Last week, when Cannes announced its all-male list of competition directors, I was in a room in Florida filled with 25 talented women directors, producers, writers and distributors. This was the second annual Side By Side Symposium organized by Holly Herrick, director of Sarasota Film Festival Women (and former programmer at SFF).
Along with the ongoing Through Women’s Eyes program of women's issues documentaries, this new program contributes to making Sarasota a primary film festival destination for women. Some female directors at the festival, a list that included Olivia Silver with her directorial debut "Arcadia" and Ry Russo-Young with her third film "Nobody Walks," commented on the ultra-rare experience of not being the only woman director in the room.
"The numbers about the representation of women in the film business are disgusting. They’re incredibly low," said festival director Tom Hall. "I think it's easy to be a platform for women filmmakers because so many women are making good films. The decision not to include this work is far more political than it is to include it."
Hall also pointed out that bringing women filmmakers to the festival created networking opportunities. "There are a lot of younger women filmmakers and developing producers who come, and people in the business in various roles who are down here, and I think it’s stupid not to connect them and try to get them to collaborate," he said. "Through meeting and working together, those people will create more opportunities for women in the film business."
Said Hall, "The lack of savvy and cynicism down here really contributes to a different environment for filmmakers," he said. "You go to Sundance or [SXSW] and they’re great festivals, amazing programs, but they’re driven by the business of selling movies." Sarasota, he said, is "like summer camp. Everyone gets together, there’s a beach, they stay out late together, and they’re having dialogues the whole time and that’s the kind of thing we’re trying to foster."
Facing audiences mostly comprised of retirees, many filmmakers remarked that the festival ends up being a test for how films play for regular audiences outside of the industry. "They’re a real audience, in a way," said Hall. "They’re smart and they’re savvy, they love the arts, but it’s a very different environment from the industry-driven festival."
An example of that environment could be found at the first Sarasota screening for "Compliance." The controversial film by Craig Zobel about a prank call to a fast-food restaurant that goes far too far was met with audible groans and "tsks" from the older women in the audience and one consistent lascivious snicker from a solitary elderly man. Though a terrifically intelligent concept, it’s rendered as if it was a bad porno script filmed like an episode of "Law and Order." (“I didn't do anything. This is crazy. I’m naked.")
"Compliance" could be included in a theme of women's entrapment that emerged during the festival, alongside films like Melanie Shatzky and Brian Cassidy's startlingly intense "Francine," Kris Swanberg’s Jeanne-Dielman-in-the-woods exploration of maternal ambivalence "Empire Builder" (starring Kate Lyn Sheil in one of four outstanding performances in the festival), and Ashley Sabin and David Redmon's smart documentary "Girl Model."
The best of these — perhaps the standout film of the festival — and aggressively transcending that theme, was Amy Seimitz’s directorial debut "Sun Don't Shine," a sinewy and unrelenting story of a couple on the run in Florida starring an unforgettable Kentucker Audley and Kate Lyn Sheil.
Sheil is a damaged Sissy Spacek-esque loose cannon in a fascinating inversion of "Badlands," reversing the genders but also reverting the Malick dream from the romantic, soft-focus greeting card that it's become back to a primal, doomed, fever dream. It's exhausting and gave me nightmares: a bright, sweaty free fall with a buzzing, scratching soundtrack that gets deep inside a mind gone crazy from constant heat.
The best films in the festival had the best sound; with the artistically shot, low-end film and video in "Sun Don't Shine" and Adam Leon's "Gimme the Loot," the Ross Brother's "Tchoupitoulas" and two short masterpieces by the Safdies ("The Black Balloon") and Dustin Guy Defa ("Family Nightmare"), it's the stellar sound design in these that push them deep into the subconscious.
From the ageless electronic magic of the GONG soundtrack in "The Black Balloon" (including the classic "Zero the Hero and the Witches Spell") to the whiny twee indie instrumental that sullies (or perhaps underscores the surprising depth in) Bob Byington's "Somebody Up There Likes Me," a wry epic about another zero hero, Max, like a harmless and much dimmer Steve Coogan as played by non-actor Keith Poulson. It's a classic feel-bad comedy, about people who never figure out life and then die. Watching the film generates irritation at its stubborn go-nowhereness and also confused pleasure at its intentionally clever wordplay. Though one of the least enjoyable viewing experiences in the festival, Byington's low-budget Benjamin Button story of a man who never ages has the longest reach. Its subtle themes lingered longest post-fest.
In 10 days filled with remarkably singular visions (from the enthusiasm-propelled low budget New York ensemble comedy "Richard’s Wedding" to the fascinating experiment of Dan Sallit’s "Emerging Visions" award-winning incest family film "The Unspeakable Act," which was written and filmed in New York but plays as if it was in translation from 70s Rohmer or Bresson), it's Byington’s odd ambition that's most off-the-charts.