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The Most Influential Filmmakers of All Time

Last summer I came across a list on the AMC website titled “The 50 Greatest Directors of All Time.” The usual suspects were all there: Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, etc. It was all men, and, with the exception of Spike Lee at #47, all white. After the AMC list, I looked through more lists. Many, even ones that extended to 100 or 150 greatest/best/most influential directors, were also populated entirely by men.

Google “world's greatest directors” and there will be 50 male faces at the top of the page looking back at you. Occasionally, a woman slips in: Sofia Coppola, Kathryn Bigelow—very rarely Agnes Varda, or even more rarely Chantal Akerman. A list on WhatCulture had the 50 greatest directors of the 21st Century—one woman: Sofia Coppola. In 2016, the DGA came out with a list of the 80 greatest directorial achievements. “The Hurt Locker” was the only film directed by a woman on that list.

This is hardly surprising. Men fill the pages of film history books, having directed the majority of movies we study in film school. And it's not just historical fact; a report was recently published stating that in 2016 women directed just 7% of the 250 top grossing films. Minorities fare little better in Hollywood, so please bear in mind how much more dismal the numbers are for female minority filmmakers. Hollywood's diversity problem is well-documented. Perhaps the greatest irritation in all of this is that, while it feels blatantly wrong, it's also not surprising. We are conditioned to recognize a familiar canon of “important” filmmakers, but this canon does not speak to everyone. It mostly speaks to itself, reinforcing the values of an industry that is and has been exclusionary.

Seeing all these lists of greatest filmmakers got me thinking about our measures of greatness. What is given the most value? Technical prowess, innovation, mastery of the “form” (and who or what determines what that form should be)?. There is something else in filmmaking that inspires me, it's not only having a good idea and executing it well, but it is also the sense of discovery that can happen in the process; a willingness to leave room for the unplanned; to share an authentic moment that was not first conceived in the mind of the maker; to collaborate with life and chaos. The canon of greatness does not often leave room for these things; mastery is valued over everything else.

By way of an exercise, I wanted to very quickly jot down a list of the 25 filmmakers who most influenced me over the years. I tried to think as little as possible as I was writing down the names, so perhaps two years ago, or a week ago or three days from now the list would differ slightly, but this is what I came up with for now:

1. Agnes Varda

2. Forough Farrokhzad

3. Vera Chytilova

4. Chantal Akerman

5. Kelly Reichardt

6. Maya Deren

7. Miranda July

8. Alain Resnais

9. Chris Marker

10. Carlos Reygadas

11. Lucrecia Martel

12. Rainer Werner Fassbinder

13. Laura Poitras

14. Jordan Belson

15. Orson Welles

16. Michael Moore

17. Shu Lea Cheang

18. Josephine Decker

19. Alejandro Jodorowsky

20. Preston Sturges

21. Billy Wilder

22. Mikhail Kalatozov

23. Haifaa al-Mansour

24. Sara Gómez

25. Djibril Diop Mambéty

13 women, 12 men—a few of them from the “canon” but most not. I would like to see other people's lists, not to create a new canon but to reveal the impossibility of creating one to begin with. It's nice to keep track of what inspires us, but the hierarchical structure of these lists are part and parcel of a system built on exclusion. 

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