Birds Eye View began in 2002 when filmmaker Pinny Grylls and I were making budget shorts and pondering the ludicrous lack of role models for young women in filmmaking. We learnt that only 7 per cent of film directors and 12 per cent of screenwriters are women - and we were keen to create a forum for showcasing and encouraging emerging female filmmaking talent.
After our first sell-out event - a showing at London’s Curzon Soho of five short films made by women - I knew we’d hit on something. I left behind all notions of making films myself and launched the first full Birds Eye View film festival in 2005, with international features, documentaries, masterclasses and special cross-arts events, all by women. Next week our third festival begins.
I’m often asked what this woman’s perspective in film actually looks like - but I’m the last person to want to limit women’s creative possibilities. Birds Eye View was not set up to define a woman’s vision, only to encourage and promote it. Critic Mark Kermode once told me: “When I think of great films by women directors, I think of the incredible violence of Baise-moi; I think of the full-blooded horror of Near Dark; I think of the dark nightmarish dream-like quality of a film like Ratcatcher; I think of the just insane explicitness of a film like Anatomy of Hell.” Women’s films run the gamut of theme and mood, just as men’s films do.
When curating the festival, we simply choose the films that work best. But the question remains: is there an overarching feminine sensibility? And what, through the lens of these films, might it be?
If this year’s festival boasted a Kathryn Bigelow action film (Point Break, Strange Days), or a Nora Ephron rom-com (When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail), I would no doubt write a very different article. It does, however, present some outstanding psychological dramas, which together reveal something at which women excel: a profound ability to create compelling narratives from everyday situations, to allow the possibilities of multiple points of view, bringing all the subtle contradictions of lived reality into sharp relief on the screen.
This year’s festival trailer is an animation made by the animator and dance filmmaker Magali Charrier. We see a collage of memories - photographs, objects and scribblings - flowing across the screen. These memories swarm into the mind of a pencil-drawn woman who seems to gather her thoughts, before opening her eyes and projecting a (suggested) film on to the screen. On seeing it, actor Fiona Shaw (one of the jury members) commented: “It’s a profound and poetic statement of a woman’s ability to draw from the mundane as she creates.”
The main features of this year’s festival spring from intense observation of the daily life and human interaction, which invite us, in turn, to observe our own lives in their light. Away From Her is a film at once straightforward and complex. It’s about a couple who, after 44 years together, are confronted with Fiona’s (Julie Christie) rapidly advancing Alzheimer’s disease. Christie plays Fiona with an elegance, strength and poise that are, in her portrayal, perfectly consistent with the weakness of her condition. This is a love story, and a loss story.
The stand-out scene comes early on, when Grant (Gordon Pinsent), the devoted though imperfect husband, is forced to leave Fiona in a care home, at her own insistence. Together for the first time in that chintzy care-home bedroom, with brightly lit corridors and officious staff outside, so different from the beautiful countryside log cabin that is their home, they make love (unseen by us) for the last time. With quiet dignity, Fiona asks that Grant leave before she starts to cry. In its simplicity, it is a gut-wrenching moment. We will soon discover that when Grant next visits, after an enforced 30 days of “settling-in time”, Fiona will not remember who he is, devoted instead to another male resident.
Sarah Polley, the film’s director, is 28. While she has turned out phenomenal performances as an actor (My Life Without Me, directed by Isabel Coixet), it is a remarkable achievement for any first-time director to get the tone of this film right. It is as if Polley wrote it not to create drama, but simply to say: this is how it would be.
In Stephanie Daley, Tilda Swinton plays an investigator, Lydie. She tries to discover whether a teenage girl (Amber Tamblyn), accused of murdering her newborn baby and leaving it in a public toilet, is guilty. Lydie happens to be 29 weeks pregnant. We discover that she suffered a miscarriage only three months before this pregnancy, and her inability to acknowledge the loss has driven a threatening wedge between her and her husband.
The depth of the film, written and directed by Hilary Brougher, is realised through the parallels between the women’s lives. Each one is challenged by the story of the other, and the film exposes the complex mechanisms of denial, trust and faith. When asked about the ideas in this film, Brougher says: “I was interested in denial - not the ‘was it real?’ question, rather, ‘how do I get the experience on screen?’ I am fascinated by how screwed up we can get when confronted with something bigger than us, beyond our control. That collision of who we think we are with who we suddenly learn we are.”
When Brougher began her screenplay a number of her peers were pregnant. “I saw them experience profoundly scary and fascinating changes, around the idea of losing and finding self - a sort of midlife adolescence, ever so hard to articulate - and, therefore, worth the trouble,” she says. And so it was - the script won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance last year.
There is a startlingly frank ambivalence to both these films. They wrestle with doubts and leave questions unanswered. There are no bad guys here, only human beings who try and fail. Conflict arises when two people are trying hard to reach each other. The gaze is scrupulous and penetrating, yet its judgment is light. Is this the woman’s touch?
Birds Eye View gives me the fascinating challenge of carving out a cultural space where women lead the creative vision, a rarity in film. You no longer need to be an army commander to marshal a film crew - equipment is manageable and the training available. But film-directing involves job insecurity, endless self-promotion, round-the-clock obsession and little space for child-rearing. It is that, and the tendency to nurture another’s creativity before asserting our own, that leads most women working in film into production. But I want to hear women’s stories, not just enjoy men’s stories realised in part by women.
The actor Juliet Stevenson says: “I think we need to see stories on our screens that are born out of women’s imaginations, shaped by women’s experiences of being alive, women’s ways of exploring and resolving conflict. So it is vital to create a culture in which women feel that they can, and where they can come and see each other’s work.”
It is my belief that as more women make films, the more impossible to categorise their films it will be. We have to hold lightly any notion of a feminine type, lest we lock ourselves into oppressive moulds and at the same time misrepresent the breadth of male talent. The important thing is to explore diversity and to relish the creativity it brings.
Anthony Minghella goes as far as to say: “Films should be created by people of different genders, different races, different ages. It’s as big a mistake to assume something intrinsic about the feminine perspective as it is to say there is something generic about a male perspective. The fact is we simply do not hear enough of any of them.”
This year we have tried to address the question of international diversity by partnering with ActionAid to present a programme of films from developing countries. As fast-emerging and Bafta-winning filmmaker Amma Asante (A Way of Life) says: “With diversity comes creativity”. Through this strand of the programme we discover new ways of using the screen to tell different kinds of stories. For example, Tsitsi Dangarembga, the acclaimed Zimbabwean filmmaker and novelist, brings sinister Shona folk tales into cinematic life with song and dance in her film Mother’s Day, a film distinctly African, and like nothing I’d ever seen before.
One of the outstanding films of the festival is a South African piece called And There in the Dust by Lara Foot Newton and Gerhard Marx. It’s an eight-minute film, made with animation and live action, showing the impact of baby rape on a small South African village. Baby rape is a phenomenon that has grown out of the horrifying myth that sleeping with a virginal child cures Aids.
The filmmakers tell the story with incredible sensitivity through the eyes of another man in the village. Towards the end, an ambulance man arrives and we watch his quiet anguish as he tenderly takes the baby’s violated body.
Nothing in this film is overtly graphic; all is suggested through the animation of everyday objects - bread, plasters, a pair of trainers - combined with live action. This is set against a rich, painterly backdrop. It’s a devastating subject to approach, and to do so in a way which leaves you as moved by the compassion of one man as by the brutality of another is not just clever, it’s accurate.
Many of the subjects approached by our filmmakers can be painful - I’ll confess, I can’t wait for the day when more women to start making raucous comedy. But the triumph of these films is that they do not leave me in despair at the world we live in. Somehow, I feel in better company.
The Birds Eye View film festival, sponsored by Accenture and the UK Film Council, runs from March 8-14. Rachel Millward is the festival director.
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