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.
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.
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.
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.