The filmmaker Paulette McDonagh, working with her actor sister Isabel McDonagh and art director third sibling, Phyllis McDonagh, made a series of self-funded, feature films in the late 1920s. Influenced by fine art and German Expressionism, they produced work that was heralded as the best Australian cinema of the era. They were so successful that 20th Century Fox invited them to Hollywood, an offer they, as “sensible girls”, declined.
As Tilda Swinton’s narration of Women Make Film notes, some of the films of the McDonagh sisters “did better at the box office than Charlie Chaplin’s …” and yet “... it would be 40 years before another Australian woman would direct a mainstream feature.”
The McDonagh sisters are back in the picture in Women Make Film, Mark Cousins' epic alternate female history of cinema, spanning some 700 films, 183 directors.13 decades and five continents. The five-part 14-hour chronicle provides a much-needed introduction to lesser known international talents, such as Malvina Ursianu, Xanfise Keko, and Binka Zhelyazkova, through narration from Swinton, Jane Fonda, Sharmila Tagor, Adjoa Andoh, Kerry Fox, Thandie Newton and Debra Winger.
Cousins’ mammoth enterprise makes for special two-day event and a thematic plank in this year’s Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival programme, launched yesterday. A welcome similarly-themed strand unearths several forgotten or obscure films directed by women.
Rivals compete for the affections of a young Liv Ullman in The Wayward Girl (1959) directed by Norway's first woman director, Edith Carlmar. A young English student develops feelings for her finishing school teacher in Olivia, Jacqueline Audry's 1951 adaptation of Dorothy Bussy's novel, now considered a "landmark of lesbian representation". Euzhan Palcy's Sugar Cane Alley (1983) is set in Martinique in the 1930s, where black farm labourers are treated appallingly. A screening of Pat Murphy's Anne Devlin (1984) is doubly welcome as an unfairly overlooked drama inspired by an unfairly overlooked historical figure. The same retrospective features films from Finland (Concrete Night, 2014) and Poland (Adoption, 1975, and Farewells, 1958). Pawel Pawlikowski, director of Ida and Cold War, will introduce the latter. Two silent films from 1922, Musidora's Soleil et Ombre and Germaine Dulac's The Smiling Madame Beudet, will be accompanied by Stephen Horne's live score.
There are as many and more contemporary women film practitioners featured across this year's DIFF slate. Several films, including Lynn + Lucy (Britain, 2019), Two of Us (France, 2019), and Ditte & Louise (Denmark, 2019), examine female friendships.
Every cineaste's German heroine Nina Hoss plays a music teacher on the verge of a nervous breakdown in Ina Weisse's The Audition. Documentarian Liza Mandelup's Jawline follows Tennessee teenager Austyn Tester as he attempts to breakthrough as a star of social media. Filmmaker Alice Winocour, the co-writer of the Oscar-nominated Mustang, will introduce Proxima, starring Eva Green as an astronaut preparing to say goodbye to her eight-year-old daughter ahead of a year-long stint on the International Space Station.
Persepolis author and director Marjane Satrapi returns to Dublin with her fifth feature, Radioactive, a biopic of Marie (Rosamund Pike) and Pierre Curie (Sam Riley). Newcomer Rose Glass will present her much-admired gothic drama, Saint Maud, starring Jennifer Ehle.
Trine Dyrholm, the veteran Danish actor best known for her work in the Dogme 95 film, Festen and the Oscar-winning In A Better World, will attend the Irish premiere of Queen of Hearts, a melodrama in which a high-flying lawyer unwisely embarks on an affair with her stepson. Dyrholm will also receive a Volta, the festival’s lifetime achievement award, in a ceremony following the screening.
There's a second DIFF Volta for Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter and director of Synecdoche, New York, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Being John Malkovich. The filmmaker, whose most recent offering is the stop-motion animation Anamolisa, will, additionally, conduct a masterclass.
In a strong year for documentaries, Kifaru – David Hambridge's feature about one of the last northern white rhinoceros – is as important as it is wonderful. Alina Rudnitskaya's gobsmacking School of Seduction sees three Russian women enrol in the titular institute in the hope of landing a wealthy husband. There are several compelling non-fiction artist biopics, notably The Sound of Dali, Toni Morrison: The Pieces of Me, Aznavour by Charles, and Billie, a new film concerning Ms Holiday.
In a similar vein, Alan Moloney’s Windmill Lane spells out the cultural significance of the eponymous Dublin’s docklands recording studio.
Not so long ago, John Connors was hailed as the most exciting young actor in the country. His script (and starring role) for Cardboard Gangsters helped propel that film to box office glory, but this year's DIFF programme establishes him as multi-hyphenate talent. He's the star of gritty crime caper Broken Law, Paddy Slattery's debut crime drama concerning two brothers operating on opposite sides of the law. Connors has, additionally, directed two films at DIFF: the documentary Endless Sunshine on a Cloudy Day, which follows Greystones father and daughter Anthony McCann and Jade McCann after they are both diagnosed with cancer, and Innocent Boy, an urgent new drama about a struggling teenage traveller. The latter project was the winner of Virgin Media's pitching contest last summer.
With more than 50 countries represented at DIFF, there's plenty of variety in tone and genre. From France and Éric Toledano and Olivier Nakache, directors of the much-loved The Intouchables and C'est la vie!, The Specials stars Vincent Cassel as a man who works with children and young adults who are autistic. From Poland, Supernova unfolds in real time as a road accident changes the lives of three men and their community. From Argentina, Heroic Losers sees a small town attempt to recover the money they lost to bankers in the Corralito, the 1998–2002 Argentine great depression.
As ever, there's a strong contingent of films from the PRC, including Send Me to the Clouds and Balloon. Spring Tide is a family drama from director Yang Lina, who was once best known for her starring role in Jia Zhangke's award-winning film Platform and her work in documentaries. Filmmaker Xiaoming Chen makes an auspicious debut with If You Are Happy, an existential thriller in which a professor attempts to buy an overpriced apartment in order to secure a better school district for his daughter.
The auteurs and award-winners are present and correct throughout the 2020 programme. With About Endlessness, Roy Andersson returns with his unique blend of Marxist-surrealism. Kirill Mikhanovsky's Independent Spirit nominee Give Me Liberty is a comedy concerning the mismatched passengers of a medical transport vehicle. Elia Suleiman's FIPRESCI prize-winner at Cannes It Must Be Heaven offers an eccentric, whimsical travelogue. Bacurau, Kleber Mendonça Filho's Jury Prize winner from the same festival, stars Sônia Braga and Udo Kier. Hirokazu Kore-eda's The Truth, the veteran director's first film set outside Japan, stars Catherine Deneuve as one of the great stars of French cinema. She's joined by Juliette Binoche and Ethan Hawke.
Back on the homefront, Tom Sullivan's unmissable Arracht is a beautifully crafted murder ballad set against the Great Famine, featuring terrific turns from Dónall Ó Héalai and newcomer Saise Ní Chuinn; he's a fisherman wanted for a crime he didn't commit and she's his orphaned young charge. Sea Fever is a taut, new creature feature from director Neasa Hardiman, starring Connie Nielsen and Dougray Scott. Herself, from Mamma Mia director Phyllida Lloyd, sees a young Irish woman take on the housing crisis and an abusive boyfriend by building her own place. In Lorcan Finnegan's Vivarium, a young couple (Jesse Eisenberg, Imogen Poots) get more than they bargained for when they move into a labyrinth-like neighbourhood. Rialto is directed by Peter Mackie Burns (Daphne) and adapted by Mark O'Halloran from his stage play Trade.
The Irish team's efforts at the Homeless World Cup is the focus of the heartwarming documentary Street Leagues. A soulful thug (an impressive Cosmo Jarvis) narrates his way toward certain doom in Calm With Horses, co-starring Barry Keoghan. Rose Plays Julie, the new offering from Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy – the artists formerly known as Desperate Optimists – is the story of a young woman (Ann Skelly) searching for her biological mother (Orla Brady).
Irish filmmaker and artist Vivienne Dick provides a personal and historical perspective of the bohemian 1970s scene in New York Our Time. Further back in history, four people tried to assassinate Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Of those, only one person ever came close: the Irishwoman Violet Gibson, daughter of the Lord Chancellor to Ireland. The always-magnificent Olwen Fouéré stars as the eponymous would-be assassin.
The Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival runs from February 26th-March 8th