There’s much to look forward to at the 2015 edition of the Tribeca Film Festival, which begins this week. For starters, 33% of the feature filmmakers screening at this year’s festival are women — the highest percentage in Tribeca’s history. In addition to women being well-represented behind the scenes, there are also a number of high-profile women-centric projects featured at the festival, including “Roseanne for President!,” a documentary chronicling the controversial commedienne’s 2012 bid for the presidency. On the festival-awards front, Gloria Steinem and Whoopi Goldberg will serve as jurors in the festival’s world documentary competition.
Here are 10 films by and about women that have caught our eyes, captured our imaginations, and promise to open our minds. With subject matter as varied as Pakistani music, romantic comedies, and reeling in the wake of losing a child, Tribeca 2015 has something to offer everyone. Be sure to stay tuned throughout the week while Women and Hollywood rolls out interviews with many of Tribeca’s female filmmakers.
Plot summaries are courtesy of Tribeca unless otherwise noted.
“Sworn Virgin” – Directed by Laura Bispuri; Written by Laura Bispuri and Francesca Manieri
What it’s about: As a young woman living within the confines of a Northern Albanian village, Hana (Alba Rohrwacher) longs to escape the shackles of womanhood, and live her life as a man. To do so she must evoke an old law of the Kanun and take an oath to eternally remain a virgin. Years later, as Mark, she leaves home for the first time and travels to Italy to stay with her sister, crossing over into a world unlike anything she has known before. There, she discovers herself again, leading her to contemplate the possibility of undoing the vow she made so long ago.
Why we’re interested: Prior to seeing the film (which Melissa Silverstein did at the Berlin International Film Festival), we were entirely unfamiliar with the Albanian tradition of the sworn virgin, or burrnesha, which has been around for centuries. As Tribeca’s description of “Sworn Virgin,” notes, this practice “allowed women to break out of their prescribed roles and avoid a life of domesticity by electing to take on another set of rigid gender roles.” We were blown away by Laura Bispuri’s debut feature, which tackles this fascinating topic with confidence and sensitivity. Alba Rohrwacher gives a stunning performance as Hana/Mark, a woman who has elected to live as a man and then changes her/his mind. Hana’s evolution as s/he figures out what womanhood — and sexuality — mean to him/her make for a compelling viewing experience.
As Bispuri told Women and Hollywood in an upcoming interview, “The whole film is, in effect, a peregrination inside the soul of
the character, with the constant surprise of small and large metamorphoses.
Like in all travel, the viewer alternates various feelings and emotions: surprise,
anticipation, misunderstanding, understanding, curiosity. It is as if all the pieces
of a puzzle fit together harmoniously to tell a great story and reveal a great
character. You accompany her/him on a trip that unfolds to discover an identity
that is being freed.”
“Meadowland” – Directed by Reed Morano
What it’s about: Sarah (Olivia Wilde) and Phil’s (Luke Wilson) son goes missing, shattering their life together and forcing each to find their own way to cope. Cinematographer-turned-director Reed Morano presents a masterfully crafted contemplation on a relationship strained to the breaking point.
Why we’re interested: We’re happy to see Olivia Wilde, who impressed us with her understated performance in 2013’s “Drinking Buddies” and a brief but memorable role in “Her,” in a meaty starring role and in the sort of movie we’re not used to watching her in. “Meadowland” also boasts a stellar supporting cast, which includes Elisabeth Moss, Juno Temple and Merritt Wever.
Director Reed Morano is an accomplished cinematographer (“The Skeleton Twins,” “Kill Your Darlings,” “Frozen River”), and we’re looking forward to seeing the results of her first time in the director’s chair. Morano shared some insight with Women and Hollywood about what the most difficult part of this transition was:
“I think the main challenge for me came prior to the shoot. It was the ‘unknown.’ I decided to direct, DP and operate the camera, so besides the unknown of whether or not I could actually direct actors and be responsible for creating a compelling narrative, there was the unknown of could I direct, in addition to doing what I always do, which is shooting.” She continued, “I had to leave my comfort zone as a DP and move into the very vulnerable world of the director, and that was scary for me.”
While Morano may have been intimidated by the challenge, the fact that the film has already received an international distribution deal prior to its premiere at Tribeca suggests that her ambitious efforts to direct, DP and operate the camera worked to the advantage of “Meadowland.”
“Man Up” – Written by Tess Morris
What it’s about: Perpetually single Nancy (Lake Bell) has given up on ever finding Mr. Right. When a mix-up involving a fad self-help book leads to Jack (Simon Pegg)—a charming stranger—falsely identifying her as his blind date, Nancy lets her guard down to see where this unexpected opportunity takes her. At first Jack seems like he might be The One, but soon both parties realize there might be more to the other than they first let on.
Why we’re interested: While this plot summary for “Man Up” makes the movie sound like generic rom-com fare, we’re feeling optimistic about this story of a blind date gone awry because of Lake Bell’s involvement. After directing, writing, and starring in the inspiring and feminist “In a World…,” we can’t imagine Bell would sign on to a genre movie that perpetuates old, tired and oftentimes sexist tropes about romance. We foresee this being a different kind of rom com — plus, we’re curious to see what kind of chemistry she and Pegg produce onscreen.
“Bleeding Heart” – Written and Directed by Diane Bell
What it’s about: Reserved yoga instructor May (Jessica Biel) lives a peaceful, clean-living life with her boyfriend. Her carefully maintained equilibrium is thrown out of balance by the arrival of her long-lost biological sister Shiva (Zosia Mamet), a street-smart yet naive young woman caught working the streets and trapped in an abusive relationship. May feels compelled to rescue the hapless Shiva, but as she takes steps to pull Shiva back from the edge she finds herself increasingly drawn out of her sedate world and deeper into Shiva’s chaotic one.
Why we’re interested: We wish more media focused on relationships between siblings, narrative territory that is strangely untapped for the most part. The dysfunctional dynamics at play between the sisters in “Bleeding Heart” have us intrigued. We are looking forward to seeing Jessica Biel as an increasingly unhinged yogi and Zosia Mamet in a role that is so unlike her character in “Girls.”
In an upcoming interview with Women and Hollywood, writer/director Diane Bell revealed what inspired her to tell this story:
“I worked as a yoga teacher for years and taught classes in social-welfare centers for prostitutes in Edinburgh, Scotland (where I’m originally from) and Barcelona, Spain. I was shocked by the level of violence with which these women often lived, from their partners and from their clients. It made me question how we can really help someone who is in an ongoing situation of abuse. Yoga is founded upon the idea of ahimsa, non-violence, but there is also an idea of service to others. How do we deal with someone who is set upon violence and has no interest in the peaceful resolution of conflicts? This question fascinates me and drives the film.”
“Roseanne for President!” (doc)
What it’s about: Twenty-five years after Roseanne Barr’s groundbreaking number-one sitcom, “Roseanne for President” tells the tale of her 2012 grassroots campaign for President of the United States. While “Roseanne” may have revolutionized the way Americans talked about family, class, race, gender and gay rights, this campaign trail adventure is a personal account of Roseanne’s thoughts on these subjects — and others, as we have never heard them before.
Why we’re interested: Roseanne Barr has been a polarizing public figure for decades. Whatever your thoughts on her, you have to respect the fact that the comedienne/actress/writer/producer/director is still making waves nearly 20 years after her eponymous landmark television series went off the air. We’d be content to watch the fiercely funny and honest Barr just sit around and sound off, so the prospect of getting to witness her foray into the world of American politics in a campaign to become the President of the United States sounds like a blast to us.
“The Armor of Light” (doc) – Directed by Abigail Disney
What it’s about: This documentary digs into the deep affinity between the evangelical Christian movement and our country’s gun culture — and how one top minister and anti-abortion activist undergoes a change of consciousness to challenge prevailing attitudes toward firearms among his fellow Christians.
Why we’re interested: First-time documentarian Abigail Disney, who has previously worked as a producer, raises a number of important questions about our nation’s attitudes towards gun policy and safety and how human life is valued (or not).
Disney told Women and Hollywood about her most pressing struggle in making the doc, explaining, “My biggest challenge was managing my own feelings about the pro-life/pro-choice debate. I had come into the conversation with the minister in our film with a conscious desire to be a peace builder — to reach out across a political gulf that divided us and to deliberately seek and inhabit the common ground we shared. But once in a while, there was a moment when I felt so angry, and so defensive of my own point of view, that I had a hard time not shouting out in disagreement. This came up again and again in the edit as well. I had promised everyone we filmed that they would be treated with respect, and it is really hard not to want to undercut someone you disagree with when you have all the power in the world to do so in an edit room!”
Disney works very hard to humanize a man who in his ministry created a climate of violence against pro-choice providers — impressive work, especially considering this is her first project.
“Thought Crimes” (doc) – Directed by Erin Lee Carr
What it’s about: Convicted then acquitted of conspiring to kidnap, rape, kill, and eat several women, NYPD officer Gilberto Valle quickly rose to infamy as New York’s own “Cannibal Cop.” With exclusive access to Valle, Erin Lee Carr’s unflinching documentary asks a fundamental question that challenges our beliefs about the criminal justice system, and even the very nature of right and wrong: can you be guilty of a crime you only thought about committing? This film will air on HBO.
Why we’re interested: The story of the so-called “Cannibal Cop” was inescapable back in 2012, and of course it received the frenzied media attention that it did — a police officer accused of plotting to kidnap and eat 100 women sounds like an especially gruesome and far-fetched horror movie.
In an interview with Women and Hollywood, director Lee Carr shared what she wants people to think about when they leave the theatre:
“My goal, like many people’s, is to make the audience think. Why was Gil Valle put in jail when there was such little physical evidence? Did his occupation as a police officer factor into his conviction? Would Gil Valle had done it? What implications does the trial of the cannibal cop have for the public at large? These are questions I agonized over and worked into the film. I would love to have a dialogue with people about it!” We’ve been wrestling with somewhat-related questions ourselves. In a blog post detailing Ashley Judd’s struggle against misogyny in the Twittersphere, we argued in favor of instituting laws that will see perpetrators of online abuse punished for their behavior. We would like to see how Lee Car handles these questions, and the matter of, as she describes it, “if someone can be found guilty of a crime they only thought about committing.”
“Song of Lahore” (doc) – Directed by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Andy Schocken
What it’s about: Until the late 1970s, the Pakistani city of Lahore was world-renowned for its music. Following the Islamization of Pakistan, many artists struggled to continue their life’s work. “Song of Lahore” turns the spotlight on a group of stalwart musicians that kept playing and ultimately attracted listeners from around the world. In English, Punjabi, and Urdu with subtitles.
Why we’re interested: “Songs of Lahore” sounds like a fascinating exploration of religion, artistic freedom and cultural heritage. And while we’re most definitely looking forward to seeing this movie, we are even more eager to hear the music in it, and to see it be performed. Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, the doc’s co-director, became Pakistan’s first Oscar winner after clinching the 2012 Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject) for “Saving Face,” which focused on two women who were attacked with acid.
Obaid-Chinoy told Women and Hollywood that she ultimately wants “people to leave the theatre with a greater understanding of the rich cultural heritage of Pakistan. ‘Song of Lahore’ moves beyond headlines and stereotypes, and shows that a vast majority of Pakistanis are not perpetrators of religious violence; instead they are victims of it. The beautiful cultural heritage of the region belies its image in the West as monolithically religious, intolerant and violent. By giving our audience intimate access to the lives of these musicians, we hope to raise awareness of the region’s beautiful cultural heritage, and present a more nuanced portrait of its people. As one of the film subjects, Nijat Ali, says in the film, ‘God willing, the entire world will see that Pakistanis are artists, not terrorists.'”
“All Eyes and Ears” (doc) – Written and Directed by Vanessa Hope
What it’s about: When former Utah governor Jon Huntsman was appointed United States Ambassador to China, the charming career politician arrived at his new post with his entire family — including his adopted Chinese daughter, Gracie. Huntsman’s diplomatic struggles and triumphs are explored in the broader context of China’s relationship with the rest of the world, and intersected with Gracie’s personal experience living in China as a Chinese-American. (Press materials)
Why we’re interested: Each of the elements of this doc — a former governor of Utah working as a US Ambassador in China and a girl who is born in China, adopted by Americans, and returns to China — sound engaging. The fact that “All Eyes and Ears” offers both of these stories makes it even more appealing. In an interview with Women and Hollywood, director Vanessa Hope identified one of the biggest challenges in making “All Eyes and Ears” as “following the Ambassador around China to the confusion and surprise
of both governments, who [wanted] to know what my agenda [was] and who put me up to
this and [made] every shooting trip a new negotiation. She also had to “to fight to get access every single day of every single shoot. That
includes, most memorably, going to Tibet via a 25-hour train [ride] with less than two
weeks to get a special Tibet permit and train tickets and staying on board the
train when the Chinese propaganda department wanted to kick us off at 3am in
the middle of nowhere so we wouldn’t film.”
“Code: Debugging the Gender Gap” (doc) – Directed by Robin Hauser Reynolds
What it’s about: At a time in the United States when the tech sector outpaces the overall growth of the employment market, “Code” asks the important question: Where are all the women?
Why we’re interested: We are very keen to learn about why women seem to be largely absent from the tech sector. What’s keeping them from becoming software engineers? What systemic and social issues have led to the dearth of women coders? We know there’s a problem, but we want to know what has led to the problem and to hear about viable solutions. We’re hopeful that Robin Hauser Reynold’s doc helps debug and bridge the gender gap.