Women Directors Speak at Sundance

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by Peter Belsito
January 26, 2013 9:30 AM
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Participating in a women's directors roundtable at the Sundance Film Festival are Hannah Fidell, left, LIz Garcia, Cherien Dabis, Naomi Foner and Gabriela Cowperthwaite
The following is a revealing LA Times discussion with several women filmmakers that John Horn moderated.  Hollywood is dominated by men, and so, it turns out, is independent film. As a new study of Sundance Film Festival titles shows, less than a quarter of all American features over the last 10 years at Sundance were directed by women. Some years have a stronger representation of female filmmakers than others; this year, for the first time, half of the 16 U.S. competition dramas at Sundance were made by women. In an intimate and animated conversation with five women whose movies were playing at Sundance, the filmmakers discussed double standards about employment and trust, how tough women are considered shrill rather than determined, and how male producers continue to be unnerved by women's stories, especially ones involving sex.

The directors were Naomi Foner, 66, who wrote and directed the coming-of-age tale "Very Good Girls"; Liz W. Garcia, 35, who wrote and directed "The Lifeguard," about a journalist's affair with a high school boy; Cherien Dabis, 36, who wrote, directed and stars in the marriage story "May in the Summer"; Hannah Fidell, 27, who wrote and directed "A Teacher," about an educator's relationship with a student; and Gabriela Cowperthwaite, 41, who directed "Blackfish," a documentary about killer whale training. All of the films were financed independently and came to Sundance looking for distribution deals, but the only one to immediately land one was "Blackfish." The highest-profile film, Foner's "Very Good Girls," had the most recognizable cast: Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen.

Two days after the Creative Artists Agency drew fire for hosting a Sundance party with explicit exotic dancers, the five directors spoke about the challenges they face in a male-dominated business, even as they celebrated small victories along the way.
 
Here are excerpts from the conversation:
 
Women aren't making nearly as many movies as men are. Why might that be?
 
Liz W. Garcia: I think that there is just a deep and abiding sexism that's part of your life from the moment that you're conscious as a female. And you are afraid to step into the idea that you could be an authority figure, that you could be a boss, that you have a vision [and] that other people should listen to you on a set. So you therefore don't allow yourself access to the dream of being a director. It took me a long time.
 
Naomi Foner: Not as long as me! It was because I thought I needed to know more than I actually needed to know. Because I thought I needed to know what lens to tell the [director of photography] to put on. And I thought that there was a level of skill required that actually isn't required. What you need to have is a vision. And so I think we edit ourselves out of it. It's fear. It's just as simple as that.
 
Hannah Fidell: But that's universal. I don't think that's specifically gender.
 
Foner: In my mind, I think that you give up a lot. Unless you fight for it. And having kids is a full-time job. And I don't know any woman who isn't constantly fighting between the exquisite selfishness required to be an artist and this exquisite selflessness that's required to be a parent.
 
Gabriela Cowperthwaite: Men are also socialized to be more bold.
 
Cherien Dabis: They're willing to take that risk, whereas women are socialized to sort of be the opposite. But once we do make the decision to do [make a movie], I don't think that women are entrusted with the same kind of money and budgets that men are.
 
Foner: I've been a screenwriter for years, with an Academy Award nomination [for "Running on Empty"]. And there are certain things no one will ask me to write.
 
Because they assume there's only one kind of movie you can write?
 
Foner: Nurturing movies. They're not going to ask me to make "Blade Runner."
 
Cowperthwaite: In documentary, which is the only thing I'm really very familiar with, women are very easily relegated into a producer role. Men are encouraged to be bold — incredibly creative, very untouchable and an artiste. And we're just …
 
Dabis: Supportive.
 
Cowperthwaite: When you are trying to get a shot, you can't be pleasing everybody. And I tend to be sort of collaborative and a bit of a pleaser. And when I'm directing, people just sort of call me Black Hat Gabriela. Because suddenly they're like, "What happened to you?" Because I stop listening. And I feel strident. I feel rude. And I feel un-collaborative. After the shoot I'm like, "Who was that?" Am I really allowed to be that way?
 
A man is "determined" or "single-minded." A woman is a "bitch," right? Even if they're doing exactly the same thing.
 
Foner: I can't tell you how many times I have heard women described as "tough" or "bitches" for doing what I know every single man doing the same job does.
 
Dabis: I've come to embrace that. I'm proud to be a bitch. You know, you're a strong woman. I've also found a way not to be defensive about things that arise. And to be collaborative until a certain point. And then to say, "Thank you very much for your input. I've decided that this is what I want to do."
 
Foner: I'm older than you are. So I'm really glad to hear that this is so. Because in my generation, I think we're still struggling with, "Are we likable as we do this?" And what is likable? The biggest barrier in my mind is that you are redefined as not a woman when you take on these characteristics, because women are only one way.
 
Fidell: Or that if your vision or the way you present is particularly feminine, that the story you have to tell isn't valid, it isn't universal, it isn't worth a lot of money. Should you present as more masculine, when you're not, to be taken seriously? Because essentially in our culture, to be masculine is to be powerful. Right. Worthy of trust.
 
If audiences went into your films and didn't know who directed them, should they be able to detect that it was directed by a woman?
 
Cowperthwaite: Everybody thinks that my documentaries, or at least my recent one, is [directed by] a man. In its pacing. In its subject matter — it's the killer whale that killed the Shamu trainer. And I think people come into it, if they know there's a woman director, they think it's going to be sort of Enya, with just whale sounds. And I knew that wasn't the film I was going to make. But I knew that I wanted the pacing to be adrenaline-rushed and very hard-hitting. I'm making these choices in my films that are deliberately not necessarily sweet or gentle.
 
Foner: What I set out to do in my movie, which is a coming-of-age story, is to fill an empty space that I looked for when I was young, where I was identifying with men in movies. I was very anxious to show what it felt like to be a young woman just discovering your sexuality.
 
Garcia: My film really deals with explicit female sexuality. I think that tells you right there that this is a woman making the movie. And I'm really proud of that. But there were moments where [my producers and I] didn't see things the same way, and I was really concerned.
 
Dabis: I think that it's probably pretty obvious that [my film] was directed by a woman. This film in particular is a mother and her three daughters, and they're all very strong. And they're not women that you typically see on screen. What is more important to me is that people think the movie is authentic.
 
In terms of what you bring to a film as a director, do you think it would be any different if it were made by a man?
 
Cowperthwaite: Yes. In this film in particular, some of those choices are, "What kind of graphic footage can you show in this?" There's maulings. There's a killing. And there's also autopsy reports that give you chills. I don't know that this is particularly female, but I was in ethically sort of conscious about the fact that I was dealing with the death of people whose family have not yet healed.
 
Fidell: [My movie] is about an older woman, younger boy. A student, in my case. And I think that as a woman, I'm able to perhaps explore more of the negative sides of being a woman, in a way that men can't without being called misogynist, perhaps.... I think that at the end of the day — at least this is my understanding — a male director doesn't come to situations the same way that a female director would.
 
Foner: See, unfortunately, that justifies their telling me I can't write "Blade Runner." Because it's saying, "You couldn't possibly pick that macho stuff up."
 
Fidell: We can agree to disagree.
 
Let's discuss the way men shoot women in movies — the way they objectify them or the way the camera lingers over them. When you're making your movies, is there something intentional about how you want women to be shot that is not the way they're typically shot?
 
Foner: I have in my movie a first sexual experience. And I from the beginning I wanted to do this — because it's iconic for everybody, male and female — from the point of view of the women to whom it was happening. I wanted to do it so we were inside her head when it was happening. And I showed it to the producers. And they were deeply offended by it. They said that it looked aggressive. And there was a struggle about how much of it is still in the movie. There is not as much of it in, because I didn't have the control to keep it all in.
 
Fidell: I made a short film that had an extended rape scene in it and shot it very close up on her face during it. And I think that was the longest take of the whole film.
 
What about you, Liz?
 
Garcia: Because I was depicting an underage kid, I was very conscious of how I shot the actor, Dave Lambert, who plays Kristen Bell's underage love interest. And he took off all of his clothes, and he's totally gorgeous. And so there was ample opportunity to kind of pick him apart. And I was like, "This isn't me. This isn't the film." And I had to take it out.
 
Dabis: I [cast] myself in the movie, [and] I notice that there's a lot of comments on the way I look on camera. And I just have to pose the question: If I were a male director writing, directing and acting in my own film — would people be commenting so much on the way I look on-screen?
 
Garcia: No.
 
Dabis: And I have to say, it has really, really bothered me. Because I end up feeling objectified.
 
Foner: Many years ago, my ex-husband [director Stephen Gyllenhaal] made a movie ["A Dangerous Woman"] in which Barbara Hershey appeared and had to pick a body double. At the time, she was getting close to 50. She picked a 23-year-old body double. And I was a producer of the movie. I had a conniption fit. I said, "This cannot happen. Women in America cannot believe that when an almost-50-year-old woman takes off her clothes, she looks like that." And it ended up that we used that body double.
 
Hannah, we didn't get to talk about how you shot "A Teacher."
 
Fidell: I wanted to flip that male gaze around and I very intentionally did that, by objectifying the young boy. For a lot of the young women that I was working with, we just grew up on the male gaze so it was so hard for us to disassociate ourselves from that. Men have a very hard time relating to my film, in the way that I had intended. But they still get something out of it because it speaks to their hot-for-teacher fantasy. They can get whatever they want out of it.
 
What makes you feel good about being a woman making movies in Hollywood right now?
 
Garcia: I feel very hopeful about women in the industry, because of Lena Dunham [in "Girls"]. She is an auteur. She is young. She does not fit in the Hollywood obsession with beauty. She's inspiring me, and I'm 10 years older. And she's therefore inspiring girls who are younger.
 
Cowperthwaite: I think it's just the conversations I've had since arriving here — the ones with women — are beyond my expectations, in terms of support. "Oh, my God, I can't wait to see your movie!" So supportive and collaborative.
 
Fidell: I just feel like the world is our oyster. I grew up knowing that my mother is a journalist and was one of the first bureau chiefs I think ever at the New York Times. Hearing these stories of how hard it was for her, and yet knowing how easy it is for me right now is just remarkable.
 
Foner: For me the hopefulness is to hear that you guys expect to have what you have. You don't for a minute think that there's any reason you shouldn't. So I feel like if my generation has done something, it's where you begin.
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