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Film: Nine Overlooked Groundbreakers by Female Directors

These classics never received the recognition they deserved.

Peter Carellini Jan 13

In film industries both domestic and abroad, there is one universal truth when it comes to filmmakers: Femme directors are underrepresented. They are provided fewer opportunities, and most film canons studied in higher education ignore them. 

While you may find The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993), Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2004)  or The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2009) here or there alongside 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) or Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967), the threshold is far greater for female-identifying filmmakers to cross. 

In the waning days of  2022, even as historic film magazine Sight and Sound put a woman’s work, Chantal Akerman’s brilliant Jeanne Dielman, at the top of their once-a-decade greatest films list, it was  immediately decried as nothing more than a political gesture. Still, such a triumph should still be celebrated. 

Ask a random person to name a female director, They probably won’t be able to. As more come to the forefront in the world of cinema, many — especially those that present  non-heteronormativity in their films — are still widely overlooked by the general public.

We compiled a list of those which not only deserve to stand alongside the canonized classics, but which are  just as groundbreaking as the milestones we often celebrate. 

The following works are listed in chronological order.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed
Lotte Reiniger, Germany, 1926 

Most history books point to Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as the first full-length animated feature film. It is shown in film classes everywhere, held up as a shining  milestone of animation (and I do admit, as someone who prays for the  Disney machine’s bankruptcy, that it is a lovely film).  

That milestone is patently false, an erasure of an achievement released 11 years prior: Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed, clocking in at 65 minutes. While many animators have paid homage to this work, Snow White always seems to occupy minds  as the original animation feature. Chalk it up to Disney’s bloodthirsty tactics of burying competition, the ridiculous preconception that female directing is a recent thing or the fact that Reiniger had to flee Germany in the 1930s due to leftist activity. 

Prince Achmed nonetheless is a marvel. Its shadow puppetry animation still dazzles with its  fluid movement and meticulous construction. Reiniger had to create a whole new form of  projection to make this film over the course of three years, yet it maintains a breezy, adventurous  soul that feels almost effortless. The multicolored palette — startling golds, reds and blues — keep the shadows feeling fresh when the form itself could have easily grown monotonous, and  Reiniger makes sure to terrify you with its villains as much as she does charm you with its picaresque hero. 

Do be warned, the film contains racial stereotypes. 

Madchen in Uniform
Leontine Sagan, Germany, 1935  

Speaking of female innovators in 1930s Germany, what could be more groundbreaking than  making a film which pushes Goebbels to censor your work? Such was Leontine Sagan’s fate  after directing Madchen in Uniform, a film that takes place at an all-girls boarding school where the young Manuela falls in love with a female teacher, to horrible consequences. Stunningly, that is not the only way this film defied the system — it was the first in Germany, and possibly abroad, to be produced cooperatively (where both the crew and cast obtained film shares rather than a  salary). As the story depicts countless bouts of tyranny, physical and emotional, caused by the authoritarian rule and a Prussian headmistress, it is described as “an anti-fascist film that critiques the Prussian education system,” by Women Filmmakers and Their Films

And this is not a surface-level, sanitized representation; it features an all-female cast, with nary a token Good Man or palatable version of femininity. Though the ending may not be  happy for our two romancers, it does not feel like punishment or a logical endpoint imbibed by  the filmmaker; instead, it comes across as a brutal condemnation of what it means to live  under authoritarian tyranny. Never once did this film feel of its time. In Germany, Madchen in Uniform went on to be a big hit in the Berlin lesbian clubs — and today it still carries that fiery  spirit.

The Hitch-Hiker
Ida Lupino, USA, 1953  

Even today, there is an ugly persistence that female filmmakers are best-suited for films about  womanhood. While we shouldn’t decry female-directed films for focusing on gender, most studios see that only as a market analysis, or the  extent of a woman filmmaker’s talents. Which is why it is wondrous that RKO Pictures in 1953 saw it fit to hire Ida Lupino as the first female director of an all-male noir film about two men taken hostage by a gun slinging hitchhiker on a trip to Mexico. 

Lupino comes out making one of the finest noirs of the 1950s, up there with bleak masterworks  such as In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, 1950) or Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945). It is sparse and economical, tightly shot against the  desolate, white desert setting, which has the effect of making every sudden gesture or change in dynamic feel enormous — a twitch, or a movement of the eyes brings about more tension than the gun that is never even fired at anyone. She portrays death and violence here not as exciting and rousing, but sudden and brutal. The Hitch Hiker is a stripped-down deconstruction of the genre directed confidently and without underestimating its audiences’ intelligence.

It is also one of the clearest, unquestionable commentaries on the poison of gun culture to  have come out of that era, positing the titular hitchhiker’s gun as something that empowers a  man when he wields it and emasculates him when he is at its mercy. Throughout the film,  Lupino uses said sparseness as a way of letting us examine that gun and what it means — the  effect it’s had on culture, the way it seeps into these men like toxin — and eventually the only thing that lets the two men survive is their friendship and love.  

Seven Beauties
Lina Wertmuller, Italy, 1976  

Long before Kathryn Bigelow’s historic Best Director win at the Oscars, and even 17 years before Jane Campion’s nomination for The Piano, another female director made award-show history: Lina Wertmuller, the first ever woman nominated for the Best Director Oscar.  

Wertmuller, quite frankly, makes Seven Beauties work when by all means it shouldn’t. It walks a thin tightrope. The film concerns Pasqualino (Giancarlo Giannini), a small-town sexual deviant and harasser who fancies himself a Casanova. One day, protecting his sister’s “honor,” he is arrested for murder and sent into the Italian army, which after he deserts, sends him right into a German prison camp where he decides to use all of his wits and charm to seduce the female commandment. 

Wertmuller throws masculinity into a boiling pot to test its breaking point; while a black comedy at times, the film is a  simple presentation of a man who believes his sexual rage can save him. It is the farcical cousin to Taxi Driver, released that same year. While the Martin Scorsese classic plumbs the depth of urban alienation to a violent end, this demonstrates that same masculine animality in all of its inane glory. While sympathizing with the suffering around him (his sisters and fellow Holocaust prisoners), the film takes a gleeful joy in watching Pasqualino’s machismo dig him so far down that he becomes a shell of a man. In the end he is as subjugated and victimized like the women he saw himself superior to. Giannini marks this progression beautifully, with a role part-Chaplin and part-Pacino. 

Losing Ground
Kathleen Collins, USA, 1982  

This film and her debut, The Cruz  Brothers and Mrs. Malloy (1980), are the shining start of an underappreciated career — she also wrote short stories and poetry — that was tragically cut short when she died from breast cancer at age 46. And what a start! Losing Ground is the first feature-length drama directed by an African American woman since the 1920s, and like so many of the films on this list, it is left out of film canons everywhere. It did not even have a full theatrical release until after Collins died. 

Sara (Seret Scott), a college professor, and her husband Victor (Bill Gunn), an extroverted painter, spend a summer away from New York City and continue to strain their bumpy relationship. The premise, while seemingly simple, merely allows the expressionistic colors (passionate reds, melancholy blues and purples) and characters to breathe and take over the screen. Collins’ film has a playful edge, with camera movements and soft saturation like Victor’s watercolour painting, though it belies a deep sadness in Sara navigating a husband who is content to quietly put her down and frolic with other women. 

When she eventually decides to act in a student’s romantic film opposite the charismatic Duke, the colour intensifies as she matches her own husband’s wiles. Collins’ never loses sight of the emotional trajectory of the husband and wife’s fallout. The film mixes those  emotions with an ease that even veteran directors lack.

Desert Hearts
Donna Deitch, USA, 1985  

This is one of the first American films to present a positive portrayal of lesbian romance. And in a move that puts it ahead of many films  even today, it provides them a happy ending — there is the societal pressure here to confirm, yes, and the presence of danger that could befall such a romance in public, but unlike some “prestige films,” Desert Hearts does not marinate in gay suffering. 

The film also very much presents a woman seeking divorce as a net positive, in a time when  Kramer vs. Kramer (Robert Benton, 1979) was still shattering minds by stating that divorce is not, shockingly, an inherent evil. As our main character travels to Reno to quickly finalize the end of her marriage and falls in love with an attractive and unconventional girl named Cay, the film never once  doubts her for ending her marriage and cheers her on as she and Cay begin their courtship. It  does not hold up there, throwing our two desert hearts into erotic splendor; the sexual pleasure here is not an added benefit, but an inherent release of unlocking one’s true passion and desires.  

It must also be lauded for the community it builds around these two: a lonely gulch not only for  divorcees to come get away from husbands, but for outcasts of all kinds to dance the night away and love at any age without fear of the suburbs that lie past the desert. The film’s collectivism struck me as much as its groundbreaking lesbianism; there’s a solidarity here as palpable as its romance. 

The Day I Became a Woman
Marziyeh Meshkini, Iran, 2000 

Marziyeh Meshkini, as a woman in Iran, had to prove to her crew throughout the shoot that she was capable of helming a film. What results is a magical-realist masterpiece that is as spellbindingly whimsical as it is quietly heartbreaking. All at the same  time, it is a film by Iranian women, for Iranian women. Where it could have easily been didactic, it tells its story through dreamlike images: a young girl getting ice cream with her best friend before having to wear a chador, a woman escaping her brutal husband by participating in a coastal bicycle race and an old woman deciding to use her remaining wealth to make luxurious purchases. The three are tied together in the end via a surreal shot which neither answers any questions nor makes any statements. 

There is no “psychological clutter” here, as Roger Ebert said, which is not to say the film isn’t  smart. Rather, Meshkini decides to tell an immense story through interpretive images in a novel approach to depicting a culture that Western audiences are usually keen to brush off. This film is respectably powerful. It does not make any easy  presentations in order to translate itself for Westerners. Films like Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2009) invite liberals to pat themselves on the  back for a blunt tale of Indian poverty, and is showered with awards, but Meshkini has no interest in telling you what you know, or what you think you know. Her cinematic language — living as almost a dream of Iran — is far too clever for that. 

Cameraperson
Kirsten Johnson, USA, 2016 

In a novel film construction and conception, director Kirsten Johnson — formerly a cinematographer on countless documentary films — takes unused clips from her filmography and merges them into a beautiful kaleidoscopic portrait of humanity, from a Nigerian midwife to a Brooklyn boxer, that makes no other statement other than presenting life everywhere as it is.  

In a way, it feels beamed from a future where film and memory have merged into one. The film is not messy or rushed; its structure is so intricately engineered that with one clip removed or another added in, the specific flow would be completely ruined. This is not a film that runs purely on emotion, or logic, or even apes a memory. Kirsten Johnson, through repurposing clips that were part of a specific story into one coagulated whole, has made something more than poignant: something undefinable in its form. 

Rafiki
Wanuri Kahiu, Kenya, 2018

And, 80 years after Leontine Sagan fought the bans of her country for an LGBTQ film, so too  did Wanuri Kahiu. Her tale of two teenagers in a conservative Kenyan town falling in love and  risking the dangers of their romance becoming public knowledge was banned by the Kenya Film Classification Board. (Kahiu’s refusal to accommodate the board’s request for the film to end less hopefully led to its ban.) 

Rafiki is a sociopolitical commentary as much as a romance, crafting a macro-portrait in a  micro-city; Kahiu weaves gossip, organized religion and political ambition into a singular maze  that our two protagonists must navigate. It conveys a world of love and confusion in a way that never feels unfocused. Its falling-in love montages — which usually feel like a cheap way to portray a  relationship’s progression — are here pieced together soulfully and hazily; as if it were the only way to visually demonstrate just how this special love has changed their lives.  

And it cannot be ignored that a female African director managing to release a film that is distributed on platforms across the hemisphere is nothing short of revelatory. 

Do you agree with these selections? Or are there other women-directed movies you would have chosen for this list? Email contact@indypendent.org and let us know.

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