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The Storyteller’s Gender Matters As Female Directors Smash Through The Celluloid Ceiling

For those rooting for women to make strides in Hollywood the news that Brenda Chapman, a screenwriter and director of Brave, had been replaced at the helm midway through production of that animated film about the flame-haired archer came as a blow last year. The happy ending is that the movie on which Chapman shares directing credit (with Mark Andrews) ranked eighth at the box office in 2012.

Even happier: Nine per cent of the top 250 movies at the domestic box office last year was made by female directors. That’s substantially higher than the 2011 figure of five per cent. Martha Lauzen — the San Diego State University professor whose annual ‘Celluloid Ceiling’ report tracks the employment of women in the movie industry — said the 2012 figure was the highest since 2000, when 11 per cent was made by female directors. (The percentages were based on the year’s top

250 films according to boxofficemojo.com. In cases involving more than one director, as with Brave, Ruby Sparks and other films, a third or half proportion was assigned.)

The storyteller’s gender matters. When more than nine-tenths of movies are made from the male perspective, said B. Ruby Rich, the film critic and professor at University of California, Santa Cruz, “it unconsciously reinforces the invisibility of women”.

A 2011 University of Southern California study examining the top 100 box office releases between 2007 and 2009 found that in films directed by men, 29 per cent of the characters were female; in those by women 48 per cent of the characters were.

A scan of the 2012 films by women shows a broad spectrum of genres and styles. There are fact-based thrillers by veteran directors like Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty) and Agnieszka Holland (In Darkness). There are off-centre comedies by rookies like Jennifer Westfeldt (Friends With Kids) and Lorene Scafaria (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World). There is the faith-based Woman Thou Art Loosed: On the Seventh Day, Neema Barnette’s redemption story of a family in crisis.

Not only are the subjects diverse, so too are the directors. The majority hail from North America, including Mexico-born Patricia Riggen, maker of Girl in Progress, a coming-of-age-comedy, and the Canadian Sarah Polley, whose Take This Waltz explored romance both inside and outside marriage.

Two are from France: Julie Delpy, director of the raucous family comedy 2 Days in New York, and Lorraine Levy, director of The Other Son, a sober parable of tolerance about a Palestinian and an Israeli youth switched at birth. The Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki made a comic parable of tolerance, Where Do We Go Now?, mediating conflicts between Christian and Muslim characters.

That two of the films directed by women — Reema Kagti’s thriller Talaash, and Gauri Shinde’s marital comedy English Vinglish — reached the United States from India indicates the growing South Asian population here and its appetite for Hindi-language cinema.

“The market for Indian films in the US has doubled in the past five years,” said Len Klady, box office analyst for moviecitynews.com. And not just for Hindi-language films, he added. “More Telugu, Tamil and Punjabi films are being shown.”

Another two movies from female directors are historical vignettes from Britain. Madonna’s W.E. dramatises the story of King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, for whom the royal abdicated the throne. Tanya Wexler’s Hysteria is present at the creation of Mortimer Granville’s invention of the vibrator.

Of the 26 movies on which women have directorial credit, four are documentaries, historically a point of entry for women in film. Women represented 39 per cent of the directors of documentaries compared with five per cent on narrative features, Lauzen noted. The 2012 documentaries include Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Alison Klayman’s engaging portrait of the Chinese dissident artist; The Queen of Versailles, Lauren Greenfield’s riches-to-rags account of the billionaires whose palace is a casualty of the economic crisis; and Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s profile of her husband’s grandmother, the influential fashionista and magazine editor.

Eight of the films are relationship comedies and dramas, a genre where female filmmakers traditionally have enjoyed success. Among them are The Guilt Trip, Anne Fletcher’s comedy about mother-son bonding on a cross-country odyssey, and Ruby Sparks, directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, about a writer besotted with his female protagonist. Also in this category is Your Sisters Sister, Lynn Shelton’s anxious comedy about siblings differently entangled with a weekend guest.

Last month Shelton travelled with her latest film, Touchy-Feely, to the Sundance Film Festival. Of the 16 films in the dramatic competition there, eight were by women, another optimistic statistic for the new year.

While Lauzen credits Sundance “for making an effort in approaching the selection process with an eye to diversity,” she is not entirely upbeat. Having analysed the statistics for 20 years, “the numbers for women filmmakers have been remarkably stable and reflect that this is an entrenched industry,” Lauzen said.

Anne Thompson, editor in chief of Thompson on Hollywood on Indiewire.com, noted: “The positive things for women directors are happening at the indie level, for the Lynn Sheltons of the world, where the barriers of entry are low.”

At the studio level, Thompson added, “The death of Nora Ephron was a huge blow.” Mourning the loss of that high-profile writer-director, she noted how few female filmmakers there are at the majors, and added, “Thank God for Nancy Meyers!”

Carrie Rickey
(The New York Times News Service)

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