By Paula Bernstein | Indiewire January 16, 2014 at 10:11AM
There's so much talk about the gender inequality in film and how we need more female directors, but Chicken & Egg Pictures is actually doing something about it. As the only nonprofit film fund devoted solely to supporting women documentary directors, Chicken & Egg Pictures plays an important role in the independent film world by offering funds and mentorship to women documentary filmmakers.
Their influence is felt at the Sundance Film Festival, where, this year, four of their documentary feature grantees will debut: "Private Violence" and "Watchers of the Sky" in the U.S. Documentary Competition and "Sepideh" and "Web Junkie" in the World Cinema Documentary Competition. In addition, another grantee, Lucy Walker's short documentary "The Lion's Mouth Opens," will also screen at the festival.
Founded in 2005 by award-winning filmmakers and producers Julie Parker-Benello, Wendy Ettinger, and Judith Helfand, the organization, which has offices in Brooklyn and San Francisco, puts funds directly into the hands of female documentary filmmakers during critical phases of the filmmaking process -- from development and production through distribution and beyond. The company has awarded over $3 million in grants to over 160 film projects, including, most recently, "After Tiller," "Call Me Kuchu," "Gideon's Army," "The New Black," "A Place at The Table," "The Square" and "Valentine Road."
"Chicken & Egg grew out of the belief that we need to have a multitude of storytellers telling stories," Parker-Benello recently told Indiewire. "There is more parity for women in the documentary world, but if you look at the awards and the top-grossing films, it's still male directors, for the most part. We felt strongly that we wanted women's voices represented behind the camera, in front of the camera and in the field."
The organization primarily gets its funding from family foundations and individual progressive donors, according to Parker-Benello. "Mainly women donors and a few good men," said Parker-Benello.
How do they decide which projects to support? "We like to say that the story leads," said Helfand. "Do we feel compelled by the character? Are they inviting us into a world we've never seen? Do we feel they have a handle and a style and a unique voice and a way of handling it and telling it?
There is also a social justice component to most of the films that Chicken & Egg funds, and the organization tries to make sure there is a "diversity of storytellers -- socio-economically, racially, internationally, filmmakers of color, filmmakers from different sexual orientations. We're very interested in having a portfolio of films that reflect the world we live in," said Parker-Benello.
The organization recently hired its first executive director, Jenni Wolfson, who came from the non-profit and social justice world. Of course, she hopes to increase available funding so they can identify and support more women filmmakers and build more partnerships. But more than money, even, the goal of Chicken & Egg is to support women filmmakers.
As Wolfson explained, "Filmmaking is such a tough and sometimes lonely process. It's a roller coaster. In addition to the funding and mentorship that Chicken & Egg provides, because the funders are filmmakers, they are also providing moral support and solidarity, supporting them through the ups and downs."
Following are descriptions of the films backed by Chicken & Egg Pictures screening at this year's Sundance Film Festival:
Private Violence / U.S.A. (Director: Cynthia Hill) — One in four women experience violence in their homes. Have you ever asked, “Why doesn't she just leave?” Private Violence shatters the brutality of our logic and intimately reveals the stories of two women: Deanna Walters, who transforms from victim to survivor, and Kit Gruelle, who advocates for justice.
SEPIDEH – Reaching for the Stars / Denmark (Director: Berit Madsen) — Sepideh wants to become an astronaut. As a young Iranian woman, she knows it’s dangerous to challenge traditions and expectations. Still, Sepideh holds on to her dream. She knows a tough battle is ahead, a battle that only seems possible to win once she seeks help from an unexpected someone.
Web Junkie / Israel (Directors: Shosh Shlam, Hilla Medalia) — China is the first country to label “Internet addiction” a clinical disorder. Web Junkie investigates a Beijing rehab center where Chinese teenagers are deprogrammed.
The Lion's Mouth Opens / U.S.A. (Director: Lucy Walker) — A stunningly courageous young woman takes the boldest step imaginable, supported by her mother and loving friends.