LFF 2019 | The Last Black Man in San Francisco

I’ve never seen a film like The Last Black Man in San Francisco. Written, directed and produced by Joe Talbot, a San Francisco native, with his friend, co-writer and lead actor Jimmie Fails (on whom the story is partially based), this biographical voyage is in turns poetic, elegiac and crackling with vestiges of cinéma vérité.

It almost feels impossible to write about – the kind of film that words won’t do justice to. Not least because I’m a white woman in North London, whose visited San Francisco once to see Alcatraz, the Sea Lions at Pier 39 and the Giants.

And yet, therein lies the merit of cinema – that something which shouldn’t necessarily appeal to an individual is able to transcend characteristics to speak directly to your soul. The Last is about black identity, yes. Particular to a city where poorer communities are increasingly peripheralized and priced out by baby boomers and millenials. And yet, it remarks on loss, nostalgia and wanting something to be true so much that invention warps into narrative and then calcifies into reality. It’s about creative and financial struggles, interior design and property porn. It spoke to my fear of never making it onto any kind of ladder. Metaphorical or otherwise. It’s about the disintegration of friendship and the daily hardship that is life.

It plays like a great American novel – searching, sprawling and underpinned by social consciousness as Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) and his best friend Mont (Jonathan Majors) skirt around propriety (and skate around the city) to reclaim the majestic house that Jimmie’s grandfather built. A historic and eclectic Victorian building, in a city increasingly falling victim to architectural homogeneity.

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There is a wildness and largesse here that cannot be contained (by genre, adjectives or comparison), as the film encounters street preachers, vagrants and pavement-dwellers, recalling Faulkner, Morrison and Of Mice and Men. But for all its literary allusions (Mont is an aspiring playwright who pens and performs a piece named after the film’s title), cinema pulses through its veins. Talbot’s directorial impulses share DNA with contemporary black cinema such as Moonlight and Blindspotting, as well as the visual mastery of contemporary Andersonian cinema (Wes and Paul-Thomas). Indeed, the framing of every shot is so exquisite it sometimes felt like being at an exhibition.

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The soundtrack is another feat of perfection; with original riffs on classics such as Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love”, Joni Mitchell’s “Blue and Scott McKenzie’s “I’m going to San Francisco”, and stirring compositions from Emile Mosseri. Hairs will stand on the back of your neck and your heart will thump in time to the beat.

As Jimmie’s dreams of owning his ancestral home are met with bureaucratic and capitalist obstacles (encapsulated by a smarmy Finn Wittrock), the film begs the question where do we belong when the past has been plastered over, and the road to the future looks foggy?

As Mont makes a final tour around the house – now for sale – we see idiosyncratic antiques and storied clutter replaced by Pinterest-worthy ‘corners’ and clean design. But Talbot ensures this poignancy never gives way to pity. The city still belongs to Jimmie and Mont and their motley crew, because as Jimmie says to a pair of interlopers, “you don’t get to hate it unless you love it.”

 

 

LFF 2019 | Clemency

If not a call to arms, then Clemency, from director Chinonye Chukwu (the first black woman to receive Sundance’s Grand Jury prize), is a call to attention.

Exacting and spartan, this death row drama begins as prison warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodward) oversees her 11th execution, and ends as she leaves her 12th. What happens in between is the slow unfurling of a tightly coiled woman.

Image result for clemency filmRarely veering from Bernadine’s perspective, it’s as narrow in its focus as the prison corridors it stalks (shot with ingenuity and precision by cinematographer Eric Branco). And this sometimes wears thin. Bernadine is stoic to a fault, unerring in her formality (note how she uses the same refrain to both a death row inmate and his mother as a source of comfort: “We’ll let you know when it’s time.”) and she’s a hard protagonist to penetrate or empathise with, even when the internal crisis between doing her job and doing what’s right begins to bubble over.

Clemency is relentless in its sobriety. Bernadine’s crisp white suits and beige cardigans further reflective of a world without colour, or hope. Both inmates and civilians alike (including her high school teacher husband Jonathan, played by Wendell Pierce, and public defender Marty) seem jaded and dormant. The 12th inmate – Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) – gives a particularly poignant performance as a man whose light has been extinguished long before the state declares it.

Conversations have a tendency to feel a bit rote and lifeless – although a scene with Danielle Brooks (on the other side of the glass) is electrifying for both its writing and performance – and contrivance occasionally rears its head.

Yet Clemency rewards viewers who take note of detail – flinches in movement, the slightest grimace, the jolt of waking up from a bad dream – and Chukwu’s calculations pay off in two potent outbursts. The first, a desperate, self-inflicted, and flinch-inducing act of violence. The second, an emotional reprieve and a jolt from a living nightmare that serves as a welcome gasp of air in a film that keeps you underwater and under its spell for much of the running time.

 

Favourite films of 2018

It’s a testament to the power of cinema – not just the artform, but the actual theatrical experience (the physicality of holding a ticket, the anticipation as you wait to enter the cinema, the settling into your seat, the curtains opening, the darkness, the silence, the immersion) – that 10 of the 11 films I consider my favourites released this year, were seen in that setting.

This is largely due to a position of privilege I have lucked into. In working for the BFI I have access to perks, one of which is free tickets to its Southbank cinema. The sense of ‘event’ that swelled around these viewings perhaps influenced my succumbing to their powers of poetry and persuasion. Maybe I like them so much because I saw them in the cinema. Then again, many of the much-hyped films I didn’t connect with, I saw on the big-screen. So perhaps whatever resonated with me was merely amplified by the venue. 

Something else that unites these films is the experience of crying through them. I’ve always been more inclined towards ‘serious’ and sombre independent cinema than the funny-bone tickling predilection of mass entertainment. Game Night, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before and Black Panther were brilliant, but I didn’t ponder on them for much longer than it took for the credits to roll.

Perhaps since I declared Titanic my favourite film of all-time at the age of 12, I have placed an importance on the medium’s ability to move me. To invite my emotional investment, to encourage empathy, to demand tears – that is what good art achieves, according to my rulebook. It’s how I know I’ve fully succumbed to the world on the screen.

It appears I have a preference for darkness over levity, a disposition for difficulty and reality. And so this is how my favourites of 2018 came to be populated by stories about political conflict, the AIDs crisis, parental abuse and abandonment, brain injury, infertility, and manipulation. Which isn’t to say they left me dispirited. Another shared trait is their appreciation of humanity in all its complexities – its ugliness and illnesses, alongside its capacity for heroism, forgiveness and kindness.

So without further adieu, here are the films that gave me all the feels in 2018…

Summer, 1993

DIR. Carla Simón, Spain

I felt a profound sense of kinship with the 6-year-old female protagonist in Carla Simon’s Summer 1993. Not for the grieving process she must endure after the death of her mother, which results in one helluva emotional sucker punch, but for the navigation of a world in which she is no longer the centre. Such is the strange burden of being an only child. After moving in with her aunt, uncle and young cousin, Frida (Laia Artigas) is thrust into a bewildering rural environment and resorts to the toolbox of the very young – grandstanding, tantrums, sulking, sly manipulation, even cruelty – to beckon affection. Simon’s talent as a director, not least of which is coaxing performances of astounding naturalism from her young cast, is balancing the melancholic with the amusing. It basks in its landscape, but never dawdles and every moment of empathy feels hard-earned. Simon rewards our patience with a story that is as textured as it is tender.

Roma

DIR. Alfonso Cuarón, Mexico, USA

The personal is the political in Alfonso Cuarón’s epic, monochromatic exploration of Mexico City in the early 70s. A tale of two women amid domestic and civil unrest, there is a level of intimacy on display that feels novelistic; small moments that might have ended up on the cutting room floor in another film are given full focus. It’s painstaking detail brings to mind a line from Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird: “Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?” Cuarón’s microscopic and memory-infused evocation of this time and era radiates with affection.

120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) 

DIR. Robin Campillo, France

A political and medical movement is given its due, and at times dazzling, attention with Robin Campillo’s drama. Following the activities of Act Up Paris in a procedural of-sorts that details the ups and downs of activism, particularly through the eyes of a new member as he falls in love with an HIV-positive one, Campillo imbues his edifying drama with scenes of passion, fury, sex and dance. Even as it deals with the inevitability of death, this is as enlivening a film as I saw this year.

The Favourite

DIR. Yorgos Lanthimos, Ireland, UK, USA

Coruscating, saucy, foul-mouthed and uproariously funny. Like Marie Antoinette by way of The Thick of It, made all the merrier for the sublime ménage à trois at its expertly staged centre.

 

Cold War

DIR. Pawel Pawlikowski, Poland, UK, France

Pawel Pawlikowski returns to the palate and period that garnered him a golden statuette (for 2015’s Ida) with a story loosely-based on his parent’s love affair. Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig are the gorgeous pair at the centre (he’s the composer, she’s the star) of a folkloric musical road-show, increasingly suffocated by Communism’s grip. Jazz and jealousy spike a narrative as distilled as a shot of vodka with enough substance to match its elegantly framed style. But what a style it is. I don’t think I’ve laid eyes on anything as exquisite this year.

Leave No Trace

DIR. Debra Granik, USA

Debra Granik, who bequeathed us with Winter’s Bone, and did Hollywood the favour of discovering Jennifer Lawrence, does the world another solid with Leave No Trace. A film which quietly and captivatingly delves into the lives of a father and daughter existing, geographically and economically, on America’s fringes.

Private Life

DIR. Tamara Jenkins, USA

Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti are the literary, near middle-aged couple struggling to conceive in what appear to be tailor made roles. Tamara Jenkins is the deft hand at the helm – having already proved herself a master of unflinching honesty and wit with 2007’s The Savages – documenting the trials and tribulations of IVF treatment with grimace-inducing candor. (The films opens with an ass-bound needle). Speaking of injections, theatre-kid Kayli Carter (familiar to some for her role in Netflix’s Godless, also playing a character called Sadie) is effervescent as the step-niece turned potential surrogate, mainlining charisma and chaos into the fraught (but impeccably furnished) lives of her baby-bewitched relations.

There’s a lived-in-ness to the characters, hammered home perhaps somewhat hammily by the home-movie feel of the cinematography. But this is dramedy as it should be – wry, profound and rewarding.

Also fun fact, Chris Ware, the artist behind the mind-bending graphic novel Building Stories, designed the film’s poster.

The Kindergarten Teacher

DIR. Sara Colangelo, USA

Maggie Gyllenhaal continues to prove herself one of the most intriguing, and versatile performers working today with the story of a morally dubious teacher who discovers one of her students possesses great poetic talent, and goes to boundary-pushing lengths in order to nurture it. Provocative, complex and intelligent, The Kindergarten Teacher raises more questions than it answers, but perhaps like any good educator, that is exactly the point.

Shoplifters

DIR. Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan

Kore-eda’s keen eye for the fragility, and necessity, of human connection is woven into his most heartbreaking fable yet as a ragtag ‘family’ of bandits are broken apart by the authorities. 

 

The Rider

DIR. Chloé Zhao, USA

An all too real tale of an injured Bronco rider grappling with identity, masculinity and tradition, against the spectacular backdrop of a South Dakota reservation. Chloé Zhao has the same taste for downbeat Americana as Debra Granik, the same ear and eye for authenticity as Kore-eda, but a talent for blending spirituality and majesty that is all her own.

Petra

DIR. Jaime Rosales, Spain, France, Denmark

If The Favourite was the most hyped film I saw this year, this has to be the least. After watching the delightful and sensual South Korean film Little Forest at the London Film Festival, I decided to stay put at Ciné Lumière and check out the next film on the schedule – Petra. I knew next to nothing about, and ended up having one of the most riveting cinematic experiences in recent memory.

The elaborately-structured plot – non-linear vignettes are introduced with a short precis detailing twists and reveals – is matched by towering performances, particularly that of Bárbara Lennie as the titular artist in search of her biological father. Thrilling, labyrinthine and devastating, Petra is name to remember.

Honourable mentions:

Nancy, First Reformed, Mid90s, Skate Kitchen, A Star is Born, Wild Rose, If Beale Street Could Talk, United Skates, Jeune Femme, The Tale, Game Night, Phantom Thread

Things I’m chomping at the bit to see which might have made the list had I…

Zama, Burning, The Old Man & the Gun, Western, Sweet Country, Dogman, Wildlife, Minding the Gap

Things I saw but didn’t care for as much as other people…

Widows, You Were Never Really Here, Peterloo, Shirkers, BlackKklansman, Support the Girls, 

 

 

Review: Summer 1993

Out now in UK cinemas.

DIRCarla Simón. StarringLaia Artigas, Paula Robles, Bruna Cusí, David Verdaguer.

Akin to Celine Sciamma’s Tomboy or Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s What Maisie Knew in which a precocious, perhaps conflicted child is experiencing emotions beyond comprehension, Carla Simón’s microscopic directorial debut is a sensitive, delicate and captivating rarity.

An autobiographical slice of life, a summer in 1993 to be exact, fleshed from photographs and memories and feeling, it has the mood and tempo of something deeply personal, alive with a tactility and vibrancy that permeate even the smallest of moments.

Simón’s own childhood experiences are transposed onto Frida (Laia Artigas), a curly-haired 6-year-old we are introduced to in the midst of upheaval. The apartment in Barcelona in which she lives is being packed up and along with her dolls, she is being shipped off to stay with family in the rural outskirts of Catalan. Why?

Frida’s mother recently died from AIDs-related pneumonia, a fact which is never explicitly stated but becomes slowly apparent from the doctor’s visits Frida is required to attend and from the standoffish attitude of a fellow parent when Frida falls and grazes her knee in the playground.

Drama and solemnity exists at the film’s fringes: in fraught adult conversations behind closed windows, or across dinner tables as children play beneath them, but in locating her perspective firmly with Frida, Simón creates something all the more affecting.

Her aunt Marga (Bruna Cusí) and uncle Esteve (David Verdaguer) are young parents with a toddler of their own, who live a seemingly carefree and bohemian existence. But even their easy-going acceptance of Frida can’t paper over the cracks that begin to surface. Frida is acting out, a response that’s to be expected in her circumstances, but for reasons that perhaps she can’t even articulate. What’s more, she’s not used to having a younger ‘sister’. Anna (Paula Robles) already adores her, but Frida is used to having her own way and being the centre of attention and the affection Anna receives from her parents can’t help but highlight the neglect that has hitherto characterised Frida’s upbringing.

Tension emerges from ordinary situations – a lettuce-picking rivalry, a bad hair day, small jealousies, a juvenile prank gone wrong and differences of parenting opinions, but never to the extent that it feels overwrought or melodramatic. This is life lived during adversity. For all the strain, there is still the joy of bathtimes and fireworks and dancing and ice lollies. It’s a summer that seethes with occasional stress, but the presence of a caring and nurturing family equally soothes. Frida is well-loved and the warmth that emanates from watching these relationships deepen is the film’s sustenance.

Meandering and melancholic though it may be, frequently letting moments play out in real time, Simón’s restraint is the film’s beating heart. Histrionics are largely absent, except for one painfully real tantrum that Frida throws after her grandparents visit. Death is clearly on the poor child’s mind as she pesters Marga not to get sick, but mostly the grieving process is glimpsed in Frida’s somewhat devious childhood games and glowering.

The child posturing as adult is always a strange and strangely somber thing to behold. Behaviours absorbed and copied, without realisation of the weight they perhaps carry or the meaning behind them. At one point Frida is lounging in the garden, face daubed with make-up, and proceeds to order Anna around, alternatively selecting thing from a ‘menu’ for her to fetch or complaining about ‘being too tired to play’. These are words no doubt extracted from Frida’s own life, formerly directed at her, and now reissued in poignant playfulness. It is heartbreaking to watch. The insouciance with which they’re uttered completely ignorant to the situation in which they might have first been spoken.

Films that rely on the performances of their child actors are difficult to pull off. How does anyone so young comprehend and then convey such complex emotion? And yet Simón has found, and nurtured, perfection from her two young stars.

Arguably it is beyond performance, they are just playing make-believe, as children are want to, and onto them we impose our interpretations of, and reflections on the film. That’s the world this film exists in, a transcendent space beyond staging or editing or narrative. Cut from the same cloth as Andrea Arnold’s American Honey although distinctly less explosive. Wrought from memory and given meaning by how close to the bone you feel Simón must be cutting.

But Frida is imbued with a prickly tenacity, and wide-eyed vulnerability by Laia Artigas, whilst Paula Robles as the adorable and incredibly capable Anna, is just as spirited and sparkling. Despite the age difference the two of them have a natural chemistry, and their relationship manages to encompass the difficulty of Frida suddenly having to assume responsibility for a younger sibling – a level of maturity she is not prepared for – and Anna’s own acceptance of a new family member, undeniably bringing divided attention with it.

Simón’s writing and direction display a soulful command over her own life, this is a past she has clearly reconciled with. It never feels like a naval-gazing nostalgia trip, but merely a raw meditation on the complexities of illness, loss and family.

On a technical level it effervesces with authenticity, the camera captures the Catalonian countryside in its sun-dappled splendour, while the sound design seems to emphasise outdoor elements – flowing water, thunder, mosquitoes – as if to express the power that external forces wield over us.

And then, there is the final scene. Unexpected and fierce and full of such emotion I found myself mirroring the central character and bursting into hot, spontaneous tears. Watching a child who perhaps doesn’t comprehend the sadness she might later feel, the deep sense of loss that will stay with her until adulthood, until she feels compelled to make a film about that very loss. Only that she cannot quell her sobbing, and after weeks of stoicism, if occasional tantrum-throwing, the grief has bubbled over and into being.

Summer 1993 is wise and wistful, filled with as much warmth as woe and as with Call Me By Your Name or Our Little Sister you just feel glad to live in this cinematic world for an hour or so. Seek it out.

Review: 120 BPM (Beats per Minute)

120 BPM (Beats per Minute) plays like an exercise in memory more than it does pedagogy, pulsating with the vividness and vigour of lived experience. Upon learning that writer-director Robin Campillo was a “rank and file member of ACT UP Paris” throughout the 90s, the activist group whose enterprises the film documents, you can understand why.

“There tends to be a collective amnesia” surrounding the attitudes, negligence and obstruction that the AIDS community faced, “homophobia was the standard”, Campillo remarks in the film’s production notes. His third outing as a director operates as a shot of stimulation to the synapses, a sharp jolt of remembrance that the fight for rights was laborious and contentious, marked by many more losses than wins.

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Based on the model initiated by ACT UP New York, which was formed in 1987 and defines itself as “a diverse, non-partisan group of individuals united in anger and committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis”, the audience are inducted to the Parisian division alongside 4 of its newest members. The last to be introduced, Nathan (Arnaud Valois), is the closest we get to a protagonist in what is a diverse, non-partisan group of individuals united in anger, anguish and urgency. One of the most vocal and rule-breaking members, Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), who captures ours as well as Nathan’s attention, is who we’ll come to care about most.

What becomes immediately apparent in the lecture hall where ACT UP has its weekly meetings is the plurality of voices that have a stake in the movement. Moments after a demonstration has taken an unplanned direction, Sophie (Adèle Haenel), Sean and several others debate whether the violence of their actions will be condemned. The matter isn’t resolved, its merely aired and you sense for all their common ground, this is also a coalition of disparate individuals with their own agendas.  

Indeed, as we return to this venue many times throughout the film, a series of different issues are given visibility. It’s not just young, white, cis, gay men that are affected, but gay women, men of colour, trans women, a woman whose child was infected by a blood transfusion, and as a result there are many different experiences and perspectives to incorporate. It’s a credit to Campillo that one voice is never favoured. Their conversations – though sometimes heated and always lively –  weave in the many concerns and conflicts that face the AIDS community and how difficult it is to organise effective and sustained militancy.

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There are several moments of punctuation that serve as reminder of the personal cost that fuels this political action. Whilst the scientific language around AIDS is left largely unexplained, mirroring the medical unfamiliarity the general public and indeed sufferers had during the epidemic, and were often left to their own device to obtain, something that is raised time and time again is the CD4 count of HIV-positive (poz) members. Below 200 and the diagnosis is full-blown AIDS. The lower the count, the worse the fate. As meetings and marches continue, there’s relative stagnation in terms of tangible treatment progress and the drug company’s willingness to be transparent about the results of their trials. Sean’s repeated statement of his declining CD4 count is a stark and quantitative expression of how imperative change is, and how slow it is to come.  

What this also does is reframe the epidemic as a medical crisis, where it had previously being stigmatised and politicised, or mounted as the predicament for the ostracised gay community as opposed to society as whole. Campillo is upfront about maligning the two treatment options available to poz’s at the time, and the injurious medical trials that only the “desperate” would subject themselves to. More than just a snapshot of the past, it’s a necessary reconfiguration of history. And perhaps because it’s still such a recent history – it feels strange to call its a period-piece when the characters all have clothes and hairstyles and vernaculars that would slot rights into a contemporary context – there’s something all the more powerful to its telling.

For all the intimacies explored, Campillo is aware that this story belong to its collective, to the nuances and intensity of his characters (to which he is astutely attuned). His brilliant ensemble cast more than deliver that sense of immediacy, and the spectrum of their experience.

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Equally important is the depiction of its sufferers as more than their suffering. After each major protest – at pharmaceutical labs, schools and gay pride marches, where issues such as treatment, prevention, awareness, morale and stigma are addressed – the group descends upon a nightclub to sweat away their stresses. It’s an emphatic reminder of the youth and vitality of ACT UP’s members, as well as those most affected, and infected by AIDS at large. Indeed, one particularly intimate moment recalls Sean’s loss of virginity and the encounter which transmitted the disease at the age of 16. Later, these dance club scenes, at which Sean is a coquettish, careening and central presence, become all the more poignant for his absence as his body, and the state, continues to fail him.

And yet it’s not all doom and gloom. Paradoxically, the group are seen to dance, cheerlead, kiss, cavort and copulate in innumerable scenes. There is none of the skittishness or sterility surrounding homosexuality that has plagued previous depictions of the AIDS crisis (particularly mainstream American outputs), and Campillo’s film is well-served by a particularly French sensibility to prioritise sensuality. The central romantic relationship that develops alongside the group’s demonstrations and debates brims with vim and desire, defiant in the face of a debilitating disease. It’s also touchingly sensitive to the various strains through which HIV manifests, and as Sean reveals ailments such as Kaposi’s sarcoma (a type of cancer that externalises itself in purplish skin lesions) and mouth thrush, Nathan’s want and need for him never declines.

What’s more, there are comedic moments flecked throughout.  An awkward revolving door that somewhat subdues the impact of a pharmaceutical building being stormed; an over-zealous throwing of a pouch containing fake blood (used to smear and splatter across the walls/faces of perpetrators) that subsequently douses one of its members; the ridicule of lacklustre slogans being suggested at meetings. A cornucopia of emotions are explored, from grief to gaiety and back again.

As with sexuality, Robin Campillo also doesn’t shy away from death and the final handful of scenes are at once notable and devastating for the visibility of a dead body. It’s not ushered away or shrouded in a blanket, rather it remains in the bedroom next door as the group gathers and discusses how best to proceed. Another life might be over, but the struggle is unequivocally not.  

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Ultimately Campillo’s film is a living, breathing, writhing embodiment of ACT UP’s slogan ‘Silence = Death (Mort)’. From the clicking of its members in concord and the rising indignation of those speaking up to the foghorn sound that indicates a demonstration and the house music that pulsates throughout, this is invigorating and confrontational cinema at its most enlivening and eye-opening.

The Second Coming: Why women filmmakers struggle to get their second features made

N.B. This is a raw, unedited and extended version of an essay originally published in Another Gaze.

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The main point of contention in the much-deliberated issue of gender representation across the cinematic landscape isn’t the existence of the woman director. Certainly, they constitute a paltry percentage of the filmmaking enterprise – in 2016, just 7% of the top 250 films were directed by a woman – (I take umbrage with ‘top’ and the fact that our economic measurement of a film’s success is a gendered and patriarchal system, not designed to serve the female population. More on which later) – nevertheless, they are there. Behold: Varda and DuVernay, Coppola and Campion, Reichardt and Ramsay, Scherfig and Shelton, Holland and Hansen-Løve. (I’ve excluded their first names à la Hitchcock, Spielberg and Scorsese, with the same ritualistic reverence we use to refer to male directors).

The central issue is that their visibility and ascendancy continues to be hampered by outmoded systems of thought surrounding the capabilities of women directors and the commercial viability of the films they create. This is most apparent when said woman director is cultivating her second film: the time between her debut and sophomore films is recurrently longer, and one assumes more onerous, than that of her male directing counterparts.

When looking at the dramatic feature programming of recent Sundance Film Festivals, it becomes clear that this is down to more than just coincidence. It’s an insidious bias that threatens to derail female filmmakers that have already had to fight hard enough to have their voices heard. A nerve-centre for new talent, Sundance is continually above the industry standard when it comes to programming and premiering the work of women directors. In reference to the 2018 edition of the festival, a recent blog post of theirs reported

‘Of the 122 feature films premiering at Sundance, 37% are directed by women, markedly ahead of the mainstream industry.’

Notably, this figure is still below gender parity. Despite its progressive ethos, Sundance is indicative of a wider industry trend that requires women directors to prove themselves innumerably before gaining the same level of trust and opportunities bestowed upon their male peers. Women consistently have to fight harder to have their second feature made, even following an initial success. Men are less likely to suffer this fate.

Colin Trevorrow, whose debut feature Safety Not Guaranteed premiered at Sundance in 2012, went on to direct the $1.67 billion grossing Jurassic World a mere three years laterand Marc Webb, who premiered 500 Days of Summer at the 2009 Sundance Festival and three years later was helming the $758 million grossing The Amazing Spider-Man, are the poster boys for this proclivity. This rarely happens to women. The closest comparison is to Patty Jenkins whose record-breaking Wonder Woman took the world by storm last year.But her feature debut was in 2003, nearly a decade and a half earlier, with Monster. In fact, last year The Hollywood Reporter published a statistic, as discovered by USC Annenberg’s Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative, that 80% of women directors made just 1 film in 10 years.

Spotlighting two directors who experienced enormous acclaim at this year’s Sundance; Sara Colangelo with The Kindergarten Teacher and Desiree Akhavan with The Miseducation of Cameron Post, it becomes startlingly transparent how deep-seated and many-tentacled our bias towards women is.

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Little Accidents tells the story of a coal mining town and the secrets it harbours. Written and directed by Sara Colangelo (another trend: women directors are far more likely to have penned the material they direct in what is perhaps a circumnavigation of sparser employment opportunities), this sombre, slow-burning drama (shot by recent Oscar nominee Rachel Morrison) opened at Sundance 2014 to hype galore. Coverage in Vanity Fair, The New York Times, Variety, IndieWire, Paste Magazine and The Hollywood Reporter followed, with the latter even predicting that her “compelling debut bodes very well for Colangelo”. Yet, a second feature did not materialise. Another filmmaker that had their directorial debut premier at Sundance in 2014 was Damian Chazelle, who name is undoubtedly more familiar. After Whiplash, he near-conquered the Oscars with La La Land, where he scooped Best Director, though memorably not Best Picture, and is currently filming a biopic about Neil Armstrong. One could surmise that Chazelle is more talented and thus more deserving of the opportunities he’s been given. But this isn’t a fluke: it’s an archetype.

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In the 2014 US Dramatic Competition program, there were twelve male directors to four women directors. Of the women directors who debuted films, Maya Forbes with Infinitely Polar Bear, Mona Fastvold with The Sleepwalker, and Kate Barker-Froyland with Song One, only Forbes has gone on to direct her second feature, a little-known comedy called The Polka King. But Jeff Baena, who debuted Life After Beth, has since gone on to direct Joshy and The Little Hours, whilst Joe Swanberg, whose Happy Christmas was his follow-up to the mumblecore sensation Drinking Buddies, has gone on to direct Digging For Fire, Win It All and the Netflix series Easy. And of course, I’ve mentioned what happened to Damian Chazelle.

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The New York Times published an article in 2017 exploring the aftermath of Sundance for its hotly-tipped directorial darlings, not all of whom can score headline-making distribution deals and Oscar buzz, and who instead face an employment wasteland. Sara Colangelo is one of the directors featured in the piece, in which the ratio of women to men is 2:1. Describing the struggle that is finding continuous work in the film industry, Colangelo reveals she has since directed corporate videos, and after Little Accidents picked up an Indie Spirit nomination for Best First Screenplay, landed “a few writer-for-hire jobs, polishing other people’s work”. Colangelo remarks that she saw many other Sundance alumni advance, the majority of whom were men.

It could be that the genre and terrain of Colangelo’s Little Accidents is what stalled the continuation of her career. At times relentlessly downbeat, though always tender, it tackles poverty, tragedy and hopelessness in Rust Belt America. The same kind of gothic, gloomy Americana that pulsated throughout Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone (who coincidentally returned to Sundance 2018 with Leave No Trace, after an eight-year hiatus) and doesn’t usually tend to draw crowds. However, when men tackle this topic it doesn’t appear to be a barrier to future employment. Scott Cooper, director of Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace, both solemn and sensitive in their depictions of small-town America, has gone on to direct Black Mass and the recently released Hostiles. David Lowery beguiled Sundance with his slow-burn outlaw drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints in 2013. By 2016 he was directing the multi-million dollar family film Pete’s Dragon, and in 2017 he returned with the critically-acclaimed A Ghost Story. He’s recently finished production on his next feature, starring the founder of Sundance himself, Robert Redford, and is attached to direct Disney’s live-action remake of Peter Pan. His quiet, gritty, backwater drama didn’t stymie his success at all.

Is it that women experience genre, as well as gender bias? In daring to enter a forbidden realm of bruised masculinity, dangerous machinery and economic austerity, Colangelo took on a traditionally male subject matter. In a 2016 British Film Institute study on ‘Genre and Classification’, box office revenues were broken down by genre to classify which are the most popular. Of the 16 defined genres, action, animation and sci-fi elicited the most revenue, and in 14 of the categories the top performing titles were directed by men. Typically films about superheroes, wars, riots, conflict, sporting legends, scientific exploration, historical events and biographical dramas are the terrain of male directors (making this year’s Mudbound and Detroit all the more special), whilst women are confined to more emotional, internal narratives. In making a gothic-crime-drama-thriller hybrid, Sara Colangelo deviated from the industry’s expectations of what a woman-directed film looks like, and thus made herself and her film hard to categorise.

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Categorisation is also an issue that affected Desiree Akhavan, writer, director and star of 2015’s Appropriate Behaviour (which premiered the same year as Little Accidents in Sundance’s ‘Next’ strand)and the US Grand Jury Prize-winning The Miseducation of Cameron Post, at this year’s Sundance. Even though Appropriate Behaviour is a dramedy exploring female sexuality and identity, and therefore well within the sphere of suitable material for a woman director, the reception of Akhavan’s film can be seen as indicative of a tendency to situate women in relation to other women filmmakers, to compare and label them, instating something like a ‘one at a time’ rule. Appropriate Behaviour offers a candid portrait of sex and relationships and following Akhavan’s guest-role in Girls, the press repeatedly referred to her as “the next Lena Dunham”.

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Speaking in conversation with BAFTA after the film’s release, Akhavan affirmed “No one ever looks at Alex Ross Perry and says ‘Oh look, another Noah Baumbach’.” Men are allowed to be unicorns, whereas women are seen as copycats, simulacra of women directors past. If her second feature were to bear a passing resemblance to something else currently in development by another woman director who is also making raunchy comedies, you can imagine the blowback. Yet there’s barely an eyelid bat when Bennett Miller and Douglas McGrath make Capote biopics within a year of each other. Last year an article in IndieWire proclaimed that Akhavan avoided “the second-film slump” by charting her own path and turning down the conventional, sub-par parodies that Hollywood were sending her. She admits,

“I could have made a second feature much earlier, it just would have sucked and I wouldn’t have made a third one…I was being sent scripts that were really big-budget, shittier versions of the film I had already made.”

The problem with this type of thinking is that it perpetuates the idea that Hollywood isn’t for women: that the only way to achieve cinematic success is to chisel a new path to it. This is not a requirement for male directors. It recalls the way we tell women to avert predatory glances and behaviours, without reproaching the patriarchy and its structures for producing this type of behaviour in the first place. It puts the onus on those with less power to force the hands of those with it.

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Getting your first feature made is hard enough: it requires persistence, persuasiveness, and a production company willing to take you on. But women directors must repeatedly jump through the ‘first feature’ hurdle, whereas for male directors one directorial outing is enough to bolster the confidence and secure the funding of financiers and executive producers.

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When production companies are looking for writers and directors to champion, they’re taking a chance on somebody that they must prove to financiers and investors to be worthwhile. The project must be quantified. And in order to do that, they look at a person’s credits and often, how much money their films recouped at the box office. Women, statistically more likely to direct lower budget films, are immediately disadvantaged by this fiscally-focused operation. Consequently, women directors are suggested for fewer projects. When they come to make their films the same pattern is repeated in the securing of distribution: once again a team of buyers and marketers assess whether the film will make them any money. A research study published by the Sundance Institute in 2015 outlined that movies with a woman director (70.2%) were more likely than movies with a male director (56.9%) to be distributed by Independent companies with fewer financial resources and lower industry clout. Conversely, male-directed films (43.1%) were more likely than woman-directed films (29.8%) to receive distribution from a Studio Specialty/Mini Major company. These latter companies have deeper pockets and greater reach. And so the vicious circle of invisibility continues.

This point is made illustratively and defiantly by Brit Marling, herself a Sundance alumni, in an essay for The Atlantic on ‘Weinstein and the Economics of Consent’. It comes down to this: “Men hold most of the world’s wealth” and that results in women seeking approval and finance from predominantly male gatekeepers who inherently believe woman-directed pictures don’t make money and are therefore a gamble, a risk, a no-go.

Sara Colangelo’s The Kindergarten Teacher has no less than 47 people credited as executive, associate or co-producers, demonstrative of the technical and financial Tetris required for this project to come together. And more often than not, woman-directed projects are born of women producers, who make it their life’s work to advocate and spotlight underrepresented voices. Celine Rattray who is one of the producers of The Kindergarten Teacher, has also produced Maggie Betts’ Novitiate, Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are Alright, and executive produced Andrea Arnold’s American Honey. And whilst there are more women producers than directors working today, (of the top 100 grossing films of 2017 women represented 8% of directors and 24% of producers), the percentage is still significantly below equivalence. If directors are relying on their support and sanction for employment, the trickle-down effect is clear.

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Stephen Follows published a comprehensive report of gender inequality in the UK film industry in 2016, and concluded that gender imbalance is primarily due to an unconscious bias. There’s a detrimental expectation that woman-directed films will underperform, both in terms of popularity and profitability. Oscar-winning actress Anne Hathaway recently admitted her own unconscious bias against director Lone Scherfig on the set of One Day. In Vanity Fair she confessed:

“I am to this day scared that the reason I didn’t trust her the way I trust other directors is because she’s a woman….I’m so scared that I treated her with internalized misogyny…or I was resisting her on some level.”

It’s not just Anne. As a culture with a critical eye, we seem to focus on a woman’s shortcomings and consider them definitive, in a way that we don’t when it comes to assessing a man’s work. Alice Lowe, the director/writer/actress behind last year’s Prevenge, hypothesised in a conversation with Another Gaze, that “people are waiting for women directors to slip up. Whereas when a male director makes a dud it’s like, ‘Oh well, I’m really excited about what he’s going to do next!’” Society has conditioned us to believe that women do not belong behind the camera and the undoing of this harmful stereotype is still in its embryonic stages.

The pressure on women directors is intense and I am just as guilty of harbouring this double-standard. Upon hearing the results of the Sundance awards, I felt relieved. Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post won the US Grand Jury Prize, whilst Sara Colangelo took home the Directing Award. These women had prevailed! They had proved themselves once more! It was a glimmer of hope, a signal that their careers might stretch far beyond a second feature. Perhaps even a third or fourth or fifth! Men are allowed to be mediocre, but in order to succeed women have to be consistently brilliant. And because of this ludicrous expectation, whenever a woman’s debut feature doesn’t top every best film list, or triumph in the ratings, or get nominated for Best Director at the Oscars (à la Greta Gerwig – although one is wholly deserved), the clamour and endorsement around her subsides. We think very little of the fact that we might not hear from her again for another five years, and that something about that inequity isn’t deeply, deeply wrong.

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Remakes are popular subjects for filmmaking because there is a precedent for their success. Women filmmakers are still in the process of creating their precedents. Historically and economically they are at a disadvantage, and a risk-averse industry doesn’t tend to put their eggs in a basket woven out of new or ‘untested’ material. And then, even when they have been tested, their success is deemed a fluke, unlikely to be repeated, unable to be counted upon. Ultimately, women directors need representation, legitimacy and capitalisation. The longer the industry lauds their debuts without creating a structure or framework that sustains their employment, the longer it will continue to fail at redressing the gender imbalance. Creating new conventions that make women filmmakers a fixed part of the industry, not anomalies, tokens, or precariously mounted emblems of a change to come, is the key to establishing a cinema of equality.

Top 17 Films Of 2017

#17. Landline

#16. Wind River

#15. The Florida Project

#14. I Am Not Your Negro

#13. Kedi

#12. The Work

#11. The Happiest Day In The Life Of Olli Maki

#10. Beach Rats

DIR. Eliza Hittman. Starring: Harris Dickinson, Madeline Weinstein, Kate Hodge

A moody and soulful portrait of teenage sexuality, world’s away from the lavish sultriness of Call Me By Your Name, and yet just as vital in its depiction of the tempestuous waters of adolescence. Set in the machismo world of Brooklyn, a young man (British newcomer Dickinson) grapples with urges of a more prohibited nature one somnolent summer. Whilst the plot might seem similar to and outdone by Moonlight, the gauzy, grainy visuals and penetrating sense of melancholy and menace will have you gripped from the off, and leave you haunted.

#9. I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore

DIR. Macon Blair. Starring: Melanie Lynskey, Elijah Wood

This under-hyped Netflix release from Macon Blair (best known for his bug-eyed and blunderingly brutal performance in Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin) was a winning combination of suspense, absurdity and snakes. Like 40s era screwball comedy mashed up with the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple.

#8. A Ghost Story

DIR. David Lowery. Starring: Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck

 

David Lowery serves up big metaphysical themes and existential plight in this intimate and melancholic tale of love lost too soon. With its mesmeric cinematography (shot in a 1:33 ratio), muted performances and entrancing soundtrack, this is pensive, lyrical, plaintive and audacious cinema.

#7. Good Time

DIR. Josh & Benny Safdie. Starring: Robert Pattinson, Benny Safdie, Jennifer Jason Leigh

Robert Pattinson transforms as a twitchy criminal on-the-run in this heady, propulsive, bad-feeling-brewing thriller from the Safdie brothers that keeps the unexpected twists coming whilst never losing its sense of pathos and heart.

#6. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

DIR. Martin McDonagh. Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell

Has Frances McDormand ever not been good? Irrespective of your opinion, she’s abrasively brilliant in Martin McDonagh’s third and best feature as a short-tempered small-town mother squaring up to the hapless authorities that have yet to convict her daughter’s murderer. With a raft of idiosyncratic characters (Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell and Peter Dinklage among them) of varying moral dubiety and common sense, it is by turns tragic, brutal and uproariously funny (if you like your comedy carbon black). Also makes a case for Caleb Landry-Jones as 2017’s MVP (see also The Florida Project and Get Out).

#5. Raw

DIR. Julia Ducournau. Starring: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella

A potent coming-of-ager that depicts its female protagonist’s burgeoning hungers with such an unwavering, carnal intensity that you might mistake your desire to look away for distaste. But savour the subtext and there’s a lot to feast upon.

#4. God Own’s Country

DIR. Francis Lee. Starring: Josh O’Connor, Alec Secareanu, Gemma Jones

A salty, muddy, bloody and extremely sexy love story set on a Yorkshire farm. Inevitably its been compared to Brokeback Mountain, but this is less anguished than Ang Lee’s decades-sprawling affair. The love between these young farmer Johnny and Romanian farm hand Gheorghe is allowed its moments of tenderness, domesticity and hope.

#3. The Handmaiden

DIR. Park Chan-wook. Starring: Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo, Kim Min-hee

Spell-binding to behold, this labyrinthine erotic thriller is a return to form for South Korean director Park Chan-wook.  One third of the way through this triptych structured maze of desire, deceit and despotism, a twist announced itself so gobsmackingly and so brilliantly, I was literally shunted to the edge of my seat, where I remained for the next two thirds of the film. Rarely is a film so long, so tightly-coiled and exacting in its execution. A work of artistic genius.

#2. Lady Bird

DIR. Greta Gerwig. Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracey Letts, Lucas Hedges

Greta Gerwig has made a film as kind-hearted, insightful, hilarious and offbeat as the woman herself. Lady Bird might announce herself on screen with the wallop of body hitting road as she exits her mother’s car in transit to escape a heated conversation, but this is a quieter and more astute film than this initial, almost slapstick moment suggests. It’s uproariously funny and wickedly wry, poignantly wise in ways that Lady Bird just isn’t yet and about the pains of growing up and fleeing the nest, it gets so much so very right. (The moment after Lady Bird loses her virginity is of particular, and spectacular sagacity).

#1. Call Me By Your Name

DIR. Luca Guadagnino. Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg

An undulating, irrepressibly romantic film that brought heat and jouissance to a bleak midwinter reality. I was swept up by the sunshine, soaring music and sensitivity to the ecstasy and turmoil of young love. As gorgeous to look at as it is to experience. Chalamet is a big discovery for Hollywood, long may they give him roles as peachy as Elio. Full review here.