Don’t miss these 5 mind-expanding movies about women, by women

Like the most resilient emulsion, the visions and voices of CIS white men have long washed over the film industry. In turn, film festival culture has held a mirror to that tradition. As recently as 2011, only 19.9 per cent of films at the BFI London Film Festival were directed by women.

Those numbers are steadily improving. By 2018, female-directed movies at LFF stood at 38 per cent. This year, that figure rose to 40 per cent. More excitingly still, for 2019’s 63rd edition, six of the 10 films selected for the main competition are directed or co-directed by female filmmakers, among them Saudi director Haifaa Al-Mansour’s local politics drama The Perfect Candidate.

Here WWS selects five LFF films about women, by women. From transgender director Isabel Sandoval’s immigration drama Lingua Franca, to Sarah Gavron’s depiction of east London girlhood in Rocks, they are a galvanising, boundary-pushing mix of delights.

Sarah Gavron – Rocks

Sarah Gavron – Rocks

British film director Sarah Gavron is the woman behind 2015’s Suffragette, starring Carey Mulligan, and the 2007 screen version of Monica Ali’s novel Brick Lane, which follows young Bangladeshi woman Nazneen as she leaves behind an arranged marriage and builds a new life in 1980s London. Along the way, Gavron has turned her hand to documentary, telling the true story of the isolated Inuit township of Niaqornat in Village at the End of the World (2012).

For her latest project, Rocks, Gavron headed to schools to select an almost entirely female cast of actors, resulting in a documentary-like realism which underpins the movie. There’s a killer female crew behind it, too. The script, written by award-winning playwrights Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson, was developed in workshops with Gavron, while Faye Ward and Ameenah Ayub Allen serve as co-producers.

The film follows London teenager Olushola Joy Omotoso, nicknamed Rocks, as she juggles school, friendships and helping to look after her little brother Emmanuel. When her mother suddenly vanishes leaving only a handful of cash, Rocks is faced with being separated from her brother by the authorities, and resolves to keep the event a secret and manage his care alone. Shot with a dynamic naturalism that calls to mind This Is England, Rocks is a sensitive, authentic tale of inner-city girlhood and the resilience of the human spirit.


Haifaa Al-Mansour – The Perfect Candidate

Haifaa Al-Mansour – The Perfect Candidate

If you caught 2012’s Wadjda, an intimate and illuminating portrait of a smart Saudi girl who – much to the horror of her traditional mother – enters a Koran recitation competition in order to raise funds for a bicycle, then you’ll already have an idea of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s calibre.

The first Saudi Arabian woman to direct a feature length film returns to the London Film Festival this season with The Perfect Candidate, a story of young Saudi doctor Maryam, who surprises her community by unexpectedly running for office in her local elections. Usurping female stereotypes remains the name of Al-Mansour’s game – for Maryam, what begins as an attempt to gain safe access to her clinic through roadworks rapidly snowballs into a full political campaign, with her wedding videographer sister called on to help drum up support.

Fired up by the rampant sexism she encounters along the way, and with her profile increased as the town’s first female candidate, Maryam begins to challenge the strict socio-political framework surrounding her. In the background, emotive depictions of family relationships, including that of Maryam and her musician father, who has been granted permission to perform in public for the first time, bring a softness to the drama. Like Wadjda, this gutsy film has heart and grit in equal measure.


Isabel Sandoval – Lingua Franca

What happens when a male Russian slaughterhouse worker falls in love with an undocumented transgender Filippina immigrant? That’s the basis for this engaging New York-set drama written and directed by Isabel Sandoval, the first transgender director to compete in London.

Olivia, played by Sandoval herself, is a caregiver for a Russian-Jewish grandmother living in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Struggling to gain legal status in the US, and paranoid about being deported, she starts to unravel when the man she’s secretly paying for a green card backs out of the arrangement.

Delivering tender romance and suspense thriller elements, all moodily shot in a bruised colour palette, Lingua Franca handles its subjects with a caregiver’s gentle touch, giving them the dignity and respect they deserve.


Billie Piper – Rare Beasts

Billie Piper – Rare Beasts

She pushed boundaries in Diary of a Call Girl, was a hit with viewers as Rose Tyler in Doctor Who, and scooped an Olivier Award for her turn in the Young Vic’s stage production of Garcia Lorca’s Yerma. Now stage and screen star Billie Piper steps behind the camera for her directorial debut, Rare Beasts, for which she also wrote the original script.

Flitting between low-ebb black comedy and high-spirited drama, Piper’s creation is an anti-rom com for the modern age. Its frenetic characters, never far from a face-off, aren’t especially likeable, but are no less engaging for it. Die-hard nihilist Mandy (played by Piper) navigates the challenges of single motherhood, all the while trying to come to terms with the separation of her parents, (David Thewlis and Kerry Fox) and build a relationship with her misogynistic new partner Pete (Leo Bill).

Given her mansplaining boss, emotionally selfish boyfriend and high-boozing father, Mandy’s rage is palpable, and Piper couples that hard-bitten cynicism with a raw vulnerability in her skilfully intuitive performance. Rare Beasts is a feminist rallying cry of a movie, a story of womanhood, ageing, and coping with the pressures of parenting – even when you feel like a child yourself.


Rose Glass – Saint Maud

Rose Glass – Saint Maud

Though echoes of horror classics Carrie and The Exorcist can be found in psychological chiller Saint Maud, writer and director Rose Glass refrains from mining the genre greats too heavily in her feature-length debut, instead masterminding an original deathly dance between her central female characters. Racked with power-play and sinking dread, it knocks you sideways.

In a down-at-heel British seaside town, depressive lesbian Amanda – once an acclaimed dancer and choreographer – escapes her illness-bound retirement with the help of alcohol and goodtime friends. Her reclusive pallitative care nurse Maud, a devout Christian who barely utters a word unless praying, is convinced she’s been sent to bring God into Amanda’s life.

We soon learn, though, that Maud has her own cross to bear, and has only recently converted to Christianity. What follows is a mammoth struggle between carer and patient, punctuated with heart-stopping jump scares. Embittered, sniping Amanda has no interest in being saved, and with Maud’s devout faith thinly masking mental illness, her obsession builds to a dangerous peak.

With masterful pacing, gripping performances and brooding, painterly cinematography – at times, both characters look like they’ve stepped out of a Johannes Vermeer portrait – it’s hard to believe that this is a debut. Small wonder Glass has been named one of Screen International’s Stars of Tomorrow.


The festival runs from 2-13 October 2019. Find out more here.