“You’ve got to see it to be it,” is a memorable line from Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s seminal film Miss Representation, in referring to the need for positive female role models in the media – and in the corridors of power. At the time of viewing a few years ago, I realized I had not thought enough about gender signals being sent to myself, my two young daughters, and essentially 50% of society.
That is why film festivals such as the just-wrapped Tribeca Film Festival are needed for shining a spotlight on female directors, and thus female voices. Because let’s be real, it is hard to find those voices at your local multiplex. The majority of storytelling on films available to a wide audience are told from a male voice, making our perspective too narrow.
Of course, there are high-profile exceptions, not only in film but in particular in TV, of women bringing us depictions of perspectives we haven’t often seen represented. For instance, the inspiring work of Lena Dunham, the writer and creator of the hit HBO series Girls. A series about 20-something friends who live in New York City is hardly novel, but it is in terms of how these characters are represented, which is to say in a flawed and funny and authentic way that clearly resonates with an audience. Or take Shonda Rhimes, the powerhouse writer-creator of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder. On the big screen, Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win the best director Oscar for 2008’s The Hurt Locker and followed it up with 2012’ Zero Dark Thirty– which at its center has a strong and yet vulnerable CIA agent, based off a real female agent still undercover today, who spent the better part of a decade tracking down Osama bin Laden.
And we even have a super hero film to finally have a female at the helm: Patty Jenkins, who wrote and directed the 2003 crime-drama Monster – which won actress Charlize Theron an Oscar – for next year’s Wonder Woman movie.
Still, only one woman has ever won the Academy Award for Best Picture (Bigelow). And according to a study from the University of Southern California, only 4.1% of the top-grossing films between 2002 and 2014 were directed by women. Those are abysmal numbers when I consider that film is truly one of the highest forms of communication and storytelling we have today, and should reflect our society as a whole. It is also disheartening to see at the Cannes Film Festival that just three female-directed films out of 20 are in competition for the Palme d’Or this year.
That is why I think it is so important to recognize when a festival like Tribeca does give women visibility as storytellers. This year, the festival – who one of its co-founders is a woman, Jane Rosenthal – featured 38 female-directed films, accounting for about 40% of the total. The films covered an array of subjects and interesting viewpoints. They include All This Panic, a documentary about teenage girls in Brooklyn co-directed by Jenny Gage, to Equity, the second feature film from Meera Menon, a female-driven Wall Street story that centers on a female investment banker. (Incidentally, Menon won Tribeca’s inaugural Nora Ephron prize in 2013. The prize was established in honor of the late writer-director of films such as When Harry Met Sally and Julie and Julia).
I am also interested in catching The Meddler, written and directed by Lorene Scafaria about a widowed woman, portrayed by Susan Sarandon, and her relationship with her grown daughter, played by Rose Byrne. With male characters in small, supporting roles, Scafaria joked with one reporter that the film barely passes the “opposite Bechdel test”. At the Miami International Film Festival (another fest to be applauded for elevating female storytellers), Scafaria recounted how a male reporter asked why the story behind The Meddler deserved a film. Her succinct, pointed response: “For the very reason why someone would ask that question, is why I made this movie. Someone’s life story is worth a cinematic tale.”
Scafaria, Menon, Dunham and Rhimes should (rightly) be celebrated for giving voice to those who otherwise may not be heard. And furthermore, they are providing us with a vision, too – where our gender need not necessarily be on the agenda.