As Sophie Sartain and Roberta Grossman were finishing their documentary about celebrity attorney Gloria Allred, the #MeToo movement was inspiring thousands to share their stories of sexual harassment, abuse and assault.
“Once we realized that we were in the middle of a sea-change moment in our culture, we recut the ending to include it in the film,” Sartain and Grossman, the directors of “Seeing Allred,” said in an email interview. “Gloria has been out front on the issues of sexual harassment and sexual abuse for decades. … It feels like the world is finally catching up to her.”
The rise of#MeToo, ignited by accusations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men, has given many films about women and led by women added resonance just as they arrive this week at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Thirty-eight percent of the selected movies were directed by women.
One of them is “RBG,” a new documentary that chronicles the early legal career of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her arguments for women’s equity in the 1950s and 1960s — an era when women in some states couldn’t hold a bank account or accuse their husbands of rape.
Betsy West, who co-directed the film with Julie Cohen, said Ginsburg’s work gives “the current news a context. A lot of people do not know this history, and they do not know the extent to which women were completely discriminated against not so long ago.”
The timing also is “fairly serendipitous” for dramatic films with strong female leads, said Liz Destro, a producer on the drama “Lizzie,” a portrait of the infamous ax-wielding Lizzie Borden.
Much like the dystopian story of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a historical setting “allows you to see the misogyny that’s right in front of you,” she said.
Women have been victims of sexual misconduct and inequality “to a certain degree, our entire lives,” Destro said. “The only thing that changed in October is that men started to see it and believe it.”
Telling women’s stories • Dan Mirvish, co-founder of the rival Slamdance Film Festival, said he believes the twin topics of women’s equality and men’s misconduct will be unavoidable at Sundance. “Every Q&A in Park City, it’s going to come up again,” he said.
Some events in Park City, inside and outside official festival venues, are slated to foster those discussions.
A Culture Shift panel will explore how creative people can affect the national conversation on gender and race issues. Director Ava DuVernay, producer Christine Vachon and Issa Rae (creator of HBO’s “Insecure”) will participate Friday at Park City’s Egyptian Theatre.
On Saturday, activists are organizing Respect Rally Park City in City Park. It’s an attempt to duplicate the success of last year’s Women’s March, where some 8,000 people (including Weinstein) marched through a snowstorm down Park City’s Old Main Street to protest the inauguration of President Donald Trump.
Part of the solution to bias and harassment is more representation of women in media and beyond, Putnam said. “We think our role is about who’s represented in the stories we tell, and what effect those stories [have] in the culture at large.”
Sundance has been involved in the early meetings for Time’s Up, a new coalition of groups advocating for women’s equality and setting up a multimillion-dollar legal defense fund for women subjected to sexual misconduct and intimidation.
Putnam also touted ReFrame, an initiative launched last February by Sundance Institute, the group Women in Film and 50 Hollywood leaders to improve gender parity in the movie industry.
For years, Sundance has been “really focused on the idea of gender, as well as other sorts of underrepresented groups,” Putnam said. Some of the women directors who have gotten a boost through Sundance’s labs or the festival include DuVernay (“Selma,” “A Wrinkle in Time”), Jill Soloway (who created the Amazon series “Transparent”), Dee Rees (“Mudbound”) and Catherine Hardwicke (“Twilight”).
‘Beautiful elements of feminism’ • Sara Colangelo, whose debut film “Little Accidents” premiered at Sundance in 2014, will see her second movie premiere Friday at Sundance. “The Kindergarten Teacher,” starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, will be part of a timely lineup of Sundance films with dominant female leads.
Laura Dern is a troubled journalist in “The Tale,” Carey Mulligan is a 1960s mom in “Wildlife,” Andrea Riseborough is a woman having an identity crisis in “Nancy,” and “Star Wars” fighter Daisy Ridley is reimagined as a Shakespearean heroine in “Ophelia.”
“I didn’t know that this was going to happen when I wrote the script,” Colangelo said. “In my head, we were going to have a female president now. We didn’t know that, politically, things would shift the way that they did.”
In “The Kindergarten Teacher,” Gyllenhaal plays the title character, an educator and would-be poet who discovers one of her students may be a poetry prodigy.
The movie is a remake of an Israeli film that focused on the relationship between the teacher and her student, Colangelo said. “I wanted to ground my version of this story, and this character psychologically, in this woman’s psyche,” she said.
The psyche of accused killer Lizzie Borden intrigued actor Chloë Sevigny as she worked for years to develop “Lizzie,” first as a miniseries for HBO (where Sevigny starred for years on the polygamist drama “Big Love”) and later as a feature film, directed by Craig William Macneill.
“It’s a thriller, like a beautiful thriller, but it also has these beautiful elements of feminism,” said Destro, one of the film’s producers.
The strictures on women in the 1890s made it impossible to have an independent life or have a relationship with her family’s Irish maid (played in the film by Kristen Stewart), driving her to violence in the film. But, Destro said, sexism also helped her beat the rap.
“The irony of it was it was really misogyny that got her off,” Destro said. “In the trial, there was a lot of evidence against her, but it was 12 men [on the jury], and they all said after the trial that somebody so dainty and so high-class couldn’t do something so terrible.”
Meeting icons • Besides Ginsburg and Allred, festival documentaries profile actor Jane Fonda, genocide survivor and activist Nadia Murad, Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A., rock star Joan Jett and fashion icon Vivienne Westwood.
West and Cohen had pursued a comprehensive interview with Ginsburg for years for “RBG,” produced by CNN Films. In 2015, Ginsburg agreed to do an interview in summer 2017.
The filmmakers also interview many of her admirers, including Utah’s Sen. Orrin Hatch.
Early in her career, Ginsburg argued six major women’s equity cases before the Supreme Court and won five of them.
“She was very careful in the cases she brought and the ways in which she presented the cases,” West said. “She knew she was trying to educate and change the minds of male Supreme Court justices who had really never considered the issues she was raising.”
The movie also covers how Ginsburg’s sharp dissents of her conservative colleagues have made her an icon to young people, thanks to the semi-ironic nickname “Notorious RBG.” “She really is seen as a rock star,” West said.
It also took Sartain and Grossman years to persuade Allred, the celebrity lawyer, to be profiled. She finally agreed in 2014, three months before the Bill Cosby sexual-assault scandal broke. (Allred’s clients include women who have accused Cosby, Weinstein and Trump of sexual misconduct.)
In chronicling Allred’s life, they saw the tough lawyer people see on TV. “What we didn’t know,” the filmmakers said, “is that she is also a very warm, funny and thoughtful person, a doting grandma and a fiercely loyal friend.”
British filmmaker Lorna Tucker said Westwood, the confrontational fashion designer who is the subject of her documentary “Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist,” was often a prickly interview. Westwood dismissed requests to recount her work with entrepreneur Malcolm McLaren to outfit the punk band The Sex Pistols.
But the film finds an unexpected link to the current moment when it touches on the emotional and physical abuse McLaren inflicted on Westwood.
“It’s been really nice watching this movement of women getting angry,” Tucker said. “What I hope is, after this movement, everything becomes equal. … It needs to get to a point where this crap doesn’t happen, and we don’t even need to talk about equality.”