AWFJ Women On Film – What Did Sundance 09 Augur for Women In Film? – Katherine Monk

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If one were to look at optics alone, the launch to this year‘s movie season heralded great things for the fair sex in film: Sundance 2009 was teeming with work from female directors, writers, producers and plenty of high-profile female talent.

Why, even the hosting duties for the gala awards show were handed over to latter-day Sundance heartthrob Jane Lynch — who isn‘t just a veteran actor (The Fugitive, Best in Show, Spring Breakdown), but an ‘out‘ lesbian, to boot.

Proving Sundance is still happy to ruffle feathers and challenge the status quo, Lynch opened the awards show with a clever monologue that riffed on the theme of gay marriage, while including all the titles of the films in competition.

Combine Lynch‘s potent presence at the podium with high-profile wins for Danish director Lone Scherfig‘s An Education (which picked up the audience prize for international drama), Ondi Timoner‘s second Sundance kudo (after Dig!) for We Live in Public (Grand Jury Prize, documentary), Mexican director Natalia Almada‘s El General (Directing award, US documentary), first-time feature director Havana Marking‘s Afghan Star (World Cinema directing award), and longtime documentary filmmaker Kim Longinotto‘s Rough Aunties (World Cinema Jury prize, documentary), and Sundance 2009 clearly set a new standard for female participation and representation — which is all good.

Yet, beneath these surface signs of progressive change within the micro-community of Sundance, lies a troubling undercurrent of stagnation when it comes to actual images of the female experience.

Take a look at the film that emerged as the festival‘s biggest winner: Push: Based on a Novel by Sapphire, the release title of which has now been changed to Precious. Directed by producer-turned-director Lee Daniels from a script by Damien Paul, the movie explores the life of Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) — a young woman who is obese, illiterate and pregnant with her father‘s child. Her mother (played by Mo‘nique in a career-boosting performance) is mentally ill and frequently mean, which actually transforms Precious into a borderline freak show, where all the women are broken in some profound — but dramatically compelling — way.

Playing on the dramatic potential of female victims is hardly a new chapter in Hollywood‘s handbook. From the Dawn Wiener to Anna Karenina, Hanna Schmitz to Joan of Arc, Virginia Woolf to The Duchess, the concept of the sexy femme victim or ‘fallen woman’ remains as popular a construct today for male writers as it was to the Victorians — who perfected the misunderstood, hysterical character trapped in an attic, or strolling the streets as a trollop.

We can applaud Lee Daniels for — as he tells it — bringing the story of “an obese girl who everyone makes fun of“ to the screen, and “telling a story that doesn‘t get told.” Yet, even in his two acceptance speeches (Grand Jury Prize dramatic, Audience Award US Dramatic), the filmmaker seemed to revel in just how pathetic his central character really was by repeatedly using pejorative — if not downright patronizing “this poor girl“ — language to describe her before recognizing her heroic accomplishments in the film itself.

Precious isn‘t exactly ‘victim porn‘ — thanks largely to Sidibe‘s palpable strength and integrity, which comes through loud and clear in her portrayal of Precious — but it certainly pushes us to ask where we should draw the line, as critics and as women, when it comes to embracing films that go out of their way to exploit female pain under the guise of empowerment.

I‘ve been thinking a lot about this in the wake of Slumdog Millionaire‘s multiple successes, and particularly Frieda Pinto‘s role in the film as the would-be whore who was saved from deflowering by her good looks — because good-looking prostitutes are always ‘saved‘ for the boss.

I felt like I was watching Pretty Woman all over again, where that cute and wacky Julia Roberts plays a woman who spreads her legs for money and suddenly ends up as a latter-day Cinderella.

One has come to expect these condescending caricatures of the female experience from Hollywood genre because misogyny — or, at the very least a deep distrust of women — is woven deep into the gold lame fabric that is Tinseltown.

But we expect more from the independent filmmaking community, and for good reason.

American independent film has proven adept at revising the core female identity by challenging everything from motherhood to marriage thanks to movies such as Juno, Citizen Ruth, Rachel Getting Married and the archetype-smashing Savage Grace — movies that were bold enough to challenge the central nurturing assumption regarding women.

This year‘s Sundance slate pointed to a year of continued revision, but in different ways. Instead of focusing on the central female experience in their films, many directors took a sideways angle to address issues of empowerment.

For instance, Lynn Shelton‘s Hump Day doesn’t focus on female characters at all — but on two men, and long-time best friends, who decide to have gay sex for money in the hopes of realizing the American Dream. In the midst of ambient homophobic boy humour, Shelton takes all the pressure off women as sex objects and in the process, emancipates female sexuality by unveiling homoerotic male insecurities.

Shana Feste made a splash with her debut The Greatest, a drama starring Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon as grieving parents with this year‘s breakout star Carey Mulligan, but while we‘re good at rendering the real creases and scars that reflect the pain of everyday human experience, we‘re not imagining a new reality.

Ironically, one of the most potent images of women appeared in September Issue, RJ Cutler‘s documentary about Anna Wintour, and the frenetic fashionista‘s long march toward publication of Vogue‘s big mama September issue.

Cutler gets intimate access to the floor, but for some reason, he fails to crack the iron hen — and any chick could see why: In a bid to catch a devil in Prada, the inquisitor misses the beauty, and naked strength, of the British bitch.

Wintour is way too smart to gush sentimentally about her life like some Latex-wearing loser from Jerry Springer. First of all, she‘s way too British to gush about anything. Too much emotional truth is just considered gauche among the tea-drinkers. Second, Wintour — like most women in power — will always be given the designer-bitch label because they aren‘t submissive and kind, like good girls. Wintour clearly understands the dynamic, but she just doesn‘t have the will or desire to play into it. She doesn‘t bite on any hook. She doesn‘t shred any egos. She‘s just herself.

That might look cold on the outside, and many will still think she‘s a frak, but she‘s obviously a feeling person. She just doesn‘t look like most women we see on-screen, because she‘s got power, and she‘s found a way to opt out of the traditional female yoke.

Maybe if we had more women like Wintour portrayed on-screen, ‘scary power freaks‘ like Hillary Clinton, Vandana Shiva and Wintour wouldn‘t seem so freakish.

We certainly can‘t expect the Hollywood establishment to recreate the female ideal it essentially created on the back of exploited starlets. It‘s the job of independent film to do that — hopefully, without celebrating the female victim more than the female victor.

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Katherine Monk

Katherine Monk is a Vancouver-based movie journalist for She has served as the national film critic for CanWest, and Canada's largest string of newspapers. Prior to becoming a national reporter, Monk worked at The Vancouver Sun as a movie critic, pop music critic, news reporter and news editor. In 2001, Raincoast Books published Monk's first book, Weird Sex and Snowshoes: And Other Canadian Film Phenomena, which hit the Canadian bestseller list and was adapted to the screen by Omni Film in 2004 under the direction of Jill Sharpe. Monk is a regular contributor to CBC Radio, and can be seen (and podcast) on market leader Global BC's Early News every Friday. She is a voting member of the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television, the Broadcast Film Critics Association, the Alliance of Women Film Journalists and the Writer's Union of Canada. She recently sat on the 2007 FIPRESCI Jury at the Toronto International Film Festival. In addition to her duties as a film writer, Monk also teaches and lectures, with recent engagements at Simon Fraser University, the University of Alaska - Fairbanks, McGill University's Centre for Canadian Studies, and Capilano College. She is a graduate of the University of B.C., with an honours degree in English Literature and a post-grad diploma in Film Production and Theory. When she's not stuck in a dark theatre watching movies, or staring at her computer screen, Monk spends her time skiing Whistler or playing a sweaty game of squash.