Celebrate Women’s History Month with films directed by and starring women

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Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

Linda May and Frances McDormand in the film “NOMADLAND.” © 2020 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved

Natalie Duerr, news staff

In 93 years of the Academy Awards, only ONE woman has won best director and only seven have been nominated. In 2021, the Academy recognized more than one woman in the best director category for the first time ever, nominating both Chloé Zhao and Emerald Fennell. Only about 1.5 in 10 film directors are women, and women of color’s share is even lower. Hollywood has effectively silenced the perspective and gaze of over 50% of the world’s population. While behind-the-camera representation is out of sight, it must not be out of mind. 

As Women’s History Month wraps up, I collected a list of six films directed by women that deserve the attention their male counterparts received. This list doesn’t focus on a particular genre or release date in the hopes of presenting a well-rounded collection. I found it particularly difficult to curate such a small list from the many amazing women in film, but these are some of my favorites.    

“Cléo de 5 à 7,” Agnès Varda

On the surface, “Cléo de 5 à 7” is about a woman accepting her mortality, but upon closer inspection, the film digs into how 1960s French society treated women. The film follows burgeoning singer Cléo (Corinne Marchand) from literally 5 to 7 p.m. as she waits for lab results that will confirm if she has cancer. The people surrounding Cléo belittle her worries and seem to be taking advantage of her talent. Varda crafts technically beautiful shots, using mirrors throughout the film to examine Cléo’s self-obsession. 

Varda was a rarity as one of the only women behind the camera during the French New Wave movement. Her films blur the line between fact and fiction, creating a unique critique of society. Varda’s contributions to the art of cinema are immeasurable, and a list of historic women filmmakers is incomplete without her.

“Cléo de 5 à 7” is available to stream on HBO Max and Criterion Channel.

“Lingua Franca,” Isabel Sandoval

“Lingua Franca” follows Olivia (Isabel Sandoval) as she takes care of others while her country fails to care for her. Olivia is a caregiver, a lover, an immigrant, Filipina, a transgender woman — all of these identities collide to create a sublime story. Sandoval is a total powerhouse: acting, directing, producing, writing and editing this film herself. Her touch breathes so much life into this personal epic and features women who are often marked invisible.

Sandoval made history in 2019 as the first transgender woman of color to direct and star in a film competing at the Venice Film Festival. Ava Duvernay’s ARRAY later acquired and released the film. 

“Lingua Franca” is available to stream on Netflix.

“The Watermelon Woman,” Cheryl Dunye

Cheryl spends her days working at a video store with her friend Tamara. During her time off, she creates a documentary about a woman who was erased from history — a 1930s actress credited only as “The Watermelon Woman.” She digs through archives and interviews people who may have known the elusive woman, hoping to reconstruct her story. This historical investigation lends itself to a film that is part narrative, part pseudo-documentary. The film is not only a time capsule of what it was like to be a Black lesbian in the 90s but also is a solid romantic comedy-drama.

“The Watermelon Woman” made history as the first narrative film to be released by an out Black lesbian. The film also dissects how an excluded past can continue to haunt us in the future, highlighting that Black women, especially Black lesbians, have been struck from historical records and archives.

“The Watermelon Woman” is available to stream on Showtime and Kanopy.

“We Need to Talk About Kevin,” Lynne Ramsay

If you like thrillers, “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is a must-watch. The film stars Tilda Swinton as Eva, a woman experiencing a mother’s worst fear — not being able to connect with her child. Ramsay’s non-linear storytelling creates intense suspense that will have you trying to connect the dots before the film concludes. The distinctive narrative forces the viewer to contend with Eva’s treatment — is it right to place all the blame on the mother for the destruction her child caused? 

“We Need to Talk About Kevin” is available to stream on Prime Video and Tubi.

“Nomadland,” Chloé Zhao

Zhao has the gift of explorative empathy, you walk away from her films with more kindness for your fellow humans. “Nomadland” centers on a group of people who live off the grid and find their own path forward post the 2008 financial crash. The film follows Fern (Frances McDormand) as she travels in her van across the Midwest, making friends and finding jobs along the way. Fern’s journey is one of self-discovery, reminding the viewer it is never too late to be a new version of ourselves. 

Zhao made history this year as the first Asian woman to win Best Director at the Golden Globes. She also became the second woman ever to win the award. In addition, Zhao was nominated for best director at the 93rd Academy Awards and became the first woman of color recognized in the category.

“Nomadland” is available to stream on Hulu.

“Lady Bird,” Greta Gerwig

When I initially saw “Lady Bird,” it was the first time I left a movie theater feeling like a film understood me. Now, it is a film I watch at least once a year. “Lady Bird” is a compassionate coming-of-age tale and marked Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut. The film follows Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) through her senior year of high school. Lady Bird isn’t perfect, yet that’s what makes this story feel so genuine. She’ll say cruel things without realizing the weight of them, hurting those who are just trying to help. “Lady Bird” is a journey about growing past our apathetic teenage tendencies. The film clearly comes from Gerwig’s personal experience and is soaked in tender care for forgiving our past selves.

“Lady Bird” is available to stream on Netflix.