‘Women Make Film’ Review: Mark Cousins’ 14-Hour Documentary Celebrates the Art and Ingenuity of Women Filmmakers

After spotlighting women’s contributions in 'The Story of Film,' Mark Cousins challenges himself to teach audiences “how to make a movie” using only female-directed examples.

Women Make Film
Courtesy of Toronto Film Festival

Women Make Film.” The title of Irish film savant Mark Cousins’ sprawling 14-hour follow-up to “The Story of Film” serves both as a statement of fact and, if punctuated slightly differently, a call to action: “Women, Make Film!”

Where the earlier documentary was a monumental survey of the medium, attempting to cram its entire history into a single project, Cousins allows this latest labor of love to be more discursive and idiosyncratic — “a new road movie through cinema,” he calls it — stitched together with footage shot through the windshields of cars on nearly every continent. He and editor Timo Langer have assembled montage upon montage of magic moments, the vast majority plucked from films even I was unfamiliar with, amounting to an invaluable film appreciation workshop. It’s ideal for those with open minds and eclectic tastes, such as festival audiences and subscribers of Turner Classic Movies and The Criterion Channel, where the film can be absorbed in bite-size chunks.

“This is a film school of sorts in which all the teachers are women, an academy of Venus,” explains producer Tilda Swinton, the first of seven narrators to be heard.

Inspirational and instructive alike, the film is divided into 40 chapters, which ask rhetorical questions — from “What’s an inventive way of introducing a character?” to “How does a director film thought?” — for which Cousins doesn’t necessarily have the answers. The goal is to focus “students” on the essentials: ways to frame a scene, how to establish tone, tactics for compressing time and creating suspense, what to show and when it’s more effective to omit. Instead of imposing rules, he culls intriguing (albeit unusual) examples from the extensive catalog of women-made films and offers them up as potential solutions. For those interested in directing, the tactic can be incredibly liberating, as if to say, “There are no wrong answers! Look how original others have been!”

Since the dawn of cinema, and despite enormous cultural obstacles, women have taken the helm. They were there at the outset, represented by well-known silent pioneers Alice Guy, Lois Weber and Germaine Dulac. They have emerged to make essential contributions in nearly every country, from Albania (Xhanfize Keko, “Tomka and His Friends”) to Saudi Arabia (Haifaa al-Mansour, “Wadjda”). And at times, they’ve scaled the mountain of industrial cinema, infiltrating the Hollywood boys’ club to generate blockbusters of their own, à la Kathryn Bigelow (the only woman to win a best director Oscar), wonder woman Patty Jenkins and activist director Ava DuVernay — and yet, the film canon so rarely includes them.

This is one reason that Cousins opts to go his own way in deciding which works to include in “Women Make Film,” following his offbeat instincts — which felt like footnotes, if not self-indulgent tangents, in “The Story of Film,” but comprise the roundabout route of this “new road movie through cinema” — rather than simply rehashing the names that most frequently occur in film textbooks. Yes, classic-Hollywood loner Dorothy Arzner, French New Wave antecedent Agnès Varda, avant-garde visionary Maya Deren, popular star-turned-independent producer Ida Lupino all feature. But, as Swinton says, “film history has been sexist by omission.”

By omission or by exclusion? Certainly, on the filmmaking side, women have been blocked from opportunities all along. But Cousins — who wrote the wonderfully poetic voiceover that’s read, with an almost droning lack of enthusiasm, by Swinton, Jane Fonda, Adjoa Andoh, Sharmila Tagore, Kerry Fox, Thandie Newton and Debra Winger — is referring to film studies.

Within the realm of academia, significant scholarship has been done on women’s involvement in nearly every era/arena (temporal and geographic) of the medium, but these uphill achievers are seldom mentioned or screened in college courses, which typically focus on man-made work. That’s partly because — through no particular advantage of ability, only access — men are responsible for the majority of the most influential films, if not necessarily the most innovative ones (Varda, Věra Chytilová, Chantal Akerman, Claire Denis and Leni Riefenstahl each set her own course, though others haven’t always followed their lead).

That could change as Cousins brings these obscure works to light — which is one of the great accomplishments for any critic: shining a light on exceptional, overlooked work. In some the rarer cases, it’s a wonder that he could track down clips at all, which explains the variable quality of the footage. TCM will augment the airing of “Women Make Film” with 100 movies mentioned in the doc, many of which will be getting their most significant U.S. exposure yet. In the context of the coronavirus lockdown, as homebound cinephiles seek out unusual discoveries, Cousins’ curatorial acumen in a gift — although it would be fair to question why he seems so disdainful of mainstream cinema. This was a flaw in “The Story of Film,” too, where Hollywood was reduced to a “bauble.”

“But then this,” as the narrators often say: Cousins somewhat counterintuitively looks to TV, making room for “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Westworld,” but excludes blockbuster cinema — the exceptions being Penelope Spheeris’ “Wayne’s World,” Penny Marshall’s “Big” and anything by Bigelow (but especially her punk-prescient flop “Strange Days”). There’s a bit of the hipster in his attitude — an appetite for discovery that turns sour once the masses adopt — so it helps that he’s enlisted women to read his narration (although it makes it tough to fix mistakes, like the moment, in the 12th hour, when we’re told, “We’re nine hours in”). One might be tempted to label Cousins a snob if he weren’t so humble in his approach to more challenging directors: Rather than imposing his aesthetic on artists, as so many critics do, Cousins makes the effort to appreciate their choices, however unusual, giving viewers the tools to do so as well.

It can be overwhelming to take in the sheer number of films this documentary encompasses (and tricky to identify them at times, given the fleeting labels that appear on-screen), but that’s not the goal. Cousins bombards his audience with clips spanning subjects as wide as Sex and Death, Framing and Tone, and it’s up to viewers to decide what to do with all these recommendations. Oddly, it’s also their responsibility to draw conclusions about what, if anything, unites all these artists. “The films we’ve looked at have far more female protagonists,” the doc unhelpfully summarizes toward the end, pretending that there aren’t more profound conclusions to be drawn.

Cousins was long-rumored to have been assembling a mammoth 22-hour project titled “How to Make a Movie: An Eye Opener.” Could it be that he overhauled that in order to make a political statement, re-centering women’s impact on the medium? And who better to do so, given the depth of his expertise in classic and world cinema? Still, if one truly wanted to teach the 40 principles that constitute this do-it-yourself film school, are these the best examples?

Like the Danish Dogma 95 crowd (whose Susanne Bier doesn’t make the cut), Cousins has imposed seemingly arbitrary restrictions — not just limiting himself to women-made work (which he defines to include the Wachowskis’ oeuvre and films co-signed by men, such as “Persepolis” and Soviet silent “Women of Ryazan”), but consistently avoiding “more famous” citations. Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s haunting body-horror fable “Evolution” keeps coming up, as does Mary Harron’s “American Psycho.” Varda’s clearly a favorite, but Cousins avoids her best — or best-known — work (“Cléo From 5 to 7”).

Ultimately, the omissions are less important than the inclusions, which span nearly 50 countries and every decade. For a cinephile like myself, it’s exciting to encounter so much originality from filmmakers I didn’t know, and to realize just how much of the world of cinema remains for me to discover. For less experienced viewers, however, the obscurity of the examples sends a strange message, suggesting that women aren’t merely underrepresented, but marginal in their impact, when that’s simply where Cousins prefers to focus. One wants for “Women Make Film” to feel accessible and encouraging when in fact, it’s a dense and relatively advanced film survey.

Perhaps the most important takeaway is that the medium of cinema wouldn’t be the same without the contributions of all these female artists, which suggests yet another way to read the title: “Women Make Film” the way the brass section makes Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” defining and enrichening the whole.

‘Women Make Film’ Review: Mark Cousins’ 14-Hour Documentary Celebrates the Art and Ingenuity of Women Filmmakers

Reviewed online, Los Angeles, Aug. 29-31, 2020. (In Toronto Film Festival.) Running time: 833 MIN.

  • Production: (Documentary – U.K.) A Cohen Media release of a Hopscotch Films, How to Make a Movie production. (Int'l sales: Dogwoof, London.) Producer: John Archer. Executive producers: Tilda Swinton, Clara Glynn.
  • Crew: Director, writer: Mark Cousins. Editor: Timo Langer.
  • With: Tilda Swinton, Sharmila Tagore, Jane Fonda, Adjoa Andoh, Thandie Newton, Kerry Fox, Debra Winger. (Albanian, Arabic, Bulgarian, Cantonese, Chechen, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Farsi, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hindi, Hungarian, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Mohawk, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, Thai, Turkish, Ukrainian, Urdu dialogue)