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In honor of being invited to join AWFJ, the Top 10 Movies of 2017, as directed by women!

On this first day of 2018, I’m thrilled to announce my addition as a member of AWFJ, the Alliance of Women Film Journalists.  An official invitation and close scrutiny of my work was required, and I’m quite thrilled I made the cut, and that I’m now part of such a great, talented group of female writers.  My reviews will appear on their site throughout the year, and I’ll be a voting member, which means I get to vote in their annual EDA Awards. This non-profit women-focused organization hopes to expand awareness and shine a light on women both in front of and behind the camera, so I couldn’t be more aligned with their goals!

In celebration of this wonderful honor, this first post by Cinema Siren in 2018 will be the Best Films of 2017, but ONLY include films directed by women.  It’s thrilling to say most of these would already be on my top ten, and that is definitely a sign of the times.  There are several films that were released from within the Hollywood studio system, and that’s also good news. Still, women are smart, so they know that often it’s better to go the independent route, not least because their vision, as often both the writer and director of their films, is not only kept firmly intact, but celebrated by their collaborators.

Congratulations to Netflix, who are leading the charge in supporting woman creators, and who backed both First They Killed My Father and Mudbound.  Remember, as I’ve mentioned before, they also promote women’s vision for the small screen, with, for example, the all-female directed second season of Jessica Jones coming up, as well as the all-female led show Harlots, which has female stars, writers, creators, and directors.

Here is my top ten list of 2017, in no particular order.  Watch them all.  You will not be disappointed!  Now, can we depend on the Academy to celebrate these great films, which landed in what was dubbed “The Year of the Women”?  Only time will tell.

(if I’ve reviewed the film, you can click on the title for my review on CinemaSiren.com)

Lady Bird

Greta Gerwig wrote and directed this coming-of-age film about a girl entering adulthood with Catholic guilt and big dreams in tow.  The movie didn’t suffer from the significant edits required of Gerwig’s over 800 page original draft.  Saoirse Ronan embodies the awkwardness and bruised optimism of the lead character with such authenticity, we are all thrown back into our own 17-year-old bodies.  In theaters now.


It feels like Dee Rees can do no wrong.  How long before Hollywood hands someone with her talent a huge project along the lines of Star Wars? Perhaps she’s just happy creating achingly beautiful portraits of family struggle, as in the wonderful film Mudbound, which she co-wrote.  Expect every bad thing to happen to the two families, one black, one white, both poor, each dealing with the PTSD their beloved child returns with from WW2.  Racism, since it’s the South, plays an important, and awful part.  On Netflix now.


Need a cheerful, intense, and deeply heartfelt documentary about cats and how much they inspire?  Kedi, from producer/director Ceyda Torun will be a perfect fit.  Did you know that cats have been an essential part of the fabric of Istanbul for thousands of years?  Find out why and be moved in watching a film that will start your year off with optimism.  On YouTube and GooglePlay now.

A United Kingdom

If like me, you daily sing the praises of actors David Oyelowo and Rosemund Pike, the biopic in which they starred in 2017 A United Kingdom is for you.  Even if you don’t, Amma Asante’s feature about the real story of Seretse and Ruth Khama, who forever changed Botswana with their unwavering love for each other and their country is a film that will remind you standing up for your beliefs can ultimately lead to lasting changes.  For rent on Vudu, iTunes, and Amazon Video now.


Released under the title “Grave”, writer/director Julia Ducournau proves once again that the horror genre has ample room for powerful, fearless women. It’s always been a place where outsiders could find a voice and make statements of political and social significance, and the film Raw is a successful example of that.  Starring relative newcomer Garance Marillier, it examines the pressures of young adulthood, matriculation, and finding acceptance.  also there’s cannibalism.   For rent online on Vudu, iTunes, and Amazon Video.

Wonder Woman

For those of you who have lived under a rock in the last year, one of the top grossing films of 2017 was a little movie called Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins. It’s just one of a number of movies centered around a female lead that rocked the box office, but this film in particular broke all sorts of records for women directors.  Good news?  Sure…but what took Hollywood so long?  Those of us in the know are well aware of the talented female directors who want a chance directing a blockbuster. Hey, DC! Here’s what happens when you hand it over to a woman.  Will it change things for women in Hollywood? They did sign Jenkins to the sequel, but not before a long, drawn-out negotiation.  Gal Gadot as Diana Prince shows she can save the world just as well or better than any male superhero, and do it with a dash of compassion.  Available for purchase on DVD and now playing on HBO.

The Breadwinner

Directed by the co-director of The Secret of Kells, Nora Twomey, The Breadwinner follows the strong, determined Afghan girl Parvana as she disguises her in boy’s clothing so she can work to provide for her family.  Visually stunning and culturally meaningful, it is written for film by Deborah Ellis, who also wrote the book.  Animation can and does make political statements and it does open the eyes of its audiences to life’s struggles. Look for this film to make a splash at the Oscars.  It won’t win against the Pixar behemoth, but you should still see this awards-worthy feature. In Theaters now.

First They Killed My Father

Directed by Angelina Jolie, who is becoming increasingly known for the director part of her actor-director-producer hyphenate, First They Killed My Father is a biographical narrative that takes place in 1975 and follows 7 year old Cambodian girl Loung Ung as she gets trained as a child soldier.  Co-written by Jolie and Ung, and is based on Ung’s memoir of surviving the Khmer Rouge regime.  The film is the official Oscar submission by Cambodia for Best Foreign Film.  It is heartbreaking, gorgeous to look at (after all, Cambodia was quite a tourist destination before it got ripped apart by war) and fascinating.  On Netflix now.

The Wedding Plan

I had no idea what to expect when I started watching this film, which is in Hebrew and directed and written by Rama Burshtein, and is about a woman who gets jilted one month before her nuptials, but plans it anyway, expecting God to bring her the man of her dreams before the wedding. What Israeli-American director Rama Burshtein offers is a great education in what independent, free-thinking Orthodox Jewish women in Isreal experience as they search for love. Lead actress Noa Keller won the Isreali equivalent of an Oscar playing 32-year-old Michel, and she is aided by two delicious Israeli superstars, actor Amos Tamam and musician Oz Zehavi.  This is a rom-com for the ages. Available for rent on YouTube, Amazon Video, and Vudu.

I am Not a Witch

Welsh-Zambian director Rungano Nyoni had her feature debut with I Am Not a Witch, about 8-year-old girl Shula, in Zambia, who gets accused of witchcraft and after a quick trial gets carted off to a traveling witch camp.  She is threatened with being turned into a goat if she tries to escape.  This modern magical realist fable is all about misogyny, gender, and superstition. It is strange, wonderful, and will captivate you completely.  See it now. Available online in the UK and Ireland. http://www.iamnotawitch.com/watch-at-home/

Watch this fascinating interview with director Nyoni at the British Film Institute Festival.


There are two films that were co-directed by women, and I wanted to mention them here, because they are both wonderful and should be seen:


Co-directed by beloved filmmaker Agnes Varda and JR, this documentary won the L’Oeil d’or award at Cannes. Varda and JR travel around France creating portraits of people they encounter. It is charming and poignant in equal parts, and you will be moved.  Still playing in festivals, coming soon online.

Loving Vincent:

This animated feature was created by building it, painting by painting, until the sum of its parts, oil paintings, became a complete film.  Co-directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman invented a number of techniques in order to complete this passion project, which is a mystery based in the last several weeks of Van Gogh’s life.  Invention and creativity should always be rewarded, especially when they glean such spectacular results. Available to pre-order on Amazon, releasing on January 16th, 2018.

Also, if I were including films directed by men in this best of list, it would definitely include Blade Runner 2049, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and Call Me By Your Name, which are my three favorite films of the 2017.

I’ll be writing about the films to put on your radar in 2018 that will be female-focused and/or directed and written by women, so stay tuned for that.  In the meantime, let’s all celebrate creativity in all its forms, and hope 2017 built the groundwork FINALLY for women to be given a seat at the table when major studios in Hollywood consider who to hire to direct and work on the films that have huge profiles.  All successful studio films help the directors and crew create the other films that live in their hearts.

Best of 2018 to us all, and keep watching movies!


Cinema Siren

A United Kingdom Review: Female director Amma Asante brings us a love story of the brave real-life couple that changed a country


This weekend sees the release of A United Kingdom, the big screen dramatization based on Susan Williams’s nonfiction book Colour Bar, about Seretse and Ruth Khama. In the late 1940s, Khama, the Prince of Bechuanaland (now Batswana) married white English clerk Ruth Williams, and together they bravery faced the prejudice and fight against their union. Bolstered by the love they had for each other, they changed Botswana.

The director is Amma Asante, who helmed the critically acclaimed, award-winning Belle. Being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, yet raised in the UK, she was uniquely suited to expressing the couple’s experience onscreen.  Asante believes in creating films about important subjects, or ‘big stories’, that are political, as she puts it, with both a capital and lower case P.  She sees the politics inherent and involved in government and on a national scale, but also in family and community structures, and that was her approach in A United Kingdom.  She showed the British representatives forcing Seretse and Ruth to make very difficult choices, and the institutional racism guiding these government officials, but she also showed their families and the struggles they both had in accepting this interracial couple’s choice to be together.

Seretse Khama was in London studying when he met Ruth Williams by chance, and they fell deeply in love.  It was some time into their courtship that he revealed to her he was the crowned prince of Bechuanaland, a British protectorate, now Botswana. He was expected to go home and become king to rule his land and tribe.  They wanted to marry, but both knew it would be difficult. They didn’t realize the extent of resistance, judgment, and general racism they would encounter from all sides.  Despite that, they stayed together, fought for each other, and for Seretse’s (and Ruth’s adopted) country.  For a number of political reasons, officials in the British government did all they could to break them apart, including banning Seretse for years from his own country. These events led to Khama starting a political party, and becoming the first president of Botswana.  Those who don’t know this part of world history will be fascinated by the film, and romantics who believe love conquers all will see examples reaffirming that, as directer Asante says, ‘when love meets courage, we evolve as a humanity’.

David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike as Seretse and Ruth ably carry the film. They are completely believable and engrossing as the beleaguered couple just trying to create a life for themselves, and a better life for the people of Bechuanaland. A lovely element of authenticity is that for the film Asante used the completely refurbished original house in which the Khamas lived, as well as the hospital in which Ruth gave birth, which also got a facelift.  As to the film’s main weakness, there is a bit of underdevelopment of Seretse and Ruth’s courtship, but Oyelowo and Pike have  chemistry together that helps viewers buy into why they remained so committed to each other, and would fight so tenaciously to be accepted by their families, their country, and the world.

This sort of story couldn’t come at a time, because what Seretse and Ruth did as a couple, in changing their world and their country, took a huge amount of bravery. There are several countries, including the United States, in which the current state of political affairs is asking of those who recognize bigotry and racism, to be brave and stand up against it. History in some ways is repeating itself, right now, today, 70 years after the story of Seretse and Ruth Khama.  It’s wonderful that this film, which is not only visually stunning, and representative of the beauty and resilience of the African people, can also be an inspiration to be brave for a great percentage of its audience.  It’s also heartening to be able to wholeheartedly recommend a film helmed by a female director.


Amma Asante Interview: On Filming A United Kingdom & Being A Working Director


Director Amma Asante on the set of A United Kingdom. Photo by Stanislav Honzik. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

A United Kingdom, a film based on historic events, is being released just after Valentine’s Day on February 17th here in the states. Directed by Amma Asante, a UK-born daughter of Ghanan immigrants, the story is about how the love between two people, King Seretse Khama of Botswana and white Englishwoman Ruth Williams literally changed all of Africa. They met while Khama was in London studying in 1947, and married in the late 1940s at exactly the same time as apartheid was being introduced in neighboring South Africa. Their marriage altered the course of history for his country of Botswana, and by extension, the whole continent of Africa.

Asante was the director of the highly acclaimed film Belle, and was brought onto A United Kingdom by David Oyelowo, the star and a co-producer of the film. They had worked together years before, and knew they could build a film true to the incredible events on which it is based. Rosamund Pike plays Ruth. What is most amazing about this story is it is, in fact, their love that led them to the courage and insight required to change an entire country. At one point Seretse gets banned for a number of years from his own country, Ruth experiences more resistance than she ever thought possible from her husband and king’s population, and they both have to face racism from every direction. It is a film, without question, that comes at what could be dubiously named “the perfect time”. Since the new administration took control, Americans are seeing alarming changes that put immigrants, women, Muslims, and the LGBTQ community at risk, and allow far more laterality for racists and bigots across the country. I spoke to Asante about the film and her perspective as a British female director on its relevance to today’s political and culture climate, as well as her thoughts on women in film:

“What I love about the story, and why I think it resonates today, is you can see how big fat political decisions have a huge impact on ordinary lives.”

Rosamund Pike as "Ruth Williams" and David Oyelowo as "Seretse Khama" in the film A UNITED KINGDOM.Photo by Stanislav Honzik. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
Rosamund Pike as “Ruth Williams” and David Oyelowo as “Seretse Khama” in the film A UNITED KINGDOM.Photo by Stanislav Honzik. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Leslie Combemale (Cinema Siren): I’m so glad you opened my eyes to a story in history I knew nothing about. This really is true love in action. It feels like a huge story and a very personal one at the same time.

Amma Asante: Those are the stories that I love the most —especially in the climate that we’re in today, we realize that the political is something that runs through every aspect of our lives. Quite often we aren’t really thinking about the political with a small “p”, the political that’s involved in relationships and a family’s culture, and the political relationships we have at work. When I look at life and look at relationships, I see politics all of the time. I wanted to tell this big story, as you’ve described it, but I wanted to show as it is passed through the prism of the very personal story of Seretse and Ruth. What I love about the story, and why I think it resonates today, is you can see how big fat political decisions have a huge impact on ordinary lives. Just the simple fact that this woman fell in love with a man she had no idea was going to be a king. She followed her heart, and was courageous enough to move into existing in a world she knew nothing about, and never experienced before. She moved away from her safety net, to explore something new and different, and suddenly all of these politics descended upon her in a way she couldn’t quite imagine…and neither could he. I found that fascinating. I found it fascinating that this was a real story where a couple stood up in every way to politics and family pressure and absolutely everything you can imagine.

LC: One thing I couldn’t help thinking was that people don’t seem to learn from history. The timing of A United Kingdom’s release in the U.S. is perfect given what the new administration has effected: The first is the exposure of virulent racism and the second is the Muslim ban. Racism is definitely an aspect of Seretse and Ruth’s struggle, and the film also shows when he left his home and was then banned from coming back. This movie is frighteningly timely. Can you talk about that?

AA: I think what can be scary as an outsider (not somebody who lives in America)—I’m often asked about the difference between racism today and back when the story takes place, and what I think is, it’s much more subversive today, and much more an undercurrent than it was then. What I think is interesting about Seretse’s story is it was pretty subversive back then, because they used all of these excuses. Nobody was upfront. In the story, we make sure that the audience gets to see behind the scenes, and the real reasons this is happening, but in terms of what Seretse was being told from the very beginning was that it had nothing to do with South Africa, it had nothing to do with apartheid law. He was told it had to do with the fact that his uncle was angry that he was returning with a white woman and an outsider. They as the colonialist rulers of his country said they were simply doing what’s in the best interest of the people. So there was this facade that was placed in front of what was pure racism, and that racism really boiled down to the fact that South Africa was bringing Apartheid laws in, and an influential black man coming home with his white wife was seen as something that was very provocative. They thought it might perhaps persuade other influential black men they could do the same thing. Rather than simply saying that to the couple, they pretended it was about an argument that was going on between the members of the royal family of Batswana.

The fear I have is, if you’re overtly racist to me, I know where I stand. If you’re an overtly racist person I meet for a job interview, for instance, I have the choice as to whether I come to work for you, and whether I take the job. If you don’t tell me you’re racist, if your racism is more underground, if your racism is covered up by the facade of other things, then it’s easier for me to fall into your trap. That’s what worries me. Today we’re in a place where Seretse and Ruth were. There’s a facade.

LC: I think anyone watching this film might consider the a real struggle they might themselves have about personal vs societal obligation or responsibility. Granted, we aren’t all royalty, but I think this movie really does ask us to look inside ourselves, and how we might behave in the same situation. If I were a women of color, living in that country at the time, I could see feeling betrayed by Seretse’s choice. I love how you include the African women around Ruth, and the story arc of Seretse’s sister, for that reason.


Rosamund Pike as “Ruth Williams” and David Oyelowo as “Seretse Khama” in the film A UNITED KINGDOM. Photo by Stanislav Honzik. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

“I really wanted to rest at the heart of the story, this idea, which is, love is love”

AA: When I first came on to the project, the black African women really didn’t have a voice. That was a concern to me, because we were talking about a white woman coming to Africa as a queen, and essentially her role would have been with the women, so it’s important they be a part of the story.

My uncle is a chief in Ghana in West Africa where my parents are from. I was born in London, but my parents are from Ghana. My uncle has a position that is very important to the community where he’s from, and also with the family. I kept thinking, “what would it have been like, if my uncle had returned home after a period of time of time in the UK for education…forget color for a moment, even if she had simply just been an outsider, just different, how my mother and her sisters would have responded”… and from that really came the scene where Ruth is first confronted by Seretse’s sister and also Seretse’s aunt. I really just tried to channel all of those feelings and emotions as how it must feel to have somebody impressed upon me in this way. At the same time, I really wanted to rest at the heart of the story, this idea, which is, love is love. Once the sister realizes how courageous Ruth is being, that in fact to be ‘the other’ in somebody’s country is very hard, and yes it’s true that often we don’t see who ‘the other’ is, but Ruth really is that in Botswana at this point, and once she sees that Ruth’s courage stems from the fact that she loves Seretse deeply, and therefore is trying to withstand this firestorm that’s coming at her, the sister’s heart is open. I always felt that Ruth’s acceptance had to be in the hands of the women, and so that we can breathe a sigh of relief when the African women accept her. Empowering those women, for me was essential. They had to have agency on the screen.

I always try to make my films as if I’m an audience member, and I think with this and my previous film Belle, what this film feeds me as an audience member, is the knowledge that when love meets courage, we evolve as a humanity. We can have love on its own, and we can have courage on its own, but together they are a very powerful thing.

What happened for Seretse is that he was moved powerfully because of his own fears, about marrying an outsider and how his people would feel about it, to show them just how important they were to him, and how much a part of him they were. I think that’s why he was able to push forward, and bring his country to independence. Out of his feelings of love for this women came a better understanding of his love for his people. That meant that he pushed hard to bring democracy to his country. I’m sure many people would have been fine with the traditional means that presided over Batswana at the time, but what they wound up with was a combination of the two.

“the message of A United Kingdom for today is with love and courage comes progression”

I think the message should be for now, with all that’s happening in the democratic world we live in today, is that with love and courage comes progression. Experiencing such overt racism as he did, which led to him being separated from his country as well as his wife, I imagine fired up the love for both. It’s a beautiful thing to leave your home country and travel and experience other cultures, but it’s an entirely different thing to be exiled and kept from your home. It’s completely inhumane to separate someone from their country, because you separate them from their identity. Yet, when this happened to Seretse, he became an even stronger and better ruler.

LC: That’s certainly inspirational for those struggling right now with how to direct their activism. As a woman director, do see both writing and directing as a way to have better control over the destiny of your work and your career? Is there any difference working in the UK verses the US?

AA: Yes. I absolutely see it as the only way to have some control over the destiny of the work, and also to be clear to an audience about the things that inspire me in life, the things that bring me joy that I can share with them, as well as examining the joys and concerns they have in life. So without being a writer/director, I don’t know how I’d be able to tell the kind of stories that are important to me, or get them onscreen, including how they were sold, how they were marketed, and how they came to meet an audience.

As to working in the UK verses working in the US, I haven’t worked in the US yet, but on paper, there doesn’t seem to be a difference. The statistics in both reflect a very similar, very dire situation for women directors. In terms of population of either countries, they are not reflected in the numbers of female directors. There are so few of us, considering we are 51% of the population. Both countries have a way to go.

LC: We’re seeing some great work from women directors of color—You, Dee Rees and Ava DuVernay are three examples. You are telling stories representing more diversity. What is your advice, that might be unique to your experience, you’d give to any young women who want to be filmmakers?

AA: I would say that for each choice you make, in terms of the film you want to make, it must be a subject matter that you love. When I was going up, I used to be told, “tell what you know”, and for me that really hasn’t been the way forward. I have explored worlds that have nothing to do with anything I know, but the themes resonated with me. What I have chosen is stories i’m in love with, because you have to live with those stories for many years. Seretse fought to bring his country to independence and to be with the woman he loved, but it didn’t happen overnight. It’s the same with filmmaking. It takes years.

In Britain, it takes an average of seven years to bring a film to fruition. If you don’t love the subject, if you don’t love what you’re doing, I think it’s very difficult for you to tell a story that other people will love, but I think you’ll also lose focus. That film will never get made. From the get-go, when you pick a story, an idea, or a theme, make sure it’s an idea that you are thoroughly in love with, so that when the work gets tough, when you’re banging on every single door and every answer is a no, you keep going, you keep that level of tenacity that is important, because ultimately you have utter faith and belief in that project you’re trying to get off the ground.

LC: Your next project is “Where Hands Touch”…(with George MacKay of Pride and Captain Fantastic, and Amandla Stenberg who played Rue in The Hunger Games). Where are you in getting that to theaters?

AA: Yes! I’m in the edit at the moment. We don’t have a release date yet, we’re waiting, but we do know it’s in 2018. I’m very excited about it. Amandla Stenberg gives a phenomenal performance in it. I can’t wait for people to see it.

LC: Well, good luck on the great success with A United Kingdom in the US. It’s a film that needs to be seen.

AA: Thank you!