Panama: Laura Michalchyshyn on ‘Bobby Kennedy for President,’ Women in Film, Projects

Co-founder of Sundance Productions takes part in an IFF Panama panel on The Role of Women

PANAMA CITY — Producer Laura Michalchyshyn attended IFF Panama for a 90-minute panel on The Role of Women in a Globalised World, also featuring the Swedish Film Institute CEO, Anna Serner, Brazilian producer Vania Catani (“The Movie of My Life”), and actresses Laura Gomez (“Orange Is the New Black”) and Judith Rodríguez (“Cocote”). The round table was moderated by  fest director, Pituka Ortega Heilbron.

Speaking to Variety after the panel, Michalchyshyn talked about the panel and her current projects, including docu “Bobby Kennedy for President,” directed by Dawn Porter (“Gideon’s Army,” “Trapped”), which will world premiere at Tribeca on April 25. It has its global release on Netflix on April 27.

For the series, Porter relied on rare and never-before-seen archival footage – much of it digitized for the first time. Michalchyshyn’s other recent projects include comedy series “Crawford”, with creator/director Mike Clattenburg, and feature documentary “Momentum Generation,” about the surfing world with the Zimbalist Brothers.

In addition to “Kennedy,” Michalchyshyn is developing two other undisclosed feature documentaries with Porter, together with other producing partners. “Dawn wants to get  into scripted and I am hoping to help produce something scripted with her – our goal is a series.”

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She is also working with New York-based producer Lisa Cortes on a docu series based on a book. Cortes is currently producing a documentary with director Roger Ross Williams on the Apollo Theater in NY.

The “Kennedy” four-hour documentary series is timed to correspond with the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s 1968 presidential run.

Michalchyshyn says that it was “refreshing to work for three years on a project about a visionary leader who wanted to serve American people, and analyze his legacy in terms of the promotion of social justice and social rights.”

She sees the Trump presidency as representing the exact opposite of this legacy. As a Canadian-born producer based in the United States since the early 2000s, she acquired U.S, citizenship in 2016, precisely so that she could vote in the US presidential election.

In that year she joined over 100 artists in signing the open letter to the voters of the U.S., Artists United Against Hate.

Michalchyshyn sees Trump as an unwitting catalyst of the Time’s Up and #MeToo campaigns and says that he contrasts radically with Bobby Kennedy who “embraced women, underprivileged communities, such as Latino communities and defended equity for all. He encouraged women that otherwise might not have had a chance.”

She says that her own career has been marked by working with fellow male colleagues who defend such egalitarian principles, citing Robert Redford, with whom she co-founded Sundance Productions in 2012. She has been actively involved in other projects that raise awareness for such issues, including work by Dr. Stacy L. Smith at USC, who has been conducting research into the relative power of women in Hollywood. She executive produced Caroline Suh’s doc series, “The 4%: Film’s Gender Problem.”

Michalchyshyn says that the panel at IFF Panama was fascinating. “It was so wonderful to hear perspectives from different parts of the world, and stories from the participants personal and professional lives that highlighted the fact that this is an endemic problem.”

She thinks that the key issue is to achieve equality between men and women in the film industry, in terms of the power to greenlight projects.

“There’s still a long way to go in North America, but it was interesting to see how countries such as Sweden still have much to achieve, and how entrenched these problems are in Latin America.”

One of Michalchyshyn’s suggestions was to create a women in film movement in Panama and other Central American countries, which moderator Ortega Heilbron confided was a great idea.

She says that she supports measures such as inking an inclusion rider into production agreements.

“I’m a big supporter of the 50/50 principle when we’re looking at projects, that goes across the board – are there equal speaking roles of women, is there an equal presence of women when you’re portraying certain professions such as police officers.”

She says that certain areas of production, such as documentaries, have attained a more balanced presence of men and women, but in higher budget categories such as major feature films, this is clearly not the case.

“We have strong women producers in the non-fiction world, but when it comes to mid-level and senior-level executives in Hollywood, we need to bring more women to the table.”

“In my projects I try to put women in key creative positions. In “Bobby Kennedy” for example, we had two female story editors and female DOPs. But in documentaries and lower-budget projects it’s much easier.”

Michalchyshyn says that she’s inspired by the strong female characters seen in films coming from Latin America, and during her time at the Sundance Channel, sourced programming from production houses with a strong female presence, such as Argentina’s La Ciénega Films.

“I think the tide is turning at the moment. Talking to my friends who are casting directors in L.A., the new pilots of TV shows include powerful female roles. New operators such as Netflix and Hulu

are looking for greater diversity in terms of Latino and Asian-American actors. In TV there are more women showrunners. Shows like “Orange is the New Black” are great examples. It’s a wave, and it’s very inspiring.”

“We’re seeing more women running companies that can help finance films. I took part in a panel last week at the Lincoln Society. Some of the panelists felt that they had been harassed out of their executive jobs. I think we have lost a generation of women, who should have gone on to become studio chiefs. But I’m excited about the new generation, the Millennials. I’m seeing lots of young talent, who treat everyone as equal. There’s far less gender bias and they have different priorities. Mobile phones and the Internet have changed the world. Social media has completely changed the way we communicate. Women are no longer afraid to call out harassment. 2017 was seismic shift and the walls are tumbling.”

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