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'Women Make Film' Shines A Long Overdue Spotlight On Female Filmmakers


This is FRESH AIR.

Beginning tomorrow and concluding in December, Turner Classic Movies presents an ambitious 14-hour series about female filmmakers, looking at their collective work internationally and throughout the history of cinema. Episodes of the series, called "Women Make Film," will be shown each Tuesday night accompanied by some of the movies being featured. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Each of the 14 hours of TCM's "Women Make Film" begins the same way - with actress Tilda Swinton, one of the documentary's narrators and executive producers, describing the journey to come.


TILDA SWINTON: (As Narrator) Most films have been directed by men. Most of the recognized so-called movie classics were directed by men. But for 13 decades and on all six filmmaking continents, thousands of women have been directing films, too - some of the best films.

BIANCULLI: "Women Make Film," which premiered last year at the Toronto Film Festival, takes us on a trip that's both intellectual and emotional. But as road movies go, this documentary doesn't follow any traditional map. In fact, its approach is so unusual, it arrives with its own disclaimer with the narrator - Tilda Swinton again - explaining what viewers are not about to see.


SWINTON: (As Narrator) What follows is not about the directors' lives. It's not a chronological history. It's not an analysis of how women directors are different from men. And it's not one of those lists of the best films ever made.

No, it has cleaner lines than that. Our film is about the films, the scenes. It answers practical questions. What's an engaging way to start a film? How do you set its tone? How do you make it believable?

BIANCULLI: So what approach does "Women Make Film" and its writer-director Mark Cousins take? Instead of stepping back and looking at the big picture - and only the big pictures - this documentary zooms in on individual scenes. It pulls almost a thousand examples from 130 years of film history covering six continents. But it doesn't cover that ground by starting at the beginning or by highlighting the most recognizable or significant names. Alice Guy-Blache, the first woman director and filmmaker of the silent era, doesn't show up until Episode 4. Ida Lupino, one of the first female members of the Directors Guild of America, arrives in Episode 2.

And there aren't a lot of talking heads or interviews. "Women Make Film" allows the film excerpts to speak for themselves - except, that is, for the almost constant narration which points out specifics as each scene unspools. The documentary is subdivided into 40 topics or chapters, starting with the way certain movies open and covering subjects as general as dreams and as specific as editing. The observations are very specific, and we return to certain movies time and again, watching them illustrate various points.

It's a unique approach, but it works. And the point here is that it covers the entire history of cinema and provides hundreds of examples of both artistic and technical achievement while showcasing only the work of female filmmakers from around the globe. Film historians haven't paid as much attention to them as to their male counterparts, but this documentary series does and goes a long way towards correcting that.

And let's talk about that narration. Those duties are divided throughout the documentary by a series of international voices. In the U.S., we're likely to be most familiar with Jane Fonda and Debra Winger, but it's Tilda Swinton who stands out the most here. She approaches each film like a sportscaster providing play-by-play and delivers her words poetically with a quiet passion that brings to mind the narration of David Attenborough or Werner Herzog. Here she is describing a 1947 movie called "The Last Stage" as we watch one of its scenes. I'd never seen this movie before, but I really, really want to see it now.


SWINTON: We're back in Poland again - a smile broken by a run. But even across the road isn't safe, so they're back here. And a slight pan right. But then a German soldier. And pans left and left. Still no cut. Then hustled, hassled, deported. And then the dreaded dissolve to the dreaded place - Auschwitz. Astonishingly, writer-director Wanda Jakubowska had been a prisoner in Auschwitz. Now just one year after it was liberated, she's back there as a moviemaker, shooting this film - "The Last Stage." It's a masterpiece.

BIANCULLI: "Women Make Film" doesn't exclude the blockbusters or prominent successes. "Wonder Woman" by Patty Jenkins is here, as are "The Hurt Locker" by Kathryn Bigelow and "Big" by Penny Marshall. But the primary joy of this documentary is seeing one small unfamiliar scene that makes you passionate about seeking out the entire film. I walked away with a long list, including not only "The Last Stage" but "Blackboards," "Evolution," "Tomboy" and others. None of those, it turns out, will be shown by TCM during its Tuesday night showcases this fall, but I'll find them anyway.

Meanwhile, the movies that are presented alongside "Women Make Film" include a lot of other great titles, from the well-known "The Hurt Locker" and "The Night Porter" to relatively obscure but eminently worthwhile international productions. Those films, like the documentary, will be presented by TCM hosts Alicia Malone and Jacqueline Stewart, whose enthusiasm matches their expertise. I expect they'll be great guides for this cinematic road trip, and I can't wait to start. After all, how else can we safely travel around the world right now?

GROSS: David Bianculli is the editor of the website TV Worth Watching and professor of TV studies at Rowan University.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll get an inside look at the early years of the CIA from journalist Scott Anderson. In his new book "The Quiet Americans," he says the agency's covert operations to overthrow elected governments damaged the United States' moral standing after the defeat of Nazi Germany and earned the hatred of many in the developing world. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Seth Kelley directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.