Fifteen years ago, when I was a graduate student focusing on film, we approached Kathryn Bigelow to serve on the board of a Women in Cinema Film Festival which became part of the larger Seattle International film festival. A group of women programmers (myself, Kathleen McInnis and Sarah Hansen) were tired of how women filmmakers seemed to be ignored by the press, and how few were recognized in the United States (unlike in most of Europe, Australia, etc.) and we wanted to draw attention to the amazing films and filmmakers, who, also happened to be women. Ms. Bigelow turned us down, politely, asserting the fact that she was a filmmaker, period. Not a female filmmaker, but a filmmaker full stop.
She was right to do so. She is a visionary, and was putting on the screen stories and symbols which will go down in cinematic history as being classics. And she did it first. Not first as a woman, first as a filmmaker. The Academy took its sweet time to honor her with an Oscar. But she always knew who she was, and what she was capable of, and never ever gave up. She has a huge amount of integrity as a filmmaker.
At the time we approached her for our festival, I was in my twenties, and did not yet understand that, to truly be considered equal did not mean to label oneself as this or that, but to let the work speak for itself. Just as a woman does not need to use her body or sexuality to achieve her career goals, neither need she lean on the fact that she is female to project images which will disturb and move us, and force us to rethink where we are as humans. As a director, what is so fascinating about Kathryn Bigelow is how she enters and penetrates into worlds often seemingly closed to women, without even thinking about it. Nothing stops her -- it is as if those barriers do not even exist. And it is this approach which makes her unique, and 100% right. All women and all human beings, when carrying out their dreams, should do exactly the same, with as much courage and persistence as Kathryn Bigelow has!
She is able to depict points of view, action and fantastic storylines, with both male and female actors; with soft actors and tough; men with "feminine" sides (Ralph Fiennes in Strange Days) and women with seemingly masculine sides, (Jamie Lee Curtis in Blue Steel, one of my favorite films ever), to the point that gender becomes a non-issue. Bigelow's characters are human beings, every one capable of transgressing simple definitions, forcing us to think deeply about choices that are made, the present and future we are participating in creating...ultimately about human experience and our common "reality".
In Strange Days, the layers of meaning and critique of out virtual emotional addictive landscapes were ahead of their time. Watch this film again and again. The woman "driving" and "in control" is Angela Bassett's Mason. The young woman who has broken Ralph Fienne's character's heart, the women he clings to in his virtual sensual experience of the past, is also named in such a way that when he loses her, he loses Faith. Best friend's literally stab one another in the back (more usual than not in Hollywood). The entire industry of entertainment, the very heart of L.A. and Bigelow's own filmmaking world, is taken to task. And there is only one honest politician left in Los Angeles...hmmm...the surface of the film is stunning...as it is in all of Bigelow's work. This film critiques the very industry which has held her at arm's length for so many years. On her fan page years ago she was quoted in an interview as follows:
Interviewer: Strange Days is above all a film that is profoundly troubled about the business of mass entertainment.
Kathryn Bigelow: (Laughs) It's sort of at war with itself. You can't come out of the art world without tremendous ambivalence. It's part of the process, you question everything.
Interviewer: You're not supposed to do that in Hollywood.
K.B. Well what are you supposed to do?
Interviewer: You're supposed to entertain.
K.B. To simply entertain: is there such a thing as a neutral text? I don't think so.
(Kathryn Bigelow Fan Page, Jan 2000)
I wish Kathryn Bigelow and not Luc Besson had made Joan of Arc. But I would also argue that Bigelow has greater things ahead of her. She no longer has to consider the male power structure which judges as Joan of Arc was judged...and neither shall she fear being burned at the stake...Kathryn Bigelow is powerful, has always been powerful, and did not ask for anyone's approval to know that within herself.
She is, simply, Kathryn Bigelow: Filmmaker.