Don’t let the name fool you: Turner Classic Movies is redefining the parameters for “classic” films. The Ted Turner-created network, known for bringing the world of Old Hollywood filmmaking into viewers’ homes for over 25 years, has long been the perfect place to catch a 1940s film noir or see an Oscar-winning feature from 1933. But now it’s becoming a launchpad for showcasing diverse cinema — in what’s it’s always been and what it can be.
After diving into the world of African American cinema and directors, as well as devoting time to showcasing disability in movies, TCM is casting an eye toward female directors. Their series “Women Make Film” is their most ambitious project yet: a three-month event aimed at promoting the work of women directors. Programming won’t just highlight directors from America and Europe, but worldwide filmmakers, as well.
The series will include a lengthy documentary/film school showcasing the work of female filmmakers, directed by Mark Cousins, as well as series of feature films (many never aired in the United States), hosted by a variety of women directors.
It’s a project that was over a year in the making, according to TCM’s General Manager Pola Chagnon. Senior Vice President of Programming and Content Strategy, Charles Tabesh, was the one who realized they’d have an opportunity to premiere Cousins’ documentary on the network, but more than that, it inspired the network to use the film as a springboard to honor 100 films, worldwide, directed by women.
“We [not only] get a chance to share the documentary with our audience but, also, what a great opportunity to introduce a swath of filmmakers that audiences’ don’t often get to see in any way, shape, or form, let alone on a network,” Chagnon said to IndieWire.
For TCM, it’s a chance to not just take point on the issue of who gets to tell stories but to redefine what makes a movie “classic.” For a network often criticized by the uninitiated for showing movies devoid of opportunities for people of color (valid), the hope is that this series will continue to debunk those myths and emphasize TCM’s commitment to filmmaking from every perspective.
“We don’t want to look like we’re stuck in amber,” Chagnon said. “We want to be able to reflect intelligently on the world as seen through movies.”
It’s something that other female directors who are participating in the series are appreciating as well. Wanuri Kahiu, the director of “Rafiki” and the upcoming adaptation of “Once On This Island” called the series forward-thinking.
“I wish there had been more of this across the ages,” she said. “It’s not just a celebration of women in film; [it shows] how our voice adds not only to the way we see the world, but changes the way we see the world.”
One of the statements nearly everyone spoken to brought up is how they didn’t know some of these female directors’ names before this project. As Lizzie Borden, the director of “Born in Flames” explained, it’s not just a historical lack of confidence in women, it’s also about distribution.
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Borden, who discussed a series of films directed by Ida Lupino, said historically there are often only a few female names that get trotted out and they’re generally all compared to each other. The lack of film retrospectives and texts documenting their exploits, as well as companies failing to release their features on home video, can lead to “certain films just dropp[ing] out of history,” she said.
It’s a shame for many reasons, including such lack of access has lead to a number of women growing up in the industry without a connection to female directors. In the case of historian and TCM host Alicia Malone, who grew up on directors like Jane Campion and Gillian Armstrong, the lack of support for women directors led her to have her own prejudices. Despite watching Armstrong’s “My Brilliant Career” as a girl, Malone never thought the director’s chair was something a woman could inhabit.
“I really took on this inherent bias of what a director looks like, what a male director is, and then what kind of movies a female director makes,” she said. What she said she finds so thrilling about what TCM is embarking on is the ability for audiences to watch and make note of an international conglomerate of women directors and see that they’re inhabiting all genres of cinema.
More importantly, Malone said she hopes the series sparks a desire to focus less on women directors with regards to gender and more their artistry. “Female directors are often not asked about their craft,” she said. Too often, directing terms are skewed toward male directors (“Hitchcockian,” “Kubrickian”) and it’s something Malone, herself, is trying to shy away from in her interviews.
It’s something Kahiu seconded. “It’s important that we’re seen as artists first,” she said.
Either way, it continues the trend of breaking TCM out of amber and cementing them as a forward-thinking network of artistry and glamour.
“Women Make Film” premieres Tuesday, September 1 at 8 p.m. ET on TCM.