American films

Films by women and about women front and centre at Los Angeles’ AFI Fest film festival

  • A classic film series entirely of films by women, nearly 50 per cent of films being shown made by women – festival makes a statement
  • Strong female characters, from Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Mary Queen of Scots, a feature of films being shown
PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 November, 2018, 12:23pm
UPDATED : Friday, 09 November, 2018, 12:23pm

In autumn 2017, the emergence of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements cast a harsh glare on rampant and pervasive sexual inequality in Hollywood, among other issues.

In the year since, there has been a palpable cultural shift as the push for gender parity and inclusion has risen to the forefront of the film and other industries.

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That’s why, for the 32nd edition of AFI Fest, Los Angeles’ pre-eminent film festival, newly appointed director Michael Lumpkin chose only women filmmakers for its Cinema’s Legacy programme, which celebrates film history by screening recent restorations of classic and lesser-known films.

“I see the programme as a foundation for where we are today around women in film,” said Lumpkin. “Part of it certainly is creating change as we move forward, but I think it’s also very important to look back … and elevate work to show that there is a legacy of women filmmakers.”

“In the past, Cinema’s Legacy has functioned as a greatest hits-type section, these mega hits that everyone has already seen and, as it so happens, almost all of these classics are directed by men,” said festival programmer Beth Hanna. “So we wanted to rewrite what Cinema’s Legacy is and look specifically at women working in the independent film sector, both here and abroad.”

The programme spotlights six indie filmmakers and their lesser-known films, released from 1978 to 1992: Kathleen Collins’ The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy, Cauleen Smith’s Drylongso, Nietzchka Keene’s The Juniper Tree (Einitreo), Chantal Akerman’s The Meetings of Anna (Les Rendez-vous D’Anna), Barbara Hammer’s Nitrate Kisses and Nina Menkes’ Queen of Diamonds.

The AFI Fest’s emphasis on women’s stories this year extends beyond Cinema’s Legacy. Of the 134 titles set to screen, 65 were directed by women and 23 are from women of colour. Last year just 40 of the 137 films featured a woman at the helm.

“It wasn’t that we set out for a quota,” said Lumpkin. “It was not really an intentional programming decision at all.”

“In meetings when we’re discussing films, they just organically tend to be these more female-oriented stories,” agreed Hanna. “It just felt like a year when we really needed to make a statement in terms of how female filmmakers are really a substantial part of this festival.”

Running through November 15 at the TCL Chinese Theaters, the Egyptian Theatre and the Hollywood Roosevelt, the 2018 AFI Fest will offer up 83 features, 47 shorts and four episodic projects, from big-budget blockbusters to smaller indies and awards contenders, as well as foreign-language films.

There are dramas like Mimi Leder’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic On the Basis of Sex, which serves as the festival’s opening-night gala presentation; Susanne Bier’s dystopian thriller Bird Box, which will have its world premiere; and Cathy Yan’s Dead Pigs, which will screen in the festival’s New Auteurs section.

Yan, who will attend for the first time this year, says she feels grateful that festivals such as AFI have become more cognisant of the gender imbalance in the film industry and of the unique challenges faced by female filmmakers.

“I’ve been very lucky in the sense that Dead Pigs was made in such a year of awareness,” she said. “It’s been great to see; it’s been very empowering.”

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The positive reception for Dead Pigs, Yan’s debut about China’s pig farms and the effects of Western influence on the country, has already helped the director snag her next gig at the helm of DC Comics’ Birds of Prey, a stand-alone Harley Quinn film starring Margot Robbie in a return to her Suicide Squad role.

“Cathy just has this miracle quality to her filmmaking that comes through so strong in her debut,” said Hanna. “It’s a very ambitious film that she really pulled off.”

Film and TV veteran Leder has been a Hollywood fixture for years, but On the Basis of Sex is the first film she will bring will to a festival. As the first woman accepted into AFI’s cinematography programme, she says the experience holds particular significance for her.

“It’s such a gift to be the opening night at AFI,” she said. “I feel like I’ve come full circle. This premiere will feel like many others of my premieres, but it will be the most personal one because of the journey I have experienced from AFI to where I am now.”

Her film, which is set for a cinematic release on Christmas Day, tracks the early life of US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her landmark legal battles for gender equality, and stars Felicity Jones as Ginsburg and Armie Hammer as her husband, Marty.

“This is a film about how change happens,” said Leder. “This is the origin story of a modern-day superhero and also very much a story about how love prevails.”

On the Basis of Sex really speaks to where we are in the country right now on a lot of levels,” said Lumpkin. “The festival is two days after the midterm elections, and we felt … this was the perfect movie to show our opening-night audiences 48 hours later.”

Female-centric story lines are also heavily represented among the festival’s offerings. The closing-night gala will see the world premiere of Josie Rourke’s historical drama Mary Queen of Scots, starring Saorsie Ronan in the title role and Margot Robbie as Elizabeth I.

The festival will host a conversation with Natalie Portman on Friday and a screening of Vox Lux, in which she stars. Karyn Kusama’s LA noir Destroyer makes its local debut on Tuesday, accompanied by a career retrospective conversation with the film’s star, Nicole Kidman.

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Among the additional female-driven award contenders on tap at this year’s fest are Alfonso Cuarón’s Mexican family drama Roma, starring newcomers Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira; Yorgos Lathimos’ cutting period romp The Favourite, starring Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz; and a gala presentation of Steve McQueen’s heist thriller Widows, starring Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Cynthia Erivo and co-written by Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn.

The festival will highlight women filmmakers from around the world, including Nadine Labaki, whose Capernaum is Lebanon’s entry for this year’s foreign-language Oscar race; Italian auteur Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro, acquired by Netflix out of this year’s Cannes Film Festival; and the latest works from French filmmaker Mia Hansen-Love (Maya) and Japanese director Naomi Kawase (Vision).

“In our programming we are looking to represent as many different female stories as we possibly can,” said Hanna. “I’ve noticed that in female-directed films, they’re usually about women of varying ages, and I hope that adds a sense of inclusiveness to the festival.

“I hope audience-goers feel like their stories are being shown on-screen in a way that adds to a sense of community.”