It’s a well known fact that the movie making business is generally dominated by men. Christine Westwood writes about female filmmakers currently making waves in the industry and the representation of women in cinema. So let’s hear it for the girls.

A recent study of the 100 top-grossing films of 2007 by the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism found that females continue to be a large minority both on the screen and behind the camera. The research, led by communication professor Stacy L. Smith and her team, showed that 83 percent of all directors, writers and producers were male. Smith said Hollywood has been male-dominated for decades, and the recent statistics show not much has changed. (Source: USC Annenberg News, Feb 2008)

‘Our findings show a representational roadblock for females in film,’ Smith said. ‘They do not occupy ‘half of the cinematic sky’ – far from it. There is a dearth of females working in the movie industry no matter which way you look at the data.’

The study showed the number of female actors grows when women have influential roles in the production of a movie as writers, directors and producers.

At the 2010 Cannes Film Festival not one woman director was in competition for the Palme d’Or. This year tried to redress the balance by including four female filmmakers: Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin), Julia Leigh (Sleeping Beauty), Maïwenn Le Besco (Polisse) and Naomi Kawase (Hanezu). Four out of 20 directors may still seem token but it’s the largest number of women to compete for the Palme D’Or in a single year since the festival began in 1946.

On the bright side, the Cannes jury featured four women among its eight members. At the 2011 Sydney Film festival the jury numbered three women to two men, added to the visionary and enthusiastic presence of Claire Stewart in her final term as Festival Director.

One jury member was actress Kerry Fox (Cloudstreet, Last days of Chez Nous) who told the UK Observer (20 March 2011) ‘It’s lack of confidence that stops women directing. We need more role models. Perhaps we are also stuck with the idea of the director as ‘leader’ and that a boss is generally male.’

The official competition at the Sydney film festival had one quarter of its selected films submitted by female directors. Across all the categories there was almost one third, ranging from the highest female representation in the ‘Love me’ section where the themes centre on relationships, to none in the action/ political drama section ‘Push me to the edge’.

The point isn’t that movies simply have to concern women or have a strong female central character; it’s that the form and style of female centred story telling can enrich a film and bring diversity. A female viewpoint can differ from a male perspective in its rhythms and details as well as its themes and concerns.

Speaking from the red carpet for the Sydney Film Festival premiere of Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty, actress Rachael Blake comments, ‘I do actually find the stories that women make are slightly different and I think it is important because film can be a male dominated arena.’

Blake thought there may be a fractional move towards more female representation, adding, ‘I think there is a shift to voices we haven’t heard before, and there seems to be a space where that can happen. I know at Cannes there were more female directors than previous years and with Sleeping Beauty our whole team’s female.’

A particular characteristic of feminist art across all arts disciplines is the use of the female body as the subject and site of debate about power and cultural control. From Cindy Sherman’s photo series of herself impersonating a range of stereotypical movie characters to the confessional art of Tracey Emin, and to filmmakers like Sally Potter and Jane Campion, women place women centre frame as a point of exploration and illumination about women’s position in society, and how that position intersects with their unique female experience.

Film festivals herald what fare cinema audiences will be treated to in the coming months’ general releases. Half a dozen films at the Sydney Film Festival showcase a variety of uniquely detailed women’s viewpoints.

Nanouk Leopold, director and screenwriter of The Brownian Movement, centres her three part filmic story on a female doctor called Charlotte, and her attempts to express her sexual curiosity and ultimately her own uniqueness as an individual, both within and beyond marriage. The script makes a particular point that Charlotte is perfectly fulfilled in her committed relationship, finding love and great pleasure with her partner, yet there is so much more of her that responds to life in all its sensual forms.

Leopold is drawing partly from principles of feminist sexology that avoid prescribing a certain path or ‘normality’ for women’s sexuality, but simply observes the different and varied ways in which women express their sexuality.

Female sexuality is also the main theme in Attenberg, a quirky movie with a dark undertone from Greek director and screenwriter Athina Rachel Tsangari. 23 year old Marina’s world is confined by the illness of her father and she attempts to express her sexuality and sensuality by mimicking the animals she sees in David Attenborough documentaries. Tsangari’s style is scientific in its measured observation of characters and their behaviour.

Suspension of moral judgement in Attenberg and The Brownian Movement gives both films their robustness and challenges the audience beyond usual perceptual limits.

A female centred movie that focuses us intensely on the details and rhythms of its characters is Meeks Cutoff. Dubbed an ‘elegiac revisioning of the American Western’, director Kelly Reichardt presents a study of the restricted lives of three pioneer women as they follow their husbands, and a dangerously ignorant guide, into the American west.

Denied any involvement in decision making yet having to wear the consequences of, by turns, ignorant, bigoted and idealistic guesses of the men, the women take us on a journey of struggle. Because of the confining social roles the women are burdened with, the overall emotional experience is claustrophobic in spite of the vast landscape the characters traverse. The wife of the pioneers’ leader is Emily, played by Michelle Williams with a streak of autonomy and common sense that the audience clings to as the only hope for the whole group.

The costumes of heavy skirts and bonnets in Meeks Cutoff are also reminiscent of recurring themes in women’s art, for example, the oppressed ‘sister wives’ of Angela Ellsworth’s pioneer Mormon women in exhibitions like Underpinnings (2009).

Corsetry appears as a regular motif in women’s art, being a metaphor that sits at the edge of bondage, power play and eroticism. Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty includes scenes of high class prostitutes dressed in bondage outfits as they wait upon their rich male clients at exclusive dinner parties. The main protagonist, a young woman called Lucy, becomes the object of all manner of exploitation and power play as she waits tables or becomes a medical student’s guinea pig before her handing over completely as a drugged object of men’s sexual desires.

There are more layers of reference to female rituals of the body as Lucy is given a Brazilian wax and a pedicure in order to further achieve a feminised idea of beauty. Pale and unblemished as she is, the clients are forbidden to mark or penetrate, retaining an almost Victorian illusion of virginal innocence. The film invites us to consider how much can this modern Sleeping Beauty swallow, literally, before she wakes out of the unconsciousness of her situation?

Sydney’s Film Festival audiences voted a true story of prostitution amongst its top five audience favourites. Scarlet Road is a straightforward and compassionate documentary about the handicapped and the prostitutes that take them on as clients. The central figure of the documentary is Rachel Wootton, a sex worker who is also an advocate for the needs of handicapped clients through the ‘Touching Base’ organisation. Rachel has a Masters Degree, speaks at international conferences on sexual health and is an active campaigner trying to gain rights for sex workers and end the social stigma and discriminatory practices that surround their occupation.

‘I think it’s important for sex workers and people with disabilities to have our own voice,’ Wootton explains on the red carpet at Scarlet Road’s sold out premier in Sydney. ‘There are so many people wanting to speak on our behalf. In the end I am a woman, I am a sex worker, but sex workers come in many shapes and sizes. The point of the film is to let people go on a journey with us and to look inside the bedroom and at things that go on behind closed doors.

Director Catherine Scott and producer Pat Fiske have done a fantastic job in allowing me and our friends and colleagues and our clients to really have our voices heard. I would like to think one of the aims of this documentary is to let people push past the really negative stereotypes the media has on the sex industry and just open their eyes to the reality.’

Returning to the theme of wildness and how that may be expressed within or around a committed relationship, the ever original Miranda July wrote and directed The Future, the follow on feature to her earlier study of relationships in Palme D’Or winner Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005).

The Future raises questions of what is freedom and choice, the challenge of commitment and the fear of mortality. A mid 30s couple, Jason and Sophie, are triggered into an early mid life crisis when they decide to adopt a stray cat and have 30 days before they take on their responsibilities. Sophie, a children’s dance teacher, attempts to create a new dance every day and post it on Youtube. She fails miserably and runs away from the challenge into an empty affair.

‘It’s a dramatic choice that Sophie makes,’ says July at the after screening Q&A at Sydney’s State Theatre and in a later talk at Sydney’s Apple store. ‘It was important to me to act out that fear, to get so stuck that you make such a bad decision, how maybe someone would rescue you and take you out of your life and you won’t have to live your life.’

‘Many parts of the movie show how you can be too self-exploratory and mess up and you can lose someone. I’m 37 now and this is the first age where I’ve hesitated telling someone my age. That’s not a cute cool girl. It’s a shock, this getting older as a woman thing, realising I’m going to have to do this in front of everyone. It’s hard not having a ton of examples of like a great 58 year old woman and you think I’d like to be like that one, that’s a great role model. (In our culture) men get handsomer and more powerful and I’d like to do that!’

Perhaps it is in the nature of the woman’s view that the female is not a pure stereotype. The women’s movies at Sydney featured some unique moments; Meek’s Cutoff’s Emily passing a profoundly meaningful glance to the captive American Indian who may be their real saviour, The Future’s Sophie in her blind and wordless dance as she struggles to find the truth in herself, The Brownian Movement’s Charlotte as she veers from breakdown to sensual and spiritual aliveness, and the dramatic climax of Julia Leigh’s tale as our Sleeping Beauty is finally shocked awake. The stories all speak of something mutable, unfixed, as women try to negotiate their circumstances and the strictures put upon them.