Sundance 2020 Curtain Raiser – Leslie Combemale reports

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A SUNDANCE PRIMER & SUNDANCE 2020 PREVIEW: Why Sundance is so female-friendly, and looking Ahead at events and Films at one of the most female filmmaker supportive film festivals of the year.

In 2020, Sundance continues their commitment to parity for women in film and inclusion of filmmakers and creators from all perspectives. They’ve been one festival that has always put their money and focus where their belief in equity lies, and as a consequence, are nearing parity for female filmmakers. This year, of the 56 competition films, 46% are directed by women. That flies in the face of the percentage of women helming the top-grossing films released in the US every year, which hovers around 4%. Also, 48% of the shorts, episodic, and special events are directed or created by women. In addition, 40 of the 118 feature films are by one or more filmmakers of color, and 18 are by those that identify as LGBTQ. These selections come out of a record-high 15,100 submissions.

They do not arrive at these percentages by accident. Sundance is deeply committed to changing statistics for a better balance and wider variety of storytelling. Sundance Institute Executive Director Keri Putnam is on the board of Women in Film: LA, a member of TIME’S UP, and spearheads the Women at Sundance program. She is the co-founder of ReFrame, which is an industry coalition dedicated to parity in representation.

This year’s theme is “Imagined Futures”, with the hashtag #SundanceIF. To quote their official website
“‘What if’ are the two most important words in the English language. At the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, IF stands for Imagined Futures.” As part of this theme, there will be a bonfire open to the public on January 30th starting at 4:30 pm to welcome the new decade, with remarks by Festival director John Cooper.

One of the mainstays at the opening of the fest is the press conference with founder Robert Redford, which will be missing in 2020. With thanks to Bob, at some point the institute had to move forward on its own. He has left it in good hands, with talented professionals and movie lovers in charge who only wish the best for the future of film.


Here are just a few of the most exciting, buzzed-about films by women being premiered at Sundance 2020. Commit the names of these filmmakers to memory, find out what else they’ve done, and amplify their work. That’s how we move into an “Imagined Future” of women behind the camera that are lauded and celebrated for their art.

To open the fest, Emmy-winning director Lana Wilson brings her feature debut with a revealing look at an icon that has grown and struggled as a young woman in the global spotlight. The premiere is at Sundance, but the release on Netflix is not far behind, as it streams on Netflix beginning on January 31st.

Writer/director Dee Rees ( ), is the first Black woman nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Adapted Screenplay category for Mudbound, and always creates compelling work. Here she adapts the political thriller by Joan Didion about journalist Elena McMahon who is left to handle arms deals in Central America by her sick father. Aided by a state official with whom she has a complicated past, she attempts to navigate a world without it, quite literally, blowing up in her face. It stars Anne Hathaway, Willem Dafoe, and Ben Affleck, the film premieres at Sundance before it streams on Netflix later in the year.

With Wajda, award-winning writer/director Haifaa Al Mansour became the first woman, or first filmmaker of any kind, to shoot an international film in Saudi Arabia. She challenges the Saudi patriarchy with The Perfect Candidate, which premiered at the Venice International Film Festival, and is about a small-town female doctor who runs for a municipal election, breaking barriers and becoming a voice for women who often find themselves and their aspirations limited by their gender. Seeking distribution.

Writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples wrote two episodes for season two of Queen Sugar, and participated in both the Sundance Institute Screenwriters Intensive and Creative Producing Lab. She has created a powerful portrait of a strong southern woman in Turquoise Jones, played by Nicole Beharie, who is determined to build a beauty queen in her daughter Kai, and get her crowned at Miss Juneteenth, which celebrates the day slavery was abolished in Texas. Seeking distribution.

Famed animation director Brenda Chapman is known for co-directing The Prince of Egypt and creating and directing Brave, which won her an Academy Award, BAFTA and Golden Globe. She comes to Sundance with a live action film that stars Angelina Jolie, David Oyelowo, and Michael Caine, in a story that imagines Peter Pan and Alice as siblings, who navigate real-life trauma and search for solutions to their family’s troubles in the dangerous underworld of London. Seeking distribution.

Without a doubt a film that will find distribution quickly, writer/director Radha Blank also stars in her feature film debut about a once promising playwright who is reaching 40, at a time when she feels her career is stalling. She returns to her former passion of rapping. Her play starts getting successful, leading her to come to terms with what she really wants, and who she really wants to be as an authentic woman of 40. Radha Blank is poised to be a name everyone knows. Seeking distribution.

Director Eliza Hittman won the Directing Award in 2017 for Beach Rats, and returns with a new film about a rural teen who faces an unintended pregnancy. She travels by bus to New York City with her cousin with the address of a clinic, but nowhere to stay. This is a timely narrative film for the current political climate, where both bodily autonomy and individual freedom for women are being put into question. Releasing through Focus Features on March 6th, 2020.

A winner of the 2014 Best Director Award at Sundance for The Kindergarten Teacher, director Sara Colangelo comes in hot with a third feature film that stars Michael Keaton and Stanley Tucci. Keaton is a lawyer appointed by Congress to lead the September 11th Compensation Fund, and Tucci is a community organizer who lost his wife when the World Trade Center came down. Seeking distribution.

Te Llevo Conmigo is the narrative feature debut for director and co-writer Heidi Ewing, who is known for her documentaries, including the Oscar-nominated Jesus Camp. In it, aspiring Mexican chef and closeted gay man Ivan falls for teacher Gerardo, causing conflict, and leading him to the decision to cross the border to advance his career. He promises to return to the son he wishes to support, and the man he loves, but can he? Seeking distribution ***

Multi-award winner and Oscar-nominated documentary director Liz Garbus, most recently acclaimed for What Happened, Miss Simone?, has her narrative feature debut with Lost Girls, which stars Amy Ryan as Shannon, the mother of a missing daughter who was part of an online network of sex workers. When the investigation gets sidelined with police and investigators indifferent to “girls like her”, Shannon uncovers more cases like her daughter’s, bringing voice to women forgotten by a broken system. Premieres at Sundance before streaming on Netflix March 13th, 2020.

The long-awaited new release by Oscar, Emmy, and Tony-winning MacArthur “Genius” fellow Julie Taymor, The Glorias is directed and co-written by Taymor. About feminist icon Gloria Steinem, the film is based on Steinem’s memoir My Life on the Road, stars Julianne Moore, Alicia Vikander, Janelle Monáe and Bette Midler, and can be expected to be as inventive, inspired, and fascinating as all of Taymor’s projects. Seeking distribution.

You’ve probably seen a trailer or heard about this film. It stars Carey Mulligan as a barista-by-day and vigilante-by-night, who seeks to heal past trauma by doling out retribution to men who attempt to take advantage of girls too drunk to give or deny consent. It is the feature debut for director/writer Emerald Fennell, who was most recently executive producer on season two of Killing Eve. She is also a successful novelist, and actress known for her role as Nurse Patsy Mount in Call the Midwife. Premieres at Sundance before releasing through Focus Features on April 17th, 2020

I saw Relic in advance of the fest, largely because I believe horror films, when created from the female perspective, often offer extended metaphors for difficult aspects of being human. (Examples are Babadook: grief as a monster, Tigers Art Not Afraid: menstruation as power, and Raw: repressed female rage) This film is no exception. It stars a multi-generational cast of Robyn Nevin, Emily Mortimer, and Bella Heathcote as grandmother Edna, daughter Kay, and granddaughter Sam, who are dealing with Edna’s mysterious disappearance, subsequent reappearance, and increasing volatility. This is all happening in Edna’s isolated house, which seems to have a part to play in Edna’s deterioration. This is the feature debut for Japanese/Australian writer/director Natalie Erika James, in a film co-produced by the Russo Brothers’ AGBO Films. Relic exists in part through ‘Gender Matters’, a suite of initiatives by the government agency Screen Australia, which addresses the gender imbalance in the Australian screen industry. Seeking distribution.


There are many events planned and initiatives being announced relating to women at Sundance 2020. Not least are those put forth by Women at Sundance, which has a number of partnerships that are integral to expanding opportunities for women in film and television.


Women at Sundance started a partnership with Women in Film: LA in 2012, and immediately commissioned research by Dr. Stacy Smith and those who work with her at USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative into the challenges and limitations facing women filmmakers. It was through these findings that Women at Sundance was created to support women at every level, and at every step of their filmmaking careers.

Beginning in 2012, they have had a fellowship program every year for 6 mid-career women directors and producers. Ava DuVernay and Marielle Heller represent just two of their alumnae. They seek out corporate partners to create career opportunities for Sundance Institute alumnae filmmakers. Also a focus is alleviating the barrier of finding financing, and to that end, they offer their yearly Financing and Strategy Intensive to help advance 15-20 projects by women filmmakers through teaching better presentation and pitching skills, and placement with potential financiers and partners. Since raising capital is a major hurdle for women filmmakers, Catalyst Women (a partnership between Sundance Institute and the Harnisch Foundation) matches creative investors and women-led projects seeking financing. You can read details on the Sundance website.

The Sundance website also has something called the Inclusion Resource Map: It includes over 300 organizations and programs focusing on funding, network and community, mentorships and fellowships, and education and artist development.

At the fest itself, there is a Women at Sundance Celebration, which features performances and talks by key female creators, talents, and subjects drawn from the films premiering at the 2020 Festival, and there are a number of offscreen panels being offered by and for activists looking for change through media.


The Power of Story: Just Art
Julie Taymor, Kerry Washington, and Carrie Mae Seems join Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ai Weiwei in discussing the nature of of artwork as a catalytic cultural and sociopolitical force. (Saturday, January 25th, 2:30pm Egyptian Theater)

Truth to Power
Journalists Maria Ressa and Farai Chideya join New Yorker columnist Masha Gessen and president of Open Society Foundations Patrick Gaspard explore how journalists can and must go up against powerful regimes. (Saturday, January 25th, 2:00pm Filmmaker Lodge)

Under Whose AI?
Media artist and filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson and MIT computer scientist Joy Buolamwini join moderator Adrienne LaFrance, The Atlantic’s executive editor to discuss how artificial intelligence “learns” from the data humans generate, and what that might mean for our future. (Sunday, January 26th, 1:30pm, Filmmaker Lodge)

The Aesthetics of Disability
Artists and filmmakers explore reaching new audiences, representing diverse perspectives, and redefining how art is expressed and perceived. The panel will feature sound artist Nick Ryan, director Rodney Evans, Filmmakers Nicole Newnham, Jim LeBrecht, and Michelle Miles, and choreographer Alice Sheppard, and will be moderated by curator of Film at the Museum of the Moving Image, Eric Hynes. (Friday, January 31st, 2:00pm, Filmmaker Lodge.)

The Feeling of Exile
Exiled from their own countries, censored, or imprisoned for their perspectives as artists, filmmakers Nanfu Wang and Oleg Sentsov join comedian Bassem Youssef to speak to how their experiences have informed their work, as moderated by CEO of PEN America, Suzanne Nossel. (February 1st, 2:00pm, Filmmaker Lodge)


The Latinx House, which is an initiative by the activist group Justice for Migrant Women will have an activation from January 24th through 26th in partnership with the film fest. This year sees a historic number of features with Latinx themes in competition. You can find out more about the plans

GLAAD brings GLAAD at Sundance: Black Queer & Unapologetic: The Shifting Lens of Storytelling in Hollywood. President of Color of Change Rashad Robinson, actress Jonica T. Gibbs, writer/director Justin Simien, actress Alexandra Grey, and actor Marquise Vilson join moderator Danielle Moodie-Mills in a discussion about the expansion of representation born of a burst of brilliance Black queer talent onscreen. (Tuesday, January 28th, 4:30pm Filmmaker Lodge)

ReFrame, along with Women in Film: LA and New York Women in Film & Television, will have a panel called Women on the Front Lines: Changing the Game, which will bring together leading women from the front lines in entertainment to discuss their experiences and the way forward. EVP of Acquisitions for IFC Films Arianna Bocco moderates, as filmmakers Ekwa Msangi, Haifaa al-Mansour, and Monica Levinson with additional guests to be announced. (Friday, January 24th, 1:00 pm SundanceTV HQ)


Sometimes those of us who live and breathe all things film, especially in the world of indie film, forget how little the rest of the world knows about what’s hot, what’s iconoclastic, and what’s masterful, in terms of movie releases and filmmakers breaking onto the scene. We need only look at Twitter, where posts about the lack of support and acclaim for female filmmakers at awards time are met with comments like, “maybe women need to make better films.” I found myself surprised at how many people didn’t even know what Sundance is, much less the filmmakers and films released there. My hairstylist, who is without question a great lover of film, had no idea what IMDb is. It’s no wonder, then, that getting the word out to the general public about the exceptional work being done by women behind the camera can be so difficult. With that in mind, here are a few things happening outside of Sundance, but relating to Sundance, for women in film:


I’m a strong believer in the work of ReFrame, which is funded and led by Women in Film: LA and Sundance Institute. Since its inception, ReFrame has named nearly 80 ReFrame Ambassadors, including studio heads, agency partners, talent, and guild representatives. In June 2019, they launched ReFrame Rise, a two-year sponsorship that supports career acceleration for experienced female directors poised to lead commercial features and high profile TV shows.

More importantly for those not in the industry but who want to support women in film, the organization created the ReFrame stamp, which is awarded to narrative features and television productions that hire female-identifying people in four of eight key areas of their production, including writer, director, producer, lead, co-lead, speaking parts, department heads, and crew. We should all be amplifying the films and projects that make the effort to be inclusive, as it pushes others to do the same, and helps, however slowly, to level the playing field and create content for everyone. Read the list of recently ReFrame-stamped shows and films, and support all of the films and shows on the complete ReFrame roster.

An even a bigger deal, in terms of expanding reach beyond the indie world, is that ReFrame recently announced a partnership with Delta Airlines. Delta will have a dedicated channel for films and TV shows that have gotten the ReFrame stamp. This is huge news that goes way beyond the sometimes insular indie film world environment, and out to the general viewing public. The channel offers the work of female filmmakers a breadth of exposure that even the most renowned film fests can’t reach. Read the list of films showing on Delta’s new channel.

Of course, we who work with the Alliance of Women Film Journalists believe that our Movie of the Week (MOTW) helps in getting the word out about films centered on and created by women, and though those films often have limited distribution, getting to know the artists and creators of those films, and amplifying their work, makes a difference longterm in their exposure and careers. Today’s indie female filmmaker can and should be tomorrow’s blockbuster helmer, if that’s what she wants.

Only time will tell which films will make the biggest splash. Sometimes even the biggest awards don’t mean distribution or big box office success. 2020, though, is already shaping up to be a banner year for female filmmakers. We are looking forward to the release of Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey, Reed Morano’s The Rhythm Section, Niki Caro’s Mulan, Chloe Zhao’s Eternals, Cate Shortland’s Black Widow, and Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman 1984, just to name a few. It will be great to look back on this year in the future, and recognize the moment when the works of new female artists were presented to the world, and expanded both their opportunity and the art of film.

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Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale writes as Cinema Siren on her own website,, and is a frequent contributor to MPA's, where she interviews filmmakers above and below the line, with a focus on women and diverse voices. She is the Senior Contributor at Leslie is in her 9th year as producer and moderator of the influential "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con. She is a world-renowned expert on cinema art and her film art gallery, ArtInsights, located near DC, has celebrated cinema art and artists for 30 years.