Cannes, take note.
Call it feminist, call it a full shift in the zeitgeist, call it the seeds of a movie industry revolution, but the Sundance Film Festival has shoved Hollywood into the 21st century when it comes to the inclusion of women filmmakers.
Last May, the Cannes Film Festival’s competitive Palme D’Or line-up sparked controversy over its dearth of female directors. This year’s annual Sundance fest in Park City, Utah, which runs from Jan. 17-27, for the very first time features an equal number of male and female directors in its 16-film U.S. Dramatic Competition category, ranging from Lynn Shelton’s Touchy Feely, starring Rosemarie DeWitt (pictured in the exclusive photo above), to Liz Garcia’s The Lifeguard, featuring Kristen Bell, Francesca Gregorini’s Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes, starring Jessica Biel, Jerusha Hess’s Austenland with Keri Russell, Lake Bell’s In a World, also starring the actress-director, and Stacie Passon’s Concussion.
EW connected with Shelton, Garcia, Gregorini, Hess, Passon, and Bell, as well as actresses Casey Wilson and June Diane Raphael, who co-wrote the saucy Sundance Midnight screening selection Ass Backwards, and Richard E. Robbins, who directed the CNN Films documentary Girl Rising, which will have scenes shown at Sundance. Absolute joy and excitement resonated through phone and email conversations with the filmmakers, who touted the bright future for women directors — Kathryn Bigelow’s name may be the biggest out there these days, but many more are on the horizon.
“As a woman navigating through a traditionally male dominated field, I have often felt like more of an oddity than an artist,” says Shelton, whose Touchy Feely marks her third film at Sundance. “In addition to a gratifying sense of justice in this ‘Finally!’ kind of moment, I also hope that this year’s gender parity among competition filmmakers at Sundance means we can look forward to a time (hopefully soon) when the quality and content of our work will be considered on its own terms without regard for what happens to be (or not to be) in our pants.”
Representing a wide range as far as the content of their films, this year’s Sundance crop of female-directed movies range from Touchy Feely‘s massage therapist (DeWitt) with an aversion to bodily contact — to The Lifeguard‘s Kristen Bell as a journalist who quits her job in New York and returns to her childhood home in Connecticut, beginning a new life as a lifeguard and precariously connecting with a teenage boy.
The Lifeguard director Garcia expressed glee at the number of women directors with films in competition at the festival – a precedent to follow, and make the norm for younger women hungry to go into film and direct. “I’m hoping this, the female directors of 2013, are a vanguard class. I hope this one’ll be remembered as the year the gates opened and equality in indie film became the norm. I’m a feminist. I’ve been annoyed and dismayed since my first day in L.A. by the sexism in the Hollywood film industry,” she says. “So, to have my dream come true professionally — getting a film into Sundance — converge with a huge stride forward for women in film is a personal supernova. I’d like it on my headstone, please: ‘Class of 2013.’”
“I think that having eight female directors at Sundance this year is nothing short of profound,” she continues. “Indie film influences mainstream film and mainstream film influences culture and culture influences how people perceive themselves. The butterfly effect from this year can be that young women start thinking of themselves as filmmakers. They start to make movies in whatever way they can. They value their voice, and they speak up about the female experience in the world. It’s so simple, it’s so basic, but it’s everything.”
In Lake Bell’s feature-film directing debut, In a World, she plays a struggling vocal coach reaching for her goal of becoming a voiceover artist.
Bell, who has worked with multiple women directors as an actress, chatted about her own experience of being supported by other women, including Shelton, versus being alone in the fray.
“They often speak of the men’s club vs. no-lady’s club. My personal experience has been a lot of support from women,” she says. “Lynn Shelton is awesome. She’s someone that when I was making my movie I went up to her, after having a martini, and told her, ‘I just think you’re great.’ I was greeted with a warm reception. Now we’re together in this competition, and she’s a friendly face. I feel like when I’m directing I’m home, and well suited to my happiness, and how I want to spend the rest of my life.”
But Bell also noted the Catch-22 of bringing so much attention to gender at Hollywood-focused festivals, when in other parts of the world women suffer under sexism-based regimes, and filmmaking is not even a faint twinkle of an option for women.
“I often struggle with the idea of trying to force it. If there were no female directors at Cannes, then so be it. And if there are a record number of female directors at Sundance, so be it. If I have a daughter, one day, I know we’re in a very good place,” she says. “Where we sit, and our small industry, against bigger problems in the world, we’re doing pretty well.”
Robbins’ Girl Rising tells the stories of several girls of different political and socio-economic backgrounds from around the world, narrated by a slew of A-list stars, including Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Kerry Washington, and Selena Gomez. As a male filmmaker, Robbins felt passionate about educating and influencing women to go behind the camera, instead of just in front of it.
“Making a film about educating girls is enough to turn anyone into a rabid feminist, and I’m no exception,” he says. “At every step we sought out great women to collaborate on this project. Overall the movie business is still far too dominated by men. And that’s not just about directors. Outside of a few traditionally female-dominated segments, like wardrobe and casting, the business of making movies — even documentaries — is still a man’s game. … So it’s great to see Sundance leading the way toward a more balanced set of voices in the film industry.”
Those voices include Gregorini, who directed Biel and relative newcomer Kaya Scodelario in Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes (pictured above), about a new neighbor (Biel) shrouded in mystery who becomes the object of preoccupation by a younger woman named Emanuel (Scodelario) and looks eerily like the girl’s dead mother. Emanuel babysits the woman’s newborn, and plunges into a murky, made-up world.
Gregorini says she couldn’t ignore the significance of so many other women also being included. “Hopefully this year’s Sundance lineup sends a clear message to Hollywood and world cinema: ready or not, here we come, not bearing arms, but rather strange and fantastical tales, ones that will enchant and lure and slay you, but a death you will enjoy, because it will be a rebirth and there’s nothing more exciting than shaking things up a bit, pushing the envelope, trying on a pair of ladies panties,” she says, half-jokingly.
“I think this is a very exciting time in independent cinema in part because of our collective growing global consciousness, the margins of what’s of interest have expanded, hunger for truth and meaning have grown and the arcane beat ’em up, blow it up, me Tarzan, you Jane has perhaps grown a little long in the tooth, so in this moment of searching, Sundance, in their infinite wisdom, has hit upon a zeitgeist.”
Austenland, an adaptation of Shannon Hale’s light novel, produced by Twilight heavyweight Stephenie Meyer, shows off Keri Russell as a Jane Austen fan obsessed with Mr. Darcy who goes on a trip to England searching for her own British gentleman. “It is fun to know that I am not the lone female director but one of many,” says Hess, the movie’s first-time director who co-wrote the quirky 2004 Sundance hit Napoleon Dynamite with her husband. “Hopefully more women will be inspired and encouraged to direct. We have amazing stories to tell and voices to tell them!
As for fellow first-time feature director Passon, whose Concussion follows a woman’s decision to shake up her life and name (from Abby to Eleanor) following a blow to the head, jumping into the “first” of an equal number of men and women filmmakers in a particular Sundance category brings with it inevitable questions, and potential criticism. But, she notes, it’s just the beginning. “I know there will be a lot of scrutiny. Will these films stand up? Will they move people and make them think? Sundance has been very brave here, but also I know they have a ton of confidence in the films in competition,” says Passon. “I think as more and more women find non-traditional ways to get work seen, we’ll see our numbers rise dramatically. The other thing is that women historically have had a hard time making more than two or three features, and many of the films at Cannes are not by new filmmakers. So women drop off huge in that category. For most of the women at Sundance in competition, this is a first or second feature. So it’s not only Sundance’s willingness to embrace women, it’s really about embracing new voices as well.”
Ass Backwards co-writers and stars Casey Wilson (Happy Endings) and June Diane Raphael (New Girl), who are already picking up major buzz for their Sundance Midnight selection comedy about gal pals Kate (Raphael) and Chloe (Wilson) who take a road trip to their hometown to snag the beauty pageant crown they lost as kids, says that being a woman is incidental when it comes to just creating something funny as hell. “June and I didn’t set out to write and star in a film ‘as female filmmakers,’ we just wanted to make an important, poignant film that opens with a shot of our bare asses. We were brave enough to break that glass ceiling,” jokes Wilson. “I think women have always been multi tasking their A’s off, but it’s wonderful to see so many female driven films being recognized this year at Sundance.”
Raphael added, with her tongue planted firmly in her cheek, “I’m thrilled to be a part of this landmark year for women at Sundance. To honor this occasion I will be burning all of my bras.”
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