Since its inception in 1999, the motto of the Provincetown Film Festival has been “filmmaking on the edge,” a reference to its celebration of independent film projects and to its geographical location at land’s end on Cape Cod, Mass. The 19th iteration of the festival, which takes place June 14-18, shows that its commitment to artistic-minded fare remains not only intact, but even stronger than ever, thanks to a remarkable array of films, of which half of the narrative features were directed by women — a first in festival history.
All three of its honorees this year are also women with strong ties to independent film. Sofia Coppola, whose drama “The Beguiled” will screen June 16, is this year’s recipient of the festival’s Filmmaker on the Edge Award. Coppola snagged the director prize for “The Beguiled” at Cannes in May. Chloe Sevigny will be presented with the Excellence in Acting Award. 2017 will also see the launch of the Next Wave Award. The inaugural recipient will be actress Aubrey Plaza (“Legion”), whose feature “Ingrid Goes West” will close the festival on June 18. Actress Noel Wells (“Mr. Roosevelt”) will open the fest with her directorial debut, “Mr. Roosevelt,” on June 14.
“We are so pleased that this year, of all the festivals, 50% of our narrative films are directed by women, and that’s a new record for us,” says Lisa Viola, fest artistic director. “We’ve never achieved that kind of equality — it’s something we’ve focused on, but until the films are there, it’s difficult to program. It’s a combination of more women in front of and behind the camera, and us stepping up to attract those kind of films.”
Among the women screening their work in all three showcases — features, shorts and documentaries — are veteran filmmakers including Katherine Dieckmann, whose “Strange Weather,” starring Holly Hunter and Carrie Coon (“The Leftovers”) screens on June 15 and 17, and actress-director Guinevere Turner, whose 2017 short, “Post-Apocalyptic Potluck,” will be shown June 14, 16 and 18.
Viola also points to new films by first-time filmmakers such as S.J. Chiro’s “Lane 1974” (June 15 and 17), a coming-of-age drama set in a California commune, and “Little Pink House” (June 16-17), director Courtney Moorehead Balaker’s film about the real-life struggle between nurse Susette Kelo (played by Catherine Keener) and the Pfizer Corp.
In the documentary field, helmer Hope Litoff presents “32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide” (June 17 and 18), about her attempt to make sense of her sister Ruth’s death.
“We’re very hopeful that this will encourage more women filmmakers to begin careers and inform [other] women filmmakers who may not know that there is a film festival on the very tip of Cape Cod, and that this is a very welcoming place,” says Viola. “We encourage all filmmakers, but in particular, women to come and participate.”
Among the other filmmakers screening at PIFF 2017 are Errol Morris, whose new documentary, “The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Photography,” will be shown on June 14; Miguel Arteta’s “Beatriz at Dinner” (June 15) with Salma Hayek and Chloe Sevigny; Michael Winterbottom’s “The Trip to Spain” (June 16 and 18), the latest comedy-road trip with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon; and actor-turned-director John Carroll Lynch’s “Lucky” (June 16 and 18), with Harry Dean Stanton and David Lynch. Oscar-nominated filmmaker Sebastian Junger will attend the June 18 screening of his documentary “Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of Isis,” co-directed by Nick Quested.
For first-time directors coming to PIFF like Wells, the welcome given to women filmmakers serves as a fresh alternative to the degree of disregard usually afforded by the studios.
“Every time I’ve screened my movie, I’ve had people tell me that they really relate to it. But when you talk to people on the business side, that doesn’t seem to interest them. They’re like, ‘Well, there’s not a lot of star power,’” she says. “[But] that’s the machine you’re working in, which is why it’s exciting to have your film at a festival like Provincetown. They’re saying, ‘We do like this film. We get it, we’re behind it.’”
Sevigny, whose directorial debut, the 2016 short “Kitty,” will screen June 15 and 17, says PIFF’s programming choices could have positive future implications for women filmmakers.
“[Fifty percent of the narrative films] is a great number, and we know the percentages don’t lie,” she says. “I think that the more people talk about it, and programmers try to highlight female directors, any sort of attention they can get will be helpful for girls all around, for producers to encourage girls who are trying to [direct films] and for them to feel like the opportunities are there.”
PIFF’s commitment to supporting women filmmakers extends beyond the festival’s summer run. Its parent organization, the Provincetown Film Society, has offered residencies to women filmmakers and organized a women’s media summit in March and April to devise “actionable strategies,” as festival executive director Christine Walker described it, on how to deal with gender and equality in media.
“We came up with seven strategies, both within the industry and outside of it, that we would write about and create meaningful next steps,” she says. Those strategies will be presented in a white paper at the festival this year, and will be followed by similar actions in the future. “We’ll do more of these kind of things – other programs, workshops for writers and the LGBTQ community,” she says. “It demonstrates how far we can go in this tiny little town.”