Spotlight shines on women at 42nd annual Atlanta Film Festival

It’s been a tough few years for American women. On one hand the solidarity of the 2017 Women’s March on Washington offered a moment of unity and hope for positive change in promoting issues of pay equity, women’s health and reproductive rights. But more recently, the escalating revelations in the #metoo movement of rampant sexual harassment and workplace discrimination across industries have proven a depressing affirmation that there are still huge cultural hurdles left to leap.

And yet, for some female filmmakers, the #metoo movement has been a powerful and necessary call to arms, shedding light on the need for female stories and female perspectives in the industry.

"Now is an exciting time to be making films and telling these stories, because there aren't as many expectations of rejection or pressures to be polite," says Atlanta writer/director Katie Orr, who makes her feature film debut at this year's Atlanta Film Festival with "Poor Jane," a portrait of an lovelorn middle-aged woman dipping a toe into infidelity. "Women are empowered right now and instead of nicely asking for a chance, we're saying, 'No, you will listen to our stories and we will be the ones doing the storytelling.'"

In many ways this year's Atlanta Film Festival is the #metoo fest, an affirmation of the power of women's voices and stories in an industry that has often rejected them. If you're looking for tales of extraordinary women and films made by them, the 42nd annual Atlanta Film Festival may be the emotional and psychological balm to a world that can seem wallpapered with setbacks.

Forty-four percent of the films at this year’s festival are directed by women, a figure that demonstrates the ATLFF’s commitment to the independent film spirit.

“One of the biggest strengths of independent films, and by extension the film festivals that showcase them, is the ability to amplify voices and perspectives rarely acknowledged by mainstream film,” says programming director Alyssa Armand.

Notable films this year include “RGB,” directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s profile of a woman in a position of extraordinary power and influence, who has become a kind of unlikely superhero to a generation of women, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Women of every class, age and inclination are featured in the 2018 festival where filmmakers from China to Belgium offer copious reminders that there are not only female directors around the world telling impactful stories, but an inspiring array of female heroines.

In the powerful documentary with animated elements "Liyana," directed by Aaron and Amanda Kopp, young Swaziland orphans create a fierce, brave storybook heroine as a form of therapy, to help them confront their own traumas. And on the other side of the globe, documentarian Morissa Maltz tells the very personal story "Ingrid," about an independent, self-actualized former fashion model living alone in the middle of the Oklahoma forest in a home she built herself, where raising (and killing) rabbits, making art and living a self-sustaining life off the grid defies every expectation of what it means to be a 73-year-old woman.

Assertions of a female vantage on the world and utterly new ways of looking at women at different stages of their lives, from old age to coming of age, are courtesy not just of women directors, but of men too. Social media star Bo Burnham makes his directorial debut with an already critically heralded tale of a 13-year-old girl making the painful transition from middle school to high school against a perilous landscape of social media self-appraisal in "Eighth Grade," the festival's closing night film.

Some of this year's films fit within the parameters of what might be dismissively termed "women's issues" (if you consider war films and mob movies "men's issues") like Lebanese-American Noor Gharzeddine's engaging, thoughtful film about a friendship and cultural miscommunication that develops between a young, progressive American student and a Lebanese wife and mother trapped in a more traditional world, "Are You Glad I'm Here." 

But just as often, these women-directed films tackle global subject matter, untethered from issues of gender. Chinese-American director Cathy Yan's film "Dead Pigs" is a deliciously entertaining, funny and poignant tale of modern China where rapid gentrification, corporate malfeasance and class divide take a vicious toll on ordinary people.

Also centered on topical politics, Geeta Gandbhir and Pakistani-born Asad Faruqi's "Armed With Faith," centers on courageous Pakistani bomb-diffusers contending with the daily onslaught of homemade explosives in their country. That film challenges the often one-sided, narrow depictions of Muslims in the media, but also shows the difference in working styles when women direct. As with several other films in this year's ATLFF, "Armed With Faith" was co-directed and credited to two makers, in this case because Faruqi was able to gain access in a male-centric Pakistan culture inaccessible to Gandbhir. But that kind of collaboration also demonstrates how female directors are often more comfortable sharing credit and working in tandem, less married to the usual ideal of the solitary genius model of traditional filmmaking.

In addition to spotlighting promising newcomers like Atlanta's Katie Orr and Noor Gharzeddine directing her first feature, this year's fest boasts the Atlanta debuts of works by renowned independent female directors including Lynne Ramsay and Debra Granik. Scottish art house phenomenon Lynne Ramsay ("Ratcatcher," "Morvern Callar," "We Need to Talk About Kevin") debuts her Cannes Award-winning feature "You Were Never Really Here," described as a "Taxi Driver" redux, which garnered Best Actor and Best Screenplay awards at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival and centers on a PTSD-afflicted combat veteran (Joaquin Phoenix) rescuing trafficked girls.

And Debra Granik, the woman who may be single-handedly responsible for introducing the world to the celebrity tsunami of Jennifer Lawrence (in her debut feature "Winter's Bone") returns with another tale of a determined, questing young girl. Granik's "Leave No Trace" hones in on Thomasin McKenzie and her off-the-grid father, with whom she leads an idyllic if precarious life in a Portland park, until their alternative existence is threatened. Like other directors who have tackled coming-of-age from a female point of view, Granik sees part of her mission to counter the one-dimensionality that has often occasioned Hollywood portraits of girls and women.

“I think roles where girls and teen women reflect their experiences of the world make a difference in a complex way, a way that slowly changes many business-as-usual practices in film entertainment,” says Granik. “I think that these fuller roles mean that a coming of age story or growing up story do not have to heavily sexualize a female character in order to make her interesting. With a central role, the story has the space to depict dimensions of her. Dimensionality is the key change, the progress that comes from telling more diverse stories.”

Like many of the stories directed by women or featuring complex female characters in this year’s Atlanta Film Festival, for Granik the #metoo effect is upending narrative clichés and the very narrow way that women have been depicted in film, the better to change how they are treated in the real world. “Time is up on some of these very tired roles and ways for women to appear in stories. We’ve seen them in these predictable roles for centuries, so there’s an opening right now to try out some new practices.”


Atlanta Film Festival. April 13-22, various venues, passes from $75-$750, 470-296-0170.