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by Matthew Hammett Knott
August 8, 2013 10:32 AM
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Heroines of Cinema: 15 Female Directors Who Made Their First Feature After Turning 40

Two weeks ago, this column profiled ten female directors aged 40 or younger. My reasons for imposing an age limit were clearly stated, but it had the unfortunate side effect of excluding an entire demographic from the conversation - one that has a sorry history of receiving such treatment in Hollywood.

However, simply flipping my gaze in their direction did not seem the most illustrative solution. Many of the most prominent female directors in the world are older than 40 - Kathryn Bigelow, Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola etc - and the success of their careers suggests that turning forty is not the death knell for female directors that it can be for on-screen talent.

READ MORE: From Emma Thompson and Tilda Swinton to Ava DuVernay and Sally Potter: All Our Heroines of Cinema

It seemed a more interesting approach to look at directors whose feature film career did not even begin until the age of forty or later. In last week’s article, a user wrote in the comments section of being an aspiring director in her fifties and feeling “left out in the cold” by a society that habitually renders middle-aged women invisible in public forums. It is an attitude that we can all recognise - and combined with the film industry’s thirst for young talent, suggests that beginning a feature film career in ones fifth decade is an impossible exercise. And yet, the list of women who have followed such a path is distinguished.

There is no better place to start than with one of the most acclaimed arthouse directors in the world, Claire Denis, whose “Beau Travail” was one of two films directed by women to make it onto Sight and Sound’s latest 100 greatest films of all time poll. Denis premiered her debut feature "Chocolat" at Cannes aged 40, following a career as an assistant director to the likes of Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders.

Claire Denis on set.

Three of the most critically acclaimed British directors of recent times all turned to features after forty. Andrea Arnold had a successful career as an actress and television presenter before studying at AFI and seeing “Red Road” premiere at Cannes aged 45. Joanna Hogg established a career as a television director, before releasing at the age of 48 her award-winning debut “Unrelated”, in which she aspired to “do everything I was told not to in TV”. Clio Barnard, previously a video artist, made her feature debut with “The Arbor” aged 45.

Outside the UK, Australian Julia Leigh completed two novels and a PhD before turning to filmmaking and seeing her debut “Sleeping Beauty” compete for the Palme d’or aged 40.  Both Lynn Shelton and Debra Granik debuted at the same age with "We Go Way Back" “Down to the Bone," respectively. The latter went on to nab four Oscar nominations for her follow-up “Winter’s Bone”, while Shelton has released a string of recent critical hits including "Humpday," "Your Sister's Sister" and "Touchy Feely."  And then there's Deepa Mehta, who was Oscar-nominated for “Water” after turning to features at 41 following a career writing for children’s films and documentaries.

Several directors have seen a late-blossoming feature film career lead to high profile assignments, though to be fair, these tend to be women well-established in other fields. Video artist Sam Taylor-Johnson made her debut with “Nowhere Boy” aged 41, and has since been granted the dubious but high-profile task of directing the “Fifty Shades of Grey” adaptation. Catherine Hardwicke followed a successful career as a production designer by writing and directing “Thirteen” aged 47, before being hired to direct the first “Twilight” film. Meanwhile Phyllida Lloyd was a hugely acclaimed theatre director before directing the film adaptation of “Mamma Mia” aged 51, while another very successful stage director, Julie Taymor, made her debut with “Titus” aged 46, before directing “Frida” to six Oscar nominations.

READ MORE: Heroines of Cinema: The 10 Most Exciting Young Female Directors in the World Today

The most extreme example of this trajectory is Maya Angelou, the first black woman to have a feature length screenplay produced with 1972’s “Georgia Georgia”. She was famously excluded from further input in that production, but finally got to direct a feature at the age of 70 with 1996’s “Down in the Delta”.

The above examples offer two interpretations. It may be encouraging to know that women who turn to feature filmmaking relatively late are not excluded from the party. But it could also be said, in some cases at least, that they were required to prove themselves in another discipline before being granted the reins to a feature. The truth is that each example has its own circumstances. And while the names listed above may provide inspiration, the real question is whether a female director is able and happy to dictate the terms and trajectory of her feature film career, or whether it is subject to discriminatory forces pertaining to her age and gender.

For some insight, I turned to Brenda Davis, a woman who could not be more in the firing line, as her debut feature documentary “Sister” is released today, in the year she turns fifty. “I’ve wanted to make films for as long as I can remember, but it seems right that it happened now. I wouldn’t change it for the world”, she tells me. A self-confessed film geek, Brenda initially worked as a script supervisor and researcher, completing her last script supervising job when she was seven months pregnant. Following the birth of her daughter, she worked mostly in research roles, before starting to take camera and editing workshops to gain practical skills.

The idea to make "Sister" - a harrowing documentary that lays painfully bare the state of childbirth in three developing nations - did not come about until her daughter was in high school. “I’m a single mother, so before that I wanted her to feel the stability of having a parent around. By making my film, what she got to see was her mother’s desire to create and accomplish that epic task”.

In Davis’s estimation “there is no way I could have made this film twenty years ago. This film, this story, my skills, took this long to brew. It’s a very personal film. There were so many things I had to learn before making it”. It is a refreshingly philosophical attitude in industry full of twentysomethings wracked with with career anxiety (I am one of such fools). But she is right - her documentary contains painfully intimate scenes that one cannot imagine having the trust and ability to capture without considerable patience and experience.

Davis does concede that stepping up to the director role presented some very new challenges. “I used to find it very difficult to ask for help or to vent, I was very head down – you wanted to do this, so do it and don’t complain. I’d be a Defcon 1 before I’d reach out to someone. I think it’s a single mother thing. Now, if I don’t know how to do something or I’m over my head, I find someone to show me or talk me through it”. She credits a wide group of women in the industry with filling this role, from her DP and co-producer Swati Guild to “Yelling to the Sky” director Victoria Mahoney, Alison Palmer, Lemore Syvan, Caroline Kaplan, Meg McLagan, Tigist Selam, Kirsten Johnson and Tanya Ager Meiller.

The names are specific to her experience, but what matters is that these people existed, and believed in Davis’s ability and right to tell her story - one so fully informed by her age and gender. Let us also bear in mind that she succeeded in the independent documentary sector, traditionally more welcoming to female filmmakers than the studio system. The problem comes when so much of the industry is predisposed to expect the “next big thing” to be young, white and male. The examples listed above are ample proof that this is a foolish preconception.

SISTER is released today (August 8th) through Journeyman Pictures UK on DVD/VOD. See www.sisterdocumentary.com for more details.

Matthew Hammett Knott is a London-based filmmaker and writer. Follow him on Twitter.




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20 Comments

  • Persis Shanker | August 25, 2013 10:22 PMReply

    I'm glad you wrote this article. As a director in TV, I have been for year writing in the corner waiting for a break in features. It's harder because women aren't that openly aggressive in getting crews to give us what we want. And being Asian it's even harder. I think the network of women directors needs to be bigger and increase their momentum. There needs to be more mentoring and encouragement of women to go into this line coz we bring a unique perspective to screen. Something that is more emotional. I'm 40 now and this gives me hope but I don't want to wait any longer. I have to push through. Thanks for this article.

  • Alexandra Boyd | August 12, 2013 11:08 AMReply

    Very proud to be part of this Sisterhood. I've been an actress for 30+ years but standing the wrong side of the camera to qualify to direct a film just yet as it happen.... doing it the slow way - but I'm 50 and was feeling like time is running out, so I called my new production company New Thirty Pictures coz that's what my 50 has to be if I'm to keep up with the new generation of men. If you stood me next to a 30 year old film school grad I guarantee I have more hours clocked on a movie set than him!! Oh well - my first feature THE WILDERNESS (about an Olympic boxing champ - based on a true story - another man's world I'm in!!) is well on it's way to being green lit and in the mean time I'm directing everything I can
    AB http://bit.ly/12EpbGfTheWilderness

  • Magna | August 12, 2013 2:25 AMReply

    If you want to be successful get a woman to do a man's job.

    I have a wonderful franchise in the pipeline. Any woman director would have a feel for it. Contact me at +27838000052.

    Magna Kruger

  • J Bradford | August 10, 2013 6:46 PMReply

    Interesting and inspiring article, thank you. It's just that the sad thing is that even these successful and award-winning female directors (even the ones that have made a film that is deemed profitable) still have to fight to prove to the Powers that Be that they are more than worth hiring. Take a look at Catherine Hardwicke for example, after Twilight she made Red Riding Hood and since then she has not made a studio film. Yes, she is making films, but for some reason is no longer entrusted with the big budget, star-vehicle films. Even though Twilight grossed nearly $200m the next 2 films in the series were directed by a man, who is now making another studio film. It might be that Harwicke has no interest in directing another studio film, I don't know, but there is a definite pattern here. Take any successful female director who has made a film within the Hollywood studio system and see how many films they are asked to helm compared to their male counterparts. When I've hear female directors interviewed this is one of the things that they complain about - that the bar is set higher for them. That it's difficult to keep getting the work, one or two successes are not enough.
    On a different note, I've had the same experience as Ellin - the young male film students I teach tend to have very little doubt that they are the next Steven Spielberg/Stanley Kubrick, the women (between 5 and 25% of the class) are generally more realistic and as a result I suppose they come across as lacking confidence.

  • Ellin | August 10, 2013 1:41 PMReply

    In my 20s (many years ago) I read grant applications and noticed that by and large applications from young women directors would be like "I think I'm pretty good" but they would be very conscious of how far they had to go to be as good as they wanted to be. Applications from young male directors, by contrast, were like "I am the greatest thing since sliced bread" (regardless of amount of actual talent) and this kind of confidence carried all before it. Guess who got the money. I'm sure the same was true when it came to commercial financing.

    I've also noticed that when they got past 35, this same generation of creative women gained in confidence and, instead of being overly conscious of their limitations, started emphasizing their strengths and believing more in their talent. This might explain why so many women directors did not move onto the next level until later in life.

    I suspect the initial diffidence may have been a product of the times the current crop of directors over 40 were raised in and now young women are more likely to start out with all guns blazing (but maybe not. Any thoughts?)

  • Sunshine | August 9, 2013 7:29 PMReply

    I found my passion in life at 52. I headed to film school and earned an Associates degree in the U.S. I then applied to study in Wales (UK) and have just finished a year studying TV/Film set design here in Cardiff. I had never been out of the U.S. before!

    I found this article very encouraging. I turn 55 this next week and am now heading into the workforce. I feel more alive now than I ever have in my life.

    While at film school, I kept telling the late teens and early twenties that looking to older women for roles, directors, etc. was a good idea. They mostly didn't believe me until they saw my final exam directing assignment with three actresses over the age of 35. And then my abstract film left them speechless.

    I think it is very important for us to keep reminding/showing the young ones that there is more out there than youth.

  • Persis Shanker | August 25, 2013 10:25 PM

    That is awesome missy! I wish you luck!! I jsut turned 40 and have been in TV the last 12 years doing short films here and there. I'm ready to make that leap too and am going to film school in NFTS UK this year. Dreams DO come true if you work your ass off. :)

  • Lauren | August 9, 2013 3:04 PMReply

    Hooray, great point! Also worth pointing out that Kathryn Bigelow, although she made her first film before 40, was not nominated for (and then won) an Academy Award until she was 58.

  • Harley | August 10, 2013 4:19 PM

    You are an inspiration, Sunshine! I am a 40 year old woman who has just been accepted to USC and UCLA for and MFA in directing. I'm still debating whether or not to go as it would put me over $100k in debt and my chances of future success are more limited than the average film student. Should I go? Is it worth it? Can I succeed at this career path and still have some balance in my life?

  • Jana | August 9, 2013 9:01 AMReply

    Most of these women were already successful which suggests their ability to direct was based on a successful related career- two were successful artists (and STW was very famous). Others already were successful in theatre or other areas of film. Still pretty fucking depressing and dire. In the UK nothing is done by the BFI which is the state funded entity to promote female directors which has resulted in a drop from around 13% of films directed by women to around 7%. BLEAK

  • Harriet Bond | August 9, 2013 9:27 AM

    Didn't the BFI just fund the debut features of Jane Linfoot and Phillipa Lowthorpe? I for one am inspired by these women!

  • Melissa M. Wilson | August 9, 2013 7:58 AMReply

    There is also Rachel Wards first full length debut "Beautiful Kate".

  • zuraida Hamzah | August 9, 2013 7:49 AMReply

    Hi. The reason i send this message to dedicated to the any talented women in film directing. I have a few good script that can make successful in film. The story is very amazing and touching. The story is about the big sacrifice to his own family. I hope any director or any film maker will interested to take my script to make film. Interested call my number is 017-3246404 and my name is Aida. Thank you.

  • Sarah | August 9, 2013 6:39 AMReply

    ...and Margaret Tait made her first (and only) feature film in her seventies with Blue Black Permanent (1992)

  • Helen East | August 9, 2013 4:33 AMReply

    I'm currently making my first documentary and I am well past 40. I'm loving it and don't think I would have had the confidence to all the strangers I've had to talk to in order to make the feature lengh film.

  • Ilana | August 8, 2013 4:54 PMReply

    Let's not forget María Luisa Bemberg, from Argentina.

  • Marian | August 8, 2013 3:16 PMReply

    Thank you Matthew. I think this is ACE; and identifies a woman-director phenomenon that I haven't read about elsewhere. Straight onto my Pinterest board! There' s also Naomi Foner, whose contribution excited me when I read it, in John Horn's roundtable interview with women directors at Sundance this year.

  • Joyce | August 8, 2013 12:25 PMReply

    Exactly. At 52, I am an emerging artist. Very frustrating when grants, prizes, residencies, etc. are for "young" emerging artists.

  • Marian | August 8, 2013 3:19 PM

    Right with you there Joyce! Just yesterday got turned down for that very reason! :)

  • W. Sanders | August 8, 2013 11:20 AMReply

    Thank you, Matthew, for this inspirational series of articles. You seem anything but a fool. I wonder if you have come across this project - thedirectorlist.com - if not, it might be grist to your mill!