10 International Films For a Well-Rounded Feminist
International films are often overlooked in mainstream cinema. But some of these films have the most powerful messages of female empowerment from the 1970s until the present day. At times a challenging viewing experience, the films listed below have broken the boundaries of gender, race and sexuality, examining what it means to be a woman in their different geographical spaces. What all these films have in common is the clear message that it is not easy being female wherever you are in the world, but at the heart of womanhood there is a uniting passion for insurrection and change. The films are numerated chronologically.
1. Xala (d. Ousmane Sembene, 1975 Senegal)
Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene’s third film Xala is about the lives of three different women in a post-colonial Muslim country. Placing women centre stage, this movie reveals the complexities of being an African woman in Senegal, where polygamy is practiced and French colonialism has recently dissolved. Not only do Sembene’s women represent different aspects of female oppression, but they also symbolise the tensions between a pre and postcolonial world.
Frequently read as ‘Third World’ cinema, Xala challenges mainstream film editing and celebrates African-ness through these women (the opening shot is of a close up of a drum being played, which cuts to a woman dancing in traditional clothing). From wardrobe to mise-en-scene, Sembene employs distinctively Senegalese tropes, all the while demonstrating how women in this society negotiate through these differently, and with varying degrees of complexity and strength.
Another Sembene film about a defiant female main character in the wake of a post-colonial country is Black Girl (1966).
2. Riddles of the Sphinx (d. Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen, 1977 UK)
Director Laura Mulvey is most famous for her 1975 essay Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema where she examines how women have been portrayed in the cinema using Freud and psychoanalysis to unpack ‘fetishisation’, ‘scopophilia’ and patriarchal ideology. Her documentary Riddles of the Sphinx is as complex as her seminal essay and often only watched within academic film studies circles. Mostly set up of abstract, allegorical images that would take a reading of Visual Pleasures or a third viewing to understand, this film is largely experimental. But what makes this work is precisely this alienating viewing experience. Its dissociative imagery traces various feminist movements that then become a subconscious experience. Mulvey’s manic collage is a must-see if you want to go to the roots of avant-garde, feminist filmmaking, and will linger in your subconscious.
3. Dirty Dancing (d. Emile Ardolino, 1987 USA)
Iconic, timeless and classic: Dirty Dancing has made a legacy for itself in Hollywood symbolising the quintessence of the dance-flick genre. So what of its feminism? Firstly it resonates from the movie’s catchphrase ‘nobody puts baby in a corner’ and takes shape in Baby’s self-determination. Baby actively pursues her love-interest Johnny and successfully gets what she wants from him, all the while defying the social lines imposed by her country club life.
At the end of the film, the happy ending comes not from a romantic conclusion with Johnny, who she knows she will leave behind after the summer, but from Baby’s inner growth. On top of this Baby helps Penny get an abortion, which parallels her own sexual liberation. The movie is thus founded on Baby’s choices as a woman. She chooses her partner, rejects the match provided by her parents, and stands up to the men in her life who want something different for her, all the while dancing dirty.
If American romantic-comedies with strong female leads and feminist undertones take your fancy try Clueless (d. Amy Heckerling, 1995), loosely based on Shakespeare’s Emma.
4. Silences of the Palace (d. Moufida Tltali, 1994 Tunisia)
In this beautiful ode to Tunisia in the 1960s, Silences of the Palace captures the story of a family living in one Prince’s house with different economic backgrounds. ‘Upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’ spheres are heavily contrasted, and the focus is on how the women interact within this gender-oppressive world. Tlatli also explores the Arab uprising in Tunisia, linking it to the inside world of the palace. The men who rape Alia’s mother are from ‘upstairs’, and Alia (the story’s main character) begins to embody Tunisia’s political revolution in her defiance of these men. Silence is replaced by music as Alia develops the skill for playing the lute, which in turn mirrors how women are able to resist the silent confines of their small worlds. Directed by a woman, this film beautifully demonstrates how Arab women in Tunisia are central to the country’s independence.
5. The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye, 1996 US)
Directing and acting in her ‘mockumentary’-style piece (or what she calls ‘dunyementary’), Cherly Dunye has created a thoroughly enjoyable film with an African-American, lesbian main character. The film charts Cheryl’s quest to find out more about this self-titled Watermelon Woman from cinematic history and her gay, white lover. Using archival footage and mock-interviews to put together her film within the narrative, Cheryl’s research begins to mirror her own affair with a white woman, and the lines between fact and fiction become blurred for audiences alike. Compared to the common perceptions of the ‘feminist’ film, The Watermelon Woman is light and funny, and with real political intent explores issues of the misrepresentation of black women in cinema.
For a clearer documentary style that also looks at women’s representations in cinema and the media try Miss Representation (d. Jennifer Siebel Newsom and Kimberlee Acquaro).
6. Fat Girl (d. Catherine Breillat, 2001 France)
In the original French title, A Ma Soeur (to my sister), there is already the feeling of female solidarity. But you will need a lot of guts and an open mind to sit through Fat Girl without wanting to pick a fight with director Catherine Breillat. And this, of course, is the point. Set in contemporary France, two sisters go on holiday together in what is set up as a romantic coming-of-age movie. However, all misconceptions are disturbed as the movie plays out two very different rape scenes of each sister, along with a shocking end that sees the brutal death of Anais’ mother and her sister, Elena.
With this disturbing filmic structure, Breillat confirms her name as an auteur of New Extremism. New Extremism demonstrates the inescapability of sex and violence onscreen, and Breillat uses these concepts to emancipate her main character from common perceptions of femininity and the cinematic oppression of the female body. Anais is a liberated character, which goes against the normal narrative of the fat girl as feeling oppressed or marginalised. This is a difficult film, but worth watching in order to identify with a counter-feminist onscreen and to explore violent female empowerment in a truly shocking way.
If you want more feminist French extremism but this time with the headliner ‘cannibalism and coming-of-age’, try Raw (d. Julia Ducournau 2017).
7. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014 Iran/ USA)
Although controversial Iranian/American director Amirpour avoids the categorisation of her film as ‘feminist’, it is hard to see past her strong female character The Girl, who is evidently not like other girls. The Girl is a vampire, and despite her obvious agency (that counters the initial reaction to what a girl walking home alone at night might signify), the movie is also deconstructing cinematic ‘male’ narratives and, whether ironically or within Amiropour’s imagination, this still characterises it as a feminist manifesto. For example, the Western-inspired genre of the film is challenged since instead of the solo male hero characteristic of Clint Eastwood or John Ford movies, we have an independent female.
The film noir, used to presenting the trope of a ‘femme fatale’, is also unravelled in this thriller, as well as Western connotations attached to the hijab. The Girl is thus a skateboarding-hijab-wearing-vampire, and it is a memorable triumph to experience on screen.
8. Queen (d. Vikas Bahl, 2013 India)
Dumped two days before her wedding, Rani - ‘Queen’ in Hindi - decides to go on her honeymoon to Paris and Amsterdam anyway, escaping the shame her fiancé Vijay brought on her name and family. As the wedding henna on Rani’s hands slowly disappears throughout the film, she reflects on the unequal power structure of her relationship through various flashbacks. Without Vijay she is now able to wear what she wants and dance how she wants, getting drunk in Paris and rooming with strangers in an Amsterdam hostel.
Overcoming her own inhibitions and cultural barriers, Rani begins to discover the Western world in parallel to her self-exploration. The Bollywood soundtrack accompanying the film subverts its traditional genre by placing female self-determination above her love interest. Rani’s ultimate rejection of Vijay at the end to instead go shake her hair down at a rock concert satisfies the movie’s consolidation of female power, coming from a society that pushes it to the margins. Meeting sexually liberated, French-Indian Vijay (Rani’s face drops considerably when she hears her name) in Paris, Rani rediscovers love in the form of female solidarity. This is an important movie for both a girls’ night in, and an international awards ceremony because it examines Indian gender politics via laughter, travel, and makeovers.
9. Whale Rider (d. Niki Caro, 2002 New Zealand)
Born into a patriarchal system of the Whangara tribe, the 11-year-old main character Pai is discarded and pushed aside whilest everyone awaits a male heir for leadership. Narrating her own story, the voice of Pai focalises the narrative, and the ‘female gaze’ is thus reinforced. Rejected by her grandfather since her father’s disappearance, Pai navigates through this male-dominated world of traditions, breaking stereotypes one fixed engine at a time - she wins stick fights against boys, is uncomfortable with gendered-oriented dancing rituals and makeup, learns to ride a bicycle by herself and stands up to the patriarchal rules imposed by her grandfather and tribe. In Whale Rider’s epic conclusion, Pai rides the back of a dying whale into the ocean, consolidating her defiance of what was expected of her as a woman, whilst allowing her to acquiesce the role of tribal chief and legend.
10. Victoria (d. Sebastian Schipper, 2015 Germany)
This stunning visual feat follows Victoria as she parties her way across Berlin, and technically unravels all within one single shot. This means that Laia Costa as Victoria is performing throughout the movie without any makeup touch-ups or acting cues. As a result, Victoria is simply human, and the movie closes up on her sweating and crying without the usual cinematic censor. Contrary to films that highlight a woman’s femininity or sex appeal, the hard-core realism of this film is refreshing, hard-hitting and a complete thrill-ride. Victoria is not subject to a fetishising ‘male gaze’, and even her Berlin love interest in the film is not emphasised. The power of narrative centralisation belongs to Victoria alone, and the success of this movie is how it humanises her experience of a night gone wrong.
The All-Around Reduced Personality (d. Helke Sander, 1979) has a similar focus on Berlin with a strong female lead who both acts in and directs the movie. The juxtaposition of East and West politics here would be interesting to contrast with the 21st century Berlin of Schipper’s imagination, where both are experienced through the eyes of a female.