Female Directors Rule Sundance 2021 – Is Equality Finally Here?

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(clockwise) Directors Rebecca Hall, Robin Wright, Sian Heder, Nanfu Wang (Getty Images)

Female Directors Rule Sundance 2021 – Is Equality Finally Here?


This year feels like some kind of balance has been achieved. There is no mistaking these films for tokens or placeholders

Normally at this point in the annual Sundance Film Festival I’d be moderating a panel of female film directors and talking about why there’s so much more work to do to achieve parity in independent filmmaking.

This year we don’t have a panel — and I’m not sure we need one.

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For the first time since I can recall, a rich trove of films directed by women at the Sundance Film Festival is dominating the conversation at the festival — even virtually — and resonating with audiences, critics and buyers alike.

This includes “CODA” by writer-director Sian Heder, the film that broke all Sundance sales records with a $25 million buy by Apple this weekend, about a deaf family and their hearing daughter who chases her dream as a singer.

Emilia Jones in “Coda” (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

It includes “Passing,” embraced widely by critics after its premiere on Saturday (TheWrap critic Carlos Aguilar called it an “impressively refined and superbly acted directorial debut”), by actress-turned-filmmaker Rebecca Hall. That film stars Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga as well-to-do women who can “pass” on either side of the racial divide, set in 1920s Harlem.

It includes “Land,” the widely-praised first feature by actress Robin Wright, already acquired and launched into the Academy Awards race by Focus Features. Wright directs herself as a grief-stricken woman who strikes out into the wilderness to survive or perish up against the elements.

And numerous notable documentaries by women, including Nanfu Wang’s remarkable investigation into the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in China and the United States, “In the Same Breath”; Lucy Walker’s ambitious look at California wildfires, “Bring on the Brigade”; and Jamila Wignot’s documentary “Ailey” about the groundbreaking African-American choreographer Alvin Ailey, which was bought over the weekend by Neon. And that’s just a partial list.

Sundance has long been a festival that has intentionally strived for diversity, aiming for many years to increase female representation and make space for marginalized voices. That commitment certainly showed in the elevation of Tabitha Jackson as the chief programmer last year, who has voiced her own passion for gender parity and spotlighting underrepresented voices.

But this year feels like some kind of balance has been achieved. Among all of the 72 feature films announced for the festival in December, 47% were directed by women, 3% by non-binary individuals, 43% by BIPOC and 8% by one or more LGBTQ+ filmmakers. (Two more features, both directed by men, were later added.)

There is no mistaking these films for tokens or placeholders. And as someone who has attended Sundance since the mid-1990s when the main competition, year after year, was dominated by coming-of-age dramas or comedies about a young, white man (“Brothers McMullen”; “Napoleon Dynamite”; “Garden State”; “Donnie Darko”), it is a relief to see different kinds of stories so powerfully told.

“Passing” (Sundance Institute)

Can it be that we have finally achieved an even playing field?

“The moment I saw ‘Passing’ I thought, ‘That will be such an important film for us to create these conversations at Sundance,’” said Kim Yutani, the director of programming at Sundance, in an interview on Sunday. “In this space where the conversation is so much bigger, immediately – it’s a rare opportunity for us.”

She went on: “We’ve been moving the needle for so many years, long before I was leading programming. It’s a long tradition here, to look at outsiders. And now we’ve been pushing so much, putting images and uplifting filmmakers whose voices were not heard on the same level as other voices. To feel that kind of shift is kind of exciting.”

“You have to look at the lack of opportunity given to women, and once people start letting women on the ladders, I don’t think there’s a reason that women can’t make phenomenal movies,” filmmaker Lucy Walker said when I reached her between screenings on Sunday. “We’ve not been allowed on the ladder.”

Walker emphasized that unless women are able to build as an artist, to learn and improve through making movies, there’s little chance to create a great work. “You need to exercise your muscles, build your relationships, build your maturity as an artist,” she said. “A masterpiece is not going to come from a 50-year-old first-timer.”

In interviews at TheWrap’s Sundance studio, female directors talked not just about their individual work but about their choice to tell different kinds of stories. In “Together Together,” writer-director Nikole Beckwith weaves an unconventional comedy about a man hiring a woman (Patti Harrison) to be his surrogate so he can be a father. In “CODA,” the film that sold for such a stunning sum, Heder strikes a funny but honest tone in a story about a deaf family.

“The real problem we have is that these stories are so infrequently told, that when they are, there is this pressure to be all things to all people and to represent every aspect of that experience. And my hope is by telling this story, more stories are told,” Heder told Wrap film editor Beatrice Verhoeven.

Walker, who has been fighting to see more parity in filmmaking for years, the moment feels a long time coming. “We have to see this,” she said. “There isn’t an inherent reason why women can’t make great movies. We have to be given chances. It will take more than a lightning storm to get women working. Sometimes the first movie is OK, and it survives. And it’s the next movie where it blossoms.”

Sharon Waxman