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Sundance 2013: Female directors discuss the challenges they face

Naomi Foner, Liz W. Garcia, Cherien Dabis, Hannah Fidell and Gabriela Cowperthwaite on double standards and other hurdles.

January 24, 2013|By John Horn, Los Angeles Times
  • Participating in a women's directors roundtable at the Sundance Film Festival are Hannah Fidell, left, LIz Garcia, Cherien Dabis, Naomi Foner and Gabriela Cowperthwaite.
Participating in a women's directors roundtable at the Sundance… (Jay L. Clendenin, Los Angeles…)

PARK CITY, Utah — Hollywood is dominated by men, and so, it turns out, is independent film.

As a new study of Sundance Film Festival titles shows, less than a quarter of all American features over the last 10 years at Sundance were directed by women.

Some years have a stronger representation of female filmmakers than others; this year, for the first time, half of the 16 U.S. competition dramas at Sundance were made by women.

FULL COVERAGE: Sundance Film Festival 2013

In an intimate and animated conversation with five women whose movies were playing here, the filmmakers discussed double standards about employment and trust, how tough women are considered shrill rather than determined, and how male producers continue to be unnerved by women's stories, especially ones involving sex.

The directors were Naomi Foner, 66, who wrote and directed the coming-of-age tale "Very Good Girls"; Liz W. Garcia, 35, who wrote and directed "The Lifeguard," about a journalist's affair with a high school boy; Cherien Dabis, 36, who wrote, directed and stars in the marriage story "May in the Summer"; Hannah Fidell, 27, who wrote and directed "A Teacher," about an educator's relationship with a student; and Gabriela Cowperthwaite, 41, who directed "Blackfish," a documentary about killer whale training.

All of the films were financed independently and came to Sundance looking for distribution deals, but the only one to immediately land one was "Blackfish." The highest-profile film, Foner's "Very Good Girls," had the most recognizable cast: Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen.

Two days after the Creative Artists Agency drew fire for hosting a Sundance party with explicit exotic dancers, the five directors spoke about the challenges they face in a male-dominated business, even as they celebrated small victories along the way.

Here are excerpts from the conversation:

Women aren't making nearly as many movies as men are. Why might that be?

Liz W. Garcia: I think that there is just a deep and abiding sexism that's part of your life from the moment that you're conscious as a female. And you are afraid to step into the idea that you could be an authority figure, that you could be a boss, that you have a vision [and] that other people should listen to you on a set. So you therefore don't allow yourself access to the dream of being a director. It took me a long time.

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Naomi Foner: Not as long as me! It was because I thought I needed to know more than I actually needed to know. Because I thought I needed to know what lens to tell the [director of photography] to put on. And I thought that there was a level of skill required that actually isn't required. What you need to have is a vision. And so I think we edit ourselves out of it. It's fear. It's just as simple as that.

Hannah Fidell: But that's universal. I don't think that's specifically gender.

Foner: In my mind, I think that you give up a lot. Unless you fight for it. And having kids is a full-time job. And I don't know any woman who isn't constantly fighting between the exquisite selfishness required to be an artist and this exquisite selflessness that's required to be a parent.

Gabriela Cowperthwaite: Men are also socialized to be more bold.

Cherien Dabis: They're willing to take that risk, whereas women are socialized to sort of be the opposite. But once we do make the decision to do [make a movie], I don't think that women are entrusted with the same kind of money and budgets that men are.

Foner: I've been a screenwriter for years, with an Academy Award nomination [for "Running on Empty"]. And there are certain things no one will ask me to write.

Because they assume there's only one kind of movie you can write?

Foner: Nurturing movies. They're not going to ask me to make "Blade Runner."

Cowperthwaite: In documentary, which is the only thing I'm really very familiar with, women are very easily relegated into a producer role. Men are encouraged to be bold — incredibly creative, very untouchable and an artiste. And we're just …

Dabis: Supportive.

Cowperthwaite: When you are trying to get a shot, you can't be pleasing everybody. And I tend to be sort of collaborative and a bit of a pleaser. And when I'm directing, people just sort of call me Black Hat Gabriela. Because suddenly they're like, "What happened to you?" Because I stop listening. And I feel strident. I feel rude. And I feel un-collaborative. After the shoot I'm like, "Who was that?" Am I really allowed to be that way?

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A man is "determined" or "single-minded." A woman is a "bitch," right? Even if they're doing exactly the same thing.

Foner: I can't tell you how many times I have heard women described as "tough" or "bitches" for doing what I know every single man doing the same job does.

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