Maryland Film Festival a showcase for female directors

Cheryl Dunn, shooting a scene from her documentary, "Everybody Street."
Cheryl Dunn, shooting a scene from her documentary, "Everybody Street." (Josh Safdie / Handout, The Baltimore Sun)

Sarah-Violet Bliss acknowledges some frustration with fielding questions, yet again, about being a female filmmaker, about how the vast majority of movies seem to be directed by men, and about whether that will stop being the case any time soon.

"I didn't realize it was going to be something I had to talk about," says Bliss, whose "Fort Tilden" is one of at least 15 women-directed features being screened at this week's 16th Maryland Film Festival. "I just thought I would talk about the movie."


The comedy, co-directed with Charles Rogers, chronicles two Brooklyn roommates barely able to function in a society where you actually have to be responsible for yourself.

Yes, Bliss believes there should be more women making movies (or, more accurately, more opportunities for women who want to make movies). Yes, it does make a difference when movies are being made by all types of people — not just men and women, but all races, nationalities and ethnicities. And yes, women should be able to make any kind of movie they want: romantic comedies, big-time action thrillers, broad satires, issue-oriented dramas. All should be fair game.


Only Bliss longs for a cinematic landscape where such issues don't need to be brought up, where the gender of a film's director is no more a factor in getting a film made than the color of his or her socks, where journalists' questions focus more on her work. She knows it's an important issue, and she doesn't really mind being asked about it. Still …

"I just wanted to be a filmmaker," Bliss says over the phone from New York, where she lives and works. "It wasn't like, 'Yeah, I'm going to be a woman filmmaker.' "

Happily, independent film is one area in which Bliss' goal may be within sight — not realized yet, certainly, but within sight. And this year's Maryland Film Festival seems indicative of that; female directors are responsible for about 30 percent of the features scheduled for the festival's five-day run, a much higher representation than you'll find at any multiplex. While officials aren't sure whether those numbers represent a high for the festival's 15-year history, they say it's indicative of the greater presence of female directors in the grass-roots world of independent cinema.

"For far too long, the film scene has given center stage to young white male American directors, and that's true, to a large degree, [of] the people you see on screen as well," says Eric Hatch, the festival's director of programming. "Independent film is starting to address that, and I think that's great."

But few playing fields are truly level, and for women, getting the chance to direct a film — and even more important, getting that film in front of an audience — remains an uphill battle.

Historically, the record is abysmal. In Hollywood, the ranks of female directors in charge of high-profile films include Kathryn Bigelow ("The Hurt Locker"), Nancy Meyers ("It's Complicated") and maybe a few others. But that's it. Over 86 Oscar ceremonies since 1929, only one woman has ever won for best director (Bigelow), only three others nominated (Lina Wertmuller, Jane Campion and Sofia Coppola). Of last year's 50 top box-office hits, only one included a female director (Jennifer Lee, who teamed with Chris Buck on the Oscar-winning animated "Frozen").

But as this year's Maryland Film Festival lineup suggests, that could be changing. Incrementally, perhaps, but changing nevertheless.

"Film was a … very elite boys club, which is not about talent but about opportunities afforded," says Cheryl Dunn, whose "Everybody Street," a documentary on nine decades of New York street photography, will be playing the festival. "There is less of a higher power deciding who makes these films. Now it is possible, with a ton of hard work, to have a good idea and eventually get a feature into the world."

A female voice brings something different to the table when it comes to documentaries, Dunn says. "I've seen films that are so intimate and their subjects are incredibly open, as if there were no camera present. These films are in most cases made by women."

Narrative films, too, can benefit from having a female director or screenwriter at the helm, says Linda DeLibero, director of the film and media studies program at the Johns Hopkins University.

"It is difficult to say that women are more sensitive or attuned to nuance," she says, "but that's probably true."

"There is, in general, a greater attentiveness to character … and I think it's generally true that women can get inside of characters unlike themselves a little bit more easily than a male director can," in part, she believes, because women "are conditioned to be sensitive to other people's needs."


For "Hellion" director Kat Candler, returning to the festival two years after her "Black Metal" short played here, getting a movie made is "pretty frickin' hard," regardless of who you are. While she's not sure being a woman has made it harder or easier for her, she thinks diversity in the field can only be a good thing.

"You want to see stories from people all over the world, different classes, different races, different experiences," says Candler, whose film follows a 13-year-old boy violently adrift after the loss of his mother. "It's always a beautiful thing to have more voices, different voices, on screen — and in the world more generally."

Festival director and founder Jed Dietz says it's that diversity of voices, and not necessarily of gender, race or any other distinction, that he and his programmers are seeking. The fact that they can do that while, at the same time, featuring the work of more female filmmakers is simply a plus — albeit a major one.

"We're always driven by the subject and the quality of the filmmaking and the fit [within the festival]; we really think very little about the ethnicity or the gender or the background of the filmmaker," he says. "It wasn't like any of us, during the selection process — there was no moment where someone said, 'Whoa, look at these numbers, this is amazing.'"

Dietz also notes that if the number of female directors in independent film is on the rise, that can't help but trickle up and increase the number of female directors working in Hollywood.

"Once this change happens, then it goes everywhere," he said. "Studio people are always looking for talent. … Once it's proven to them that they've got people who have talent, they don't care what they look like. They just want to make money."

If you go

The 16th Maryland Film Festival runs Wednesday-Sunday at seven venues in the Station North Arts District, the Maryland Institute College of Art, the University of Baltimore and the Walters Art Museum. The festival opens at 8 p.m. Wednesday with a shorts program, then closes Sunday with a 7:15 p.m. screening of Sara Colangelo's "Little Accidents." In between, some 50 features and 10 shorts programs will be shown. Tickets for most films are $10. For a full schedule and list of venues, go to md-filmfest.com.

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