Wonder Women

This year’s Sundance Film Festival featured more movies directed by women than ever before, but gender discrimination in the industry is still endemic

On 21 January, in conjunction with the Women’s March on Washington, several thousand people crowded the Main Street of Park City, Utah, for one of the many satellite protests taking place around the world that day against the agenda of incoming president, Donald Trump. The weather was grim and the turnout was lower than predicted, but comedian and talk-show host Chelsea Handler led a spirited march and rally that included the performers Charlize Theron, Aisha Tyler and Jessica Williams – all of whom were in town for the annual Sundance Film Festival. The gathering was apt: Sundance has become an increasingly politicized space in recent years, particularly for women and people of colour, whose films have managed to infiltrate the festival’s taste-making sphere in significant numbers, despite its reputation for establishing, in the 1990s, a strain of indie cinema as white as the mountain peaks that surround Park City.

In recent years, Sundance has managed to lose face as a champion of independent film – premiering well-financed Hollywood fare and becoming bloated with corporate sponsorships – even as it continues to outpace the mainstream on the question of gender equity behind the camera. In 2013, the Sundance Institute co-conducted a review of the festival’s representation of female filmmakers and found that a quarter of the previous decade’s Sundance movies were directed by women. In that same decade, fewer than five percent of the top 100 grossing films had female directors.

The discrepancy between the two worlds grows only more defined: this January, women directed a third of the films screened at Sundance – an all-time high – yet, a Celluloid Ceiling report indicates that the number of female-directed films among 2016’s top 250 earners dropped to seven percent, down from nine percent the previous year. We might puzzle over why a space appears to be opening for women in independent film even as that within the larger industry contracts; we might hope that the influence of the one world will eventually blow open the doors to the other. In the interim, it’s clear that the collection and release of these numbers matters, as they have brought sustained attention to a problem that, for decades, few cared to imagine, much less mention.

In the festival marketplace, some numbers will always matter more than others. This is why the triumph of American filmmaker Dee Rees’s Mudbound (all films 2017, unless other­wise stated) – a period drama that follows two World War II veterans, one black and one white, as they try to resume their lives in rural Mississippi – feels so radical. After screening at Sundance to hosannas, Mudbound became the festival’s biggest sale: to Netflix, for US$12.5 million. (Another female-directed Sundance favourite, Marti Noxon’s To the Bone, sold for over US$10 million.) Rees, who is black, first drew attention for her 2011 drama Pariah, which also debuted at Sundance, but found it difficult to build on that film’s success. A 2015 New York Times Magazine cover story blamed Rees’s struggle to land a suitable project on Hollywood’s preference for directors that fulfil a familiar archetype: ‘white, male, ball cap’. Black women filmmakers, in particular, lack that benefit of the doubt. ‘For buzzy first films by a white male, the trajectory is a 90-degree angle,’ Rees said. ‘For us, it’s a 30-degree angle.’

One of this year’s biggest releases is also a case in point: Wonder Woman, the first major studio superhero franchise to be directed by a woman, is Patty Jenkins’s first feature since her 2003 breakout Monster, the film that won Theron an Academy Award. Jenkins has spent the 14 years since her debut working in television – an industry slightly less averse to putting women in charge. This year also sees releases from Sofia Coppola (a remake of the 1971 drama, The Beguiled) and Kathryn Bigelow, whose Untitled Detroit Project revisits the 1967 riots that marked an era of racism, police violence and civil unrest.

Another female-directed Sundance film out this year, Whose Streets?, suggests in strong and persuasive terms that, in certain parts of the US, that era never ended. Making her documentary debut, Sabaah Folayan focuses on the 2014 killing of Michael Brown – the black teenager from Ferguson, Missouri, who was shot and killed by a white police officer – and the militarized response that met the local protests which followed. Whose Streets? is an activist documentary in the mould of Barbara Kopple, whose best-known films – including the 1976 Oscar-winner Harlan County, USA – explore the plight of the working class. Folayan and her co-director Damon Davis spotlight the voices and the experiences of the Ferguson community, blending interviews, on-the-ground images and mobile-phone footage of various protests and violent police actions to create a stirring portrait of resistance.

The Sundance report indicates that women at the festival are twice as likely to direct documentaries as they are narrative films. In a recent interview in The Chicago Tribune, the Australian director Kitty Green claimed that documentary is more hospitable for aspiring women filmmakers, who might ‘find it intimidating to work with a crew of 50 big, bulky men carrying equipment’. In documentary filmmaking, she said, ‘there’s a smaller crew, and it’s a more intimate environment […] As a young woman, that was my experience. I was quite intimidated by the fiction space.’

An uncanny blend of fiction and non-fiction, Green’s Casting JonBenét (a Sundance premiere that was released in the US in April) expands on the format of her Sundance short, The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul (2015). It revisits the much-revisited, as-yet-unsolved 1996 murder of six-year-old JonBenét Ramsey, a child beauty pageant competitor found strangled and beaten in the basement of her home in Boulder, Colorado. The film comprises auditions for the role of JonBenét, as well as for the roles of her parents and several others who figure in the story; the scripted material is based on sources with wildly varying levels of reliability. The performers, local to the Boulder area, offer (frequently lurid) commentary on their characters and the nature of the murder, which often turns personal. They are shown to be intimately involved in the story’s inchoate telling, as Green implies the viewer must be as well.

Mournful and exquisitely strange, Casting JonBenét upends every tenet of true crime documentary: there are no experts, principles or witnesses – only players who function as all of these and more. Attempts to tell the story only further obscure it and the actual child at its centre. At 32, Green has an instinct to bend genre to her will, daring a system based on convention and exclusivity to ignore that will at its peril. It’s tough to imagine what might intimidate her now.

 Sabaah Folayan, Whose Streets?, 2017, film still. Courtesy: Sundance Institute; photograph: Lucas Alvarado Farrar 

Michelle Orange is the author of This Is Running for Your Life: Essays (2013). She lives in New York, USA.

Issue 188

First published in Issue 188

June – August 2017

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