Women Directors Making Noise

Sundance Film Festival Daily Insider
January 21, 2006

As a female director with five features under her belt, Isabel Coixet is something of a rarity. A recent study found that women directed only 5% of the 250 top-grossing films in 2004, which was a drop of 6 percentage points since 2000. When asked what advice she had for the other 53 female directors of films at the Festival this year, the Spanish director of The Secret Life of Words, which is screening in the Premieres section, said: “We have to scream! Anything we can do to make our films more visible. They say feminists don’t have a sense of humor, but I have a sense of humor and my daughter is seven and I want her life to be easier than mine, and I want to scream.”

In a strong year for women at the Festival, few filmmakers are griping about being imprisoned in a girl ghetto or why articles like this continue to be written. Instead, they are optimistically charging ahead, bringing films into the world, and making noise.

Hard Reality

There have been a lot of theories attempting to explain the scream-inducting statistics: Women do not prioritize their film careers because they want to spend time with their kids. Collaborative, demure and soft-spoken by nature, women do not have the right personality to control a production. Flicks by chicks do not make money, because they are not attractive to the tasty 18-25-year-old male market. And then there is the theory that the film business, for all its progressive politics, is still at its core a sexist boys’ club where men control the money. At a film festival, the scenario might play out like this: A promising guy director is declared Boy Wonder, Genius of the Week. He walks up to the man with the checkbook and says, “Hey, I’m the next big thing.” Checkbook believes him, because they speak the same language and like the same films. And with all Boy Wonder’s promise, vision and swagger, he cannot resist throwing a three-picture deal at him.

This is a beautiful thing for a director—unless you don’t fit into the Boy Wonder suit because you have breasts.

 “No one ever said to my face, ‘I’d give you this job if you had a dick,’ but they might have thought it,” said Nicole Holofcener, the writer/director of Opening Night film Friends with Money, another woman with an impressive resumé of thoughtful films about women. Holofcener is not offered (nor would she want to do) the gun-for-hire work many men grab post-festival success, for obvious reasons. Holofcener’s previous films, Walking and Talking (Sundance 1996) and Lovely & Amazing, did not have either the subject matter or box office success of, say, Christopher Nolan’s Memento or Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs—early films that launched their makers into the Hollywood stratosphere. “If you make a romantic comedy about a depressed girl and her insecure family, they don’t come banging down your door except to do some other insecure girl’s family story, and by then I’ve already got that one out of my system,” Holofcener said. “Maybe they think I couldn’t handle $60 million,” she added, “that I’d fall apart or get my period and wouldn’t come out of my trailer.” But Holofcener has no desire to make an explosion-driven, action-hero flick. She is one of the lucky ones. Her talent and track record have earned her the trust of people who continue to give her funding to make the films she wants to make.

Associate Professor and Chairman of Film and Media Studies at Swarthmore College Patricia White believes that women are not offered big-release jobs because they are traditionally associated with particular genres. “People don’t risk the big budgets on women directors,” she said. “Women get character-driven dramas, youth films, romantic comedies or family comedies.” She stressed, however, that there are exceptions, such as Hollywood action-film directors Kathryn Bigelow and Mimi Leder, and Karyn Kusama, who after winning the Director’s Award and Grand Jury Prize for Girlfight at the Festival in 2000, went on to direct last year’s Aeon Flux. All three started out in genres—low budget horror, TV crime shows and boxing dramas, respectively—that leant themselves to the leap.

Vive La Difference

Writer-director Laurie Collyer, whose documentary Nuyorican Dream screened at the 2000 Festival and whose Sherrybaby is in Dramatic Competition this year, would not mind being overlooked for the next Batman movie. Collyer feels that her forte is writing about real people, like the self-destructive Sherry (Maggie Gyllenhaal) at the center of her current film. She feels, in fact, that being a woman gives her an advantage in this arena. “We have more empathy. I hate to say it, it’s very general, but I know how people talk. I listen to them. I record them and keep a transcript. It’s how the old-time screenwriters worked,” she said. “I hope that’s something I can sell to Hollywood.”

The real lives of real people, especially women, provide the subject matter for the majority of narrative features by women this year. Many involve romantic relationships (In Between Days, Come Early Morning), parenthood (Stephanie Daley), faith and morality (Madeinusa, Eve and the Fire Horse). Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy, one of the few female-directed films not to feature a female lead, offers a quiet observation of the subtle ways that a friendship between two men has evolved. Many films delve into social and political issues, but they are not sweeping war stories, thrillers, or adventure tales; the political is expressed through the personal. In Sherrybaby an ex-convict struggles for custody of her daughter. Open Window takes on the aftermath of rape. In Lebanese director Jocelyne Saab’s Kiss Me Not on the Eyes, an Egyptian woman studies belly dance and poetry in a society that strictly prohibits women’s freedom and pleasure.

As a group, the films do not provoke the eye-rolling chick flick epithet, although the industry could pronounce them on the soft side, an accusation often leveled at films directed by women. “I don’t think you leave your gender in the closet when you make a film,” Coixet said, “but I’m not sure in a blind test you can say that film was made by a man or a woman.”

One dead giveaway that a woman is at the helm can be a realistic depiction of female sexuality that may be tough for male audiences, and a male industry, to swallow. “[The lead character in my film] is exchanges sex for favors very boldly, and she also really enjoys sex. When she wants someone to like her, she just fucks them right away. That might be challenging [for men],” Collyer said.

In Kiss Me Not on the Eyes, Saab also dives into female sexuality in a way she thinks a male director would not do, especially because her film explores the controversial territory of female genital mutilation. “A man cannot talk this way about the pleasure of the woman maybe,” she said. “I can because I see them living and this society has erased something from them and this shocked me.”

While Holofcener’s films are empty of both $5 blowjobs and genital mutilation, she feels that there is a clear distinction between men’s and women’s films because they have different kinds of stories to tell and ways of telling them. “My movies are not that visual, or they’re much more character-oriented. They’re unstructured. [There is] not as big a payoff,” she said. “I’m such a chick flick girl.”

The Secret of My Success

With male-driven sex comedies and comic book adaptations the order of the day, how does someone like Holofcener keep making talkie films about dysfunctional women? “A six-minute nude scene helps,” she said, referring to Emily Mortimer’s tour-de-force in Lovely & Amazing. “I write what I find interesting, and apparently what I find interesting six or seven other people also find interesting. I would like more people to see my movies, but even if they don’t and I continue to be able to make them, I’ve got it made. I have a great job.”

While Holofcener has a bona fide body of work, many festival-award-winning female directors never make it to film two, while their male counterparts—Darren Aronofsky, Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith, Steven Soderbergh, Ed Burns, Richard Rodriguez, anyone?—are launched instantly into fruitful careers by a promising first attempt.

Maria Maggenti, another woman who has been working steadily as a Hollywood screenwriter since her first feature The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love made a splash at Sundance in 1995, has only just completed her second film, the pan-sexual romantic comedy Puccini for Beginners, which is in competition. “As a female filmmaker, you have to do a little bit better in both box office and critically to go on to your next project,” she said.

“There is a Boy-Wonder mythology that didn’t translate to women in the movie business,” said Alison Anders, the director of 1992 Sundance sensation Gas, Food Lodging and five subsequent films. “Even if [women] take all the prizes and all the acclaim, there are five or six Boy Wonders wandering around and you have to understand that you’re competing with them. When a film made by a woman comes along that creates that kind of excitement, you’ve really got to be ready with the next project. All the women at Sundance, I really hope you have your funding for the next film or at least, for God’s sake, have the next script ready.”

Charging Ahead

Saab comes from a part of the world that restricts not only women’s art, but also their thoughts and behavior. She made a movie in which genital mutilation is a metaphor for the ways that the Arab world imprisons women. “It is deeper than wearing a veil,” she said. “The veil is a manifestation of this way of thinking. I don’t know how they all follow it. Stop it, I say. Think! Thinking is as basic a right as pleasure.” The huge scandal the film provoked indicates that her message is being heard. One public screening turned into a riot, which landed Saab on all the major news and talk shows in Egypt. A female newspaper reporter announced that Saab should be condemned to death. But, for the first time since the international community outlawed female circumcision, a prominent doctor publicly called the men who widely perform the procedure criminals. “All this came from the film,” Saab said. “It made a revolution.”

There is power to be gained from acknowledging the challenges of women filmmakers and celebrating the creative ways they have found to deal with them. Collyer made her movie when she was seven months pregnant, and then spent six weeks in the editing room with her newborn son. “I felt really powerful being able to do that,” she said.

Claudia Llosa, the 29-year-old Peruvian director of the haunting coming-of-age tale Madeinusa, said being a woman was helpful in winning over her cast of non-actors in a remote Andean village. “[These people] have suffered so much with terrorists and poverty that it’s very difficult to make them feel comfortable. They don’t trust you, so it was very good to be a woman,” she said. And her experience as a woman who worked in advertising helped her to woo producers. “My way of selling is not a male way of selling. It’s more seductive and touching. [I] make them feel something,” she explained.

Exploiting what makes an artist different seems to be working for many women. Despite discouraging numbers, women are making some high profile strides in the industry. Sofia Coppola was the third woman director to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar for Lost in Translation. Hilary Swank won a Best Actress award for her role in Boys Don’t Cry directed by Kimberly Peirce. Charlize Theron won hers for Monster, by Patty Jenkins. Niki Caro made two films, Whale Rider (Sundance 2003) and North Country, as did Catherine Hardwicke, Thirteen (Sundance 2003) and Lords of Dogtown about skateboarders, subject matter that would usually go automatically to a man. “What I dream about is a day when this is not an issue,” Coixet said. “You have good stories and talent, then show it to the world—and man, woman, transsexual, who cares? The day where we don’t have to think if we’re a ghetto if we ask for some basic rights, the day when there are no festivals for women, when nobody talks about it. That’s my dream.”