||Possibly Mark Cousins' crowning achievement in the field of film documentary was his The Story of Film: An Odyssey from 2011, and although he has matched that since in various ways, its epic detail means he will probably never surpass it and it remains his defining effort. But in 2019 he released Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema, which concentrated on the distaff side of the artform (or is it an industry?) where as the title stated, female directors were his focus from the beginning of the medium right up to date.
Cousins' documentaries were marked by his narration, a soothing yet clipped Belfast accent that became quickly hypnotic if you allowed yourself to fall under its spell. Yet for this piece he used women's voices instead, starting in the first instalment (of fourteen) with cult movie star Tilda Swinton, who read his words in clear manner and for some who found him a distraction, possibly improved them. That first hour was about beginnings, so a collection of forty opening scenes were displayed, Barbara Loden's Wanda, for instance, running into Mary Lambert's Pet Sematary.
That set the scene nicely: there were to be no discriminations here, if it was female directed, it counted for admission. The danger was that parallels would be drawn to show they were essentially the same, but Cousins cast his net wide to emphasise the huge variety on offer. The second hour was a continuation of those beginnings, starting with establishing believability, be that in documentary or fiction; Kathryn Bigelow's Point Break is an example of chaos generating that, and then we get into meetings, where the characters represent worlds colliding.
And what do people do when they meet? Somehow, they communicate. As women are traditionally supposed to be better communicators than men, it makes sense that conversations should be a category in part three, where Agnes Varda is singled out as the great influencer in how these were portrayed, specifically in clips from Le Bonheur and One Sings, the Other Doesn't. But there was more than that as framing and tracking were covered, both ways of setting the characters and the milieu, with a brilliant Chantal Akerman tracking shot the grand finale of this episode.
Part four is again split into three sections, starting with staging, explaining how a mathematical axis can help us understand what is happening, not merely the x-axis from left to right, but the z -axis which moves in a third dimension. Journey reveals that almost every character in a film goes on one of those, be that literal or emotional, and a chase is a sped-up version of a life, according to Cousins. Lastly, discovery is just what it says, and ends on one of the great revelations in 21st century documentaries, Carol Morley's Dreams of a Life, where we finally hear the dead woman's voice.
The fifth instalment concerns adults' bond with children, both mothers and fathers as well as guardians of other kinds, economy and editing, the latter ranging from the simple, to keep the narrative flowing so we are aware of the relationships, to the experimental, which is more complex. By this stage you are recognising the same films cropping up again and again, here specifically a couple of war dramas, Bigelow's The Hurt Locker and Helma Sanders-Brahms' tough Germany Pale Mother; some examples are worth returning to, you understand, for they say so many things.
Alison De Vere proves animators count too, as her The Black Dog is held up as a pinnacle of surrealism in the sixth episode, but before that we have point of view, where the idea that witnessing a point of view is dependent on the obliviousness of the person we are watching is promoted. And after that, closeups, the centrepiece of which is the hanging sequence in Soviet era Larisa Shepitko's The Ascent (war sits heavy over the women of Europe, evidently). But in the surrealism and dreams segment, we get a glimpse of Vera Chytilová's cult favourite Daisies.
By the stage of episode seven, we will have had five narrators, including Jane Fonda, Adjoa Ando and Kerry Fox. This one is about what we watch in every film, the human body, and how directors have arranged it, including Marva Nabili, whose The Sealed Soil is a rarity from Iran only available in poor VHS quality - that's how obscure this goes. And after bodies, what else but one of the reasons people watch movies, sex, though here that does not always go to plan with creators like Catherine Breillat tackling the subject, and Maren Ade's compulsively ludicrous Toni Erdmann discussed.
Home, religion and work are the next batch of chapters, and yet again there are more directors brought up you sense should really be mentioned more often. Star turned director Mai Zetterling was a very interesting woman, but the films she made at the helm are almost unknown, and Antonia Bird, whose Safe and Priest are featured as both home and religion examples, had a wide range. Then for work, there's Margot Benacerraf who was up for the Palme d'or in 1959 alongside Alain Resnais' Hiroshima Mon Amour with her stark Venezuelan salt mine documentary Araya.
In episode nine, it's appropriate that the middle section is gear change, given it starts with politics, which is traditionally a subject to be taken very seriously, and moves onto the genre sections with comedy. One of the examples in the politics is a horror movie, Marina de Van's In My Skin, showing perhaps everything is political, but the comedy includes anything from Penny Marshall's acknowledged classic Big to Malgorzata Szumowska's pitch black humour Body. Meanwhile, Ava DuVernay's shocking catalyst for the Civil Rights march in Selma is an ideal instance of gear change.
The genres in ten are melodrama, sci-fi and Hell and horror, though that last category could be applicable to all three, given the first features Leni Riefenstahl, one of the most disturbing of directors, The Handmaid's Tale (technically a TV series) in the second, and a plethora of realistic Hells in the third, only Ana Lily Ampour's A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night really fantastical. So horror here means child abuse (Mahalia Belo's Ellen), war (Samira Makhmalbaf's Blackboards), spurious ritual punishment (Safi Faye's Mossane) and more, the genre not getting much of a look-in.
Thandie Newton's narration in these sections is excellent, and continues into the eleventh, where tension, stasis and "Leave Out" are the subjects. Tension could be traditional suspense, as in Mimi Leder's The Peacemaker, but Marleen Gorris's A Question of Silence is here too, where women murder a shopkeeper in reaction to too much male oppression. Those moments of stillness are in the middle (Sharon Lockhart's documentary Double Tide is all stillness), and the things not shown wind up the hour, though that is perhaps not as obvious a topic as many of the others in this.
Twelfth up, and we investigate the tricks cinema uses by its very nature, firstly with the reveal, where the opening sequence of Lynne Ramsay's Morven Callar (the protagonist's boyfriend is unveiled as dead in the introduction) or Sarah Polley's documentary Stories We Tell (which has more than one great reveal). Then there's the way films can manifest and manipulate memory and time, featuring pioneers of the form such as Alice Guy (recognised as the first woman director), animator Lotte Reiniger and the Greek Maria Plyta, who all used what became clichés, but also innovations.
The penultimate episode begins to wrap things up, delving into the characters' inner life with, for instance, Jane Campion's sensitive biopic An Angel at My Table which is very much an internal story, then even weightier with the meaning of life, presenting films that have a go at summing up the experience of existence, and lastly, perhaps the thing we are most often told makes life worth living: love. A range of clips offer the first flush of romance in Lone Scherfig's An Education, all the way to love going wrong and eventually coming to an end, maybe with death (e.g. Ann Hui's A Simple Life).
Finally, we reach the inevitable, death and endings, where the likes of Clio Barnard's The Selfish Giant and its heartbreaking demise leads into endings of many kinds, some, like Sri Lankan Sumitra Peries' The Girls leaving things up in the air. But we can't conclude on a downer, so as an encore the clips come on with a song and dance, one of the most cinematic of artforms, that marriage of sound and vision that can mean reflection or an outpouring of joy; the only thing missing here is Gillian Armstrong's Starstruck, but the great thing about this documentary is that it spurs the viewer on.
The point of Women Make Film was, after all, to encourage people to watch films, and Cousins being the expert he is - he only watches films once, which explains how he manages to see such a wide variety - is able to recommend a vast amount of titles, there are literally hundreds of clips here, some of which may not appeal, but others may whet your appetite to watch more. What may be the largely unspoken, but inherent, question is whether women directors are different from their male counterparts, and the answer is that they concentrate on the matters of their own gender more. That aside, the panoply of experience, of stories they tell, is amply displayed across the fourteen hours. Any movie buff will be inspired to seek out so much more.
[The BFI release this documentary on Blu-ray with the following special features:
The Making of... (2020, 13 mins): a video essay by Mark Cousins in which he discusses the influences, motivations and methodology of Women Make Film
Mark Cousins and Barbara Kopple Q&A (2020, 18 mins): Mark Cousins is interviewed with Barbara Kopple following a screening of Women Make Film at Toronto Film Festival
Together (1956, 48 mins): two deaf-mute dock workers eke out a humble East End existence in Lorenza Mazzetti's striking and poetic film
Fully illustrated booklet with an introduction by Cari Beauchamp, new writing by Mark Cousins, assorted biographies and full series credits.
It is also available on the BFI Player.]