Using Sundance to Shift the Narrative on Women Directors

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by Melissa Silverstein
December 6, 2012 2:00 PM
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The happy glow has still not worn off the news that women directors have achieved gender parity in the US dramatic and documentary competitions.  (But we must also remember that women are still not there in any of the other categories.)  Women directors became the story.  Here are some of the headlines:  From USA Today: Women directors rule over Sundance Film Festival 2013.  From the LA Times: Sundance Film Festival: Female directors take dramatic step forward.

Now that this has happened it is vital that this not just be a one time thing and that moving forward that we create a new narrative so that we never again hear a sentence that starts with "there are just not enough women directed films for us to consider for our festival", or "where are the women directed films", or any other bullshit lazy excuse to not do the work to be inclusive and relevant.

The people at Sundance are proud and happy as they should be.  John Cooper, Director of the Sundance Film Festival, said, “We were encouraged to see a strong showing of female filmmaking talent amongst the more than 12,000 submissions we received for our 2013 Festival.  The work by eight female filmmakers that we selected for our U.S. Dramatic Competition are diverse, original and exciting, and we look forward to audiences discovering some new voices.”

I would argue that Sundance is even more important for women filmmakers because we still live in a world where guys get vaulted into studio pictures, get agents and join the boys club.  It would be wonderful if women got the same deals and exposure following Sundance (and the trajectory of women directors is now being tracked in a major research project), but we know that is not always the case.  A big press hit at Sundance does not always get you to your second or third film.  Maybe it's time that women are more deliberate about helping women in the same fashion that guys are.  No guy shirnks back from helping another dude.  It's part of their DNA.  Women need to be that overt.  We need a girl's club.  We need sponsors, not just mentors.

Women and Hollywood reached out to some of the directors -- some first timers and some repeats -- who made it into Sundance this year to get their thoughts on this hopefully "new normal" for women directors.

Both Lynn Shelton and Cherien Dabis have had previous films at Sundance.  Lynn's last film Your Sister's Sister premiered at Toronto in 2011 and recently won the best ensemble award at the Gothams.  Lynn Shelton's new film Touchy Feely will premiere in competition. She talked about what she felt getting into Sundance. "Finding out that my film got into Sundance felt absolutely incredible, as incredible as it felt the first time I got in (in 2009 with HUMPDAY.) This festival is exactly where I'd hoped the film would enjoy its premiere."

Dabis' May in the Summer is also in competition.  This is her second film after Amreeka. She also talks about the importance of Sundance. "It means a serious level of credibility and visibility that allows me to make a name for my film. I hope that having both of my films accepted into Sundance signifies a level of consistency - or even better growth - that will help advance my career."

A couple of other women, Jill Soloway, Francesca Gregorini and Stacie Passon are all coming to Sundance for the first time.  Soloway a veteran TV writer is moving into directing and looks to Sundance to establish her in this area.  "...being in competition will allow me to have a career after Sundance as a director. It gives validity to my voice in a way that very little else could."  For Gregorini it is all about coming out of the bubble and realizing that she made a film that resonates and that maybe it was all worth it. "You kind of go off into your own orbit for several years, cutting off from your "regular" life with no  road map, just trusting your instincts and having faith that whatever madness propelled you to do this in the first place has some glimmer of brilliance to it that will make it stand out from the others. After the intense slog that is filmmaking, getting into Sundance is that nod of acknowledgement that you're on the right track and for that I am very grateful."  And for Stacie Passon who had been recognized earlier in the week at the Gotham Awards she said she felt "relief" when she got the call.  That relief is understandable.

These directors are on the front line of change.  They might not realize it but they are.  They will be scrutinized differently being in this first class that has acheived gender parity and it will be interesting to track what happens to their films and what happens to the films of their male peers.  This time we can track it one to one.  Deal to deal.  Dollar to dollar.

They shared their thoughts on what it means to be a part of the first class with gender equity as Sundance and I will let their words speak for themselves:

Lynn Shelton - Touchy Feely

I remember a few years back when I was on the festival circuit with my first and second feature films, and it sometimes felt like I was swimming in a vast sea of guys. I was often asked to be on panels where I'd be grilled about what it "felt like" to be a female filmmaker and I would respond that I didn't have anything to compare it to, since I had no idea what it "felt like" to be a male filmmaker, nor could I ever.  At any rate, what parity in the Sundance lineup this year means to me, is finally being able to look forward to the prospect of not being treated like an oddity anymore. Perhaps, at last, our work as filmmakers can speak on its own terms, without any regard for what's in our pants.

Audrey Ewell - Director/Producer of 99% - The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film (Documentary Competition)

It's much harder for women to find financing and to have their films greenlit, and very few films get into prestigious festivals where they then receive a lot attention, and this all adds up to a systemic breakdown in gender parity.  So the fact that there were so many films by women that were of the calibre to get into Sundance this year, this is exciting to me in a bigger way. I'm not just excited to see the visions of so many other women on screen, I'm excited about what this might mean about the larger difficulty in getting our films financed and distributed. I'm hopeful that this will lead toward our films being recognized as viable in the marketplace, as well as aesthetically, culturally and artistically, and that we'll have greater opportunities to hone our skills and make our next films. It's very exciting to be part of that.

Francesca Gregorini - Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes

Film is one of the most, if not the most, powerful mediums we have at our disposal. In many ways, film is the legacy we leave behind and if males are the only ones telling the tales, then we leave behind a very skewed history of what it is to be a human in our time. My hat is off to Sundance for leading the way in this charge. I believe it to be of vital importance, for actually both men and women, to see life reflected back to them through the lens of a woman.

Jill Soloway - Afternoon Delight

It feels so amazing that it's really 8/16. I feel the female gaze so rarely in movies. When I do see it I really stand up and take notice. It's something I can feel. Not just a female main character or a female protagonist but a female filmmaker asking to be seen and heard via her protagonists. Andrea Arnold does it so beautifully, she's such an inspiration. Imagining being in Park City and getting to see so many of these kinds of movies makes me feel like.... well I imagine it might make me feel the way men must feel every day!

Stacie Passon - Concussion

I think it means that more women are making films, and I read today that John Cooper said it was because more women are rising in the ranks. There is definitely representation at IFP, TFI, Sundance Institute and Film Independent and film schools getting out there and cultivating talent.  There were four women in my lab this year at IFP.  All of them with completely unique voices.  There was this amazing woman in the lab called Visra Vichit-Vadakan.  She works in Bangkok and makes these hybrid narrative/documentary features and new media pieces.   She's totally pushing it to another level.

Even though Sundance will be full of women (as it always is) women directors are still sadly an anomaly.  Women directors know that it is a bit harder for them.  But they also know that their voices and visions are just as vital. 

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