On the 10th anniversary of Miu Miu's 'Women's Tales,' the directors discuss fashion as an expression of rebellion, breaking down barriers, and what still needs to change in Hollywood
A lot can change in ten years. In 2010, Apple released the first of 20 editions of the now ubiquitous iPad; Instagram debuted, ushering in the influencer era; the white tents went up for the last time in Bryant Park for New York Fashion Week; and Kathryn Bigelow became the first—and still only—woman to win the best director Oscar for The Hurt Locker, beating out Harvey Weinstein’s project, Inglorious Basterds, despite the disgraced former producer’s best and most noxious efforts to take it out of the running. Since then, only one female director, Greta Gerwig, was ever nominated again.
It has also been ten years since Miu Miu launched Women’s Tales, the demurely provocative luxury brand’s ongoing series of short films directed by a broad range of female storytellers. From arthouse icons like Agnès Varda to household names like Dakota Fanning, each of the series’ now 20 directors and counting were given carte blanche to critically investigate femininity in the 21st century. The narrative threads tying them all together are the clothes themselves, used in a myriad of ways to evoke memory, infer power, mirror lived experience, and represent fantasy. In this way, art imitates life, as it so often does, and as director Haifaa al-Mansour (No. 16, The Wedding Singer’s Daughter) explains in the following conversation, “Fashion is a great tool to unlock the character and bring viewers into who she is and where she’s going.” Al-Mansour certainly knows where she is going: She made history with her debut feature Wadjda, the only feature-length film ever made in Saudi Arabia by a female director, and followed it up with Mary Shelley, the period biopic featuring Elle Fanning as the Frankenstein author. This year she starts production on The Selection, based on the popular YA series by Kiera Cass, for Netflix.
For Hailey Gates, director of Women’s Tales No. 17, Shako Mako, the experience afforded her the “opportunity to move into the narrative space, where[as] I was working mostly in documentary.” That documentary was her States of Undress series on Vice TV, which saw Gates explore the culture, history, and politics of more than a dozen countries through the lens of fashion. Having that narrative experience in your oeuvre is essential, according to So Yong Kim (No. 7, Spark and Light), the award-winning independent director of For Ellen, Lovesong, and Treeless Mountain. With the help of Ava DuVernay and Jill Soloway (both also Women’s Tales alums), Kim recently moved into TV directing for shows like Queen Sugar, Transparent, The Good Fight, and Halt and Catch Fire. Likewise, the transition between the big and small screen is nothing new for actress Chloë Sevigny (No. 13, Carmen), whose performances have ranged from the tragic heroine of Larry Clark’s Kids, a trans man’s girlfriend in the seminal film Boys Don’t Cry (which earned her an Oscar nomination), the scene-stealing sisterwife Nicki Grant in HBO’s Big Love, to her current role as commanding officer Sarah Wilson in Luca Guadagnino’s We Are Who We Are.
In recent years, the rise of the Time’s Up movement has only served to cement Miu Miu’s visionary move to empower female filmmakers. Document brought these four Women’s Tales directors together via Zoom for the first time to discuss how the experience affected their creative vision.
Meg Thomann: Over the last decade, fashion has really taken the lead in becoming a patron of and incubator for the arts. It’s been ten years since Miu Miu launched Women’s Tales, and since then we’ve witnessed the movement to put women in directors’ chairs really explode. What has changed for you, personally and creatively, as a result?
Haifaa al-Mansour: It’s such amazing time to be in Hollywood now. There’s a deliberate push for women filmmakers, but I think there are still a lot of them on the periphery who need to break in. It’s going to be a lot of work to bring them in and foster their careers.
So Yong Kim: The sense of support from other filmmakers who were there ten years before us, and then the women who are making their first features—it’s definitely an exciting time. My husband’s also a filmmaker, writer, and director, and I feel like the roles have reversed. It’s a lot harder for him as a white man to get his projects off the ground. Now, there are a lot more up-and-coming women filmmakers out there, and fighting [for a place]. I think the playing field has opened up a lot wider for us.
Hailey Gates: [Women’s Tales] is a unique endeavor because the selection of directors is unexpected. They put their confidence behind a diverse group of women who are all in very different stages of their careers. Some are mid-career, some are at the end of their career, and there are people like me, who got this opportunity to move into the narrative space, when I was working mostly in documentary. I wasn’t getting many offers to direct narrative films. Conversely, Lynne Ramsey, who is a brilliant and far more accomplished filmmaker, was also in my year, but she had never made a documentary before and used her Tale as the occasion to do so. I am always eager to see which direction each film takes.
Meg: Are you surprised by the changes that have happened, in terms of having more opportunities to pitch your projects and your ideas? Has the Time’s Up movement been a success, or are you still presenting to rooms full of men who are holding all the money and power and who might not understand why a story needs to be told?
“I’m on a lot of sets, and I definitely feel like I’m surrounded mostly by men in power still. Working in California, or Italy, all over the world, it still feels like it’s dominated by men, especially in television. I’ve had, like, four female directors after working in TV for almost 20 years.” —Chloë Sevigny
Chloë Sevigny: I haven’t done any pitching so I don’t know. But I’m on a lot of sets, and I definitely feel like I’m surrounded mostly by men in power still. Working in California, or Italy, all over the world, it still feels like it’s dominated by men, especially in television. I’ve had, like, four female directors after working in TV for almost 20 years. So I feel like I’m not seeing as much change.
Haifaa: There’s a push to have more female executives and creatives, and we have to see how they will support female actresses and storytellers. If we cultivate solidarity and create that narrative of sisterhood between women, we can succeed fully together.
Chloë: I’ve seen that with female producers, where they just want to have every department head female—directors, writers…. Female producers tend to want to extend a hand to other women, more so than male producers.
So Yong: I started working in TV about three or four years ago. I was introduced to it through Ava DuVernay and Jill Soloway, and they were really the renegades. They wanted to make sure that all first-time TV directors were women on their shows. It was such a unique experience for me, and after I worked on various shows, I realized how rare that was. Like you said, Chloë, I feel like people who are in power are often men who’ve been working in TV, but the younger generation is bringing different ideas and a more open approach to diversity and gender. I think it’s changing, but I have to say, it’s a little slow.
Meg: Do any of you mentor anyone? Is there an artist whose work you would love to promote?
Chloë: I have. [I was at] one of my first short film festivals, in Provincetown, and I saw this short film directed by this girl, Elizabeth Rose. I went up to her after a party—this is why film festivals are so great for networking and whatnot—and I said, ‘I want to be friends with you, I want to work with you, I want to know your story. I want to know everything about you.’ And then I gave her my e-mail, and she was frightened to e-mail me and she never did. Then I saw through Instagram that she did an interview with Interview magazine, so I reached out to that journalist. Eventually we got in contact. She’s Canadian, so I’ve been trying to hook her up with this female Canadian producer I know who can help her, and I got her a job working for Natasha Lyonne on the next season of her show. Her work really spoke to me. She could’ve been a boy and I could’ve been as moved by his film.
“It’s also a frustrating notion that the stakes are so high that if you make a steaming pile of shit, you can’t make another movie again. There are so many terrible films that men have made, and they’ve been able to keep making films.” —Hailey Gates
Haifaa: There is a big responsibility we’re witnessing now as female filmmakers: There’s a crack in the system, and we have to capitalize on it. We want to make work that lasts and speaks for us. We don’t want people saying, ‘She’s only getting that job because she’s a woman.’ We want to go beyond that narrative.
Hailey: It’s also a frustrating notion that the stakes are so high that if you make a steaming pile of shit, you can’t make another movie again. There are so many terrible films that men have made, and they’ve been able to keep making films. So, in some ways, I’d like to see some terrible films being made by women just to democratize the situation.
So Yong: What you’re saying is so true, especially for indie filmmakers. If you have one failure along the way you’re put in a ‘film jail,’ and it’s so hard to get out of that corner because of that one failure. But when you look at men in general, they could have shitty films along the way but will fail upward. That is not allowed for most women filmmakers.
Chloë: It’s also cool, too, this opportunity to work with Miu Miu and do these Women’s Tales and commercial work, and there seems to be more short-form opportunities for women. But I also find the transition—going the other direction, from more of a commercial director to a feature director—to be harder. I feel like if you’re practicing or learning your chops in commercials, or TV, and then you try getting a feature, people will be like, ‘Oh no, you’re just a commercial director, you’re just a TV director.’ Whereas if you start off as a feature director, then you can do anything.
So Yong: I agree with you. It seems like there’s a preconceived track that you follow, so if you’re a TV director, then you’re put in that corner. When I was trying to get into TV it felt difficult, but on reflection, I had it quite easy because I had feature films to show that I can do narrative storytelling. I know some friends who’ve been directing TV for a while, and it’s hard for them to get their names on a studio list as a viable director for a narrative feature. It’s nearly impossible. There are so many systems that have been set up before we got here that it’s hard to break down those barriers or perceptions of what your abilities are. Especially if you’re a woman.
Meg: Speaking of breaking barriers and perceptions, you’ve all been involved in one way or another with subverting narratives or resisting type. Do you feel like you’re a part of a counterculture? And do you think that counterculture exists now, given our access to everything you could possibly imagine on the internet or social media?
Hailey: I do not think there’s a counterculture. What culture is there to counter? I think there was kind of an evil confluence of events, between the financial crisis in 2008 and the internet becoming deeply ingrained in our daily lives, the idea of sell-out culture just dissipated because no one could afford to do anything without the backing of a brand, and now that kind of work is considered a privilege. I mean we are all here because of our wonderful ‘Medici,’ aka Mrs. Prada. But I think it’s sort of impossible [for counterculture] to exist as far as the internet is concerned. Unless you are QAnon, maybe….To be professing your countercultural ideas on a platform that’s owned by Mark Zuckerberg is a pretty sad lot.
Meg: Do you think we lost something there?
Hailey: Yeah, everything. Privacy is the last luxury.
Haifaa: I think social media made us connect and also democratized a lot of voices, especially in places where there’s a lot of censorship. Young women who haven’t been taken seriously because of their gender and age [now] have an outlet. I see it very much in Saudi Arabia and Iran, places where there are a lot of constraints put on women; they found a place where they can be who they are. I remember when an Iraqi woman was assassinated just because she was showing fashion on Instagram. So I think [social media] gives voices, and that there is a counterculture that is not like what we used to know. It’s a different way of expressing your individuality and going against the mainstream. Especially with the younger generation, you can see that they are trying to find their own values. They have an amazing sense of justice and are very much in favor of protecting the environment. I have so much admiration for them. My daughter is just ten, and she wants to be a vegetarian, and I’m from Saudi Arabia—meat is a big thing in our life! [But] she loves animals, and she thinks we shouldn’t hunt as human beings— she thinks it’s cruel. For such a young person to go against the culture around her and cultivate that individual sense of justice is amazing.
“There are so many systems that have been set up before we got here that it’s hard to break down those barriers or perceptions of what your abilities are. Especially if you’re a woman.” —So Yong Kim
Hailey: I should have prefaced, when I was referring to counterculture, I meant in the US. But I think there’s a semblance of a counterculture on the right, and they’ve kind of co-opted the humor and the ambitions that the left used to occupy. Pepe the Frog has taken the place of Alfred E. Neuman. I feel like we’ve lost a lot of humor.
Chloë: They have a bravado or something that I think the left just shies away from, right? Do any slightly political post and it’s all Trump, all the comments are all pro-life—the left just isn’t as vocal.
So Yong: [They’re] afraid of insulting anyone or being too vocal about their thoughts. The younger generation who are in their teens now, I wonder, what’s my daughter thinking? She’s 13, and it continues to surprise me how much she’s in tune with what’s going on because of social media, and she formulates these thoughts and movements among her friends because of Instagram or TikTok. Compared to my generation, I think that’s one positive. The way the younger kids use social media is much different than how I’d use social media. I don’t participate in social media at all.
Meg: Do you have any advice you would give to your ten-years-younger self?
Chloë: Ten years is such a long time, I don’t even remember!
So Yong: The past seven months have felt like ten years, so time has had two reference points for me: before March 15 and after March 15. But in many ways I’ve always felt like I’m a decade behind other people in my mental and emotional development. I don’t know if I would’ve been able to handle this pandemic and lockdown if I was ten years younger. But, I would tell my younger self, ‘Watch more films, and do some more writing.’ And ten years going forward I still need to watch more films and do more writing. And spend more valuable time with my kids and talk to them instead of being on the cell phone. I’ve developed certain bad habits in the past ten years that I want to focus on changing in the next ten years.
Haifaa: I think I was very tense ten years ago, trying to succeed and make things happen. I remember carrying my son—he’s 12 now—and running with my script to postmark it to send it to Sundance before it was too late. I was so afraid of failing and it did not allow me to enjoy every step. With every moment, there was pressure. And I wish I would’ve known things would work out, enjoyed the journey a little bit more, and not been so stressed and afraid of failing. I think we all, maybe because we’re women, think our chances are limited. It made me work harder, but I wish I had a little bit of time just to enjoy the moment and appreciate that failure can be part of the journey and I shouldn’t be so scared of it. So, I would tell my younger self, ‘Just relax!’
Hailey: I feel like if I gave my ten-years-ago self advice, I would find it really patronizing and probably wouldn’t listen to it [laughs]. It’s been such a surprising, weird turn of events, I don’t really have advice for myself in that way. I followed a strange trajectory that I feel I’m just going to keep following. I feel I’m in this stage of Haifaa’s—I’m stressed. [Laughs.] It’s heavy.
Meg: Stressed because of the things you want to do or stressed because of everything happening in the world?
Hailey: Yeah, it’s dark days, man. [Laughs] I guess it’s hard to feel like you want so much out of the world. Right now I just have these four walls.
Meg: What about the next ten years, what do you want to accomplish?
Hailey: Just finishing things. It’s very sad and simple…. But also I’d like to go to Iran.
“I think we all, maybe because we’re women, think our chances are limited. It made me work harder, but I wish I had a little bit of time just to enjoy the moment and appreciate that failure can be part of the journey.” —Haifaa al-Mansour
Haifaa: I don’t recommend it [laughs].
Chloë: I spent so much time beating myself up throughout my career, about whether or not I was making the right decisions. I would tell myself to be easier on myself. Our ambitions, I think, can hurt us in a way.
Meg: Do you have a muse or an audience in mind when creating?
Haifaa: Depends on the story you are trying to tell, but I’m always really impressed with young women who, in spite of all the odds, make their mark on the world. They don’t have to be big names or famous, but I think everyday life can be really tough, especially for women who are underprivileged. Every success story that comes from a community like this touches and inspires me very deeply. When I see people who are willing to fight with life for what they want. I admire that.
So Yong: I love stories about struggles. For me, my grandmother, who had ten kids and lived through various wars, is always constantly astounding. I’m like, What am I complaining about? This little pandemic, compared to what she went through? This is nothing! But at the same time, I would like to better observe my kids growing up and have them be my muses, because they reflect the mental and emotional state that I’m in. It sounds a little self-absorbed, but I’m constantly asking myself, What am I doing right? Am I engaging with them in a way that is present? Oftentimes I fail, and I beat myself up about it. But, I think this goes back to the stories that inspire all of us. For me, it’s the little details of how we live our lives and how we cope with the challenges that are thrown at us. From small things—who is going to do the dishes?—to how we are going to contribute to the well-being of the community. As much as this pandemic has put us in the situation of being in lockdown with our family and friends, I think it’s an opportunity, for me, to evaluate what kind of stories are inspiring to me personally.
Chloë: With Trump being elected [in 2016], everybody was kind of reassessing the stories they wanted to tell and what those meant and the importance of them. I know I have. I’ve had ideas that I’ve wanted to develop into features, and now I think those stories just have no relevance. I’m reassessing everything.
Meg: So what story are you dying to tell someday, even if you’re not ready for it right now?
Haifaa: I would love to tell anti-hero women’s stories. We want more criminals, more women monsters on screen who are not defined by being moral compasses of society. Remember that film Monster? I would love to see more of that. Breaking Bad, with a woman? Women are not defined by our circumstances or where we come from. We are our own person and we can be extremely flawed, and have petty thoughts, and we can make really morally questionable decisions, but that’s what makes us human and that is part of the human experience. I would love to do stories like this.
Hailey: The first short film I ever made was about Medea. I’ve always been obsessed with Medea, so I’d love the last film I make to be about Medea also. But also, I’m the only non-mom here, so I don’t really know how awful it would be to kill your children [laughs].
Haifaa: Well, after the pandemic, I respect you for saying that, because I run away from them. I don’t want to see them [laughs].
So Yong: What film would I like to make before I die? I have this short novella that I read in 2012 about Mary, Jesus’s mother, and the whole thing is told from her point of view. It’s just so lovely—all the suffering, and all these thoughts. She had petty thoughts, Haifaa, as you say. She’s so complicated, complex, but nuanced. She wasn’t the one-dimensional being that you hear about in church lectures. There’s something about that I would like to express before I’m gone.
Chloë: Well, I’ve been thinking about these girls in Le Roy, New York, for a couple years who’ve developed Tourette’s [syndrome] and this idea of mass hysteria and social pressures on girls. I’m trying to find a way into that story and how to make it something bigger.
“Women are not defined by our circumstances or where we come from. We are our own person and we can be extremely flawed, and have petty thoughts, and we can make really morally questionable decisions, but that’s what makes us human.” —Haifaa al-Mansour
Meg: What led you to that?
Chloë: I just read about them. I have a five-month-old, I’m just in babyland [laughs]. It’s been really nice to step back from work and not have to think about it. The series I have out now [We Are Who We Are on HBO] would have been in Cannes, and I have other things in festivals. To be able to step back and be with him…he’s everything. It has been such—a luxury is a really horrible thing to say, but it has.
Meg: Using a piece of clothing or an accessory can signify or tell a story in and of itself. How have you used fashion to bring extra dimension to the stories you’re telling, and has it ever gone horribly wrong, where your intention was totally misconstrued?
Meg: Sure! [Laughs] I didn’t recognize you, by the way, for the first ten minutes of your new show.
Hailey: You look great in it.
Chloë: [Laughs] I once got in a fight with my husband about it. I said, ‘Don’t watch! Don’t look!’ I don’t care about what the rest of the world thinks, but—
Meg: I think when you’re in those clothes you carry yourself differently. That’s another thing that clothing does to us.
Chloë: Yeah, there’s always that. In Boys Don’t Cry, it was more about the nails. That was a foray into this woman and how she carried herself, but it was less about a garment.
Haifaa: My first experience with fashion was with Wadjda, trying to get an individual person who grew up in a tribal place where everybody wears black. I think a lot of Arab women use fashion to express their kind of rebellion, their individuality, and who they are in spite of every pressure around them. With fashion, they can cultivate an individual personality. Mary Shelley, which was a period film, was about a character who was rebelling against the norms of her time. We tried to put Elle [Fanning] in fashion choices that communicate who her character is and how free she is in her heart.
That is why Bel [Powley] and Elle didn’t want to wear corsets. Now I’m working with The Selection, a dystopian story like The Hunger Games. We are still in pre-production, but it is very important for us to find out how fashion can tell the story of the future. It is not easy to find the right dress or know how women will present themselves in that world. I feel fashion is a great tool to unlock the character and bring viewers into who she is and where she’s going.
Hailey: I remember coming back [from filming States of Undress] and going to my dry cleaner, and he said something like, ‘You know, my wife and I watched your show, and we were so afraid for you.’ And I said, ‘Really? Why were you afraid for me?’ And he said, ‘Walking around the Congo in that short skirt.’ And I was like, ‘Huh? That was the scary part?’ That was a strange feeling, that my own clothing was being misinterpreted by the viewer as putting me at risk. I was perfectly safe in that instance. There was a moment in Pakistan where I was at the fashion week there, and a designer very generously offered to let me wear one of her dresses. It was a one-shoulder silk dress—it wasn’t something I would [normally] have worn. I’m very protective, I don’t know why, of this area of my chest [points to her chest just below her neck]. I was wearing something more revealing than I was comfortable with, but I was trying to be a gracious guest. And then I did an interview with these two women who were deeply charming, and I just remember not feeling like myself. They were describing how they participate in fashion, but also stay covered in accordance with their religious beliefs. I felt like I wasn’t myself. And it happens all the time, I have to wear all sorts of things.
Meg: I’m curious, Hailey, what’s next for you?
Hailey: I’ve been adapting a novel called Ghost Wall by a British author called Sarah Moss. For a film. We’ll see…if we ever make movies again.
[Chloë’s baby appears on Zoom call. Cooing ensues.]
Hailey: I need to get tested, and then I can come babysit!