While I’ve never had trouble identifying with the bulk of male roles across film and television, I cannot deny that I do delight in finding gems wherein the women get lines, and maybe even their own narrative. It’s no secret that women are grossly underrepresented in films and television, both onscreen and behind the scenes. Let’s face it, when it comes to women in the industry it’s hard to find films that simply pass the Bechedel Test alone. The Bechedel Test was invented in the mid-1980s by cartoonist Alison Bechedel to determine the representation of women and girls in Hollywood films. While the test does not judge how good or bad a film is, it has 3 basic criteria. The criteria are: 1) There must be more than one woman 2) The women must talk to each other 3) About something other than a man.
Since the test is pretty basic, it is exceptionally exciting to find a film or television program that passes, especially when I find a film that offers a rewarding viewing experience. This past summer at the annual Telluride Film Festival in Colorado I had the pleasure of seeing three excellent female driven films.
Haifaa Al Mansour’s Wadjda has the distinct honor of being both the first film to be entirely shot in Saudi Arabia and the first film directed by a Saudi woman. Wadjda is a delightful film about a young Saudi girl, Wadjda, who wants to have her own bicycle. Al Mansour was in attendance at the festival and was able to describe the difficulties filming, considering the strict laws about men and women sharing public spaces in Saudi Arabia. During a Q&A, Al Mansour recounted having to direct the film from a parked van using monitors and walkie-talkies. Undoubtedly, the film is an understated gem. If you enjoy the terrific stuff that’s been coming out of Iran for years (think Kiarostami and the MakhMalbafs) you’ll love Wadjda. Given the difficulties presented in making the film, I found it remarkable that girls and women primarily populated the film. What’s more interesting is that the girls and women were, more often than not, shown throughout the film uncovered when in private spaces. Al Mansour explained that while there is a strong market for Soap Operas in Saudi Arabia, it is generally considered degrading for women to appear in front of the camera at all, and so casting presented its own unique problems. The fact that the film exists at all is an incredible feat and you should try to find it.
Last fall Noah Baumbach returned to Telluride to present Frances Ha, a film he co-wrote and co-directed with indie darling Greta Gerwig, who also stars as the title character Frances. Shot in black and white, Frances Ha looks beautiful and playfully recalls the French New Wave’s Godard and Truffaut. Though quirky and fun, Frances Ha plays out like a little too much like a 90-minute episode of HBO’s Girls, complete with Girls star Adam Driver. Over the course of the festival weekend, the film managed to largely alienate the over-40 crowd who may have discovered Baumbach through his earlier more adult work such as Squid and the Whale (2005), Margot at the Wedding (2007), or Greenberg (2010). I overheard a plethora of complaints in line or in the ladies room, varying from “I just don’t get her. She was just too annoying” to “What was the point?”
That said; Frances Ha is certainly worth the price of a matinee. It’s a lighthearted film. Frances is an impulsive 20-something Brooklyn hipster. She is searching for some meaning in her life, beyond the basic problems of squaring a monthly rent with an unpaid internship at a dance company. She is prone to fits of dancing in public, and aimlessly taking off to France for the weekend. While she’s full of contradictions she doesn’t fit the traditional “manic pixie dream girl” type, and this is perhaps the films saving grace. I loved that Frances was far more concerned with the evolution of her friendship with Sophie (Mickey Sumner) instead of that same-old finding Mr. Right fare. Ultimately, the film delightfully balances being both capricious and appropriately shallow (and it looks terrific).
Sarah Polley was also in Telluride, promoting her NFB film Stories We Tell. The non-fiction film offers multiple, and often contradicting, perspectives about Polley’s deceased mother Diane. Polley combines home movies, shot on both 8mm and 16mm, with 35mm in order to create a richly detailed portrait of her family. By learning about her mother through old home movie footage and via multiple interviews with friends and family alike, Polley’s film questions the essence of family and identity, putting the ideas of truth and memory into question. Beyond its innovative storytelling, Stories We Tell provides a relevant and interesting study in non-fiction filmmaking and documentary form.
Meanwhile, there’s a wealth of strong female driven television out there. The current season of Showtime’s Nurse Jackie, centered on a newly sober Jackie, is excellent. Edie Falco as Jackie only gets better and better, and the deliciously silly Merrit Wever as Zoey makes me laugh out loud every time she’s onscreen. Honestly, all of the female roles on Nurse Jackie are rich, well written, and expertly acted. I adore Anna Deavere Smith as the by-the-book hospital administrator Gloria Acolytus. It’s been delightful to watch her turn this odd bit role into a well fleshed-out staple character. This season, the addition of Betty Gilpin as the beautiful but terribly incompetent and manipulative first-year resident Dr. Carrie Roman is also a revelation. How Nurse Jackie manages to be a funny 22-minute dramedy and touch on some heavy-duty subject matter is a testament to the writers, producers, directors, and the incredible cast. I’m delighted to know that it will be renewed for a 6th season.
Last month, Laura Linney turned out what I hope will prove to be a heavily nominated performance in the final season of Showtime’s award winning The Big C. Linney and her supporting cast gave knockout performances, all around. Even Gabourey Sidibe, who was simply a straight-up bad actress when she joined the cast, turned out a touching performance as Andrea. I’m sad to see the show end, but, a television series about terminal cancer can only end in one of so many ways, and thus it came to its very heartfelt and touching end.
Earlier this year, Laura Dern was astonishing in Mike White’s HBO series Enlightened. Dern displays her chops as the high-strung nutcase Amy Jellicoe, a woman who tries to return to her job after a public nervous breakdown. She’s fresh from an expensive new-agey rehab in Hawaii and is oozing self-righteousness. In fact, Dern’s pitch-perfect performance brings Amy’s self-righteousness to a frenzied fomenting manic crescendo. It’s genius television that I cannot recommend highly enough. Unfortunately, it was not picked up for a third season.
Director Jane Campion returned to New Zealand’s television with Top of the Lake, a 6-part series for the Sundance channel that is as stunning as it is compelling. I’m not much of a Mad Men fan but Elisabeth Moss won me over here as Detective Robin Griffin. Robin returns home to Queenstown New Zealand, in order to investigate the disappearance of a pregnant 12 year-old girl, and in turn uncovers some dangerous truths about her own past. Top of the Lake also features Holly Hunter as GJ, the enigmatic spiritual leader of a group of new-agey women living on a compound. She is riveting.
In a nutshell, this column is devoted to exploring the state of female filmmakers and women centered film and television. That’s what I’m here for, and I’ll be doing this monthly. I hope you’re as excited as I am! I also hope these films and series provide a decent cross section reflecting the current state of women and filmmaking/television within a global context. Incidentally, all of the above-mentioned series and films do pass The Bechedel Test. Happy Watching!