Women Dominate Lineup in AFI Fest’s New Auteurs Section

Mustang Cannes Film Festival
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

AFI fest’s new Auteurs section is a crucial showcase for first- and second-time directors from across the globe to introduce their work to audiences. This year’s lineup not only continues AFI Fest’s commitment to presenting remarkable new visions in cinema, like Jayro Bustamente’s superb “Ixcanul,” but also presents something of a first in festival programming: Seven of the 11 titles included in the section are directed by women.

Among the remarkable septet are Alice Winocour’s French-Belgian thriller “Disorder”; the North American premiere of “The Gulls” (Chaiki) from Russian writer-director Ella Manzheeva; Yaelle Kayam’s Israeli-Danish drama “Mountain” and “Mustang,” from Turkish filmmaker Deniz Gamze Erguven, both of which deal with the clash between ancient societal tradition and modern thought. These and the other three pictures by female filmmakers in the New Auteurs presentation not only highlight the slow but steadily growing appreciation for films addressing women’s issues in the world cinema market, but also for showcasing women behind the camera.

AFI Fest’s organizers are aware that the large number of new films by femme directors in this section is something of an anomaly.

Though festivals want to expand their inclusion of distaff directors in their showcases, Lane Kneedler, AFI Fest’s associate director of programming, says, “A lot of festivals struggle with it — some years, there are a lot of women filmmakers, and some years, not so many. But we travel to a lot of festivals and watch a lot of films, and if you keep looking, these artists are out there.”

That determination reflects the festival’s commitment to present the panoply of diversity that defines modern global cinema.

“AFI Fest does a really great job of celebrating the full range of cinema, both in America and around the world,” says festival director Jacqueline Lyanga. “It has always been a place to find both world masters and emerging world masters.”

For the filmmakers in the New Auteurs section, the inclusion of their work represents tremendous opportunity for their projects as well as those of their female filmmaking peers around the world.

“There will definitely be more and more (women) filmmakers,” says “Mountain” writer-director Kayam. “In Israel, women are 60% of the students in film school, so it only makes sense that there will be more women filmmakers.”

For her and Erguven, the inclusion of their respective films at the fest also offers a chance to dispel two long-standing myths: that the audience’s desire for films by distaff directors is limited and, overseas, it is reduced even further to women in their native countries.

“(‘Mountain’) is a very personal film for me, but at the same time, it touches on topics that are universal,” says Kayam about her film’s subject matter, which concerns an embattled young Orthodox Jewish woman who finds refuge among the sex workers and drug dealers that populate a cemetery on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives.

In speaking of her film, “Mustang,” about five Turkish sisters pushing back against societal restrictions, Erguven says, “The subject matter resonates with audiences not only in Turkey, but also in all countries with patriarchal values. Cinema, with all the tools it employs, can change the minds of audiences or generate empathy by sharing a journey with a character. It’s probably the most sensible way to open a new perspective.”

Perhaps it’s that latter scenario — the chance for a film to address and impact issues affecting women around the world — that represents the most extraordinary opportunity that AFI gives to its New Auteurs.

“The resonance of this film at AFI also resonates in other places in the world,” Erguven says. “Everything that can (allow this film to be) seen more widely is a plus. This film could question things that need to be questioned, and potentially, open a few doors in the lives of people.”

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