This year’s Sydney International Film Festival programme included both a focus on women directors from the 60s and 70s (‘Girls 24/7’) and a significant number of new features written or directed by women. It was an attempt by festival director Claire Stewart to highlight female-driven stories, and to emphasise that the cliché of the glass ceiling is still relevant today for female storytellers in the film industry. Miranda Otto (festival jury member and actress) and Australian film icon Rachel Ward agreed resoundingly that a special effort to focus on women directors is a timely reminder that in an increasingly competitive industry (due largely to dwindling budgets) female storytellers need to fight harder to get their stories heard. They also agreed that this is felt perhaps to a slightly lesser extent in Australia, blessed as it is with ‘leading lights’ such as Gillian Armstrong.
Ward’s accomplished first feature as a director, Beautiful Kate, made its world premiere this year in the Official Competition section of the Sydney Film Festival. It screened within a programme of some very strong films helmed by female filmmakers, the highlights being Catherine Breillat’s latest offering Bluebeard, AgnÃ¨s Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7(1962), V?ra ChytilovÃ¡’s Daisies (1966), Lynn Shelton’s Humpday, Maren Ade’s Everyone Else, and Lone Scherfig’s An Education. Less compelling works included Rebecca Miller’s The Private Lives of Pippa Lee and Sophie Barthe’s Cold Souls. Significantly, these arguably weaker works are probably those with the largest budgets and the biggest stars.
Breillat’s Bluebeard is undoubtedly a feminist film, with its social commentary on what it means for women to survive financially without a male provider, in the structure of a sobering fairy tale. On the other hand, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee could be described as an anti-feminist chick flick: the emotionally weak protagonist is shown as incapable of taking control of her life until forced to, when her wealthy sugar-daddy dies.
Beautiful Kate, Humpday and Everyone Else are films that, on the one hand, remain true to the ‘expectations’ of female-driven stories in the sense that they are emotionally rich, narratively loose, introspective and modestly budgeted works; less expectedly, they are stories with strong male characters at their hearts. Beautiful Kate reveals an outback family’s past tragedies in flashbacks through the troubled eyes of Ned (Ben Mendelsohn), who has returned to the family farm after 20 years to say goodbye to his dying father. Humpday follows the often hilarious story of two straight male friends with completely divergent lives who decide to make a porn film together, learning about camaraderie and their own masculinity in the process. Everyone Else focuses predominantly on the boyfriend’s perspective on a troubled young relationship, as he is struggles with class and career issues that threaten his feelings for his free-spirited girlfriend.
There were also some introspective personal stories directed by men in this year’s programme, the main highlight being Last Ride, starring Hugo Weaving, directed by first-time Australian feature director Glendyn Ivan. Ivan explained that the tale of young boy Chook, who is taken on a dangerous road trip by his criminal father, is, emotionally speaking, ‘his story’, one that he simultaneously relates to as both a son and a father. Interestingly, this harrowing, emotionally charged and low-budget work has all the qualities traditionally associated with female-directed films.
It was an admirable move for the Sydney Film Festival to focus so heavily on women filmmakers. But for things to change drastically for female storytellers, it seems it will take an alteration in both audience expectations and the number of women in decision-making positions within film festivals and funding bodies. But ultimately, as Rachel Ward points out: ‘Women really only have themselves to blame for this glass ceiling – there’s not enough women who feel as if they have a right to tell their stories or to helm a picture themselves. More women need to get out there and tell their own stories.’