Rob Edelman: Women Filmmakers

Sep 4, 2017

A number of years ago, I was delighted to come upon a giant poster for AMELIA, which then was a just-released celluloid biography of Amelia Earhart, the legendary American aviator whose mysterious disappearance while flying over the Pacific Ocean in 1937 recently was back in the news. I have long been fascinated by the life of Amelia Earhart. However, after noticing that the film was directed by a woman-- Mira Nair-- I got to thinking about the choices made by women filmmakers. And I still do, to this day.

In in this regard, several questions come to the fore. In general, are women directors only concerned with making films about female characters, or female issues? Also, are commercial producers only interested in financing films by women that deal with women’s concerns?

I could spend hours citing films by women that illuminate women’s personalities and issues. One recent example is Sofia Coppola’s THE BEGUILED. Plus, I received an email involving the upcoming Toronto International Film Festival and its effort to “celebrate the quality of female-directed films in this year’s lineup.” A question is posed in the email, and that is: “Did you know TIFF has made a five-year commitment to championing female storytellers?” Additionally, on September 6, Turner Classic Movies will be screening a host of films directed by such pioneering women personalities as Dorothy Arzner, Mabel Normand, Lois Weber, Alice Guy-Blaché, and Ida Lupino.

All of this leads to the latest female-directed feature. It is titled DETROIT. Its director is Kathryn Bigelow, who to date is the lone woman to walk off with a Best Director Academy Award. She won for THE HURT LOCKER, which dates from 2009. And like DETROIT, THE HURT LOCKER is anything but a standard, typical “woman’s picture.” THE HURT LOCKER is neither a romance, a female buddy film, nor a story of female empowerment. It is, instead, a combat film, plain and simple. It chronicles the activities of an elite U.S. bomb disposal squad in Baghdad, and it is a study of men in war, men under stress, and what it means to be a professional soldier. THE HURT LOCKER also features a finale that is positively shattering.

DETROIT, meanwhile, is set during the summer of 1967, when racial tensions were intensifying across the U.S. It is an exceptional film: a searing, fact-based tale of an inner-city uprising in the title locale and what happens when a report of gunfire results in a lengthy, brutal interrogation of guests at the Algiers Motel. The story told in DETROIT may be a half-century old. Yet while watching it unfold, one only can ask: Is the abuse of power on the part of the authorities in the 1960s in any way different from what allegedly is occurring with regularity in the 21st century?

The central character in Bigelow’s ZERO DARK THIRTY, released in 2012-- that would be after THE HURT LOCKER and before DETROIT-- may be a woman. But the film, which involves the decade-long search for Osama bin Laden post-9/11, is anything but a touchy-feely woman’s film. 

Now if a woman filmmaker wishes to explore the professional aspirations of women, or women and romance, or mother-daughter relationships, that is her prerogative. But women should not be pigeonholed with regard to the subjects of the films they make. As a case in point, take a look at THE HURT LOCKER, and ZERO DARK THIRTY, and DETROIT.

Rob Edelman has authored or edited several dozen books on film, television, and baseball. He has taught film history courses at several universities and his writing has appeared in many newspapers, magazines, and journals. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.

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