TCM and ‘Women Make Film’: an astonishing trip through movie history

It’s only 3 minutes into the documentary “Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema,” and I’m hooked from the first movie clip.

Though a word isn’t spoken in it, much is communicated. A small circular light pierces the dark screen as a young man in World War II Germany is looking for his love. Another light appears, and the circles meet, like “two moons.” The two young lovers, tears in their eyes, finally see each other, but then hastily shut off their lights in fear of approaching soldiers.

The scene is from “We Were Young,” a 1961 film by Bulgarian director Binka Zhelyazkova and it’s so captivating I wrote down the title and circled it multiple times as a reminder that I must see this film.

A screenshot of a striking scene from “We Were Young” in which a young woman and man  have just a moment to silently gaze at each other on a street in World War II Germany.

I’ve since watched the two-minute clip multiple times and remain entranced.

There are countless moments like that throughout the 14-part film by Mark Cousins, the filmmaker, author and former film critic who previously made the epic 2011 documentary “The Story of Film: An Odyssey.”

Like that extensive documentary, “Women Make Film” is well worth your time especially as it’s presented in a three-month immersive programming initiative by Turner Classic Movies focusing on female filmmakers.

TCM will present a new 60-minute episode of the documentary at 8 p.m. each Tuesday starting Sept. 1, followed that evening by seven movies directed by women. It continues weekly to Dec. 1.

My biggest takeaway from the five episodes I watched so far was the need to learn more about the history of women directors and their movies. And that fits in with what those behind the documentary wanted to accomplish.

In her introductory narration, executive producer Tilda Swinton calls the documentary “a film school of sorts in which all the teachers are women. It’s an academy of Venus.”

Do not, she says, expect films in chronological order, nor a list of the “best” films and certainly not examples of how women differ from men in their filmmaking.

But rather, “What movies did they make? What techniques did they use? What can we learn from cinema from them? Let’s look through films again through the eyes of the world’s women directors. Let’s go on a new road movie through cinema.”

And that’s how the series is set up, as a passage through film history with 40 questions and chapters. It sounds daunting but it’s surprisingly not, especially with TCM presenting the documentary in weekly installments.

Each episode explores multiple topics such as Openings and Tone in Chapter 1 and Staging, Journey and Discovery in Chapter 4. Examples are given to illustrate all topics, many in unlikely pairings such as how characters are introduced in the 1992 comedy “Wayne’s World” by Penelope Spheeris and followed by the “Francis Bacon silhouette” that director director Andrea Arnold uses to introduce her main character, Mia, in the 2009 drama “Fish Tank.”

Larisa Shepitko is one of more than 100 women directors featured in “Women Make Film.” (Courtesy Turner Classic Movies)

When Swinton tells viewers to “feel free to be angry because some of these great films have been overlooked,” it’s not hyperbole. It troubled me to see this gap in my film history education, hence, all the names in my notebook including:

  • “On the Twelfth Day” (1955), the ridiculously colorful holiday film from Wendy Toye which Swinton calls “one of the most designed films ever made” and a film that should be a holiday classic, yet it’s barely known.
  • Director Maren Ade and her film “Toni Erdman” (2016) that gives us the painfully long and awkward scene of a woman trying to remove her dress as an example of believability in film.
  • The 2000 Iranian movie “Blackboards” (2000) by Samira Makhmalbaf, who was barely 20 when she made this film about Kurdish refugee teachers carrying blackboards on their back to use not only for teaching, but also as gurneys and protection during the chemical bombing of Halabja by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during the Iran–Iraq War.
An example of silhouette animation by artist and director Lotte Reiniger. This is from her film “The Adventures of Prince Achmed.” (Courtesy Turner Classic Movies)

Only a few episodes in and I’ve started my education beyond the documentary itself, for example reading about German artist and director Lotte Reiniger and her talent for hand-cut silhouette animation after a glimpse of her 1954 short “Thumbelina.” (TCM will air her 1926 “Adventures of Prince Achmed,” considered the oldest surviving animated feature, at 7:45 a.m. Sept. 9.)

It also was enlightening to get a richer understanding of familiar filmmakers.

Kathryn Bigelow has been a favorite since I first saw the stylish 1987 vampire film “Near Dark.” The documentary is going deep into her filmmaking by breaking down the opening of “Strange Days,” the believability of “Point Break” and the editing (among other topics) of “The Hurt Locker” (airing 12:30 a.m. Nov. 11 on TCM).

Kathryn Bigelow is pictured on the set of “Zero Dark Thirty” in this publicity photo. Bigelow and her movies are often discussed in “Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema.”

It was like seeing Bigelow for the first time. What a gift.

* * * * *

It might bother some that a documentary on women directors is made by a man, but Cousins has the knowledge to pull it off. He also has many notable women steeped in film and film history working with him including Cari Beachamp, Barbara Ann O’Leary, Clara Glynn, Sonali Choudhury, Catherine Glynn Benkaim and Barbara Timmer.

The documentary covers 13 decades yet the clips seem fresh, exciting and strong – qualities needed to keep our interest and pull off this lengthy documentary which includes nearly 1,000 “snippets.”

The narration does get a bit heavy (“He corrects her glasses; does he try to correct her too?”) or simply describes what we’re seeing. (“A girl is in bed. She looks out the window.” ) That descriptive narration is used best in a chapter like Staging where it helps to show viewers how the movement  in “The Moon Has Risen” by Kinuyo Tanaka tells the story.

Director Dorthy Arzner talks with actress Sylvia Sidney while filming a scene in “Merrily We Go to Hell.” (Courtesy Turner Classic Movies)

There are many glorious moments, such as when it’s explained how tone is like a key signature in music, using “Merrily We Go To Hell” by Dorothy Arzner as an example. “The intoxication of the image – you could call this moonshine. The glamorous, amorous mood is the tune of the film.”

How to watch, learn more

Each of the 14 episodes will air in chronological order on Turner Classic Movies at 8 p.m. Tuesdays from Sept. 1 to Dec. 1. Here is the link to the full schedule via TCM where you’ll also find the full list of movies showing each Tuesday. (At the end of this story, I’ve listed the September schedule to get you started.)

“Women in Film” and its accompanying online materials from TCM provide ways to take the documentary beyond viewing for an expanded learning experience.

The TCM website allows you to search the directors by decade or country  (there are 43 countries as diverse as Australia, Egypt and Burkina Faso) as well as four additional categories – LGBTQ+, Women of Color, Classic Hollywood and Early Pioneers.

Here’s a screen shot of a director’s bio page from the TCM “Women Make Film” website. Both Marzieh Makhmalbaf, pictured here, and her daughter Samira Makhmalbaf, are represented in the documentary.

Decades start with 1890s listing the first female director Alice-Guy Blanche and bring us to modern filmmakers. Under each director, you’ll find a concise biography, the time and title of a film showing on TCM as part of the “Women Make Film” programming, selected filmography and photo. There are video clips and trailers as well.

The “Women Make Film” documentary site also has a visual guide to the series.

* * * * *

September schedule

Sept. 1

Night One, Openings and Tone

  • 8 p.m. (EST) “Women Make Film” Episode 1 (2020)
  • 9:15 p.m. “Merrily We Go To Hell” (1932),
  • 10:45 p.m. “Women Make Film: Episode 1″ (repeated)
  • Midnight: “Olivia” (1951),
  • 1:45 a.m.: “Sleepwalking Land” (2007),
  • 3:30 a.m. : “Seven Beauties” (1975),
  • 5:30 a.m.: “Je tu il elle” (1974),
  • 7:15 a.m.: “Mädchen in Uniform” (1931),
  • 9 a.m.: “La Ciénaga” (2001),
Sept. 8
Night Two: Believability, Introducing Character, and the Meet Cute
  • 8 p.m.: “Women Make Film: Episode 2:
  • 9:15 p.m.: “El Camino” (1963)
  • 11:15 p.m.: “Women Make Film: Episode 2″ (repeat)
  • 12:30 a.m.: “Lovely & Amazing” (2001),
  • 2:15 a.m.: “Wanda” (1970),
  • 4:15 a.m.: “The Watermelon Woman” (1995),
  • 6 a.m.: “In the Empty City/Hollow City” (2004),
  • 7:45 a.m.: “The Adventures of Prince Achmed” (1926),
  • 9:15 a.m.: “Entre Nous” (1983),
Sept. 15
Night Three: Conversation, Framing, and Tracking
  • 8 p.m.: “Women Make Film: Episode 3″ (2020)
  • 9:15 p.m.: “Harlan County U.S.A.” (1976),
  • 10:45 p.m.: “Women Make Film: Episode 3″ (repeat)
  • Midnight: “The Virgin Suicides” (1999),
  • 1:45 a.m.: “Loving Couples” (1964),
  • 3:15 a.m.: “Zero Motivation” (2014),
  • 5:15 a.m.: “10 to 11″ (2009),
  • 7:00 a.m.: “Losing Ground” (1982),
  • 8:30 a.m.: “Strangers in Good Company” (1990)
 Sept. 22
Night Four: Staging, Journey, and Discovery
  • 8 p.m. “Women Make Film: Episode 4″
  • 9:15 p.m. “The Cave of the Yellow Dog” (2005),
  • 11 p.m. “Women Make Film: Episode 4″ (repeat)
  • 12:15 a.m. “Salaam Bombay!” (1988),
  • 2:30 a.m. “Daughters of the Dust” (1991),
  • 4:30 a.m. “Krane’s Confectionery” (1951),
  • 6:30 a.m. “Mikey and Nicky” (1976),
  • 8:45 a.m. “The Juniper Tree” (1990),
  • 10:15 a.m. “The Women Who Loved Cinema (1 & 2)” (2002),
Sept. 29
Night Five: Adult/Child, Economy, and Editing
  • 8 p.m.: “Women Make Film: Episode 5″ (2020)
  • 9:15 p.m.: “Middle of Nowhere” (2012),
  • 11:15 p.m.: “Women Make Film: Episode 5″ (repeat)
  • 12:30 a.m.: “Beau Travail” (1999),
  • 2:15 a.m.: “Adoption” (1975),
  • 4 a.m.: “We Need to Talk About Kevin” (2011),
  • 6a.m.: “Wasp” (2003),
  • 6:30 a.m.: “XXY” (2007),
  • 8:15 a.m.: “My American Cousin” (1985),
  • 10 a.m.: “Antonia’s Line” (1995),

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