Sundance Film Festival: Feminist Overview – Leslie Combemale reports

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The beginning of every year is such a confusing time for film. Since January is a very bad month at the box office, historically studios have put out their least marketable films, and critics have had to brace themselves for the worst releases of the year. I’m talking about the explosion-heavy, sword and sandal, terror-behind-every-door type films that weren’t deemed good enough to be dropped at Halloween or the holiday blockbuster season.

At the same time, awards season is in full swing, and though all the films being pitched as Oscar worthy had some sort of limited release before December 31st, a number of prestige films are placed in theaters to entice voters and build more buzz. As a woman and as a film journalist, invariably this time of year is disappointing, because every year so many great female-helmed and female-fronted films get ignored. Just look at the films recognized with nominations by the DGA. They nominated all men to their Best Director category, then threw female directors Charlotte Wells (Aftersun), Audrey Diwan (Happening) Antoneta Alamos Kusijanovic (Murina) and Alice Diop (Saint Omer) a small bone, by nominating them in the Outstanding Directorial Achievement of a First-Time Theatrical Feature Film category.

Then there’s Sundance, always both a literal and figurative breath of fresh air, where this year over 50% of films in nearly all categories of the festival are directed by folks who identify as women: 61% in the US Dramatic Competition, 63% in the US Documentary, 58% in the World Dramatic Competition, and 46% in the World Documentary, to be precise. Of all the feature films announced, 53% are directed or co-directed by female-identifying creatives.

That’s a lot to sift through, but we at the Alliance of Women Film Journalists are here to help. The following are just a few of the standouts. Some are compelling and some are the most buzzed-about titles being premiered or featured at this year’s fest.

PREMIERES:

CAT PERSON:

Susanne Fogel, known best for writing Booksmart, and who has been directing for both the big and small screen for over 15 years, directs Cat Person. It’s about a college student who meets a 33-year old while working at a movie theater. Based on a short story in The New Yorker, it examines the power dynamics and often unpleasantness of modern dating, and stars Emilia Jones (CODA) and Nicholas Braun (Succession).

IT’S ONLY LIFE AFTER ALL:

Two words: Indigo Girls. Singer/songwriter duo Amy Ray and Emily Saliers have played together since high school. Their activism and drive to expand LGBTQ visibility has been baked into their careers from the beginning. Director Alexandria Bombach, who won the US Documentary Directing Award for her 2018 film On Her Shoulders, uses Ray’s personal audio and camcorder footage, and weaves that in with insighful interviews with Ray and Saliers to create a worthy chronicle of this groundbreaking acoustic band.

JUDY BLUME FOREVER:

Directors Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok tell the story of one of the most banned, beloved and incendiary authors, Judy Blume, who dared to write about periods, masturbation, sex, and female pleasure, often within the context of what is now known as Young Adult literature. Blume herself speaks about her career and experience, often directly to the camera.

MURDER IN BIG HORN:

Indigenous filmmaker Razelle Benally, who was a Sundance Native Lab fellow, co-directs this limited series with documentarian Matthew Galkin, which premieres at Sundance before streaming on Showtime February 5th. The show investigates what is essentially an epidemic of disappearances of indigenous women in rural Montana, something that would have the country in an outrage if it got more media coverage. The series calls attention to a pervasive problem on and around reservations across the country.

THE POD GENERATION:

Winner of Sundance’s 2023 Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize, The Pod Generation stars Emilia Clarke and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Rachel and Alvi, a near-future couple in New York City. They are given the exclusive option to grow their embryo in a pod at the Womb Center, making expecting so much less of a mess…but is detached parenting really the way forward? In this social satire, Franco-American writer/director Sophie Barthes examines the intersection of technology and humanity, and the ever increasing commodification of our lives.

US DRAMATIC COMPETITION:

THE STARLING GIRL:

Award-winning writer/director Laurel Parmet has her feature directorial debut with a coming-of-age story centering 17-year-old Jem Starling. Jem is trying to balance and come to terms with her blossoming sexuality, while still staying true to the teachings of her fundamentalist Christian church. The film speaks to the importance of agency and individual choice within a community that gives that far less weight than being a “good girl”.

FANCY DANCE:

Director, co-screenwriter and member of the Seneca-Cayuga Nation Erica Tremblay offers a narrative about the resilience of indigenous people facing the tragic epidemic of missing and murdered women within those communities. Life on the Seneca-Cayuga reservation in Oklahoma is challenging for Jax (Lily Gladstone). Her sister has disappeared, and she wants to dedicate every minute to finding her, but she’s also the caretaker of her sister’s daughter Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson). The two embark on an increasingly challenging search for their loved one. Tremblay was the executive story editor on AMC’s Dark Winds, and has the same title on season two of FX’s Reservation Dogs, where she directed an episode. She’s a director very much on the rise.

THE PERSIAN VERSION:

Writer/director Maryam Keshavarz first made a splash with at the fest with 2011’s Circumstance, which won that year’s US Dramatic Audience Award. She’s back with a dramedy featuring Iranian-American Leila, a New Yorker trying to balance her own life with the expectations of her traditional family, while staying true to herself. It’s a movie with colliding cultures, dance numbers, and the kind of family drama that feels universal.

THEATER CAMP:

Celebrating the geekery of theater camp are co-screenwriters and directors Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman, aided by co-screenwriter, co-lead, and Broadway “it-guy” Ben Platt. Amy Sedaris plays AdirondACTS founder Joan, who leaves the task of running her beloved theater camp in upstate New York to her crypto-bro son after falling into a coma. The show must go on, so leave it to camp teachers Diane (Molly Gordon) and Amos (Platt) to rally their merry band of performers. This might be a cult classic waiting to happen.

US DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION:

THE STROLL:

Transgender women of color tell their own story about experiences living and working on what was called “the stroll”, a part of New York City’s Meatpacking District. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, trans sex workers found community while struggling to survive, as they experienced discrimination that put them in further danger. The documentary is co-directed by trans filmmakers Kristen Lovell and Zachary Drucker. Lovell worked alongside the interviewees in this film, and it is her first hand experience with The Stroll that gives her the insight and empathy needed to tell this important part of US history.

THE DISAPPEARANCE OF SHERE HITE:

Oscar-nominated documentarian Nicole Newnham examines the erasure of one of the most successful yet controversial feminist sex researchers and authors in history, Shere Hite. Hite was a pioneer in the discussion of female sexual pleasure and bodily autonomy, and suffered repeated backlash through her career. Newnham gained unprecedented access to Hite’s archives, personal journals, and research findings. Dakota Johnson executive produces, and voices Hite, who died in 2020.

LITTLE RICHARD: I AM EVERYTHING:

Little Richard, born Richard Wayne Penniman, was Black, queer, and fearless. He created the building blocks of rock and roll, changing the musical landscape of the 20th century, and laying the foundation for scores of artists that came after him. Through testimonials by musicians and scholars of Black and queer history, and rare interview and performance footage of Little Richard himself, director Lisa Cortés places credit where it’s due, and cements his importance to US and world culture.

NAM JUNE PAIK: MOON IS THE OLDEST TV

With her feature documentary debut, Korean American director Amanda Kim highlights the life and art of media artist Nam June Park, who is, among many other things, the man who coined the term “electronic superhighway”. A member of the experimental art movement Fluxus, which emphasized the artistic process over the finished product, Paik is considered to be the founder of video art. He is represented in and had exhibits at museums around the world. Kim was formerly the creative director at Vice Media, and taps Steven Yeun to bring voice to Paik’s written word.

WORLD CINEMA DRAMATIC COMPETITION:

GIRL:

Girl is Glasgow-based writer/director Adura Onashile’s feature narrative debut, which is a sensitive expression of the mother/daughter relationship, and a consideration of the pervasiveness of generational trauma. 24 year old Grace (Déborah Lukumuena) starts over in Glasgow with her daughter Ama, whom she has sheltered from the story of her own painful past, but she finds their realities are very different. Intimate camera work and subtle performances lean into the poignancy of this coming-of-age tale.

BAD BEHAVIOR:

Jennifer Connelly brings toxic white woman realness to Lucy, a former child actor attending a silent retreat with her guru, Elon Bello (Ben Whishaw). Lucy’s choices in that “safe space” keep going from bad to worse. This is New Zealand-Australian actor Alice Englert’s first outing as narrative feature writer/director, and she co-stars in the film. This dark, edgy comedy will have audiences celebrating Englert’s expanding role and unique voice behind the camera.

SHAYDA:

Iranian-Australian filmmaker Noora Niasari’s debut feature as both writer and director, Shayda is drawn from personal experiences. Shayda (Zar Amir Ebrahimi, who won Best Actress at Cannes for her role in 2022’s Holy Spider) seeks freedom from danger and fear by leaving her husband Hossein with her 6-year-old daughter. Just as she starts finding her footing, a judge grants Hussein visitation rights. This portrait of one strong Iranian woman echoes the many Iranian women who struggle as they declare their worthiness of basic human rights.

LA PECERA:

Interdisciplinary Puerto Rican artist Glorimar Marrero Sánchez’s first feature film as writer/director, La Pecera (The Fishbowl), made her a recipient of the Tribeca Film Institute’s Latin American Film Fund. Isel Rodríguez stars as cancer patient Noelia, who seeks healing from the bliss of the eastern Puerto Rican island of her childhood. The examination of the toxicity of colonization doesn’t overshadow the lyricism in this filmmaker’s work here, which is present regardless of the context.

WORLD DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION:

AGAINST THE TIDE:

Friendships and livelihoods are tested in this documentary about two fishermen in Bombay’s indigenous Koli community. traditionalist Rakesh fishes using the old ways, and tech-driven Ganesh uses environmentally destructive modern methods. Though these two men have been as close as brothers their whole lives, their conflicting approaches are causing a rift, as neither are finding success, and both struggling to survive. It is the microcosmic examination of these two men’s challenges that makes the film universal for audiences. Documentarian Sarvnik Kaur has based her career on the belief that there is truth revealed by looking deeper into what seems mundane, and this film examples that perfectly.

IS THERE ANYBODY OUT THERE?:

In her documentary feature debut, UK activist and filmmaker Ella Glendining tells the stories of people with rare disabilities in search of folks like them. She is included in that subject, as Glendining was born with a rare condition that includes having no hip joints and short femurs. She tackles ableist views and questions whether the disabled must either be “fixed” by medicine or be seen as living an undesired existence.

TWICE COLONIZED:

This film remedies the fact that many don’t know renowned and inspiring Greenlandic Inuit lawyer Aaju Peter. Filmmaker Lin Alluna follows this remarkable woman as she fights for the rights of indigenous populations of the Arctic, tries to mitigate some of the most damaging effects of colonialism, and faces her own pain at the unexpected passing of her youngest son.

MILISUTHANDO:

Award-winning writer, editor, activist, and artist, Milisuthando Bongela, says her film was “very much negotiated in dreams with ancestors both old and cunning”. It is a personal essay about race, love, and memory from a woman raised during the apartheid regime in South Africa. Her middle-class community, however, existed within an unrecognized state in which apartheid was never discussed. Through her own memories and experiences, Bongela considers how she, and by extension, perhaps how we all, create and build ourselves as individuals.

NEXT:

YOUNG. WILD. FREE:

Harlem native and Emmy-nominated writer/director Thembi Banks presents her feature debut with Young. Wild. Free. Teenaged artist Brandon (Algee Smith) is the default caretaker of his two half-sibs, picking up the slack from his mom (Sanaa Lathan), who struggles with addiction and mental illness. His grades and attention are suffering, which is only made worse when he gets entangled with dangerous, whimsical bad girl Cassidy. Things spiral, but the story goes in unexpected ways, making it a joyride you’ll not soon forget.

KIM’S VIDEO:

There was a video store in New York City run out of enigmatic businessman Yongman Kim’s dry-cleaning business for decades. In 2008, Kim offered the collection to anyone who would keep it together. A small town in Sicily became the custodian of the collection, which was 55,000 movie rentals strong. It then disappeared. Filmmaking team David Redmon and Ashley Sabin try to track the collection down in this quirky, fascinating hybrid documentary.

MIDNIGHT:

RUN, RABBIT, RUN

Sarah Snook stars in a psychological thriller about fertility doctor Sarah, whose 7-year-old daughter Mia starts to show increasingly bizarre and troubling behavior, forcing Sarah to confront elements of her own complicated past that haunt her. Daina Reid came by her skill with the dark and creepy directing on The Shining Girls, The Outsider, and multiple episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, one of which was nominated for both an Emmy and a Director’s Guild Award.

POLITE SOCIETY:

British writer/director Nida Manzoor has an impressive debut with her mashup of action comedy, heist, martial arts, Bollywood, and horror genres. Ria Khan envisions becoming a world famous stunt woman. Her plans get derailed after her big sister Lena quits art school and announces her engagement to Salim, the son of a prominent family. Believing something nefarious is behind Lena’s desire to marry and move to Singapore, Ria gathers her friends and sets out to kidnap Lena from her own wedding.

Catch these female-helmed films if you can. A number of them are available online, and tickets are still available. One or some of them just might be the talk of next year’s awards season! In the meantime, if you want to see a list of some great titles from the last year, you can check out our EDA Awards winners HERE, many of which are directed by women.

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Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale writes as Cinema Siren for websites including LikeABossGirls.com, where she promotes women in film with her own column. She is in her third year as producer and moderator of the "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con. Find all her interviews and reviews at cinemasiren.com.