Why TCM Is Airing a 14-Hour Documentary About Women Directors

By Audrey Cleo Yap

Starting on Sept. 1, Turner Classic Movies will air 14-part documentary “Women Make Film,” an exhaustive look at female filmmakers worldwide and their work throughout cinematic history.

The series dissects elements of filmmaking — from tracking shots to crafting narrative arcs — through the work of everyone from Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow to Tunisian helmer Moufida Tlatli, the first Arab woman to direct a full-length feature.

“It’s not only about filmmakers in North America,” said TCM general manager Pola Changnon. “It’s about countries where filmmaking reputations aren’t that well-known, especially here. That’s why I love the title of this — ‘Women Make Film.’ It’s a statement of fact, and even though they’re not always well-represented in the film canon, women have been doing this for decades.”

Written and directed by Mark Cousins, the docuseries features an impressive list of narrators: Tilda Swinton, Jane Fonda, Adjoa Andoh, Sharmila Tagore, Kerry Fox, Thandie Newton and Debra Winger.

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According to Cousins, the documentary was five years in the making, and its lengthy, 14-hour run time, is on purpose.

“I felt that we need to talk about [these women] as filmmakers, not victims of a sexist industry or not marginal figures or not curiosities or not symbols of something,” Cousins said. “When you dig into the life story of every one of these filmmakers,  they made these movies because they loved cinema, and they wanted to express themselves.”

Of the all-star roster of narrators Cousins managed to recruit, he said asking Fonda to contribute was the most challenging, but an impassioned letter — centered on the passing of Ukrainian filmmaker Kira Muratova — finally did the trick.

“So I said, ‘Dear Jane Fonda: I was going to write you another letter, but I’m going to write to you about the f—ing disgrace that another legendary female filmmaker has died, and she’s hardly known, and that she should be mentioned in the Oscars’ ‘in memoriam,'” he recalled. “And I think the next morning, there was an email from Jane Fonda saying, ‘I’d love to do it.’ So I went to her house, and we had guacamole and recorded voiceovers.”

To complement the 14-week event, TCM has also programmed 100 films from 44 countries, a roster that includes work by India’s Mira Nair (“Salaam Bombay!”), Kenya’s Wanuri Kahiu (“Rafiki”) and China’s Shaohong Lee (“Stolen Life”). Programming those films was an endeavor a year in the making, Changnon said.

The network is also partnering with re:Imagine/ATL, an organization aimed at nurturing Gen-Z creatives, to host a contest for young female filmmakers aged 12-17.

TCM’s highlighting of the diversity of the filmmaking community comes at a time when many so-called “classic movies” are being re-examined for their problematic or racist content. For TCM, Changnon says, while there is not a “do not air” list circulating at the network, it does mean identifying programming that it feels it can properly contextualize. It also means reconsidering films they may have programmed in the past, such as 1915’s “Birth of a Nation.”

“We used to program it with a very concerted eye on, ‘We have hosts talking about it, talking about the history of it, and where it lives in D.W. Griffith’s filmography,’ all those things,” said Changnon. “But at this point in time, I think there are too many hurdles to talking about that other stuff and too much pain for our audience in understanding what it contributed to. That’s one where I would say I don’t see us programming back.”