Sundance FF 2021: Supporting Women Above and Below the Line – Leslie Combemale reports

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BEYOND WOMEN DIRECTORS: Supporting Women Above and Below the Line at Sundance

Of course you want to support female filmmakers at Sundance. They’ve had the good grace and been forward thinking enough to commit to inclusive programming, with 50% directed by one or more women, as well as 50% directed by one or more artists of color. Beyond that, though, how are these productions supporting parity? Are they telling stories centered on subjects that haven’t seen themselves enough onscreen? Have they committed to having women in roles in which they’ve been underrepresented in the crew? In order to effect lasting change, that’s what filmmakers and film fans need to support. With the 2021 fest being largely virtual, we can all put our money where our activist hearts are, and buy tickets and amplify these inclusive projects.

Here are just a few projects premiering at Sundance that show that commitment:

The percentage of female directors who are women of color is lagging way behind. Here comes Puerto Rican filmmaker Mariem Pérez Riera, who not only directs but is co-producer, and co-editor on a documentary that tells the story of a Puerto Rican performer who has broken barriers her entire career, overcoming sexism, racism, harassment, and the low self-esteem created by a studio system that forced her into years of playing cliched roles. Riera also hired a woman of color, Kathryn Bostic, as the film’s composer, (who is also composer for Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir, another documentary premiering at Sundance 2021). If all female film composers make up 1% of those hired for top feature films, imagine what percentage is made up of women of color? It’s also a highly entertaining film full of frank insights from a woman we should all admire.

Writer/director Debbie Lum (again, a filmmaker of color) acts not just as director, but co-producer for this documentary about kids at the top high school in San Francisco, where the majority of students are Asian American, and all have exceptional grades, talents, and where nothing feels good enough are all in competition with each other and the rest of the country as they apply for college. The film examines the stresses and challenges of today’s Asian American teens. Lum has Taiwanese-American Kathy Huang as co-cinematographer, 2 female editors, and a female composer and animator.

Asian Americans are finding themselves on the sidelines of change in terms of representation onscreen. Just look at the crazy decision of the Golden Globes to make Minari a foreign film just because the story is about immigrants. Marvelous and the Black Hole is directed and written by Asian American filmmaker Kate Tsang, and is inspired by her memories of her grandfather, who came from Hong Kong to help her work through her parents’ divorce. Tsang’s story of a 13 year old Asian American girl who starts dealing with the death of her mother through her relationship with a female magician (played by Rhea Perlman) feels very new. In addition to a 13 year old Asian American girl, it also features a 72 year old, Perlman, as a co-lead. Tsang also worked with a female cinematographer, editor, and production designer on the project.

This narrative, which is written and directed by Kosovo native Blerta Basholli, is based on the true story of a woman in Kosovo, trapped in the uncertainty of whether her husband is dead or missing. Played with stoic intensity by actress Yilka Gashi, the character breaks with the misogynistic rules of her patriarchal town by learning to drive and creating a thriving business for herself and other would-be widows. The real-life counterpart of this woman now has a huge business that imports to the US. Nearly all the characters in the film are women and the story is an inspiring look at what it takes to go beyond entrenched gender roles.

Rebecca Hall chose to make her feature directorial debut with mixed race Harlem Renaissance writer Nellie Walker’s 1929 novel, also penning the screenplay. The film stars Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson, two women of color, in a story about them and their struggles, and not how they reflect the experiences of the men around them. Hall also has female producers, a female editor, and production designer.

Documentarian of color Jamila Wignot enlists a host of female filmmakers to aid her in considering the life and art of Alvin Ailey. One of the most important figures Black history and in the world of ballet is profiled using archival footage and interviews with dancers, and Wignot examines Ailey’s love of poetry and his creation of poetry in movement in this lyrical film, which is produced by Lauren DeFilippo, edited by Annukka Lilja, and shot by Director of Photography Naiti Gámez. She was also supported by the research of Saoirse Hahn. Ailey is another great example of the collaborative power of women working together.

Directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen, who brought us RBG in 2018, introduce audiences to a historic figure, Pauli Murray, who has rarely gotten their due. A nonbinary feminist and Black activist who was breaking barriers and questioning laws and cultural norms years before many who got the lion’s share of the credit for those advances. Together with women of color producer Talleah Bridges McManon, they collaborated with a diverse crew that included DP Claudia Raschke and displayed the art of Diana Ejiata.

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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.