Women at Sundance

January 16, 2018
The influential film festival sets the 2018 agenda with their latest program.

The Sundance Institute has always made a point of championing minorities and diversity in their various creative programs and they have generally showcased women filmmakers in all categories of the annual film festival at a markedly higher rate than the Hollywood average of less than five percent.

To quote American activist Marian Wright Edelman, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Awareness of disparity surrounding power and gender in the entertainment industry has come front and centre with the ‘MeToo’ and ‘ItsTime’ debates that have hit the media in force in recent weeks. We might expect female representation to climb in future festivals around the world, but for now Sundance 2018 averages a decent 30 percent exclusively women filmmakers selected for 87 competition and premiere entries.

Themes of teenage identity and social media, documentaries on influential female figures and strong, individualist female stories – this is a taste of what Sundance 2018 will offer when the festival launches in Park City on 18th January.

The Kindergarten Teacher

Of the 16 US dramas in competition, four were made by women, including The Kindergarten Teacher by Sara Colangelo in which Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a 40-year-old teacher who tries to live her own dreams through a five-year-old musical prodigy. Nancy, by Christina Choe, is a story of identity and social media focused on a teenage girl. The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Desiree Akhavan, is set in a high school and explores the topic of same sex relationships. The Tale by Oscar and Emmy nominee Jennifer Fox looks especially promising, the tale in question being “an investigation into one woman’s memory as she’s forced to re-examine her first sexual relationship and the stories we tell ourselves in order to survive.” Based on the filmmaker’s own story, Fox has assembled a stellar cast, including Laura Dean, Elizabeth Debicki and Ellen Burstyn.

Dead Pigs

There are four films created by women among the 12 films selected for the world drama category. From China, Dead Pigs, interweaving narratives set in modern Shanghai, by ex-Wall Street Journal reporter Cathy Yan; Swedish-born writer/director Isabella Eklof dramatises the story of a gangster’s moll in Holiday; while renowned Argentinian actress Valeria Bertuccelli is star/writer/co-director (with Fabiana Tiscornia) on an absurdist dark comedy called The Queen of Fear; and, And Breathe Normally looks to be an especially powerful story from Iceland director, Isold Uggadottir –its tense central drama fuses issues of race and immigration that surround a black and female border patrol officer in Iceland.

Of 12 entries in the world documentary category, A Woman Captured looks at the life of a modern day slavery victim whose story is highlighted by Hungarian director Bernadett Tuza-Richter, who was drawn to intervene in her subject’s plight. This is Home, about Syrian settlers in Baltimore is from Jordanian director Alexandra Shiva while Sandi Tan’s Shirkers is set around a cultural mystery in Singapore and described as ‘an analogue experiment in self-discovery and filmmaking.’

Westwood

The fourth women’s entry in world documentary is also one of several powerful films in the festival that showcase extraordinary women, all activists of one sort or another. Westwood is on the eponymous Vivienne Westwood, the iconic punk designer who set fashion on its head in the 1980s and who, at 76, is one of the few who still runs her own empire. The documentary also highlights Westwood’s profile as a tireless environmental activist.

More films showcasing influential women appear in the 16 US documentary entries, of which 7 are created by women. These include stories on iconic female Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, Kusama – Infinity by Heather Lenz; the life of formidable women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred is depicted in Seeing Allred; and the heroic young Nadia Murad fights for the rights of Yazidi women in the appropriately titled On her Shoulders by director Alexandra Bombach.

Documentary premieres include in-depth stories on Joan Jett (Bad Reputation) and Jane Fonda (Jane Fonda in Five Acts) as well as Justice Ruth Badger Ginsberg (in RBG), who has fought gender discrimination all throughout her long career. Special mention should be made of Amy Adrion’s Half the Picture, a head-on examination of gender inequity in film.

Ophelia

17 Premieres include five women filmmakers, notably Australian Claire McCarthy’s re-imagining of Hamlet in Ophelia starring Daisy Ridley and Naomi Watts. Another female-centric story is from male writer/director Wash Westmoreland who made an impact last year with Still Alice. This time he focuses on the ground-breaking twentieth century French writer Colette, played by Keira Knightley.

And another male filmmaker, Craig William Macneill, along with writer Bryce Kass, deserves mention for bringing a drama about the murder mystery of Lizzie Borden that is described as ‘championing feminism and sexuality.’ Lizzie stars Kristen Stewart and Chloe Sevigny, so the claim is probably true.

Reflecting on these climbing numbers of women being represented in film, one realises 30 percent isn’t a glitch or aberration – it’s actually approaching normal.

For more on the Sundance Film Festival, hit their website.

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