January 25, 2008

January 25, 2008

This Weekend at the Movies
Two new films are released this weekend.
4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (Limited)
Since young women in the United States have no real clue what it is to live in a country without access to safe and legal abortions, I vote to make it required viewing for them as abortion rights continue to be a struggle in this country even 35 years after Roe v Wade.

This brutally realistic film takes places over 24 hours as a young woman and her best friend seek an abortion in 1987 at the end of the Ceausescu regime. Make no mistake, this is not a fun film to watch. It's dark and uncomfortable, yet that seems to be deliberate because the filmmaker Cristian Mungiu wants the viewer to feel what the women are going through. They are made to act like criminals in order to get the abortion which is performed by a black market abortionist who clearly has no feeling for these women except to exploit them in the most heinous ways possible.

This film has been lauded around the world with the Palme d'Or at Cannes and many of the year end critics prizes yet the Academy Awards nomination committee stupidly overlooked the film.

How She Move
Raya Green (Rutina Wesley) doesn't want to end up like her sister, dead at a young age from a drug overdose so she does the best she can with the help of her parents to get herself out of the projects and back into the private boarding school her family can do longer afford. In order to earn the money for the school she goes back to the world step dancing and joins an all-male team to win a national tournament. This is a young woman who does not fit into her world at all except on the dance floor where she is a star and as good as the guys (which makes many of the guys crazy) The dancing is really cool, but I think that people under 25 would like the film best. Film is written by Annmarie Morais.

Still in Theaters
The Business of Being Born
27 Dresses
Mad Money
P.S. I Love You
The Golden Compass
August Rush
The Orphanage
The Savages
Margot at the Wedding

Where are the Women Directors?
In honor of the Sundance Film Festival I talked to several female directors about their careers after they have had a film at Sundance.

Here's the beginning

It's that time of the year again when most of Hollywood and the New York film world decamp to cold Park City, Utah, to feast on the latest indie fare at the Sundance Film Festival. This year seems a pivotal moment for the film business, with the writer's strike three months old, a glut of films that can't get distribution and new technologies like on-demand downloads surfacing each day.

Yet one alarming issue that rarely makes it beyond the occasional newspaper story is the lack of women in films that were both artistically and commercially successful this past year. Such top Oscar contenders as There Will be Blood and No Country for Old Men barely have a female character, and in commercial hits like Spiderman 3 and the Transformers, women are relegated to the familiar role of girlfriend.

Women are also missing behind the scenes especially in one of the most important jobs in the film business, director. The most recent study by Martha Lauzen at San Diego State University shows that of the top 250 grossing films of 2007, only 6% were directed by women—down from 7% in 2006 and down from an all-time high of a whopping 11% in 2000.
Read More: Have You Seen a Woman Director Lately?

January 24, 2008

January 24, 2008

Interview with Lisa F. Jackson, Director of The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo
Documentarian Lisa Jackson went to the Congo to take the testimony of women and girls being raped and sexually assaulted for the last decade in her new film, The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo, which premiered at Sundance this week. It will air on HBO in April.

Lisa spoke to me from Sundance on the eve of her world premiere.

Melissa Silverstein: Why did you want to make this movie?

Lisa Jackson: It's an invisible story as a lot of women's stories are, the horrific tale of the systematic rape and mutilation of hundred and thousands of women. It's just stunning to me that nobody was reporting it. The NY Times did one story on this angle of the war. But what they are doing to women…not only the militias from the neighboring countries but the Congolese army itself. I interviewed soldiers who were raping the very women they were supposed to be protecting.
MS: It was amazing that when you were talking to the rapists how they had a complete and total disconnect from the harm they were actually causing.
LJ: They [the Congolese army] see themselves as just "raping" whereas the militias are the one who mutilate the women and fire guns into their vaginas. But the end result is exactly the same. The women are shunned, turned out from their villages and abandoned. So the end result is exactly the same and that they parse the difference is just ridiculous, the disconnect is pretty profound.
MS: You made yourself a character in the film. Why did you do that?
LJ: It wasn't something I was initially going to do but people who saw rough cuts said that I absolutely had to because it was through telling them my story [of being raped] that the barriers between us came down.
MS: What compelled you to go to the Congo?
LJ: Here was this story, the stories of these women and no one was telling it. It seemed important to me not to have some hand wringing piece but to actually listen to the women's stories. These are women who are silent and to be able to share their story with someone who was not judging them was an experience none of them ever had.
I went to Kinshasa on frequent flyer miles and with documentaries you never know what you are getting into. I don’t have much experience shooting in conflict zones but a friend working with the UN Peacekeepers was able to get me a UN credential. I then made my way east to where the real nightmare was unfolding.

My radar is particularly attuned to those voices, which are the other side of war. I thought for years of doing a survey film on the fate of women and girls in conflict zones because of the ongoing devastating effects of war. So I went to the worst place first to shoot.

I am continuing the theme and have been to Colombia twice in the last three months doing a film on displaced women. It is said that 60% of the women in Colombia have suffered either physical or sexual violence. This is another one of those invisible stories, and it is a requirement of a documentary to find stories that otherwise you would never hear about.
MS: How did it feel being a first world white woman going into a third world country?
LJ: I thought that through before I went. I was a white woman in the bush with a camera. I might as well have been dumped from a spaceship. I thought that as much as I could it was important to let them know I was one of them so I brought photographs to demystify where I was coming from and I shared my story of rape. They kept asking me about the war [thinking that rape only occurs in timer of war]. They asked lots of questions including, did you family know you were raped? How was it is you got married? They were fascinated that I had a boyfriend, and they were stunned to hear that I chose not to have children.
Their questions pointed to how different we really were. I feel an intense responsibility to them. It was the rare woman who would tell me her story without pleading for help for her and her sisters.
MS: Why do you think that women directors are so well represented in documentaries versus features?
LJ: I've only made documentaries for 35 years, but the thing about docs especially now, is that you have the option of doing it on your own. On this film I shot it, did the sound, directed, and edited it -- I was a one-person band. I tried for almost a year to get funding. I have never done a doc this way but you really do have that option especially working on a small scale. You have a lot more control. This is also a film that nobody would have funded because it's such a bummer subject, but once people see it they are shocked that nobody has done it before. I knew that once I got over there are started filming that I would get support because people would see from the women's faces hear their stories and realize what a compelling subject it was.
MS: What can people do to help?
LJ: We are putting together an outreach strategy around the culture of impunity to hopefully pressure the Congo government to prosecute rapists. We will provide resources where people can donate money. But also it's important for the first world to look at its role. This is an economic war. The blood of Congolese women are on our cell phones. It's important to understand that it's not just a bunch of crazy Africans killing each other. There is an economic imperative behind the pillaging, killing and rape.
To strike at the women is to strike at the heart of the culture. If you destroy women the civilization collapses.
For more information and to see the trailer: http://www.thegreatestsilence.org/

Sundance News
Two films directed by women sold in the last two days. Nanette Burstein's doc, American Teen, a look behind the lives of high school seniors in a small town in Indiana sold to Paramount Vantage; and Frozen River, Courtney Hunt's look at immigrants and single mothers went to Sony Pictures Classics.
Sony Classics Warms to Frozen River (Hollywood Reporter via Yahoo)

More Oscar News
The LA Times does a story acknowledging the unprecedented fact that four women got solo screenwriting nominations. It's still only 40% but that's better than the 0 nominations that women got in the directing category. The subtitle kind of pisses me off: "In a 'freaky windfall,' four women earn their first nominations for solo screenplay work." It's as if no one could ever believe that women would be talented enough to write a screenplay worthy of a nomination.

Some quotes:
From Diablo Cody: "Isn't it shocking that women can formulate original ideas on a piece of paper? I mean, next we'll be demanding equal pay! Can you imagine?"

It certainly marks a new chapter in Oscar history. There is no precedent for four women earning nominations as solo authors of such idiosyncratic, visionary features, let alone three original screenplays, in the 80-year history of the Oscars. The years 1988 and 1991 had strong total showings of women, but many were co-writers.
In an Oscar first, four women earn solo screenplay nominations (LA Times)

January 23, 2008

January 23, 2008

More on the Oscar Nominations
While I loved Juno, I am particularly shocked that Jason Reitman got a best director nomination. I can't help but think that the directing jobs done by Tamra Jenkins on The Savages and Sarah Polley on Away from Her and even Julie Taymor on Across the Universe were more worthy. But the Academy always finds a darling and this year the love for Juno is strong. I just hope that the love doesn't ride Ellen Page to a win over Julie Christie. That would be tragic.

Nancy Oliver, nominated for best screenplay for Lars and Real Girl gave this statement yesterday to Women & Hollywood in response to my question asking whether 3 women in the original screenplay category and one in the adapted screenplay category would make a difference for women writers in Hollywood who make up only 10% of the writers of the top 250 films:

Yes, I do believe it will make a difference -- also to have Sarah Polley nominated for adapted screenplay for a movie she directed. It's unprecedented and I'm as excited about the number of women in the mix as the nomination itself -- maybe even more. What the nominations do is publicize women's presence in the industry, as players, as artists, as professionals and we need all the publicity we can get.
My advice to an up-and-coming writer: develop persistence, patience, diplomacy and mental toughness. Although this is clearly a male-dominated environment, an adversarial attitude serves no one. Put your power in the script, take good advice wherever you find it, collaborate with intelligence and tact. In my limited experience, if the script is good and gets to the right person at the right time (so much of this is luck), gender's irrelevant.
Nancy Oliver- Oscar nominee, Lars and the Real Girl

Other interesting quotes:
“I’m always one to completely deny that anything good is going to happen. While I was trying to play it cool, when I heard (director) Jason (Reitman)’s name I screamed. We’ve been playing the texting game all morning. You never expect this. It’s unbelievable. One of the reasons I adored this film was that when reading the screenplay I could tell how refreshing it was. It’s about a teenager you haven’t seen before. ‘Hard Candy’ helped me immensely. I’m grateful for that film.”
- Ellen Page, actress, “Juno”
“What’s most gratifying to me is Sarah Polley getting a nomination for screenplay adaptation. I was afraid she wouldn’t be recognized. I wondered if they were going to get this great piece of work. I’m very glad I did it because it’s a terribly important issue. We’ve got to face the fact that we’re living longer. This is the comeuppance of wishing for immortality. Back in the day we weren’t so obsessed about them (Oscars) in England. I didn’t know about the Academy Awards. I didn’t know what it was. I got the smell of the thing that it was terribly important but I wasn’t interested in it, but I figured maybe I could get something out of this. I told them I would go if my boyfriend and I could get a holiday in the desert. It almost feels the same today.”
- Julie Christie, actress, “Away From Her”
“Our film is the story of a dying police officer who wants to give her pension to her partner. She died and never got to see the film. I spoke to her surviving partner today, and she was very emotional. Her case changed the law in parts of New Jersey and the elected official who was against it is now running for Congress, so it’s still very much in the press. Our hope is we can make a difference in the elections. We have to tell this story. Hopefully the Oscar nomination will bring more awareness to couples around the country.”
- Cynthia Wade, “Freeheld,” documentary short subject
“It’s been incredible. I would describe this day as effervescent. I fell out of my bed screaming when Jason got nominated. With all our nominations, this would be a 4-by-4 if we were at In-N-Out Burger. Seeing us take our place alongside films like ‘No Country for Old Men’ and ‘There Will Be Blood’ is pretty good company. I’m thrilled to have this happen so early in my career and excited to do more.”
-Diablo Cody, original screenplay, “Juno”
“I woke up this morning and had time to eat all my nails. I always wanted to make this for everyone. You have to make it personal. I didn’t want it to become an ethnic story. I wanted to show the humanity. No matter where you come from, it has to be an individual story. Making it in live action would be a big mistake. It would lose something.”
- Marjane Satrapi, “Persepolis”
“I don’t know what my husband (Oscar-winning scribe Jim Taylor) and I are going to do but he opened a bottle of champagne as I was on my way to my therapist's office. I've had a very discombobulated morning so it was nice not to complain and get to talk about happy stuff, like my oven finally being fixed this morning." Jenkins also talked about being one of four female scribes to be nominated in the writing categories. "It's pretty great. It seems kind of crazy and historic. Someone else had told me it'd never happened before, so it's very cool to be in the company of such smart women. It was also amazing to see Laura (Linney) recognized because she really wasn't expecting it. I was surprised people weren’t recognizing her earlier."
-Tamara Jenkins, original screenplay, "The Savages"
“I was on the phone with my business partner and began jumping around with my son and husband after we heard. As indie producers, we’re so naturally pessimistic, so we were completely stunned. The film is unexpected and doesn’t fit any genre. I also think (director) Jason (Reitman)’s nomination is the big shock.”
- Lianne Halfon, producer, “Juno”
“I’m kind of shell-shocked. We’ve been very calm and zen about it but we were hopeful. Our film is about a beauty pagaent in a women’s prison in Colombia. We follow these four women and what’s tragic about the project is the woman who wins the pageant is killed on the streets of Bogota.”
- Amanda Micheli, documentary short subject, “La Corona (The Crown)”
"I'm in total disbelief. I'm thrilled but kind of in shock too. It's been such a strange year and I'm bowled over by the life of the film. It's more than I could have ever hoped. This now adds a very surreal element to it."
- Sarah Polley, adapted screenplay, "Away From Her"

(Quotes from Variety)

Secret of a Soccer Mom written by Kathleen Clark and directed by Judith Ivey starts performances off-Broadway next month. (Variety)

Check out this funny Sundance blog from Therese Shechter, director of I Was a Teenage Feminist
A Sundance Volunteer Blogs All

January 22, 2008

January 22, 2008

Oscar Nominations
Really decent day for women at the Oscar nominations this morning. Female screenwriters took three of the five best original screenplay nominations which is amazing considering only 10% of the films made are written by women. So psyched that Tamara Jenkins' script was recognized as was Laura Linney. Surprised that Cate Blanchett got Angelina Jolie's slot at best actress since Elizabeth was not her best work.

"Michael Clayton"
"No Country for Old Men"
"There Will Be Blood"

Cate Blanchett, "Elizabeth: The Golden Age"
Julie Christie, "Away From Her"
Marion Cotillard, "La Vie en Rose"
Laura Linney, "The Savages"
Ellen Page, "Juno"

Cate Blanchett, "I'm Not There"
Ruby Dee, "American Gangster"
Saoirse Ronan, "Atonement"
Amy Ryan, "Gone Baby Gone"
Tilda Swinton, "Michael Clayton"


Diablo Cody, "Juno"
Nancy Oliver, "Lars and the Real Girl"
Tamara Jenkins, "The Savages"

Sarah Polley, "Away From Her"


Sundance Interview with Pietra Brettkelly, director of the documentary The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins.
The Sundance Film Festival is in full swing and I had the opportunity to interview Pietra Brettkelly, director of The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins on January 17th the day before the film's world premiere for a site I am working with Zoom in Online. Here is the interview:

New Zealand director Pietra Brettkelly was in the Darfur region of Sudan working on a documentary when she happened to meet international renowned artist Vanessa Beecroft. Little did she realize that this chance meeting would lead to her next film - The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins.

Melissa Silverstein: Even though Vanessa Beecroft is an international well known artist, she is much better known outside the US. Please introduce us to your subject.

Pietra Brettkelly: From what I understand her persona as an artist is more well known in Europe because she was brought up in Italy, but she is one of the world's top contemporary artists certainly one of the top female artists, and her focus has been tableaus of naked women that she stands in a room or space for three hours and people come and view then. Footage is taken of the tableau and those elements are sold as part of her artwork.
She's been doing this for 13 years and in the 16 months that I was filming her she was thinking about changing and adapting her work as an artist as well. And it seemed that things were coming to a head both personally and professionally in the time I was filming her.
MS: How did you come to pick Vanessa as the topic for your film?

PB: I was in the Sudan filming another documentary and in southern Sudan there is an area where foreigners can rent a tent at night -- it's mostly aide workers or NGOs. At night you sit around a tree and she and her team were there and they didn't look like aide workers and we started talking to them. When we were leaving she said to me "I'm thinking of adopting the twins [Madit and Mongor Akot] at the orphanage next door that I've been breastfeeding during my last two visits to the Sudan." A couple of days later I emailed her and said that international adoption is a topic that I've wanted to discuss and if you are interested I'd like to follow your story. I didn't even know she was an artist, I didn't even know what performance art was.
MS: It must have been hard as a director not knowing the direction your film was going to go in?
PB: That's what I love about documentaries. It certainly was a curve ball when it gradually became obvious that her art was a very strong part of her and that she was of some note. So then I had to work out how much of that side of her needed to be a part of the film and how I could incorporate it. I wasn't doing a profile of an artist. That was never my intention. My intention was to discuss international adoption. I did grapple with how much of her art needed to be in the film.
MS: Understating her as an artist helps you understand her pursuit of these children.
PB: The situation with a lot of international adoptions is that there are parents and that's one of the aspects I wanted to discuss. They do have parents but it's through circumstances like poverty, war or separation of some kind that they end up in orphanages or in situations where they don't have adult support. We think orphans have no parents but in developing countries they often have parents.
MS: This brings up the issue of the fact that many women don't survive childbirth in these countries.
PB: I was in Afghanistan on another film two and a half years ago and I went to this region where one out of five women die in childbirth. Those numbers are horrific. That just shouldn't be happening and as the so-called privileged people there is so much more we can be doing so that these children don’t need adoption to save them. I don't think it should be a given that our world is better than their world. One of the things I wanted to discuss was do we want our future as a global community to be a situation that we have the better world and the better life so therefore we try to bring these children to our world.
MS: We realize very far into the film that Vanessa's husband [Greg Durkin] knows nothing about her intentions of adopting the twins. Why didn't she tell him?
PB: It's hard for me to say what she was thinking because I would tend to think in a different way as would you, so it's hard to figure out her motivation. She seemed to have convinced herself that she was researching the subject and then she would broach it with him and he would say of course. I do think she was generally surprised that he wasn't interested in adopting the children. He's an intelligent person, socially and culturally sensitive, and he could appreciate that all children need an education and clean water something all children should have and these children didn't. I think she thought that he would agree to it.
MS: She seems to be the type of person who gets her way a lot.
PB: Yes.
MS: She thought she could probably convince him to do this and she fell apart when she realized it wasn't going to happen. Talk about the scene where she has a breakdown after this realization.
PB: We were shopping with her and she got a phone call and we just wandered out onto the street hanging out in the mall and then she came out and we could see that she was crying and I'm like oh my goodness that obviously was a phone call with Greg. You can see that initially we weren't focusing on her we were just walking with her and then I realized that she's ok for me to film this. I do have a conscience and some things aren't appropriate to film, but I knew that it was ok to film it. It was an incredible moment where she has this clarity that Greg is not going to agree to the adoption and that it isn't going to go forward. She was thinking well how do I now express my emotions that I had for the twins and the Sudan and for her it was through her work.
MS: You are an active participant in the story almost like a character behind the camera.
PB: Those are the types of films I like to make, telling people's stories and following them through a particular or influential part of their lives. I'm not a great writer but I'm good at asking questions and I'm fascinated by people and those are the stories I want to tell and all my films are like that.
MS: Vanessa says at the end "I couldn't adopt the children I wanted to adopt so I had to do something." Is that what fueled the final sceneat the Venice Biennale?
PB: The Biennale was for her an exploration of wanting to do something to express how she felt about the Sudan situation. She couldn't adopt the twins so she looked for another way. One of the things that the film shows is that there is no line between Vanessa's art and her life and so therefore the expression of her emotion for these twins is expressed in her art and the Biennale performance was that.
MS: What are you hoping people think about when they leave the theatre?
PB: To discuss international adoption and to think about people from so-called privileged countries and how we should be helping people in developing countries. I don't think we can make a blanket statement that international adoptions are either right or wrong. But now also because adoptions take so much longer I'd like people to appreciate that she is a complex character. She's different from anyone I've ever met and this is a window to someone like that.
MS: We have many male performance artists who are more famous and I was really shocked that I had no clue about the breadth of her work. She seems to be so controversial because her work is about women and women's bodies.
PB: I know that she really struggles with her place as a woman in the art community because there aren't a lot of successful female artists in her field. She struggles with where she fits in. She was born in London, grew up in Italy, and then she immigrated to the US. She's English and speaks with an Italian accent yet in Italy they call her a British artist. Strangely, she feels really comfortable in the Sudan even though she has no connections to Africa. Finding herself has been a lifelong struggle for her.
For more information about the film: http://www.theartstarandthesudanesetwins.com/

Weekend Box Office Assessment- How did 27 Dresses and Mad Money Do?
27 Dresses has grossed a little over $27 million in its first four days of release. Budget was between 20 and 30 so that means that it will make its money back and then some. Word of mouth will probably be decent. Mad Money grosses a little over $9 million for the long weekend and since Overture bought it for $6 million they should be sitting pretty. Both films will be successes on the balance sheet, but because they are not monster hits in terms of dollars on the opening weekend, they will never get talked about as successes. Can we maybe get a wider definition of success?

GLAAD Nominees
Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) announced the nominees and honorees for its 19th Annual GLAAD Media Awards
Film - Wide Release
Across the Universe (Revolution Studios)
The Jane Austen Book Club (Sony Pictures Classics)
Stardust (Paramount Pictures)

Film - Limited Release
Itty Bitty Titty Committee (Pocket Releasing)
Nina's Heavenly Delights (Regent Releasing)

Drama Series
Brothers & Sisters (ABC)
The L Word (Showtime)

Comedy Series
Desperate Housewives (ABC)
Exes and Ohs (Logo)
The Sarah Silverman Program (Comedy Central)
Ugly Betty (ABC)

Cruel and Unusual: Transgender Women in Prison (WE tv)

Reality Program
Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List (Bravo)
Work Out (Bravo)

A new Criterion set has four films spanning the career of Agn├Ęs Varda, the matriarch of French New Wave.
Mother Varda's Movies (LA Times)

Emily Blunt works double shift at Sundance