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At Sundance 2019, Women Directors Push Beyond ‘Female Stories’

At Sundance 2019, 45 percent of this year's films were directed by women. A festival programmer walks us through some favorites.

Audience members stand and applaud during a speech at the Women at Sundance Brunch during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, in Park City, Utah2017 Sundance Film Festival - Women at Sundance Brunch, Park City, USA - 23 Jan 2017

Audience members stand and applaud during a speech at the Women at Sundance Brunch during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Despite directing less than 40 percent of the feature films at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, female filmmakers made off with all of the fest’s big awards. Now, in the wake of another dismal awards season that saw some of its best talents shut out from its biggest accolades, can Sundance 2019 offer similar hope?

This year, Sundance has no shortage of women behind the camera, but these directors are also veering from the tired trope of A Woman’s Movie. “There’s serious drama, and there’s comedies, and there’s big films and little films, and we also some really great discoveries in our international section,” said senior programmer Caroline Libresco. “I think there’s a beautiful outpouring of work by women, and we want to support that, and we feel really privileged to be able to create a platform where that work can be seen.”

At the 2018 edition of the festival, 37 percent of the 122 feature films were directed by women. That represented a slight uptick from 2017, when 34 percent of all films were helmed by female directors. Even so, Sundance is making real strides from a time when the average hovered around 25 percent.

At this year’s festival, women directed 46 percent of the competition films, representing 56 films across four categories. In the U.S. Dramatic Feature category, female filmmakers are the majority: They comprise 56 percent of all directors, helming 16 films. Sundance 2019 boasts 47 features directed by women (39 percent) and 39 shorts directed by women (53 percent). All told, 45 percent of all short and feature films at this year’s festival were directed by women.

"The Miseducation of Cameron Post"

“The Miseducation of Cameron Post”

After the success of last year’s slate — which included jury-picked directing prizes for Sara Colangelo, Alexandria Bombach, Sandi Tan, and Isold Uggadottir, plus a Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award to “Nancy” filmmaker Christina Choe — it’s fitting that this incarnation of the annual event is led by women.

However, when it comes to picking the films that will round out the festival’s slate, Libresco is clear: This is not a numbers game.

“Our philosophy is, ‘Let’s show the full range of what we see that’s out there.’ We’re always thinking about range, the range of topic, the range of style,” she said. “I think there are so many variables and elements that we are considering. Gender is one of probably a hundred, to be perfectly honest. We would never make a decision based on a quota, ever. The number-one thing that is on the table in our conversations as a programming team is, ‘Is this filmmaker achieving what she or he has set out to do?,’ ‘What is she or he trying to do with this movie?,’ and then ‘Is she fulfilling that? Is she really achieving it in a way that works?’ It’s not about topic. It’s not about provenance. It’s not about gender, race, or ethnicity.”

Sundance nurture talents at all stages of their careers, including programs like the Ignite Fellows Program, Women at Sundance, and a series of new outreach and inclusion programs that serve filmmakers who might not normally get access to the Institute’s smaller (and much more competitive) labs.

This includes the year-long Momentum Fellowship, which announced an inaugural class in November, and aims to support “women and underrepresented filmmakers” and includes “artists identifying as women, non-binary, and/or transgender, artists of color, and artists with disabilities.”

“When you’re up against all kinds of perception issues in Hollywood, and all kinds of unconscious bias issues, it’s so complex,” Libresco said. “Why are certain people left out in our society? It’s a hugely complex question, and it’s just as complex for Hollywood, but when you’re facing those kinds of obstacles, artist support actually really makes a difference.”

Libresco ticked through a number of picks she’s hoping audiences will get a chance to check out at the festival. Top of mind is “The Farewell” by Lulu Wang, one of two films starring Awkwafina at the festival. “You know when a film can hit both poignancy and funny at the same time, and it just straddles that line all the way through?,” Libresco said. “There’s a deadpan humor in it that is so funny, but it’s also so moving, because it’s about the character who doesn’t know she’s dying, but the whole family kind of descends on her in China to kind of be with her in her last days unbeknownst to her.”

“The Farewell”

A24

She’s also excited about the narrative debut of documentarian Alma Har’el, “Honey Boy,” which was written by and stars Shia LaBeouf, based on his own life. Libresco said she is in awe of how the “Bombay Beach” filmmaker is “able to literally tap into a visceral feeling that she was obviously trying to bring to the screen and bring to the page that’s she’s able to bring to life, this impossible situation that Shia himself had growing up, and also the challenge of making a life story into a compelling, integral narrative.” She added, “And this movie is whoa. It really packs a wallop.”

Libresco also cites Hannah Pearl Utt’s “wholly original” family dysfunction comedy “Before You Know It,” Joanna Hogg’s nuanced and surreal “The Souvenir,” and Mirrah Foulkes’ “feminist satire” “Judy and Punch,” which she billed as “just sort of outside of time and space” in its imagination.

Among documentaries, “A Lion in the House” filmmaker Julia Reichert returns to the festival with “American Factory,” which Libresco called “really a portrait of American labor right now, as the Chinese company takes over the factory in Dayton, Ohio. … It’s really the question of ‘What will happen to the America economy and the American worker in a new global reality?’ But the way she’s able to anchor that, in individual stories with so much sensitivity, she is an exquisite filmmaker.”

Another Sundance alum is Penny Lane, who is taking her “Hail Satan?” to the same festival that played home to “Our Nixon” and “Nuts!” As Libresco sees it, Lane “continues to just reinvent the documentary form,” and her look at The Satanic Temple is poised to continue that trend. The film is “about the separation of church and state in America, through this crazy, satanic organization who is, in many ways, making a really convincing argument about separation of church and state, but she’s so original in how she approaches her work.”

“Knock Down the House”

Libresco is also thrilled to premiere Rachel Lears’ “Knock Down the House,” which offers a new look at the election movie, focusing on a number of women running for political office after Trump’s election) including newly minted Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “It’s really hard to make an election movie evergreen because by the time it comes out, you know the outcome, so why do you want to watch it? That’s the big question with election movies,” Libresco said. “She figured it out.”

In a similar vein is Amy Berg’s “This Is Personal,” which chronicles the Women’s March and its many successes and upheavals. “The film allows us to reflect on that,” she said.

Other documentaries to look out for include Nanfu Wang’s “intrepid” look at the China’s one-child policy, “One Child Nation,” and Alison Klayman’s “The Brink,” “a verite, fly-on-the-wall film where [the filmmaker] just accompanies Steve Bannon after he gets ejected from the White House and what he is up to.”

If there’s anything these films have in common, Libresco said, it’s their “unflinching lens” and a deep sense of courage. Otherwise, they’re as unique as their creators. Libresco added, “These women filmmakers may be women, but there’s nothing else that they have in common, because they each have a singular vision.”

This year’s festival runs from January 24 – February 3 in Park City, Utah. Check out all of IndieWire’s Sundance coverage right here.

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