NEW YORK FILM FEST ’19: Great (but too few) Female Filmmakers – Jennifer Merin reports

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AWFJ and other associations of women in film are waiting to see whether the numerous film festivals around the globe that have committed to reaching parity in their programming of female-directed films by 2020 will meet that goal, initiated by the Swedish Film Institute at Cannes in 2016 as the 5050×2020 protocol. Thus far more than 50 film festivals — ranging in size, stature and mission from blockbuster international galas the likes of Cannes, Venice and Toronto International Film Festivals to well-recognized and dedicated regional fetes such as Oxford, Heartland and Mill Valley Film Festivals — have signed the pledge.

New York Film Festival does not appear on the 5050×2020 roster. Of course, it isn’t necessary to sign the pledge in order to make progress towards parity, nor does taking the pledge guarantee that the goal will be reached. Either way, the programming for this year’s 57th New York Film Festival, held from September 15 to October 23, suggests that this highly regarded cinema showcase has little regard for the 5050×2020 initiative. Of the 66 feature films presented in this year’s 26-day schedule, just 11 were directed by women. That’s a mere 16.666666666667%, and a very long short fall from the 50/50 by 2020 goal. Note, too, that many of these female-directed films had already been screened and made their mark at other high profile festivals and were/are slated for theatrical release.

That said, the female-directed films that were showcased in this year’s NYFF program are brilliant. Here’s a run down, with films listed by program section:


Atlantics – French filmmaker Mati Diop’s first narrative feature won the Grand Prix at Cannes this year and is due for a November 15 theatrical release in the US, followed by internet access on November 29. Set in a working class suburb of Dakar, the beautifully crafted film mixes social realism and fantasy to tell the heartbreaking story of star-crossed lovers Souleiman (Traore) and Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) who are struggling to overcome local cultural conventions, political exploitation and economic hardship to unite. The film is being released by Netflix.

First Cow – Kelly Reichert’s latest soulful feature is a stunningly unusual thriller set in the wild woods of the Oregon Territory during the early 19th Century. The plot revolves around the unlikely friendship between a loner cook (John Magaro) who’s recently arrived from Eastern parts to seek his fortune and a Chinese immigrant (Orion Lee) who wants to escape slaving away on demeaning jobs and hard labor. The two become partners in the crime of trying to survive, which entails secretly milking a local politico’s (Toby Jones) cow — considered major theft — to make biscuits that sell well, providing the baking duo with money they need to move on to San Francisco. The film premiered at Telluride Film Festival, is currently on the festival circuit and will be released theatrically by A24 in March 2020. First Cow is purely brilliant filmmaking. See it wherever you can.

I Was At Home, But… – German filmmaker Angela Schanelec’s psychological drama explores the dynamics of a Berlin family when a teen boy (Jacob Lassalle) goes missing for a short period of time and then returns. Schanelec’s elliptical storytelling style raises more questions than it answers about what’s going on with each of the family members, and especially with the unstable mother (Maren Eggert), presenting several unresolved subplots and visual references to religious iconography. The film is a compellingly engaging and challenging hour and 45 minutes of movie watching. The film premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 2019. It does not yet have a US theatrical release date.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire – Céline Sciamma’s strongly feminist period drama tells the story of two strong women who meet on a rocky island off the coast of Brittany at the beginning of the 19th century. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) has been hired to paint the wedding portrait of wealthy, head strong Heloise (Adèle Haenel), who has refused to show her face to previously hired portraitists because she doesn’t want to get married. Marianne has been introduced to Heloise not as an artist, but as a paid companion. With the issues of marriage and portraiture in the balance, the two women bond in an intimate and trusting relationship that impacts their future lives. Perfectly performed, exquisitely costumed and gorgeously shot, this film is a stunning must see. It will be released theatrically in December by Neon.

Sibyl – Justine Triet’s character-driven dramady about the world of moviemaking revolves around a psychiatrist (Virginie Efira) who gives up her practice to become a writer, but gets embroiled in the life of a new and particularly needy patient, an actress (Adèle Exarchopoulos), and winds up as an absolutely necessary on-set therapist, acting coach and, eventually, director — while recording all of her observations as fodder for the fiction manuscript she’s writing. When it comes to ethics, she breaks all the rules. And so does everyone else in this spoofy cinema realm send up. As all of the essentially egocentric characters act out their often oddball bids for self-gratification, the film’s quirky plot twists provide ongoing chuckles. The film premiered at Cannes and is still on the festival circuit. It does not yet have a US theatrical release date.

Varda by Agnes — The final film of Agnès Varda, who passed away on March 29, 2019 at the age of 90, turned the lens on the legendary filmmaker herself and traces her artistic journey as a filmmaker and photographer. In archival and recently recorded footage, Varda reveals her own take on her work and her way of working. The film has instantly been registered as an important reel in Varda’s legacy. Janus Films will release the film in December, 2019, along with the launch of a touring retrospective of Varda’s work, featuring more than 30 movies from the filmmaker’s six-decade career. The tour will kick off at Lincoln Center, the home of the New York Film Festival.


Born to Be – Filmmaker Tania Cypriano’s intimate documentary about gender transitioning follows Dr. Jess Ting, founder and chief practitioner at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital’s unique and highly regarded transgender program, a beacon of light for those seeking surgery and psychological support. With remarkable sensitivity and extraordinary access, the filmmaker reveals the stories of several transitioning patients. The film is enlightening. It premiered at New York Film Festival and has no release date.

Bully, Coward, Victim: The Story of Roy Cohn – Filmmaker Ivy Meeropol uses recently discovered archival video and audio material, plus interviews with Cindy Adams, Alan Dershowitz, Tony Kushner, Nathan Lane, John Waters, and other eye witnesses to recount the life and calculate the impact of Roy Cohn, the closeted right wing American lawyer and power monger who was chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy, an advocate representing crime bosses and the mentor of Donald Trump. He’s also prosecuted Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were Meeropol’s grandparents. In examining the thoroughly corrupt Cohn’s career, Meerpol also looks at the behavior of right wing America in accumulating and exerting influence. The film premiered at New York Film Festival. It will be released by HBO Documentary Films.

College Behind Bars – Lynn Novick’s documentary follows several incarcerated students who enrolled in Bard Prison Initiative’s diploma program and, while studying, must survive the harsh routines and challenging realities of prison life. This is a four-o=part documentary series scheduled to be released on television in November.

Cunningham – Filmmaker Alla Kovgan profiles the life and work of legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham in this documentary that presents much of his best known work very effectively in 3D. There is also archival footage of Cunningham in rehearsal and in conversation with his creative collaborators, including composer John Cage and visual artist and designer Robert Rauschenberg. The 3D cinematography is stunning. The film will be released in December by Magnolia Pictures.


Soldier Girls – Joan Churchill co-directed (with Nick Broomfield, whose name is listed first in the credits) and served as cinematographer on this still relevant documentary that follows a platoon of young women military inductees through 14 days of their brutal basic training at Georgia’s Fort Gordon. The film is a harsh and sometimes funny look at the military’s training program and code of behavior. It should be shown in high schools before military recruiters arrive to snap up students as they come of age. Soldier Girls has been preserved by the Museum of Modern Art with funding from Twentieth Century Fox. It can be accessed through Amazon Prime.


Is parity a priority on New York Film Festival’s agenda? There’s no clear answer to that question, but change is in the air. On September 9, prior to the opening of this year’s NYFF, Kent Jones, who has served as the festival’s artistic director and selection committee chair for the past seven years announced that he would be resigning his NYFF position following the conclusion of this year’s edition. There have been no announcements about a new artistic director and selection committee chair. But whomever is hired to replace Jones will play a role in deciding NYFF’s stand on gender parity in programming.

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).