AWFJ Women On Film – Women At Tribeca Film Festival – Katey Rich reports

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For movies by, about, or for women, filmgoers at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival had no scarcity of options.

Among the women filmmakers presented at Tribeca 2009, two first feature directors debuted with stories about their own mothers, while another made a documentary and put her life in danger in the process, and a famous actress stepped behind the camera to continue the legacy of another female director. And, that’s just pointing to examples from among the filmmakers I interviewed during the 10-day festival.

Among 84 features screening during the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, 23 were directed by women. Several others– My Life in Ruins, the closing night film, as well as Seven Minutes in Heaven and the Best Documentary winner, Racing Dreams— featured dynamic and self-possessed women at the center of their stories.

In Racing Dreams, for example, director Marshall Curry focuses his lens on Annabeth, a clever and tough 11-year-old who races right alongside the boys in the World Karting Association, pushing to realize her dream of becoming a NASCAR driver. Over the course of the year the Curry filmed her, we see Annabeth Barnes grow from a tomboy kid into a young woman whose interests include makeup, hair and boys, and she struggles to reconcile her interests in racing with her desire to be a “normal” middle schooler.

Some of the female Tribeca filmmakers were aiming to tell stories specifically about and for strong women. Experienced documentary filmmakers Paola Mendoza and Gloria La Morte teamed up for their first narrative feature Entre Nos, about a young mother who immigrates with her husband and two kids from Colombia to Queens, New York — only to be abandoned by her husband shortly after their arrival. Forced to eke out a living for herself and her children, she begins collecting discarded cans for food and rent money. The story was especially personal for Mendoza, given that the main character (whom she plays) is based on her mother. But as La Morte points out, it’s also a story for all women. “For us to be able to be where we are today as women directors, we appreciate those women who came before us. The story itself is really about a woman struggling and trying to find herself outside of a relationship to a man.”

Actually first feature filmmaker Cheryl Hines, star of Curb Your Enthusiasm and Waitress made her directorial debut at the suggestion of a man. Hines said she was shocked when she was contacted by Andy Ostroy, the widower of Adrienne Shelly, to direct Shelly’s screenplay, Serious Moonlight, but she was also proud to carry on Shelly’s legacy. Shelly, a prolific writer, was murdered in 2006. “Adrienne was a very strong woman. She wrote that way. It was really fun to see her voice, because it was a very strong, opinionated voice.” In addition to choosing a female director for Serious Moonlight, Ostroy has established the Adrienne Shelly foundation, which specifically aims to support female filmmakers. “I have a great deal of respect for Andy, making the decision to support female filmmakers,” Hines told me. “He knew that it was important for Adrienne.”

To make the film Which Way Home, about children traveling alone from South America and Mexico in hopes of illegally immigrating to the United States, director Rebecca Cammisa knew perfectly well that she was putting herself in danger. “Someone threatened to kill us and take our cameras and rape me, and throw me off the train,” she told me matter-of-factly, recounting moments when she and her crew left two of their subjects to continue their freight train migration alone. Cammisa also noted that one of her responsibilities as a filmmaker was to make sure the children were aware that just because a camera was present, their circumstances were no better. “With a camera, you don’t want to be an incentive for people. They need to understand that this is a dangerous, dangerous, bad situation.”

Bette Gordon, whose landmark feminist film Variety was screening as a revival at the festival, was also at Tribeca representing Handsome Harry, her new film starring Jamey Sheridan as a Vietnam veteran struggling with a dark secret from his past. Directing an all-male cast and deliberately exploring male identity and sexuality, Gordon says this turn for the masculine is really just the different side of the same coin: “It’s my interest in gender. You really understand gender I think by looking at both ideas of something.” Both she and Sheridan talked about the characters in the film as being damaged by having repressed the feminine sides of themselves– certainly a different take on the usual examination of post-Vietnam American identity.

And what of the women onscreen? They were everywhere, from the determined, perhaps a little crazy wife played by Meg Ryan in Serious Moonlight to the classic horror victim played by Jocelin Donahue in House of the Devil (in her defense, she’s one victim who fought back). Two Oscar-nominated actresses teamed up for the black comedy Don McKay: both Elisabeth Shue and Melissa Leo turned in alternately hilarious and threatening performances that overpowered their co-star, Thomas Haden Church. And French actress Sandrine Bonnaire turned in a wonderfully delicate performance in Queen to Play as Helene, a hotel maid who finds new meaning in life through an unexpected avenue– chess games with an American played by Kevin Kline.

Many of these Tribeca films won’t be seen by general audiences for a long time, if ever, but others arrived at the festival with distributors in place. Several of the films that are set to open in theaters feature some of the festival’s most impressive female performances. My personal favorite film of the festival, the gut-busting hilarious farce In the Loop, features Mimi Kennedy as overworked Assistant Secretary of State Karen Clarke, and Anna Chlumsky as her young, equally stressed assistant. Both women are capable of running circles around the men in their offices, but they’re also not immune to the absurdity and embarrassments of the political world as established by director Armando Iannucci.

And it would be impossible to talk about Tribeca without revealing the actress who may well wind up being the festival’s breakout star. She’s Sasha Grey, the adult film star, who makes her mainstream film debut in Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience. In a roundtable interview she told me this might be her first venture into mainstream acting, but she will always espouse sex positivity for women and for men. “I think every woman is a feminist. Whether you’re pro-porn or anti-porn, every woman is a feminist in her own right.”

A porn star talking about feminism, a little girl becoming a racecar driver, a maid learning to play chess– with all those stories and more, it’s a wonder there was any room for the boys at this year’s Tribeca.

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Katey Rich

Katey Rich is the Managing Editor and one of the chief movie critics for She has also written reviews and feature articles for Film Journal International. Katey has a B.A. in English and Film Studies from Wesleyan University.