Women’s stories poised to dominate at Sundance, but will Hollywood listen?

The Cricket • Stories about strong women, both documentaries and narrative films, look likely to resonate when they debut in January.

(Pierre Verdy | courtesy Sundance Film Festival) Fashion designer and icon Vivienne Westwood is profiled in Lorna Tucker's "Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist," which will screen in the World Cinema Documentary competition of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

Five years ago, there was a lot of talk that the 2013 Sundance Film Festival signaled “the year of the woman.”
Much hay was made of the fact that of the 16 films in the U.S. Dramatic competition — the most scrutinized section of the festival, where the next generation of filmmakers emerges — eight of them were made by women directors.
And those eight included some top talent, including Jill Soloway (who went on to create the TV series “Transparent”), Lynn Shelton (who has a steady career directing sitcoms), Utah’s own Jerusha Hess, and actor/writer/director Lake Bell (who finally delivered her second movie, “I Do … Until I Don’t,” this summer).
At the 2013 closing-night awards, Soloway took the Directing Prize for her film, “Afternoon Delight,” and Bell won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for her comedy “In a World. …” But the guys dominated, particularly Ryan Coogler, whose “Fruitvale Station” earned the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award.
And Coogler was one of the guys who received the real prize: a fast track to a Hollywood career. He followed “Fruitvale Station” with “Creed,” the continuation of the Rocky Balboa story, and next February will have the newest Marvel movie, “Black Panther.”
Other male directors from the class of ’13 include “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’” David Lowery, who went on to remake Disney’s “Pete’s Dragon,” and “The Kings of Summer’s” Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who was trusted last spring to bring “Kong: Skull Island” to fruition.
It feels like every time we hear the promise that more women’s voices will be heard in movies, Hollywood yanks away the proverbial football.
Consider the numbers: In 2016, women directed just 7 percent of the 250 highest-grossing movies, according to an annual report from San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Film. This year, based on my own scan through the lists of Box Office Mojo, I count at least 26 movies in the top 250 directed by a woman (and four more with a male/female directing duo) — which would put the number above 10 percent.
Looking at the slate announced Wednesday for the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, it may be early to declare it “the year of the woman” again — but there are positive signs in that direction.
Five of the 16 movies in this year’s U.S. Dramatic competition have woman directors. And more tell stories centering on women:
• “Eighth Grade,” about a 13-year-old (Elsie Fisher) finishing middle school.
• “The Kindergarten Teacher,” with Maggie Gyllenhaal as a teacher who discovers one of her students may be a prodigy.
• “Lizzie,” with Chloë Sevigny as Lizzie Borden and Kristen Stewart as her family’s Irish housekeeper.

( Courtesy Sundance Institute) A teacher (Maggie Gyllenhaal, left) fights to help a gifted 5-year-old student (Parker Sevak) in Sara Colangelo's "The Kindergarten Teacher," which will screen in the U.S. Dramatic competition of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

(Courtesy of Sundance Institute) Kristen Stewart and Chloë Sevigny appear in "Lizzie" by Craig William Macneill, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

• “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” with Chloë Grace Moretz as a Montana teen subjected to “gay conversion” therapy.
• “Nancy,” with Andrea Riseborough (in one of the four movies she’s in at Sundance this year) as a woman convinced she was kidnapped as a child.
• “The Tale,” starring Laura Dern as a journalist forced to confront a dark secret from her past.
• “Wildlife,” with Carey Mullligan as the mother of a Montana family in crisis, circa 1960.

(Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Kyle Kaplan) Laura Dern and Isabel Nelisse appear in "The Tale" by Jennifer Fox, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

(Zoe White | courtesy Sundance Institute) Andrea Riseborough stars as a woman who is convinced she was kidnapped as a child, in Christina Choe's drama "Nancy," which will screen in the U.S. Dramatic competition of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

The Premieres section serves up Keira Knightley as the French author Colette (in “Colette”); Daisy Ridley in “Ophelia,” reimagining “Hamlet” from the viewpoint of the melancholy Dane’s suffering girlfriend; and Kelly Macdonald as a jigsaw-solving woman in “Puzzle.”
But it’s in the documentaries where the strongest women voices may be heard.
The always-potent U.S. Documentary competition promises profiles of Japanese pop artist Yahoo Kusama (“Kusama - Infinity”), Yazidi genocide survivor Nadia Murad (“On Her Shoulders”), and feminist super-lawyer Gloria Allred (“Seeing Allred”). The World Cinema Documentary competition adds films about Sri Lankan rapper/pop star M.I.A. (“Matangi / Maya / M.I.A.”) and British fashion legend Vivienne Westwood (“Westwood”).

(Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Steve Loveridge) Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam appears in "MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A." by Steve Loveridge, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

And the Documentary Premieres section, usually filled with personality-driven films, offers profiles of rocker Joan Jett (“Bad Reputation”), actor/activist Jane Fonda (“Jane Fonda in Five Acts”), Utah medical professionals Kristen Ries and Maggie Snyder (“Quiet Heroes”), and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg (“RBG”). And there’s Amy Adrion’s “Half the Picture,” in which women filmmakers talk about the struggles they have working in Hollywood.

(Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Kevin Kerslake) Joan Jett appears in "Bad Reputation" by Kevin Kerslake, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

Bear in mind that these movies were in the works well before the reckoning began for powerful men in Hollywood, media and (maybe) politics with the October revelations about Harvey Weinstein. Many were likely in production before October 2016, when the infamous — and not fake, no matter what that one guy may say in private — “Access Hollywood” tape leaked.
In an interview this week, the festival’s programming director, Trevor Groth, put it succinctly: “That’s what artists and filmmakers have always done: They’ve always been ahead of the curve.”
The time where women’s voices are heard as loudly as men’s is long overdue. Here’s hoping Sundance 2018 is a sign that time is coming soon.
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