A New Wave of Women Directors

in 74th Cannes Film Festival

by Valérie Ganne

The 74th Cannes Film Festival ended with a Palme d’Or for Julia Ducournau, a historical gesture from the jury, not only because Titane (2021) is an excellent movie, but also because the director is young; it is only her second feature film in which she explores gender and cinematographic stereotypes.

What’s more, a new wave of female directors was undeniably recognisable among all Cannes sections, and especially in Un Certain Regard. There were seven films directed by eight women among twenty films in competition. And these are the films I would like to write about here, even though some films by male directors were impressive too, especially The Innocents (2021) by Eskil Vogt and Great Freedom (Die Grosse Freiheit, 2021) by Sebastian Meise.

However, looking more closely at the films directed by women, the winner of the FIPRESCI jury prize, Playground (Un monde, 2021), directed by Laura Wandel, is the first one to mention. The film is a short journey of 73 minutes in the world of a small girl as she navigates her way through her first grade year at school. Shot very close to the little heroine, let’s say “à la Dardenne”, this remarkable feature film is like a bow where the arrow is pulled fully back but not yet released until, eventually, it hits its target straight in the heart. The Belgian director portrays the love-hate relationship between children, focusing on the little girl and her elder brother, with a rare maturity and mastery for a first film.

Freedom is a strong theme emerging through a lot of the films by women in Un Certain Regard. In Unclenching the Fists (Razzhimaya Kulaki, 2021), which received the Grand Prix from the jury, lead this year by the British filmmaker Andrea Arnold, Kira Kovalenko describes the struggle for freedom of a young girl from the Caucasus region, who is fighting with her father, her lover and her young brother to leave the small city where she grew up. Women Do Cry (2021) by Mina Mileva and Vesela Kazakova depicts a Bulgarian family of women around a violent father, who are finding the courage to tell the truth to rebuild their family. And in Prayers for the Stolen (Noche de Fuego, 2021) Mexican-Salvadoran filmmaker Tatiana Huezo shows three friends growing up in a Mexican village controlled by a violent drug cartel. The only way for them to avoid getting kidnapped is to hide in the ground and become invincible.

Good Mother (Bonne Mère, 2021), which received the Ensemble Prize, is my “coup de cœur”, my heart throb: It’s the second film by the young actress Hafsia Hersi, shot with non-professional actors in the Northern quarter of Marseille, a place of poverty and violence. The heroine is a prisoner, not literally, but a prisoner of her love for her children. However, the devoted mother also has another family, her aircraft cleaning workmates. Her daughter and daughter in law, sons, friends in the airport are all members of this “prison of love” that gradually become a support for her, leading the film to reach a strong emotional level. The director grew up in Marseille and says that she wanted to pay a sincere tribute to her own mother, also a cleaning lady, who had been raising her children alone.

Finally, a film directed by a woman also won the Camera d’Or award for a first film in any section, this time in the Directors’ Fortnight. The Croatian writer-director Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovic chose the subject of a young girl living with her authoritative father on a Croatian Island – yet another story of liberation. Martin Scorsese produced the film, Hélène Louvart was the DOP. The young director wasn’t able to return to Cannes to receive the prize in person because, one day before the closing ceremony, she gave birth to a young boy in New York where she now lives. Here she is recognized as a mother and a female director at the same time. A wonderful achievement – and quite a symbol in itself.

Valérie Ganne
Edited by Pamela Jahn