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The Oscars rarely celebrate women filmmakers. Sundance is trying to change that.

Through movies and programs, the festival’s recognition of women in the business outpaces Hollywood by a mile.

Actress Kerry Washington addresses the audience at the Women at Sundance Brunch during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival on Monday, Jan. 23, 2017, in Park City, Utah.
Actress Kerry Washington addresses the audience at the Women at Sundance Brunch during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival on Monday, Jan. 23, 2017, in Park City, Utah.
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

The Oscar nominations are in, and once again, no women were nominated for a Best Director Oscar. This isn’t an anomaly: The last time a woman was nominated for the slot was 2010, when Kathryn Bigelow won for The Hurt Locker. Before that, the most recent nominee was Sofia Coppola for Lost in Translation in 2004. (She lost to Peter Jackson.)

Best Director nominations aren’t the only way to measure gender diversity at the Oscars, of course, but only two women in 13 years isn’t a great record. And it’s outright ludicrous this year, when some of the most critically acclaimed films were directed by women. Two of them were nominated for Oscars in specialty categories, Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann for Best Foreign Film, and Ava DuVernay’s 13th for Best Documentary Feature. But there were plenty of others: Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe, Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come, Kim Snyder’s Newtown, Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson, Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen, Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits, Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan, Anna Biller’s The Love Witch, and Anne Fontaine’s The Innocents.

Interestingly, almost all of these women-directed films were independently made, and several of them (including Certain Women, The Innocents, and The Fits) premiered at Sundance last year. And contrary to what you’ll see at the multiplex — fewer women directed top-grossing films in 2016 than in 1998, and only 19 percent of industry jobs are held by women — 36 percent of films at Sundance this year are directed or co-directed by women. Some of them are among the buzziest at the festival.

Because Sundance often signals the leading edge of the movie industry (and because it can be where promising filmmakers get their start), that percentage is promising for those who care about seeing a female perspective reflected on movie screens.

Sundance programs films by women who take risks

Some of the most buzzed-about films at Sundance this year were made by women and are about women: Kitty Green’s Casting JonBenet, Maggie Betts’s Novitiate, Gillian Robespierre’s Landline, Michelle Morgan’s L.A. Times, Ry Russo’s Before I Fall, and Dee Rees’s Mudbound, which is a clear frontrunner for awards consideration at the end of the year. A number of other films (including Where Is Kyra, Lady Macbeth, and L.A. Times) were written by women.

My personal favorite of the bunch is Marti Noxon’s To the Bone, a remarkably assured feature film debut from the veteran TV producer (UnReal, Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce). The film stars Lily Collins as Ellen, a 20-year-old anorexic woman who’s nearing rock bottom. Forced to see a new doctor by her stepmother (Carrie Preston), she ends up in an inpatient situation totally unlike any other she’s been in before. And her doctor (Keanu Reeves) has some unorthodox methods.

Rating


4


To the Bone is a great example of the sort of film that Hollywood is too timid to touch. It’s helmed by proven talent and features big stars — in addition to Collins, Preston, and Reeves, the film also stars Lili Taylor — but because the topic is perceived as “edgy” (especially, one might imagine, by the older white male executives who still typically greenlight projects at the big studios), it would never get made.

Eating disorders make very little sense to people who haven’t experienced them firsthand. And though eating disorders are a rampant issue in America — the estimates are as high as 30 million people, which is nearly 10 percent of the population, and are disproportionately female — they still fall outside the mainstream for cinema. (Eating disorders are fairly common fodder for TV movies, but Hollywood still dances around the subject.)

Noxon, though, has experienced an eating disorder. Collins has as well. They intuitively understand why the story needs to be told, and they’re equipped to tell it well; anyone who’s experienced an eating disorder, or knows people who have, will instantly recognize that this is a film that knows what it’s talking about.

Keanu Reeves and Lily Collins appear in To The Bone by Marti Noxon, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
Keanu Reeves and Lily Collins appear in To the Bone by Marti Noxon, an official selection of the US Dramatic Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
Gilles Mingasson / Sundance Institute

But To the Bone is also a moving film, well-made and, surprisingly enough (given the subject), funny and sweet. That Sundance makes space for these kinds of films is important, and clears the path for others like it.

Of course, plenty of women are not making narrative films with female characters, and a number of woman-directed films at Sundance are documentaries, aimed at telling stories that are often hidden. But mainstream film still doesn’t show a variety of female experience, often sticking to types. Having a high concentration of female-directed movies about women — often unconventional women — at Sundance helps blaze the path.

It’s all about who you know (and a bit of gumption)

One way Sundance does this is through the Women at Sundance initiative, which has a number of programs to help support women over the course of their career in filmmaking, from helping female-identifying filmmakers find funding to selecting fellows for mentorship and training.

On Monday morning, several hundred women (and a handful of others) crowded into a venue in Park City for the Women at Sundance Brunch (co-hosted by Refinery29), which celebrated the new fellows and the initiative’s programs. Actors, filmmakers, critics, mentors, and supporters mingled, then listened to several speakers talk about their work.

The centerpiece of the morning was a conversation between producer Kimberly Steward (who produced Manchester by the Sea) and actor and producer Kerry Washington (Scandal, Confirmation). Both women talked about their experience, about the importance of partnering with others, and about why women don’t get work made — which they said often boils down to confidence.

“The most important thing for me about storytelling is that when we engage — when we sit in the theater or at home or wherever we are when we engage in narrative — if it’s effective, we feel less alone because we connect to the human experience,” Washington said. “So I look for work that makes us feel less alone, not by pressing us all to be part of one kind of hero’s journey but realizing that heroes come in many different shapes and sizes and hues and genders.”

"Manchester by the Sea" producer Kimberly Steward, left, takes part in a panel discussion with Pat Mitchell, center, chair of the Sundance Institute Board of Trustees, and actress Kerry Washington at the Women at Sundance Brunch during the 2017 Sundance F
Manchester by the Sea producer Kimberly Steward, left, takes part in a panel discussion with Pat Mitchell, center, chair of the Sundance Institute Board of Trustees, and actress Kerry Washington at the Women at Sundance Brunch.
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Speaking of her production company, Steward characterized her biggest challenge as finding people who share her vision for diverse stories. “I think we’re really looking to build relationships,” she said. “Being able to finance films with distributors that really are seeing the world differently than it has been traditionally. ... [Film investment] is a very male-driven community.”

“It is such a male-driven community, but I think that’s part of why this myth of risk exists,” Washington replied. “Because it’s not really risky to make content for 51 percent of the world.”

“When Scandal first aired, you started to see other studios use the language: ‘Maybe now we can take the “risk” of having an African-American lead’ — which is now on every single network. ABC was celebrated for being the company that was willing to take the ‘risk’ to have a black woman lead. But why was this a risk? Black people consume more content than anybody else in this country, and women are 51 percent of the population!”

“Why do we allow the myth of risk to remain? It’s because of the people who hold the purse strings,” Washington continued, to applause. “And it’s one thing for us to sit in here and applaud each other and applaud that idea, but I think we have to strategically remind people of that. We have to put that concept, that truth, into our business models, into our pitches, into our meetings. When we’re meeting with people, it’s not sitting in a position of, ‘Please help me, please give me,’ but, ‘This will work.’ We just have to say to people — which I know men do, and we have to get better at doing — ‘This will work. Just do it.’”

“And if it doesn’t work — so what?” Washington concluded. “So many movies don’t work. Who cares? We should do it anyway. We have just as much a chance of having it work as anybody else.”

The work of promoting gender diversity in film is tough — Sundance, for all of its work in the area, can’t even get to parity, and there are many complex factors that need to shift for that to happen. But spaces like Sundance are vital, if only to prove that the “risky” stories like To the Bone and “risky” filmmakers and projects are viable and important and can be loved by an audience too. And if women will ever bust the glass Oscar ceiling for good, independent filmmaking is probably where the first cracks will be made.

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