Variety: 25 Groundbreaking Female Directors: From Alice Guy to Chloé Zhao


Originally posted by Variety.

Diane Garrett

Diane Garrett is a features editor at Variety. She previously covered film and digital media for Variety and served as events editor.



Women have been directing films from the beginning of cinema — Alice Guy is credited with directing one of the world’s first narrative films in 1896 — and have continued to break new cinematic ground, overcoming plenty of resistance in the more than 100 years since.


In the early pioneering days, women sometimes had a good shot at participating, but as the studio system took shape, men largely muscled women out of directing and other key creative roles. Female directors persisted anyway, innovating techniques and tackling subjects once forbidden to their gender.


There are many more noteworthy female directors beyond this list, including some who have been very successful. This offering focuses on filmmakers that have innovated or pushed boundaries in some way. Thanks to a push for more female directors in recent years, there will be even more opportunities for groundbreaking work ahead.


Alice Guy

Widely considered the first female film director, Guy is also credited with helming one of the first narrative films, an 1896 short called “The Cabbage Fairy.” At the time, she was a secretary for a French camera company, and persuaded her boss to let her experiment with storytelling on film. She directed hundreds more shorts for Gaumont, and in 1910, she and then-husband Herbert Blaché formed their own studio in the U.S. The couple split later that decade and Guy-Blaché directed her last film in 1919, dying in 1968. She was largely forgotten until “Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché,” Pamela B. Green’s 2018 documentary narrated by Jodie Foster, helped restore her place in film history.

Lois Weber


A woman of many interests, Weber was a street evangelist and musician before she turned to acting and filmmaking. In 1908, she began her directing career at American Gaumont Chronophone, where fellow filmmaking pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché and her husband were then ensconced. Weber frequently worked with her then-husband, Phillips Smalley, early in her film career, but over time, she took on a primary creative role. In 1917 she left Universal to form her own company and was the highest-paid director in Hollywood for a while. However, her focus on social issues fell out of favor and creative opportunities for women declined as the studio system began to take shape. Weber directed “White Heat” (1934), her only talkie, before dying five years later at age 60.


Lotte Reiniger

Born and raised in Germany, Reiniger pioneered the use of silhouette animation, directing one of the first feature-length animated films, the 1926 release “The Adventures of Prince Achmed,” with this technique. To give the movie more depth, she created a multi-planed camera that Walt Disney would further develop a decade later. Reiniger and her husband, Carl Koch, a collaborator on her films, fled Germany during World War II, returning for a spell to care for her mother before relocating to London in 1948. There, Reiniger made short children’s films for the BBC. Later in her life she made a few more short films, completing her last in 1980, the year before she died.


Dorothy Arzner

Arzner grew up in Hollywood and began typing scripts before working her way up to helming “Women’s Fashions” for Paramount in 1927. While directing the studio’s first talkie, “The Wild Party,” she improvised a boom microphone for silent star Clara Bow, who was nervous about speaking on camera. Arzner went on to direct films starring Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford and Lucille Ball; for a period during the early studio days, she was the sole female director in Hollywood. Arzner retired from directing in 1943 and taught at UCLA.


Leni Riefenstahl

Best known for Nazi propaganda film “Triumph of the Will,” Riefenstahl is also remembered for her cinematic techniques. She began directing films in the late 1920s, and in 1932 produced, starred in and directed “The Blue Light,” which won the silver medal at the Venice Film Festival. She filmed Adolf Hitler for “The Victory of Faith” in 1933, followed by “Triumph of the Will” (1935) and “Olympia” (1938). “Olympia” is notable for Riefenstahl’s use of tracking and slow-motion shots of athletes. After World War II, she was named a Nazi sympathizer and struggled to make films; her 2002 nature documentary “Underwater Impressions” debuted shortly before she turned 100. She died the following year.


Maya Deren


Born in the Ukraine, Deren immigrated to the U.S. as a child and became an avant-garde filmmaker during the 1940s and ’50s. She made her first film, “Meshes of the Afternoon” with her then-husband, Alexander Hammid, for $250 in 1943. Shot on black-and-white film without a soundtrack, it employs surreal imagery evoking a dream. Deren followed that with “At Land,” lensed in Long Island in 1944. Part of a social circle that included Marcel Duchamp and Anaïs Nin, she deplored Hollywood and last shot footage of voodoo rituals for “Divine Horseman: The Living Gods of Haiti,” released after her death in 1961.


Ida Lupino

British-born Lupino was an established actor in Hollywood when she directed “Not Wanted” in an uncredited capacity after helmer Elmer Clifton had a heart attack, stepping up from her duties as a producer and co-screenwriter on that 1949 film. She then directed a handful more movies before moving into TV, continuing to act all the while. “The Hitch-Hiker,” a taut suspense film she directed in 1953, is considered the first noir directed by a woman, and her best work as a big-screen helmer.


Agnès Varda

Dubbed the godmother of the French New Wave, Varda had a prolific directing career spanning six decades. A photographer first, she made her feature debut with “La Pointe Courte” (1955), then directed a series of shorts before writing and directing “Cleo From 5 to 7” (1962), notable for its verve and one of her best-known films. She married Jacques Demy, a fellow member of the French New Wave, and moved with him to Los Angeles, where made films including a controversial documentary about the Black Panthers before returning to France. “Vagabond” won the Golden Lion at Venice in 1985, and she was Oscar-nominated for her 2017 documentary “Faces Places,” receiving an honorary Oscar in 2018. Her biographical look back at her lifetime of movies, art and photography, “Varda by Agnès,” debuted at the Berlin Intl. Film Festival in 2019, shortly before her death at age 90.


Lina Wertmüller

The first woman nominated for a directing Oscar, Wertmüller earned that distinction in 1977 for “Seven Beauties,” a satiric Italian movie that received four nominations overall. First an avant-garde puppeteer, she worked with Federico Fellini on “8½” (1963) before directing her first film that year, gaining international attention in the early 1970s with films such as “Swept Away” leading up to “Seven Beauties.” Revolving around a foolishly proud man who goes to ridiculous lengths to defend the honor of his sisters during World War II, the movie received an Oscar nomination for Wertmüller’s screenplay and another for the foreign-language film Oscar. Wertmüller briefly worked in Hollywood after “Seven Beauties” but chafed at studio interference. Now in her early 90s, she received an Honorary Oscar last year.

Chantal Akerman


Best known for her 1975 movie, “Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” Akerman experimented with real-time filmmaking from a feminist perspective. “Jeanne Dielman” unfolds over three hours and 22 minutes, showing the oppressive routine of a Brussels widow who occasionally turns tricks in her apartment; the movie has inspired helmers including Kelly Reichert, Sofia Coppola and Gus Van Sant to explore similar pacing in their films. The Belgian filmmaker spent time in New York during the 1970s and frequently incorporated her mother, a Holocaust survivor, into her movies. Following the death of her mother, she died by suicide in 2015.


Barbara Kopple

After assisting David and Albert Maysles on a few seminal documentaries, Kopple headed to Kentucky to film one of her own — “Harlan County, U.S.A.,” the 1977 Oscar winner for documentary feature and her directorial debut. Still in her 20s when she began the project, Kopple lived with coal miners and their families while documenting a protracted strike in a cinema verite style, risking danger as tensions rose. Kopple also won an Oscar for “American Dream,” a 1990 documentary she co-directed about a strike at a Hormel meatpacking plant in Minnesota. Her influence can be seen in the muckraking documentaries of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock. Kopple has also tackled subjects including Woodstock reunions, the Chicks and YouTuber Gigi Gorgeous over the years.


Penelope Spheeris

Spheeris directed music videos and taught Albert Brooks how to make comedy shorts for “Saturday Night Live” before helming a series of pioneering documentaries about L.A.’s punk rock and metal scenes starting with “The Decline of Western Civilization,” immediately banned by L.A. police chief Daryl Gates after its 1981 premiere. Her rock and comedy worlds collided when she directed the first “Wayne’s World” movie, which grossed $183 million after its 1992 release. Movie versions of “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “The Rascals” followed, along with yet more music documentaries, but she largely stopped directing after working with the Weinsteins on “Senseless” in 1998.


Amy Heckerling

Heckerling made her feature directing debut with “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” a seminal teen comedy released in 1982 that launched the film careers of Sean Penn and Jennifer Jason Leigh, and springboarded the careers of Phoebe Cates and Judge Reinhold. The movie was based on the writing of Cameron Crowe, but Heckerling brought a distinctly female POV to the tale, portraying abortion with sensitivity. She went on to direct female-centric hits “Look Who’s Talking” and “Clueless,” along with episodes of “Gossip Girl,” “The Office” and “The Carrie Diaries.”


Barbra Steisand

Already a big music and movie star, Streisand fought more than a decade to get her 1983 adaptation of the classic Isaac Bashevis Singer short story “Yentl” off the ground. She directed, starred in, co-produced and co-wrote the screenplay about a woman who goes undercover as a man to study Talmud in a Polish shtetl circa 1904. In the end, she became the first woman to receive the Golden Globe for film directing, and the movie also took home the Oscar for adapted score. “Yentl” made stars out of both Mandy Patinkin and Amy Irving. Streisand has since directed “The Prince of Tides” (1991) and “The Mirror Has Two Faces” (1996), while continuing to perform as an actor and singer.


Julie Dash

Dash made her directing debut with “Daughters of the Dust,” the first feature film helmed by a Black woman to receive a U.S. theatrical release. The 1991 movie, about generations of slave descendants living on an island off the Georgia coast, won a cinematography award at Sundance and earned strong reviews, but Dash struggled to gain traction in Hollywood. The mystical film has nonetheless been influential, inspiring Beyoncé’s “Lemonade.” It received a 25th anniversary theatrical re-release and Dash has recently directed episodes of “Queen Sugar.”


Kathryn Bigelow

Bigelow turned heads with “Point Break,” a stylish 1991 thriller movie featuring Keanu Reeves as an FBI agent who infiltrates a gang of surfers, before becoming the first woman to win a directing Oscar for “The Hurt Locker” in 2010. Her muscular war movie, which also grappled with PTSD, won the best picture trophy; with “The Hurt Locker,” Bigelow forever upended notions about the type of movies women can direct. She earned another best picture nomination for “Zero Dark Thirty” and recently directed “Detroit.”


Jane Campion

The only female director to have ever won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Campion was nominated for a helming Oscar with “The Piano,” a 1993 period romance starring Holly Hunter as a mute in New Zealand, becoming the second woman to receive such directing recognition from the U.S. motion picture academy. Her film won two acting Oscars and one for her original screenplay. Subsequent films include “The Portrait of a Lady” and “Bright Star,” all made with a distinctly female POV; she received multiple Emmy nominations for her work on SundanceTV’s “Top of the Lake” in 2013.


Sofia Coppola

Shortly after appearing in “The Godfather: Part III” for her director father, Francis, Coppola began directing herself, graduating from shorts to “The Virgin Suicides,” her lyrical feature debut in 1999. She took another artistic leap forward with “Lost in Translation,” a 2003 movie about a young woman who bonds with a faded star in Tokyo. The movie received four Oscar nominations, including for her direction, best picture and Bill Murray’s performance. Coppola won the trophy for her original screenplay. She won the directing prize for “Beguiled” at Cannes in 2017 and has another movie starring Murray, “On the Rocks,” slated for debut at the New York Film Festival.


Patty Jenkins

Jenkins made her feature directing debut with “Monster,” an arresting 2003 portrait of serial killer Aileen Wuornos starring a virtually unrecognizable Charlize Theron in the title role. Theron went on to win an Oscar for her performance, while the movie, based on Jenkins’ screenplay, won best first feature at the Indie Spirit Awards. In 2017, she became the first woman to direct a comic book tentpole movie with Marvel’s “Wonder Woman.” A massive box-office hit, it has grossed $821 million worldwide and spawned a sequel, “Wonder Woman 1984,” which Jenkins also directed and is due later this year.


Ava DuVernay

A publicist early in her career, DuVernay gained traction as a filmmaker with “Middle of Nowhere,” winning a directing award at Sundance in 2012, plus the John Cassavetes honor at the Indie Spirits later that awards season. “Selma,” a 2014 movie dramatizing the civil-rights struggle in Alabama, was nominated for the best picture Oscar and won for song; DuVernay was nominated for a Golden Globe award in the directing category. “13th,” her 2016 documentary about racial inequities in the criminal justice system, was nominated for an Oscar; she also received three Emmy nominations for “When They See Us,” her 2019 limited Netflix series about teens falsely accused of a Central Park attack in 1989. Next up: “DMZ,” about civil war in a futuristic America, for HBO Max.


Greta Gerwig

Gerwig emerged from the indie scene to score a rare Oscar directing nomination for “Lady Bird,” her 2017 debut as a solo helmer, and also received an Oscar nomination for her original screenplay, based on her experiences growing up in Sacramento. She then reimagined “Little Women” for contemporary audiences, pointing to the financial restrictions many women still face, and received a screenplay nomination for it as well; the 2019 release has grossed more than $200 million worldwide. Next up for the former actress: “Barbie,” based on a script she wrote with romantic partner Noah Baumbach.


Wanuri Kahui

Kahui generated headlines and acclaim for “Rafiki,” a Kenyan film about lesbian romance that was initially banned from screening in Kenya before an appeal to its highest court. The first Kenyan film to debut at Cannes, it screened in the fest’s Un Certain Regard sidebar in 2018, before moving on to fests including Toronto, Busan and AFI. Kahui, who studied film at UCLA, co-founded the Afro Bubblegum movement dedicated to creating African work that celebrates joy; the character of Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) in “Rafiki” sports candy-colored dreadlocks, for instance. Kahui, who previously directed sci-fi short “Pumzi,” will next tackle “The Thing About Jellyfish” starring Millie Bobby Brown.


Celine Sciamma

Known for exploring gender roles and same-sex romance, the French writer-director made her feature debut with “Water Lillies,” a 2007 movie about a love triangle between three girls, and directed “Tomboy” and “Girlhood” before garnering even more international acclaim with “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” in 2019. Sciamma’s lush story of a forbidden attraction between a painter and her wealthier subject won screenplay and the Queer Palm at Cannes, and received 10 nominations for Cesar Awards. The movie was also nominated for Golden Globe, Indie Spirit and BAFTA awards for non-English language film.


Gina Prince-Bythewood

Prince-Bythewood broke through with “Love & Basketball,” winning first screenplay honors at Indie Spirits for the 2000 film, also her directing debut, and has helmed films in a variety of genres since. She recently became the first Black woman to direct a superhero movie with “The Old Guard,” revitalizing the genre with kinetic action and two powerful women in its leading roles: Charlize Theron plays the weary immortal Andy, while KiKi Layne portrays reluctant recruit Nile in the 2020 Netflix movie. Next up: “The Woman King,” about the general of an all-female military unit


Chloé Zhao

Beijing-born Zhao has made three films about the American heartland, blurring the lines between documentary and narrative fiction with her use of non-professional actors in natural settings. Her 2015 feature debut, “Songs My Brother Taught Me,” received an Indie Spirit nomination for best first feature, and “The Rider” (2017) won a Gotham Award for best feature in addition to several Indie Spirit nominations. “Nomadland” further blends the barriers between narrative and fiction storytelling: topliner Frances McDormand and co-star David Strathairn are surrounded by non-actors in the movie, about a widow in her 60s that embraces a nomad lifestyle. Next up: “The Eternals,” for Marvel.


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