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Director Crystal MoselleCourtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

Tribeca's female gaze

The New York indie festival is presenting a more realistic representation of films helmed by women

The Mean Streets of Lower Manhattan are set to become a shade less mean for women in film this week, as the Tribeca Film Festival presents a record number of female directors in its competition.

While depressingly little has changed for women behind the camera in Hollywood since Scorsese’s 1973 depiction of unbalanced punks and mafiosi in Tribeca’s neighbouring Little Italy, indie festivals and initiatives like Dazed’s Female First campaign are increasingly doing something to tip the scales in their favour.

Yet the stats are somewhat sobering. This year’s Celluloid Ceiling report, the longest-running study of women’s behind-the-scenes employment in film in the US, saw women taking up just 17% of all roles in the top 250 domestic grossing films in 2014. This is the same percentage since 1998. Just 7 per cent of these films had female directors. Let’s rephrase that: 93% had NO FEMALE DIRECTORS. Cinematographers were the only group that fared worse, with women comprising just 5 per cent of the overall tally. The consequences for the diversity of voices being heard, stories being told and journeys prioritised is alarming, particularly when women make up 50 per cent of the cinema-going audience.

Tribeca has 12 native New York female directors in the competition this year. And the city itself has produced some of the most exciting and diverse female-helmed talents around over the last few years, from Brooklynite Desiree Akhavan and her semi-autobiographical debut Appropriate Behavior (which she directed, wrote and starred in) and indie auteur Sofia Coppola to Spike Lee’s NYU protege Lucy Molloy, who premiered Una Noche in 2012 at TFF, where it nabbed the award for best director, cinematography and actor.

Meanwhile the US west coast is producing talents like Sofia’s neice Gia Coppola (whose promising debut Palo Alto arrived last year), Ava DuVernay, who directed the brilliant Selma but was controversially passed over at this years Oscars, and former Sundance winner Jill Soloway, who is making courageous and distinctive indie-inflected TV in Transparent.

Festivals like Tribeca, which has a reputation for being receptive to emerging voices not recognised by the mainstream, hope to appeal to such diverse filmmaking from the US and beyond. Co-founded by producer Jane Rosenthal (with Robert De Niro and Craig Hatkoff) to regenerate Lower Manhattan post-9/11, its identity is interwoven with the fabric of the city.

This year, the festival has 33% female directors in its competition (32 feature directors and 15 short filmmakers), the highest percentage in its history, and the figure is expected to grow over the next few years.

“It’s possible as a male director to make a great indie feature, then the next year you’re hired to make Jurassic Park or Godzilla. The access just doesn’t seem to be available to female directors” – Cara Cusumano, senior programmer at TFF

“We feel the final programme should reflect the actual statistics of who is making the films,” says Cara Cusumano, senior programmer at TFF. “If you get almost 50% of submissions from women and your programme has no female directors, then you’re doing something wrong.”

Cusumano says that TFF has no quota or agenda to recruit more female directors, they simply programme the films they think are the best, and the fact that nine out of 12 directors in the documentary competition this year are female is “extremely exciting”.

The star-studded jury this year has its fare share of female representation from feminist/political activist Gloria Steinem and HBO’s head of docs Sheila Nevins to actresses Whoopi Goldberg and Minnie Driver.

The festival’s recently launched Nora Ephron Award, named after the quintessential New York writer-director (Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally) awards $25,000 to a female writer or director who embodies Ephron’s spirit and vision. The first recipient was Meera Menon for Farah Goes Bang, while last year Israel’s Talya Lavie picked up the prize for Zero Motivation.

So why aren’t more females making it at the helm? “I think it’s do do with access,” says Cusumano. “It’s possible as a male director to make a great indie feature, take it to Sundance then the next year you’re hired to make Jurassic Park or Godzilla. The access just doesn’t seem to be available to female directors, and they get pigeonholed very easily and associated with a certain kind of film.”

With subject matter as diverse as war, religion, friendship, love, sex, drugs, loss, domestic abuse, coming-of-age and subculture, the Tribeca programme perhaps best demonstrates that women don’t make a certain kind of film, they make all kinds of films. Here, we select a few to watch:


Already known for her work as a cinematographer on indie hits The Skeleton Twins, Frozen River, Kill Your Darlings and HBO’s Looking, Morano’s directorial debut is a viscerally charged story about the hazy aftermath of unimaginable loss as a couple becomes recklessly unhinged, and includes a cast of Olivia Wilde, Luke Wilson, Elizabeth Moss and Juno Temple.


Since moving to New York in 2006, the Brazilian filmmaker has directed music videos for TV on the Radio, documentaries for Vice Media and acclaimed comedy web show Be Here Now. She often acts in her own work under the company name Purple Milk. Bare, which she has written, directed and produced, sees Dianna Agron (who starred opposite Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer in Luc Besson’s The Family) play Sarah, a girl who, having lived a sheltered life, discovers a possible way out with drug-dealer Pepper, played by Boardwalk Empire’s Paz de la Huerta.


The New York director has been working with short-form storytelling for the past decade. Her series Something Big Something Small, featuring Pharrell Williams, Aurel Schmidt and Shepard Fairey, was picked up by the New York Times. The Wolfpack is her first feature-length documentary, which won best doc at Sundance this year, and which centres on six brothers who have spent their entire lives locked away from society on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. All they know of the outside world is gleaned from films, which they watch obsessively and recreate meticulously.


Born in Scotland and raised in Japan, Australia and Germany, Diane Bell’s first feature Obselidia premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Alfred P Sloan prize and the award for excellence in cinematography, and it was nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards in 2011. Her latest effort sees Jessica Biel star as a clean-living yoga instructor whose life is thrown out of balance by the arrival of her long-lost sister, a street-smart yet naïve woman (played by Girls’ Zosia Mamet) trapped in an abusive relationship.


Writer and director Melanie Shaw attended NYU where she was co-founder of The Collectin, a film and theatre group designed to create work tailor-made to the strengths and unique qualities of the actors performing material. Shut Up and Drive sees two women embark on a road trip to see the same guy, forming an unexpected friendship along the way.


Being 14 is the directorial debut of French actress and writer Hélène Zimmer, best known for her role in erotic 2011 film Q. Adopting an observational style, the story captures all the secrets, trials and anguish of adolescence, as experienced by best friends in their final year of middle school. The narrative plays like a documentary in each true-to-life scene; the camera is witness to their lives unfolding as it unobtrusively records the moments of the year, after which everything will change.



Pamela Romanowsky’s adapted her debut feature from Stephen Elliott’s true-crime memoir of the same name, telling the unflinchingly honest story of Elliott, a once-successful novelist paralysed by writer’s block and in the thrall of an Adderall addiction. Starring James Franco, Amber Heard, Ed Harris, Christian Slater, Cynthia Nixon and Jim Parrack, it will appeal to fans of true-crime stories such as Serial and The Jinx.