International Female Filmmakers of Color, Past and Present By Kim Luperi
TCM’s 14-week Women Make Film salute spotlights 100 filmmakers across six continents and 44 countries. Inspired by the series’ international flavor, here’s a look at some trailblazing female filmmakers of color from Africa, Asia and Latin America who navigated and explored complex societal expectations, political upheaval and religious customs throughout their lives and films.
African cinema is a “post-colonial phenomenon,” Beti Ellerson related in a speech recounted in Celluloid Ceiling. African independence movements of the 1950s and 1960s not only allowed African women (and men) to acquire cinematic knowledge and skills but also utilize the medium to combat colonial stereotypes.
In 1975, Senegal’s Safi Faye became the first woman to helm a commercially released African feature, KADDU BEYKAT (’76). Faye incorporated her PhD research in Ethnology in her work, and in this movie, she documented her own village, providing residents with minimal direction save for a subject to discuss. In a 1981 interview quoted in Nancy J. Schmidt’s essay “Sub-Saharan African Woman Filmmakers,” Faye remarked: “I chose the cinema in order to relate effectively the real problems of people’s daily lives.” Faye’s work supports expanded opportunities for women, and as Ellerson affirmed, “She has given African women filmmakers a voice.” Ironically, the voices in KADDU BEYKAT could not be heard in Senegal when the film debuted; Faye’s home country banned the movie because she didn’t obtain permission to produce it there.
Female filmmakers still face censorship in Africa. For instance, Wanuri Kahiu found her feature RAFIKI (2018), which centers on two Kenyan girls who fall in love in a homophobic society, banned in her native Kenya. The controversy the subject still elicits in Africa instigated the ban, but RAFIKI was allowed to play on the worldwide stage at the Cannes Film Festival, where it received rave reviews as the first Kenyan film to play the prestigious event.
Women have worked as directors across Asia for almost a century. Wang Ping, the first female director in the People’s Republic of China, transitioned to directing from acting in the early 1950s more as a political appointment given her support of the Communist Party, and she learned on the job. As Shuqin Cui noted in Women Through the Lens, Ping became a popular mainstream director whose movies exhibit “an allegiance to ideology rather than gender,” as political constructs greatly persuaded cinema at that time. Indeed, revolutionary and socialist themes pervade her work, including her most famous film, 1957’s THE STORY OF LIUBAO VILLAGE.
Whereas socialist China promoted female directors in the 1950s, Middle Eastern women have historically been confined to more traditional roles in society. Pioneers like Iran’s Forough Farrokhzad, who challenged convention through her groundbreaking poetry and her documentary THE HOUSE IS BLACK (’62), have fought against gender inequities. It’s been a long road for other countries like Saudi Arabia, which allowed its first female director, Haifaa Al-Mansour, this century, itself controversial in a country where cinemas re-opened in 2018 after being closed for 35 years because of conservative religious and political forces. Due to restrictions on women in public places, Al-Mansour directed most of her debut movie, WADJDA (2012), from inside a van. The film proved groundbreaking in more ways than one: It was the first feature filmed entirely in Saudi Arabia and the country’s first Foreign Language Oscar submission.
“Social, cultural and political conditions conspire to make the path of female Latin American filmmakers extraordinarily difficult,” Ana Maria Bahiana commented in Celluloid Ceiling. That said, numerous women have found a way, as female directors have worked in the region since the silent era. In 1917, Mexico’s Mimi Derba created a production company and made history as Latin America’s first female director within a year, while women like Brazil’s Gilda de Abreu and Mexico’s Matilde Landeta became prominent talents over the next few decades. Landeta, who helmed over 100 shorts, openly discussed the hostile environment she faced as she rose the ranks to director, confessing in 1948, “I used the only weapon at my disposal: my absolute knowledge of technique.”
filmmakers continued to achieve acclaim despite the widespread political
instability that rocked many countries during the middle and latter part of the
1900s. For instance, Margot Benacerraf’s documentary ARAYA (’59) about
Venezuelan salt miners shared the International Critics’ Award at Cannes along with
Alain Resnais’ HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR (’59). The re-democratization and resumed
economic stability many countries experienced during the 1980s and 1990s allowed
for an influx of new female voices who crafted stories that touched upon topics
like gender, youth and regional identity, as Patricia White observed in Women’s Cinema, World Cinema. One
of the most unique directors working today, Argentina’s Lucrecia Martel, has
gained recognition as an auteur whose films frequently contain shrewd
observations of local class structures and society, like her feature
directorial debut, the moody LA CIÉNAGA (2001).
Watch Week 171 of my Second Spin: A Global Cooking Adventure as I cook the food of Tanzania! Tonight’s Tanzanian menu: Pweza wa nazi (Lime Coconut Octopus with Star Anise), Mchicha (Tanzanian Spinach and Peanut Curry) & Ugali (Tanzanian Cornmeal Mush)