The Surge of Women at Sundance - And What it Means For Filmmaking
Sex is always a big topic at Sundance, but this year it come from the women's perspective. That's because for the first time Sundance has an equal number of women as men directors in competition -- eight -- with more than a dozen other women directors in other sections of the festival.
So, yes, Sundance 2013 brings men with midlife crises (Drake Doremus' "Breathe In") and closeted literary giants ("Kill Your Darlings"). But suddenly there are women with midlife crises too, and life-altering problems told from a female perspective .
>> In "Concussion" by Stacie Passon (below), a woman adopts a secret life as a lesbian prostitute.
>> In (right) Lynn Shelton's "Touchy Feely," a massage therapist (Rosemarie DeWitt) seeks to understand why she suddenly can't touch her clients without disgust.
>> In Anne Fontaine's "2 Mothers," not in competition, two best friends -- played by Naomi Watts and Robin Wright -- have long-term affairs with one another's sons.
>> In "Afternoon Delight," writer-director Jill Soloway explores the ennui of an L.A. housewife who tries to rescue a stripper by hiring her as her nanny.
The topics in the documentary section also suggest a women's perspective by filmmakers, whether in "After Tiller," about the four remaining doctors in America who perform late-term abortions, or "Anita," a look at the life of Anita Hill and her explosive accusations against Clarence Thomas or a deep dive by Christina Voros into the online sex industry ("kink").
Liz Garcia, director of the feature "The Lifeguard," said, "It's tremendously exciting for me to have achieved the dream of career in a year when it is so important for women. I'm so proud."
After so many years of debate over the reason for the lack of women directors, it is hard to know if this year marks a watershed of change or represents a welcome one-time bump. Either way, the directors themselves believe it represents a significant step toward greater balance.
"I think it's only a matter of time that women achieve parity," Passon, the director of "Concussion," said in an interview with TheWrap. A commercials director for many years, this is her first feature film. "Because of technology, we're starting to see new distribution platforms and a low barrier to making movies," she said. "I never saw a reason to do a film, I thought it would never get made. Before, the chances (for financing) were lottery-esque."
Shelton ("Humpday," "My Sister's Sister") is no newcomer to Sundance, but in introducing "Touchy Feely" on Saturday, she said that the story came largely from her own life, channeled into the character of Abby, played by DeWitt.
"This is a film more from the inside out," Shelton said. "I was drawing a lot from my own experiences. This is ripped from the pages of my own life -- the crying in the grocery store…. The precariousness of self-confidence, the need to figure out how to ground yourself."
The comment points to how much independent filmmaking is driven by the vision and voice of the director, who in many cases is also the writer. As DeWitt noted: "I didn't understand this character at all. It requires a tremendous amount of (faith). You leap in with Lynn and you're not sure where you're headed."
Many of the movies by women directors deal with women exploring their sexuality, either at a young or old age. And the classic Sundance coming-of-age theme plays differently when a young girl is doing the aging.
Naomi Foner (right), a veteran screenwriter, joins the lineup in directing her first film at age 65, "Very Good Girls" starring Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen, in the premieres section of the festival. That one is a coming of age story about two young women who fall for the same guy, in a long, hot New York summer.
Foner, who is also the mother of Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, said that it was largely fear that had held her back from directing until now. "What's sad is I could have done it sooner, and I didn't," she said in a reflective conversation on Main Street in Park City. Foner, whose ex-husband is director Stephen Gyllenhaal, said she worried about things she shouldn't have – upstaging her husband, or not knowing which lens to use in a shot.