In honour of ‘Women’s History Month’ we decided to pay homage to women that have helped shape the Film and TV landscape.

Desiree Akhavan – Words by Emma Norris:

Desiree Akhavan is an American-Iranian film director, producer, screenwriter and actress. Best known for her film “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” a coming-of-age film about a young girl forced into conversion therapy, her work also includes the TV series “The Bisexual,” written, directed and starring herself, as well as “Appropriate Behaviour,” an account of a young, Persian woman and her struggles with cultural identity and sexuality. Her work is nothing short of extraordinary, each piece offering an entirely different but equally moving, and at times comedic, insight into life as a minority.  

What is most significant about Akhavan’s work is her opening up of conversations about female sex and sexuality; in each of her films, queer females are centred as protagonists. In a 2018 interview with the Guardian, she revealed that “the fact that the only mainstream queer female stories we’ve heard have been directed by men – that disgusts me.” Fuelled by this anger, she has successfully created some of the most authentic, intimate and taboo-breaking depictions of life as a gay woman within a society dominated by straight culture, making her voice heard in the still largely white, straight, male dominated film industry. 

Race and cultural identity are also significant themes in Desiree’s work; growing up with Iranian-immigrant parents who at first disputed her identity as a bisexual woman, her work offers an important insight into the complexities of cultural identity and the effects that they can have on one’s own life, living in an oppressive society that deemed her as “other.” 

Desiree Akhavan’s work is so important as it directly tackles and deconstructs societal norms that are so often reinforced in the film industry. She is completely unafraid of taboos and, in doing this, allows for underrepresented groups to blossom and have an authentic chance at representation in film and TV. One example of the difficulties Akhavan has faced in getting her stories told was her series “The Bisexual” failing to be picked up for American TV (it was eventually commissioned by Channel 4 instead), serving as a reflection of how hard it is for minority voices to receive representation in the mainstream, even in the 21st century. 

In a world in which accurate female representation in these industries is so rare, people such as Desiree offer a much needed break from convention, placing women at the centre of their work and offering a space for genuine and unfiltered representation.

Thelma Schoonmaker – By Laila Rumbold Kazzuz:

It’s fair to say that there are only a small handful of directors who have become true household names while also remaining a favourite among cinephiles. One director who has managed to tick both boxes is Martin Scorsese. But there is another crucial voice behind his creations that is still underappreciated. After a professor at NYU suggested that she help her fellow student Martin rescue his short film, which had been butchered by another editor, young film editor Thelma Schoonmaker went on to cut Scorsese’s debut feature film, beginning a historic creative partnership.

Schoonmaker’s big break came with Raging Bull in 1980. A masterpiece in every sense, Raging Bull was prestige filmmaking and earned Schoonmaker her first Best Film Editing Oscar for what remains one of the greatest artistic achievements in film history, with its harshly poetic visual style that so vividly depicts the ugly mindset of its protagonist. Since then, Schoonmaker has edited all 22 of Scorsese’s subsequent features, including The Last Temptation of Christ, Casino, Gangs Of New York, The Departed, Shutter Island, The Wolf Of Wall Street, and even the video for Michael Jackson’s Bad.

Part of what makes Schoonmaker so underappreciated is our lack of understanding of how important the editing process is. Many great films are lost or found entirely at the editing stage. But Schoonmaker is also, like Scorsese, totally selfless; for all her technique she only seeks to serve the story being told. This selflessness extends to preserving the work of her late husband, director Michael Powell (Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes). 

Schoonmaker is capable of creating moods as disparate as the cocaine fuelled paranoia of 1990’s Goodfellas, with Schoonmaker’s increasingly rapid cutting playing a vital part in upping the film’s tension, as well as her sublime work on 2019’s The Irishman, a film whose exceptionally mature artistry is complimented by its deliberate slow pacing. Schoonmaker understands that editing shouldn’t always be an invisible force, as some think. When asked “How does such a nice lady edit such violent films?” the grey haired 81 year old replied “Ah, but they aren’t violent until I’ve edited them.”

Janet Mock – By Shae Man:

I’m sorry to say that I was only introduced to Janet Mock earlier this year, with the FX show Pose – in which she wrote, produced, and directed a significant part of the 3 season series, which depicts ballroom culture in 1980s and 90s New York. Pose pairs hilarious moments of unashamed over-the-topness with a poignant focus on chosen family, trans experiences, and the struggles around the HIV/AIDS pandemic. 

Mock’s stunning work on the honest and often heart-breaking show deservedly won her a Primetime Emmy, among other accolades. The show was also noteworthy for featuring the largest regular cast of transgender actors in TV history, including Indya Moore (they/them) as the sultry Angel, Mj Rodriguez (she/her) as sweetheart Blanca and Dominique Jackson (she/her) as the iconic Elektra.

With Pose, Mock made history as the first openly trans woman to write and direct a TV episode, and to secure a production deal with a major studio. But this is by no means the boundaries of her success. As well as Pose, Mock has written, produced, and directed several episodes of the drama series Hollywood, a revisionist take on the post-World War II film industry, and Monster, an upcoming story about the notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.

She has also written two bestselling memoirs, Redefining Realness (2014) and Surpassing Certainty (2017), which speak to her tumultuous and inspiring journey as a trans woman of colour. Born in the early 1980s in Honolulu, Hawaii, Mock recalled knowing she was a woman from an early age, and began physically transitioning with hormones during high school. She chose her name Janet, after Janet Jackson – another icon. 

After moving to New York to pursue a master’s degree in journalism, she became active in her support for trans rights and dismantling the surrounding stigma. Nowadays, she is recognized for her passionate activism, such as creating campaigns like #GirlsLikeUs, in an effort to empower trans women. With every success, Mock is breaking down the harmful stereotypes that surround and endanger trans women of colour, and I hope you can find the beauty and honesty in her work as much as I have.

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