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

Most Read

The punk artists’s invasion of the pitch during the Croatia vs. France match reminded us what Russia’s new ‘normality’...
In further news: Brexit voters avoid arts; New York libraries’s culture pass unlocks museums; Grayson Perry-backed...
If artificial intelligence were ever to achieve sentience, could it feasibly produce art? (And would it be good?)
The punk activist-artists have been charged with disruption after they charged the field during the France vs Croatia...
27 educators are taking the London gallery to an employment tribunal, demanding that they be recognized as employees
In further news: Glasgow School of Art to be rebuilt; Philadelphia Museum of Art gets a Frank Gehry-designed restaurant
Highlights from Condo New York 2018 and Commonwealth and Council at 47 Canal: the summer shows to see
Knussen’s music laid out each component as ‘precarious, vulnerable, exposed’ – and his conducting similarly worked from...
Nods to the game in World Cup celebrations show how dance has gone viral – but unwittingly instrumentalized for...
‘You can’t reason with him but you can ridicule him’ – lightweight as it is, Trump Baby is a win for art as a...
Anderson and partner Juman Malouf are sorting through the treasures of the celebrated Kunsthistorisches Museum for...
From Capote to Basquiat, the pop artist’s glittering ‘visual diary’ of the last years of his life is seen for the first...
‘When I opened Monika Sprüth Galerie, only very few German gallerists represented women artists’
Can a ragtag cluster of artists, curators and critics really push back against our ‘bare’ art world?
In further news: German government buys Giambologna at the eleventh hour; LACMA’s new expansion delayed
Gucci and Frieze present film number two in the Second Summer of Love series, focusing on the history of acid house
Judges described the gallery’s GBP£20 million redevelopment by Jamie Fobert Architects as ‘deeply intelligent’ and a ‘...
Is the lack of social mobility in the arts due to a self-congratulatory conviction that the sector represents the...
The controversial intellectual suggests art would be better done at home – she should be careful what she wishes for
Previously unheard music on Both Directions At Once includes blues as imposing as the saxophonist would ever record
In further news: Macron reconsiders artist residencies; British Council accused of censorship; V&A to host largest...
In our devotion to computation and its predictive capabilities are we rushing blindly towards our own demise?
Arts subjects are increasingly marginalized in the UK curriculum – but the controversial intellectual suggests art is...
An exhibition of performances at Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw, unfolds the rituals of sexual encounters
An art historian explains what the Carters’s takeover of the Paris museum says about art, race and power
Artist Andrea Fraser’s 2016 in Museums, Money and Politics lifts the lid on US museum board members and...
The Ruhrtriennale arts festival disinvited the Scottish hip-hop trio for their pro-Palestinian politics, then u-turned
The Baltimore’s director on why correcting the art historical canon is not only right but urgent for museums to remain...
Serpentine swimmers complain about Christo’s floating pyramid; and Hermitage’s psychic cat is a World Cup oracle: the...
The largest mural in Europe by the artist has been hidden for 30 years in an old storage depot – until now
Alumni Martin Boyce, Karla Black, Duncan Campbell and Ciara Phillips on the past and future of Charles Rennie...
In further news: po-mo architecture in the UK gets heritage status; Kassel to buy Olu Oguibe’s monument to refugees
The frieze columnist's first novel is an homage to, and embodiment of, the late, great Kathy Acker
60 years after the celebrated Brutalist architect fell foul of local authorities, a Berlin Unité d’Habitation apartment...
The British artist and Turner Prize winner is taking on the gun advocacy group at a time of renewed debate around arms...
The central thrust of the exhibition positions Sicily as the fulcrum of geopolitical conflicts over migration, trade,...
The Carters’s museum takeover powers through art history’s greatest hits – with a serious message about how the canon...
The 20-metre-high Mastaba finally realizes the artist and his late wife Jeanne-Claude’s design
‘What is being exhibited at Manifesta, above all, is Palermo itself’
With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
US true crime series Unsolved takes two formative pop cultural events to explore their concealed human stories and...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018