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January 23, 1999 2:00 AM
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+ PARK CITY 99: The 8% Solution, "Seeing Ourselves" at Sundance

+ PARK CITY 99: The 8% Solution, "Seeing Ourselves" at Sundance

By Maud Kersnowski




"Nobody asks Oliver Stone how he feels about being a male filmmaker,"
Sundance veteran Nancy Savoca told me recently. And I've yet to get a
call asking me to write an article about the dozens of white guys
sporting goatees in Park City this year. So why ask the female filmmaker
questions at all? Because women directed only 8 of 97 dramatic feature
films at this year's festival.


These women come from backgrounds as diverse as rural Kentucky and
suburban Sacramento; black and white; entrenched Hollywood screenwriter
and former waitress. An intellectual coming of age story and an assemble
piece about L.A.'s music scene are not often thrown in the same genre.
The common denominator is a woman sitting in the director's chair. And
where she sits effects how the film is perceived. Even a Hollywood
action film like "Deep Impact" (directed by Mimi Leder) is niched by
many as a movie with a woman's touch. Gender becomes a unifying identity
eclipsing many differences. "I've been on these all-women panels where I
look around and think, what do I have in common with these people -- oh
yeah, we're all girls," commented Savoca (who is at Sundance premiering
her latest feature, "24 Hour Woman.")


"Women's film" or "woman filmmaker" may be a troublesome label to haul
around, but it's nothing compared to the dreaded "chick flick" stamp.
"It sounds like �You've Got Mail,'"Allison Anders says (who is
presenting her latest "Sugar Town" as a Centerpiece Premiere).
Consignment to what Savoca calls "the girl ghetto" is something faced by
every female director.


When women earning $.74 to every male $1 sounds more cliched than
shocking, it is time to look up and see the glass ceiling. Women are
radically under-represented in the upper management of most industries,
including film. "It really concerns me that women are so complacent,
especially in Hollywood," Anders says. "I don't know why women assume
they have equal rights."


Both Anders and Savoca accept their roles as women filmmakers with
passionate realism. "I make films about women, 51% of the population of
the globe," explains Savoca. But the newer faces at Sundance vary in
their reactions to the gender specific tags attached to their films. The
goal for Lisanne Skyler ("Getting to Know You") is to be "judged as a
filmmaker, not a female." But Cauleen Smith ("Drylongso") shrugs at the
stamp female filmmaker, "I'm so used to labels that another one doesn't
bother me." Toni Kalem ("A Slipping Down Life") is not even sure what
the phrase "women's film" means except that "it's used to impose a
limitation on how the films are marketed." And Audrey Wells ("The Truth
About Cats and Dogs
" writer and "Guinevere" director) prefers to avoid
gender classification as much as possible. She believes, "If you can
make a good movie, they will run to your door. It's about getting people
that first shot."


"We see women's first films a lot, but we seldom see their second,"
observes Anders. "You have to be as aggressive with your second film as
you were with the first one." And that's something she doesn't see women
filmmakers doing enough, pushing to make the next movie and the one
after that. "You'll get immediate acceptance, but then 10 boys come
along who everybody loves just as much and you're forgotten," she
continues, pointing out that very few female directors establish a
significant body of work. "You stick around for the second one and you
find out very quickly it's not equal."


The inequality shows up not just in the small number of women directing
indies, but also further up the food chain. At the Directors Guild of
America
, A 22% female membership may sound comparatively high, but the
percentage of women actually directing is significantly lower. The
number of days worked by female directors is only 7% of the total Guild
member contract days.


The DGA blames the studios for not opening more doors to women. "Anyone
reading these numbers has to be shocked that the major studios and
production companies hire so few women and minority directors,"
commented DGA President Jack Shea. The three picture deal with Tri-Star,
that many filmmakers dream of netting with their first effort, is rare
for anybody, regardless of gender. But Anders, one of the best known
female indie filmmakers, isn't signed with the majors. "I'd love to do a
big budget studio film, but I just don't think it'll happen." Early in
her career a female studio executive told her, "If we can just take what
we do, and what you do, and put them together. We'll really have
something." That's when Anders realized those two things do not exist in
the same space.


Savoca's experiences with studio executives who say "I don't get it"
mirrors Anders. "I'll go with whoever will finance me," Savoca explains.
"But if you're not fitting into the fantasy of what a film is, they're
not going to give you their money." The fantasy of women is both
behavioral and physical. "No one will ever out-right say, 'this
character is not attractive enough.' They just say, 'we're not interest
in making THIS kind of movie.'"


"Some of the younger women are making really audacious films. Way more
audacious than guys who get a lot more attention," Anders points out,
referring to what she labels "middle-class boy vision." "Nobody says,
�Do you want to go see a film by a nerdy, white, middle-class guy who
couldn't get laid in high school and now can get any girl he wants
because he's a director?'" she observes. It's still a man's world."


Toni Kalem, a veteran actress and first time director spent her
professional life on men's sets, some "generous" and "nurturing," others
"hurtful" and "mean." While making "A Slipping Down Life," adapted from
an Ann Tyler novel, Kalem felt "that my being a woman enhanced
everything about the project. I really enjoyed the fact that a woman,
who happened to me, could dictate a whole world." After wrapping a "good
ol' boy teamster" told her, "When I first saw you, I didn't think you
could do this, but you really pulled it off," she recalls. "That's
something a man would never have to go through."


Texas Teamsters are not the only ones questioning women's ability to
take on the tough job of directing. Articles published in the last year
commenting on the shortage of female filmmakers offer motherhood and
nurturing as one of the explanations for the lack of women at the helm.
According to David Thomson of Movieline and "his wife," women are too
secure, selfless and honest for the "Conceited. Destructive.
Self-aggrandizing" role of film director. In Newsweek Laura Ziskin
"suggested" that, "Once you give birth, you satisfy a creative urge in a
way that men can't."


"I know it was supposed to be funny, but the message comes through,"
retorts Savoca. Right after she was married, her NYU film professor
aired a similar argument against female directors. But Savoca (and
Anders) went on not only to have children, but to make movies. For
Kalem, motherhood gave her a behavior model other than the stereotypical
one of an abusive jerk: "I approached the whole thing like having a
child."


"We need to stop seeing ourselves through the lens of the dominate
culture and start SEEing ourselves," Cauleen Smith argues. Instead of
assuming women's films are quiet movies about emotions, some women
directors are pushing to redefine the "genre." As Smith stresses, women
should "take actions. . . not just wait for love."

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