Middleburg Film Festival 2022: Female Focus – Leslie Combemale reports

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The Middleburg Film Festival marked its 10th year in operation this October, and as founder Sheila Johnson and director Susan Koch have done from the start, they made the celebration of women in film both in front of and behind the camera one of the major priorities of the fest.

There were 16 female-helmed films represented in the fest out of the 44 shown, including several by women of color, and many of those films also have female heads of departments, which is, of course, important to advancing gender parity overall. As the MFF is becoming known as an important stop for films that go on to win major prizes including at the Academy Awards, it’s a big deal that those running the fest believe representing women is so important. As to the films directed by female filmmakers, there were a number of standouts. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, directed by Oscar winner Laura Poitras, is about artist and activist Nan Goldin and her fight to hold the Sackler family accountable for the nation’s opioid crisis. Descendant, brought by documentarian Margaret Brown, documents the search for and discovery of The Clotilda, the last known slave ship to arrive in the US, carrying illegally enslaved Africans in 1860. Anna Diop, star of the narrative film Nanny, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, attended the screening of the film, which was written and directed by Nikyatu Jusu. Director Maria Schrader’s film She Said was well-received, and continues to show the subject matter on which this narrative is based, the MeToo movement, is important and timely. The stars, writers, cinematographer, and production designers are all women. Till, about the aftermath of Emmett Till’s murder, is the newest feature by filmmaker Chinonye Chukwu, who is becoming known for her ability to get awards-worthy performances from her performers. Danielle Deadwyler, who plays Mamie Till-Mobley, is on the short list of nearly all Oscar predictive lists. Also playing were Mia Hansen-Love’s latest, One Fine Morning, and Phyllis Nagy’s narrative Call Jane, about pre-Row v Wade America.

Lizzie Gottlieb’s documentary, Turn Every Page, about iconic Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Caro and her father, his editor Robert Gottleib, and their 50 year professional relationship won the audience award for best documentary feature at the festival.

From the fest’s inception, there has been a luncheon for women in film, to which all the Alliance of Women Film Journalists members attending are invited. During this year’s gathering Johnson presented the Agnès Varda Trailblazing Film Artist Award to Gina Prince-Bythewood, who was there to accept the award. She thanked Johnson and went on to say how important it is for women to support each other in the industry and raise each other up whenever possible.

Prince-Bythewood’s film The Woman King played on Saturday eve of the fest, and had a Q&A afterwords with the film’s editor, Prince-Bythewood’s longtime collaborator Terilyn Shropshire. Shropshire explained some of the choices made in the editing that advanced storytelling within the context of action and fight scenes. She also spoke to Prince-Bythewood’s commitment to the cast doing nearly all of their own stunts, and how that impacted the visual language of the film. Shropshire was able to use closeups of the performers’ movements as well as longer takes and wider shots in a way that would have been impossible had they used more stunt doubles.

Shropshire was also part of the panel on Sunday morning, presented by the MPA as part of their 100th year anniversary, called “The State of the Industry”. This year is the first in which the MPA sponsored the festival, and CEO Charles Rivkin was on-hand to introduce the moderator, Washington Post chief critic Ann Hornaday. In addition to Shropshire, rounding out the female representation was Disney’s senior VP of government affairs Susan Fox. What followed was a spirited discussion with the panelists, which also included Oscar-nominated producer Ron Yerxa, Phil Contrino, the director of media and research for the National Association of Theatre Owners, and Andy Edmonds, the director of the Virginia Film Commission. They discussed how they felt the film industry is doing now and what might be a way forward to allow for both blockbusters and independent movies to find success in the marketplace.

Following that panel, Terilyn Shropshire offered a masterclass on editing, through a discussion with Variety artisans editor and AWFJ member Jazz Tangcay. Tangcay took the audience through Shropshire’s illustrious career, from earlier films like Eve’s Bayou, Love and Basketball, and The Secret Life of Bees, to more recent successes The Old Guard and The Woman King, which has been garnering Oscar buzz since its recent release.

All in all, this 10th year of the Middleburg Film Festival was a great success, especially as a way to advance female filmmakers and placing them alongside or as part of the films considered to be major awards contenders. The easygoing, low-pressure vibe, and the glorious natural environment allow both everyday movie lovers and film insiders to enjoy screenings and panels that would be hard to access otherwise. All fests should give this level of attention to female filmmakers and their work.

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Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale writes as Cinema Siren on her own website, CinemaSiren.com, and is a frequent contributor to MPA's TheCredits.org, where she interviews filmmakers above and below the line, with a focus on women and diverse voices. She is the Senior Contributor at AWFJ.org. 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.