BFI London Film Festival: The best movies directed by women in this year's lineup

Out of 385 films originating across 77 countries being shown over 12 days (10-21 October), two-fifths are directed by women

Wednesday 17 October 2018 10:36
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Golshifteh Farahani stars in Eva Husson’s ‘Girls of the Sun’
Golshifteh Farahani stars in Eva Husson’s ‘Girls of the Sun’

At this year’s Cannes film festival, 82 women stood on the red carpet ahead of the Girls of the Sun premiere in a silent protest against the lack of representation of female directors on the show schedule.

The film industry remains dominated by male stories and voices, and often limited to American visions. But this year’s BFI London Film Festival is striving to change all that. Out of 385 films originating across 77 countries being shown over 12 days (10-21 October), 38 per cent are directed by women. It’s a number that has steadily increased since the 19.9 per cent of 2011.

Tricia Tuttle, artistic director of the LFF, says: “It’s really important that the BFI London Film Festival is diverse, inclusive. It’s what we want; it’s what audiences want.

“What one can see at cinemas on any given Friday night across the UK is very monocultural: almost exclusively English-language, offering little global perspective; with very few films directed by women. And stories most often centre on white protagonists.”

But, says Tuttle, film festivals have the opportunity to change this. “They can and should provide a window onto the world we all live in, that variety of perspective that makes art exciting, meaningful and relevant.”

Mia Bays, director-at-large of feminist film collective Birds Eye View, which seeks to promote the work of female filmmakers, says: “It’s really heartening to see certain key festivals making a concerted effort to set and meet higher than average programming targets, to move the dial on gender equality.

“We do applaud women in influential positions taking on the ‘bro culture’ of festivals.”

Because there are many strong stories about women in this year’s festival lineup, including Steve McQueen’s Widows and The Favourite by Yorgos Lanthimos, it is easy to see female leads and think the job is done; meanwhile, behind the camera, things remain stubbornly establishment.

With that in mind, behold the must-see female-directed films of the 62nd BFI London Film Festival.

Can You Ever Forgive Me, Marielle Heller

Melissa McCarthy in ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me’

Melissa McCarthy has had a bit of a bad run lately, starring in films that have left eyes dry and box offices wanting, but her latest role might just turn that around, with glowing reviews and Oscars buzz to boot.

From Marielle Heller (who directed the 2015 coming-of-age film The Diary of a Teenage Girl), Can You Ever Forgive Me is adapted for the screen by Nicole Holofcener and based on the true story of New York writer and journalist, Lee Israel. After she achieved mild success writing historical biographies from the 1960s to the 1980s, a spate of bad reviews in the 1990s saw Israel’s commissions dry up. Desperate for money, she started forging letters by deceased actors, writers and playwrights and selling them. And so begins a dramatic fall from grace.

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Can You Ever Forgive Me, injected with that beloved McCarthy humour, feels timely in an era of digital storytelling as viewers inevitably draw parallels between her fraudulent work and fake news.

Destroyer, Karyn Kusama​

Most of what’s been said about Destroyer so far is how unrecognisable Nicole Kidman is, with her sawn-off grey-streaked mousy hair, emaciated form and dead eyes. But more than her physical transformation, Kidman’s performance sees her become a rage-fuelled detective – a role usually written for and inhabited by men.

From Girl Fight director Karyn Kusama, Destroyer is a bleak thriller that sees Kidman as LA detective Erin Bell, recovering after a nervous breakdown caused by a long stint undercover infiltrating a California gang.

A cynical look at LA policing, the film marks a return for a director known for tearing down the good woman stereotype and raising up female anti-heros. “Watching Karyn Kusama’s career revival is a relief,” says Bays, “as she’s such a talent.”

Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, Pamela B Green

Alice Guy-Blaché was 23 when she wrote, produced and directed what is considered to be the first-ever narrative film, in 1896. La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy). It was a comedy about a woman who grows babies in a cabbage patch and it made Guy-Blaché the first female film director.

Guy-Blaché created more than 1,000 films in her lifetime, and was behind techniques such as double exposure and fadeouts – but she remains widely unknown. With her debut documentary, narrated by Jodie Foster, Pamela B Green hopes to shine a spotlight on this cinematic pioneer.

Madeline’s Madeline by Josephine Decker

Given the rapturous critical response to her performance as the eponymous Madeline, it looks likely that newcomer Helena Howard will be everywhere in a number of years. She plays a mentally troubled aspiring actor, taken under the wing of theatre company director, Evangeline, who uses Madeline’s personal life for her own artistic inspiration.

The film sees a maternal power struggle emerge between Evangeline and Madeline’s mother (Miranda July) that challenges our preconceptions of what mother/daughter cinema is and can be.

The third feature from director Josephine Decker, Madeline’s Madeline is set to be as thrilling and psychological as her preceding films, Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely.

“This is our hot tip for the festival,” says Bays. “It’s seductive and disturbing and impossible to pigeonhole.”

Only You, Harry Wootliff

Josh O’Connor and Laia Costa in ‘Only You’

In this poignant love story, a one-night stand changes two people’s lives. Soon after meeting and entering a whirlwind romance, Jake (God’s Own Country’s Josh O’Connor) and Elena (Laia Costa) move in together and decide to try for a baby, only to find that they are unable to do so. The feature debut from British filmmaker Harry Wootliff explores the emotional difficulties of a couple struggling through fertility issues and embarking upon IVF, a topic rarely explored in cinema.

O’Connor has been hailed as one to watch, and this film is likely to confirm this. “It’s gorgeously shot by Shabier Kirchner with an entrancing naturalism and intimacy,” says Tricia Tuttle. “Both performances are terrific but Josh O’Connor is going to be a major star.”

Happy as Lazzaro, Alice Rohrwacher

Set in an isolated Italian village and fusing folklore, time travel and a hefty dose of drama, Italian director Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro took home the illustrious Best Screenplay prize at Cannes. Rohrwacher’s previous film, The Wonders, won the Cannes Grand Prix in 2014, so for a cinephile to miss this one would be an oversight.

This picture, shot in 16mm, follows the titular Lazzaro (newcomer Adriano Tardiolo), a peasant whose good nature sees him taken advantage of by the townspeople, before he develops a close friendship with the son of the town’s dictatorial Marchesa, Tancredi (Luca Chikovani), who tries to fake his own kidnapping so he can escape the town and start a new life.

Glowingly reviewed and seemingly indescribable, Happy as Lazzaro will be quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

Girls of the Sun, Eva Husson

Directed by Eva Husson, this French film is a fictional dramatisation of the real life female Kurdish fighters who fought to reclaim their land and people from Isis.

Told through the eyes of Bahar (Golshifteh Farahani) – the leader of an all-female unit – as she speaks to journalist Mathilde (Emmanuelle Bercot), the story reflects on the brutality of life under Isis’s reign of terror, and the courageousness of the soldiers who fought them.

When it premiered at Cannes, 82 women walked the red carpet before linking arms and standing in silence. The 82 represented the number of films by female directors that have premiered in competition over the entire history of the festival, compared to the 1,645 by men. A poignant moment before a poignant film about female resilience.

The Kindergarten Teacher, Sara Colangelo

Maggie Gyllenhaal in ‘The Kindergarten Teacher’

Fans of Maggie Gyllenhaal will love this from the off, while sceptics should prepare to be converted by one of her best performances.

Unmoved and unsatisfied by her pedestrian life as a wife and mother, Kindergarten teacher Lisa Spinelli (Gyllenhaal) enrols in an evening poetry class. When one of her students, five-year-old Jimmy (Parker Sevak), begins reciting poetry in a trance-like state, Spinelli becomes captivated. Convinced he’s a child prodigy, she begins to nurture him, breaking all boundaries as she does so, even claiming his verse as her own.

A sensitive American retelling of Nadiv Lapid’s Israeli film of 2015, The Kindergarten Teacher takes the precarious approach of allowing the audience to be sympathetic towards a woman whose behaviour is wildly unethical at best and illegal at worst.

The BFI London Film Festival takes place between 10 and 21 October

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