Is the tide turning for women in film?

London Film Festival Soho House

This year’s BFI London Film Festival boasted 39% female and non-binary directors. Here, Corrina Antrobus rounds up the names to look out for

By Corrina Antrobus

London Film Festival has rolled the credits for its 65th year – its first festival held in person since the pandemic began. After delivering a colossal spectrum of features and shorts, and widening its breadth with TV, immersive art and XR, one of the most praised elements of the festival was the increased presence of female and non-binary directors. 

As film festivals often provide a temperature check on how the film industry is faring, does this indicate the balance is shifting from male dominance? And how are festivals helping the slow, steady rise of female and non-binary film-makers? 

‘We take our responsibility to represent a broad range of voices seriously,’ says Tricia Tuttle, director of the London Film Festival. ‘We live in a city that has 200 languages and a rich history of incredible diversity. There would be something very, very strange about us not taking the diversity remit seriously for the festival.’  

The conversation on female representation is both old and exhausting, and tired excuses such as ‘there just isn’t enough female talent’ doesn’t wash with Tuttle. ‘I don't want to tell anyone how to programme their festival, but I always roll my eyes when I hear, “Oh, there were only two or three films in competition by female film-makers because the work just wasn't there”, or “It's about the movie industry not funding films”. I know that isn’t the case. No festival programmer should be comfortable in saying it's not up to them, because it is.’ 

As much as the tides seem to be turning, Tuttle is determined not to rest on any laurels. ‘The whole industry just needs to do better,’ she says. ‘There’s been a lot of energy in the industry over the last three years and we just need to keep going. And it's making a big difference already: we have more women in the Gala and Special Presentation this year than ever before, because there’s a bigger range of work from female filmmakers that is getting the kind of investment that really allows them to realise their vision. We are moving in the right direction, but nobody should start feeling complacent. We're not putting the genie back in the bottle. No one's going to stand for going back to where we were five or 10 years ago.’

Here are some of the key female directors that made their mark at the London Film Festival this year:

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Charlotte ColbertShe Will
Charlotte Colbert is a London-based artist as well as an award-winning film-maker. Her photography, sculpture and ceramics have featured in Somerset House, the V&A Museum of Childhood, Saatchi Gallery, Art Basel, and Centre Régional d’Art Contemporain in Sète. After a string of screenplays and short films, including writing and directing The Silent Man (2016), Colbert has ventured into feature films with a sumptuous debut: She Will. The movie explores the story of an actress after a double mastectomy who, while on a rehabilitation retreat, finds herself exorcising the demons of her child actor past. Colbert’s rich, ethereal storytelling has marked her out as an exciting new talent to watch.

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debbie tucker greenEar For Eye

debbie tucker green is a writer and director working across film, television, radio, and theatre. For this year’s festival, she has adapted her affecting 2018 play Ear For Eye to the screen, which she directed and produced alongside BAFTA-winning producer, Fiona Lamptey. With her stripped back sets and vigorous dialogue, tucker green’s films are pure cinematic jazz: powerful, poetic, and sizzling with kinetic energy. Ear For Eye is her most urgent yet in its complex telling of the Black experience. Prepare to be moved. It’s available to watch now on BBC iPlayer.

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Joanna HoggThe Souvenir Part II

London Film Festival has acted as a launchpad for Joanna Hogg’s career ever since she premiered her debut Unrelated in 2007, which won her the festival’s FIPRESCI Prize. It established her reputation as a daring yet understated film-maker whose anxiously long scenes provide refreshing insight into the idiosyncrasies of her characters. The Souvenir – told in two parts with Part II screening at this year’s festival – is perhaps her most personal, accessible film yet. Hogg mines her own experiences as a wide-eyed, lovelorn film student in a bleak 1980s London, as she juggles her creative desires alongside a disastrously knotty romance. Recurring collaborators from her previous films shine here, including Tilda Swinton and her daughter Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, and Richard Ayoade, with Martin Scorsese on the production team.

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Rebecca Hall Passing

With a long CV of film and TV acting credits, including The Prestige (2006), Frost/Nixon (2008), The BFG (2016), and her BAFTA-awarded Red Riding: The Year Of Our Lord 1974 (2009), Rebecca Hall has now stepped behind the camera to direct a valiant debut: Passing (2021). The film sees Hall adapt Nella Larsen’s 1929 celebrated novel, which elegantly explores the story of two Black women in New York – one who lives in Harlem and another who ‘passes’ as white, married to a rich but racist white husband in Chicago, starring Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson. The film, shot in black and white, is coming to Netflix on 10 November.

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Sadie Frost Quant

With four decades of experience acting in film, theatre and TV, Sadie Frost’s credentials are extensive, including roles in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) and heavyweight miniseries drama Uprising (2001). The credits will surely continue to roll too with parts in upcoming films A Bird Flew In (2021) and The Chelsea Cowboy (2022). Yet alongside all this, Frost has also spent many years designing clothes for her labels FrostFrench and Frost Body. She returns to the big screen this year with her directorial debut, which neatly weaves these two strands of her career together. Her film, Quant, is an affectionate documentary about the revolutionary swinging 60s fashion designer Mary Quant, featuring new interviews with current British designers and commentators, as well as footage from the 1960s and 1970s.

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Fiona Lamptey

Fiona Lamptey is director of UK features at Netflix, where she oversees the development and production of UK original films, including identifying books, theatre, and other forms of intellectual property to develop into features. Before Netflix, Lamptey worked at Channel 4 on documentary, reality and live entertainment, and at Film4 as a production executive on feature film productions. She is a champion for underrepresented voices and for developing original British talent, which led her to forming her own production company, Fruit Tree Media. Lamptey was a producer on BBC Windrush scandal drama Sitting In Limbo (2020), which won her a BAFTA 2021 TV award for Best Single Drama. She also produced debbie tucker green’s Ear For Eye (2021), which was shown at this year’s festival.

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