Shortage alert! Not one film directed by a woman is opening this weekend on big screens. And the very few femme-centric movies that are making their way to theatrical release concern highly dramatized fantasy situations. I haven’t screened a single film about women coping with the real world.
“A Perfect Day” is by far the best of this week’s bunch. Based on Paula Farias’ novel “Dejarse Ilover,” this engaging drama is set in a war zone in the Balkans in 1995. A terrific ensemble features Olga Kurylenko and Melanie Thierry joining Tim Robbins and Benicio Del Toro as a humanitarian aid team on a mission. To provide clean and potable water to a village, they must clean the polluted well, after exhuming the large and unusually heavy dead body that’s at the bottom of it. This proves as challenging as sorting out their tangled interpersonal relationships. Directing his first film in English, Fernando Leon de Aranoal neatly intertwines moments of poignancy and hilarity, and does a deft job of balancing the roles played by women and men.
“The 5th Wave” is a sci-fi thriller with a female lead. Terrifying unknown beings are taking on human form and destroying civilization. Young Cassie Sullivan (Chloe Grace Moretz) sets out to save her younger brother who has been captured by them. The script, co-written by Susannah Grant, Akiva Goldsman and Jeff Pinker, is well-crafted. Can the female heroine save us all? Yes, of course. But what happens before she does that is all scares and gripping devastation, and survivalist training.
“Lake Eerie” is a femme-centric horror flick that lives up to its name. Eerie. Seeking rest and recovery after the recent death of her husband, a woman buys an old house on this Great Lake. When she moves in, she finds herself surrounded by weirdness and terror. Written by Meredith Majors (who also appears in the film and is married to director Chris Majors), the film exploits all the standard haunted-house scream memes. There are a few unique twists, but it sure doesn’t push the genre’s envelope.
So far, January’s paucity of fine femme-helmed and femme-centric films is particularly disappointing after last year’s bumper crop. I had hoped we were on a roll.
Pre-Oscars preoccupation may be partly to blame. But the shortage of opportunities for women and people of color in the white, male-dominated business of making movies is glaring in the pre- Oscars season, and especially exasperated by the fact that 2016 Oscar nominations are exclusively white and nominations for women in all but the acting categories are very limited.
Celebrities are speaking out, demanding better representation for women and people of color. Female filmmakers are lobbying. Plenty of other female critics, besides me, are flagging the problem, which includes a scarcity of substantial and complex female characters in narrative films, whether Hollywood or indie, that fail to pass the Bechdel test (at least one scene with two female characters who have names, talking to each other about anything other than a man).
Martha Lauzen, executive director of San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, just released the 18th edition of her annual “Celluloid Ceiling” that spotlights women in the top 250 domestic grossing films. In 2015, just 9 percent of directors were female. That is up 2 percentage points from 2014 but matches the level achieved in 1998. Overall, women are 19 percent of individuals in the roles considered. The numbers reflect little change in women’s behind-the-scenes employment.
The study also finds that women direct movies, but guess what? More women get jobs on the crews.
As more films are considered, the study shows, the percentages of women in the most traditionally male-identified roles, such as directors and cinematographers, increase steadily. This suggests that female directors are likely to get work on low budget films rather than the big budget high grossing blockbusters.
With the Oscars on the horizon, Victoria Cook, a New York entertainment attorney, challenged the notion that female directors working in documentaries are on a more level playing field. Cook’s compelling commentary, published on The Female Gaze on Jan. 2 and elsewhere online thereafter, pointed out that in the past 20 years, only one female director (Laura Poitras for “Citizenfour”) and one co-director (Zana Briski for “Born Into Brothels”) has won an Oscar in the Best Documentary Feature category.
This year only one of the five nominated documentary features is directed by a woman, Liz Garbus for “What Happened, Ms. Simone?”
Cook goes on to write about underrepresentation of women and people of color in the Academy’s documentaries branch and in the business of making documentaries. Cook’s commentary occasioned a storm of responses on the Internet.
Let’s hope it does some good.
Stay tuned for reviews of upcoming January releases and Oscars updates.