The 20 Greatest Female Filmmakers in Cinema History

14. Samira Makhmalbaf

The Apple

The Makhmalbaf family is practically a filmmaking dynasty all its own, with dad Mohsen Makhmalbaf one of the leading lights of the new wave of Iranian cinema, immortalized by Abbas Kiarostami in his film Close-Up, stepmom Marziyeh Meshkiny also proving no slouch with her unparalleled and gorgeous The Day I Became A Woman and her follow up Stray Dogs and younger sister Hana Makhmalbaf making history as the youngest ever director to present a film at Venice when she was 15 years old.

While her stepmom definitely has some really solid claims as THE female filmmaker in the family, it’s Samira that deserves her place here by virtue of not only having made more films to sample from, but also making consistently good and even great ones. Her debut film The Apple remains one of the finest films of that 90s era of Iranian cinema, seamlessly merging fact with fiction in the then in vogue Iranian mode of film reenactments by actual participants, but adding a powerfully smart and crystal clear layer of political allegory that’s all her own.

Selected for the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes with The Apple (for which she won the Camera D’Or), she quickly graduated to the Competition with her next 2 films Blackboards (which won the Jury Prize) and At Five In The Afternoon (which also won the Jury Prize).


15. Jane Campion

Anna Paquin in The Piano

The second ever woman to be nominated for Best Director at the Oscars and the first ever female director to win the Palme D’Or at Cannes (both for The Piano), Jane Campion can book her place on any great female directors list by virtue of her first three films. Her debut film Sweetie had the rare distinction of straight away being given a Competition slot (no doubt thanks to the fact that her short film An Exercise In Discipline – Peel won the Palme D’Or for Best Short Film in 1986), which is no mean feat for a debut film and was universally acclaimed all across the world.

Her second film An Angel At My Table (which was originally produced as a TV series) did even better by winning a slew of prizes in Venice, including the Grand Special Jury Prize, not to mention a long list of other awards at festivals like Toronto and Valladolid.

Her films after The Piano, however, have not been met with the same universal acclaim (even though Bright Star still managed to get into the Competition at Cannes), but she’s proved that she’s still got after her mini series Top Of The Lake wowed everyone when it premiered at Sundance (as a seven-hour program with one intermission and one lunch break!) and also played at Berlin in 2013, gaining rapturous reviews not normally reserved for a TV series.


16. Ida Lupino

The Hitchhiker (1953)

Not exactly the first ever notable female director in Hollywood (the silent era already has directors like Lois Weber, Dorothy Davenport Reid and French director Alice Guy-Blache, often thought of as the first ever female director), but having already made a notable career as an actress since the 1930s, starring in classics like They Drive By Night, High Sierra and On Dangerous Ground, Ida Lupino is already a well known and well respected name, so when she made the move into directing, it’s only natural that people would sit up and take notice.

Forming an independent company called The Filmakers with her husband Collier Young, which produced 12 feature films, 6 of which she directed or co-directed, Lupino is known to favor making issue-oriented films, often what people would call “women’s” pictures. The real plaudits started coming in when she made The Hitch-Hiker, making her the first woman to direct a mainstream film noir.

Hard hitting and blessed with plenty of emotional truth and power, it is often regarded as her best film. She followed that up with another film noir called The Bigamist, not as well received at the time of its release as The Hitch-Hiker, but is now widely accepted as a classic, as was the fate of most great films back then.


17. Shirley Clarke

Portrait of Jason

People often call John Cassavetes the father of American independent cinema, which is true if we discounted the many instances of studio directors forming independent companies to make the films that they want and define independent cinema as a truly DIY endeavor that only involves feature filmmaking because there were already plenty of DIY independents making avant-garde short films (and even feature documentaries) in the 1950s, especially in New York, and Shirley Clarke was one of them.

Ill served, like most of the lesser known names on this list, by the unavailability of her work on home video (with only Second Run’s already out of print release of Portrait Of Jason being easily obtained then), that all changed when Milestone Films undertook the restoration and release of what they’re calling Project Shirley, which now results in the availability of her seminal debut The Connection, the similarly important Portrait Of Jason and Ornette: Made In America. Now that Project Shirley is in full swing, maybe it’s time that the world finally takes notice of the greatness that is Shirley Clarke.


18. Kim Longinotto

DIVORCE IRANIAN STYLE, Maryam, Mona, Mohammed, 1998, © Women Make Movies

The UK has a rich history of documentary filmmaking, from Humphrey Jennings to Richard Leacock to Nick Broomfield and beyond, and Kim Longinotto belongs right up there with the best of ‘em, thanks to her rich body of work that mostly focuses on the female experience, from stories of victimized women in patriarchal social systems to inspiring stories of women overcoming female discrimination and everything in between.

Belonging to the tradition of Direct Cinema, Longinotto herself has said that she likes making films about strong women, particularly women who are brave outsiders, which makes her films very engaging, and is probably why quite a healthy number of them are commercially available in English-friendly editions, like Second Run’s double package of Gaea Girls (which follows the grueling training regime of a group of Japanese professional women wrestlers) and Shinjuku Boys (about three Japanese females who live as males) and their Iranian double package of Divorce Iranian Style and Runaway.

Also fascinating is Sisters In Law, about a pair of female prosecutor and female court president in a Muslim village in Cameroon, as they help women to speak up and fight back against patriarchy in modern day Africa. And then there are her Sundance winners like Rough Aunties and the recently released Dreamcatcher, which surely makes for no excuse for anyone to miss out on her brilliant body of work.


19. Kathryn Bigelow


As the only woman to have ever won Best Director at the Oscars (for The Hurt Locker), Kathryn Bigelow has had a long and successful career in what is still very much a male dominated Hollywood. While there have been criticisms that her films are not ‘female’ enough and are more adrenaline fueled exercises that boys inadvertently feel attracted to, a reverse case can be made that it takes special talent to equal and beat the boys at their own game, which was what Bigelow has repeatedly and almost effortlessly done throughout her career.

Practically running out of the gate with her solo directing debut Near Dark, which is now a well established vampire action classic, she absolutely nails her credentials as an action movie expert with one of the all time boys’ classic Point Break.

While K-19: The Widowmaker was quite poorly received at the time of its release, the critical and commercial success of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty has made people reconsider it for what it actually is – a skillfully executed and hard hitting action thriller that doesn’t pretend to be anything more than that – and also finally made people realize what Kathryn Bigelow is truly all about, which is a rare female voice in the all-boys world of action cinema.


20. Lucrecia Martel

La ciénaga (2001)

Only three films in, and Argentine director Lucrecia Martel is already being hailed as a master, such is her confident mastery of film language and unique cinematic voice. Her debut film La Cienaga, developed under the Sundance Screenwriters Lab and winner of the Alfred Bauer Award at Berlin, already bears everything that has by now become her signature – oblique narratives and storytelling, highly sensitive and precise use of sound (especially off-screen sound) and spot on allegories on Argentine culture and socio-politics.

So special a debut it is that it’s already part of the Criterion Collection this year (even earlier if you count the fact that its initial US home video release was on Home Vision Entertainment, a joint venture involving Janus Films, which is the theatrical distribution arm of Criterion), and it’s also good enough that Cannes took special notice and straight away gave her next film La Nina Santa (The Holy Girl) a Competition slot, and also another Competition slot for her third film, the beautifully elegant and menacing The Headless Woman. That is the kind of instant seal of approval that marks only the most special of talents.

Author Bio: Aidil Rusli is a film geek who’s also the singer-songwriter of Malaysian power pop band Couple (, and whose geekiness compels him to endlessly write about films in as many avenues and publications as he possibly can.