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Reprinted from the Chicago Tribune, 2002.
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.
The Chicago Tribune, Womanews section
Published January 30, 2002
"Real women belong on film"
PARK CITY, Utah -- As three male companions and I
exited a screening of a campy Thai western on the Sundance Film Festival's last
night, we were swarmed in the lobby by a group of 20-somethings competing in a
video scavenger hunt.
Having just convinced an obliging young man to allow them to tape him as he
stripped to his underwear, they were now on the hunt for the next item on their
list: "a director." The team noticed us and, running over, asked of the three young
guys in turn, "Are you a director? Are you a director?"
"I'm a director," I said over and over again to no avail. Not one person thought to
ask--or even notice--me, the lone woman of the group.
By the time one of the women on the team finally heard me, I was annoyed and
considered offering a short but instructive lecture on the prevalence of sexism in
the film industry. But it was late, so I obliged them. Besides, they felt pretty
embarrassed about the whole thing. And I got some pleasure in telling them on
tape that the documentary I was directing was about reconnecting to feminism.
Still, it was an ironic and disconcerting experience. Here I was at the 2002
Sundance Film Festival, a year distinguished by the huge participation of female
filmmakers--28 percent of this year's films had women at the helm, up from 9
percent only two years ago. At the very moment I was struggling to get on the
scavenger hunt radar, almost all of the top Sundance prizes were being given out
to films by and about women at a venue across town.
Some of the highlights: Rebecca Miller's "Personal Velocity" won the Dramatic
Jury Prize, "Daughter From Danang," by Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco, won the
Documentary Jury Prize, and Patricia Cardoso's "Real Women Have Curves" won
the Dramatic Audience Award as well as a Special Jury prize for the two female
leads. Rob Fruchtman and Rebecca Cammisa picked up the Documentary
Directing Award for "Sister Helen."
This is great progress. You see, when I close my eyes and think of Sundance
(and all the other little festivals that have cropped up around it) I think of young,
aggressive, cocky guys, all cell phone and Palm Pilot, schmoozing and hustling
their indie flicks.
This year, one of the more-hyped films was "Stolen Summer" by Deerfield native
Pete Jones, winner in the much publicized HBO series "Project Greenlight." The
series developed from a screenwriting contest launched by Matt Damon and Ben
Affleck. Together with Miramax and HBO, they selected one lucky director/writer
and chronicled the making of his film for the cable TV audience. They also
inadvertently chronicled what a boy's club Hollywood still is--there was not one
woman in any major creative role in the whole process.
Compare and contrast this with the audience favorite: "Real Women Have
Curves," directed by Patricia Cardoso and adapted by Josefina Lopez from her
own play. It's a small, funny coming-of-age film about Ana (America Ferrera), a
17-year old Latina trying to figure out her future, all the while dealing with her
hypercritical mother (Lupe Ontiveros). Ana is smart and lovely, and a bit
overweight--and thus obese by Hollywood standards--but she seems wonderfully
comfortable in her own skin and uses that confidence to embolden the women
around her. The film reaches its climax during what I will call "the underwear
scene." I don't want to spoil it, but it was one of the most hysterical and
empowering scenes I've seen in a long time. "Real Women Have Curves" received
standing ovations at every showing.
As I watched the film, an unfamiliar feeling came over me: recognition. As a
"curvy" woman, I was so grateful to see myself up there--a powerful female
character who wasn't just the butt of fat jokes. Maybe this is how gay filmgoers
felt when they finally saw films that portrayed them as normal people, without the
secret shame or punishment.
As for the character of Ana, her storyline seems almost subversive. She is a
young Chicana allowed to make her own decisions without judgment. She is not
ultimately punished or shamed for being sexual. She is neither rescued nor
betrayed by a man. She does not obsess about her body. And she does not, over
the course of the film, lose weight and "become" beautiful. She already is
Sundance panelist Debra Zimmerman, executive director of New York distributor
Women Make Movies, was elated by the response to the award-winning films,
especially "Real Women Have Curves," given that the movie's strong feminist
message was not assumed to be shared by festival audiences.
After all, those cell phone guys were there too.
Marie C. Wilson, another Sundance panelist and president of The White House
Project, an initiative to get a woman elected president, was equally encouraged.
"The media is our religion and it tells us who is important," she said. "The more
films that are made with images of women as strong leaders, the more we can
change the culture. And it's in the hands of the women who make the images to
Clearly, the film world needs more women's voices. Otherwise, stories like "Real
Women Have Curves" don't get told; as it was, the movie took several years,
several producers and financing by HBO to get made. (It airs in September.) The
decision-makers at PBS, Lifetime, HBO and some of the major studios are now
women, so maybe there's hope. And clearly there is an audience for these films
that is not being served.
I know I'm inspired. Let the cell-phone boys keep telling their stories as long as
we can tell ours right alongside them. I just hope the young Ms. Ferrera isn't told
by her agent that she has to lose 50 pounds to get her next role.
Therese Shechter is a documentary filmmaker living in New York
Copyright © 2002, Chicago Tribune