We tend to think of cinema as a globalized industry that’s, at least in the U.S., centered in Hollywood. But regional film-making thrives, particularly in independent cinema. Independent film also allows for more women to succeed as directors, writers, etc. Today, I’ll highlight some amazing women filmmakers who are from or work in my home region, the Pacific Northwest.
But first, a quick note: I’m using “filmmaker” here to mean anyone who works on films, including directors, writers, producers, and even costume designers. It takes hundreds of talented people to make a film. Furthermore, women’s labor has historically been forgotten. It’s not just directors who deserve recognition!
Katherine Wilson – The Mother of Oregon Film
Hailing from Klamath Falls, Oregon, Katherine Wilson came to filmmaking through a friendship with author Ken Kesey, when his book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest received a film adaption in 1975. After doing miscelleanous work on that set, Wilson became a champion of filmmaking in Oregon. She encouraged studios to shoot films here, facilitating those productions, like Animal House (1978) and Stand By Me (1986). Her jobs on movies over the years included finding financing and working as a stunt woman. She also worked on location scouting, set design, and casting. I had the pleasure of working on her donated archival materials at the University of Oregon. If you want to learn more, check out her recently published memoir Echoes from the Set.
Kelly Reichardt – The Champion of the Real
Though not a Pacific Northwest native, Reichardt’s beautiful, minimalist films have brought our region to life in the indie film world. Beginning with Old Joy (2006), a quiet but powerful character study about two friends on a camping trip in Oregon, Reichardt made a name for herself as a director of everyday life. All her films are fantastic, but I particularly love Meek’s Cutoff (2010). Starring Michelle Williams, Meek’s Cutoff fictionalizes a real life incident from Oregon Trail history through a feminist lens. It centers on an arrogant trapper who leads three pioneer families astray in the deserts of eastern Oregon. Shot on location with natural lighting and realistic props, the film brings history to life in a brutal but beautiful way. Her latest film, First Cow (2020), a touching tale of friendship, won Best Film by New York Film Critics.
Bobbi Jo Hart – The Sketcher of Characters
Hart hails from Ashland, Oregon and studied at Southern Oregon State University. She travels all over making documentaries with themes of gender, family, fame, and performance. Her films include Rebels on Pointe (2017), She Got Game (2003), and I Am Not a Rock Star (2012). In an interview, Hart said: “I feel a responsibility to tell stories about women, to help inspire future generations of girls to believe in themselves and their own dreams.” I especially enjoyed Rebels on Pointe, which followed the Trockaderos, a famous all-male drag ballet troupe. Hart skillfully balanced humor and pathos, capturing the troupe’s delightful camp sensibility. But she doesn’t shy away from tragedy including the impact of the AIDS crisis on the troupe in the 1980s. Hart’s other documentaries similarly showcase incredible people in an intimate, engaging way.
Helen Haig-Brown – The Preserver of Culture
It may not be common knowledge, but the Pacific Northwest is a hot spot of endangered languages, which is why the film, Sgaawaay K’uuna (Edge of the Knife) (2018) is such an important film. Filmed entirely in Haida, an indigenous language, and following a traditional story, Edge of the Knife, shows that film can be history as well as art. Though Tsilhqotʼin (not Haida), Helen Haig-Brown co-directed this film with careful attention to collaborative storytelling and realism. Before she made many art films exploring cultural heritage and feminism. Her first feature film, My Legacy (2014), explores her relationship with her mother. Her films show what is often missing in Hollywood: diversity and an important, overlooked part of North American history.
Deborah Cook – The Mistress of Miniatures
The last filmmaker I want to talk about is not a director at all! But her artistry has had an undeniable impact on Pacific Northwest filmmaking. Deborah Cook works as a costume designer and puppet modeler for Laika Studios, based in Portalnd. Laika has revitalized stop-motion animation seen in films like Coraline (2009), Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), and most recently, The Missing Link (2019). Cook’s incredible attention to detail gives her puppets emotion and character, contributing to Laika’s critical success. Her work shows that it takes all kinds of artistry to bring film to life.
I hope you enjoyed learning about these amazing women filmmakers! You can support independent film by seeking out lesser known films, attending film festivals and art-house cinemas (when it’s safe), and by supporting tax incentives and funding for filmmakers in your region.