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The following essay was written by a participant in the 2016 New York Film Festival Critics Academy, a workshop for aspiring critics co-produced by IndieWire, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Film Comment.
From the very first night, this year’s New York Film Festival put women front and center. Ava DuVernay became the first woman of color in the festival’s 54-year history to direct an opening night film (“13TH”). Titles like Kelly Reichardt’s “Certain Women” and Mike Mills’s “20th Century Women” punctuated the festival’s Main Slate, offering portraits of emotionally complex (albeit mostly white) modern women. Actresses over 60, like Sonia Braga and Isabelle Huppert, turned in dazzling, sexy performances, beating back the standards of an industry that often prefers to throw its aging women away, as Huppert’s character Nathalie ironically remarks in Mia Hansen-Løve’s “Things to Come.”
The conspicuous presence of women at a major fall festival with strict curatorial standards is worth celebrating, especially as the film industry’s egregious gender disparities continue to make headlines. Yet while women directors like DuVernay, Reichardt, and Maren Ade (“Toni Erdmann”) helmed some of the festival’s most exciting films, female-directed films remain in the minority. Only five of the 25 directors (20 percent) featured in the festival’s Main Slate are women: DuVernay, Reichardt, Hansen-Løve, Ade, and Alison Maclean (“The Rehearsal”). Of the 58 feature-length films screened at the festival, only 12 were directed by women. This tally does not include the festival’s Revivals program, where only one out of 10 films (Barbara Kopple’s “Harlan County, USA”) was directed by a woman. That figure also omits the festival’s Bertrand Tavernier-centered Retrospective, which featured 19 films, all with male directors.
Lesli Klainberg, Executive Director of Film Society of Lincoln Center, said that the festival has no quotas when it comes to the gender of its filmmakers, nor does it prescribe the number of films it selects from certain countries.
“The committee’s selection of the Main Slate is based on their own opinion about the films that are the most significant of the year,” Klainberg said. “We didn’t choose Ava’s movie for the opening night because we wanted to make a statement about documentary film, or about people of color, or about women. We chose that film because we thought it was the best to open the festival with for many reasons, top of the list was that it was a fine movie and something that we thought our audience would feel was an important film for them to see.”
Klainberg emphasized that the number of female directors in the festival’s Main Slate does not accurately represent the presence of female directors at NYFF. When the calculation expands beyond the Main Slate to include certain programs such as Shorts, Convergence, Projections, Explorations, and Spotlight on Documentary, the percentage of women directors increases to around 30 percent, she said.
She noted that women directors were particularly prevalent in Convergences – the program of immersive experiences including virtual reality, video installations, and audience-driven cinema – where six out of 10 directors were women. She also pointed out the prominence of women in Projections, the festival’s experimental program, where 13 out of 44 films have female directors.
Although NYFF is still far from attaining gender parity among its directors, the number of female directors represented in this year’s Main Slate is up from 2015, when only three of festival’s 26 Main Slate films were directed by women. “I’m pleased to see that we have five of 25 of our films in the Main Slate directed by women,” Klainberg said. “That’s certainly a reflection of where female filmmakers are in our industry in a certain respect. We are gaining and it’s getting better.”
The percentage of female film directors at NYFF also outpaces Hollywood. A recent study by USC Annenberg’s Center for Media, Diversity, and Social Change revealed that, of the top 100 grossing films of 2015, only 7.5 percent were directed by women. When the sample widened to include the 800 of the most popular films, the percentage of women directors dropped to 4.1 percent. As The Guardian reported in April, two of the industry’s largest studios, Paramount and 20th Century Fox, have no women-directed films on deck through 2018.
What role do festivals like NYFF play in repairing broader, systemic inequalities in the film industry, such as gender disparity among directors? “I don’t know if that’s our role,” said Klainberg. “We are not a film organization that funds movies.” Klainberg pointed to the Sundance Institute and IFP as examples of organizations that help support independent artists at the development stage. She also highlighted NYFF’s Artists Academy, Critics Academy, Industry Academy, and filmmaker-in-residence programs as examples of the festival’s efforts to support women artists. “Those programs are our way of trying to open the doors a little wider, create more inclusivity through the industry.”
Herself a director, Klainberg’s 2004 IFC documentary “In the Company of Women” examined the role of women in independent film. She noted that while some things had changed for independent women filmmakers in the past 12 years, much remains just as difficult.
“I think that women filmmakers have a difficult time getting films made because they are interested in doing films that are often much more character-driven,” Klainberg said. “They are not necessarily drawn to making mainstream films in the way that Hollywood makes mainstream films. And Hollywood decides that the films that they are going to put out are largely targeted towards males of a certain age, and they don’t really spend the money on movies that are smaller films as they say. When I say smaller, by the way, I’m not saying in smaller in a sense of value of but in terms of budgets.”
From where she sits, the main problem facing with independent female filmmakers is the same problem facing independent filmmakers in general — the studio system and its orientation towards big-budget blockbusters.
“When you have all the major studios spending hundreds of millions of dollars on one movie, it’s really hard to for anyone – male or female – to make a smaller film in that system,” said Klainberg. “Are you a female director having a hard time getting your drama made? Yes, but so is that guy who is also trying to make that small idiosyncratic film. It’s hard for everyone who’s trying to make something that’s not like Star Wars or X-Men.”