Essays · Movies

How TCM’s ‘Women Make Film’ Makes Up for Film Education’s Exclusivity

Mark Cousins’ documentary and TCM’s accompanying programming expands the reach of conventional film education to a wider audience with a more diverse slate of movies.
Women Make Film
By  · Published on September 1st, 2020

Mark Cousins‘ extensive fourteen-hour documentary Women Make Film receives the showcase it deserves courtesy of Turner Classic Movies starting the first week of September. As part of a four-month-long program, the documentary has been split into episodes focused on different aspects of filmmaking, and it feels like the most exciting lecture you could ever have in film school. If only any film school was so exhaustive. Fortunately, TCM has been educating viewers on film history for years, and this new program expands that reach to filmmakers who tend to be left out by most curriculums.

Cousins’ concept for Women Make Film is to take audiences on a road trip through cinema by exploring film theory and filmmaking techniques using only clips from movies made by women, including Claire DenisBeau Travail (1999) and Vera Chytilová‘s Daisies (1966), as examples. With lovely narration by Tilda Swinton, Jane Fonda, Sharmila Tagore, and others (rather than Cousins doing voiceover himself as usual), aspects of filmmaking normally limited to formal film school courses are discussed in an accessible, yet fascinating way. And women who are usually left out of documentaries about movies and moviemaking are given the spotlight they’ve never received before.

Beyond seeing the clips that are featured in the documentary, viewers also get a chance to see one-hundred movies from among those highlighted in the series in their entirety via TCM. For many of the slated movies, this will be their first time on the cable channel. And some of the films, such as Ana Mariscal‘s El Camino (1963), Nadine Trintignant‘s Crime Thief (1969), and Gilda de Abreu‘s O Ebrio (1946), will be making their US debut during this programming. Hosts Alicia Malone and Jacqueline Stewart will be showing up between episodes and films with talks featuring special guest filmmakers, as well. This in-depth look at the process of filmmaking will educate its audience while also exposing them to movies they may have never heard of let alone seen before.

While the documentary is comprised of only movies directed by women, the works are showcased and discussed independently of the context of their director’s gender. Cousins doesn’t insert that perspective into the consideration of a specific scene or camera technique but rather just appreciates each film for how impressive it is in general, regardless of who made it. The focus is always on the films themselves. Often when we talk about movies made by women, we make the distinction between cinema made by women and just cinema. But that’s not the case here.

As Sydney Urbanek points out in her essay 4 Ways Film Schools Can Do More for Female Students, most film programs around the US limit their attention to women filmmakers to an elective course. (There is a similar distancing between English language movies and those dubbed “international films” as well.) Separating filmmakers like Ava DuVernay or Ida Lupino from the core classes in filmmaking further isolates their great movies from the legends that always occupy film classes. It makes learning about them supplemental to general film knowledge when they are also key figures to the understanding of cinema. In some ways, that distinction can separate the work that women do from the filmmaking industry as a whole and makes them an outlier.

The documentary mentions the filmmakers in context to their movies, but its main focus is on how their work exemplifies an aspect of moviemaking. This helps us understand how films work since movies made by women like Kelly Reichardt, Larisa Shepitko, and Lizzie Borden can show how films are produced just as well a movie made by anyone else. Each chapter of the documentary revolves around one part of filmmaking, from framing a shot to building relationships between characters. Using scenes from such movies as Barbara Loden‘s Wanda (1970) and Julie Dash‘s Daughters of the Dust (1991), the documentary connects these filmmaking tools with how they are achieved in these movies. There is little to no comparison to how the tools are used in movies made by women versus movies made by men. This puts the emphasis on the work itself, just like when we talk about a movie made by a man.

Movies made by men have long been the blueprint for how films are made, for future filmmakers to learn the basics. It’s unlikely for someone to go through an introductory course about film without hearing about how Casablanca is an example of subtextual dialogue or how Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut spearheaded the French New Wave. These examples are worthy of recognition, of course, but they don’t have to be the only examples that we use. We could easily use Dorothy Arzner when discussing subtext in early Hollywood or Agnès Varda when talking about the creation of the French New Wave. By always mentioning the typical classics when explaining how movies are made, we never leave room for movies made by women or other minorities to be the learning example for filmmaking. It also erases the innovations that female filmmakers like Alice Guy Blaché and Leni Reifenstahl are responsible for, which garner just as much recognition in the grand scheme of film history.

Women Make Film shows that movies made by women, including Maya Deren‘s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) and Wanuri Kahiu‘s Rafiki (2018), can show the filmmaking process in its entirety on their own. The documentary takes the audience through every step of the narrative process, as well as highlights of specific concentrations in filmmaking and numerous genres. If it is able to cover so much with only movies made by women, then those women can hold a place in regular film education as well.

Another way this documentary outshines conventional film education is how accessible it is to the general public. TCM has long been the best place to get acquainted with classic Hollywood cinema. Hosts provide historical context for the movies they show and go beyond just scheduling the classics. The programming of select films surrounding Women Make Film is yet another effort from TCM to bring film history to the everyday viewer. There are special programs that go beyond the regular programming, including Silent Sundays, Noir Alley, and the cult films of TCM Underground. Since Women Make Film is a documentary that hinges on teaching film in an accessible and new way, it fits perfectly on TCM.

We need to look beyond the conventional places for movies made by women in order to include them in film education. Similarly, we also need to educate in places not normally viewed as venues for film education in order to include a wider variety of future filmmakers. While women make up about fifty percent of film school graduates, not everyone considering making movies or even just fascinated by cinema can access those college programs.

By showing and explaining the filmmaking process through a television program, this documentary takes away the exclusivity of film education that was put into place to keep minorities like women out of the industry. Hopefully, the wider reach that Women Make Film can have, by airing on TV, will mean it can inspire those left out of typical avenues of film education and encourage the making of more movies like Li Shaohong‘s Stolen Life (2005) or Jacqueline Audry‘s Olivia (1951).

Women Make Film will captivate anyone interested in a greater understanding of movies, but the programming that TCM has created around it elevates it to a level comparable to other avenues of learning about film. Film educators around the world should take note of what this program does and what their own education is lacking if they want to improve on the ways we not only make films but how we cultivate filmmakers as well.

TCM will air each episode of Women Make Film on Tuesdays starting on September 1st. You can view the whole schedule of episodes and movies here.

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Emily Kubincanek is a Senior Contributor for Film School Rejects and resident classic Hollywood fan. When she's not writing about old films, she works as a librarian and film archivist. You can find her tweeting about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_