With a record 27 women behind the 92 foreign-language film submissions, Variety posed the same questions to a selection of directors about their experiences. What was your biggest obstacle in making the film? What was the key to your breakthrough? What is your creative goal? Who are your filmmaking heroes? What would you like the world to know about being a woman film director and the message you want to send? Here are their stories.
“Funding the project is the biggest obstacle, just like for most filmmakers who are trying to make their first film. Particularly, I can say that some of the most important obstacles I faced during the production of my film are being a woman, being of Armenian descent and of course, the fact that I am shorter than average.
“With all the financial obstacles, the fact that I was raised in the Iranian cinema and the location was somehow unfamiliar … I used this knowledge about myself and my project and tried to choose and coordinate the right group of people, locations and my budget to create ‘Yeva.’ In fact, the efforts and support of good and loyal people helped me overcome the obstacles and eventually gave life to my film in the larger screen.
“Making ‘Yeva’ was an attempt to define a universal and human story in an unfamiliar and culturally unknown region so that the result would be a film that could connect with the cinema audience around the world. In the film world, I have an enchanted soul. In my enchanted soul, you can find traces of Sergei Parajanov and John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder, Ingmar Bergman and Bernardo Bertolucci, Francois Truffaut and Akira Kurosawa, Abbas Kiarostami, Michael Haneke and Mike Leigh … I think that’s enough.
“Everyone knows that making a film is a very difficult task, and honestly speaking, being a female film director is even harder. … I want to tell you the secret to tolerating these difficulties: Making a film gave me courage. But the most valuable gift for me is that the people of the world connect to this courageous experience with me.”
“I don’t see obstacles as something that is stopping me or making it hard for me, but rather as something which makes the whole process more interesting and challenging. As in film, so in life — if there are no obstacles and everything goes according to plan, things get boring and mundane, and creativity is replaced by routine. Now, this would be a big obstacle for every artist.
Our breakthrough “would be our feature debut, ‘The Lesson.’ We didn’t get any financial support for it, but we decided to do it anyway. Fortunately, our short ‘Jump’ had had a successful run at the festivals and we had managed to sell it here and there, so we had a small amount of cash that we invested in ‘The Lesson.’ The result was one the first independent micro-budget features from Bulgaria. Its festival and distribution success enabled us — besides paying everything we had promised to our cast and crew — to break through the impenetrable walls of state financing and finally get funding for our next project, ‘Glory.’
“[My creative goal is] to tell human stories where the tragic and the funny are intertwined. Such stories always contain a thick layer of absurdity, just as it is in life. This is what excites me at the moment — to try and re-create reality into modern-day parables.
“My filmmaking hero is definitely John Cassavetes. His bravery, freedom and independent spirit have always inspired me. I also admire very much the late Bulgarian female director Binka Zhelyazkova, who managed to reach the same moral and creative high grounds under the handicap of communist totalitarian Bulgaria.
“There’s more or less an equal share of men and women graduating our film school, the National Academy of Theater and Film Arts. Still, I sometimes run into ridiculous prejudices. In a recent example, a colleague of mine shared the opinion that if a woman wants to become a director, it means that she is ‘missing’ something in her life, and if she turns out to be a good one, it means she simply isn’t a real woman. Directing should apparently be incompatible with the female nature. This statement would have angered me a lot, if it weren’t so absurd, so it first made me smile, and then feel sad — sad for him for having such a flattened worldview. ”
“Quit Staring at My Plate” (Croatia)
“I think my biggest obstacle was that I am an introverted person who questions every decision a thousand times: I am very prone to panic and irrationality. So, you can imagine that I don’t have a perfect disposition for running a film set. That is why I at first thought I am just not cut out for this job, but the love of telling stories prevailed.
“The key breakthrough for the film was when we realized we got selected for Venice Days at the Venice Film Festival. For a first feature from Croatia, it was an immense and unexpected success.
“My creative goal is to make films that will get better and better and that I don’t run out of ideas. Currently I am trying hard to think of something for my second film, so I am already panicking.
“John Cassavetes [is my filmmaking hero].
“In Croatia, currently we have a surge of young female directors that are very, very good. I hope they will have a chance to make feature films, and female directors will not be seen as aberrations and curiosities.”
“Scary Mother” (Georgia)
“The major obstacle was a common one for many filmmakers, especially debutants and especially for Georgians — a low budget that automatically causes many other obstacles.
“[My breakthrough came] when so many amazing people, cast and crew, despite given conditions, agreed to work on this film.
“The creative goal is to not stop the creative process.
“I have many, as there are so many heroes and, less many, but still some heroine filmmakers. I just do not like listing them and can’t really highlight just one or two.
“I doubt there is any significant difference between being a male or being a female filmmaker. It is just that more attention comes to women filmmakers as we were in the minority for many years and now have become quite active and this is a hot topic in my country.”
“On Body and Soul” (Hungary)
“Well, it was me, myself. At the bumpy start of my career, and during the making of my first four feature films, I made decisions with the assured directness of a sleepwalker. I was consistent in my choices of which way to go and which one — even very tempting — not. I understood how effortlessly autonomous I was only when I lost this quality. For years, I was not able to raise financing for any of my projects and this made me desperate. A desperate person’s center of gravity is not anymore inside, it is displaced somewhere outside. Every opinion, good or bad, became too important and my habit to trust my good instincts was broken. Deep down, when hitting the bottom, I somehow found my old self back and was able to restart being again a whole person, truthful to herself, who is able to navigate around failures and successes with an inner dignity.
“‘On Body and Soul’ is a quite ‘naked’ film. When we started, we jumped into the void without the safety net of a strong, socially, politically relevant theme or of a statement-like artistic style. We knew that we can have a film only if we succeed to touch the heart of the spectator on a very primary, innocent way — all intellectual appreciation can come only through that. It was risky, but it was the only way to make it. Whatever dark perspectives we have regarding the near future of our planet, there are as many, perhaps not so evident, positive signs.
“The first public screening was at the Berlinale, an early afternoon, as the first projection in the competition. I sat, frozen, in the darkness of the huge theater. Then, I heard the first laughs, the first, meaningful, tense silences, exactly there, where we wished, and exactly the way we wished, and that big ice cube building in me for many years slowly dissolved. Our film was communicating fully with all these unknown people. I could feel the completeness of this meeting and I was simply, deeply, shamelessly happy.
“I hope to be able to make some more films — at least a fragment of what I wished to make — where I can share the good news of how immensely lucky we all are to be alive, to share this planet, how rich, thrilling and funny this adventure, life can be.
“Akira Kurosawa [is a hero to me]. Apart from the fact his films are burned in my memory for forever, I have true respect for the person. Reading his autobiography, I found that sort of deeply humble approach to life and work that is the attribute of only the biggest. I truly admire Agnes Varda; her work, old and new, is very important for me.
“I come from Hungary, so, from Eastern Europe, this poorer and messier corner of the European Union. During my career, it was a double challenge and sometimes I don’t know which one was harder. To be a woman filmmaker in Hungary is not more difficult than anywhere else. I am deeply thankful for all those women and men around the world who fought for all those basic rights which seem to be evident today but were not so evident for my grandmother. My personal approach to this issue is to be convincing through decent work and decent communication with my team, men and women, knowing, that I do not represent only myself but I set an example and perhaps, by doing so, I make the sort of young female filmmakers feel a bit easier. I am not impatient, I am aware that several thousand years of habits cannot be changed in a hundred years. I am thrilled by the concept of the movement Men for Women. I wish it would be more widespread in my country and around the world. Then, I promise, I would be the founding member of the movement Women for Men.”
“The challenge is to never lose focus to make the film exactly as you imagine it. It’s precisely because of this constant struggle that I love my job.
“The selection of the film at the Berlinale this year [was important]. It’s the first time I earned real international recognition for my work and the possibility for it to be seen by large audiences. Having had the world premiere in Berlin has cast a lot of attention on the film and so it was screened in many other festivals, and it has most probably also led Luxembourg to choose it as its entry for the Oscars.
“To be able to keep on making films in the artistic freedom I’ve known with ‘Barrage’ [is the goal]: Not to be asked to make more compromises than I think my work can handle without losing what makes it specifically mine, and still reach bigger and bigger audiences.
“It’s very hard to name only one [influence], so I will name three. There is Rainer Werner Fassbinder that I admire for his detached and stylized way of looking at his characters and nevertheless creating very intimate and moving stories. There is John Cassavetes that I love for having filmed Gena Rowlands over and over again, in the role of a woman who is always one woman and all the women at the same time. And there is Chantal Akerman that I cherish for her boldness, especially with ‘Jeanne Dielman,’ and for making very diverse films and yet staying true to herself. And for having said that the very first thing you need to do to make a film is to get up in the morning.
“I come from Luxembourg, a very small country that is known for its wealth and financial sector, not so much for its culture or cinema. Also, the cinema industry is still very young, but we have a public funding system that supports its local directors quite well, and I feel very lucky to have been supported since the beginning by the Luxembourgish fund as well as my producers. I have to say that I’ve never felt disadvantaged as a woman film director and I also feel very lucky because of that. In ‘Barrage,’ the three main characters are women and most of the key positions on the film were women too: the director of photography, the production designer, the composer and many more. I chose them because of their talent and because I had complete trust in them, in a talent-over-gender way of thinking. I would hope that one day this would be possible everywhere else in the world, that women get the same possibilities and trust as men and selected to the same key positions as them.”
MIJKE DE JONG
“Layla M.” (Netherlands)
“When making a film I am rendered completely obsessed for an indefinite period of time. Thinking in terms of obstacles would mark the end of my sanity. I prefer to think in terms of challenges. In the case of ‘Layla M.,’ there were ample. A large part of the film was shot in the Middle East, [and] it was a co-production with a larger than typical budget as far as I’m concerned. The crew was diverse and international. All kinds of ‘obstacles,’ which ended up broadening my horizon. My dream was to reach as many people as possible. Not just festival and arthouse audiences, but also young girls like Layla, who are angry and no longer feel at home in a city like Amsterdam where they were born and raised.
“One of the reasons this worked out is the fact that the film made it into the commercial circuit. We had never dared to dream that ‘Layla M.’ would travel the globe, that we would conduct so many relevant discussions about such an important and current topic like radicalization, and that the Netherlands would display the courage necessary to submit this film for the Oscar.
“We spent years in research and scriptwriting to create ‘Layla M.’ I was obsessed with the authenticity of the story. The key breakthrough was when we met with the two lead actors for the first time, Nora El Koussour and Ilias Addab. I knew they would elevate the film. We spent months preparing. They are both Muslims, know the Koran and were born and raised in the Netherlands. This proved to be a vital element of support. As soon as Layla became a girl of flesh and blood, one that you could be annoyed with, disagree with, but who would never lose the audience, I knew that we would be able to create the film we had envisioned. In order for them to play the part well I needed them to internalize the fundamentalist way of thinking and truly come to understand their characters. This was an intense and emotional process. It is extremely difficult to immerse yourself in a character that feeds on hate for months in a row.
“I believe in the power of storytelling. I hope that I can continue to create films like ‘Layla M.,’ films about the society I find myself in, for a very long time to come. Films that attempt to reduce the complex world we live in to a human scale. In the end, a lot of emotions and feelings are universal. Everyone wants to be seen and heard and as a filmmaker I hope that I can contribute to a slightly more loving world, if only by a drop in the ocean. Especially at a time where all nuance seems to have disappeared from public debate and polarization reigns free. Let’s take the audience on a journey of imagination and poetry, and let’s disrupt the world intelligently, with nuance, in a merciless, loving or humorous way.
“There are plenty of heroic masters to choose from. I’ve learned a lot from John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands. I am a fan of ‘Ab Fab,’ [“Absolutely Fabulous”] the series, but the real heroes are people who risk their lives to make movies because somebody has to do it. Such as the makers of ‘Burma VJ’ — reporting from a closed country. They smuggled their own equipment out of the country illegally. A life-threatening mission that resulted in a heart-wrenching film.
“In the Netherlands, women play an important role in our industry. The film museum, the national film foundation and the important festivals all have female directors. Our country also produces a lot of female film directors and I feel like I have been given the opportunity to develop my own voice. I know that this isn’t possible in many parts of the world and consider myself very lucky for that reason.”
“I was starting my career in communist Poland, as a political dissident and persona non grata for the regime. So my obstacles have been so big, that I didn’t notice that some may come from the fact I am a woman. And when I started again, outside of Poland as I was obliged to leave, I had some films awarded at festivals, but I was a stranger, not knowing people, not speaking languages. So again — being a woman was secondary. It’s something close to miracle that I made it anyway.
“When in Poland, I received great support from my older colleagues: Andrzej Wajda, Krzysztof Zanussi and Krzysztof Kieslowski in the first place. They fought for me really strongly. Wajda even proposed to officially adopt me: he wanted to shelter me with his name. When I finally was able to make my first film and it was somehow successful — all become easier. But then I was forced to emigrate and everything started from scratch. When outside of my country, the first break came with the first low-budget film I was able to make: the German ‘Angry Harvest,’ which was nominated for an Academy Award. Second big break was my other nominated movie: ‘Europa, Europa.’
“My creative goal is to tell important stories, in an original, personal way, to meet the widest audience possible while remaining honest and complex. And to find a visual way to express those stories on the screen.
“The woman who I consider a really great filmmaker was from my youth and still is: Agnes Varda.
“In all countries making movies is so much more difficult for women than for the men. I feel a real break coming. In Poland, we have in the middle generation several talented and strong women directors. Among the younger generation even more. So, the future belongs to us!”
“Summer 1993” (Spain)
“We shot the film in six weeks with two little girls as main protagonists, so we could only work six to eight hours per day for legal reasons. I had no time to think or reflect about all the quick decisions I was taking or to experiment and look for interesting discoveries on set.”
Her goals are to keep telling stories that are close to her heart and to keep making films with total creative freedom “to allow my cast, my crew and I to find the best way to translate the story for the screen.”
Lucrecia Martel of Argentina is her hero. “She has her own great voice, a particular way of seeing the world and portraying it through her camera and her sound, building incredibly dense and complex atmospheres. She also works very deeply on the script, and I really admire the subtlety of her stories, the complexity of her characters and the reality of her dialogues.
“As a Spanish woman filmmaker, I would like to encourage all female filmmakers to work on their projects and tell their own stories. I believe films made by women have a particular look, a particular way of seeing the world and we definitely need more female voices.”
“The Miner” (Slovenia)
“‘The Miner’ is a film based on a true-life story of a simple working-class guy, a miner, who, because of his sense of decency and his simple humanism, manages to bring out to the public what has been a dirty secret for decades, and thus opens a window of possibility for forgiveness and overcoming the split within the society. The film was a challenge to make, since the topic was a taboo in Slovenia for many years and remains politically difficult; perhaps similar to what in Poland is the topic of Polish anti-Semitism during WWII. But ‘The Miner’s’ release in September this year triggered a reconciliation process in Slovenia, so things are changing. It was therefore, and for the same reason, also rewarding to make this film.
“I’m not sure I believe in breakthroughs. From where I’m looking at my career, there are challenging and difficult choices to make, artistically and as a person, which, if I succeed in doing the right thing, bring me to a new level, where, hopefully, a new challenge is waiting. That said, I was very excited when my debut film ‘Blind Spot’ (2002) was screened at Cannes.
“I find it important to stay engaged and connected with whatever is happening within the society I live in, and to make films which reflect on this, but which also search for possible passages towards a better future, be it by uncovering hidden aspects which need to be taken into account, or by constructing positive myths based on humanistic values or both, as is the case of ‘The Miner.’
“I admire filmmakers with courage and verve on the aesthetic or storytelling level. My first big icon was Maya Deren. I wrote my master’s thesis on her. Alfred Hitchcock, Keisuke Kinoshita, Jane Campion, Apichatpong Weerasethakul — I almost got thrown out of a certain international festival because of defending his beautiful film ‘Blissfully Yours.’ Naomi Kawase, Agnes Varda — it is from her that I got my keep-me-going-mantra when making ‘The Miner.’ Jim Jarmusch, Claire Denis and Slovenian directors: Matjaž Klopčič, Franci Slak — my late father — and Maja Weiss, who was the first woman to make a feature film in Slovenia with her brave ‘Guardian of the Frontier’ (2002).
“Until now, in my country but also in many others, there has only been one woman director per generation who managed to establish herself as a feature film director, although we were many in the film school. I see this as a waste of talent. Let’s change it, starting by changing our own mentality: where there is room for one, there is room for three. Where there is room for three, there is room for many. Wherever possible, support women in cinema, regardless if you are a woman or a man.”
“The Divine Order” (Switzerland)
“Being a girl and growing up in a total working-class family had the effect that my way to becoming a filmmaker was quite long-winded. I loved movies as a kid, we watched a lot of television, but it never ever occurred to me that I could actually make them myself. When I expressed to my family that I wanted to do something ‘creative’ they told me to become a hairdresser. So, I think during the beginning of my career, the lack of the sense of entitlement to do this job and the lack of confidence was my biggest obstacle. Once you allow yourself to just do what you love and kill those inner voices who tell you otherwise — you are free. Compared to my inner enemies all exterior ones were negligible. A big obstacle in making ‘The Divine Order’ was our small budget for a historical film. We wanted to have an authentic feel and this was only possible because we started already three years before shooting to work on the look and also because all my heads of department used all their creativity to find affordable solutions.
“I’ve worked as a writer-director since I finished film school and never had to do something else to sustain myself. In a way, every film I made was a little breakthrough — the fact that I managed to pull it off.
“I’ve written and directed several prime-time television movies. I wrote the screenplay for ‘Heidi,’ Switzerland’s biggest international success of all time, and then I made my two cinema features. ‘The Divine Order’ was a breakthrough for me on an international level. It got me an agency in the U.S. [WME]. And now I’m very excited about the possibility to venture out into a bigger film world.
“My creative goal is always to tell a relevant, entertaining, touching story. Cinema is a fantastic way to seduce people, to broaden their perspective, to open their hearts and to sometimes shake them up a bit; lure them out of their comfort zone.
“I always look for a strong, universal theme — something that has the potential to reach a lot of people. Whatever genre I’m working in, and wherever I’m working — that is always what I try to achieve.
“I’m very inspired by all the great women who make movies right now, who managed to be successful despite all the extreme obstacles women in this industry face. So, Dee Rees, Ava DuVernay, Jane Campion, Lucrecia Martel, Kathryn Bigelow, Sarah Polley, Reed Morano, all my colleagues from Film Fatales and many, many more. All of them make such remarkable, great movies — it motivates me.
“As everywhere, there is gender bias in Switzerland’s film scene — conscious and unconscious. But things are changing because we raise our voices and we are standing together in solidarity. And as filmmakers we should put our hearts and energy into making films. That’s our biggest weapon; make the films we want to make. And we don’t have to wait for permission from anybody.
“To the young women filmmakers who are just starting out and it does not matter in which country they are, I especially want to say: just do it. Tell your story. If necessary, film it with your phone. Nobody can keep you from doing that!
“Only when we work from a place of feeling free and independent we can be strong and grow as filmmakers.”
Anna Marie de la Fuente contributed to this report.