All That Glisters is Not…: Criterion’s Underrepresentation of Female Filmmakers and What That Means for Film Discourse

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With a number printed on each release’s spine as if to represent the growing number of essential cinematic works like an encyclopedia, the Criterion Collection – the  boutique label that releases art house, indie, and classic films on DVD and Blu-ray –  is the essential brand  for cinephiles: bourgeoning, devoted, or anywhere in between. It has rightfully earned its place as a go-to brand for those seeking Important Cinema, previously feted or newly ripe for discovery. Their library bursts at the seams with names like Kurosawa, Altman, Godard, Truffaut, Bay, Ozu, Wenders, Ray, Rohmer, Tati, Demy, Bergman, and von Trier.

Regardless of how impressive and reputable the list of names above is or is not, there is certainly something missing: female directors. Critic, filmmaker, and author of Political Animals: New Feminist Cinema Sophie Mayer took a look through Criterion’s library and concluded that of the 798 films that the label has released, films directed or co-directed by women made up 2.6%, a sum total of 21 films.

So, while there are filmmakers like Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank), Catherine Breilllat (Fat Girl), Lena Dunham (Tiny Furniture), Agnes Varda, and Chantal Akerman, women are dishearteningly underrepresented within Criterion’s history of DVD and Blu-ray releases. Comparatively, Kurosawa, Bergman, and Ozu have more than 25 films each to their name in the collection. Founded in 1984, the company has made releasing important or notable cinematic work its goal for more than 30 years. Yet, with this gender gap, there’s a nasty implication of what they deem “important”: that female filmmakers aren’t, at least compared to male filmmakers.

Criterion is a business, often an “art of the deal” kind of situation, where title and rights acquisition is contingent on which films rights holders and studios are willing to release, what kind of deals are made with Criterion (like the deals Criterion has with IFC Films and Sony Pictures), and what will, as Caleb Garrett put it, “demonstrably sell”. That seems to be one of the larger arguments excusing, or explaining, the low number of female directed films in their library. It’s either they wouldn’t sell as many units, or there aren’t that many female filmmakers, or women don’t direct that many great films, or something else that sounds vaguely, even blatantly, sexist. Those arguments ignore several factors:

1) Criterion is, after all, a boutique label, whose specialization is ostensibly to make available films that are worth watching and worth remembering, and that often manifests itself in super-niche titles like Marketa Lazarova, a 1967 film from the Czech Republic, and Jellyfish Eyes, a Japanese film from 2013. That means, for all the obscurity of the films they release, there is an active choice being made in that process. Basically, what “Deserves” to be released. Hypothetically, Dorothy Arzner’s work, which recently received a restoration at UCLA Film and Television Archive, is as “obscure” as Marketa Lazarova. Wouldn’t that mean The Wild Party deserves a release if only for its status as “obscure”? And the point is to provide more visibility for cinematic works, new and old, which, means that the neglect that Criterion pays to female filmmakers suggests that they aren’t worthy of that visibility, niche or otherwise. Part of their brand is built on saving films from obscurity.

2) Criterion caters to a particular audience interested in the kinds of films they release, and by not releasing films by female filmmakers, there’s an assumption made that there is no audience or market for those films. This is a rather insidious form of erasure, not dissimilar to the assumptions made by studio executives of mainstream films.

3) Female filmmakers exist. Masterful female filmmakers exist, past, present, and, as demonstrated by the “controversial” release of Dunham and Gerwig’s millennial odes, future. Even beyond the names of Sofia Coppola and Nancy Meyers, there are filmmakers like Ida Lupino, Celine Sciamma, Susan Seidelman, Elaine May, and Alice Guy-Blanche.  It’s a matter of caring about their existence that’s significant, and the implication is that Criterion, as  both business and curator, does not care that much, or as much as they perhaps could.

4) Criterion and Janus Films (Criterion’s brother company that deals in theatrical distribution) seek titles. Part of their business is to actively go after the rights of films they find interesting, so it is indicative of those responsible that they don’t go after enough female filmmakers. Let us be reminded: this isn’t like Criterion only has 70-100 or so titles and 20 are female filmmakers (still not a great excuse). We are talking a library of more than 800. To suggest that Criterion “only seeks quality films” is a) sexist, the implication being that female filmmakers do not make quality films; b) untrue, since Criterion CEO has been relatively transparent about the fluctuations in quality of the films that have been released; and c) sort of ridiculous, given that quality is a relatively subjective barometer.

5) Even if the original format were in bad shape, Criterion could help restore it. Admittedly, the condition that source footage is in is not Criterion or Janus Films’s fault. But Criterion has lead the way for films to be restored for distribution, a notable recent example being Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy. This means, if they wanted to shell out the cash, they could work on the restoration of a female filmmakers’ filmography.

6) While it could be said that other DVD labels don’t release the work of female filmmakers, that’s not entirely true. The issue regarding underrepresentation is not exclusive to Criterion. Mayer and I collaborated by looking at other distribution labels to examine how much of their catalogs is made up of female directed films. While the numbers were still disheartening, they were better than Criterion’s.

Label (Table created 2/18/16) Films directed by women Number of films total percentage
Strand Releasing 27 131 20.6
Second Run 11 97 11.3
BFI 21 209 6.8
Kino Lorber 70 1179 5.9
Olive Films 18 450 4
Twilight Time 4 109 3.7
Criterion 21 798 2.6
Masters of Cinema 2 190 1.1

 

These explanations and the way that they manifest through Criterion’s actual releases emblematize the way that Criterion is able to shape the discourse around film. Regardless of whether they release popular titles like the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis or obscure ones like Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day, the point is for these films to be canonized in cinematic history. They not only deserve to be watched, they deserve to have a legacy. Criterion, intentionally or not, shapes the way we understand the film canon.

But, as the graph shows, Criterion is hardly the only distribution label to have a gender blind spot, and their bias feels indicative of how film distribution operates in general. While data suggests that 23.9% of films are directed by women, seemingly few are able to achieve the kind of visibility that male directed films do (7% of the top 250 grossing films were directed by women), at least theatrically. Wouldn’t that be where Criterion, or other distribution companies of its ilk, come in? “Canon replicates canon,” Mayer clarified when I asked her about the issue for this piece. “It’s a feedback cycle: films by (predominantly white) cismale auteurs are exhibited more widely, covered more in the media, promoted and marketed more, written about more readily in terms of universal aesthetics, so it’s hard for filmmakers who diverge from that embodiment to have their films seen without being marked (and under-marketed) as niche (and niche audiences are seen as harder to reach, often with less disposable income). Unconscious bias reproduces itself to protect the status quo.”

If anything, this blindness to a gender bias is representative of film academia, cinephilia, and the film industry as a whole. Film school syllabi are packed with male filmmakers, women in Hollywood continue to fight struggle in the industry, and discourse around film often focuses on male dominated (often Eurocentric) cinema. It’s something that publications like Sight and Sound are hardly strangers to: in October 2015, as a response to the underrepresentation of female filmmakers in their usual poll of 100 greatest films, the magazine dedicated an entire issue examining overlooked films directed by women. It becomes particularly frustrating when this conversation about representation of female filmmakers is constantly reiterated without much discernible change.

In order to fix this, Criterion must first acknowledge the problem and its own role within it.  And there are alternative outlets for finding great work from female filmmakers that are at everyone’s disposal, such as Women Make Movies, which is a non-profit organization that addresses the underrepresentation of women in film; and ARRAY, an organization founded by Ava DuVernay (Selma, I Will Follow), which operates as both a resource and an independent film distributor of works by African-American filmmakers. There is an innumerable amount of similar resources and organizations dedicated to rectifying systematic imbalances within the film industry and within discourse.

Given their influence on the conversation, The Criterion Collection holds a kind of power to shape discourse and even possibly solidify the worthiness of a given film or director. That power needs to be used to shed light on filmmakers that are on the margins of the very conversation that Criterion has influence over. Their work in preservation and distribution is incredibly important, but that they overlook female filmmakers, and filmmakers of other backgrounds, is an issue that needs to be worked on.

Criterion is a weird microcosm. It is a label that, whether they like it or not, has come to represent a continuing canon that is supposed to be ever evolving. That doesn’t diminish Criterion’s importance as a brand and as a resource. But if they want that canon to evolve and reflect cinema, it means that, sooner or later, they should really make some room for filmmakers that live on the margins of film discourse and film industry. Like Mayer says, Canon replicates canon.

(Author’s Note: Draft date: 3/23/16)

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