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Sundancing

Jane Campion's Top of The Lake
This week I read Ava DuVernay’s script for Middle of Nowhere, the feature for which she won Best Director in the US Competition at the Sundance Film Festival last year. Middle of Nowhere hasn’t reached New Zealand yet, but the elegant, powerful script touched my heart. It has an intriguing woman protagonist, a diverse group of women characters and can be read – like Sally Potter’s The Gold Diggers – as an extended metaphor for significant elements in women’s filmmaking.

It’s great to see Middle of Nowhere mentioned often as a contender for various categories at the Oscars. And now that Sundance has announced its 2013 US Dramatic Competition selection, and women directed eight of the sixteen films chosen – the highest ratio ever – it’s possible to imagine that next year they too will do well in awards.

The Sundance announcement hit the headlines and delighted many women. Change at last. But the reality is that the change is limited to the US Dramatic Competition. The women-directed percentages in the other Sundance narrative feature programs are very similar to the 18% in Martha Lauzen’s research into features screened at festivals in the United States between 2011 and 2012. (The proportion of women-directed documentary features is consistently higher than for narrative features, at Sundance and elsewhere.) Here are the Sundance figures:

World Cinema: 17% (2 out of 12)
NEXT 30% (3 out of 10)
Spotlight 20% (1 out of 5, documentaries excluded)
Park City at Midnight 25% (2 out of 8)
Out of Competition premieres 16% (3 out of 18)
All up, that’s 11 out of 53 films, or about 21%. If the US Competition films are included, it’s 27% (19 out of 69) – much closer to the 16% from a cross-section of Toronto’s programs this year than to Venice’s almost 50%.

In a global context, the selections in every Sundance programme except the US Dramatic Competition reflect an optimistic estimate of women directors’ participation in narrative feature filmmaking, as seen in the most recent comparable research into the percentage of narrative films directed by women (2010). The United States is the only country listed that doesn’t provide any state funding for feature filmmaking, which may partially explain its very low numbers.
Australia (five years to mid 2011, no annual breakdown available) 18%
Canada 16%
France 21%
New Zealand 16%
Norway 19%
Sweden 11% of all films, 19% of state-funded films
United States 7% – 250 top-grossing films 
So why are there so many women in the US Competition? What's changed?

My best guess is that the strong representation of women directors in the US Competition has something to do with this year’s selection process. Selection is never just about ‘quality’ and it’s well known that programmers and those who influence them have a powerful effect on what is chosen.

Kay Armatage, an international programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival from 1982-2004, is a feminist legend and a great example of how a single programmer can support women directors. When she was a programmer, each Toronto programmer was autonomous. Each got twenty slots, and wrote and signed the program notes for the films they selected and they didn't have particular programs they were responsible for – the films each selected were assigned to appropriate programs: documentary, contemporary world cinema, special presentations, masters, discovery, or whatever.  A dedicated programmer of women directors in many cinematic modes, Kay’s selections averaged at least 50% women directors through the mid-1990s. After that, the numbers of women-directed films submitted and selected fell to as little as 30% until her last year, when they grew again and the films' inclusion grew too. (The decrease was probably due to larger economic forces that affected investors, who responded by investing in films they saw as ‘less risky’, those by and about men.)

Kay kept up the numbers by making it her job to see as many films by women as she could. She knew what was available through a variety of methods. Because she was known to champion women, filmmakers would address their submissions to her, distributors and agents and world sales people would send films and filmmakers to her, and her network of connections with other curators, critics and funders would send her tips. Also she went to other festivals – Berlin, Rotterdam, Cannes, New Directors – and made a point of watching films by women as well as other independents and genres that interested her.

The seven dedicated Sundance programmers ‘come from all backgrounds, really diverse’ and three are women. All programmers contribute to the film selections in each category. Is there perhaps a ‘Kay Armatage’ – woman or man – who is particularly championing American women directors?

Alternatively, could the US Competition numbers be something to do with the new partnership between the Sundance Institute, and Women In Film Los Angeles, who earlier this year announced that they were to collaborate to support independent women filmmakers working in both narrative and documentary feature film? Alliances like this, especially when supported by research, have the potential to create change and this partnership may be evidence that the change can happen very quickly. Have the Sundance Institute and Women in Film Los Angeles quite decided to focus first on the US Dramatic Competition, before moving on to women’s representation in the other programs? This would make sense, because Women in Film Los Angeles is perfectly placed to make a 'Kay Armatage'-type search.

But there are other possibilities. Did more American women submit this year? Last year women directed 16.9% of the 3,879 feature films in both narrative and documentary categories submitted to Sundance. It’s possible that many more American women than usual made and submitted narrative features, participating in what Anne Thompson has called A Golden Age for women filmmakers, facilitated by new ways of making films.

It’s also possible that more women were encouraged to submit after Ava DuVernay’s success. Or did Sundance programmers seek out first features, knowing that women are more likely than men to make only one or two features? Of the 113 features selected overall, 51 were from first-time filmmakers. Five of the eight women-directed features selected for the US Competition are first features for their directors, although they all – Jill Soloway, Stacie Passon, Liz W. Garcia, Jerusha Hess and Lake Bell – have diverse but solid track records, as actors, producers, writers, directors for TV and/or of short films and as co-directors. Is it becoming a little easier for women in the industry to make the transition to directing? How can these successes be replicated elsewhere? (I asked Sundance for this year’s submission figures, and for a breakdown between narrative and documentary for this year and last year, but it was unable to supply them because of its commitment to a research partnership between Stacey Smith at the University of Southern California, the Sundance Institute and Women in Film Los Angeles. The results of that research will be announced in January.)

Or is women’s equal representation in a single programme just a ‘blip’? Some years are inevitably ‘better’ than others: the previous best in the US Competition was 6 out of 16 in 2000 – 37%. Whatever the reason for the strong representation of women directors in this year’s competition, it’s wonderful, and I envy the audiences! I wish I could be there to see all the women’s films, and to view the single screening of Jane Campion’s six-hour made-for-television Top of The Lake, filmed in New Zealand and showing out of competition.

_______________

Women & Hollywood speaks to some of the directors in the US Competition.

Top of The Lake
Sundance Announcement Top of The Lake
"TV is the new film", says Jane Campion (Lydia Jenkin, NZ Herald)
Sundance Curiosities: What is Jane Campion's 'Top of the Lake,' and Does TV Have a Place in Park City? (Alison Willmore, Indiewire)

With More Women in Film, Has Anything Changed? Erika Lust's thoughts on the Sundance lineup.

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