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The Women of Sundance 2014

Desiree Akhavan, writer/director/star of Appropriate Behavior

Most of the female filmmakers made a point to say that while it was true that the majority of their crew was women, this wasn’t a conscious choice and that the right professional fit took precedence over gender. I believe this is true, while I also notice how many women simply became the right professional choice for their female directors. “If my crews seem overwhelmingly female, it is not because I consider gender in filling roles,” says Olnek, who hired a first-time feature d.p., Anna Stypko, to shoot her film The Foxy Merkins, “it is actually because other filmmakers are the ones considering gender.” Maybe women filmmakers just don’t see gender as being an issue, but male filmmakers do? Like I said, I’m learning here.

I then got curious: Do women and men actually write and direct films differently? According to Smith, “A study of 500 top-grossing films … found that when a female director helmed a top-grossing film, there were more women in the cast and less female sexualization.” So, I asked the Sundance women how their femaleness may or may not have affected their own films creatively.

“I actually think it can make for a whole lot of really interesting work when women who aren’t just ‘behaving as men’ are creating more films,” 52 Tuesdays director Sophie Hyde mused. “Perhaps creating without total confidence (or bravado) might [produce] some different kinds of stories.” Lynn Wegenka, first a.d. on Shelton’s Laggies, added to this sentiment, saying, “I think that some female directors can be more inclusive in their creative approach, creating a more collegial atmosphere on set.”

Amy-Jo Albany, co-writer of Low Down, an adaption of her memoir directed by a man, was relieved to have a female producer on the team. “In this story it was particularly important to flesh out the complexities of the female characters. These women are wounded, vulnerable and dangerous too. Sometimes I’d talk to the guys about a story point, and they wouldn’t quite get where I was coming from. But Mindy [Goldberg] always understood and would go to bat for ‘the gals’ team.’”

Olnek believes that her female version of a male hustler film could easily have been distorted by a male filmmaker. “For a woman to take it on is an entirely different impulse because it’s based on our lived experience in the messy world of love and sex.”

Song One writer/director Kate Barker-Froyland

Song One writer/director Kate Barker-Froyland

Barker-Froyland thinks her film would possibly have been handled differently by a man “because the story is so much about a young woman’s journey and her connection to the world and her family. Annie [Hathaway] and I are the same age, and as women we’re able to relate to things about the character, Franny, in a certain way that I don’t think a man necessarily would have.” So if women are mobilized to make important films with their generally female sensibilities and are ready to hire each other and collaborate, what are the actual barriers to our success? Let’s take a look at the five key impediments that the Sundance and WIF found.

Impediment 1 

Gendered Financial Barriers and 

Impediment 2

Male Dominated Networks

Most filmmakers — no matter the gender — will probably agree with Hellion director Candler that “money is, and will probably always be, the most difficult part of what we do.” While all genders need to hustle in the independent filmmaking arenas, the Sundance and WIF study found that it’s generally harder for women to raise funds than men for three reasons: men are typically the ones in charge of and connected to funding sources; female-helmed projects are perceived to lack commercial viability; and women are viewed as less confident when they ask for film financing. “The male-centric world is hardwired to give us shit. You have to work twice as hard to earn that little patch in the sun,” Albany contends.

A case has been made that one reason documentaries are more often directed by women is because their budgets are smaller and their funding more accessible than that for narratives. If, according to the study, women don’t generally have access to the same financial networks that men seem to and are viewed as less confident when asking for money, then it makes sense that the primary fundraising efforts of grant writing used in the doc world would come into play for female-directed narratives. Most of the female-helmed films at Sundance 2014 were funded by some algorithm of grant support, funding from national film funds (especially for foreign filmmakers), Kickstarter campaigns, networking supported by programs such as the Sundance Labs, and/or private equity from investors who are personally interested in the topic of the film.

The good news is that, as I type this, funds and production companies are swiftly emerging that are dedicated solely to financing films helmed by women. “We were financed through Gamechanger Films, which is a [new] film fund that finances narrative features directed or co-directed by women,” Stephens said when explaining to me how the financing for Land Ho! came together. “Without Gamechanger, I don’t know if we could have immediately found the financing to go to Iceland this past September.” Industry veterans Anne Hubbell and Amy Hobby together launched Tangerine Entertainment in order to help bridge the gender gap in the film industry. “We made a commitment to do something rather than dwell on the negative,” Hubbell says. I’ve heard murmurings of other female-devoted film funds brewing out of Texas, and I know that the New York City-based female filmmaker collective Film Fatales, started by Leah Meyerhoff, is currently raising funds to support women filmmakers.

Skeleton Twins and War Story cinematographer Reed Morano with her sons

Skeleton Twins and War Story cinematographer Reed Morano with her sons

Impediment 3

Stereotyping on set

Appropriate Behavior producer Cecilia Frugiuele admits that her on-the-job “kindness has been often mistaken as a ‘pushover-attitude,’” and many women said they have struggled with being considered a “bitch” if they act assertively on set. “I think women have had a really hard time finding a voice in this [masculine] energy space because the culture of film objectifies women and silences their voices through subtle social cues to reinforce that glass ceiling,” reflects Love Child director Valeire Veatch.

On the positive side, in the documentary arena a majority of the women felt, as does Mai Iskander, the female d.p. of Belzberg’s Watchers of the Sky, that “being female as a documentary filmmaker is actually an asset.” (Iskander is also the director of other acclaimed films such as Garbage Dreams). “Being female enables you to enter ‘women’s spaces’ as well as ‘men’s spaces’ without being threatening. Generally it is easier for both men and women to open up and share their feelings with women.” Soechtig of Fed Up agrees, saying, “Society gives [women] more license to tap into our emotional core than men … There were many interviews with our characters where I was crying along with our kids, and I think it created a certain trust between us that allowed them to open up for the duration of the project.” According to Tracy Droz Tragos, co-director of Rich Hill with Andre Droz Palermo, in large part her gender allowed her access. “There was a trust with the families in part because I could swap stories about raising kids and show pictures of my family … And because of my ‘mom status,’ the kids had a certain respect for me.”

Impediment 4

Work and Family Balance

Speaking of motherhood, which falls under the “work-family balance” impediment women have said they faced, the filmmaker mothers I spoke with seem to be juggling those two careers very nicely, though perhaps not easily. “We work from my house,” says Private Violence director Cynthia Hill, “which is sort of a mess, but it’s a beautiful mess because two of the associate producers I work with, Malinda Lowery and Un Kyong Ho, are mothers too. So we’re all there with this motley crew of kids running around while we do our thing. We have not treated motherhood like a hindrance or a deterrent, or something that needs to be kept separate from our work lives. We want to have very full lives, and I think we all do.” Hyde also found a creative way to balance motherhood and filmmaking in the making of 52 Tuesdays by shooting only one day a week for a year: “I wanted to see if there was another way to make a movie, outside of the industrial model where for six to eight weeks I couldn’t do anything else, and I couldn’t see my child.” Morano says she doesn’t “want to miss out on anything: not an exciting career that I love and not having the absolute greatest joy in life, which is creating another person and having them with you forever. I just want to experience as much as possible.”

Droz Tragos, however, echoes many filmmaker mothers when she admits that the juggling act is really tough. After winning an Emmy for her feature doc Be Good, Smile Pretty, Droz Tragos made a choice to take time away from filmmaking to raise a family. After her second daughter started nursery school, Tracy decided to go back to film, but getting back in was hard. “I had taken a lengthy hiatus for motherhood and had been off the filmmaking track,” she says. “My contacts were ‘cold.’ So it felt like I was starting all over again. The first sizable grant funding came from Sundance, after we’d been in production a year and were really feeling the squeeze. I was in the carpool line of my oldest daughter’s elementary school when we got the call. I felt like the weight of the world had been lifted from my shoulders.” 

Impediment 5

 Exclusionary hiring decisions 

“There have been times when I was flat out turned down for directing jobs because the producers thought a man would be better,” admits director Catherine Hardwicke, who won the Sundance Directing Award for her indie film Thirteen and went on to direct the blockbusters Twilight and Red Riding Hood. “Sometimes it’s been challenging to convince executives that I can also write broad comedy and robust dick jokes,” reflects Laggies writer Seigel. Other women admitted that they’ve been massively second-guessed when it comes to directing action movies or movies with major visual effects. And to make matters worse, we as women might sometimes not be pushing hard enough, as Sheryl Sandberg says in her book Lean In. “Looking back at my own career,” admits Droz Tragos, “I see how I might have missed out on jobs or opportunities because I wasn’t more brash about staying on the radar and in the conversation.” 

That said, some female Sundancers said that their gender has actually helped them get hired. “Sometimes people were attracted to me and that was helpful!” joked Norwegian director Mona Fastvold (The Sleepwalker). A lot of women echoed the feeling that at this point in time, being a female filmmaker is appealingly unique. “There are so many talented, skilled d.p.s out there, and a larger portion of them are men,” says cinematographer Morano. “Because people think being a woman is a rarity and an accomplishment in such a male-dominated field, I think my gender gives me more of an advantage.” And on a different note, Mina Ðjuki?, director of The Disobedient, feels that her gender has helped her simply because it left her no other choice than to “take risks. The trajectory that resulted from doing this is beautiful.”

Okay, so if I might broadly generalize based on these findings: Women are often very inclusive and collaborative on set. We stand out from the over-saturated male crowd of filmmakers, and if our talents are equal, maybe our gender gives us a leg up due to specialness. In the documentary arena, women seem to gain easier access to documentary stories and tend to inspire confidence in our documentary subjects. And sometimes we get hit on by some males (or females) in the industry and get taken to a nicer-than-normal restaurant for a lunch meeting. (I like Blossom in Chelsea, if anyone wants to bookmark that info).

I’m pretty okay with all of this.

What I remain not okay with is the numbers. I still want to know how we get more women making films. The Sundance Institute has started this ball rolling by initiating a mentorship program for aspiring female filmmakers that is in its second year. What can the rest of us do?

“We seek [women] out. We finance and produce their films. We distribute their films. We hire them,” says Gamechanger president Mynette Louie.

Could it really be as simple as that? It sure makes sense that it could be. If more money people and industry executives started taking more risks on women and believing in us as commercially viable filmmakers, we might actually be unstoppable. Women just need to get to the table in the first place.

“It would be great if the industry used ‘The Rooney Rule,’” Putnam suggests, referencing the NFL rule that says that minorities must be given the chance to be interviewed for head coaching and senior football operation positions.  “It’s not a quota system, and as a concept it has proven effective in other fields where lack of diversity is entrenched.”

As far as what we as female filmmakers can do to move the needle ourselves, speaking up and persevering seem to be key. “If you are part of an underrepresented group, if you don’t have connections or access, you need to make people pay attention to you by doing great and being great,” Louie argues. Hardwick emphasizes, “Be as prepared as possible for any meeting. Over prepare. Work harder than the guys. Blow them away!” “I quickly realized that if I wanted to go on, I had to do things on my own,” shares Louise-Salomé, about how women need to be proactive to get ahead.

Perhaps what we need the most is to have and to demonstrate sheer passion for our cinematic craft. “More women need to want to make movies” Morano says. “I think we as a gender need to stop worrying about the unfortunate statistics and start worrying more about finding the most truly original and compelling stories to tell.”

I think she is right. In fact, she has to be right. We should know the numbers, and let them mobilize us to start writing that script or start shooting that film. I encourage all of you reading this who aspire to have a feature film at Sundance: start before you’re ready (this advice was given to me by stills photographer Robert Zuckerman when I was his production assistant on Terminator 3). As women, we have no time to wait. Let’s get perfect at our craft by doing our craft. Let’s be brave, and relentless, and bawdy and provocative. Let’s go big, let’s be authentic to who we are and let’s not be worried what anyone thinks.

And let’s keep talking about this. “We need to keep the conversation going until it becomes normal for women to have a seat at the table, not just in the independent arena but in the industry at large,” Putnam says. If we do all of the above, then one day, as Smith hopes, we might just “see a world in which filmmakers are defined solely by how they practice their craft and not by their identity.”

And support films by your female colleagues. “One of the best ways to send a message is to see films by women in the theater, or whatever platforms the films are on,” Putnam encourages, “because the best thing that can happen is that these films are commercially viable, they break through — that is what it takes for the industry to realize that audiences do want to see movies from women.”

As for those 738 women who didn’t get into Sundance this year — you guys are an inspiration. You got a movie made! Submit it to other festivals; let it loose online; do a crowd-funding campaign to get it into theaters. Find it a home. And then go make another one. Because you’ve already proved you can do the impossible. You have to do it again, because as Hyde puts it, “a film culture without women’s voices contributing a significant amount, is limited and insincere as a reflection of life.

For a complete collection of full interviews with this Sundance’s female filmmakers, click here throughout the festival.

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