Women @ New York Film Fest 2021 – Margaret Barton-Fumo reports

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The 59th edition of the New York Film Festival will run from September 24 – October 10, 2021. Below is a quick rundown of the feature-length films in the festival that were directed by women.

According to our rough calculations, over a third of the features in this year’s NYFF were directed by women, which include nearly half of the films in the “Currents” slate, which emphasizes “new and innovative forms and voices” within contemporary cinemas, and 40% of the “Revivals.” Nine of the features in the coveted “Main Slate” were directed by women, many of them highly anticipated releases. The Centerpiece screening will showcase Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, an eccentric Western starring Kirsten Dunst and Benedict Cumberbatch, and Campion’s first film in over a decade (Bright Star was released in 2009, with the television series Top of the Lake in between). Julia Ducournau’s genre-bending sophomore feature Titane is also included in the Main Slate, where it will have its U.S. premiere. Following Ducournau’s historic Palme d’Or win at Cannes in July (she was only the second woman to win that festival’s top prize), some critics were a bit puzzled when it was announced that Titane would open the less prestigious “Midnight Madness” section at the Toronto International Film Festival. By including Titane in the Main Slate, New York appears to acknowledge the film’s pride of place at Cannes.

Several women directors in the Main Slate are returning to the NYFF following previous festival hits, such as Joanna Hogg, with her sequel to the magnificent The Souvenir, and Céline Sciamma (following 2019’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire), with her new film Petite Maman, which follows an 8-year-old girl who has recently lost her grandmother. Alice Rohrwacher also returns to the NYFF with Futura, a documentary she co-directed with Pietro Marcello and Francesco Munzi, having only directed a few shorts and two episodes of the My Brilliant Friend television series since her critically acclaimed fable Happy as Lazzaro was released in 2018. Mia Hansen-Løve, who has demonstrated a steady and impressive talent over the last fifteen years, appears in the Main Slate with her English-language debut, Bergman Island, while actress Rebecca Hall makes her directorial debut with her adaptation of Djuna Barnes’ Passing.

Finally, there are a few (relatively) unknown directors in the female faction of the Main Slate that demand attention. Neptune Frost is sure to be a standout: co-directed by Anisia Uzeyman and Saul Williams, the NYFF program guide describes the film as an Afrofuturist, “sci-fi punk musical” that takes place in the East African country of Burundi. Unclenching the Fists is Kira Kovalenko’s Cannes-awarded second feature; the story of a young woman who struggles to leave her family in the Caucasus. Prayers for the Stolen, an adaptation of the 2014 book by Jennifer Clement, is Tatiana Huezo’s first fiction film, having directed several documentaries (such as 2016’s Tempestad) in Mexico.

With seven out of fifteen films directed by women, this year’s “Currents” section is of particular interest. This is the type of category that often contains some of the best films of the festival, many of which are not guaranteed wide distribution. The opening night film, The Tsugua Diaries, co-directed by Maureen Fazendeiro and Miguel Gomes, is a twisty reverse-order drama set in rural Portugal during the COVID lockdown. Shengze Zhu also addresses the COVID epidemic with her documentary A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces, which combines images of Wuhan along the Yangtze River with the text of letters addressed to loved ones who are now dead.

Other filmmakers included within the Currents slate make effective use of written correspondences: Payal Kapadia’s A Night of Knowing Nothing, for example, fleshes out the identity of a young film student in India through a series of letters written to the woman’s lover, while Claire Simon’s documentary I Want to Talk About Duras is based entirely on transcripts from a 1982 interview between author-director Marguerite Duras’ partner Yann Andréa and journalist Michèle Manceaux. All About My Sisters, directed by Qiong Wang, looks to be a compelling documentary; an in-depth portrait of the filmmaker’s family over the course of seven years as they are affected by China’s one-child policy. Ste. Anne, directed by Rhayne Vermette, is a 16mm drama about an indigenous woman’s unexpected return to the Métis community (and her estranged daughter) in Manitoba. And Prism, co-directed by Eleonore Yameogo, An van. Dienderen and Rosine Mbakam, is a probing nonfiction film that tackles the inherent racism in Western filmmaking and photographic practice.

The Revivals slate, which includes seven out of seventeen films directed by women, is quite exciting this year, with a few overlooked, essential films of the 1970s (Sarah Maldoror’s Sambizanga, Joan Micklin Silver’s Hester Street and Márta Mészáros’ Adoption), Christine Choy’s stirring 1987 documentary Who Killed Vincent Chin?, and three films from the now-distant 1990s (Nina Menkes’​​ The Bloody Child, Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala and Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher).

And finally, the “Spotlight” section, which offers early screenings of big-deal movies like Dune, the new Wes Anderson film and Sean Baker’s buzzy Red Rocket, features two women-directed films out of nine; the actress Maggie Gyllenhaal’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter and Charlotte Gainsbourg’s documentary about her mother, Jane by Charlotte.

NYFF59 promises to be a well-rounded festival (the non-woman-directed films look pretty good, too!) and one can only hope that the vigilant enforcement of health and safety protocols will ensure a sound experience for everyone involved.

Tickets are now on sale for the 59th edition of the New York Film Festival, which will run from September 24 – October 10, 2021. Below is a quick rundown of the feature-length films in the festival that were directed by women. More details about the festival can be found online at https://www.filmlinc.org/nyff2021/ or by downloading the full program guide at https://www.filmlinc.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/NYFF59_ProgramGuide_09.02.2021.pdf

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Margaret Barton-Fumo

Based in New York, Margaret Barton-Fumo has contributed to Film Comment since 2006. Her monthly online column, “Deep Cuts,” focused on the intersection of film and music. She has interviewed such directors, actors, and musicians as Brian De Palma, James Gray, Harry Dean Stanton, and Paul Williams, and has additionally contributed to Senses of Cinema and Stop Smiling. She is the editor of Paul Verhoeven: Interviews, published by the University Press of Mississippi.