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8 Successful female directors everyone should know

8 Successful female directors everyone should know

Golden girls

Text: Zoe Yang


Image: Leaderonomics
Image: CHANEL | Facebook

These game-changing female directors made a mark not only in their country's filmmaking industry, but across the globe too.

In conjunction with International Women's Day, we have compiled a list of inspiring women who are industry players in the filmmaking world. Ahead, peep our list for your daily dose of female empowerment:

Yasmin Ahmad

With a background in politics and psychology, Yasmin Ahmad made a refreshing turn of events in her career when she ventured into the world of storytelling and filmmaking. Prominently known for her tear-jerking festive ads produced for Petronas during Malaysia’s multicultural celebrations, the unique yet simple elements in her messages touched millions of people’s hearts. Her craft never fails to embody the beauty of a common Malaysian identity, inspiring Malaysians to not only unite but also embrace one another regardless of their races.

The Malaysian female director is also a force to be reckoned with. One of her most notable works, Sepet (2005), is still highly regarded as a film masterpiece in Asian cinema. Sepet was initially seen as a controversial film during its time due to the sensitive racial issues it touched upon. However, as a woman who marches to her own beat of the drum, she challenged the ethnic stereotypes and introduced a poetic understanding of Malaysian society. In doing so, she became part of the new wave of filmmakers in Malaysia, and remained as an inspiring idol to aspiring filmmakers. 

Unfortunately, Ahmad was only 51 years old when she passed away in 2009 as a result of a stroke. Other famous works from her are Rabun, Gubra, Mukhsin, and Talentime.

“Perhaps, in the end, there are no such things as creative people; there are only sharp observers with sensitive hearts.” — Yasmin Ahmad

Kathryn Bigelow

After 21 years in the film industry, Kathryn Bigelow won her first Oscar for Best Director in 2010 for action film, The Hurt Locker. She was nominated alongside James Cameron, Quentin Tarantino, Lee Daniels, and Jason Reitman. Aside from that, she also won the prestigious BAFTA award for Best Direction for the same film.

She is known for directing action genre films such as Blue Steel, Point Break, and Strange Days.

“I have always firmly believed that every director should be judged solely by their work, and not by their work based on their gender.” —Kathryn Bigelow

Ava DuVernay

The filmmaker earned her double degree from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and she previously majored in English literature and African-American studies. Ava DuVernay is the epitome of black excellence—she was the first black woman to:

  • Win Best Directing for Middle Of Nowhere at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012
  • Get nominated for Best Director for the film, Selma, at the 2014's Golden Globe Award
  • Take home a nomination for her documentary, 13th, for Oscar's Best Documentary Feature in 2017
  • Direct a production, A Wrinkle in Time, with a budget between $150 million and $250 million
  • Direct a film that raked in $100 million in revenue in U.S. alone

Evidently, this is a woman who defied all the odds against her and has successfully knocked down doors to create her own opportunities in Hollywood, what with the lack of diversity in the industry. Her most famous works include Selma, 13th, A Wrinkle in Time, When They See Us

“If you're doing something outside of dominant culture, there's not an easy place for you. You will have to do it yourself.” — Ava DuVernay

Lulu Wang

Chinese-American filmmaker Lulu Wang's moving film, The Farewell, made headlines earlier this year when Awkwafina won the Golden Globe Awards for best actress in musical or comedy for her role in the film—Awkwafina was the first Asian-American actress to take home the award.

With a budget of $3 million, the film grossed a revenue seven times its budget, making a total of $22 million. Wang recently announced that she will also be directing and writing an upcoming web series, The Expatriates

“As long as I'm making something from my voice, from my perspective there will be Asian American content because I am the storyteller.” — Lulu Wang

Mary Harron

You've seen the satirical psychological horror film, American Psycho, but did you know that it was actually directed by a woman? Dubbed as a must-see film for every movie buff, some couldn't even bring themselves to bare sight of the gory, bloody scenes.

Based on a book with the same title by Bret Easton Ellis, the screenplay was co-written and directed by Mary Harron. Now who says women can't direct horror movies?

Other female-directed horror flicks include The Babadook by Jennifer Kent, Raw by Julia Ducournau, We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lynne Ramsay, and more.

“I'm bored by films that revolve around a trick. I kind of know if a film is right for me; all the most important decisions are made intuitively.” — Mary Harron

Deepa Mehta

Known for her Elements trilogy: Fire, Earth, and Water, the Indian-Canadian director's filmmaking style incorporates social and cultural identities as a nod to her own cultural roots. Her film, Water, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film in 2007. She also directed the adapted screenplay, Midnight's Children, based on the same title by British Indian novelist, Salman Rushdie. 

“I simply can't understand the stereotyping women as filmmakers who make soppy family dramas. Look at Kathryn Bigelow: she has directed 'Point Break' and 'Strange Days'. I hate labels of any kind. Just because you are a woman you can't do this or that?” — Deepa Mehta

Agnès Varda

One of the most highly-acclaimed pioneers who helped build cinema, Agnès Varda was an influential filmmaker that is likely to be cited as many avant-garde film aficionados' inspiration. In 2017, Varda became the first female director to be awarded an honorary Oscar (Academy Honorary Award) for her years of contribution to cinema, especially having played a crucial role in the French New Wave film movement. She was also well-respected for her sense of curiosity as a filmmaker, touching on female subjectivity and taking inspiration from real-life events. 

The female director passed away in 2019, but remained a visionary to aspiring filmmakers out there. A few of her most iconic works include The Beaches of AgnesOne Sings, The Other Doesn't; The Gleaners and ILe BonheurVagabond; and Cléo from 5 to 7.

“In my films I always wanted to make people see deeply. I don't want to show things, but to give people the desire to see.” — Agnès Varda

Sofia Coppola

While her father is well-known for directing The Godfather, which is regarded as one of the most important movies in all history of cinema, Sofia Coppola definitely has her own creative voice.

In 2004, she was nominated for Best Director for her film, Lost in Translation, and won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for it. Two of her other best works are Marie Antoinette and The Virgin Suicides. If you haven't caught any of the films mentioned here, these are great films to start with to understand the film director's narrative and filmmaking styles.

“I try to just make what I want to make or what I would want to see. I try not to think about the audience too much.” — Sofia Coppola

For more female-empowering stories, click here.

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