• (L–R) ‘Destroyer’, ‘Madame’, ‘Mary Shelley’, ‘Hava, Maryam, Ayesha’. (SBS)Source: SBS
SBS On Demand puts the spotlight on films led by female directors, to mark International Women’s Day.
Annie Hariharan

3 Mar 2022 - 11:53 AM  UPDATED 7 Mar 2022 - 9:52 AM

There’s a reason why Natalie Portman said, “…and here are all the male nominees” when she presented the award for Best Director at the 2018 Golden Globes. Awards and accolades for movie directors are heavily skewed towards men. For example, in the Academy Awards’ 93-year history, fewer than 10 women have been nominated in this category.

And yet, when female creatives are behind and in front of the camera, we get a range of content and stories: hardened cops, biopics of interesting personalities, likeable and unlikeable mothers. But most of all, we get female characters with agency.

This International Women’s Day, we highlight eight movies by female directors that fall into that category, part of the Spotlight on Female Directors collection at SBS On Demand.

Destroyer (USA)

Director: Karyn Kusama
Language: English

It is a bit insulting that this crime drama received no attention during the 2018/19 award season because Nicole Kidman gives an amazing performance as Erin Bell, a tortured cop who is haunted by her mistakes and deteriorating relationships. It is adjacent to Kate Winslet’s detective in Mare of Easttown but with more violence and a bad wig. 

The movie starts with a crime. Bell shows up with bloodshot eyes and zero professionalism and claims she knows who did it. The movie then shifts from past to present as we gradually understand Bell’s link to the case and why she needs to settle scores with a crime lord.

Initially, this seems like a gender flip movie about a cop with questionable morals. We can see Denzel Washington or Leonardo DiCaprio in the same role. But Kidman makes it her own with her brand of manipulation techniques. She also nails the role of someone who is weighted down by stress, with every wince and clipped word.

In Kusama’s hands, crime is gritty and sepia toned but also highly styled. It is a delicate but well-executed balance.

Destroyer is now streaming at SBS On Demand.


The Breaker Uppers (New Zealand)

Directors: Madeleine Sami, Jackie van Beek
Language: English

This movie is a reminder that the term ‘buddy comedy’ is gendered and often refers to two men, usually uniformed officers. Yet there is no better description for The Breaker Upperers. Mel (Madeleine Sami) and Jen (Jackie van Beek) meet after they were two-timed by the same man. They become buddies and start a business to help clients break up with their partners. Turns out, this niche business is booming because people are cowards. There is even a scene where they dress up as cops to tell a woman her partner is dead and have to keep up the ruse for longer than they realise. 

Mel and Jen’s questionable methods, lack of boundaries and the supporting cast of offbeat characters make this movie immensely enjoyable, zany and laugh-out-loud funny. It could have been a fairly average comedy but we see real character growth when the ethics of dating a much younger client changes Mel and the nature of the duo’s relationship. 

It also has the Kiwi brand of humour, eccentricities and small-town life found in Taika Waititi’s film, Boy and TV series, Wellington Paranormal (the multi-talented van Beek also directs episodes of this series, which is streaming at SBS On Demand).  

The Breaker Upperers is now streaming at SBS On Demand.


Ninjababy (Norway)

Director: Yngvild Sve Flikke
Language: Norwegian

There are so many movies about motherhood, but when it comes to portraying the months preceding a child’s birth, we mostly have Hollywood movies, Knocked Up or Juno

Enter, Norwegian movie Ninjababy, an off-kilter, chaotic comedy that explores the ambivalence and rage some women feel upon realising they are pregnant. Rakel (Kristine Kujath Thorp) is a young graphic designer who falls pregnant after a one-night stand. When she calmly decides on an abortion, she finds out that she is seven months along and it is too late. This is concerning because Rakel does not have her life in order, nor is she very motivated to change.

She figures out her next moves by drawing and animating a ‘ninjababy’, so named because it is a life form that clawed itself into her, undetected for months. She ‘converses’ with this animation, whose one-liners range from bragging (‘I’ve been a cool foetus’) to mocking (‘That guy??’), much like an annoying cartoon sidekick.

Thorp oscillates between being likeable, selfish and self-destructive. This is not a coincidence as Flikke deliberately sought an actress in her early 20s who is ‘just living the life’. Flikke also encouraged the cast to riff off each other and as a result, the movie feels like an insight into a share house, with its inside jokes and awkward sex sounds.

Ninjababy is now streaming at SBS On Demand.


An Education (UK)

Director: Lone Scherfig
Language: English

Be wary of reviews that say this is a romantic drama. The facts are: the movie is based on a memoir by Lynn Barber and the story of how she was seduced and conned by a 35-year-old man when she was in her teens. His charm extended to her parents who gave the duo their approval and blessing.

This is not the foundation for a grand romance. Instead, it’s the story of power dynamics, manipulation and regret. Quite literally, it is an education for Lynn (renamed Jenny), as played by Carey Mulligan in an Oscar-nominated performance while Peter Sarsgaard plays her rich, worldly suitor, David. We see how David romances and woos Jenny, taking her for a weekend to Paris, wining and dining her, introducing her to friends. There’s an illusion of a respectable relationship if we tip-toe around the fact that Jenny is still in school and they are at different stages of life.   

Scherfig is Danish and initially seemed like an unusual choice to direct this very English movie, set in pre-swinging London. Yet, it is her ‘outsider’ point of view and preference for low-key, grounded storytelling that helps steer the movie from grandiose or salacious details. It is simply a story about a wide-eyed, rule-abiding schoolgirl who yearns for adventure and sophistication. She gets that, but at a cost.    

An Education is streaming at SBS On Demand, but be quick. It leaves at 8.25pm on Thursday 7 April.


Mary Shelley (UK, USA, Luxembourg)

Director: Haifaa Al-Mansour
Language: English

Mary Shelley’s life sounds like a movie plot. She fell in love with a married writer, Percy Shelley, rendezvoused at her mother’s grave, lost babies in difficult pregnancies and wrote one of the earliest sci-fi novels, Frankenstein, as a teen.

There is rich material here but this version focuses on the series of events, both romantic and professional, that led to Shelley’s debut and masterpiece. As legend goes, Mary and Percy were holed up in poet Lord Byron’s estate and they all challenged each other to see who could write a more frightening story. Mary’s Frankenstein captured public imagination for centuries, but in its early days most people assumed it was Percy’s work. 

Elle Fanning plays the lead role while Douglas Booth plays her husband. At first, Fanning’s youth and poise seem like an odd casting choice for a Gothic author, but she shows impressive acting range as she channels her losses and indignities into creating a legacy.

Al-Mansour’s influence is also clear, bringing her experience directing movies about young, feisty girls who play by their own rules. Her debut movie, Wadjda, was about a 10-year-old Saudi girl in Riyadh who strives to buy and ride a bike even if it is ‘unladylike’. It is uncanny how similar Mary and Wadjda are. (Wadjda is streaming at SBS on Demand.)

Mary Shelley is now streaming at SBS On Demand.


Madame (France)

Director: Amanda Sthers
Language: English, French, Spanish

The moneyed but slightly decaying French setting at the start of Madame is thanks to French director, Amanda Sthers, who also wrote the screenplay. She wanted to challenge the idea of Paris as a romantic city filled with museums and show her version of Paris and the people it attracts.

Married American couple, Bob (Harvey Keitel) and his younger wife, Anne (Toni Collette) are throwing a dinner party in their lux house. When Bob’s adult son unexpectedly shows up, there are 13 people at the party which Anne claims is unlucky. So, she convinces her Spanish maid, Maria (Rossy de Palma) to pretend to be a ‘smiling, quiet’ guest for the night but Maria turns out to be a beguiling, funny person who charms everyone.

The audacity of a ‘maid’ being at the same level as Bob and Anne exposes some deep-set class issues for them and there are some cruel, telling lines. Anne in particular cannot fathom that Maria has interests and commitments that do not revolve around her. “Don’t make me the monster, I’m a life-long Democrat!”, she scoffs in one scene. But the star here is de Palma, who undergoes a transformation, upstages Collette in most scenes and conveys disappointment and fear with her facial expressions just as much as her words.

Madame is now streaming at SBS On Demand.


Amateurs (Sweden)

Director: Gabriela Pichler
Language: Swedish

Amateurs’ premise, setting and shaky camera style are reminiscent of TV series Parks and Recreation but without the satire: earnest council staff want to show off their small town, Lafors, to outsiders, but are blind to how it is also suffocating.

When there is a chance a discount-store chain could open in the declining town, Swedish-Indian, Musse (Fredrik Dahl) suggests shooting a promotional video about Lafors. He engages a professional videographer but also puts out feelers in the town’s high school.

Teens Aida (Zahraa Aldoujaili) and Dana (Yara Aliadotter) respond to it. While Musse’s vision was a traditional view of Sweden as a land of beautiful landscapes and friendly people, Aida and Dana tap into their migrant backgrounds and highlight what the town means to different people, depending on their income and reasons for being in Sweden. It is akin to an expectation vs reality meme in video form.

All three main characters also undergo a personal reckoning and sit down with their newfound realisations. As a result, Amateurs doubles up as a touching social commentary about the changing Swedish demography and who gets to take up space. This is partly because of Pichler’s influence. Born in Sweden to Bosnian and Austrian parents, social aggression, class, sex and cultural background are driving forces in her filmmaking.

Amateurs is now streaming at SBS On Demand. Be quick! It leaves at 11.59pm, Thursday 31 March.


Hava, Maryam, Ayesha (Afghanistan, Iran)   

Director: Sahraa Karimi
Language: Persian, Dari

This is not just a movie about three Afghan women. It is about three Afghan women who are also pregnant and navigating their circumstances differently. Hava (Arezoo Ariapoor) is largely ignored in the home she shares with her in-laws so talking to her growing foetus gives her newfound joy. Maryam (Fereshta Afshar) is an educated news reporter who is about to divorce her unfaithful husband when she finds out she is pregnant. Ayesha (Hasiba Ebrahimi) is an 18-year-old who is pregnant out of wedlock. She agrees to marry her cousin to save face but needs to abort the baby first to keep up illusions of virginity. 

The protagonists have separate storylines until they collide at the end.

In an interview with director and co-writer Karimi, she explains that her motivation for making this movie is to tell stories of Afghan people without resorting to clichés. “It is a country of 34 million people, there are good stories to share. Even as a student, my films were about motherhood and femininity and I have tried to continue that.”

To that point, she brings her European background in filmmaking and influences from filmmakers such as Ingmar Bergman but with Afghan content. She is both an insider and an outsider, which makes this movie unique.

Hava, Maryam, Ayesha is now streaming at SBS On Demand.


See these and more great films in the Spotlight on Female Directors collection at SBS On Demand.


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