Assessing Gender Balance at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival

ScreenerBlog

Thirty feature-length films by women directors, co-directors and writer-directors were screened at the Tribeca Film Festival this year, which represents a little more than a third of the slate of 97 features. It is an impressive number, although we were not nearly as well represented in the shorts category—only 13 of the 60 were by women. But is counting the number of women filmmakers a fair measure of whether a film festival is achieving gender equality?

The answer is obviously yes, with an important caveat: Film festival organizers also need to count the number of women’s stories on their slate. That is, narrative films that unfold from a woman’s point of view and documentaries that address issues affecting women—and not just affluent women in white collar jobs or white, middle-class women. By their own count, Tribeca has fewer than ten “women-centric” movies, and nearly all are about white women.

If we consider the festival’s documentary slate, many feature women filmmakers, yet their stories were not focused on women or women’s issues. Camilla Nielsson’s Democrats is an excellent documentary about the drafting of Zimbabwe’s first constitution, but it features two male politicians. Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern's documentary In My Father’s House is about hip-hop artist Che “Rhymefest” Smith, who blames his mother for the actions of his deadbeat dad. Cosima Spender’s Palio is a testosterone-fueled film about annual horse races that have apparently changed very little since the Middle Ages.

Robin Hauser Reynolds’ CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap, a skillfully produced documentary, is about women, specifically the dearth of female computer programmers—yet it is clearly directed at white males. The gender equality issues discussed in the film are not news to any woman who has been in the workforce since the start of the post-war era. Reynolds’ subjects are college-educated and affluent, but she does a terrific job of including women of different ethnicities, including Asians and Latinas.

Tribeca’s programmers are to be commended for including a defiantly feminist entry, Roseanne for President!, in their documentary slate. While it lacks the required journalistic credentials—filmmaker Eric Weinrib was hired by the film's subject, comedian Roseanne Barr—the film, which follows Barr’s bid for the Green Party nomination for president, is nevertheless a well-balanced portrait of the iconoclastic and decidedly working-class comedy star. The fact that a woman who pushed broadcast television into the modern age through her sitcom “Roseanne,” which chronicled the trials and tribulations of a working-class family—and might have been the first to raise the issue of women’s sexual identity—had to hire someone to tell her story is a rebuke of the gender inequality and socio-economic bias that exists in the entire entertainment industry. The documentary and its protagonist eloquently represent those biases in American society at large.

By the numbers, of the twelve entries in the Documentary Competition, the vast majority feature male protagonists. Half of the films in the Narrative Competition are about men or center on a male character. Flip through the official Tribeca guide and, in the Spotlight category, for instance, most of the film stills depicting people are of males. If counting pictures does not sound like a scientific measure of gender equality, I assure you that they play a very real role in shaping people’s perceptions of the festival. As the author of a gender equity curriculum, I served as a consultant for publishers, science museums and other organizations attempting to achieve gender equality in the 1990s. Promotional materials, especially photographs, reflect the sensitivity of the organization to gender, color and ethnicity.

One of the six features in the Narrative Competition slate that revolves around male characters is The Adderall Diaries, written and directed by a woman, Pamela Romanowsky. Two others were produced or co-produced by women. Of the three films profiling couples, writer-director Paz Fábrega’s Viaje, about a “brief encounter” in the Costa Rican rainforest, is a standout for its beautiful black and white cinematography and its excellent performances. Its narrative unfolds from a female protagonist’s point of view. (Full disclosure: I screened only the women-centered films in this category.)

Laura Bispuri’s Sworn Virgin, about a woman who lives as a man in order to gain her freedom, is sublime. An excellent screenplay and accomplished direction marks a debut that promises to place the Italian writer-director on a list of filmmakers to watch in the coming years. While the movie is an allegory for every woman’s quest for identity, it also skillfully introduces the complexities of sexual identity. Reed Morano’s Meadowland is also a finely crafted film about a couple grieving over their young son who has been missing for over a year. While the noted cinematographer-turned-director shifts between husband and wife, the far more compelling viewpoint is that of the female protagonist, played by Olivia Wilde. Meadowland is another strong debut movie in which the surprise is that Morano, a master of the handheld camera, uses sound and music just as adeptly to chart her characters’ emotional breakdowns.

In gauging a festival’s commitment to screening women-centered films, notable “girl films” should also receive consideration. Tribeca has several credible entries in this regard, the most outstanding of which is a documentary, Alexander Nanau’s Toto and His Sisters. Despite the film's male-leaning title, it focuses on a courageous 14-year-old Roma girl who rescues herself and her brother Toto from their Bucharest apartment-turned-heroin den. When the documentary opens, the three siblings, Toto, Andreea and Ana, are coping with their mother’s imprisonment on drug charges. This has left the children in the care of their uncle, a heroin addict who arrives every evening with a band of friends. Not only do the children have sleepless nights, but Ana succumbs to her uncle’s influence. It is the story of Andreea’s frustrating encounters with Romanian authorities, and her continuing struggle to define herself, that distinguishes Nanau’s documentary.

French writer-director Hélène Zimmer’s Being 14, a debut narrative film that feels like a documentary, is a slice of life drama from the point of view of three girls living in a Paris suburb. A disturbing portrait of teenage angst, it also depicts the girls’ petty jealousies and their troubled relationship with teenage boys. While the protagonist in writer-director Natalia Leite’s Bare, set in a Nevada desert town, is not a young girl, she is fresh out of high school and working at her first job. Sarah (Dianna Agron) comes under the influence of the slightly older Pepper (Paz de la Huerta), a drifter and drug dealer. An award-winning director of short films, Leite’s portrait of Sarah’s quest for identity is riveting for its storytelling and its direction. Ironically, the Brazilian-born filmmaker perfectly captures the nuances of small town America.

Another measure of a film festival is the diversity of its press corps, and on this account, Tribeca Film Festival gets high marks. In its scrutiny and granting of credentials, the festival staff is obviously sensitive to the inclusion of women and to a mix of race and ethnicity. Because film criticism remains largely white and male—this is most evident among “A List” reviewers and in editorial—the addition of women’s voices, especially in judging women-centered narratives, can only improve the craft and the coverage of the festival’s overall slate. Tribeca does need to correct the gender imbalance in Tribeca Talks, which featured mostly male filmmakers and male moderators. Deadlines prevented me from attending the few that featured women, and then in mid-festival I received an e-mail announcing a talk with Selma director Ava DuVernay. It felt like an add-on. Had someone noticed the imbalance?

Another aspect of gender equality that deserves notice, although completely unrelated to Tribeca’s slate, is the number of women and women of color on staff, especially in communications, a department every journalist relies on for information.