Lydia Jenkin is an entertainment feature writer for the New Zealand Herald.

Lydia Jenkin: Let's hear it for the girls

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Haifaa Al Mansour, director of Wadjda.
Haifaa Al Mansour, director of Wadjda.

At last year's Cannes film festival, the list of nominees for the Palme d'Or caused a stir with its lack of female film directors. Why, asked many columnists, are female directors not being nominated? The problem is a recurring one too - this year the number rose from zero to one.

The argument, of course, is that there's not specifically any discrimination against female film-makers, it's just there's not that many of them to begin with (roughly 9 per cent of directors in the United States are female, 20 per cent in Europe) and therefore, expecting a strong female presence in every official Cannes competition (or Oscar race, for that matter) would probably be foolhardy.

The reasons as to why there are so few female directors around, are complex and many (as Jane Campion, the only woman to ever win a Palme d'Or, touched on at the time), and the subject deserves a lengthy dissertation on its own.

But given the annual New Zealand International Film Festival kicks off today, I thought it would be equally justified to look at our 2013 selection and celebrate the many women who are involved.

Sure, the numbers on their own might not make for the most reassuring reading - just 24 of the nearly 180 films on offer were made by women and there are 27 which are focused on female characters or subjects. But flicking through the programme, it's easy to see there's plenty of female-helmed material to entice both genders - see, women can make films for men, too.

Perhaps one of the most triumphant films to be included this year is Wadjda, a debut film from Haifaa al-Mansour, the first Saudi Arabian woman to direct a film. Women can't vote or drive, and cinema is banned in Saudi Arabia, but somehow Mansour has managed to pull off a smart, satirical, hopeful piece of cinema - centred on a young girl who wants a bicycle so she can race her neighbour. Check out the interview on page 10.

Also impressive, is that five of the 12 New Zealand films included in the festival are directed by women, four of which are documentaries, ranging in subject from the invaluable Annie Goldson's examination of New Zealand's role in Afghanistan, to Amy Taylor's portrait of Moko the dolphin.

There's also a number of international women who've found fascinating stories to share in documenting a wide variety of topics: the exhilarating rise and fall of a champion snowboarder (The Crash Reel), the record-breaking solo round-the-world voyage of 16-year-old Laura Dekker (Maidentrip), Burma's first girl band (Miss Nikki and the Tiger Girls), the world of video game creation (Us and the Game Industry), public defenders (Gideon's Army), a schoolroom shooting in California (Valentine Road), orcas in captivity (Blackfish), and 59 people who live in Niaquornat, Greenland (Village At The End Of The World).

Nothing, in fact, about makeup or jewellery, shopping or clothes - that all gets wrapped up in Sofia Coppola's latest feature, The Bling Ring, which is really a rather eerie exploration of the fantasy of celebrity.

Among the other big-name feature films, British director Sally Potter's Ginger & Rosa (with Jane Campion's daughter Alice Englert and Elle Fanning along with an A-list adult cast) might dabble in the delights and mysteries of young female friendship, but it's also a dramatic exploration of freedom, family, responsibility and hypocrisy among the threat of the Cold War. All in all, plenty of reason to expect that women are creating films as worthy of celebration and distribution - and prizes - as their male counterparts. Fingers crossed for a rise in next year's statistics.

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Lydia Jenkin is an entertainment feature writer for the New Zealand Herald.

Childhood music lessons eventually led to degrees in music and media studies for Lydia Jenkin, launching her career as an entertainment writer. A love of late nights watching local musos - whether in dingy bars or at summer music festivals – saw her become assistant editor at NZ Musician magazine for nearly five years before she jumped at the chance to join the TimeOut team. She's at her happiest when ranting about her latest music discovery, but is equally keen on excellent film and television (The Dark Horse and True Detective are her picks so far for 2014).

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