In Film, Women's Stories Break Through At Fall Festivals

Oct 13, 2014
Originally published on October 13, 2014 7:05 pm

Bilal Qureshi has covered the Toronto International Film Festival for several years and, back in Washington, works for All Things Considered.

One of the pop culture conversations of the year has been the absence of women in cinema, both in front of and behind the camera. Stacy Smith of the USC Annenberg School has been documenting the tiny percentage of working female directors, screenwriters and producers. The MacArthur Prize-winning cartoonist Alison Bechdel's 1985 "test" that points out the rarity of rich portrayals of women on screen still resonates. And when she accepted her Oscar for Blue Jasmine, Cate Blanchett chided an industry she said still believes that women's stories can't sell: "Those in the industry," she said, "who are foolishly clinging to the idea that female films, with women in the center, are niche experiences: They are not."

At this fall's film festivals — including Toronto, New York and London, which is underway now — films made by and about women were not treated as niche experiences but as gala premieres. Cameron Bailey, the artistic director of the Toronto Film Festival, says this year, his team of programmers "talked about gender because I was reading a lot that was happening in terms of debates around women's cinema, debates reflecting the frustrations that things hadn't progressed more." So he says he encouraged his programmers to try harder. "I didn't say to them, 'Go out and find more films by women.' I said, 'Find the best films you can, and where there are films by women, we're going to do our best to give them the best profile that we can and make sure that people pay attention.' "

From the big-screen adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's memoir Wild to Gina Prince-Bythewood's critique of pop music's hypersexualization of young women in Beyond the Lights, the films premiering at this year's festivals reflect a new energy around telling women's stories with nuance and cinematic sophistication — and, ideally, with commercial viability.

I talked with directors Olivier Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria) and Prince-Bythewood (who, before Beyond the Lights, made the romance Love & Basketball), screenwriter Julia Hart (The Keeping Room), Pakistani filmmaker Afia Nathaniel (Dukhtar), producer Bruna Papandrea (Gone Girl, Wild) and film critic Ruby Rich about the role that film festivals play in closing cinema's gender gap. They had a lot to say for this story, which airs on Monday's All Things Considered.

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There have been debates, studies and articles about the lack of women working in film, both in front of and behind the camera. There's even a think tank at the University of Southern California dedicated to studying that absence. But NPR's Bilal Qureshi reports that the scene is shifting at the big fall film festivals, from New York to London and Toronto.

BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: This year's Toronto Film Festival did bring major actresses to the Canadian red carpet. Julianne Moore, Reese Witherspoon and Juliette Binoche, who stars in "Clouds Of Sils Maria," as a seasoned actress wrestling with her relevance in a changing film industry.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA")

JULIETTE BINOCHE: (As Maria Enders) What's wrong with my acting?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) Nothing.

BINOCHE: (As Maria Enders). (Laughter). What do I need to do to make you admire me? Do I think too much?

QURESHI: Cameron Bailey is the artistic director of the Toronto Film Festival.

CAMERON BAILEY: About 5 percent of the commercial films coming out of Hollywood every year are directed by women. At film festivals - including ours - typically the number is around 20 percent. So, you know, we are doing four times better than Hollywood but just woefully inadequate compared to the human population.

QURESHI: So Bailey says this year he challenged his programmers to try harder.

BAILEY: I didn't say to them, go out and find more films by women. I said, find the best film you can. And where there are films by women, we're going to do our best to give them the best profile that we can and make sure that people pay attention.

QURESHI: One of films that got that attention was the big-screen adaptation of the best-selling memoir by Cheryl Strayed, "Wild." It stars Reese Witherspoon as a woman who goes on a hike of self-discovery.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WILD")

REESE WITHERSPOON: (As Cheryl Strayed) Hi, my name is Cheryl. I'm walking the PCT, and I ran out of food. I was wondering if you could take me someplace I could get a warm meal.

BRUNA PAPANDREA: I loved the idea of putting this movie into the world where a woman essentially walks herself back to life.

QURESHI: Bruna Papandrea coproduced "Wild" through a company she founded with Reese Witherspoon.

PAPANDREA: We both really shared that goal of really making it our prime focus to develop roles for and about women and also really develop movies with female writers and, hopefully, for female directors.

QURESHI: One of those who made it to Toronto this year was Gina Prince-Bythewood. She wrote and directed "Beyond The Lights."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BEYOND THE LIGHTS")

GUGU MBATHA-RAW: (As Noni Jean, singing) Here and now...

QURESHI: It's a drama about a young R&B singer's struggles to find her place in a music industry that traffics in sex and fantasy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BEYOND THE LIGHTS")

AML AMEEN: (As Trey) I need you out of mind like yesterday. So we've got all hands on deck.

MBATHA-RAW: (As Noni Jean) It's not done.

AMEEN: (As Trey) Why are you playing with me?

MBATHA-RAW: (As Noni Jean) Trey, everybody says I'm special 'cause I have this voice. But I'm just saying what everybody else wants me to say. I need to say something.

QURESHI: Prince-Bythewood says she doesn't feel discriminated against by the industry.

GINA PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Me, as a black female who directs, I'm not discriminated against. What I feel is discriminated against are my choices, which is to focus on black women. Those are just movies that studios are not clamoring to make.

QURESHI: Prince-Bythewood says festivals are international events. And they can highlight a film's marketability to a global audience.

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: I mean, I cast my film specifically the way it was cast so that it would have a global feel and really trying to push aside this belief that films with people of color in the cast cannot sell overseas. So getting to Toronto and getting the reaction that we got at Toronto was really important to me.

QURESHI: Women still represent a minority of international filmmakers. But Olivier Assayas, who directed Juliette Binoche in "Clouds Of Sils Maria" says in his native France, women like Binoche have power throughout their careers.

OLIVIER ASSAYAS: I come from a history, a tradition that these independent European cinema and, more specifically, French independent cinema, where actresses have always had very strong parts - and I mean, not just young actresses, also older actresses. You know, you have, like, major movie stars. Today, Catherine Deneuve or Isabelle Huppert or Juliette are major movie stars there.

QURESHI: And that seems to be the divide between the world of film festivals and the mainstream Hollywood multiplex, says film critic Ruby Rich.

RUBY RICH: The gender imbalances are still there. They're still around. They really set in the minute the film festival closes up shop. But for a few magic days, you really get to see a much wider breadth of the human experience. And you really can enjoy what the world might look like on screen if everybody got a fair shot at making film.

QURESHI: Bruna Papandrea, the co-producer of "Gone Girl" and "Wild" says even she gets the Hollywood treatment.

PAPANDREA: Oh, my God. It's incredibly frustrating. I mean, the figures are kind of mind blowing when you look at some of those studies. I mean, like 15 percent of protagonists in movies are women. I mean, that's - that's - no, that's mind blowing.

QURESHI: It's not just a numbers game. It's also about how women are portrayed. Twenty years ago, cartoonist Alison Bechdel came up with a test for that. And film critic Ruby Rich said it still applies.

RICH: Here's the Bechdel test. See what films you know that can pass it. One, there has to be more than one woman in a film. Two, they have to actually talk to each other at some point. Three, you've got to let them talk about something other than the male character who's going to walk into the room in a minute. Almost no films pass it.

QURESHI: One film that does is "The Keeping Room." It's screenwriter Julia Hart's debut.

JULIA HART: It's funny; I didn't even know about the Bechdel test when I wrote it. And I think that that was a good thing because it wasn't - I wasn't consciously seeing, you know, how many scenes can I put in this movie where women talk about something other than men. I think it comes from writing strong female characters that, organically, they're just talking about other things - you know, that there are more important things than talking about the men in their life.

QURESHI: The women in her film are left to fend for themselves at the end of the Civil War.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE KEEPING ROOM")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) She was supposed to be working with you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: (As character) I can't keep my eyes on her all the time. There's work to do, and sometimes you've got to learn what's right.

QURESHI: The film is now at the London Film Festival. And it's divided critics over its feminist take on women's role in war.

HART: What we were doing with "The Keeping Room," and what I'm trying to do in other projects I'm working on, is not to take women and put them in the roles that we see men in. It's not about, like, suddenly this woman is, you know, a superhuman strength action hero, like, drop-kicking 50 assassins at once, you know? What I'm excited to see is honest portrayals of women being the heroes.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DUKHTAR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #4: (As character, foreign language spoken).

QURESHI: In the new film, "Dukhtar," a mother saves her daughter from a forced marriage in tribal Pakistan. It's Afia Nathaniel's first feature film, and as one of the few women filmmakers in that country, she had to overcome her own set of obstacles. But she found a receptive marketplace in Toronto.

AFIA NATHANIEL: When you're a first-time filmmaker coming from a country like Pakistan that is not known for cinema, and suddenly you're in Toronto, where you have such an embracing audience that understands world cinema, for us it was completely eye-opening of the possibilities that exist.

QURESHI: Film festivals are featuring richer portraits of women this year, says critic Ruby Rich. But she says that doesn't mean a sustainable change is on its way.

RICH: Twenty years ago, I interviewed Gina Davis on stage coming off of this little hit movie she made, "Thelma And Louise." And she talked about wanting to play complex female characters. But until we have somebody like Reese Witherspoon - no, like 40 Reese Witherspoons - actually doing something about it, actually putting production money out there for women directors, actually putting money out there for screenplays, exploring the lives and thoughts and crises of complicated women characters - until that happens, we're not going to get anywhere. We're going to be having this conversation in 10 years, in 20 years, in 30 years.

QURESHI: In the meantime, Ruby Rich she says you'll find her tucked away in her seat at a film festival. Bilal Qureshi, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.