Feisty Female Film Directors of the 20th Century

I’ve been gradually falling in love with old directing greats of independent and world cinema. I’ve been moved by Bresson’s hands and enthralled with De Sica’s neorealism. I scrolled through lists of suggested watching and thought “where the ladies at?” It is to be expected, of course, that men were going to be at the helm of the film industry in the beginning because everyone knows that back then a woman’s place was in the home. But there had to be some pioneering women at the time. (We’ve always liked to leave our mark even when the odds are against us.)

Here’s three feisty ladies that were not being bossy, they were being the boss.


Production still from “La Couquille et le Clergyman”

Germaine Dulac: Dulac was a feminist journalist, a divorcee in 1920, and worked with the likes of Dali, Bunuel, and Artaud. She inspired parts of the French Pur movement and could portray a very sinister yarn through the art of silent film. La Couquille et le Clergyman (The Seashell and the Clergyman) was written by Artaud and explores the sexual fantasies of a clergyman. Filled with phallic swords slicing through clam shells, this is a creepy piece of surrealist cinema. La Souriante Madame Beudet (The Smile of Madame Beudet) is a haunting impressionist film that was made a year or so after Dulac’s divorce. It illustrates a marriage that left hairs standing on the back of my neck.


Production still from “Loving Couples”

Mai Zetterling: An actress turned director. After becoming sick of the misogynistic aspects of the film industry, she decided to portray her version of the world. In 1964, she released her feature film directing debut, Loving Couples, which tells the story of three pregnant women in a Scandinavian hospital reliving their sex lives. Zetterling is an example of women reaching the end of their tether in a male-dominated world and saying “I’M A WOMAN, I can talk about sex and sensuality, and I can make a great movie.”

Leni Riefenstahl: Let me preface by saying that I am in no way a Nazi-sympathizer or keen on the messages Riefenstahl sent out in her work. But let’s face it—she achieved a lot. This woman brainwashed nations with her Nazi propaganda films. In an industry where men were on top, she managed to help change the course of a nation with her work—albeit for the worst—but an impressive feat for a woman at the time nonetheless.

Of course there are many more ladies out there in history and even more so today. Go support the girls and watch a film directed by a feisty female. I’m going to curl up with Haifaa al-Mansour’s Wadjda tonight.


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