Outside the narrow mainstream, a vibrant contemporary feminist cinema is thriving – and being celebrated – around the world. So why are we not paying enough attention?
The headlines didn’t say ‘Iranian Women Conquer America’, but the Sundance success of Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami’s documentary Sonita certainly makes the case. Ghaem Maghami took the Grand Jury Prize, World Cinema Best Documentary and World Cinema Documentary Audience Award on 30th January 2016, an incredible sweep for an intimate film by and about determined women of colour. Sonita Alizadeh is a scholarship-winning Afghan-Iranian rapper, and her journey to Sundance couldn’t tell a more complete story about the flourishing of feminist representation in contemporary cinema.
The film’s win is in tune with what I learned researching Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema, covering films from 2001-15. Everywhere I looked, vibrant, inclusive cinemas were springing up – outside of the American mainstream. Sonita originates from a country associated with female oppression, but that has a rich feminist documentary tradition, expressed not least in the recent compilation film Profession: Documentarist, where nine Iranian female filmmakers look at the impossibility of their profession under censorship. And Sonita was produced by distributor Women Make Movies, whose work has been uniquely intersectional, with a long-term focus on global and inclusive women’s cinemas – something also found in the catalogue of UK feminist distributor Cinenova.
Like Sonita, the sole female-helmed fiction feature nominated for this year’s Academy Awards points to a transnational treasure trove of innovative cinema. Mustang’s French-Turkish filmmaker Deniz Gamze Ergüven attended French state film school La Fémis, where Céline Sciamma (Girlhood) also studied; both of them are revolutionising the French film industry’s traditional carte blanche with stories of rebellious young women of colour. Mustang was the official French entry for Best Foreign Film, which suggests a re-evaluation of the national image. Similarly, in 2014, Pakistan submitted Afia Nathaniel’s Dukhtar, only its fourth-ever nomination, and a bold choice as an independent film that’s pointedly critical of child marriage and the patriarchal state.
As Australian critic Cerise Howard notes, it’s past time for Hollywood to ‘get real and catch up with the wider world’ when it comes to trans and other non-dominant representation. She maps that wider world through a wide field of examples such as US-produced streaming shows Orange is the New Black and Transparent, US indie film Tangerine (Sean Baker) and Swedish independent film Something Must Break (Ester Martin Bergsmark). Yet, she concludes, ‘it seems for now that authentic portrayals of trans and gender diverse people’s lives on film will remain the domain of low-budget filmmaking, ghettoised to the niche film festival circuit and narrow cinema release’.
But Howard is also involved with ~ (tilde), the Melbourne Trans & Gender Diverse Film Festival, which has been active since 2014. The last five years has seen the emergence of both new festivals and new curators dedicated to feminist, queer, intersectional, marginalized and global cinemas. In London alone, you can find (alphabetically) the Bechdel Test Fest, Birds Eye View Film Festival, Club des Femmes, Fringe!, I am Dora, Images of Black Women Film Festival, kuntinuum, London Feminist Film Festival, London Sex Worker Film Festival, Reel Good Film Club, She Shark Industries, Transgender Film Festival, UnderWire Film Festival, Voice of a Woman Film Festival, A Woman’s Work, and Wotever DIY Film Festival, as well as the more established BFI Flare (formerly BFI Lesbian and Gay Film Festival). Such presence suggests they are no longer ‘niche’, but a significant element of a film spectatorship, with their own critical culture that is predominantly online.
Yet it’s true that Academy (and other) Awards, theatrical distribution, international sales and mainstream media coverage remain necessary, even in the era of online streaming, for reaching a critical mass of spectatorship, as box office receipts remain important for future production funding. There is a steep attrition rate for female filmmakers at every point in the model career arc: but the gulf between first and second feature is a distinctive one. It took Sally Potter ten years to move from The Gold Diggers to Orlando, and Amma Asante a similar decadal span between A Way of Life (which won a BAFTA) and Belle. Career continuity is even more challenging than entry into the industry: that’s why it’s so exciting that Asante has just wrapped on her third feature A United Kingdom.
That’s also why it’s so frustrating that studios are focusing on talent campuses and training opportunities for emerging female and minority filmmakers, rather than offering direct funding for filmmaking. Sundance are again setting the pace with the announcement of the Merata Mita Fellowship. Mita (Ngai te Rangi/Ngati Pikiao) was New Zealand’s first female indigenous filmmaker, and thus far the only Māori woman to direct a dramatic feature. The first fellowship was awarded to Ciara Leina’ala Lacy (Kanaka Maoli) from O’ahu, Hawai’i, for her documentary project, Out of State, about indigenous Hawai’ian prisoners sent to a private prison in Arizona.
Political Animals argues that what’s feminist about a film such as Out of State is not just its female-identified director, but its commitment to representational justice, speaking – as Sonita does – a feminist optic about contemporary geopolitics. Sonita and Out of State – like Something Must Break and Belle – are feminist films, and contribute hugely to both scholarship and spectatorship within that framework. But for the something that is the irredentist Academy (as representative of the larger film industry) to break, we need to shift – and open up – our gaze, and perceive these films both within the ‘niche’ communities and critiques that they have accrued, and within the wider (and geopolitical) cultural world. We need to recognize that these films, like Sonita Alizadeh, move outwards while remaining true to themselves.