Battle of the Sexes: The Female Directors of Tribeca Film Festival 2016

Nick Korompilas

The very best of this year’s fantastic women-made films.

The last two years of the Oscars, considered one of the more important film awards ceremonies of the year, brought us some of the most socio-politically charged moments in recent pop-culture history: In 2016 social media flooded with accusations of racial prejudice (#OscarsSoWhite), and in 2015 Patricia Arquette gave an unflinching acceptance speech, famously lauded by Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez in a girl-power gif, about the need for equal rights for women in America.

Sure, strides have been made—at least on the latter front: today, women outnumber men at colleges, female executives are more prevalent than ever, and Hillary Clinton is the democratic favorite in the U.S. presidential primaries. And yet, you would hardly know it from a glance at cinema agendas, film awards, or production sets. So why is the film industry still so behind the times?

While we may no longer need to use the Bechdel test on every piece of fiction we critique these days, the question of female representation is still a crucial matter in the patriarchal environment that is Hollywood. It’s true we’ve seen a rise in female lead characters, but what about behind the camera? And while most moviegoers can readily rattle off a list of famous male directors (i.e. Spielberg, Allen, Tarantino, Anderson… all of whom are also, unsurprisingly, white), how many can name a prominent female director, other than Sophia Coppola or Angelina Jolie? It’s no surprise really when only 9 percent of the 250 top-grossing domestic films in 2015 were directed by women, as Cara Buckley’s New York Times article this past January helped illuminate.

Why does this matter? The Tribeca Film Festival, a pioneering force in film and an industry leader in the effort toward women’s equality, offers a good reminder. This year’s lineup of 135 films touted 39 feature-length works by women directors and three gender-nonconforming directors. Sixteen of those female directors debuted their work for the first time. This score is in keeping with last year’s momentum, when women-directed works made up 33 percent of TFF’s program—a record high for the festival—and follows on the heels of their Nora Ephron Prize, launched in 2013, which galvanized a new generation of female writers and directors. (It should be noted that the Sundance Film Festival has also made headway, with women directors comprising 25 percent of their lineups since 2003.)

Numbers aside, it is the kind of works in this year’s Tribeca film selection that remind us why such diversity is worth advocating for. As the argument goes, female directors, if given the opportunity, would portray women characters more authentically than their male counterparts, and in doing so showcase female-driven narratives otherwise left unseen.

Various films screened this year offer up all the evidence needed to demonstrate that fact, showing in ways rarely presented on the silver screen what it’s like to be (or as Simone de Beauvoir would say, “become”) a woman, but also how the world might look from a female perspective. As diverse as the films this year were, many shared a true-to-life perspective so staunchly divergent from the inflated and idealistic styles that headline the typical marquee. By looking at the small, private movements of human life—whether through a tale of an impoverished mother and daughter or a coming-of-age story in a politically hostile Tunisia—the female directors at this year’s festival offer a departure from classic Hollywood tenets of romantic lines, grandiose characters, startling action scenes, quixotic narratives, and in many cases, happy endings. In technical terms, the stories follow very linear paths, stripped of flashbacks or elusive plot lines, and the camera angles are straightforward and familiar. Few of their protagonists are what one would call “larger than life,” but rather they're people you could have known. Returning to completely realistic portrayals, they shed years of female fetishisms, misrepresentations, and myths encouraged by man-made films.

It is not remarkable that the star casts and biggest production budgets at Tribeca this year still fell mainly in the hands of male directors, but that is also why these films stood so starkly apart. It may even be a conscious choice on the part of the women directors to create films so unlike the blockbusters we know—the projects that come to define the escapist and high-art cinema canons that we hope will one day welcome women in equal numbers.

In the meantime, there’s a different canon taking shape, filled with unabashedly human tales equally worthy of being told. Here within, some of the standout female-directed films from this year’s selection.

Rachel Tunnard’s Adult Life Skills is a candid coming-of-age story starring Anna, a woman approaching 30 struggling against eviction and the recent death of her twin brother, who spends most days making movies with her thumbs. With a profound mastery of comic relief, Tunnard confronts a very personal battle with grief and development through her character’s wayward antics.

In Leyla Bouzid’s narrative, As I Open My Eyes, screened in Arabic, we also follow the portrait of a young woman struggling—here with her individuality and the expectations of her Tunisian family. She joins a politically minded rock band amidst a society balancing traditional values and the incipient Arab Spring, finding, in the end, both her personal and public worlds far crueler than she envisioned. An emotionally charged and nuanced story, Bouzid’s work was an immediate favorite.

Marina Person’s Portuguese narrative, Califórnia, depicts a high school girl in 1980s São Paulo who is obsessed with visiting her cultured uncle in California. Person’s treatment of Brazil’s impending political upheaval, the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, and American pop-culture of the 1980s is masterfully contained within this young girl’s development.

First-time director Jenny Gage reveals a distinctive sensitivity in her documentary All This Panic, about what it’s like to grow up in New York City. Following sisters Ginger and Dusty and their high school friends over their teen years, we see the oddity, urgency, and apprehension of teenage, feminist girls as they balance the present and their potential futures.

Bad Rap, a documentary following four Asian-American rappers, directed and written by Salima Koroma, sheds light on an unobserved area of the entertainment industry while also elucidating the struggle of outsiders. It’s not only the musicians who impress, however; Koroma exercises exceptional tact in drawing out her interviewees.

Vanessa Gould’s thoughtful documentary, Obit, also goes behind the scenes—in this case, the obituaries section at the New York Times. The film follows columnists such as Margolit Fox and Bruce Weber in their process of reflecting on the world’s greatest icons and lesser-known celebrities, letting the viewer play witness to both their quotidian duties and individual techniques. Gould goes a step further in tapping into their personal meditations on their careers and the ideas of achievement and death.

In her documentary Memories of a Penitent Heart, Cecilia Aldarondo tells the story of her uncle Miguel, a gay man who moved from Puerto Rico to New York in the 1980s, achieved a rewarding life both in love and career, but struggled to reconcile his sexuality with his Catholic upbringing. Decades later, Aldarondo makes her directorial debut with astounding cinematic vérité as she tracks down Miguel’s estranged lover to mine hidden reaches of her family’s drama.

Ingrid Jungermann’s progressive narrative, Women Who Kill, follows ex-couple and current crime podcasters, Morgan and Jean, in LGBTQ Brooklyn. Exceptionally wry, the film shows off an impressive understanding of modern romance, the mediocrity of shock value, imaginative dialogue, and a fearlessness in playing with gender stereotypes.

Three other female-directed documentaries stood out this year, including Sonia Kennebeck’s harrowing National Bird, about three American military veterans who participated in the controversial method of drone warfare. Through their personal accounts, we see how their lives have been affected by the deaths in which they were involved, and how they cope with their own humanity and the all too common antipathy associated with modern warfare in the Middle East. Kennebeck boldly questions liability in this impressive exposé.

In their documentary After Spring, Ellen Martinez and Steph Ching immerse their viewers in the reality of Syrian refugees. Through personal camera angles, domestic scenes, and contemplative conversations between families and aid workers, Martinez and Ching delve into the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan, by far the largest in the world—it currently houses approximately 80,000 people. Avoiding the bloody memories in their subjects’ lives and focusing instead on the more everyday consequences, the directors put a human face on one of our era’s greatest emergencies.

The premiere of The Bomb, a 55-minute film focused on nuclear weapons, created by Smriti Keshari and Eric Schlosser, was presented at TFF as a multimedia installation: the work was projected on a series of screens arranged in a circle, accompanied by a live performance by The Acid. Unsettling but also deeply magical, most of the images are of the atomic bomb itself—not just the mushroom cloud so well known, but permutations of all its angles and effects. The project is truly an unforgettable experience merging art, technology, and politics.

On the lighter side of the spectrum, the gala premiere of Elvis & Nixon, directed by Liza Johnson and starring Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey, depicts one of the most outlandish historical encounters to date. The film succeeds by not taking itself too seriously—with such seminal protagonists, it could have easily become humdrum or overwrought. But thanks to Johnson’s keen directing, we’re given more than just bona fide entertainment, but insight into each character’s fragile ego, as well.

Also highly anticipated this year was Katie Holmes’ directorial debut of All We Had, based on Annie Weatherwax’s 2014 novel of the same name. As ninth-grader Ruthie narrates, she tries to make the best of her dysfunctional, and at times utterly foolish, mother and the desperate times that befall them. Spotlighting an increasingly genuine and resilient mother-daughter relationship, Holmes makes it impossible not to connect with the unusual characters and their stark differences in this stumbling story.

The Meddler, Lorene Scafaria’s narrative featuring Susan Sarandon (who plays a surprisingly magnetic widow who takes prying to a supreme level), follows a completely different mother-daughter duo. At times a touch too dramatic, Scafaria’s loosely autobiographical film is nonetheless heartfelt and unapologetic in airing its main character’s flaws.

Priscilla Anany’s feature Children of the Mountain, presented in Twi, follows a mother whose birth to a deformed child makes her a victim of cruelty in her Ghanaian community. The director champions a sobering chronicle of one woman wavering between feelings of strong devotion and duty, and her own self-preservation. It’s well deserved that Anany should win the Audience Award’s Best New Narrative Director title, and the film, runner-up for Best Narrative Feature.

Image Credits: Kino Lorber, As I Open My Eyes; Diane Russo, Women Who Kill; Selasie Djameh, Children of the Mountain