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At 38th Mill Valley Film Fest, Gender is on the Agenda

Hollywood’s new “it girl” may be more collective than individual. From “The Danish Girl” on opening night to “Suffragette” as its close, women’s themes stand front and center at the upcoming Mill Valley Film Festival.

“The topic of gender is definitely on the agenda this year,” says director of programming Zoe Elton.

Among works from 200 filmmakers representing more than 50 countries, the 38th Mill Valley Film Festival (Oct. 8-18) not only opens and closes with female-driven films, but it also honors actors Brie Larson, Carey Mulligan and Sarah Silverman for landmark performances, and director Catherine Hardwicke for lifetime achievement. What’s more, MVFF received a $15,000 NEA grant to support a multifaceted women’s initiative.

Titled Mind the Gap, Elton designed the program to both “raise awareness and celebrate women in film.”

Although women-directed pics typically account for about a third of MVFF’s program, this year it is an even more conscious choice. Only about 7% of Hollywood films are directed by women, according to a study conducted by Stacy Smith of USC’s Annenberg School for Communication. It’s a figure that’s remained stagnant for more than 20 years, Elton points out.

“As a festival director, I can help create a program that can challenge people to engage,” says Elton, a Brit who helped conceived Mind the Gap — borrowed from the ubiquitous warnings to passengers who ride the London Tube. “We came into this year with the woman’s initiative and I saw that we could bookend the festival with ‘The Danish Girl’ and ‘Suffragette.’ When you curate a film festival, it’s almost like you’re curating the arc of a number of conversations.”

While MVFF highlights several areas of special interest, including the written word, music and Italian Cinema, the woman’s initiative spreads “across the entire festival and in every area of the festival,” Elton says. Mind the Gap features an installation, panel discussions, master classes and 50 women-directed and/or women-driven films.

With LGBT issues pervasive in the media — given such public figures as the Olympian formerly-known-as-Bruce, recent Emmy winner Jeffrey Tambor (“Transparent”) and Time magazine transgender cover girl Laverne Cox (“Orange Is the New Black” — the MVFF appears to have its finger directly on the zeitgeist.

The director Todd Haynes, no stranger to blurring the lines between gender (“Poison,” “Velvet Goldmine”) and a champion of chewy women’s roles (“Safe,” “Far From Heaven”), will be represented at Mill Valley with “Carol,” in which a married woman (Cate Blanchett) falls for a young shopgirl (Rooney Mara) in the early ’50s.

The film — based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 semi-autobiographical novel “The Price of Salt” that the author originally published under a pseudonym — had been in development for almost a dozen years. While “The Danish Girl” — is based on the true story of transgender pioneer Lili Elbe, written by British playwright and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon, and portrayed by Eddie Redmayne — had been in the works for 15 years.

“Isn’t it wild,” Elton asks, “that films that take such a long time to make suddenly turn up with the right topic at the right moment?”

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