Oscar-winning dialogue of her screenwriting debut, Juno (2007), side-stepped the hand-wringing you might expect in a movie about teenage pregnancy.

There's an agreement that, whoever you are, it's a tough industry. "Making films is hard," insists Chadha. "Therefore, the people who are taking the risks – the financiers or distributors – tend to go with what they know. What has changed is that the comfort zone has shifted. I'm sure women are not as overlooked as they used to be."