Herstory on Film

Each month, the Herstory Club curates a selection of films that complement our monthly theme. This collection will be female-focused – both in front of the camera and ideally behind too – and range from fiction to biopics of real women in history. The films we’ll be recommending aim to both entertain and educate, showcasing cult classics, new hits, and movies you may never have heard of.

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When it comes to sisters on screen, first and foremost there are several obvious stand out films. Modern pop culture sensations such as Little Women, Frozen, The Hunger Games, The Parent Trap, Hocus Pocus, and Lilo and Stitch all feature a relationship between sisters at their heart, as adventure, magic, and mischief unfold around them. In the same vein, the likes of Pride & Prejudice, A League of their Own, and the appropriately named Sisters are all as recognisable for the sisters in the plot, but, as we’ve already covered them in Herstory on Film before, we wanted to spread the net a little wider when it comes to recommendations. 

From the gut-wrenching (but widely criticised for plot differences during the adaptation from the book) My Sister’s Keeper; to the chalk-and-cheese women of In Her Shoes; and the dysfunctional families in The Family Stone, sisters were ever-present in the female-driven films of the mid-‘00s. In addition, biopics have proved popular, but with mixed success: two women – Anne and Mary Boleyn (Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson) – vie for Henry VIII’s attention in The Other Boleyn Girl; flautist Hilary du Pré-Finzi (Rachel Griffiths) tells the tragic story of her sister cellist Jacqueline du Pré (Emily Watson) in Hilary and Jackie; and Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret (Sarah Gadon and Bel Powley) enjoy a night out in London as celebrations take place on V.E. Day in 1945 in A Royal Night Out.

The iconic feud between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford helped to make What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? – where sibling rivalry comes to a head when a former child star torments her paraplegic sister – an even larger success than anticipated. There’s also 1955’s musical comedy My Sister Eileen; the Oscar-winning dramedy Hannah and Her Sisters from Woody Allen; and the genuinely concerning (read: incestuous) British based-on-a-true-story film Sister My Sister. The Korean psychological horror of A Tale of Two Sisters has an interfering ghost and evil stepmother; and a family of beekeepers – run by Gelsomina and her three younger sisters – in the Tuscan wilderness have their lives upended by a teenage boy and a reality TV show in The Wonders.

Our top five films for this month feature a Studio Ghibli classic; the warm hug of a 1990’s Jane Austen adaptation; sisters co-existing around family food rituals; and two films (both directorial debuts for female directors) about teenage sisters in conservative households. Without further ado…

Mustang

(2015, Dir.: Deniz Gamze Ergüven)

Nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2016 Oscars, Mustang follows five orphaned sisters in a remote Turkish village. When they are caught innocently playing with boys, their conservative guardians turn the family home into a prison, enforcing traditional gender roles on the girls and arranging marriages to ‘suitable’ local boys. Director Deniz Gamze Ergüven met her fellow co-writer Alice Winocour at the Cannes Film Festival, where they were the only women in attendance at the festival’s Atelier for beginner filmmakers. This emotional film showcases the power of teenage girls, and what happens when their desires, curiosities, and freedoms come up against the harsh judgement of a stricter generation.  

Mustang is available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, YouTube, Apple TV+, and to rent on Curzon Home Cinema

My Neighbour Totoro

(1988, Dir.: Hayao Miyazaki)

Two young girls, Satsuki and Mei, move to the country to be near their hospitalised mother and end up going on adventures with the magical creatures (totoros) in the nearby forest in this classic animation from Studio Ghibli. This beloved and critically-acclaimed family film is director Miyazaki’s tribute to his own mother, who suffered from tuberculosis like the girls in the film.

My Neighbour Totoro is available to stream on Netflix

Sense and Sensibility

(1995, Dir.: Ang Lee)

Is there anything more comforting than a Jane Austen adaptation? Sense and Sensibility follows the Dashwood sisters in the wake of their father’s death and their unfortunate change in circumstances due to rules of inheritance. The elder two sisters, Elinor (Emma Thompson) and Marianne (Kate Winslet), could not be more different, especially in their pursuit of love. The film was essentially bankrolled by the studio due to the surprise success of another classic celebration of sisters, Little Women, in 1994. Emma Thompson won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for this film, making her the first person to win Oscars for both writing and acting.

Sense and Sensibility is available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, Apple TV+, YouTube and Sky Store

Soul Food

(1997, Dir.: George Tillman Jr.)

Three sisters, Teri (Vanessa Williams), Maxine (Vivica A. Fox) and Bird (Nia Long), start bringing their problems to the traditional Sunday dinners at Mama Joe’s (Irma P. Hall) in this dramedy. Following a tragedy, grandson Ahmed (Brandon Hammond) schemes to bring the family together again after the sisters’ drama threatens to tear the family apart. The film highlights the importance of community and family, and the unique bond between sisters.

Soul Food is available to stream on Disney+, and to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV+, Google Play, Sky Store and YouTube

The Virgin Suicides

(1999, Dir.: Sofia Coppola)

This debut from writer-director Sofia Coppola revolves around the mysterious Lisbon sisters – five teenage girls raised by strict religious parents – in a 1970s suburb in Detroit, and their tragic fates. The Virgin Suicides was praised for its dreamy and poetic tone, combining dread, affection, and horror in a masterful way.
The Virgin Suicides is available to buy on Amazon


About the Author: Emma Forth

Contact:

I’m a first year History PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. My research combines my passions for the First World War and film by exploring the development of early cinema, 1909-1918, across all four nations of the United Kingdom. For the last six months I have been producing the first database and maps of British and Irish cinemas in 1914, showcasing the position of cinema at the outbreak of the Great War. In a four-year hiatus from education prior to postgraduate study in 2018 I worked as a risk analyst; ran the admissions department in a high school; and was a receptionist and volunteer at Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden. I am an avid reader, theatregoer, and cross-stitcher, and when not frantically Marie Kondo-ing my possessions and renovating my flat and during a pandemic, I can be found watching superhero films and dreaming of museums.

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