Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Breaking cinematic barriers


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Women filmmakers of the world tell stories their way, says V Radhika

 ‘I HAVE a woman’s touch and I think it is cool.’ When Ruba Nadda was asked to describe her work, this was what the Canadian filmmaker of Arab heritage had to say. Nadda has made several award-winning short films, including ‘Cairo Time’, which won the Best Canadian Feature Film award at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival.

      Today, women filmmakers across the globe are making their kind of movies and creating their own special space in world cinema. From edgy memoirs to futuristic fiction, from coming-of-agers to romantic comedies, from war dramas to hard-hitting documentaries, there’s a wide array of themes that comes alive on the 70mm screen, courtesy these talented storytellers, although they still largely have to struggle to be seen and heard.

      Of late, however, the trend has been shifting. Various well-known international film festivals have been acknowledging their work by making special efforts to showcase women-directed ventures and female themes. Take for instance this year’s Venice Film Festival, the oldest international film festival in the world. Of the 52 films that were screened, 21 were made by women. Various media reports have quoted festival director Alberto Barbera as saying, “I think it’s a sign of the times. Cinema for over a century was a very male-dominated environment. Finally, even cinema has realised that there is female creativity.”

      At the festival, which had opened with Mira Nair’s ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’, four of the 18 films that were vying for the Golden Lion award, the festival’s highest award for best film in the competition section, were directed by women. At a press conference in Venice, Nair had said that she “always believed in female potential” and didn’t believe that “being a woman was an obstacle to her work”.

      Recently, the platform for women was further widened when one of the most talked about festivals, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), where avant garde filmmakers and auteurs mingle, presented a high number of entries helmed by women. Ninety women directors showcased their work on the big screen out of the total roster of over 300 – the number up by 20 per cent from the previous year. In fact, of the 20 films that were accorded the coveted gala (red carpet screening) slot, six were directed by women, including three Indian women directors. While veterans Deepa Mehta and Mira Nair presented their latest flicks, ‘Midnight’s Children’ and ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’, respectively, debutante Gauri Shinde was there with ‘English Vinglish’, which brought back well-known Hindi cinema actor Sridevi to the marquee after a long hiatus.

      It’s an accepted fact that cinema these days has a diverse cross section of storytellers, many of whom happen to be women. Toronto-based Deepa Mehta, a regular at TIFF ever since her first feature, ‘Sam and Me’, was particularly pleased with the “strong female contingent at the largest public film festival in the world” this year. As was the other festival circuit regular, Nadda, who’s ‘Cairo Time’ had also premiered at the TIFF. This year, the 39-year-old was present on the red carpet with her second feature, ‘Inescapables’, which has been set in Syria. “For me, to be offered a gala at TIFF is a great opportunity,” she said.

      To women filmmakers, the support that has come forth from film festivals has been invaluable. And here’s why. According to Agata Smoluch De Sorbo, TIFF’s Canadian feature film programmer, who makes an “extra effort to reach out to women”, submissions by male filmmakers always outweigh their women counterparts. Therefore, a gala slot, she pointed out, “is very important because there’s a lot of exposure for such films in the programme.”

      The rise in women’s numbers has been particularly welcomed by the TIFF’s festival director Piers Handling, too. He said in an interview, “As a festival programmer and director we are looking for representation for women. And that’s probably the most exciting thing for me.”

      For a filmmaker like Kate Miles Melville, who debuted with ‘Picture Day’ at this year’s TIFF, festivals “offer an incredible legitimacy and authority to directors who are fortunate to have their film selected”. Amy Berg, whose documentary ‘West of Memphis’ was screened at TIFF 2012, agreed that such platforms are the “perfect place to play as audiences are just so positive and open minded”. Berg’s latest documentary, which highlights the new evidence uncovered in the 1993 case of three men who were wrongly sent to prison as teens for 18 years for the murder of three eight-year-old boys, has been screened at the reputed Sundance and New Zealand International film festivals, as well.

      In an earlier interview to a newspaper, ‘West of Memphis’ producer Peter Jackson has spoken about his reasons behind choosing Berg to direct the film. He said, “I feel people tend to speak more candidly with female documentarians. I feel it is much less threatening when a female is knocking at the door.” 

      Of course, not all women filmmakers are comfortable with defining their professional life through the gender lens. Said Nadda, “I am a woman, but I identify myself as a human being. I have several identities: woman, an Arab and a filmmaker.” At the Venice film festival, Zoe Cassavetes, the director of a short film ‘The Powder Room’ was also quoted saying, “I think it’s limiting to say: ‘I’m a female director’… It’s very difficult for anyone trying to make a film…. I think the faster we can put to the side that we are women directors, the bigger chance we have.”

      While they may eschew exclusive labels, women filmmakers admit they do bring a different sensibility to their work as women. Though Mira Nair, too, was quoted saying that “I am beyond gender, inspired by art”, she did point out that women could access unknown realities from which men are excluded.

      The one thing that most of them do underscore is the significance of film festivals in bringing their work to a discerning audience. Nadda put it this way, “Festivals are populated with talented, risk-taking directors, both men and women. I think the women are doing pretty well for themselves and I am happy to be counted among them.” (WFS)


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