Women Directors Shine at 2005 Films Fests
By Jan Lisa Huttner
(First posted in 2005)
|AUSTRALIA:||LOOK BOTH WAYS|
|USA-Deep South:||THE UNSEEN|
|USA-Upper Midwest:||NORTH COUNTRY|
Film festivals help build audience support for movies made outside the Hollywood mainstream. This “buzz” can be especially important for women filmmakers, who often make personal stories on mini-budgets. Here are four new films from this year’s festival circuit which all deserve your time and attention.
The winner of the prestigious “Audience Choice” award at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival was NORTH COUNTRY, starring a powerhouse trio of Oscar-winning actresses: Charlize Theron (MONSTER), Frances McDormand (FARGO), and Sissy Spacek (COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER). Set in the mines of Minnesota, NORTH COUNTRY is based on a ground-breaking sexual harassment case, and although she had no way of knowing how timely her film would actually be, the inevitable battle over Sandra Day O’Connor’s seat on the Supreme Court was clearly on director Niki Caro’s mind as her camera zeroes in on heroine Josey Aimes (Theron) watching Anita Hill testify against Clarence Thomas on TV.
NORTH COUNTRY is Caro’s follow-up to her enormously popular 2003 film WHALE RIDER, and has many of WHALE RIDER’s strengths and weaknesses. On the plus side, Caro’s films have great density, depicting a full world of believable characters on various rungs of the social ladder. On the minus side, her plots are formulaic and Josey’s simply too nice, without as many edges as her cinematic predecessors NORMA RAE and ERIN BROCKOVICH. Nevertheless, Theron is terrific, as are all her co-stars, including Richard Jenkins (as her father) and Sean Bean (as her friend Kyle).
Some people will find NORTH COUNTRY “didactic” in the pejorative sense (too “preachy”), but THE UNSEEN is “didactic” in the best sense (“skillful at teaching”). THE UNSEEN was directed by Lisa France, the filmmaker behind DVD favorite ANNE B. REAL. The story begins when an Atlanta professor named Roy (Steve Harris) is called to his father’s funeral. Although Roy has tried to escape his hometown, the people of Haralson, Georgia have long anticipated his return, and unresolved issues await him: his childhood friend Harold (Gale Harold) still bears a grudge, and his old flame Lucille (Catherine Dent) still pines for him.
THE UNSEEN was inspired by the 1965 classic A PATCH OF BLUE, but a great deal has changed in the interim, and the blind character played so memorably by Elizabeth Hartman has become Sammy (Phillip Bloch), Harold’s younger brother. Roy’s decision to help Sammy pushes Harold to a violent breaking point.
Asked to defend the “shock factors” in her film, France was adamant during the Q&A: “Every person in this room has something ‘unseen’ in his life,” she said. “When people see how destructive sexual predators are, it will help them come forward [to stop it], and when there are no more racists, I’ll stop making films about racism.” Added Bloch, who is also one of the film’s producers: “Should Oprah stop doing shows on difficult topics?” No, Oprah should not stop, and neither should Lisa France; THE UNSEEN is a must see.
FREE ZONE is an international collaboration between an Israeli director (Amos Gitai), a French screenwriter (Marie-Jose Sanselme), and three incredible actresses: American Natalie Portman, Israeli Hana Laszlo, and Palestinian Hiam (“Hee-Ahm”) Abbass. All three of these very fine actresses play intriguing characters with rich back stories while simultaneously embodying national archetypes, thereby exploring personal and political dimensions of the Middle East in each frame.
FREE ZONE’s fans have been mesmerized by the opening sequence, with its long, tight close-up on Portman’s beautiful, tear-stained face. The clue to what’s happening is on the soundtrack; that’s Chava Alberstein (“the Israeli Joan Baez”) singing her infamous version of the Passover song Chad Gadya. When Alberstein originally recorded it in 1989, during the First Intifada, it was so controversial that some Israeli radio stations banned it, so make sure you pay attention to the words.
Of the thirty-four films I saw at this year’s CIFF, my own personal favorite was the incredibly life-affirming LOOK BOTH WAYS, direct by award-winning animator Sarah Watt. Meryl (Justine Clarke) is a struggling artist who makes her living as an illustrator. Her line of condolence cards is surprising successful, but the cards only remind her of the paintings no one wants. After her father’s sudden death, Meryl notices that her mother draws comfort from them as they begin arriving in her mailbox, but they’re still no comfort to her. In Meryl’s imagination, drowning swimmers and hungry sharks begin to populate her haunting seascapes. Then she meets Nick (William McInnes), a photographer with his own secrets and shadows, and yes, it’s a “perfect match.”
Four wonderful new films by terrific women filmmakers! Watch for them, tell all your friends, and do your part to help them build box office “buzz.”
© Jan Lisa Huttner (11/1/05) – Special for Films For Two. Reposted with permission.