A worker paints bleachers while preparing the red-carpet arrivals area for the 85th Academy Awards in Hollywood, California, February 21, 2013. Reuters/Lucas Jackson
One look at this year’s Oscar nominees reveals the indelible mark independent film has made on popular culture. The Sundance Film Festival, in particular, has been responsible for the rise of American cinema’s most renowned contemporary directors, from Steven Soderbergh to Todd Haynes. Beasts of the Southern Wild screened to audiences for the first time a year ago at Sundance. Quentin Tarantino was discovered there with Reservoir Dogs. Ben Affleck gained prominence first as a star of Kevin Smith’s films. All of the documentaries nominated for an Academy Award this year played at Sundance.
But this robust pipeline between Sundance and Hollywood has been conspicuously male. Where are the women of Sundance?
Twenty-thirteen was supposed to be a year of celebration for women at the festival. For the first time, Sundance’s prestigious film competition reflected parity between male and female directors. This was capped by a Sundance Institute/Women in Film study that triumphantly declared: “More Women in Independent Film Than Hollywood.”
Then the film reviews came in—and these ginger steps forward were thrown a few slaps back. Critics almost exclusively eviscerated the feature films directed by women that premiered at Sundance this year. Across the board, reviews of women-directed films in the top trade publications consistently:
• Paid less sustained and thoughtful attention to the films’ craft (visual style, narrative structure, character development). Storylines were characterized as “shallow,” “naggingly lightweight” and “desperate“—in contrast to the descriptions of male-directed films, which were lauded for their lyricism, “feminine…sensibility” and “complex symphonic framework.”
• Presented contradictory and confused assessments of the films’ future success. Films were at once described as “too commercial,” “formulaic,” “conventional” or “derivative”; then had their mainstream viability questioned because they were “tonally uneven” stories that defied traditional genre norms.
• Bemoaned the absence or marginality of male characters, often faulting films for “off-putting” or unlikeable female protagonists, whose authenticity and believability were questioned. One reviewer claimed the director used men as “accessories” in her film. Ironic, to say the least.
• Based their evaluation of the films that explored female sexuality on how sufficiently the (male) reviewer was “satisfied” with the story—a rather twisted resistance to the films’ efforts to foreground female desire (e.g., “satisfactory enough to reach any kind of memorable climax”).