Stories of Women’s Resilience and Independence Were the Focus at the 2019 South by Southwest Film Festival
This year’s South by Southwest Film Festival felt, from its diverse slate of narrative, documentary, and short films to its Grand Jury and Audience Awards, like a declarative celebration of women’s stories and female filmmakers. Although the festival began and ended with horror pictures from male directors—Jordan Peele’s Us, with an instantly legendary performance from Lupita Nyong’o at its core, and Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer’s Stephen King adaptation Pet Sematary—its core was films made by and about women.
Comedies Booksmart and Long Shot respectively reveled in teenage girls exploring their raunchiest selves on the last night of high school and female politicians rising up the ranks of power. First-time director Olivia Wilde, screenwriters Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, and Katie Silberman, and co-stars Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever have built on the legacy of teen films like The Breakfast Club and Superbad with Booksmart, which is a fresh step forward in the depiction of young women in this particular genre. Feldstein and Dever’s characters are ambitious, hopeful, and ready to change the world, and how the film addresses their enthusiasm for the future and their bond with each other signals Wilde as a filmmaker with something definitive to say about girlhood and womanhood.
The documentary Knock Down the House, which screened previously at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and will be released through Netflix later this year, analyzes the changing face of the Democratic Party, including the role of first-term U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The film screened a day after Ocasio-Cortez spoke to a packed conference room about the Green New Deal and was approached by members of the Radical Monarchs, young activists from East Oakland, Calif., who were the focus of their own documentary at SXSW, We Are the Radical Monarchs. Grand Jury Award and Audience Award Documentary Feature Winner For Sama, which follows Syrian filmmaker Waad al-Kateab for five years in the war-torn country, was the big nonfiction winner of the festival. Later this year, PBS’s Frontline will air the film, which provides viewers with a glimpse, as the Grand Jury described, of “an epic personal story … through the lens of the bloody and brutal siege of Aleppo.”
And intimate, character-focused films, like the ensemble works Them That Follow, Mickey and the Bear, and Yes, God, Yes explored women’s coming-of-age narratives, centering on their sexuality, faith, and family. Particularly lovely was Saint Frances, which was honored with both the Audience Award for Narrative Feature and Special Jury Recognition for Breakthrough Voice. The film from director Alex Thompson and screenwriter and actress Kelly O’Sullivan follows a 34-year-old woman over the course of a summer as she undergoes an abortion and takes a job nannying for a 6-year-old girl. With deftness and empathy, the film touches on a variety of big-idea topics like religion, women’s reproductive rights, and interracial relationships while always advocating for patience and compassion. By focusing on the importance of female companionship and solidarity, Saint Frances tells a story about self-exploration and loyalty that subverts expectations about motherhood, child-rearing, and love. It is worth seeking out in whatever way it is distributed.
All throughout the lists of Audience Award and Grand Jury Award winners from SXSW are female filmmakers, names like Josephine Mackerras, Karen Maine, Jenifer McShane, Elizabeth Carroll, Nara Normande, Sophie Koko Gate, and more—women changing the industry with their presence and their work. What a fantastic year to attend the festival, and a cause for hope that we are moving, however incrementally, toward equality and equity.