As I was putting together my year-end lists last December, I was alarmed that only two features among my top 10 –The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marielle Heller) and Eden (Mia Hansen-Løve) – were directed by women. The picture didn’t get any less depressing when I stretched my list up to 25 titles. In fact, it looked even worse. I was able to add only one more female-directed film to the mix: Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang. If you think I must have been at fault by not seeing more female-directed films throughout 2015, just take a look at the Top 25 of Criticwire’s year-end poll (which I contributed to, along with over 200 others) for comparison: NONE of them are directed by women. Not one. If you look through all 50, you will see four women-directed films only. That’s…troubling, to put it mildly.
But I am not presenting this comparison to put the blame on critics, who can only choose from the pool of films in the release schedule of the year in question. As upsetting as these results are, they are hardly shocking when we think about the titles regularly put in front of us. The overwhelmingly male makeup of the industry manifests itself every week with mostly male-directed releases stacked up one after another. Same story when it comes to the lack of diversity; it’s no surprise that women of color suffer from the extensive whitemaleness of the industry the most, being right at the intersection of two forms of bias.
So why do we scratch our heads and outrage only at the end of each year (upon seeing year-end lists and awards/nominations), when we know it’s a year-around, industry-wide problem? That is perhaps why I am not too keen on hashtags like #OscarsSoWhite and #OscarsSoMale that place the focus on the symptom. While I’m fully supportive of the changes AMPAS has pledged to implement in their voting body (after all, The Academy should lead the way to change and aspire to be more than just a reflection of the industry), I fear we won’t see a significant change in the end results until the films across our screens change (and we pledge to wisely spend our money on the ones we’d like to see more of.)
Thanks to the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, we have sampled plenty of terrific female-helmed films, now waiting to be discovered by interest groups and/or masses. The good news is, some of them -such as The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer), The Intervention (Clea DuVall), Equity (Meera Menon), Trapped (Dawn Porter) and Tallulah (Sian Heder)- have already been bought by smart distributors. But there are others that still need a US distribution deal. Put on screens during 2016 –in theaters or VOD- they might pop up in some lists come December 2016, who knows?
Here are 6 noteworthy, female-directed Sundance films distributors should make note of ASAP:
Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt)
I had to check and check again to make sure I didn’t miss the news somewhere, but nope…Kelly Reichardt’s (Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff) exquisite Certain Women has not been picked up yet. Not only did the film –telling the story of three women all involved in the practice/study of law to varying degrees- receive critical love out of Park City, but it also is a commercially viable investment, at least on the art-house side with a cast that includes Laura Dern, Michelle Williams and Kristen Stewart (who steals the film and will surely bring along her ever-so-loyal fan-base). Certain Women is signature Reichardt; slow, steady and subtly affecting while exploring female drives, impulses and fears. It’s a movie to gently inhale and get swept away with. Bonus? Christopher Blauvelt’s photography of expansive landscapes that demands to be seen on big screen.
Kiki (Sara Jordenö)
Perhaps no other documentary in Sundance captured the pulse of the contemporary status quo more than Kiki. We live in times where LGBTQ rights are discussed more prominently than ever before, especially with marriage equality now being the law of the land and trans community gaining their long over-due visibility in the mainstream. Plus, racial bias and injustices in different facets of society are fiercely exposed through ongoing movements online and in the streets. The vibrant documentary Kiki sits right at that juncture, and delves into the lives of at-risk LGBTQ teens of color, who are pushed away by their families, friends and surroundings but thrive in a safe space where they can freely live and express their identities. Think of it as an unofficial follow up to Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning as director Jordenö takes you through the electric voguing culture in New York. Kiki deserves to find an audience in theaters and be in the year-end conversations come next December.
The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska)
Winner of Special Jury Award for Unique Vision & Design in this year’s World Dramatic competition, The Lure is an operatic horror/fantasy/musical that follows two mermaid sisters with cannibalistic impulses. This wondrously strange, assuredly directed and mind-bogglingly crazy adventure is the feature debut of a towering talent who deserves to make a smashing entry to the international art house scene. Put it this way; if global cinema can find room for the delightfully bizarre work of the Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, Lobster), there is no reason why it can’t accommodate a visionary like Smoczynska. The Lure won’t be for everyone, but it can easily muster an enthusiastic cult following. I hope this one is on A24’s radar.
Newtown (Kim A. Snyder)
Gun legislation was a hot topic in this year’s Sundance, with several titles tackling the subject in fiction or documentary form. But it’s safe to say no title was as immediately noticeable as Newtown; the home of the unspeakable tragedy that will forever remain as an open wound in American history and stand out among the countless gun massacres in recent memory. Full disclosure: I have not yet seen Snyder’s documentary that screened in US Documentary Competition. But its early critical reception is promising (currently at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes with 6 reviews) and its subject matter guarantees widespread public interest that requires a theatrical run, followed soon after by VOD for broader reach.
Sand Storm (Elite Zexer)
This poetic, slow-burning film from debuting director Zexer has been compared to Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang, due to its themes around oppressed women stuck in toxic patriarchy. Yet it lives in an entirely different universe stylistically and geographically. Set in a Bedouin Village, the story follows Layla (Lamis Ammar), a young woman stuck between her love (unapproved by her father) and the duties expected of her by her family and community. Charged by a persistent sense of danger and shot competently with thoughtful compositions, Sand Storm is the winner of the Grand Jury Prize in World Dramatic Competition this year, and one of the best films I saw at Sundance. Although it’s been picked up by Beta Cinema already for international distribution, it is still without a home in the US.
White Girl (Elizabeth Wood)
Writer/Director Wood’s controversial film is designed to make noise. Starring Morgan Saylor as a privileged 20-something who falls for an inherently decent Latino drug dealer and finds herself in the midst of a complex scheme (which she messes up further), White Girl unapologetically takes down white privilege while putting an unthinkable amount of debauchery -with lots of sex and drugs- on display. Its fever-dream look is worthy of a theatrical release and can potentially attract curious crowds intrigued by the word-of-mouth. At the post-screening Q&A of the premiere, Wood said the story was influenced by her own experiences, and to achieve a believable look for the drug scenes (there are many), she looked closely at several Scorsese films. Her research seems to have paid off. White Girl is provocative at once, thanks to her level of dedication to every frame.
Bonus Entry: Agnus Dei (Anne Fontaine)
Screened in the festival’s Premieres section, the wonderful period drama Agnus Dei was one of the quiet gems of the festival that didn’t make a lot of noise or headlines. Directed by Anne Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel, Two Mothers), the Poland-set film is based on true events and tells the story of a post-WW2 era Red Cross nurse (played by Lou de Laâge) who secretly helps Polish nuns raped and impregnated by Russian soldiers. Given its timeless and universal themes that live on the crossroads of faith and secularism (as well as its controversial subject,) it will likely find an enthusiastic and curious audience. (Christianity Today’s Alissa Wilkinson calls it a “must see” in her insightful Sundance dispatch.) Add to that the film’s gorgeous cinematography, Agnus Dei very much deserves a theatrical run in the US and could become an art house success. And who knows, it could even cross over to prestige mainstream with the right distributor in the driver’s seat.
Editor’s Note: Our original list was 7, including Agnus Dei. Before we could hit publish, Anne Fontaine’s film was acquired by Music Box Films. We’re leaving it in as a bonus entry, as it’s a film you should seek out when it does hit theaters.