Dee Rees at the Gotham Awards.
Photo by Brian Brooks. Dee Rees at the Gotham Awards.

Dee Rees
Age: 35-36
Nationality: American
Claim to fame: breaking ground for lesbian cinema
Her story: When “Blue is the Warmest Colour” won the Palme d’or earlier this summer, there were voices that wondered whether Cannes would have been so quick to embrace a teenage lesbian drama had it not had a middle aged straight male director at its helm. Yet two years earlier, Dee Rees proved that such narratives do not need the hand of patriarchal guidance in order to break through. Her semi-autobiographical film “Pariah” scored a 95% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and awards from all quarters including the Indie Spirits, the National Board of Review and Sundance. An unprecedented level of industry endorsement for a black lesbian narrative from a black lesbian director, Rees’ cinematic voice is compelling on its own terms and essential in the context of the heterocentric, white male-dominated landscape it inhabits.

Mia Hansen-Love
Age: 32
Nationality: French
Claim to fame: Conquering Cannes in her twenties
Her story: It is rare enough for female directors to win acclaim at notoriously male-dominated Cannes. It is even rarer to do it young. Mia Hansen-Love was 23 when she made her feature debut, and 28 when her third feature - 2009’s “The Father of my Children” - won the Special Jury Prize from Cannes’ Un Certain Regard line up. Recently listed among the Top 20 directors in the world today by The Guardian, it seems that her already prolific career is only on its opening chapter.

SXSW Keynote speaker Lena Dunham
SXSW Keynote speaker Lena Dunham

Lena Dunham

Age: 27
Nationality: American
Claim to fame: showing Hollywood that girls can do the “boy genius” thing
Her story: Soderbergh won the Palme d’or at 26. Spielberg directed Jaws aged 27. For her part, Lena Dunham has written and directed a feature film and two television series, and won a DGA award for her direction of the latter. Dunham has refused to apologise for maintaining her dramatic focus on her own privileged young white female worldview. And though it has meant facing ten times the criticism of say, Wes Anderson or Noah Baumbach, she has succeeded in proving herself, creatively speaking, as their equal.

Haifaa Al-Mansour
Age: 38
Nationality: Saudi Arabian
Her claim to fame: re-writing cinema history
Her story: Al-Mansour’s narrative is no less remarkable for having been oft-repeated. “Wadjda” is both the first ever feature film directed by a Saudi woman, and the first ever feature film shot entirely within Saudi Arabia. Al-Mansour had to direct some scenes hidden inside a van, so as not to be witnessed directing male crew members. It is a story so remarkable that it risks overshadowing the film itself, but the enthusiastic worldwide distribution the film has received - opening in the UK last week - is proof that its on-screen narrative is equally compelling. In a country where cinema has been effectively banned for decades, and where women’s rights are some of the most oppressive in the world, Al-Mansour’s is now a hugely vital voice, on screen and off.

Sarah Polley
Age: 34
Nationality: Canadian
Claim to fame: telling stories on her own terms
Her story: Polley is not the first director to straddle documentary and fiction genres, but the variety of her career output so far is pleasing evidence of a creative sensibility in full flight. Aged 27, her directorial debut “Away from Her” was a huge success, twice Oscar-nominated and widely embraced by her peers. Both of her films since then have been refreshingly idiosyncratic - 2012's "Take this Waltz" polarised reviewers but drew raves from many for its dry emotional honesty. This year, it is hybrid documentary "Stories we Tell", an unclassifiable exploration of Polley’s own family history, which has been garnering acclaim worldwide. Up next is an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s “Alias Grace”.

Ava DuVernay
Daniel Bergeron Ava DuVernay

Ava DuVernay

Age: 40
Nationality: American
Claim to fame: being a game changer
Her story: Ava DuVernay is a revitalising voice on the indie film circuit. After becoming the first black woman to win the Best Director award at Sundance for her second feature “Middle of Nowhere”, she has shown herself to be a passionate advocate for disrupting traditional forms of filmmaking and distribution. A constant champion of her fellow directors, she is always happy to acknowledge her status as a black female director, if only because she appears to see it as both a necessary conversation and a cause for celebration. Earlier this month, it was announced that she would direct the Martin Luther King biopic “Selma” following Lee Daniels’ departure from the project. An appointment like this is highly significant - as Women and Hollywood’s Melissa Silverstein pointed out, “movies about epic male historical figures are usually reserved for [male directors]”. But DuVernay has already proven herself as no prisoner to establishment convention.

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

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