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.")