Films helmed by women span fest spectrum, reach new high

Unlike the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, which used the “Year of the Woman” as it 1993 Oscar theme — a proclamation widely derided as having more bark than bite — organizers for Sundance 2000 can more legitimately lay claim to the phrase.

Compared with years past, twice as many women are represented in each program of the annual Park City event. In the dramatic competition, six of the 16 features (40%) are helmed by women. Among them, Lisa Krueger, director of the idiosyncratic “Manny and Lo” (American Spectrum, 1996) is back with a competition entry, the Miramax-financed “Committed,” starring Heather Graham. Stacy Cochran also will be exhibiting her third feature, “Drop Back Ten.”

In the Premiere section, too, there are more femme-helmed movies — five out of 17 — than has been the norm. Gurinder Chadha’s multicultural celebration, “What’s Cooking?” featuring an all-star female cast, is the opening-night attraction in Salt Lake City. Sofia Coppola’s debut feature “The Virgin Suicides,” which premiered at Cannes, will be shown along with Mary Harron’s eagerly awaited “American Psycho.” In addition, “Love and Basketball,” written and directed by African-American Gina Prince-Bythewood, will unspool for the first time at the fest.

“What’s really striking is that the work is of such quality that we didn’t have to program with a view towards diversity, and that’s not something that we feel we typically have to do anymore with women,” says Rebecca Yeldham, senior programmer for the fest. “By the time we put the programming together and took a step back and looked at the representation of women in every single category, their presence was overwhelming.”

Yeldham also points to the significant number of returning women directors, including Krueger, Cochran and Maggie Greenwald, whose “SongCatcher” is in the Dramatic Competition.

“It’s easier for women now to step up and say, ‘This is the vision I want in my film,’ ” says Krueger. “Women were more conservative in the audacity department, and they got pushed.”

Coppola, daughter of filmmaker Francis Coppola and writer-producer Eleanor Coppola, says gender hasn’t played a role in her career, however neophyte. It goes back to her liberal, egalitarian upbringing: “My mother was not a traditional housewife. I was always told by my parents that I could do whatever I want, that there was no difference from my brother.”

In order to appreciate the strides taken by female filmmakers at this year’s Sundance, one must view the progress in context to past editions, and to the industry at large. Of the 238 features shown at the Sundance Festival’s Dramatic Competition from 1985 to 1999, approximately 20% were directed by women, a much larger proportion than femme-helmed movies in any given year in Hollywood.

But of the women whose works were launched at Sundance, only a few have enjoyed sustained careers, most notably Nancy Savoca and Allison Anders, who were represented last year with “The 24 Hour Woman” and “Sugar Town,” respectively.

Sophomore efforts have proven more difficult to get off the ground for many femme alums of Sundance, even if their first proved promising. It took Rose Troche five years to make another movie — the British-financed “Bedrooms and Hallways” — after her 1994 breakthrough lesbian comedy “Go Fish.”

“These are women from whom we would have expected films a couple of years ago finally returning with their second and third efforts after perhaps too long of an absence,” says Yeldham of some of this year’s femme participants. “I think one thing that’s still apparent with women filmmakers is the lag time between first and second feature.”

After directing the well-received suburban comedy “My New Gun” in 1992, it took four years for Cochran’s big-studio follow-up, “Boys” with Winona Ryder, to see the light of day. But Touchstone cut the movie severely before releasing it in 1996 with little fanfare.

Some femme filmmakers don’t necessarily feel compelled to churn out movies with the frequency of many of their male counterparts. Like Coppola, Krueger hasn’t experienced “any resistance because of gender.” She attributes the three-year span between debut and second feature to her personal mode of working. “I know it’s against the advised strategy, but I didn’t have a ready script when I finished ‘Manny and Lo.’ “

Though committed to directing, Coppola has no project lined up, and neither does Cochran. Krueger concedes that “women may have a different rhythm of work,” but feels that “It’s OK to have long intervals between projects,” urging women to work at their own individual and optimal pace.

It’s also important to note that like their male counterparts, most women with films at Sundance have been white. Since Julie Dash’s innovative “Daughters of the Dust” in 1991, only a few black women have made indie films that were exhibited theatrically.

Among them is Leslie Harris, who hasn’t made a movie since “Just Another Girl on the IRT” in 1993. Latino and Asian-American women have been fewer — Kayo Hatta hasn’t made a film since her 1994 “Picture Bride,” which played both Cannes and Sundance.

This year’s Sundance, however, features racial diversity behind and in front of the camera: in the Dramatic Competition, the protagonist of “Girlfight,” directed by Karen Kusama, who’s Asian-American, is a Puerto Rican teenage girl; Zeinabu irene Davis’ “Compensation,” also in competition, centers on an African-American deaf woman; Ann Hu’s “Shadow Magic,” in American Spectrum, is set in mainland China; and Shirley Cheechoo’s “Backroads,” also in Spectrum, is about sisterhood in a Native American community.

The lack of films by women — of any race — may derive from the filmmakers’ refusal to conform to narrative conventions of both Hollywood and indiewood. An experimental filmmaker like Kelly Reichardt (“River of Grass,” Sundance, 1994) can only hope for limited showing of her no-budget movie if a risk-loving distributor (Strand) will pick it up.

Mentoring is also a crucial factor: The women concede they like to be “pushed by outside creative forces,” be they parents, as in Coppola’s case, or Sundance founder Robert Redford, as in Krueger’s.

When Krueger attended the Sundance Lab, she felt lucky to be mentored by Arthur Penn and especially by Redford, who, she says, “encourages you to develop your idiosyncracies instead of weeding them out.”

The new attitude explains why Jane Campion is identified as an influential filmmaker and a role model. For Krueger, Campion is a great inspiration “due to her incredibly idiosyncratic vision, her refusal to adhere to pre-existing aesthetics, choosing for each film a fresh p.o.v.”

Kimberly Peirce, the talented first-time writer-director of “Boys Don’t Cry,” the screenplay of which was developed at Sundance, has also inspired peers with her singular vision and resolute drive. “It will be interesting to see what happens to Kimberly,” says Krueger. “She directed a high-impact film that made a strong splash and reverberated way beyond the indie world.”

Emanuel Levy’s book, “Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film,” was published by NYU Press in November.

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