Women remain underrepresented in the indie film world, including in the director’s chair.
According to a 2017 study by Dr. Martha M. Lauzen at the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film at San Diego University, film festivals screened three times as many narrative films and twice as many documentaries directed by men in the 2016–2017 season. Behind the camera, men outnumber women more than two to one.
Yet the tide is slowly changing. Twenty-nine percent of independent films screened at festivals in 2016–2017 arose from the work of female directors, on par with the previous season but up 7 percent from 2008–2009. Women accounted for 33 percent of documentary directors, and films with at least one female director had more women involved in their writing, editing and cinematography, as well.
Here are a few of the women whose indie film work you need to know.
Ana Lily Amirpour
Ana Lily Amirpour made headlines recently by announcing a late submission to the Cannes Film Festival: Blood Moon, according to Deadline Hollywood contributor Mike Fleming Jr. Fleming predicted that Blood Moon might be Amirpour’s “breakout film.”
“I wanted to tell a stylized fairy tale and in New Orleans you have a specific, unique place where there is so much history and this openly hedonistic debauchery that is led by pleasures of the flesh,” Amirpour told Deadline in a May 2018 interview.
“I thought that was an interesting place to set a story about a girl who has some disturbing abilities but who isn’t acclimated in any way to society, and learns to be with people in a chaotic place.”
Tales of self-discovery for female characters tangling with elements of the strange, supernatural or macabre have become a hallmark of Amirpour’s work. Her film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2014 and was immediately hailed as “astonishing” by Filmmaker Magazine, which revelled in its ability to mix vampire films, spaghetti westerns and Iranian New Wave elements into something completely new and compelling.
Amirpour, born in England to Iranian parents, moved to the US with her family as a child. “I watched the making of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video thousands of times,” she told Filmmaker in 2014. “It taught me how to be an American.” Works like A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, The Bad Batch and Blood Moon mix American settings and themes with an eclectic, global musical soundtrack. Each film touches on themes of emotional isolation, identity construction and the need to develop a workable moral compass in a confusing, complex and contradictory world.
Fleming also noted that the music in Blood Moon was likely to take center stage. “The film pairs strange, violent, and funny cinematic sequences with stellar musical artists, ranging from heavy metal to Italian techno to sexy French lounge music,” Fleming wrote.
Lucia Aniello’s 2017 film Rough Night marked her feature length directing debut, but she’d already built a career for herself in television comedy. Her previous work included direction on the television series Broad City and on the miniseries Time Traveling Bong, which combined comedy and social commentary with Aniello’s interest in time travel (which was the subject of her thesis at Columbia University, according to a 2016 interview with Rachel Handler).
Rough Night stands out not only as a breakthrough for Aniello, but as an R-rated film directed by a woman and featuring a predominantly female cast — a combination that’s unusual in both indie and studio films, notes IndieWire’s Kate Erbland.
Although Rough Night features what Erbland calls a “wacky plot,” it’s also a strongly grounded film, developed through Aniello and co-writer Paul Downs’s thoughtful attention to characterization and its closely related cousin, casting.
“What we like to do is write real characters, no matter what their gender is,” Aniello told IndieWire. “Right now, it seems to be more resonant to be writing very grounded, real female characters, maybe just because it hasn’t been represented as much, especially in the film world.”
Aniello and Downs are currently working on several future film projects, including a spec script and a project written for Rough Night star Scarlett Johansson. They’ve also been involved in discussions of a woman-centric 21 Jump Street spinoff, according to IndieWire. Aniello’s Twitter feed includes nods toward other recent projects, including a music video with Tove Lo.
“It wasn’t ever like, ‘Okay, now that we’re a writing team, we’re going to write for women!’ It didn’t happen that way, it just kind of naturally has evolved to that,” Aniello said. “I’m sure that will be a tendency for us in the future, but I don’t think it’s all we do.”
“Melika Bass is arguably one of the most important filmmakers working in Chicago today,” wrote Michael Glover Smith, filmmaker and author of Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry, in a 2017 article for TimeOut. “Her work – dark, enigmatic, exquisitely atmospheric – hybridizes experimental and narrative elements to create troubling, mythic worlds in which characters engaged in repetitious behavior seem curiously lost in time.”
Bass currently serves as an assistant professor of film, video, new media and animation at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she also earned her MFA in 2007. She’s a recipient of the Artadia Award, the Kodak/Filmcraft Imaging Award at the Ann Arbor Film Festival and the Experimental Film Prize at the Athens International Film Festival.
Although perhaps best known for her work on Sigur Ros’s Vardeldur, Bass’s films Songs from the Shed, Waking Things and Shoals all focus on the use of landscape as a driver of emotional tension. “I think there’s something about this idea of a landscape or a place having a charge to it, so that the textures, the sort of shadowy potential of a place, what could have happened there – this idea of dread or shame and the tension of those things – are all being abstracted,” Bass told Smith in their TimeOut interview.
Bass uses film, including the options for illusion it presents, to explore this terroir, which she called a “vegetable darkness” within her various films. While she admits that her films’ connection to narrative isn’t “conventional,” she also seeks to present works of art that trigger “a kind of cognition or a kind of efforting to create narrative out of fragments.”
Bass’s use of film in deeply introspective, organic and psychologically interactive ways creates “a unique cinema of atmosphere and historical reminiscences,” says Italian film critic Roberto Manassero, making her work “one of the revelations of the Torino Film Festival.”
Bass just premiered her newest short, Creature Companion, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. This was part of the 10th annual BAMcinemaFest, in which the short films program exclusively featured women directors whose works explored race, identity, gender and relationships.
The Future For Women in Film
“We shouldn’t even have to publish this article,” Jason Dietz wrote by way of introduction to a 2010 roundup of the best women film directors in MetaCritic. “But even in a year where a woman took home the Academy Award for best director (for the first time), female filmmakers still aren’t getting the same recognition or opportunities that male directors do.”
The statistics are better in 2018 than in 2010. And the sea change may generate its own tipping point: Dr. Lauzen’s study demonstrated that films with at least one female director had higher numbers of women working behind the scenes, as well.
As women take the director’s chair in the indie film world, they’re more likely to write, produce, and compose, as well — injecting a new set of fresh perspectives into a classic industry.
Image by: Christina Boemio