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Wolfville, Nova Scotia


52 Films by Women

Chris Campbell

Most of the films released around the world have male directors. It’s a challenge to seek out more films directed by women and it needs conscious effort. When you start to foreground and think more carefully about the films you watch it makes for a better experience watching films. As a way to address the disproportionate number of films directed by men, Women in Film Los Angeles started the 52 Films By Women challenge. It’s a simple pledge to watch a film a week directed by a woman.

The size of the challenge depends on how many films a year that you watch, but I watch a lot (460 in 2016 and 512 in 2015), so watching a film a week directed by a woman is something that I should do. So I signed up in October of 2015 and highlighted one film a week using the #52FilmsByWomen hashtag. Those films are in a 52 Films by Women list on Letterboxd and shared on Twitter with the hashtag throughout the year. I also started a lists of all the films directed by women I had watched when I started the challenge and in 2015 I saw 143 films directed by women (out of 512) and in 2016 I saw 161 films (out of 460).

The challenge encouraged me to seek out and share more films directed by women and it also started to broaden my film knowledge and resulted in viewing some great films I had never seen. At the core were some of my favourite directors, Agnès Varda and Chantal Akerman (both of whom have been my most watched directors over the past few years), but it also exposed me to some of the pioneers such as Shirley Clarke and Lizzie Borden to name a few. There are many other female directors. Women in Film Los Angeles has their amazing database, The Director List, which (as I write this) has over 1000 female directors of films and television listed. This is a good resource to find directors to watch.

Some of my favourite films from my 52 Films By Women list are Chantal Akerman’s essential Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Sarah Polley’s remarkable documentary Stories We Tell, Mélanie Laurent’s harrowing Breathe, Maren Ade’s epic comedy Toni Erdmann, Ashley McKenzie’s understated and powerful Werewolf, Ann Marie Fleming’s wonderful poetic animated feature Window Horses, and Agnès Varda’s meta self-portrait The Beaches of Agnès.

It revealed a lot of films directed by women that simply are not available. While there are many streaming services, the range of films there are not reflective of the broader world of films from diverse directors or parts of the world outside of North America. Even more strangely there are significant gaps in what is available in Canada with some international films having U.S. distribution, but remaining unreleased in Canada. It seems to be getting a bit better with newer releases eventually showing up, but for some films, there is no legal way to see them in Canada.

As we broaden what we watch and in the search for new voices the surrounding infrastructure of watching and consuming films needs to change. That also means the criticism and writing about filmmaking needs to broaden as well. An invaluable resource for film criticism is the intersectional feminist journal of film and film culture cléo. They recently launched a Patreon campaign to make sure they can more regularly publish and I was very glad to sign up. I'm constantly finding new things to watch and new ways to see cinema culture through the writing there.

As I wrapped up the challenge I started to think of what to do. Would I continue the same one with the goal of a film a week, or would I do something more ambitious? When starting I thought that maybe I could have something like half of the films fit into the goals, but at the point I started it seemed too ambitious. But this calendar year I was more conscious and diligent and so far I've been able to keep the split at 50%. It may result in me watching fewer films (although I'm still watching on average a film a day) but overall I think that I'm watching better and more diverse films.

So I'll continue the challenge to watch more films directed by women, but also to broaden that to see more films from around the world and from outside of the cisnormative North American mainstream culture. There are so many stories and so many world out there that create and share beautiful, disturbing, challenging, and comforting visions. Why wouldn't I want to experience and share more of them?