I feel a bit mean writing about Antonia Bird for Directed by Women’s global audience, because her films are so hard for viewers to find. That’s the case with many female filmmakers, of course; it’s only thanks to Milestone Film that we can see the work of early film pioneers such as Nell Shipman and experimental filmmakers such as Shirley Clarke on DVD. On the eve of her first retrospective, starting tonight at the British Film Institute in London, this is a plea and a prayer that more of her work will soon be available.
Bird was neither a silent filmmaker, nor an avant-gardist. She died in 2013, having made her astonishing film-length works for both big and small screens between 1994 and 2004 – and yet they’re still hard to access. She made them for UK television and for Hollywood studios and for HBO. If you’re in North America, you can watch her biggest project Ravenous (1999) on Amazon or Blu-ray, and thrill to the combination of wit and mayhem she conjured with only a week’s prep before shooting.
Ravenous is both unique and indicative of Bird’s brilliance, a study of power and masculinity, simultaneously loving and furious. Like many of her films, it wasn’t a passion project but a job for hire, but one she made completely her own. If you’ve seen The Revenant (or avoided it but read the reviews), you’ll see lots of uncanny (or unattributed) echoes from Ravenous’s story of land- and power-hungry American soldiers stuck on a lonely outpost in California shortly after the Mexican-American war.
But the real twist comes from the energy of her politics: this is no heroic celebration, despite the charms of co-leads Robert Carlyle (who somehow woos you even with blood in his beard) and Guy Pearce, just then breaking into Hollywood. It’s a continuation of the work she began at the Royal Court Theatre in London, legendary leftist radical centre for new writing that indicted all the powers-that-be. Bird fostered the careers of playwrights including Jim Cartwright (whose play was the basis for the film Little Voice ), switching to television in 1985 when the opportunity to work on a brand-new soap set in a working-class community and tackling big issues came along.
She was one of the first, and defining, directors on Eastenders (which is still running today); her episodes included the legendary – and legendarily dramatic – two-hander between warring central couple Den and Angie, the Macbeths of Albert Square. She then helped launch long-running hospital soap Casualty, which began as a gritty look at real traumas and dramas, in contrast to American glossy soaps such as General Hospital.
But it was Safe, the hour-long BBC TV film she made in 1993, that announced her as both a ‘name’ and a visionary filmmaker. Like a mash-up of Waiting for Godot and a musical, the film switches between intense two-handers between Kaz and Gypo, two homeless teenagers played by young actors Kate Hardie and Aidan Gillen, and anarchic scenes at the hostel where they sometimes stay. Many of the actors in the crowd scenes were members of Cardboard Citizens, a theatre company made up of homeless people: the film didn’t just tell their story, it gave them the space to tell it, and brought their work to attention.
Safe scored a BAFTA for best single drama and the Edinburgh Film Festival first film award, as well as the lasting support of EFF director Mark Cousins, with whom Bird would found 4Way Pictures, along with Irvine Welsh and Carlyle, who appeared in her first feature-length film, Priest. A million miles from Begbie, Carlyle’s Graham is a gentle, puckish gay man whose charm and intelligence cause a crisis of faith for the titular priest, Father Greg Pilkington (Linus Roache). Originally conceived as a mini-series by writer Jimmy McGovern, it deftly weaves multiple sub-plots about the church’s failures and faith’s grace, including a powerful story of sexual abuse, a theme that returned in Care (2000), Bird’s unstinting, devastating cri de coeur about sexual abuse in foster system.
In between the two, the success of Priest – winner of a People’s Choice award at Toronto, and the Teddy (for LGBTQI+ cinema) at Berlin – led her to Hollywood, for the comedy-drama Mad Love (1995). Watching it (you can, North American readers: there’s a 20th anniversary DVD), it’s obviously a film before its time, deconstructing the Manic Pixie Dream Girl when she had barely come into existence. Bird brings out lead Drew Barrymore’s own experience of addiction and trauma, in the character of Casey; even with studio sweetener (and Chris O’Donnell) thrown in, it’s a tougher, more thoughtful and more idiosyncratic film than, say, Paper Towns. After what was, according to a new documentary about the filmmaker, a bruising experience, Bird returned to the UK to make the ultimate 1990s London gangster film.
The anti-Lock, Stock, her film Face – from a screenplay by thriller writer Ronan Bennett – reunited her with Carlyle, as troubled robber Ray, once a socialist until he saw his father trampled by police on a demo. Still conceiving of himself in heroic terms – a ‘staunch’ (loyal) Robin Hood, robbing banks to support working-class community – Ray realises that the old East End is another kind of corrupt institution when his gang turn on each other. Of course, there’s a bent copper on the make playing divide and rule, and the final shoot-out in the police station – one of several astounding, kinetic action sequences – has a grim satisfaction.
And it was good prep for Ravenous, which also features massively dynamic effects – not least some truly gory cannibalism, set to a brilliantly jaunty score by Damon Albarn, who had a small role in Face, and The Piano composer Michael Nyman. A blistering indictment of colonialism and capitalism (white men eating each other for fun and profit!), the film was a huge cult hit but only just scraped back its medium-sized budget. More than that, the world changed: after the 9/11 attacks, insurance premiums went up, and commissioning got conservative.
Yet Bird returned to the US to make her last completed feature-length project (there were many more in development with 4way) for risk-takers HBO in 2004: The Hamburg Cell, the first drama about the 9/11 attacks, focused claustrophobically on the four men who flew the planes. Using CCTV in a prophetic way, Bird asks questions as to why the cell wasn’t stopped in its tracks, and looks objectively at the pressures that formed the acts. Never endorsing, but refusing to dehumanise or melodramatise, she ends the film instinctively and indicatively on a close-up of Aysel (Agni Scott), the wife of United 93 hijacker Ziad Jarrah, watching the news on TV from her hospital room in Germany: secular, passionate, educated, she is our point of view character, looking on in stunned horror.
Bird looked the horror created by man in the face again and again, making dynamite narratives out of abuses of power. She wasn’t a clinical documentarian, but a campaigner driven by characters and their stories. As Samantha Morton, Maxine Peake, Kate Hardie and Aidan Gillen testify for the Guardian, she was first and foremost that rarest of things, an actor’s director, someone who saw her job as a filmmaker to get to work on a good story by giving it to the people who bring it to life. Or undeath, in the case of Ravenous. The opposite of a cannibal, Bird fed others – her collaborators and viewers – tirelessly and joyfully. Like her namesake Antonia in Antonia’s Line, the Oscar-winning film by her contemporary Marleen Gorris, Bird kept extending filmmaking’s dinner table.
BFI’s retrospective The Woman Who Kicked Down Doors: The uncompromising films of Antonia Bird starts today.
Sophie Mayer is a full-time feminist film activist, and the author of Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema (IB Tauris, 2015) and The Cinema of Sally Potter: A Politics of Love (Wallflower, 2009). She is a regular contributor to Sight & Sound, The F-Word and Literal, co-host of film podcast Hell is for Hyphenates, and a member of queer feminist curators Club des Femmes and film industry campaigners Raising Films. @tr0ublemayer