International Women’s Day is on the 8th of March, and to celebrate I put together a list of 10 films from the 21st century that you can watch on this day.
Women are underrepresented in cinema at an international level, whether that’s behind the camera or on-screen. The films on this list were either made by women or are about women and cover a wide range of genres. From a young Maori girl’s ambition to become the chief of her tribe to five Turkish sisters’ struggle against a conservative society, these films honour women past and present, real and fictional.
This is not an exhaustive list; these films are just my personal recommendations and should be taken as a starting point. Let’s celebrate women in film!
Whale Rider (2002)
Written and directed by Niki Caro
According to tradition, Paikea is not allowed to be the chief of her tribe because she is a girl. Defiant and empowered, she must challenge her grandfather and the customs of her village in order to obtain what she believes she deserves. Thanks to its courageous protagonist, Whale Rider has become not only a modern classic of New Zealand cinema, but an uplifting feminist tale.
A Fantastic Woman (2017)
Directed by Sebastián Lelio. Written by Lelio and Gonzalo Maz
This award-winning Chilean drama follows a transgender woman named Marina dealing with grief after the death of her boyfriend. It is a poignant tale of love and loss, in which Marina must navigate the hostilities of her society and face scrutiny from those who disregard her privacy. Daniela Vega gives a powerful central performance that highlights the lack of basic respect that transgender people still face, not just in Chile but also internationally.
Hidden Figures (2016)
Directed by Theodore Melfi. Written by Melfi and Allison Schroeder
Hidden Figures tells the true story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, three African-American mathematicians who worked at NASA during the Space Race of the 1960s. The film brought the legacy of these women and their impact on NASA’s operations to an international audience upon its release in 2016. Race and gender discrimination in the workplace are confronted in the film, which features stellar performances from Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe.
Legally Blonde (2001)
Directed by Robert Luketic. Written by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith
If Elle Woods can’t motivate you to study hard and graduate top of your year, no one can. What, like it’s hard? This iconic tale of a trainee lawyer doing it her own way and proving that first impressions are deceiving has inspired countless students to follow their dreams and not their boyfriends for two decades now. Here’s to scented CVs!
The Breadwinner (2017)
Directed by Nora Twomey. Written by Anita Doron and Deborah Ellis
The only animation on this list is not to be dismissed as just a film for children. In this visually stunning film, a young girl named Parvana must pretend to be a boy in order to provide for her family in Kabul, which is under the control of the Taliban. The medium of animation allows for rich storytelling to meet the real-life issues faced by women in Afghanistan. It is a simultaneously heart-breaking and heart-warming account of one girl’s resilience and loyalty to her family.
The Farewell (2019)
Written and directed by Lulu Wang
Lulu Wang’s comedy-drama is a celebration of the bond between a Chinese-American writer and her grandmother. The film explores generational and cultural differences as protagonist Billi must reconcile the traditions of her past with her own independence. Filmed with care and honesty, The Farewell tells a moving story that is at once both culturally specific and universally understood.
Little Women (2019)
Written and directed by Greta Gerwig
Anyone with siblings close in age can relate to the quarrels and mischief of the March family in Greta Gerwig’s ode to sisterhood. This vibrant adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel perfectly captures the spirit of ambitious youth. It is also, however, a stirring reminder of the lack of independence women had in nineteenth-century America. As Amy March proclaims: ‘[my] money would belong to my husband the moment we got married. And if we had children, they would be his not mine’.
Queen of Katwe (2016)
Directed by Mira Nair. Written by William Wheeler
This is a feel-good film about the achievements of Phiona Mutesi, a real-life Ugandan woman who learnt to play chess as a child after realising that it may give her an opportunity to escape from her life of poverty. The performances are brilliant, with Lupita Nyong’o playing Phiona’s mother Harriet. The screenplay avoids patronising sentimentality in order to produce an inspiring drama for young people that feels truly special.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
Written and directed by Céline Sciamma
This beautifully filmed drama is still out in UK cinemas, so do not miss your chance to see it on the big screen. Sciamma has created a haunting film that details the affair between Héloïse, an aristocratic young woman, and Marianne, the painter hired to produce her wedding portrait. Each shot is like a painting itself as the film explores the politics of the gaze, lesbian relationships in eighteenth-century France, and how to express emotion in an age when women were expected to be passive and the property of their husbands.
Directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven. Written by Ergüven and Alice Winocour
Another tale of sisterhood, though from an entirely different cultural and temporal perspective. Mustang tells the story of five orphaned sisters living with their conservative aunt and uncle in a rural town in Turkey. Their joint struggle against patriarchal and oppressive traditions is tenderly documented over one summer, and it serves as a lament for girls who are forced to grow up too soon.
[Rhiannon Mechan – she/her]