Sight, sound, and a push for feminist film education

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A SYTYCB entry

I’ve seen Citizen Kane twice. Both screenings were in classroom settings, and both screenings began with the instructor explaining that the film is considered by many to be the greatest of all time. No doubt, Kane’s status of greatness is owed in part to the British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound list. Every decade since 1952, Sight & Sound Magazine (published by BFI) has polled film critics from around the world about what they consider to be the greatest films of all time. The polls result in a list; the 2012 list, released last week, ranks the top 250 films nominated by 846 critics. And for the first time in 50 years, Kane no longer holds the #1 spot. Vertigo has replaced it, perhaps suggesting that the Hitchcock film will now be required viewing in film studies classes like the ones I took.

Does the Vertigo upset mean that the critical establishment is rethinking which films get to be the “great” films? Well, not exactly. The list is as much of a boys’ club as ever. Out of 250 films, only seven are directed by women. Moreover, many male-directed films about women and their experiences are also snubbed. Roman Polanski’s Chinatown made the cut, but Rosemary’s Baby didn’t. Ridley Scott’s talent as a sci-fi storyteller is recognized for Blade Runner, but not for Alien. Woody Allen is honored for his love stories told from a male perspective (Annie Hall, Manhattan), but not for his dramas grounded by female voices (Hannah and Her Sisters, Interiors).

It’s easy to say that none of this matters. It’s just a list, after all. It’s just the imperfect distillation of 846 personal opinions. It’s not any different than the Academy Awards, which never gets anything right anyway. But we can’t deny that lists and awards play a critical role in shaping the conversation about which films are worthy of discussion. When high school teachers and university professors are creating their film studies curricula, which films do they choose? Probably the ones that they understand to be “important” — in other words, the films that lists-makers and award voters tell us are important. So, for the sake of conversation, let’s operate under the assumption that lists like Sight & Sound have some significance. If they do, then the filmmaker gender disparity must be addressed. I believe one of the first steps toward addressing the disparity is to make film education more inclusive of women’s works.

I studied film in college, so it’s not surprising that many of the films that I consider to be truly great are films that I first encountered in a classroom. An elective during my first semester introduced me to Paris is Burning, Jennie Livingston’s documentary about drag ball culture. I took gender studies classes that exposed me to lesbian-centric films like Leontine Sagan’s Mädchen in Uniform and Deepa Mehta’s Fire. But within my film classes, the complete history of women filmmakers was summarized by an early experimental work by a notable narrative filmmaker (Jane Campion’s Peel) and an artistically-brilliant Nazi propaganda film (Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will). That’s all. My love of film today is due in large part to the professors who exposed me to challenging, creative, innovative works, and so few of them were films directed by women. I don’t believe this is because only a few great films by women exist — I believe that many that do exist have been banished to obscurity because, for so long, women filmmakers haven’t been treated seriously. Educators can bring such films to light, thus exposing a new generation of filmmakers and theorists to feminist film studies and, by extension, helping to change the conversation.

I refuse to believe that women have directed less than 3% of the greatest films of all time. We can’t wait for the current Sight & Sound and Academy Award voters to broaden their minds — that’s not how this works. Instead, we need to focus on the next generation of voters — those currently sitting in lecture halls, learning about film history for the first time. We owe it to them to expand the conversation. We owe it to them to demand that more women-directed films be as widely screened as Citizen Kane and Vertigo. And why not? Women-directed films can be just as great.

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