Inspirational Programming by New York Women in Film and TV
by Andrea Meyer
The rumors are true — the independent film industry is a boys club. Evidenced by the preponderance of films directed by men at Sundance this year, the directing profession is clearly dominated by men. When women direct, their careers often consist of a single hit and a fast track to obscurity, struggle, and television. Most incomprehensibly, even the most brilliant films by women directors are not awarded the same stature as equivalent films by men.
Walk into a room full of cinephiles and film students, and they’ve seen everything by Welles, Hitchcock, Fellini, and Godard. They’re versed in Kieslowski, Wadja, Antonioni and Truffaut. They’ve never seen a thing, however, by Agnieska Holland, except maybe for an American film – “The Secret Garden” or “Washington Square” – which they dismiss without seeing her mind-blowing Academy Award nominated film, “Angry Harvest.” They’ve seen only “The Piano” by Jane Campion, while missing her brilliant early works like “Sweetie.” They know Akerman and Varda, because one film by each was shown in French New Wave 101, but they’ve never heard of Georgian director Lana Gogoberidze or Brazilian director Suzana Amaral. Much of the program, brilliant as it is, never made it out of the festival circuit for U.S. theatrical release, and of those that did, many never found their way into the movie guides or film studies curricula.
In celebration of the 20th Anniversary of New York Women in Film and Television, the 1,200 member networking and educational organization hosted a retrospective of groundbreaking films by women from the last twenty years. The Feminine Eye: Twenty Years of Women’s Cinema reintroduced New Yorkers to the women’s films that they should have already seen, as selected by a committee of women curators from around the world. The first film series at the new Rose Cinemas at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), The Feminine Eye offered twenty-four groundbreaking, must-see films directed by women, as well as panel discussions, a tribute to directors Lee Grant and Joan Micklin Silver, and a sampling of films made by NYWIFT members themselves.
The series opened Thursday, January 28 with the New York premiere of Nancy Savoca’s latest film, “The 24-Hour Woman,” which was released the next day by The Shooting Gallery. Savoca was there to introduce her comedy about a busy TV producer who has a baby and faces the difficulty of balancing a career and family. Rosie Perez, the film’s star, commended Savoca for making “a film about real people, who just happen to be Latin and black.” One of the film’s producers, Peter Newman, also tipped his hat to Savoca, one of the few woman film directors to consistently crank out movies with some success and regularity. He said, “You have to be part crazy to be a woman in a male-dominated industry and still maintain a unique vision.” All the while, Harvey Lichtenstein, President and Executive Producer of BAM, grinned like a proud papa at the opening of the Academy’s first film festival, which he said he hopes to be the first of many.
In the days that followed, festival goers had an opportunity to experience the wide range of personalities from around the world that make up women’s cinema. Rather than a “best of” list, films were selected that indicated significant moments in women’s filmmaking. For example, Kathryn Bigelow’s “Strange Days” (1995) was the first big budget action film ever to be directed by a woman. Thematically daring films presented include Moufida Tlatli’s “The Silences of the Palace” (1994), the story of a girl in Tunisia on the eve of its independence from France, who grows up in the palace where her mother is a servant and her father one of the princes. Through the sad story of a woman finding her voice in a repressive society, the film offers a uniquely scathing portrait of Middle Eastern society, in which women-servants and princesses alike-are required to be silent and subservient.
In Lana Gogoberidze’s gorgeous “Interviews on Personal Matters” (1979), the director expertly weaves a journalist’s juggling of family, love, and work with both the interviews she does for her newspaper and early memories of losing her exiled mother as a child. The result is a rich emotional mosaic of female experience in which all women can find reflections of themselves.
Agnieska Holland’s “Angry Harvest” (1985) explores Poland’s relationship to the Jewish population it turned over to the Nazis, through the story of a Catholic farmer (played by Armin Mueller-Stahl) who takes a Jewish woman into his home after she escapes from a train headed to a concentration camp. He is at once compassionate and repulsed by her alien belief system. As they begin a twisted co-dependent love affair, the farmer develops a passionate longing to protect her, but sacrifices her nonetheless. This complex, powerful film was screened back-to-back with Brazilian filmmaker Suzana Amaral’s equally devastating “The Hour of the Star” (1985). When Amaral made her movie about an awkward, passive girl named Macabea trying to make it in Sao Paulo, she says there were only three women filmmakers in Brazil. Since its international success (it won the Silver Bear and award for Best Actress at the 1986 Berlin Film Festival), she goes on, so many women have begun directing that “now there are more women than men.”
Significant docs include Barbara Koppel’s “American Dream,” which won the 1990 Academy Award for best Documentary. The film exposes all sides of a 1985 labor strike at a Hormel meat-packing plant, which Koppel describes as “not the sexiest subject.” Following the screening, Koppel spoke at some length about the wrenching experience of navigating all the camps in this lengthy battle. She also talked about the advantages of being a woman documentary maker: “You can ask anything and no one thinks you’ll amount to anything, so they’ll answer it.”
The divergence of the documentary world from the rest of the film industry became clear during two panel discussions. While many women seem to be achieving success in documentaries, the greater film industry presents a more dismal picture. During Sink or Swim: Film Financing Around the World, avant-garde filmmaker Yvonne Rainer, whose film Privilege was screened, confessed, “I just see (the future of filmmaking) in very dismal, pessimistic terms.” Ulrike Ottinger, whose film “Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia” was screened, also spoke in bleak terms about a project that she, an internationally recognized German filmmaker, was recently unable to get off the ground for financial reasons.
On the other hand, the discussion, Framing Truth: The Evolution of the Documentary was upbeat and optimistic. In contrast to Sink or Swim’s general pessimism, Koppel said, “you shouldn’t let a little thing like money stop you from doing something you believe in.” Along these lines, docmaker Tami Gold (“Out at Work“) cracked everyone up with stories about interviewing Bible-thumping, midwestern bigots about homosexuality and stressed the importance of hard work and P.R. “We are agents for change and, in the best sense of the word, propagandists.”
It’s silly to list “other highlights” from a festival like this. It was a program of master works by master filmmakers. The temptation to camp in BAM’s lobby for two weeks was strong. Beyond the extraordinary program, something about audiences dominated by women in the film industry is also extremely appealing. Strangers started up conversations with each other, about everything from the film at hand to the inspiration they found there for their own work. After screenings, one had the feeling that audience members would greet their screenplays and DV cams with renewed vigor. As Barbara Koppel said at the doc panel, “I just start. I get something in the can, so this isn’t just a dream anymore. It’s real. Just go. Do it. Start it.”