Film & video

9 Influential Women Filmmakers and Their Must-See Movies

Discover women shaping the film industry and their films in genres including action, horror, documentary, and comedy

Like any good story, great filmmaking captures the diverse experience of being human and explores themes and feelings that matter to us. And with the ever-increasing desire for fresh stories, we seek a wide range of storytellers.

These nine women directors and writers have celebrated a number of "firsts" by staying true to their visions, and exploring bold and often gut-wrenching narratives. Whether you love slow burns or action flicks, documentaries, or animation, there will be something for you to discover this Women's History Month.

Lulu Wang on set filming "The Farewell"
Lulu Wang on set filming "The Farewell"

Before we dive into our list, however, it's important to understand the barriers being overcome by women in cinema. While there are more and more women achieving visibility, there is still some way to go.

Women and the film industry

Women have been present in the filmmaking industry since its inception: Alice Guy-Blaché became the first female director in 1896. Despite this, women often hold fewer creative roles in the industry, with the issue intensified for women of color.

In the Celluloid Ceiling Report of 100 top-grossing US films in 2021, it was revealed that twelve percent of directors, twenty-four percent of producers, sixteen percent of writers, and just six percent of cinematographers were women.

Still from Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché.
Still from Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché.

But the women on the below list demonstrate the power and importance of different perspectives in cinema. Director Ava DuVernay is quoted saying:

“All the traditional models for doing things are collapsing [...] it's a wide open door for people who are creative to do what they need to do without having institutions block their art.”

From winners of major awards to box-office bestsellers, the genres below include action, comedy, and body-horror, as well as documentary and coming-of-age narratives. Expressing at one moment tender intimacy, and at the next high-octane thrills, let's discover these nine filmmakers and their history-making works...

1. Greta Gerwig - Lady Bird

Gerwig first broke out by acting in "mumblecore" films that aimed to capture realistic dialogue and relationships between young people, and went on to explore writing and acting in numerous comedies and dramas.

It makes sense, then, that her subsequent focus on writing and directing has led to stories that explore the families and friendships of young women. Gerwig voice-acted in Wes Anderson’s critically-acclaimed stop-motion film Isle of Dogs (2018), and wrote and directed an adaptation of Little Women (2019).

Lady Bird (2017) is a comedy-drama with a coming-of-age storyline that follows high school student Christine (Saoirse Ronan) as she embarks on troubled relationships and attempts to get into a college her family cannot afford. Her tense relationship with her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), brought the film and both actors critical acclaim.

Still from Lady Bird via IMDb.
Still from Lady Bird via IMDb.

2. Julia Ducournau - Raw

Director and screenwriter Ducournau was the second female recipient of the Cannes Festival’s Palme d’Or last year for her body-horror film Titane (2021). She grew up surrounded by medical terminology (her mother is a gynecologist, her father a dermatologist), and brutal images of skin and gore are a mainstay of her work.

Her female characters are intense, often misguided, and lonely, leading to surreal storylines. Ducournau advocates for separating gender from craft when it comes to awards and recognitions.

Raw (French title: Grave, 2016) shot to notoriety after early viewings resulted in audience members fainting. Ducournau’s first major film tells the story of young vegetarian Justine (Garance Marillier), who goes through a hazing at her veterinary school which seems to awaken a frighteningly strong desire to eat meat—at any cost.

Still from Raw via IMDb.
Still from Raw via IMDb.

3. Chloé Zhao - Nomadland

2021 was a key year for the Academy Awards: two female directors were nominated for Best Director, and the winner was Chinese-born filmmaker Chloé Zhao for Nomadland. She was the first woman of color to win in this category.

Becoming fascinated by people after moving to the UK and then the US for her education, Zhao attended film school and studied with Spike Lee. Her documentary-style stories blend real research and scripted storytelling to produce narratives that feel emotionally real and hard-hitting. That said, Zhao has also expanded into other genres, most recently directing Marvel’s Eternals (2021).

Nomadland is a 2020 drama starring Frances McDormand as Fern, a woman who loses her husband and job, and subsequently begins a life on the road as a "nomad". She meets other people who have been driven to this life or chosen it, and hears their various reasons and experiences, while learning the skills she’ll need to survive without a permanent home.

Still from Nomadland via IMDb.
Still from Nomadland via IMDb.

4. Ava DuVernay - Selma

Growing up between California and Alabama, a young DuVernay heard stories from her family of Black history, including her father’s witnessing of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches for voter’s rights. This would go on to influence Selma.

Throughout her life, DuVernay has worked as a journalist and publicist, as well as launching various initiatives supporting people of color in America. Since beginning her directorial career, she has worked on such diverse projects as the documentary 13th (2016), and the children’s fantasy A Wrinkle in Time (2018).

Selma (2014) is a fictionalized retelling of the 1965 marches, with the story centering around Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and president Lyndon B. Johnson, who clash over the struggle for the right of Black people to vote without challenge. The film was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards and Best Director at the Golden Globes, with DuVernay being the first Black female director to achieve these nominations.

Still from Selma via IMDb.
Still from Selma via IMDb.

Lulu Wang - The Farewell

Though Wang grew up playing piano in Beijing and then Miami, she eventually left this vocation aside in favor of filmmaking, moving to Hollywood after college. Her film Posthumous (2014) debuted at film festivals around the world, and she continued to write and make short pieces. Her short story What You Don’t Know, however, was about to become something much bigger…

The Farewell (2019) is a comedy-drama based on the short story, in which Billi (Awkwafina) discovers her family have been keeping a secret from her beloved grandmother in Changchun, China. The truth is, her grandmother is terminally ill, but has no idea—so the family organizes a wedding to allow for a family reunion before she passes. Billi struggles with the tension between truth and keeping her grandmother from the heavy burden.

Still from The Farewell via IMDb.
Still from The Farewell via IMDb.

Kathryn Bigelow - The Hurt Locker

Working across sci-fi, horror, thriller, historical and more, Bigelow has been key to the visibility of women in action flicks and high-octane cinema. She studied Fine Art and later theory and criticism at college, before diving into the world of film and deconstructing previously male-dominated genres. Her titles include Blue Steel (1989), Point Break (1991), and Zero Dark Thirty (2012).

The Hurt Locker (2008) follows a US bomb disposal team deployed during the Iraq War, and their psychological reactions to the conditions both soldiers and Iraqi civilians are subjected to. The film was considered culturally significant by the US National Film Registry, and was nominated for nine Academy Awards. Bigelow was the first female director to achieve Best Picture and Best Director.

Still from The Hurt Locker via IMDb.
Still from The Hurt Locker via IMDb.

Mira Nair - Salaam Bombay!

Nair was fascinated by literature and storytelling from a young age, and attained a scholarship to Harvard University, where she became involved in theater. She soon began making documentaries on Indian culture, having grown up in Odisha, and blended her reportage and acting skills to tell compelling stories. Her works include Monsoon Wedding (2001), Vanity Fair (2004), and Queen of Katwe (2016)—and her Disney+ remake series of National Treasure is in development.

Salaam Bombay! (1988) is a drama following young Krishna, who through a series of mistakes and unfortunate happenings ends up in the slums of Bombay (now Mumbai) alongside other youths, some of whom are involved in drug-dealing and prostitution. The actors were selected from street children who were then trained, with a foundation created for them with the film’s profits afterward. It was nominated at the Academy Awards for the Best International Feature Film and won the Camera d’Or at Cannes Film Festival.

Still from Salaam Bombay! via IMDb.
Still from Salaam Bombay! via IMDb.

Jane Campion - The Piano

Before Ducournau, Campion was the first female winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and her work has remained ground-breaking. Born in New Zealand, she grew up surrounded by theater and began making short films. Many of her early works won recognition, and she went on to direct films such as Sweetie (1989) and Portrait of a Lady (1996). Her most recent release is The Power of the Dog (2021), a Western psychological drama starring Benedict Cumberbatch.

The Piano (1993) is a drama about an arranged marriage, where a mute woman named Ada (along with her young daughter) is sold to a New Zealand frontiersman. Her love for a grand piano through which she expresses herself ties together the fraught relationships between herself, her new husband, and a man named Baines who is also attracted to her.

Still from The Piano via IMDb.
Still from The Piano via IMDb.

Domee Shi - Bao, Turning Red

The animation industry suffers from similar inequities to the rest of filmmaking: sixty percent of students are women, yet only twenty percent of the workforce are, while producers and directors make up only ten percent. But here, too, we see changes, and Women in Animation (who provided the stats mentioned here) aim for a fifty-fifty split by 2025.

Chinese-Canadian animator Domee Shi has contributed to multiple films at Pixar, including Inside Out (2015), Incredibles 2 (2018), and Toy Story 4 (2019). But things really took off with her becoming the first female director of a Pixar short, Bao (2018).

Bao won the Best Animated Short Film at the Academy Awards, and tells the story of a mother suffering from empty-nest syndrome, who unexpectedly creates a child from a steamed bun (baozi), which ends up playing out the sequence of events that led to her troubled relationship with her human son.

On March 11, Shi's feature-length directorial debut will be released. Turning Red (2022) is a fantastical comedy about thirteen-year-old Meilin Lee, who discovers to her horror that any negative emotions turn her into a red panda.

Still from Turning Red via IMDb.
Still from Turning Red via IMDb.

As the industry shifts, more and more women are telling their unique stories, and upending stereotypes about the kinds of stories the female perspective can offer. If you’ve been inspired to pick up a pen or camera to tell your own story, take a look at our filmmaking and screenwriting courses.

You may also like:

- 8 Free Film Libraries of Classical and Modern World Cinema
- 8 Photographers Who Captured the Lives and Struggles of Women
- The Fascinating Story of the Women Who Created the Disney Classics
- Screenwriting for Fiction: Short Films, course by Alejandra Moffat
- The Art of Casting, course by Luci Lenox

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