Conversations from the 2019 Telluride Film Festival — Mark Cousins on WOMEN MAKE FILM

Film history has been sexist by omission.

Running 14 hours and featuring the work of 183 directors, 700 clips, and seven narrators, Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema might be writer/director Mark Cousins’ most ambitious project to date.

“Many films about cinema feature only male directors, so this one is a repost,” Cousins said in a press release. “It is a film school, where all the teachers are female. The intention of this film is to, as Diaghilev and Cocteau said, ‘astonish us.’ To campaign for equality in cinema is compellingly right. Part of that campaign must be to celebrate the great women directors, to insert them into the canon where they rightly belong and from which they have been excluded by many film historians, mostly male. Women directors are only a part of that history—there are the great writers, producers, actors, of course, too—but there is much ignorance and blindness about women directing film. Our film will boldly challenge this blindness.”

In 2019, Cousins was invited to the Telluride Film Festival with portions of Women Make Film. Sporting bluish-green hair and a red t-shirt with the title and font from Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin Féminin, Cousin introduced the documentary via a stack of photographs. Photographs of female directors.

“Kinuyo Tanaka, who you’ll know from her acting in films by [Yasujiro] Ozu and [Kenji] Mizoguchi, but also she directed five films. Masterpieces. … Binka Zhelyazkova from Bulgaria, who made some of the most popular films ever made. … Kira Muratova, Mati Diop, Sarah Maldoror, Agnès Varda. … Some of those people you’ve heard of. And a lot of them, I’m guessing you haven’t heard of, even the movie lovers. The reason for this film is to change that. We want all those people I’ve just mentioned to be in our conversation as much as Agnès Varda or Martin Scorsese. … Years ago, about six years ago we started making this film …. and the idea was quite simple: To show you their work and find out what we can learn from them. … Over the years, the film got bigger and bigger—this particular piece of paper [which listed the named of directors included in the doc] was in our edit suite as we edited, and…

“This is the film you’re about to see.”

The following is a transcript of the conversation that took place following the screening of Women Make Film between Cousins and curator Mara Fortes. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Mara Fortes: When someone told me about the poll Sight & Sound does every 10 years—polling critics and filmmakers what the 10 best films of all time are. And I remember thinking, ‘Oh, it will be interesting to see how this has changed over time.’ So, I looked at the 10 best films from 1950s to 2010s, and they really hadn’t changed. The most radical thing that had happened was that Citizen Kane got bumped one down. And Vertigo creeped slowly upward.

Mark Cousins: The canon is the canon. It’s robust, resistant to change. It’s impervious to truth.  

MF: What was the drive to make this project? Also, I just want to say that no one individual has singlehandedly done as much work broadening our horizons of cinema, both with this film and A Story of Film—that we had a few years ago—as Mark Cousins. Here’s really a hero. [Applause.]

MC: Thank you. You know, this was made in love and in anger. … Anger and fury that some of the best filmmakers have been forgotten or written out of film history. … If you believe in equality and fairness, then these people should be in film history on their merit. And shame, shame, shame on our film culture that they’re not.

MF: What really strikes me about your way of approaching cinema is that it’s not just this focus on technical aspects, but they can also deal with things like tone and believability. So, how did you approach the structure of this film?

MC: These are filmmaker questions. These are the questions that we talk about as filmmakers when we’re sitting together over a beer. ‘What’s the tone of your story?’ This is a huge thing, as we know: As writers are creative people, because the tone tells you the kind of moral seriousness, what you can get away with. The tone in [Quentin] Tarantino, for example, compared to the tone in, say, Claude Lanzmann. Extraordinarily different, even though they overlap in subject matter, sometimes. Questions, like tone, are the practical, creative, filmmaking questions. It’s not theoretical questions. It’s not questions of academics; it’s stuff that you have to get right. And, in terms of structuring this: I didn’t want to be a chronological thing. I didn’t want it to be a history. I wanted it to be asking. I said in the beginning … Show the work, and find out what we can learn from the work. And that’s what I really wanted to get into: What can we learn from these great filmmakers? They achieved so much, and the least we can do is honor their achievement by remembering it, learning from it, and putting it into the DNA of filmmaking today. … It’s our duty to know our art form. It’s our art form. It’s the movielovers art form. If we aren’t custodians of it, others will be.

MF: It’s interesting that you also mention academia, because one of the things that still plague film scholarship, in academics, is that it’s bad to be seduced by the object of study. Like, you have to have this critical distance. And what I love about your work is that you’re not afraid to put your passion in it, and also make it contagious.

MC: Yeah, I’m a Celt, and we don’t do critical distance very well. Our hearts are open. I remember my grandmother had a picture of her wall—a wall Martin Scorsese talks about, as well—where the heart of Christ is plucked out and held out to the world. … You’re Mexican, and you don’t really do that either. I like critical distance, and I think the Academy does great work, but it’s not where I’m at. It’s passion, and that people who collaborate: Tilda Swinton and Debra Winger and Adjda Andoh, they’re a very passionate group of people. … At the beginning, I used the phrase ‘ancestor worship,’ and I love that idea. Lots of cultures have the idea of ancestor worship, and that’s sort of what this is.

MF: Can you talk about how the collaboration happened? How Tilda Swinton, Jane Fonda, these wonderful narrators, came to be a part of this?

MC: Well, I messaged them and said, ‘I’m doing this thing, and it’s long and weird and unfunded,’ and all that sort of stuff. ‘Would you have a look?’ And Tilda, who I’ve worked with before on a number of projects, I think she messaged back: ‘I’ve watched 15 minutes, yes yes yes.’ And put 15 x’s at the end of it. So that was, unambiguous, you could say. Jane Fonda is harder to get to because I’d hadn’t met her before this, and she is so busy doing other things—including really good work in the community, and everybody wants a bit of Jane Fonda. So, it was harder. I had to work my way through a series of really wonder interlocutors, or go-betweens, to get to her. But once she said yes, it’s was a very enthusiastic yes as well. It was a joy to work with her. I remember sitting with her, and she was reading the script. Her hand was acting it all out. So I wish I filmed her hand. She has a beautiful right hand. Her left hand is very nice as well, but her right hand… It’s almost like she was conducting. It was really interesting to work with very different voice-over artists and see how they worked. Some of them fired through it. Some of them are chatting in between. Others are in the zone. It’s real fun, for me, as a director.

MF: And what was the impact of this on them? Did they know some of these women?

MC: Thandie Newton, for example, she has done her own research, and so she knew about some of the African filmmakers that she was talking about. It was very nice, she would stop the script—we recorded Thandie Newton in this fantastic sound recording studio in Los Angeles where Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald recorded, and it smelled of the ancient world and Capitol Records—and Thandie would stop and talk about the films she had seen. Most of them had seen some of the stuff, but all the voice-over artists commented on how much it made them hungry to see more. … Forgive me if this comes out sounding wrong, but I feel myself as a kind of drug dealer, and I’m trying to get you hooked on this stuff. I’m sure there is a better metaphor than that, but you know what I mean? It’s a kind of tasting menu. … If we’re doing our job right, you want to know more about Binka Zhelyazkova, you want to know more about these filmmakers.

MF: What couldn’t you fit into these 14 hours?

MC: Yeah, there are great filmmakers who are not in here. It’s not trying to be comprehensive. When you work thematically, when you’re asking questions about framing, for example—some filmmakers are fascinated by framing, particularly Agnès Varda, Chantal Akerman, etc. When you’re talking about sexuality, some filmmakers are fascinated about that, like Catherine Breillat. So the themes point you in certain directions. [But some filmmakers are left out] Last night at dinner, I [sat next] to Antonio Banderas. So I mentioned Ana Mariscal, a great Spanish actor who also became a director and did fantastic work in the ’50s and into the late ’60s. And he said, ‘Ana Mariscal! I met her.’ It’s going back to that idea that we are the custodians, the keepers of the flame. Our passions will drive things.

MF: How did you decide [on the road movie structure]? How did you decide on that thread for this journey?

MC: I wanted it to be passionately international. … I’ve always liked road movies, myself, and this film ends in a particular place. … The source of the Nile.

MF: How did you find all these clips? 

MC: You can see there are variable qualities. There are some very low-quality clips, but I passionately believe it’s better to show something even if it’s really pixelated, just to show that it exists—a marker for the future to shame us into restoring it. But I was very lucky. I emailed a lot of the archives, and said, ‘Here are your great female directors.’ And if you find an expert in the archives, she or he will say, ‘Actually, there’s this.’ … So the archivists are the ones with this special knowledge in their head. So they shared some of their material. So, anywhere I go in the world, I seek out the expert in cinema, and I say, ‘Who are your great female filmmakers?’ And often people say something like, ‘We haven’t been asked that in a decade or more.’ … Asking an open question, I think that curiosity is really important: What do I not know? That’s always been my driving force. Not: What do I know, but what do I not know? My ignorance is my best friend. It’s what keeps me alive, keeps me discovering, keeps me open, keeps me rejuvenated.

MF: What were some of the filmmakers you discovered in the process of this film?

MC: Malvina Ursianu, who I just mentioned, Binka Zhelyazkova, the very opening scene with the two spotlights—she’s really great. … I knew Tanaka as an actor, but I don’t think I’d seen any of her films. She made a beautiful film, for example, about breast cancer, which is resonant and somewhat similar to Agnès Varda’s great Cleo from 5 to 7. … There’s an Iranian woman from the ’70s called Marva Nabili, who’s work I had not seen.

MF: Was there a criteria? You have mainstream filmmakers, but also some experimental filmmakers. Was that part of trying to find a balance?

MC: Yes, yes. I have a very catholic taste, myself. I love really mainstream cinema. And I love very arty and experimental cinema. I go to everything. It just reflects the range of cinema. I think cinema’s always been both a part of experimental art and popular entertainment. And I love both. So, it seemed the right thing to do, for us to cover the range of cinema.

MF: You have this wonderful phrase: ‘Time is the oxygen of cinema.’ I know this whole process took a long time to make. I’m curious because there’s a way in which films, no matter what time period they were made, when we watch them now, they kind of link up to the current planet or tone or time we’re inhabiting. Was the time that we’re inhabiting now and the tone of the world now, did that play a part in this film?

MC: Probably this isn’t any way an overtly political or polemical film. But I think there are times of amnesia and cultural forgetting. or times when the richness of the cultural past are not valued. … You could say we’re in one of those times, and that’s where it’s really important to shine a torch back and say, ‘Look where we come from.’ … I’ve heard a lot of people say they feel like time is accelerating, things are getting faster. … I don’t quite buy that thing that this moment is faster than any other moment. It’s a protest of some sort.

Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema is currently available for purchase on Blu-ray and DVD from Cohen Media Group. And from Sept. 1 to Dec. 1, Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema will play on TCM. Check your local provider for information and times.