If our political situation has taught us anything, it’s the importance of listening to others – particularly those who have seen a different side of the world than we have. Perspective can mean the difference between peace and war. That’s why narratives have always been vital in shaping our culture. By telling stories, we bridge a gap of experience and diminish what we perceive as divides.
As WeScreenplay revs up for the 2018 Diverse Voices Lab, it’s encouraging to look at “foreign” or “alternative” filmmakers who have already reflected an experience that we don’t often see in our media. Oppressed, disregarded artists have persevered for decades, producing work that both stands the test of time and remains true to its unique perspective. We’ve seen more diversity in Hollywood this year, and there’s still a long way to go, but the original boundary-breakers remind us how to get there.
1. RUTH GORDON – Adam’s Rib (1949, Filmstruck)
We know her for the latter half of morbid lovers Harold & Maude, or the obsessive, eccentric grandma to Rosemary’s Baby. Who would have guessed that the iconic Ms. Gordon is also an Oscar-nominated writer? In an era when women were hardly allowed to govern their own lives, let alone make films, Gordon penned a story that starts with a woman who kills her husband – and uses it to explore equality in relationships. A cousin to sharp-witted comedies like His Girl Friday, this film kicks off a genuinely moving conversation about the childishness of men and the resilience of the women who put up with them.
2. YASUJIRO OZU – Tokyo Story (1950, Filmstruck)
Domestic dramas are a favorite genre in the U.S.A. (though they usually end in screaming and betrayal, which might say something). They take on a different flavor under the eye of Yasujiro Ozu, a filmmaker beloved for his intimate, patient approach to familial tragedies. Whether exploring parent-child rifts in the face of change or probing the effects of a war-torn society, Ozu always made his home country a major part of his thematic landscape. As the title implies, few of his works reach the comprehension, power and purity of his ultimate epic – a portrait not only of Tokyo sociology, but of universal family alliances.
3. AGNES VARDA – Cleo from 9 to 5 (1962, Filmstruck)
As the oldest Academy Award nominee, Agnes Varda is nothing short of a legend. While she has truly made her mark with sensitive, generous documentaries, her debut fiction feature remains a landmark of cinematic inventiveness. With a thematic construct (we watch a hypochondriac wait for a medical diagnosis in real time) and quirky characters, Varda’s film looks like any from the French new wave period – but its perspective is firmly a woman’s, which inverts the era’s often-sexist tropes with unique, poignant impact.
4. GORDON PARKS – Shaft (1971, Filmstruck)
Emerging from the unrest and injustice of the 1960s, the American cinematic landscape of the 1970s takes on more daring hues. Independent filmmaking practices allowed black directors to take on white forces of oppression in fantastical ways, as through the infamous super-assassin Shaft. This groundbreaking edition in the “blaxploitation” movement was directed by Gordon Parks, who also co-founded the magazine Essence. What better way to celebrate (and remember) this history than with one of the first films to feature a charming, clever, moral hero who wasn’t white? If nothing else, it reminds us that studio films still don’t think about these things.
5. DEREK JARMAN – Caravaggio (1986, Filmstruck)
Without Derek Jarman, we wouldn’t have Tilda Swinton as we know her today. But the queer auteur is iconic in his own right. In a filmography that ranges from decadent biographies to heartbreaking personal essays, Jarman made a major impact on LGBT cinema – not only bringing it wider prestige, but showing how deep and unusual it can be. While his impossibly bold and profound voice is best on display in Blue, his feature about the legendary – and dangerous – Renaissance artist shows the importance of queer perspective when applied to their own stories.
6. JULIE DASH – Daughters of the Dust (1991, Netflix)
Civil War dramas were as popular as World War II films in the ‘90s, but none of them actually addressed the racial complexities that the conflict exasperated. Twist ending: many of these narratives have been distorted to promote a false sense of American unity. To see a film come out of this era from a black perspective – a black female perspective, no less – is encouraging and maddening. Director, writer and producer Julie Dash crafts a lush, immersive portrait of a bygone era, weaving all of its complexities and beauty into a cinematic dream. Beyonce’s Lemonade took plenty of cues from Dash’s gauzy, atmospheric visuals, along with the film’s sense of Impressionist poetry. Her approach gives the obscure but powerful story a timelessness that only purity of vision can achieve.
7. BONG JOON HO – The Host (2006, Netflix)
Screenwriters in South Korea know something that their American counterparts have forgotten. Their ability to craft a narrative that is at once entertaining, confounding, cathartic, traditional and transgressive proves itself time and again, whether imported or produced stateside. As a filmmaker who has told stories in multiple languages, always with punchy inventiveness and pathos, Bong Joon Ho sneaks personal folklore and global satire into narratives that otherwise sound cheesy on paper. Last year’s Okja is a fine example of this, but it can’t top his frightening, hilarious and tragic inversion of monster movie tropes.
8. CLAIRE DENIS – White Material (2009, Filmstruck)
Stories about contemporary Africa, when not told by African voices, tend to be problematic. Sure, they’ll address racism and injustice, but there always has to be an apologist, to show that white people aren’t always awful. French filmmaker Claire Denis, known for her delicate and sensual psychological portraits, shows us how to make a film like this when one is white: brutalize the characters who look like you. Starring Isabelle Huppert in a brilliantly fragmented role, the film dismantles imperialist ideals through the actions of a white family. They invite destruction because they can’t be honest with each other, or themselves – an issue that sounds increasingly familiar on our own continent.
9. ASGHAR FARHADI – A Separation (2011, Netflix)
The story could happen anywhere, so long as there’s legal systems, parental disputes and lost children. But brilliant contemporary filmmaker Asghar Farhadi gives this material a unique sociological edge by tying it to an oppressive Iran, where his female characters seek either escape or survival. When our nation’s travel ban blocked Farhadi from attending the 2017 Academy Awards, where he took home a Best Foreign Film award, the importance of his voice became even more apparent. American audiences need films that display the universality of experience – otherwise we forget where we are.
10. MATTIE DO – Dearest Sister (2017, Shudder)
With Get Out winning an Oscar and putting horror at the forefront of political cinema, it feels like an appropriate time to revisit Mattie Do’s sophomore feature. The first Laotian submission to the Academy Awards, this unique ghost story develops a twisty, untrustworthy world in which sociological truths are more threatening than any spirits. Do’s awareness of the political and economic strife in Laos, the divide between rich and poor, gives the horror depth that is so often missing from the genre. There’s no better example of genre film done right, with that elusive political edge that reminds us why, sometimes, we need to be scared.
11. YANCE FORD – Strong Island (2017, Netflix)
While the film itself doesn’t focus on a trans storyline, Yance Ford’s powerful, personal documentary – winner of a Gotham award – shows the depth that “outsider” perspectives can bring to stories of injustice. By focusing on his brother, an innocent black man blamed for his own murder, Ford manages to explore his own coming-out – and his brother’s role in making him feel comfortable with himself. The story would be profound through anyone’s lens, but Ford’s voice adds an essential layer. As cis actors continue to play trans characters as if it isn’t an act of erasure, films like this remind us why we fight for the alternative. Perspective isn’t a performance.
We look forward to discovering the next voice to join this list! Enter the WeScreenplay Diverse Voice Screenwriting Lab today.
BEN LARNED is an independent genre writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. He has written for outlets such as Blumhouse, Bloody Disgusting, The Script Lab and ScreenCraft. His column Forbid
Photo credit: Netflix