Women Make Film: Dispatches from the 2019 Telluride Film Festival

For some, equality is a game of mathematics: Clinical, sterile, and dull. But, high up in the Rocky Mountains at the Telluride Film Festival, equality breathes and moves. Here, women dream film, think film, make film, and talk film.

And while a great deal of this parity can be attributed to Julie Huntsinger—Telluride’s guiding light and festival co-director—it’s a simple fact: Exclude female filmmakers, and you’ll miss half the picture.

This was no more evident than the movie that kicked off the 46th Telluride Film Festival, Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema. Directed by one of cinema’s tireless soldiers, Mark Cousins (of The Story of Film fame), Women Make Film is a 14-hour documentary discussing and exhibiting the work of over 180 female directors around the globe. Work that rarely appears in top ten lists, highlight reels, and film history books.

Mark Cousins holding up photos of female filmmakers (pictured: Kira Muratova) for the introduction of Women Make Film.

“The canon is the canon,” Cousins told the audience following the screening. “It’s robust. It’s resistant to change. It’s impervious to truth.”

But Women Make Film is more than a correction to the cinematic canon; it’s an exuberant exploration of the innovation, techniques, and aesthetics female filmmakers bring to the cinematic arts. For years men dominated cinema’s POV. They sucked the oxygen out of the room and left no space for contrasting or contradictory perspectives. Many just assumed there wasn’t one.

That’s beginning to change, but with every beginning comes an end. One of the cinema’s greatest poets, Agnès Varda, died earlier this year at the age of 90, and this year’s festival was fittingly dedicated to her. And Varda’s spirit filled Telluride’s box canyon once more with the screening of her final work, Varda by Agnès: part master class, part filmed autobiography, all Varda.

As with any Varda film, there are diversions, digressions, and tangents, moments where the movie liberates itself from the weight of reality, floating freely around the room like a butterfly. It’s beautiful, humble, and humane, a tonic for the bombastic violence found weekly at the multiplex.

Varda by Agnès. Courtesy Janus Films.

Like Women Make FilmVarda by Agnès pays special attention to perspective and how we see the world. Ditto for Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a spectacular French period piece about artist and subject and the suppressed passion between them.

Directed by Céline Sciamma and starring Noémie Merlant as the young painter and Adèle Haenel as her subject, Portrait is simply breathtaking, particularly the movie’s final shot—a bravura work of image, performance, and music­—which elicits every possible emotion from despair to joy.

Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Courtesy Neon.

All movies exist in the present tense, but their true power lies in perspective: Illuminating the past and informing the future. The above three—along with the myriad of movies screened over the holiday weekend—are rebuttals to homogeneity and dullness. Anyone can make a movie; how deflating so many want to make the same movie from the same point of view.

As the Telluride Film Festival shows, that doesn’t have to be the case. With the right people pointing the way, there’s no trouble knowing where to look.

The above article first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 27, No. 3, “Her show.”