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.
“A Letter to the President” (Afghanistan)
“The story of my film has a lot to say including the taboos in my society. I therefore was concerned about how to talk about sensitive issues. Another major obstacle was the security situation in Afghanistan especially because I live and work in this country. Some of the shooting locations were in insecure areas while I was not feeling safe even in Kabul when moving with a large crew, which was unusual for people. Also there is no production studio in Afghanistan and I had to use real locations, which was a big risk considering the safety and security condition in my country.
The other challenge was funding of my film. In the absence of an insurance system and insecurity in the country, international producers are not interested to fund Afghan films. In the beginning, although some producers liked the script of my film, they were not interested to take the risk and fund this film. However, I decided to make this film with my personal budget and — this way — pass my message and show that despite of all challenges, life is going on in Afghanistan and it is possible to make a film here. My company is a female-run production company. And my sister and I with the help of my husband and in cooperation with Moby Group succeeded to produce this film. “My love and strong belief to cinema and the fact that I was very serious about my idea to make this film [helped break through]. I was waiting from 2009 to 2016 to find a producer, which did not happen, but my firm decision to make the film helped me to make it happen.
“I would like to give a message to international producers that it is possible to make films in Afghanistan and we have to give Afghans voice and a chance to tell their stories. Also I hope that this film can introduce me to the world and I can get the attention of international producers for my future projects. Despite all problems, I tried to use international-level technology and make a high-quality film and I hope that my film can compete with others from around the world at the Oscars. “I like good films and I watch films from different directors from different countries but there is no particular filmmaker with a strong influence on me. I may like one or more films of a filmmaker but not necessarily all of them.”
“My first message is to the world to not judge Afghanistan based on what we hear about it in the news. Even inside a conflict there are lots of stories which need to be told and seen and people need to learn, talk and think about them. Afghanistan is in the transition period and my film is an example that shows it is possible to make films in Afghanistan. However, talking about issues like fundamentalism, modernism and change is still difficult, particularly for women. But we need to understand and recognize that there are people in this country who are courageous enough to talk about these issues and challenge their societies to move towards positive change. I dare to do this!
“Finally, with all challenges and hardship, I did not want my film to be overshadowed by my problems and limitations and stop making a high-quality film, and I do hope my film can compete and be considered as a good product in the Oscars because now we are in this period. “The important point is that this is the only feature film from Afghanistan, which is produced by an Afghan company with an Afghan key team and Afghan funds.”
“The Space Between” (Australia)
“The biggest obstacle for me was time. As our film was the first co-production between Italy and Australia; it took a painstakingly long time for the project to be realized. Keeping the passion and determination alive during this long gestation period was challenging. It meant a lot of personal sacrifice and patience, especially when things seemed impossible. Then the actual shoot was crazily fast — of course!
“For me, the key to breaking through the obstacles was a mix of persistence, faith and a very strong support network. Whenever we got a no, we’d turn around and look for a yes elsewhere. This pushed us to create a strong support network of people that became like family. They gave us the financial and emotional support to keep going. You have to ultimately believe deeply in your film and its necessity to be born, so that nothing and no one will stand in your way.
“I’d love to direct a TV series created by women for women. Something stylish and sophisticated with deeply drawn, dynamic female characters that dares to speak about the unspoken and connects to women across the world. Ideally set in Europe — I’m a little addicted to Italy after making my first film there! I’d also love to do a big budget, futuristic film that deals with climate change in a revealing and hopeful way.
“Federico Fellini [is a filmmaking hero]. He managed to touch the truth in such profound and imaginative ways with brilliant satire and iconic characters. The less realistic his films were, somehow the more truthful they became.
“It’s definitely not easy being a woman director in Australia. We are still a minority and when you combine being a woman director with being a first-time director, it’s almost impossible to get a shot.
“Australia has a long way to go in achieving equality — for women and for emerging filmmakers. We need to be braver, take more risks and see woman directors as artists to be nurtured and celebrated. Ultimately there needs to be a paradigm shift across all levels of the industry — from funding to distribution, where new talent and female voices are awarded opportunities, not labels.”
“First They Killed My Father” (Cambodia)
“That a film on this scale had never been made before in Cambodia. That was the practical challenge. But on an emotional level, we simply didn’t know if the country would be ready for it; ready to re-create events that are so traumatic, so personal to every Cambodian family, and still within living memory.
“Assembling an amazing group of Cambodians together with Rithy Panh, who produced the film with me, from the cast and crew to the translators and therapists we had on set every day — literally hundreds of people who guided us through the process and made the film with us. In the end, thousands of Cambodians stepped forward to help us tell their story.
“The greatest creative experience I have is when, as a filmmaker, I can help support and shed light on other artists; their voices and their talents.
“I have boundless admiration for Rithy Panh …He is not only an amazing director, but he is also working to rescue and preserve music, film and photographs from Cambodia prior to the Khmer Rouge. He and his colleagues are literally piecing together the country’s cultural memories, for the sake of a younger generation. To me, that is art in the service of humanity.
“I didn’t set out to be a director, and I don’t think of myself as a female director. But I do think that as women, we have to have each other’s backs and champion each other’s work. There is no doubt we need more strong female voices from diverse backgrounds, not just to be representative of our world, but to enrich film and storytelling and to bring forward a wider range of voices.”
“Being a woman was the most important obstacle in the beginning of my career since I had to get everyone’s trust for my work. This is a historical problem all over the world, that women are firstly seen for their sex and their arts and abilities are ignored.
The key breakthrough in my career, whether as a writer or as a filmmaker, was that I could do what I liked to do, especially when I started my film career. I have made the films that I am willing to make and I am so happy for this. I do not believe that the success of a film or filmmaker depends on box office or festival awards, but that the filmmaker should be satisfied with her or his work.
For me, the greatest breakthrough has been that both the audience and other filmmakers liked my films, especially my last two feature films, ‘Track 143’ and ‘Breath.’ I also consider the very positive feedback of the critics who liked my films and no doubt, I would be happier to have even a broader audience as I do not make films only for myself.
“I want to make a film that, above all, I would be convinced by, as I am very strict about my own works and honestly, I am trying to make my own films and not be impacted by current Iranian cinema and the more you make a movie out of your heart, I am sure it will have more impact on the audience.
“I learn from many filmmakers and even the unknown filmmakers, but I can say the more important ones are Kieslowski and Inarritu.
“As a filmmaker belonging to a generation who has spent her life in a war period, the confrontation of women and children with the very complicated issue of war has been my obsession and I have followed this issue in my films, too — to try to be the loud voice of these women and children who were always looking for the essence of life under the shadow of war and their very innocent wish for life, makes the necessity of peace unavoidable for me and them, too.”
“Dearest Sister” (Laos)
“I think the biggest obstacle for myself in making ‘Dearest Sister’ was the conditions I work in. It was our first co-production, and our crew was so small, about 12 of us, including myself (13 with the dog), we had a budget that was less than $250,000, and working in Laos is so unpredictable with our sometimes unstable electricity, weather and lack of equipment. In a way though, all of these obstacles are a really fun challenge for me! I’ve had to face bigger issues before where a film crew didn’t trust me because I am a woman with no previous film school background or training, and I can say that I would rather face problems that can be solved with creative DIY solutions any day than having to deal with people who are just rotten because they enter the set with preconceived notions of what working with a woman might be like, or what kind of film an Asian woman ‘should’ make.
“I was super lucky to become a film director, much less have people believe in our film ‘Dearest Sister.’ To be honest, I think the starting point of ‘Dearest Sister’ being able to make the strides that it did was that from development stage, it was a project that was accepted into the La Fabrique des Cinemas du Monde at the Cannes Film Festival. If I wasn’t involved in that program, I may not have found the right team, producers like my French co-producer, Annick Mahnert, and sales agents to trust me and support me in making the film, and because it was involved with a program like that, I think ‘Dearest Sister’ stayed on the peripheral radar of people, so when it was made and finished, there were people already curious about it.
“I have so many goals. I want to direct a commercial-blockbuster film just to see what it would be like! I want to not have to scrounge for budget but keep making unique films that aren’t like any other films. I would love to make films in other countries and after that, make a fusion film that had Lao elements, too. I think we have so many awesome stories and ideas that are left unexplored, and I want to explore those territories.
“I have a couple filmmaking heroes — I think Darren Aronofsky is amazing, and I love how even as he became quite famous, his work remains interesting and uncompromising. I also love Edgar Wright because his films are so well put together, well thought out and yet never lose his special quality of being fun and thrilling at the same time!
“If there’s something I could let the world know about being a woman film director from Laos is that it’s super difficult for a lot of reasons, namely that being a film director in a country with very little modern cinema to begin with is rough, and being the only woman in the entire country making feature films is a pretty big job too, but I think that because I have the opportunity to be able to helm and craft films from a place people know very little about, and to create an entire cinematic language myself, that it’s actually pretty awesome being a woman film director from Laos. All the issues, challenges, and problems I face only add depth and richness to the stories that I can put on screen for everyone, so please watch our films!”
“I have found the biggest obstacle has been with institutions and individuals in positions of power who have tried to quell or subdue my work or my ideas because they found it wasn’t in line with their own views.
“My short film ‘Like Twenty Impossibles’ was a key breakthrough for me. It took me two years and a lot of struggle to make that film. It felt crazy to submit it to Cannes, but I did. And I will never in my life forget that phone call I received to tell me it had been accepted. It was a light, an opening that changed everything.
“To improve my craft. To learn more, to push myself more, to remain open to ideas and not to get too comfortable. Although honestly, I could use a little comfort.
“Lubitsch, Cassavetes, Fellini, Godard, De Sica, Denis … so many … I can’t name one.
“[My message is that] there are many of us. And more coming. Be ready.”
“Pop Aye” (Singapore)
“There were also many elements that made ‘Pop Aye’ a challenge to shoot. We worked with animals, a huge one at that; we filmed during one of Thailand’s hottest summers in decades; being a road movie, we had a ton of locations to cover with a mostly non-professional cast.The world of the film I had envisioned — narratively, aesthetically, emotionally — was part absurd, part realist: a real tonal tightrope balance.
“It required much mental rigor to stay true to the directorial vision I had amidst all the chaos shooting this logistically demanding film. It felt a little like holding a glass full of water amidst an earthquake and making sure not a drop spills. Preparation, focus and stubbornness helped me overcome it.
“When it comes to the style and narrative of a film, I hope to be innovative in form whilst staying generous to the audience, as those two don’t always go hand in hand together.
“For now Yorgos Lanthimos, Lynne Ramsay and Ruben Ostlund [are my heroes].
“Before the fact that I am female or that I am Singaporean, I am first and foremost a human being with stories to tell. I wish to always make films that champion our shared humanity, so I hope my work isn’t boxed in and understood only via lines of gender or nationality, since we are all so much deeper and more complex than that. For me, the very nature of cinema transcends borders. It is to make something simultaneously totally foreign, totally relatable.”
“By the Time It Gets Dark” (Thailand)
“Funding [was the biggest challenge]. ‘By the Time It Gets Dark’ is my second feature and somehow I thought that would make it easier in terms of getting funds to make the film. My first feature [“Mundane History”] did quite well on the festival circuit and was theatrically released in a few countries so I thought the second film would not be as difficult to get made. However, this turned out not to be the case. In the end, it took me six years to finish this film.
“Perseverance; there was no single incident or specific moment that I could count as a breakthrough. [My goal is] to have a new film out every two-three years.
“My colleagues: Nan, Ohm, Pom, Maenam and Tulapop [are my filmmaking heroes].
“My message is not specifically about being a woman director from Thailand, but about being a woman director. We need to create an environment that is conducive for women to be working in a film industry. Female directors need to have equal opportunities as male directors. We need to be better represented across the board, from Hollywood blockbusters to the indie circuit.”
Alissa Simon contributed to this report.