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To celebrate International Women’s Day (March 8), Screen has spoken to top female gatekeepers from across the UK film industry, including the BFI Film Fund’s Mia Bays, Picturehouse’s Clare Binns, Birds’ Eye View’s Melanie Iredale, Altitude’s Lia Devlin and Film4’s Farhana Bhula, about the films and pioneering women who have inspired their careers, plus their predictions for the female industry leaders of tomorrow.

Maya Amsellem – co-founder and managing director, WestEnd Films

My favourite female-directed film is… Recently, it’s Little Women by Greta Gerwig. It is beautiful, simple, sincere, honest and accessible – the kind of film you could watch over and over and still be swept up in the story, as if you don’t know what is about to happen.

The biggest female champions and mentors of my career have been… Sharon Harel, Jane Barclay and Hannah Leader [formerly of Capitol Films].

The best piece of advice I’ve been given from a woman… Integrity is the most important asset in the business.

A female industry name to watch is… Laura Grange [acquisitions manager of original films at Sky].

Mia Bays – director, BFI Film Fund

My favourite female-directed film is…The Piano [Jane Campion] because it means so much to my younger self. We held a Birds’ Eye View event in 2020 for the 25-year anniversary, and it made me realise what a strong impact the film had had on me as a younger and then older woman. It was profound.

It was a milestone in my cinematic maturation as well as my personal one. It came out just a few years into my film career, playing for weeks at the Screen Cinema chain for whom I worked. It was a massive hit for them. Over the years, the potent messages from Campion’s unconscious to mine pulsed away and told me to keep going, keep seeking. Self-actualisation beckoned, as we see in Ada’s story, bookended by her experiences with two men and as a mother and a creative spirit. Baines (the Keitel character) doesn’t actualise her – he’s simply a gateway drug. He’s vital but he’s not the sole catalyst. Her imagination, her inner drive, her creative prowess and suffering all bear the weight of her rebirth. What a message!

The biggest female champion of my career has been… Simone Glover. We’ve worked together for over 15 years at Missing In Action then on the Film London Microwave scheme then Birds’ Eye View. She’s my rock. We speak pretty much every day. She has the most forensic and wonderfully ‘outsider’ eye – her script notes and film analysis (for programming) are always incisive and frequently hilarious. No one makes me howl like her. She’s not just a great champion and mentor but one of the loves of my life – we go deep!

The best piece advice I’ve been given by a woman… was from my mum. She was a very wise brave self-taught woman. The best advice she gave me was about the fact that comparison is deathly. If I was upset about losing out on something, she would say, “You’re not better or worse, you’re just different.” I use this quote constantly in my work and personal life. It’s actually a complex idea that I find many struggle with and it’s expressing what I now realise is a basic tenet of psychotherapy and other wisdoms: that people and the world are not binary and occupying a third space can be kind, complex but ultimately liberation. 

A female industry name to watch is… Grace Barber-Plentie, currently film programmer – festivals at the BFI. I’ve connected with Grace over the past few years starting from the Feds programme then as a programmer and speaker on gender equality in the film circuit (if I can call it that). Bearing witness to her last October hold the stage at the opening of the BFI London Film Festival in conversation with The Harder They Fall film team plus J-Hova himself Jay Z rocking up –blimey! Now I’m at the BFI I have seen her present the BFI Flare programme and a few other events and I’m excited about her spreading her wings and developing her important presence in film. I’ll be keeping a keen eye on her. She’s badass.

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Farhana Bhula – senior commissioning executive, Film4

My favourite female-directed film is… A female-directed debut I return to often is Mustang by Deniz Gamze Ergüven. I loved the energy and vitality of the sisters and the way their youthful perspective is handled with such care.

The biggest female champions and mentors of my career have been… Hilary Bevan Jones [Endor Productions founder] took a chance on me and gave me my first job in development; Finola Dwyer and Amanda Posey [Wildgaze Films producers] taught me the importance of perseverance and rigour; and [from BFI Film Fund] in Lizzie Francke, Natascha Wharton, Mary Burke and Anna Seifert-Speck I was fortunate to learn from some of the best creative minds in the industry.

The best piece of advice I’ve been given from a woman… A very smart woman told me to read A Swim In The Pond In The Rain by George Saunders. It’s a love letter to the craft of storytelling and has taught me to be a better reader.

A female industry name to watch is… I’m hugely excited by the writer Yasmin Joseph. Her play J’Ouvert was one of the cultural highlights of last year for me.

Clare Binns – joint managing director, Picturehouse Cinemas

My favourite female-directed film is… Toni Erdmann by Maren Ade. Not only is it hilarious but it’s also moving, with the best performances by Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek.

The biggest female champion and mentor of my career has been… [trailblazer of UK independent exhibition and distribution] Romaine Hart – she led the way for building a great cinema business. A wise, funny and inspiring woman.

The best piece of advice I’ve been given from a woman… Stay calm. And in an argument I was told, “Don’t say ‘never’ or ‘always’.”

A female industry name to watch is… Micallar Walker-Smith. She is the founder of Dark Matter, an agency that does great things for an audience that has been underserved for years in all aspects of the film industry. We have worked together for many years and I have seen her grow and develop. She soaks up information, is brave, works harder than you can even dream about, and understands how cinema exhibition and distribution works.

Lia Devlin – managing director, Altitude Film Distribution 

My favourite female-directed film is… Lisa Cholodenko’s (highly underrated in my opinion) The Kids Are All Right. It’s one I’ll happily repeat watch. It’s funny, still feels fresh and has real depth also. The female characters in particular are brilliantly written and authentic and, as well as the dream cast, I love that it’s about middle age, motherhood and the messy complexities of relationships.

The biggest female champion and mentor of my career has been… Mia Bays [former director of Birds’ Eye View] has been wonderfully wise and inspiring and has helped me in my career through her work with Birds’ Eye View and its Future Leaders In Distribution programme. Mia brought together and developed women across the industry and the course was a real game-changer for me. I really value the network I have as a result.

The best piece of advice I’ve been given from a woman… It’s not passed to me directly of course, but these wise words from Maya Angelou are golden: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

A female industry name to watch is… My colleague Laura Wilson, who is Altitude’s talented head of development and acquisitions. She is passionate, intuitive and both creative and business minded. I learn from her all the time, and she is fun to work with too.

Lizzie Francke – editor at large, BFI Film Fund 

My favourite female-directed film is… The Ascent by the Ukrainian-born filmmaker Larisa Shepitko from 1977. One of the most powerful, close-up accounts of the horrors of war. It should be mandatory viewing for all those going into politics.

The biggest female champions and mentors of my career havebeen… Professor Pam Cook, when she was at Sight And Sound, and the dear late Ruth Picardie were hugely encouraging female forces when I started out as a writer back in the day. As I made strides into the world of production and exec’ing, I’ve been hugely privileged to work with and learn from [producers] Tanya Seghatchian and the much-missed late Sue Bruce-Smith, among others.

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The best piece of advice I’ve been given from a woman… “Think Pink, if you want that quel-que chose” from Kay Thompson in Funny Face. Now there’s a role model!

A female industry name to watch is… All the wonderful young women in the immediate BFI Film Fund team – Aoife Hayes, Phoebe Sutherland, Iris Cohen and Kate Rawson. I know the future is bright with them. 

Melanie Iredale – director, Birds’ Eye View

My favourite female-directed film is… My role at Birds Eye View means I’m in a privileged position to get to watch so many! Andrea Arnold’s Cow, Blerta Basholli’s Hive and Celine Sciamma’s Petite Maman are my favourites of recent months. If I’m to look back at a filmmaker whose body of work really speaks to me then it’s the late, legendary Barbara Hammer. She was a pioneer of both lesbian and avant-garde cinema. Audience is a romp of a watch for those of us with an endless curiosity for the conversations that take place between cinema attendees on the way in and out of the auditorium.

The biggest female champions and mentors of my career have been… Peers from Independent Cinema Office courses I’ve done over the years and from Birds’ Eye View’s pandemic response programme last year. Someone I worked with closely and who I feel really inspired how I’ve approached my role here at Birds’ Eye View is Cíntia Gil, who was director at Sheffield DocFest while I was her deputy – it was an important experience for me to learn from someone who programmed and led with such integrity.

The best piece of advice I’ve been given from a woman… It’s having the courage of your conviction in curation and decision making, and not being willing to compromise where something goes against your values.

A female industry name to watch is… I’m so inspired by the number of feminist curatorial collectives that have come together in recent years, each creating safe spaces for marginalised audiences and rare opportunities to watch new and retrospective films that have been overlooked by the mainstream. Shout outs go to Club des Femmes, Haringey Global Cinema Club, Invisible Women, Kiki Bristol, T A P E Collective and others – all ones to watch.

Chiara Maranon – director of content, Mubi

My favourite female-directed film is… I couldn’t not mention Jeanne Dielman, which remains one of the most revelatory watching experiences of my life. Who would have thought a three-hour film that observes with painstaking attention to detail how a middle aged woman carries out her daily chores could be so fascinating, and even suspenseful? Chantal Akerman achieves this not through plot, but purely by making use of the cinematic language: framing, editing, pacing, claiming the domestic space, traditionally associated to women, as a cinematic scenery for what is not only a feminist milestone but also one of the most extraordinary films ever made.

The biggest female champion and mentor of my career has been… Tanya Valette, a Dominican film producer, film consultant, script doctor, festival director, the first female director of the International Film and TV School of San Antonio de Los Baños (Cuba), currently director of studies at Escuela Altos de Chavón (Dominican Republic), and all around film extraordinaire. A true force of nature, a role model, a second mother to all her film students and a restless champion of the new voices of Latin American cinema.

The best piece of advice I’ve been given from a woman… Recently a very smart woman said to me: “When you are told, ‘That is not how the business works’ – and you will be told that many times – always tell them: ‘Then let’s change the business.’”

A female industry name to watch is… María Zamora, an excellent producer that not only has ardently fought for industry gender parity, but also has launched the career of a new generation of Spanish young female filmmakers like Carla Simón, recent winner of the Berlinale Golden Bear with Alcarrás or Clara Roquet, whose debut Libertad premiered in Cannes’ Critics Week last year.

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Teresa Moneo – director international original film, Netflix  

My favourite female-directed film is… The Piano from Jane Campion. I saw the film in the early days of my career. I was an admirer of Jane Campion from Sweetie and An Angel At My Table and when I saw The Piano I was really impacted by the sense of longing that she captures in the film.

The biggest female champion and mentor of my career has been… Alison Thompson – she is poised and incredibly generous in sharing all that she knows and her expertise.

The best piece of advice I’ve been given from a woman… Persistence, persistence, persistence. 

A female industry name to watch is… Isobel Waller-Bridge, the composer of Munich: The Edge Of War, and Daria D’Antonio, the cinematographer from The Hand Of God. Both are incredibly successful in their own right and I think their work is worthy of even more recognition.

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Gabrielle Stewart – managing director, HanWay Films

My favourite female-directed film is… Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. It was an exceptional, muscular and tense film that seemingly came out of nowhere, won best picture [at the Oscars] and showed a woman could make an incredible film in a very male space.

The biggest female champions and mentors of my career have been… In my early career at Focus Features International, the London office had an incredible team of senior women, Alison Thompson, Teresa Moneo, Heta Paarte and my official mentor within the Universal group was the amazing late Clare Wise.

The best piece of advice I’ve been given from a woman… Ask yourself often, “What would a man do?” when negotiating on behalf of yourself.

A female industry name to watch is… Sarah Brocklehurst is a really exciting producer who has recently announced a new female driven company backed by the BBC and is currently working with German talent Nora Fingscheidt and Saoirse Ronan on The Outrun.

Alison Thompson – co-president, Cornerstone Films

My favourite female-directed film is… I’m fortunate to have worked on two wonderful films early in my career that still resonate and feel relevant today – Marleen Gorris’s Antonia’s Line and Sally Potter’s Orlando. Both are memorable films that champion the female gaze and celebrate ‘soft power’ and were, with hindsight, well ahead of their time.

The biggest female champion and mentor of my career has been… I would not have had my career without the indomitable, charismatic Carole Myer. Carole created The Sales Company – one of the UK’s leading sales agents in the 1990s. She was whip-smart, fierce, loyal and always spoke her mind. She had enormous passion for cinema and with her photographic memory could remember everything from of a filmmaker’s biography to box office stats.

The best piece of advice I’ve been given from a woman… Several years ago, my dear friend, [producer] Sue Bruce-Smith, told me: “Confidence begets confidence – if you project confidence, others will have confidence in you, and remember, it’s not always the loudest person in the room who knows best.” She told me this in a pep talk just before I was applying for new job and I’m sure her advice helped get me the position.

A female industry name to watch is… Not quite a newcomer but it has to be said, Mia Bays is a visionary thinker, a champion of women, a great enabler and someone who acts on her words. I’m hugely excited to see what she does at the BFI.

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