After last month’s Sundance film festival showcased more works than ever from women, a string of blockbusters is set to slowly level the playing field
Afunny thing happened on the way to my eighth screening at this year’s Sundance film festival. Like many major lineups, it’s front-loaded with most of the biggest premieres taking place within the first weekend and almost three full days in, I’d seen some of the buzziest titles to be unveiled. I was walking with a fellow critic, recounting what I’d seen and I figured out that thus far, I’d only seen one film directed by a man.
This might not seem to the casual observer to be an earth-shaking realisation but having attended film festivals for the last six years while also reporting on the lack of behind-camera diversity shown by schedulers, this felt like the sea change many had been waiting for. By the end of the festival, having seen 19 films, only four were directed by white men while 12 were from women. To put it in perspective, when I attended Toronto film festival in 2019, out of the 20 films I saw, only five were from female film-makers.
What made the shift feel even more notable is that the films I’d selected to see, out of a migraine-giving 188 titles, were all top-tier, mostly playing within competition. In previous festivals, women had often been relegated to the outskirts, making smaller films for smaller audiences. But this year, just months after the directors of the Venice film festival came under fire for including only two films directed by women in the main competition strand, they’d been deservedly and belatedly allowed into the spotlight and the films they carried with them showcased a wide variety of genres, experiences and themes.
I’d seen Elisabeth Moss in Shirley, a feverish semi-fictional portrait of the author Shirley Jackson from Madeline’s Madeline director Josephine Decker, a weighty and emotionally impactful fact-based drama called Worth starring Michael Keaton as the lawyer tasked with divvying out the 9/11 compensation fund from The Kindergarten Teacher’s Sara Colangelo, Carey Mulligan’s deliriously entertaining turn as a woman fighting back against rape culture in Killing Eve showrunner Emerald Fennell’s dark comedy Promising Young Woman and first-time Japanese-Australian writer-director Natalie Erika James’s effective Jake Gyllenhaal-produced horror Relic.
Arguably the most talked-about film going into the festival was Zola, based on the viral tweet chain from 2015 about a stripper pulled into a lurid web of sex and crime in Florida. It was originally set to be directed by James Franco but after accusations of sexual misconduct, the project found itself in the hands of Lemon director Janicza Bravo, a woman of colour, whose ownership of the film felt fitting given the circumstances, as did her decision to use a female editor, cinematographer and production designer.
The strong showing for women at this year’s Sundance also felt fitting, given recent happenings. Just last month the Academy had been criticised for yet again nominating an entirely male set of film-makers for the best director Oscar despite the awards conversation including more female-directed films than ever, including Hustlers, The Farewell, Honey Boy, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Clemency and Little Women. It was especially galling given the results of a just-released study that showed that in the last 12 months there was a record-breaking number of films directed by women making it into the top-grossing titles of the year, including two of 2019’s 10 most successful global releases.
The lineup has jump-started the year with a bold statement to the industry with 44% of the 188 films directed by one or more women, 34% directed by one or more film-maker of colour and 15% from one or more director from the LGBTQ+ community. Looking ahead, it’s a sign of things to come.
This month sees the Berlin film festival kick off with six of its 18 competition films boasting a credited female director, representing a 33% proportion, compared with Cannes last year with 19% and Venice with 9%. “Six films … is not 50/50, but it’s a good path to reach 50/50,” said the artistic director, Carlo Chatrian.
Further into the mainstream and it’s looking like the biggest year to date for women at the multiplex as well. For the first time, a woman will bring a live-action Disney remake to the screen in the shape of Mulan and there will also be a record four superhero films directed by women, including this month’s Birds of Prey and Marvel’s hopeful franchise-starter The Eternals. The last week also saw producer Kathleen Kennedy state that the Star Wars franchise will “absolutely” be hiring a woman to take the reins of a future chapter.
The landscape appears more encouraging than usual but it remains an industry that closes doors on women faster than men.
“I think that people look at male directors and say, ‘Oh, he did that – let’s throw him into a bigger ring and see what happens,’” said documentarian Liz Garbus at Sundance, premiering her first narrative film Lost Girls. “With a woman, it’s like, ‘Oh, she did this – maybe she can do this kind of thing again.’ I think there’s the belief of possibility in a male director that is still circumscribed when that person is a woman.”
We’re mere days away from this year’s Oscars, a race dominated by male narratives written and directed by men, from 1917 to The Irishman to Joker to Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. But if this year’s Sundance lineup and a look ahead at the year’s biggest releases shows us anything, it’s that this might not be the case in 2021 because for now, the future is looking just a little bit more female.