36 Female Filmmakers Across The Globe Who Are Breaking Ground In Their Own Countries
The future may be female, but the present's looking pretty good as well — that is, if you know where to look. While Hollywood may have been slow to pick up on the "trend", women's voices are becoming louder and more diverse outside the usual channels of access and power. As just a small sampler, these are 36 female filmmakers across the globe who are breaking ground in their own countries, by making movies in ways and about topics sure to inspire you during International Women's Month and always.
It can be difficult to follow what's going on in the film scene internationally, and many filmmakers just getting started or working outside studio systems can take years to become well-known, if they become known at all. That hasn't deterred any of these women from telling bold, odd, poignant, and angry stories, however they can. And these ladies deserve our recognition. Women have been at the forefront of movie history since the medium was invented, but somehow their contributions have been brushed aside, ignored, or forgotten. Only now is the world coming back around to realizing what was always there — outstanding stories told by some of the other 51 percent of the world's population.
And these women's work isn't always easy. In many countries, funding and access are often denied, and in nations where there's little to no filmmaking, women have to scrape together not only their own budgets, but equipment and crew. Some women have won grants, some have raised their own funds, and in one case, an Oscar nominee hasn't yet finished paying for her award-winning film. All that is before getting into the social pressures or taboos of women in public or operating machinery. Lucky for all of us, that hasn't swayed any of the women on this list from telling the stories they want on-screen.
1Haifaa al-Mansour, Saudi Arabia
The lack of a Saudi-Arabian film industry didn't deter Haifaa al-Mansour from making movies, nor did hate mail and death threats following her documentary on the niquab. She wrote and directed her first feature Wadjda, about a young girl determined to get herself a bike to race her friend after her mother refuses, after five years scraping funds together from several countries. al-Mansour had to direct street scenes from the back of a van using walkie talkies, the Telegraph reports, as she couldn't publicly mix with men in the crew. Not only was Wadjda the first feature to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, it's also the only Saudi Arabian feature made by a female director.
2Natalia Almada, Mexico
The first Latina filmmaker to receive MacArthur Fellowship (aka the "genius" grant), Natalia Almada's intense, poetic documentaries examine Mexico's history, politics, and pain. She often turns the camera on her own past, like with he film El General, which tells the history of her great-grandfather, a controversial revolutionary general. You can watch it for free here.
3Claudia Llosa, Peru
Claudia Llosa's film The Milk Of Sorrow (La Teta Asustada) earned Peru's first-ever Berlin International Film Festival Golden Bear, and its very first Oscar nomination. To get a sense of how enormous an accomplishment it is, Peru has submitted films for the Oscars' Best Foreign Language category since 1967, and Llosa's film is its first and only nomination.
4Payal Kapadia, India
Kapadia's student short, Afternoon Clouds, has the distinction of being India's only entry for this year's 70th Cannes festival. The film was picked from over 2,600 other entries, and Kapadia told Showsha that it focuses on "the notion of love in a space where these things are not easily spoken about," adding, "In India, I think love expressed by women is a very complex and difficult thing. It comes with the mixed feelings of exhilaration and fear." Now that she's about to graduate, Kapadia hopes to make a feature, and will continue making short films.
5Mattie Do, Laos
Despite horror films having the highest on-screen female representation of any genre and attracting a large female audience, it's not thought of as women's territory. Match that with a country not known for its film production (Laos' first non-propaganda film came out in 2008), and the last thing you'd expect to see is a woman-directed horror movie. But Maggie Do's Dearest Sister, a spooky tale of a village girl taking care of her rich cousin, whose blindness coincides with an ability to communicate with the dead, is her second horror feature. It's also Laos' 13th movie. Ever.
6Annemarie Jacir, Palestine
Annamarie Jacir's no stranger to firsts; at 29, she was the first Arab to have a short compete in Cannes. Her 2008 feature Salt Of The Sea was the first Palestinian film directed by a woman, and all three of her feature films were submitted as Palestine's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominees.
7Deniz Gamze Ergüven, France, Turkey
In June 2016, Ergüven was invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (directors' branch). In an interview with Canim Istanbul, she said of the attention, "During Cannes I was telling this joke: Tuesday we’ll show the movie, Wednesday we’ll talk to the press, Thursday we’ll be old news. But that Thursday never came! "
8Sabrina Fidalgo, Brazil
Black women have been wildly underrepresented in Brazilian cinema on both sides of the camera, but writer/director Fidalgo is determined to change that. Talking to NewsDeeply, she said, "There’s no way you can talk about the Brazilian reality without talking about race," noting, "it’s surreal not to cast black actors in a place where the majority of the population is black. And I want to write good roles for black actors, to break the stereotype – naturalize the presence of black actors in film.”
9Nadine Labaki, Lebanon
Though Lebanon has a long history of film and female filmmakers, none have had the worldwide popularity of Nadine Labaki. Her first feature Caramel was the most widely-distributed and acclaimed Lebanese film the world over, despite covering sexual taboos and desires.
10Tan Pin Pin, Singapore
Tan Pin Pin's documentary Singapore GaGa was the first Singapore documentary to have a theatrical release. She co-founded a collective of independent Singapore filmmakers, Her 2013 film To Singapore, With Love was distinctly not met with love, as Singapore's film board refused to rate it, effectively banning it in her home country. That hasn't slowed her down a bit, though.
11Hnin Ei Hlaing, Thailand
Hnin Ei Hlang had the idea for her short Period@Period when she was 19, but due to social taboos against talking about menstruation held off making it for years. So it was quite a surprise when the Wathann Film Festival's all-male judging panel awarded it Best Short Film.
12Sayo Yamamoto, Japan
The audacious anime director has been breaking taboos and winning fans the world over with her work on Yuri On Ice, Samurai Champloo, and Lupin The Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine. Most of her work features unabashed sexuality, and often questions women's roles in society.
13Alankrita Shrivastava, India
In a case of life imitating art, director Shrivastava had to battle India’s censorship board to be granted permission to release her feature Lipstick Under My Burkha — even after it had won accolades at numerous international festivals from Glasgow to Tokyo. The problem? The film was considered too "lady-oriented".
14Lucrecia Martel, Argentina
Martel jump-started Argentina's new wave of cinema in 2001; after seeing her feature La Ciénaga, director Pedro Almadovar said to IndieWire, "When you discover an auteur so original, mature and elusive as Lucrecia Martel, you feel as if you’re witnessing a miracle." Her most recent film Zama was chosen as Argentina's 2017 foreign language entry for the Oscars.
15Lee Kyoung-Mi, Korea
Lee Kyoung-Mi's shocking second feature The Truth Beneath, beat world-renowned Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden to win Best Director at the 2016 Korean Association of Film Critics Awards, but was passed over by the world’s major film festivals. Talking to The Independent she said, "Being a woman in film is something lonelier than I expected. Be prepared to be very lonely in this profession."
16Gina Prince-Bythewood, America
Prince-Bythewood will be first woman of of color to direct a superhero movie with 2019's Black Cat & Silver Sable. She has a strong history of television and film already, but as superhero movies are currently Hollywood's main bread and butter, the distinction is no small potatoes.
17Nia Dinata, Indonesia
Known for tackling topics still controversial in Indonesia such as homosexuality, abortions, and migrant workers, Nia Dinata told Angry Maylay Woman that change in Indonesian cinema is still slow in coming, saying, "I feel that it’s still very rare for women to be heroes, as the major protagonist in a film." She's working to change that with each film she makes.
18Stella Meghie, Canada
It's rare for any woman, let alone one of color, to be offered a studio feature after making a well-received independent film. But Stella Meghie bucked the trend with Everything Everything, 2017's only wide-release film directed by a woman of color.
19Yasmin Thayna, Brazil
Yasmin Thayna did something unexpected for her debut short film Kbela — she overtly marketed it as "black" in a country where "every image and historical and political narrative in Brazil is that white is superior to black," as she told IndieWire. She's working to balance representation and get more black women behind and in front of the camera.
20Hawa Essuman, Kenya
Hawa Essuman got a push from director Tom Twyker (Run Lola Run) to make the jump from television to film. The result is her award-winning feature film Soul Boy, a coming of age fairy tale grounded in realism.
21Anahita Ghazvinizadeh, Iran
After her short Needle won Best Student Film at Cannes and caught the eye of director Jane Campion, Anahita Ghazvinizadeh set her sights on directing a feature. Coming full circle, her tale of gender identity They had its premiere at Cannes in 2017.
22Leyla Bouzid, Tunisia
50,000 filmgoers may not seem like a lot, but as Leyla Bouzid told Tribeca Film, that was immense for Tunisia. "Lots of young people went to the cinema; for many of them, it was their first time [at a cinema]."
23Agnieszka Smoczyńska, Poland
With her 2015 body-horror mermaid burlesque The Lure already released by Criterion, Agnieszka Smoczyńska made (pardon the pun) a big splash on the feature film scene. Her audacious first feature is part fairy tale, part cautionary tale.
24Samira Makhmalbaf, Iran
Having directed her first feature The Apple at age 17, Samira Makhmalbaf is a vanguard of the Iranian New Wave of film. Her two films Blackboards, about a wandering teacher failing to find students, and At Five In The Afternoon, about a young woman seeking an education, both won Prixe du Jury at Cannes.
25Mariana Chenillo, Mexico
Mariana Chenillo became the first female filmmaker to win Mexico's Ariel award (sort of Mexico's Oscar) for Best Picture for her film Five Days Without Nora. Speaking with Remclaza about her second film Paraíso, written while promoting Nora, she said, "it’s so different for women than for men, that I started noticing that there was this thing, like this weight put on to women to keep up their appearance. I felt it was good to be able to talk about that in [Paraíso]."
26Yuki Tanada, Japan
"Female audiences obviously have an interest in the topic of sex, but they are embarrassed by watching it or discussing it in front of men," Yuki Tanada told Midnight Eye. By working in the overly melodramatic, usually gender-stereotypical genre of "youth comedies", Tanada manages to split the difference by twisting tropes to include anomalies that are actually realities.
27Malgorzata Szumowska, Poland
Malgorzata Szumowska loves her home country of Poland, but as she told Variety, she hopes to shake it out of complacency with her filmmaking. "I think it’s dangerous that people feel comfortable surrounded by this extremely conservative and, in my opinion, very old-fashioned, narrow way of thinking.” So far, she's tackled topics like homosexuality in the Catholic Church with In The Name Of.
28Kemi Adetiba, Nigeria
Kemi Adetiba's used to being in front of the camera, having starred in two popular national commercials as a kid, and hosting and presenting numerous television shows. Behind the camera, her music videos have won numerous awards, and her first feature, the rom-com The Wedding Party, is currently the highest grossing Nigerian film ever.
29Roya Sadat, Afghanistan
The first female filmmaker of Afghanistasn's post-Taliban era, Roya Sadat is in the odd position of having her film A Letter To The President chosen as her country's Oscar submission, but hasn't yet finished paying for the film, let alone an Oscar campaign. She told Variety her government is so busy with politics they have little time or money for filmmaking of any gender, but that she faces an extra hurdle. "During the Taliban years, many people became Talibanized. Those people are still living in Afghanistan now. So it is not very comfortable for women, especially those who work in the media," she said.
30Narges Abyar, Iran
Outspoken author and filmmaker Narges Abyar recently challenged Trump to watch her film Nafas and see if it didn't change his mind about the Iranian people, whose country the President labeled "a terrorist nation". Abyar is fighting on two fronts, as according to Reuters, the film and its Oscar nomination have angered Iranian conservatives, who see the film's criticism of the Iran-Iraq war as anti-Islamic.
31Yang Yong-hi, Japan
Yang Yong-hi isn't afraid of making waves. Speaking to Asia Society about her films Dear Pyonghang and Our Homeland, focused on zainichi (permanent ethnic Korean Japanese residents) and family separation between North and South Korea and Japan, she said, "I really needed to be famous as a troublemaker. Then the government cannot touch my family. There's no guarantee but that's my decision."
32Kirsten Tan, Singapore
Kirsten Tan's parents were against her going to school for film. So she did the next best thing — formed her own production company. Speaking to Straights Times the filmmaker, who also shot high-level commercial work including Giorgio Armani, said she founded NuStudios with friends, as her college didn't actually have a film program. Her debut feature Pop Aye went on to become the first Singaporean film selected to compete in the Sundance Film Festival, and made history again when it won an award for Screenwriting.
33Anocha Suwichakornpong, Thailand
With her first film Mundane History reflecting on patriarchy and artistic expression, and her second featureBy the Time It Gets Dark examining political expression (in the form of filmmaking, meta) under a brutal regime, Suwichakornpong's films form a swirling dream of society and history the director herself described to Women In Hollywood as "second-hand memories, a film, and a blue mushroom. If that sounds abstract, then there’s a better way to find out what it’s about: experience it."
34Kamila Andini, Indonesia
Kamila Andini had the idea for her second film back in 2011, but it took her over six years to make her unique, children's-view film The Seen And The Unseen. When asked why, she told Variety that she'd gotten married and had two children. "I wish I could find a better reason, but I think every woman-mother filmmaker must know how these things take time. Meanwhile, I managed to release two short films during pregnancy and breastfeeding. It was a “practice” to handle both roles in my life: mother and filmmaker." Roles that aren't mutually exclusive.
35Atsuko Hirayanagi, Japan
Hirayangai's short film Oh Lucy! has gone on to win over 30 prestigious awards, which on the surface seems surprising given that it's about a middle-aged office worker who has a radical life change when she puts on a blonde wig (and not necessarily for the better). She told Raindance she currently has several projects in the works she can't yet discuss, but they'll be ones to watch out for.
36Jane Campion, Australia
The first, and so far only woman to win the Palme d'Or, Jane Campion's gone from film to television acclaim, itself a shakeup of the norm. Speaking to The Guardian Campion said movies in her native Australia have become too conservative. "But in television, there is no concern about politeness or pleasing the audience. It feels like creative freedom," she said. With her series Top Of The Lake wowing fans and critics alike, she's proved her own point.
As repeated often on this list, there's still a long way to go before the film world achieves anything close to gender equality. But in the meantime, that hasn't stopped these women, and won't stop the filmmakers yet to come from sharing their stories.