Amalia Ulman on Self-Directed Women

Originally Published in Issue 21
Essay by Amalia Ulman

Amalia Ulman, El Planeta, 2021

I was going to write about some of the films that inspired the making of El Planeta, specially pre-code cinema, that brief period of American cinema between the adoption of sound in pictures in 1929 and the enforcement of the Hays Code in mid-1934. But when I started typing it out in Spain, while I was attending the FICX (Gijón International Film Festival), my thoughts went elsewhere. 

El Planeta was shot in Gijón, which is the city where I grew up, so having the Spanish premiere at the FICX Festival was a big deal for me (and my mother, who is also in the film) for obvious reasons. Thankfully the movie was well received (phew!) but with that came a busy schedule of interviews. A lot of them asked the same questions about authenticity, and simultaneously screenwriting, directly, and putting oneself in front of the camera (while being a woman). This constant interest on very specific subjects made me want to write about that, instead of rambling about sassy 1930’s black and white flicks. 

The FICX was pretty much the last stop of the premiere circuit that started in Sundance, so by then, I was able to make a sort of map of the different questions that arose in different places. America loved to ask about authenticity, in Poland a lot of the questions seemed to have to do with morality, in Korea most of the questions were very technical, and in Spain a lot had to do with having worked with my mother and/or putting myself in front of the camera. Being in Gijón, so close to the tiny apartment where I grew up and the kitchen where I made (to this day) most of my work, the question about simultaneously writing, directing, and acting still surprises me, not only because that’s the easiest way for me to work, but also because I feel like there is such a long tradition of doing it. I think the problem is on one hand, that the journalists see the act of “performing for the camera” as something intrinsically feminine, when a woman does it anyway. 

Amalia Ulman, El Planeta, 2021

Why would the question of “vanity” and the superficial comparisons with Miranda July or Cindy Sherman come up (both geniuses, but not the only ones!), while there is little or no mention of any of the men who have worked in the same manner, from the early days of cinema? Like Ernst Lubitsch, who aside from being a marvelous Hollywood director, had been an actor in 1920’s Germany and in Sumurun, which he directed, he also acted alongside Pola Negri. Not to mention the obvious cases of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, who both directed themselves in films they also wrote. 

Maybe my background in fine arts allows me to take full immersion as a given, but maybe it’s also that my favourite films have all been conceived in similar ways to how I work. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s mom did his film’s accounting, aside from participating in some of them as an actor. And I think that Gena Rowland’s performance in A Woman Under the Influence, wouldn’t have been the same without Katharine Cassavetes, John’s mother, taking the role of Margaret Longhetti. And of course, Dennis Hopper directing himself in Out of the Blue, in that legendary scene where he pours a bottle of whiskey over his head. Who else could have been able to capture that subtle psychosis other than himself? 

Why is everyone so distracted with gender when a woman directs herself? Why do all screenwriting and directing efforts get lost in a sea of gaze, femininity, and vanity? Why, still, does a woman have to be only behind the camera to be taken seriously? 

Of course, female director’s make films through their own particular lens and that means their lived experiences as femme presenting bodies in the world. But you could also say that Easy Rider is a film about two bikers and what happens to them as the two dudes they are, but no description of the film says it’s a movie about manhood. Instead, the descriptions seem to evoke a universal feeling, describing it as a “touchstone for a generation” that “captured the national imagination.” 

Barbara Loden, Wanda, 1970

Maya Deren, Meshes Of The Afternoon, 1943

I think that the experimental works of Maya Deren, the nineties indies by Adrienne Shelly, Yang Mingming’s Girls Always Happy, and the heartbreaking Wanda by Barbara Loden should be discussed in many different ways and not only through the limiting lens of gender identity. I long for a world where film festivals don’t have special categories and where everything that is considered niche today is finally universal, watched and understood by everybody.

Read this story in print by ordering Issue 21
Read Zoe Koke’s interview with Amalia Ulman here.