Who would you say is the most iconic/important director (obvs female) and why?
This is such an interesting question. What is iconic, what counts as important? To me it would be someone who’s shown longevity in their career, someone who is critically well-regarded but has also had some measure of commercial success, someone with a distinct visual style and someone who has been influential to other filmmakers.
Off the top of my head I can think of maybe 10 women who would easily deserve that title.
If someone put a theoretical gun to my head right now and made me pick one I’d probably say Jane Campion. People maybe not have watched her movies but they usually know her name or if you mention The Piano they’ve heard of it even if they haven’t seen it. People also think she was the first woman to be nominated for Best Director at the Oscars (she wasn’t, it was Lina Wertmüller a woman with a distinctive incredible style who is one of my favourite filmmakers but one whose work has faded into obscurity). The Women and Hollywood blog does mini-interviews with every female director at every major festival and one of the questions they ask everyone is what their favourite film directed by a woman is and films by Campion routinely turn up (she’s probably one of the most cited directors).
However even though she’s young and I still think has a long career ahead of her, I feel Sofia Coppola coming up fast. Coppola is another one of those few female film directors you can mention that everyone knows. Her earliest films are almost at their 20 year anniversaries and they have endured and are remembered. She’s won a slew of awards, her style is distinct to the point where it can be parodied. People like to mock her for her tumblrcore style but her movies predate tumblr by nearly a decade. Also as someone who watches a lot of no/low budget movies just because they’re directed by women her style is imitated a LOT. I admit that I used to take her talent for granted, but after watching the umpteenth movie about a teenage white girl having existential ennui while staring out a window I started appreciating Coppola as a filmmaker. She knows what she’s doing in a way people trying to imitate her just don’t.
Bigelow is another one I feel strongly about. I think she is super under appreciated as a filmmaker, even with the Oscar. I spent a few years watching all of her films and she’s so distinct, even her action movies are carefully crafted. The only thing with Bigelow is that despite her age she peaked rather late (after Coppola despite being twenty years older) and I still feel like her best work is ahead of her so it’s hard to say what her longevity as a filmmaker and her influence will be. Point Break and Strange Days have held up well, but I also want to know what the legacy of her late career work will be.
Of course, women didn’t just start directing in the 90s. There are many women who directed before then who put out iconic movies that are well regarded, but these women aren’t known at all to mainstream audiences, even if they are beloved by cinephiles. Alice Guy Blaché was the first woman to direct narrative films, but few people outside of film students want to watch shorts that are over a century old. Leni Reifenstahl pioneered several film techniques but her legacy is tainted by her associated with Hitler and the fact that her most innovative films are literal Nazi propaganda. Agnès Varda has a career that spans over 60 years, but until recently people didn’t take her seriously as a filmmaker and most of her films were unavailable outside of France. Chantal Akerman is a legend and so many filmmakers were inspired by her and borrowed from her, but her movies made little money, were not widely seen and are not well known to mainstream audiences.
And of course it wouldn’t be right to mention how many women of colour had their careers completely decimated literally for just being who they were and wanting to tell stories about people who looked like them. If there aren’t women of colour who fit my criteria of iconic/important it’s because they were never able to build up the body of work to be so. White women in western countries don’t necessarily have it easy (even someone as privileged as Coppola has faced rampant sexism, including accusations that she doesn’t direct her own films), but they do have more opportunities than other women.
Recently their has been a small resurgence of the work of black American female filmmakers getting released or re-released. I finally got to watch the work of Kathleen Collins and Julie Dash and you know what? These women had genuine talent, they were truly gifted, and they were never given the opportunities to create more than one feature film. That’s why I try to stress to people that it’s important to go to the theatre and buy tickets for movies made by women, especially women of colour, and to appreciate them in the now. Because if you don’t support them they won’t be able to make more films and not everyone hits it out of the park their first time. Bigelow won an Oscar for her 8th film. So many women directors don’t even get to make a second.