When Mark Cousins first appeared on BBC arts shows in the early 1990s, his semi-singalong monotone Ulster accent was easy to lampoon. As a young critic, he tended towards iconoclasm, but I'll tell you something: Cousins' love of cinema is 100pc genuine, his knowledge encyclopaedic, and as a film documentarian, he's illuminated fascinating forgotten corners, as well as exploring sacred cows anew.
His The Story Of Film: An Odyssey (2011) was challenging, engrossing, and in his 2018 documentary The Eyes Of Orson Welles, he found new and challenging things to say about possibly the most intensely analysed film-maker of them all. Cousins does nothing by halves, and in this epic new 14-hour documentary, he endeavours to right a century of industry prejudice and neglect.
Split into relatively manageable three-hour parts that will be released over the coming weeks, Women Make Film is a gargantuan effort of scholarship which sees Cousins weave hundreds of films from across cinema's history into a pleasantly meandering, but more or less coherent argument.
Instead of raging head on into the teeth of cinema's glaring and endemic misogyny, Women Make Film demonstrates the inherent absurdity of a male-dominated industry by showing us dozens, hundreds of female-directed movies that ought to be revered and remembered, but aren't.
His approach is not chronological, but thematic: beginning with the ways in which movies can begin, he carries on to discuss tone, plot, style and genre, using tantalising clips of films new and old from across the world to illustrate his argument. Along the way, he champions films I felt I really should have heard about, like Wendy Toye's On The Twelfth Day, a delightfully flush and beautifully designed 1955 short comedy about an Edwardian family besieged by unwanted gifts. It's so quintessentially British that it should be a staple of that country's Yuletide TV: if it had been made by a man, it might have been.
From the silent era, Cousins plucks the skilful and prolific Lois Weber, the actor, writer, director and producer who made 138 features and was once considered a pioneer on a par with D.W. Griffith, but died poor and more or less forgotten. He celebrates the achievements of Dorothy Arzner, whose influential films included Too Much Johnson and Anybody's Woman, and who, for several decades, was the only female director working in Hollywood.
He mentions several times the work of Wanda Jakubowska, the Polish director and resistance fighter who was interned at Auschwitz and returned to the death camp just a year after the war's end to film The Last Stage, a harrowing drama based on her own experiences.
We know all about the achievements of male Japanese heavyweights like Akira Kurosawa and Yazujiro Ozu, but Cousins rightly pinpoints the excellence of Kinuyo Tanaka's haunting 1953 drama Love Letters, in which a lonely man finds redemption writing love letters for other people. In that film, the wounds of a traumatised and rapidly reorganising country were laid bare, but female directors were and remain exceedingly rare in Japan.
Women Make Film is not wilfully obscure: the work of populists like Kathryn Bigelow and Mary Harron is given its due; heavy-hitting arthouse directors like Claire Denis, Jane Campion and Mia Hanson-Love are referred to repeatedly, and Hollywood journeywomen Mary Lambert, Rachel Talalay and Angelina Jolie are celebrated for having managed to make mainstream genre movies that would otherwise have been made by men.
Are female-directed films distinguishable in some way from the vast majority of male-directed ones? Cousins is too smart to be long diverted by this essentially idiotic question: his point seems to be the simple one that instead of bemoaning the lack of female filmmakers, we should be celebrating the glittering array of films women have actually managed to make.
Through the cool narration of Tilda Swinton, he notes merely that "film is sexist by omission," film history also, before proceeding to prove his point by darting through a rich library of female directed films.
His road movie conceit seems redundant, but his observations are incisive, fascinating. Sometimes his gaze is so keen that he seems to discover motifs in films perhaps unknown to the people who made them, but he's done cinema a service here, and educated us all in the process.
Women Make Film (BFI Player, Curzon Home Cinema) - 5 stars
Edge Of Extinction (Sky Store, Amazon, Google Play etc) - 2 stars
No one ever seems to imagine a happy future for humanity and in Edge Of Extinction things are particularly grim. A man in a Holden Caulfield hat eats Spam by candlelight and spends his days stalking a deserted landscape. In functional flashbacks, we discover that wars, bombs and nuclear winter have plunged humanity back into the stone age. He's lived alone for years and avoided the gangs of murderous 'road rats', but everything changes when he meets a young woman. Andrew Gilbert's film is ambitious, but made on a shoestring, and if this is what survival is, I'd rather have been standing beneath the bomb.
Take Me Somewhere Nice (Mubi) - 3 stars
There's a stylish swagger to Ena Sendijarevic's feature debut, based in part on her own experience as the Dutch-raised child of Bosnian parents. When teenager Alma hears that her father is gravely ill in the Balkans, she decides to go back and see him. He left when Alma was a baby and she doesn't remember him at all. Her journey, then, is inspired as much by curiosity as concern, and things get interesting when she hooks up with a gangster cousin back in the old country. Sendijarevic's film is nice to look at, if a little over-directed, and its playful sense of humour undercuts more serious concerns.