Girls on Film: 10 lesbian filmmakers you should know about
WorldPride kicks off today in Toronto, and with rainbows flying and attention turning toward queer diversity, this is the perfect time to look at the long history of important contributions lesbian filmmakers have made to cinema. From well-known names to all-but-forgotten talent, these filmmakers have had an indelible impact on cinema. They are leading examples of the benefits of diversity, and their treatments of theme, scope, and identity challenge the repetitive confines of modern filmmaking.
The list that follows is by no means comprehensive. There are many "one-hit wonders": Great talents who have yet to direct follow-up films (including Alice Wu, who helmed Saving Face, and Jennie Livingston, who scored a documentary hit with Paris Is Burning). Others are more prolific, but harder to access. Monika Treut's work is hard to find (though Amazon Prime members can stream Female Misbehavior), and Barbara Hammer's is almost impossible to view unless you buy it sight-unseen from her website.
Nevertheless, below are 10 excellent and essential lesbian directors and game-changers:
1. Dorothy Arzner
Turn-of-the-century powerhouse Alice Guy-Blaché isn't the only top female talent who has been written out of film history. Dorothy Arzner was the only female filmmaker to consistently work in Hollywood through the 1930s and 1940s. She worked her way up from script typist and made her debut at Paramount with the 1927 film Fashions for Women. She was a woman in a field universally dominated by men and the first female member of the Directors Guild of America. She was also an out woman who lived openly with her partner, Marion Morgan, until her death in 1971.
One of her last features — Dance, Girl, Dance — is arguably her most popular, a film before its time that flopped when it was first released in 1940. Dance, Girl, Dance stars Lucille Ball and Maureen O'Hara as dancers — the former a bawdy entertainer and the latter an aspiring ballerina — who battle to survive and land love. The film focused heavily on female interaction and directly confronted the male gaze — as seen in the clip below, when O'Hara's character addresses her snickering male audience.
2. Rose Troche
The same year Kevin Smith debuted his black-and-white super-indie Clerks, Rose Troche made her directorial debut with her own black-and-white indie, Go Fish, which tells one of cinema's first lesbian love stories. A cheap and gritty passion project starring her then girlfriend (queer cinema mainstay Guinevere Turner), Go Fish is a classic for its treatment of gender, history, and the pressures of identity — from comedic debates about the best word for vagina to discussions about rigid cultural expectations.
Troche went on to work primarily in television — most notably as a director and executive producer of The L Word — but she also explored all manner of love in her early films. Four years after Go Fish, she helmed Bedrooms and Hallways, a comedy about a gay man who joins a hetero men's group. In 2001, she followed that with the beautiful suburbia ensemble piece The Safety of Objects in a collaboration with writer A.M. Holmes.
3. Lisa Cholodenko
Lisa Cholodenko became a household name in 2010 when she earned four Oscar nominations for her family dramedy The Kids Are All Right, which follows a lesbian couple whose lives are flipped when their children want to meet their sperm donor.
But her career goes back much farther. Choldenko made her debut in 1998 with High Art, a tumultuous romance between a magazine editor and famous photographer (based on noted photographer Nan Goldin). She's also the mind behind Laurel Canyon, the film that dared to cast Frances McDormand as a gorgeous, sexually powerful record producer during the actress' long string of awkwardly uptight female characters.
4. Cheryl Dunye
Cheryl Dunye added race into the explosion of '90s queer cinema with The Watermelon Woman, a great, bare-bones faux documentary that follows Dunye as a fictional version of herself, dealing with a new relationship and a growing obsession with "The Watermelon Woman" — a black actress forgotten by history. Dunye's low-tech debut is not only an excellent exploration of how race informs discussions of sexuality, but also a film that expands upon Troche's earlier explorations about representations in history.
Sadly, it was also attacked by Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.) in 1997 since it received money from the National Endowment for the Arts. He railed against it and other films receiving taxpayer money as "patently offensive and possibly pornographic."
Dunye has since directed a number of projects exploring lesbian themes, including the TV movie Stranger Inside and The Owls, a reunion with Turner that focused on "older, wiser lesbians."
5. Kimberly Peirce
Kimberly Peirce made a powerful and memorable feature debut in 1999 when she adapted her short film Boys Don't Cry into a feature-length release. Focusing on the real-life story of trans man Brandon Teena and his rape and murder in the early '90s, the film was an immediate success and became a star-making role for Hilary Swank, who won an Oscar for her performance.
Like many women in Hollywood, success didn't translate into a torrent of work for Peirce. She didn't direct another film until 2008's Iraq-themed Stop-Loss, but thankfully, she made an explosive return last year when Hollywood gave her the reigns of the Carrie remake. Now Peirce has a number of projects on the way, including the French thriller remake With a Friend Like Harry.
6. Chantal Akerman
Chantal Akerman is not just the leading female voice to emerge between Arzner's success and the rise of New Queer Cinema — she is also one of the most critically appreciated female filmmakers in history. She is one of the only women to be celebrated with any, let alone multiple, Criterion releases, and the only female filmmaker to break the Top 50 on Sight and Sound's noted Greatest Films Poll (at No. 36, for Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles).
Akerman is a filmmaker who relishes in female experiences and exploring silence and mundanity, like Jeanne Dielman or I, You, He, She, a film about a woman's self-imposed isolation after a breakup before she ultimately returns to her ex-girlfriend for one last fling (which led to a long, controversial lesbian sex scene decades before Blue Is the Warmest Color arrived.) She railed against the film's designation as a "gay film," feeling that it could be "ghettoized" — but nevertheless, it's remained, as The New York Times estimates, "adopted by lesbian women as a kind of banner work."
7. Patricia Rozema
Patricia Rozema has made a name for herself by filming smart and diverse women and scenarios, from the young and resourceful Kit Kittredge to her revisionist take on Mansfield Park, which the late Roger Ebert called "an uncommonly intelligent film, smart, and amusing too, and anyone who thinks it is not faithful to [Jane] Austen doesn't know the author but only her plots."
Before the mainstream work and television gigs, however, she helmed two very different and idiosyncratic looks at lesbian love. Her 1987 debut I've Heard the Mermaids Singing explores the disconnect between passion and talent when quirky Polly, who works at a Toronto art gallery, gets mired in a messy misunderstanding with boss Gabrielle and her partner Mary. Though gay themes weren't focused on, they remained palpable, especially since noted author Ann-Marie MacDonald played Mary.
Art and sexuality were expanded upon in Rozema's third feature and romantic classic, When Night Is Falling. The drama detailed the budding romance between a conservative women at a Christian university and a free-spirited acrobat who pushes her to listen to her heart.
8. Jamie Babbit
Between a prolific television résumé and a handful of films, director Jamie Babbit has explored all manner of female experience, from the idiosyncrasy of the Gilmore Girls to the radical feminist storyline of The Itty Bitty Titty Committee.
But her debut, But I'm a Cheerleader, made the biggest splash. The satirical film follows Natasha Lyonne's clueless cheerleader, who is sent to a heterosexual conversion camp where she discovers her true identity.
But I'm a Cheerleader received a shocking NC-17 designation from the MPAA, despite having no nude sex scenes. It was only given an R after three things were taken out: a two-second shot of a clothed caress, a pan-up during a (non-nude) masturbation scene, and the line "Because you ate Graham out." (A line about "c--ksucking days" received no objections.) Fortunately, the MPAA drama ended up expanding the film's cinematic imprint: It became one of the focuses in the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated, which attacks the MPAA's system for determining ratings.
9. Dee Rees
One of the new and essential voices in cinema — gay, straight, or otherwise — is Dee Rees. She helmed one of the best films of 2011, Pariah, an elongation of an earlier short. The coming-of-age drama focuses on Adepero Oduye's portrayal of Alike, a young African-American girl struggling with her identity as a butch lesbian and the push from her mother to be feminine and heterosexual.
The film earned Rees the John Cassavetes Award at the Independent Spirit Awards, which helped push her toward future gigs instead of one-off obscurity. She is the writer-director of the upcoming television biopic about legendary blues performer Bessie Smith.
10. Stacie Passon
Stacie Passon made her debut just a year ago with Concussion, an essential film that was explored in a 2013 installment of Girls on Film. Passon's ability to take the seemingly overdone and make it thought-provoking, fresh, and worthwhile make her a director to keep an eye on, especially as she preps her next feature, Strange Things Started Happening.