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Ahead of Her Time – Female Filmmakers and the Sci-Fi Dystopia

Posted in Film on Apr 29, 2019

High Life, the first English Language feature from French auteur Claire Denis, is an astonishing watch. Starting from a familiar sci-fi premise - a mismatched group of strangers set adrift in space for mysterious reasons - Denis embarks on a horrifying, cryptic and visually stunning voyage through time, space and the human psyche, with orgasms, gardening and Robert Pattinson thrown in for good measure. Like all the best science fiction films High Life is at once vividly realised and shrewdly prescient, combining fantastical futuristic flourishes with a complex commentary on bodily autonomy, fertility and sexual politics.

High Life invites comparisons with iconic science fiction films – there are clear stylistic and thematic echoes of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ridley Scott’s Alien and Tarkovsky’s Solaris, as well as a hefty dose of Glazer’s Under the Skin. It’s no surprise of course, to see that the films that High Life calls to mind are all directed by men – stats around female authorship in cinema remain, in 2019, somewhat dystopian – but that does not mean that Denis is without contemporaries and predecessors. Like their male counterparts, female directors have frequently found in sci-fi an opportunity to explore important contemporary themes, particularly issues around sexuality, gender and race, across vividly imagined visions of future worlds. No matter how weird or wild these futures might be, sci-fi is a genre that perhaps more than any other speaks to our present, a warning beamed backwards to shake us out of our complacency and force us to question our now.

To tie in with the release of High Life, we are screening a selection of sci-fi/dystopias made by women that demonstrate just how varied these visions of the future can be. For experimental filmmaker Lizzie Borden, the genre offered a chance to critique contemporary media and institutional misogyny, while presenting an intersectional vision of female solidarity and collective action. Born in Flames (1983) is set a near future New York that has been “liberated” by a peaceful socialist revolution, but where the rights of women remain subservient to a greater socialist cause. When a young female activist is killed in police, the various feminist factions in the city, including two pirate radio stations, a Women’s Army and a socialist newspaper, are forced to confront the structural injustice that surround them. The film is particularly striking in its portrayal of a group of women united in activism across class, race, and sexuality, an image of intersectional unity that retains a radical power today. Incidentally, Born in Flames also features a small cameo from Kathryn Bigelow, whose film Strange Days (1995) is also an explicitly political dystopia that was underestimated on its release but speaks powerfully to today.

Like Born in Flames, Ngozi Onwurah’s Welcome II the Terrordome (1995) envisages a dystopia shaped by structural inequalities and contained through state sanctioned violence, although her vision is bleaker and more brutal than Borden’s. This blistering micro-budget British indie, is set in the Terrordome, a dystopian ghetto whose predominately black inhabitants are subject to violence and harassment from a corrupt police force. Framed with continued references to racial oppression across history, including a prologue set during the slave trade, and with a heightened tragic plot that draws to mind Greek tragedy, Terrordome is utterly uncompromising. Still a shocking watch today, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the film was misunderstood when it was first released in cinemas and panned by the predominately white, male critical establishment. In retrospect the films portrayal of police brutality feels chillingly prescient, consciously calling backwards to the LA riots and forwards to the Black Lives Matter movement. Chillingly, both Born in Flames and Terrordome, have gained more resonance in recent years as global politics swings towards the right. As Borden herself said to Little White Lies in 2017: “[Born in Flames] is now having a renaissance because of Donald Trump. Who knew things could be worse for women now than back then?”

Of course, not all sci-fi is dominated by doom, and even dystopias can be fun sometimes.

Rachel Talalay’s underrated Tank Girl (1995) is a vibrant example of the more playful end of the spectrum, a frenetic, steam punk vision of the end of the world as a sort of feminist Mad Max, with a truly magnetic, unhinged heroine at its heart. Set in 2033 on a drought stricken earth, the story follows Lori Petty’s titular outlaw heroine as she takes on the violent megalomaniacs who control the earths water supply, kicking butts, making risqué wisecracks and hooking up with Kangaroos in the process. Tank Girl is undoubtedly a mess, but it’s a highly enjoyable and gleefully subversive one, which can count amongst its many charms a terrific 90’s soundtrack (Bjork! Hole!), dayglow costumes and inventive sets (designed by Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke).

Like Terrordome, Tank Girl (1995) was a flop on release (MGM reportedly recouped only $6 million of a reported $25million budget), but has since become a cult favourite (and a classic Comic Con outfit). A good two decades before Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel, Tank Girl can be celebrated as the first female superhero to get her own standalone feature, which given the dominance of the superhero in contemporary cinema feels like a significant achievement.

Sally Potter’s Orlando is a stark contrast to Tank Girl tonally and stylistically, but in its own way it’s just as subversively enjoyable. Although not technically a sci-fi, this sumptuous adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s pioneering novel centres on a hero/heroine who lives for hundreds of years, travels through time, and switches gender, all distinctly futuristic ideas. Tilda Swinton is captivating in the central role, a nobleman/woman whose story spans the centuries from the reign of Elizabeth I to the present day, falling in and out of love on the way. “Same person. No difference at all” Swinton’s Orlando declares casually, with a mischievous glint in their eye, when he/she wakes up one morning to find themselves in a different gendered body.  Orlando’s casual queerness - a “no big deal” acceptance of a fluid spectrum of identity - feels very 2019, and demonstrates how working with genre can allow a director to appear almost clairvoyant, anticipating cultural shifts through apparently fantastical leaps of imagination.

It’s not a coincidence that nearly all these films were misunderstood or underestimated on their release, only to be reassessed in later years and reinstated as important cult movies. All of these films are fiercely cherished by passionate audiences who find in them a reflection of a reality otherwise absent on their screens. For these directors, escaping into the future allows them to say the unsayable, to sweep past social taboos and convey controversial arguments. The jury is still out on High Life, but early reviews already suggest that it is likely to divide audiences and trigger many a heated post-film discussion in the cinema bar. Perhaps in 20 years we will be placing Denis in the same category as Borden, Onwurah, Potter and Talalay – female directors whose visions of the future were ahead of their time.

- Rachel Pronger, Film Programme Coordinator at Tyneside Cinema (@RachelPronger)


To coincide with the release of Claire Denis’ High Life, we’re celebrating female directed sci fi across May and June. From the dark dystopias of Lizzie Borden’s Born In Flames and Ngozi Onwurah’s Welcome II The Terrordome to the playful steam punk of Lori Petty’s Tank Girl and the queer time travel of Sally Potter’s Orlando, this season demonstrates how women have used this most inventive of genres to explore the politics of race, identity and sexuality against wildly imaginative visions of our possible future.

This season includes three 35MM screenings, an in person filmmaker Q&A with Ngozi Onwurah and a Feminist Film Club: ORLANDO, which will be presented with an introduction.

View our full programme here.