Hollywood is narcissistic. A community that reflects the vanity and self-obsession of its constituents, when Tinseltown reflects back on 2017 they will not remember it for the Fall of Mosul, the Rohingya Crisis, or the ousting of Robert Mugabe, but for the wave of allegations of sexual misconduct that saw a number of La-La Land’s power players – from Kevin Spacey to Dustin Hoffman – banished to the shadows. The watershed moment came in October, with almost 100 different women accusing producer Harvey Weinstein of varying degrees of sexual assault; since then the number of accused men in the entertainment industry stands at around 200. It is disturbing to think that up until this recent tipping point these men were able to get away with such vile actions, highlighting just what a colossal change in culture is required. Even more worrying has been the focus on the perpetrators and not the victims, to the extent that some even sympathised with the former and suggested that the latter might just be disingenuous. While it is important that we allow due process and understand the difference between allegations and confirmed guilt, the National Sexual Violence Resource Centre estimates that just 2% of sexual assault accusations are false. If someone is accused of sexual misconduct, there is statistically a pretty good chance they did it. USA Today observed fairly early on that 2017 was the year in which sexual harassment became a fireable offence – a long overdue development. It is easy to see why the likes of Michael Haneke and Catherine Deneuve have expressed concerns about the momentum of the Weinstein Effect, and the story that broke about Aziz Ansari did give weight to their argument that the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have the potential to turn into a witch hunt. What is clear is that they are the beginnings of a belated conversation whereby society can hopefully start to reshape and redefine what is and is not appropriate behaviour, and move to a new equilibrium that makes for safe and happy lives for everyone.
“It is disturbing to think that up until this recent tipping point men were able to get away with such vile actions”
The ramifications of the Weinstein Effect have been wide-spreading. It is worth noting that he is not just a man guilty of forcing women to engage in sexual acts with him in exchange for lubricating the progression of their careers. Weinstein, both with his first venture into the film industry with Miramax, and later with The Weinstein Company, is also a bully. While he made a huge contribution to American independent cinema, launching the careers of the likes of Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, and David O. Russell, as well as providing an audience for international fare from such names as Krzysztof Kieślowski, Pedro Almodóvar, and Abbas Kiarostami, Weinstein is renowned for his beyond aggressive campaigns during awards season, managing to as recently as last year drive the average Lion to six Academy Award nominations by throwing around his significant weight. It was a much welcomed change to have a much cleaner and more respectful Oscar race this year. Far more significantly, however, the behaviour of Weinstein and others has led to a lobbying for greater, deserved female empowerment.
In addition to a conversation about the undercurrents of sexual practice, there has been much discussion about the marginalisation of women in film. So rarely do we see films led by women, and even rarer is the film created from a female perspective. While the likes of Lady Bird, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, The Shape of Water, Phantom Thread, and The Post all featured strong female characters in leading roles, in 2017 only 11% of films were made by women, a figure that has not increased since 2000. As well as delivering more positive portrayals of women on screen, we need to get more women working behind the camera. There was much celebration when Greta Gerwig became only the fifth women to be nominated for Best Director and Rachel Morrison became the first woman nominated for Best Cinematography. Yet if we do not make changes at a grassroots level, and have more studios, production companies, and independent financiers invest in women, it will be difficult to see women like Gerwig regularly nominated. Speaking from a purely statistical perspective, when there are only five slots available for Best Director, and only one in ten contending films is made by a woman (a figure even lower if one accounts for the type of mini-major studio films that tend to garner awards attention), it would be unlikely to have a woman nominated in the category every year.
“So rarely do we see films led by women, and even rarer made by women”
It must be said that 2017 was a very good year for female directors, if not in quantity then in quality and prominence. Gerwig’s Lady Bird led that narrative, earning five Oscar nominations as one of the year’s best reviewed films. Patty Jenkins was the other big story, delivering a colossal box office success with Wonder Woman, and being rewarded with a sequel that comes with a $10 million pay day. Looking beyond those two headline-makers, there was significant acclaim for Lynne Ramsay (You Were Never Really Here), Jane Campion (Top of the Lake: China Girl), Chloe Zhao (The Rider), Claire Denis (Let the Sunshine In), Agnes Varda (Faces Places), Naomi Kawase (Radiance), and Sofia Coppola (The Beguiled) at Cannes, while the summer saw Kathryn Bigelow, thus far the only woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director, return with another gritty and truthful drama with Detroit. Going back earlier in the year, there was acclaim at Sundance for Dee Rees (Mudbound), Eliza Hittman (Beach Rats), Maggie Betts (Novitiate), Zoe Lister-Jones (Band Aid), Gillian Robbespierre (Landline), Kitty Green (Casting JonBenet), Maya Forbes (The Polka King), Cate Shortland (Berlin Syndrome), and Helene Hegemann (Axotl Overkill) in a line-up that was close to 50% female, indicating a wave of change at independent level. Ilyikó Enyedi’s On Body and Soul won the top prize in Berlin, and went on to earn a Best Foreign Language Film nomination, a race in which Angelina Jolie was unexpectedly snubbed for First They Killed My Father. At the same festival, Sally Potter (The Party) and Agnieska Holland (Spoor) had work well received. Even if Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Bad Batch was a critical and box office bomb, it was refreshing to see a young woman able to take risks and create a work of such singular vision.
There are still questions marks amidst this wave of positive change, however. It is unfathomable that Patty Jenkins, having directed Charlize Theron to the Oscar in one of the greatest performances of the century in Monster, had to wait 14 years to follow up her debut feature. Ramsay returned after six years, during which time she had a tumultuous affair in charge of Jane Got a Gun which saw her quit in the first morning of production. That earned her a reputation as being difficult to work with, a tag she has referred to as “bullshit”. As Mark Kermode rightly observed, were Ramsay a man she would be more likely to be labelled a perfectionist and a genius.
“It is unfathomable Patty Jenkins had to wait 14 years to follow up her debut”
It will be interesting now to see whether last year’s success for female directors, most notably Gerwig and Jenkins, will translate into a consistent march towards equality behind the camera. It will evidently take a number of years to properly assess the impact of the recent shake up in Hollywood on cinema, as of course we will not see any projects that are now benefiting for another couple of years, but the early indications in terms of festival line-ups and distribution for women this coming year are good. Sundance again seems to be leading the way: Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post took the top prize, beating out work from Jennifer Fox (The Tale), Reed Morano (I Think We’re Alone Now), and Christina Choe (Nancy) in the U.S. Dramatic Competiton. Elsewhere, Elizabeth Chomko (What They Had), Claire McCarthy (Ophelia), Cathy Yan (Dead Pigs) and Isabella Eklöf (Holiday) had films play, while there were welcome returns for Debra Granik (Leave No Trace) and Tamara Jenkins (Private Life). Granik has not made a narrative feature in eight years since she launched Jennifer Lawrence’s career on the way to four Oscar nominations for Winter’s Bone, while Jenkins (no relation to Patty) has not released any work in eleven years since The Savages got two Oscar nods back in 2007. The examples of Granik and Jenkins demonstrate a worrying trend of female filmmakers being forced into long periods of inactivity by studios reluctant to back them in spite of their critical and commercial success.
There is also much to look forward to later in the year. Earlier this week Julia Hart’s latest Fast Color was warmly received at South by Southwest. Early reactions to Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time have been mixed, but that should not take away from the fact that she is only the fourth female director to have been given a budget of above $100 million. Josie Rourke, best known for adapting Shakespeare with a feminist spin on stage, will make her cinematic debut in November, pitting Saoirse Ronan against Margot Robbie in potential awards contender Mary, Queen of Scots. Alice Winocour, known for her underrated thriller Disorder, deals with astronauts in her next feature Proxima, starring Eva Green. Another acclaimed French director heading to space is Claire Denis, making her English-language debut High Life with Robert Pattinson in the lead. Pattinson also stars in the first part of Joanna Hogg’s Martin Scorsese-produced double-header The Souvenir. Like Pattinson, Nicole Kidman is one of the best actors in the business when it comes to choosing projects from interesting filmmakers across the globe. Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation was one of the best horror films of recent years. They team up for crime thriller Destroyer this year. Elle Fanning has become the face of teenage angst in cinema over the past couple of years, and she will continue in this vein in Mélanie Laurent’s adaptation of Galveston, a novel by True Detective showrunner Nic Pizzolatto. Laurent is best known to English-speaking audiences for her role as Shosanna Dreyfus in Inglourious Basterds, but she has already shown serious chops as a screenwriter and filmmaker for one so young.
The success of Lady Bird was hailed to the heavens, and called by some the first female-centred coming-of-age film from a female director. Anyone that suggests that has a short memory and has forgotten Marielle Heller’s excellent The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Jennifer Kent’s debut The Babadook has been attributed to many a nightmare. She heads to 1920s Tasmania for The Nightingale, which she claimed is not a horror, though that is exactly what somebody who was actually making a horror would say. On the television front it will be interesting to see how Andrea Arnold furthers Jean-Marc Vallée’s work in Big Little Lies.
“The success of Lady Bird was hailed to the heavens, and called the first female-centred coming-of-age film”
This year’s Berlin Film Festival featured a panel named 50:50 by 2020. Rather than giving in to the pressure to lay out a black carpet in lieu of the traditional red one, festival director Dieter Kosslick demanded that we have frank and intelligent conversations about the deep-seated issues surrounding the treatment of women in film, instead of the meaningless displays designed more to protect the images of Hollywood’s elite than drive real, important change. For us to jump from 10:90 to 50:50 in three years is perhaps too ambitious a target. That said, it appears as though we are in the midst of a significant paradigm shift, and hopefully soon the stories of Harvey Weinstein’s seedy hotel room massages, of Mark Wahlberg being paid millions as Michelle Williams is paid $800 for reshoots, and of Patty Jenkins having to wait 14 years to make her sophomore effort will be a distant, unsettling memory – a stomach-churning reminder of our ugly failures and the shameful way we have deprived of ourselves of great art in the name of narrow-minded bigotry.