Women on the verge: Why 2009 is the year of the female film director

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Have women ever had a better year behind the camera? As Jane Campion releases 'Bright Star', she and three other leading female film-makers discuss the view from the director's chair

Here's a shocking fact: in the 80-year history of the Oscars, only three women have been nominated in the Best Director category. Back in 1977, Lina Wertmüller was the first to be given the nod, for Seven Beauties; then, in 1994, Jane Campion was nominated for The Piano; and in this decade, Sofia Coppola for Lost in Translation. None took home the Academy Award. For the Danish film-maker Lone Scherfig, that lack of success is a question of numbers: "Doesn't that just reflect how many films are directed by men?" she asks. "Statistically, it means there's only a small chance that a woman can win an Oscar."

This year might, possibly, be different, with female directors responsible for some of 2009's best films. Kathryn Bigelow's searing Iraq-set movie The Hurt Locker, and Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank, which won the Jury prize in Cannes, have already opened to acclaim. Released on Friday was Scherfig's An Education, the beguiling story of a teenage girl (Carey Mulligan) who falls under the spell of an older man (Peter Sarsgaard), which took the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival back in January. And this week, the New Zealand-born Campion returns with her beautiful John Keats biopic Bright Star, starring Ben Whishaw as the poet and Abbie Cornish as his love, Fanny Brawne. Also released on Friday is 1 Day, a Birmingham-set "grime musical" by the British film-maker Penny Woolcock. And representing Hollywood is Karyn Kusama, back after her comic-book flop Aeon Flux with Jennifer's Body, a sly high-school horror from the pen of Diablo Cody, who came out of nowhere to win an Oscar last year for her script for Juno.

There's more: Mira Nair's aviation drama Amelia is imminent, as is the boarding- school drama Cracks, the directorial debut of Jordan Scott, daughter of Sir Ridley. The actor Drew Barrymore has made her first film, too, the roller-derby story Whip It; as has the artist Sam Taylor Wood, directing the John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy. This list surely represents a step forward, but Kusama is not convinced: "I still wonder whether the numbers are not entirely encouraging. I feel like I've had to wait so long to see another movie from Jane Campion, and she's one of my favourite film-makers. I wonder whether we don't get the same privilege [that men do] to just be jumping from film to film."

Indeed, while women now occupy other positions of power in the film industry, directing still remains a male-dominated occupation. "I think it's still the case that women are less comfortable with being figures of authority," notes Woolcock. One of four of the film-makers who discuss, right, why being a female director is still the toughest job in the industry, it seems Woolcock shares one trait with her peers: "I'm really clear about what I want and I don't back down." When you're calling the shots, there's nothing more vital than that.

Jane Campion

Age: 55

Key films: The Piano (1993); The Portrait of a Lady (1996); In the Cut (2003); Bright Star (2009)

"I think they made that one mistake [Campion remains the only female director to win the Cannes Palme d'Or, for The Piano] and they won't make it again! I can only joke about it because otherwise you cry.

"We can all do the maths. I don't understand it any more than you do. There are only two possibilities. One: women aren't trusted to be directors by the industry. Or two: women are so smart that they realise how hard the job is and that you have to sacrifice your whole life to your work. And they don't want to do that.

"I feel a responsibility to support young, up-and-coming female directors. I try not to be select in that way, but I have had only female assistants who I've chosen. I know they want to be directors, so I do a lot of mentoring, which both of us hopefully benefit from. I think it's the best way to support young film-makers, and it's fun. I'll help anybody if they come to me and want some advice when they're making their first short. I'll talk to them for an hour or so, with some tips and tricks. Mostly about staying calm, because what happens is that they get into such a heightened state of confusion that they can't trust their own experience of what they're seeing in front of them."

'Bright Star' opens on Friday

Penny Woolcock

Age: 59

Key films: Tina Takes a Break (2001); The Principles of Lust (2003); Mischief Night (2006); 1 Day (2009)

"If you're a director on a film set, it makes absolutely no difference if you're a woman or a man. As long as you've got a strong vision and you clearly communicate to other people what you want, it really doesn't make a difference because everybody wants to do a good job and they can only do so if they do what you ask them to.

"But why there are so few women directors is a much broader social question. I think there's one very simple explanation, which is so dumb I'm slightly embarrassed to say it: being a director does not combine with having children, and it's still the case that women are the primary parent. It's sad to have children and not spend time with them, so you generally find that women film-makers are like me, and had children very young. (I was still in my early- to mid-thirties when my son was ready to leave home.) Or they take a break, or they have chosen to be childless.

"But there's also something about being on a set. It is really brutal. You vanish. You can combine a domestic life with being a producer – you can work from home; a lot of it's done on the phone. But as a director, your life vanishes for weeks on end. Nobody sees you and you're swallowed up. People use terms such as 'going into battle', and it is a bit like that. So maybe there are several things about the job that perhaps women don't take to easily."

'1 Day' opens on Friday

Lone Scherfig

Age: 50

Key films: Italian For Beginners (2000); Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself (2002); An Education (2009)

"Being a female director? I'm not asked about it very much in Denmark – or very rarely – because it's more common there, whereas Hollywood is so dominated by white males. Maybe times are changing and I'm getting older. I was more often a victim of sexism when I was better-looking!

"When people assume that a woman would be the right director for a script, it will often be a script that I'm not attracted to. I just hope that someone will challenge me and give me a script that has more cars, guns, villains and melodrama. I want to make something like [David Cronenberg's] Eastern Promises!

"As a female director, I'm encouraged to have a feminist – or even a feminine – point of view. But I don't think in those terms. Recently, I got a little award from a local female film association. And it struck me that they very kindly assumed that, having the job that I have, I must be a feminist – which I'm not. It's the other way around. I'm just grateful that someone like Lynn Barber [the journalist whose memoir An Education is based upon], who is from a generation only 15 years older than I am, fought the battle to smoke, wear black, go to France and jump into sports cars, so that someone like me could make films and not have to worry about gender."

'An Education' is on general release

Karyn Kusama

Age: 41

Key films: Girlfight (2000); Aeon Flux (2005); Jennifer's Body (2009)

"I'm really looking forward to a time when this sort of conversation doesn't feel as necessary or as pressing, because women are more equitably distributed throughout the directing pool.

"There are producers, there are executives and there are presidents of studios who are all female, and there are increasingly large numbers of women production designers, costume designers, editors and even cinematographers – though cinematography is probably the most under-represented field. And there are women directors – there are just so few of them in comparison to men.

"When I look through the Director's Guild magazine that they send me every month, it has a list of all the DGA-represented directors releasing movies, and whole months can go by where there's not a single female in the list. There will be 20, 30 or 50 films being mentioned.

"Feeling a little bit like a cultural specimen under a microscope is what's frustrating to me at this point. Why is it like this? I feel uncomfortable having to say so, but I feel it's partially plain old sexism. I wish that wasn't the case but I think it must be. There is something about the role – as the person who truly takes the movie from inception to its final release – that means the director is closest to the material. I wonder if there's less of an instinct – not necessarily a desire but an instinct – to award that authority to women. I wonder if we're conditioned to believe in the capabilities of men in this role a little bit more quickly than with women."

'Jennifer's Body' opens on Wednesday

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