With alumnae ranging from Maya Angelou to Moon Unit Zappa, the AFI Directing Workshop for Women has a reputation as an innovative and unique filmmaking training program for women of varied backgrounds. With great expectations of discovering new directing talent at this year’s Red Carpet Showcase, an industry-heavy audience filled every one of the 600 seats at the Directors Guild Theater in Hollywood on May 11, 2009. While none of the debuting workshop projects were obvious homeruns, there were enough solid hits to warrant attention.
Selected from over 200 applications to the 2008 AFI Directing Workshop for Women, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Meredith Berg, Joy Gohring, Joanna Jurewicz, Mary Ann Kellogg, Alexa-Sascha Lewin, and Dominika Waclawiak were given three weeks of intense instruction at the American Film Institute in Hollywood and allotted five days to shoot their narrative live action short films.
The Red Carpet Showcase of their final projects began with “Ink.” The very intense 20-minute film concentrates on a dying tattoo artist’s last interactions with her devoted customers, pushy best friend, and teenage son. The writer/director, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, is primarily known as an actress. She’s currently on the CBS series “Without a Trace” and gained worldwide fame as a result of her Oscar-nominated performance in Mike Leigh’s “Secret and Lies.” As you would expect, the acting is universally superb in Jean-Baptiste’s film, with Theresa Randle excelling in the very difficult leading role while Kathrine Narducci does a terrific turn as her best friend. The only arena where the storytelling falters is when the tattoos come to life, an artificial conceit that is distracting rather than enhancing.
Following “Ink” was “18,” a story that shares a similar plot devise of a dying mother. This film’s heroine is an 18-year-old being pressured by a doctor to have her comatose mother removed from life support. Despite the dark situation inherent in the set up, the storytelling is buoyant. Portia Doubleday has screen presence as the teenage lead, but the audience at the DGA adored scene-stealer Lori Nasso in the supporting role of a friendly neighborhood mother who folds laundry while drunken teenagers party recklessly around her backyard swimming pool. An underwater scene at the film’s conclusion gives this 14-minute short an undeniable emotional wallop. Writer/director Joy Gohring comes from a stand up/one-women show background.
“Abuelo” screened in the third position at the DGA but should have been saved for last. A crowd pleaser, it would have sent the audience out into the excellently catered reception on a high note. The 15-minute short, which is already an official selection of the Nantucket Film Festival and the Palm Springs ShortFest, is based on a story by Mary Ann Kellogg and Doug Cooney, with Cooney getting scripting credit. Kellogg, who began her career as a professional dancer with the Twyla Tharp Dance Company, was nominated for an Emmy for her choreography on Showtime’s “Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical.” As a director, she makes the brave decision not to subtitle her film when the grandfather speaks Spanish. Castulo Guerra is so wonderful as the title character that it doesn’t matter if you can’t understand what he’s saying.
Clocking in at a mere 12 minutes, Joanna Jurewicz’s “Rooms” was the shortest film of the evening. Set entirely in an ugly-to-look-at airport hotel, the film is a captivating character showcase built around a wistful maid, played by fellow AFI DWW director Marianne Jean-Baptiste. Jurewicz is a NYU grad whose first short, “Shave,” was a Student Academy Award regional finalist; her second, “Goyta,” screened in the Cinefoundation competition at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival.
Alexa-Sascha Lewin contributed one of the most masculine-themed shorts of the evening, the 16-minute Chinatown-set crime story “The Honeysting.” Working from a script written by husband Brad Rister, natural history filmmaker Lewin secured $10,000 toward her production budget via an Animal in Content Entertainment (ACE) grant through the Humane Society. Although the short won over the majority of the audience with its ambition, a smattering of derisive viewers couldn’t take the film seriously.
The penultimate film of the evening, “Gosia’s Witch” from Poland-born writer/director Dominika Waclawiak, revolves around a confrontation between a ruler-thumping nun and fanciful Catholic schoolgirl. The main storyline is woven together with an elaborate fairytale that gives the conflict additional depth. Waclawiak’s background is in computer generated visual effects. Her credits include the upcoming “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian” and “Land of the Lost.”
The closing short, “Void,” kept the audience on its toes. The plot begins with a female FBI agent arriving to investigate a string of gruesome murders. Very quickly, the viewer begins to suspect things aren’t exactly what they seem in writer/director Meredith Berg’s scenario. Although the acting in this 20-minute film is uneven, unexpected and satisfying plot twists made “Void” one of the most talked about pieces at the post-screening reception. Berg’s background is in theater and comic books.
Martha Coolidge, the first and only female President of the DGA, was the guest of honor at the Red Carpet Showcase. In her introductory speech, she stated her hope that one day a film director being female wouldn’t be something remarkable. The partisan audience heartily applauded this sentiment. At the start of the screening, current workshop members were given a quick introduction. The class of 2009 consists of Angie Comer, Deborah Correa, Lisa Gold, Emmy Grinwis, Maggie Kiley, Kaz Phillips, Sylvia Sether, and Kinga Suto. Judging from the 2008 results, I’d recommend attending next year’s screening. But make sure to get there early-I’m sure once again it will be standing room only.