Cinema Femme Sundance 2020 Retrospective

It started with the idea of a key that unlocked the following connections for me. In the film “Saudi Runaway”, directed by Susanne Regina Meures, the subject of the doc is Muna. She is an intelligent twenty-something woman, as independent as one can get while being a female in Saudi Arabia. But she knows she will not be able to truly be independent and lead the life she wants for herself, unless she leaves her country and seeks asylum in a new one. Something that really resonated with me is that she did not have a key to her own home because her father keeps it from her, along with her passport. This seemed so wrong to me that a father would hold onto the things that could unlock his daughter’s freedom, her opportunity, and her future, because she is a woman. Her struggle and determination is the microcosm of what I saw onscreen at Sundance and the reflections of what I’ve heard from the female filmmakers I‘ve interviewed.

“Saudi Runaway”

After a year of doing interviews with female filmmakers, the one thing that has kept ringing in my ears is “we still have a long way to go.” Do we celebrate how far we’ve come, or linger in the acknowledgement of how far we’ve got to go? We as women are not one thing, but we are a composition of a lot of things. We see the distance from behind, and how far ahead we still have yet to progress. The essence of a woman is in the in-between, encompassing who we were, who we are, and who we want to become. The films I saw at Sundance captured that feeling onscreen through the female characters–that yearning to move forward, recognizing the strength they did not know they had, and from there, saw the miles that lay ahead.

Elisabeth Moss and Odessa Young in Josephine Decker’s “Shirley”

Being a woman is vulnerable. Anyone who looks at this vulnerability as weakness or madness, should beware, because it cloaks and fuels the rebel and the bad a**, the fire of a woman that should be able to ignite. I saw this fire through the film “Shirley”, directed by Josephine Decker. The character Shirley (played by Elisabeth Moss) is based on the real-life author Shirley Jackson, and Rose (played by Odessa Young), who plays the character that eventually befriends Shirley. Both women have fire within them, a desire to ignite, yet are stifled in different ways.

Nomie Merlant appears in Jumbo by Zoé Wittock, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

In “Jumbo” directed by Zoé Wittock, main character Jeanne (Noémie Merlant, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”) has a fire, a passion, a love for a rollercoaster, she names ‘Jumbo’. She has a deeper connection with a machine than she has with people. With Jumbo she can be herself, unlike with anyone, or anything else. Her mother who is very much a people person, is repelled by this unconventional love, and looks at Jeanne’s passion for Jumbo as madness. But it’s actually quite beautiful. Through Jeanne, we see that women are complex creatures, like every human being, built with unique parts, that move us in surprising ways.

Amanda Kernell’s “Charter”

I also saw a stifled flame burning in Amanda Kernell’s “Charter,” through the main character Alice and her relationship with her children. Alice finds that in-between space, as she takes her children to the Canary Islands to escape the forced expectations that are placed upon her. Those expectations require her to choose either to live her life independently without her children or choose to be with her husband and be a full-time mother with her children. But we are not one thing as women, we are the in-between space that encapsulates our unique selves. What happens between a woman and her exceptions, upon her, and of her own, can be messy in that space, but beautiful when it takes us forward.

“La Leyenda Negra”, directed by Patricia Vidal Delgado

In “La Leyenda Negra”, directed by Patricia Vidal Delgado, the main character, Aleteiais, is a teenage girl, her circumstances brought her into a country that she was not born into, thereby making her undocumented. After being awarded a scholarship, it’s taken away from her. The scholarship she receives for UCLA is taken away from her because she is undocumented, but is incredibly bright and deserves an education. She chooses to strike out in protest through a bit of anarchy, by attempting to burn down her high school. In this example, she is not only a woman, but she is a minority, and is being judged by her citizenship status. One woman does not have one story. We are layered.

“Luxor”

Hana, played by Andrea Riseborough, in “Luxor”, directed by Zeina Durra, is in that in-between space. She comes back to a place that is familiar, igniting her fire with an old flame. As she wants to fully embrace this reawakened flame, she must process some turmoil from her past. Since she was last in Luxor, she has come a long way through her journeys, from what she’s seen in the world. The basic comforts of staying in one spot, would not have provided her with that. She has been in transit. The complexity of that space, Hana’s space, in Luxor, is beautiful.

Watching these films, I feel they echoed the state of where we are at as women in film. Which is why I said “a bit terrifying” in my introduction, because it shows what can happen to a woman when she is told no or kept from her freedom. In all of the films, there was a female friendship or relationship that pushed the women to see what their lives would’ve looked like had they been given a choice regarding their future. These relationships are about women empowering women to embrace that possibility. It is so important for female emerging filmmakers to see that future, that sustainability in their careers, and despite the barriers, they can break through, like Muna did.

Amy Hobby and myself during our interview.

I feel now more than ever, women are being better represented onscreen, at least on the Sundance screen. We do have “a long way to go”, but it was so encouraging to have all of these empowered female panels discussing the landscape we are currently in, and how great it will be when we don’t have to discuss what’s lacking onscreen and who’s behind the camera. In my conversation with Amy Hobby, Executive Director of the Tribeca Institute, (full interview coming soon), touched upon the overarching themes faced by modern female filmmakers: (1) Know that we are not in it alone, ask questions, find mentors, find people that can help you grow in your work, and get your work seen. (2) Sustainability, we must encourage women all along the way, if they start with a great first feature, get them excited about the next one, have women stay true to their voice, and know they have power on their side of the table; it’s not all about the giving and the getting, but it’s about the empowering. (3) Women who are executives, producers, should support diverse films and diverse scripts. My new friend Thuc Nyugen, creator of the Bitch List, has dedicated a site for diverse scripts that pass the Bechdel Test. Attention women producers and executives, go to this site thebitchlistscreenplays.com and support these stories, these scripts.

Thuc Nguyen

More to come, but wanted to share what has been absorbed from the past few days at “Sundance.” I’ve learned to think more deeply about the state of the women represented onscreen and behind the screen. I feel my mission is clear, to elevate these conversations, stories, and films, so we can keep moving forward.

“Women Breaking Barriers: How Far Have We Come?” panel at the SundanceTV Headquarters, moderated by HFPA member Elisabeth Sereda. Panelists included accomplished women from various fields in the film industry including Kerry Washington (Golden Globe nominated actress), Julie Taymor (Oscar nominated director), Frankie Shaw (Golden Globe nominated actress, producer, writer and director)and Lisa Jackson (filmmaker and #1 New York Times Bestselling Author).

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