Now in its seventh year, the Middleburg Film Festival in bucolic Virginia horse country continues to feature a well-curated slate of top-notch narrative and documentary feature films from around the world. Washington D.C.-area AWFJ members in attendance included Nell Minow and Susan Wloszczyna, both of whom participated in the Talk Back to the Critics’ session, as well as Leslie Combemale and Sandie Angulo Chen. All four of us were invited to the annual Women in Film luncheon, which this year honored two women-of-color directors: Mati Diop (Atlantics) Kasi Lemmons (Harriet) at the lovely Greenhill Winery.
Between us, we saw at least 40 films, and we’ve picked our favorite women-focused films and performances from the festival for readers to put on their must-watch lists.
Leslie Combemale: Every year, the Middleburg Film Festival offers exciting films that are already generating awards buzz, filling the weekend with some wonderful cinematic experiences. 2019 has been no exception, and for me, the highlights were Senegalese/French writer/director Mati Diop’s Atlantics, and French director Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la Jeune Fille en Feu). Both these films will definitely be on my list of the best films of the year.
Atlantics is a film that has the distinction of not only being the first film by a female African director, but also the first by a female African director to win the Grand Prix at Cannes. This is very impressive, given it’s Diop’s first feature. The story follows young Senegalese in Dakar named Ada, who is deeply and purely in love with Souleiman, but is promised to another by her family, and is expected to soon marry. Souleiman and his friends have been working for a rich man’s construction project for months without being paid. Out of desperation, Souleiman and his friends depart across the ocean to Spain in a rickety boat, in hopes to find better financial situations. They disappear, and within days, mysterious things start happening around Ada and her friends, and the film takes a supernatural turn. The movie is powerfully feminist, in that the story is really about Ada waking to her own power, and driving her own destiny. It is also a commentary about the economic disparity that drives the youth of Senegal, almost as a viral fever, to take enormous risks in an effort to better their circumstances. All these undercurrents are happening in the film that is based in a love story, one that transcends death, and is shown through a visual language and consistent tone that feels like a meditation. The music, composed by female film composer Fatima Al Qadiri is integral, gorgeous, and, I’m happy to say, will be released for score fans to enjoy
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is also groundbreaking, in that Sciamma is the first female director to win the Queer Palm at Cannes. The film also won her the Best Screenplay award at that festival. In French with subtitles, the story takes place in the eighteenth century, and is about painter Marianne, who is tasked with painting a portrait of Heloise, the reluctant fiancé to a man who was formerly betrothed to her dead sister, who killed herself rather than be married. Marianne is expected to paint Heloise in secret, without her knowledge. They fall in love. This movie has moments so beautiful, and so moving, that not once but twice, members of the audience I was sitting near audibly gasped. The lead actors are compelling, but also have magnetic chemistry. Music plays an important role in the film, and there are two scenes, one involving voice, the other symphonic, that are mesmerizing. Sciamma’s film will definitely stay with audiences long-term.
Nell Minow: Producer Debra Martin Chase and writer/director Kasi Lemmons told the Middleburg Film Festival audience they were proud a team of woman brought Harriet, the story of Harriet Tubman, to the screen for the first time. Lemmons spent months reviewing the research and original documents to tell the story of the woman born into enslavement who had no maps and couldn’t have read them if she had, but somehow not only escaped to freedom herself but returned to lead more than 70 more enslaved people to freedom. The audience rose to their feet and cheered Cynthia Erivo’s whole-hearted and deeply moving performance. And the next day, Lemmons appeared with Terence Blanchard, who composed the stirring score for the film at the Festival’s annual tribute to a composer, accompanied by a full orchestra, and told the audience that the opera she and Blanchard have created based on the memoir of Charles Blow, A Fire Shut Up in My Bones.
Susan Wloszczyna: I would say Scarlett Johansson for the win, what with her deep-dish portrait of an actress on the verge of a marital split who wants more than just being her director husband’s muse and finally prioritizes her own career dreams in Marriage Story. Then there is her sweet and knowing single mom in Jojo Rabbit, who knows just how to handle her awkward young son as he goes through his Nazi youth period.
Sandie Angulo Chen: In addition to my colleagues’ picks, I have to give a shout out to the luminous Ana de Armas, who’s spectacular as an in-home nurse in Rian Johnson’s delicious whodunit Knives Out opposite an award-winning cast including Christopher Plummer, Jamie Lee Curtis, Daniel Craig, Toni Collette, and Chris Evans. Class, privilege, entitlement, and all the best mystery conventions are at play in what’s sure to be a favorite holiday pick this season.
Then there are honorable mentions to a few other great films, including Parasite directed by Bong Joon-ho and The Two Popes directed by Fernando Meirelles and written by Anthony McCarten.