Volume 19 Issue 50 | April 27 - May 3, 2007

A Downtown Express Special Supplement

Tribeca Film Festival 2007

All photos Courtesy the Tribeca Film Festival

Clockwise from left: Mary Stuart Masterson on the set of her film “The Cake Eaters;” Abby Epstein, director of “The Business of Being Born;” Beth Murphy, director of “Beyond Belief;” A scene from “The Cake Eaters,” actress Mary Stuart Masterson’s directorial debut;
“The Business of Being Born” examines the way American women have babies; “Beyond Belief” follows two 9/11 widows as they travel to Kabul in order to help Afghani widows.

Reel women

Tribeca’s full slate of female-directed films

By Sarah Norris

Lucky for us, New York isn’t Hollywood.

According to the recent Celluloid Ceiling study, which records the number of female filmmakers working today, women directed only seven percent of the top 250 domestic grossing movies last year. Dr. Martha Lauzen, who spearheads the annual report, says that says there is no grand conspiracy: men are simply comfortable hiring other men. But the Tribeca Film Festival seems to buck this trend. Of the 157 feature films showcased in this year’s festival, women directed almost twenty percent of them. The subjects of these female-directed movies range from surfing to Latin American history, proving that there’s a call for female directors outside of romantic comedies.

Mary Stuart Masterson’s movie, “The Cake Eaters,” is a small-town drama that explores two interconnected families coming to grips with love in the face of tragedy. In a recent phone interview, Masterson said that one of the film’s stars, Bruce Dern, called her before filming to say, “Don’t be afraid of the word ‘sweet’ when you make this movie.”

His comment suggests that sweetness is seen as the purview of women, but Masterson disagrees. “It takes courage not to be cynical,” she says. “ ‘Sweet’ means raw and vulnerable — these are things that I think women are better at being but are not any less appealing to men. I’m not drawn to shock and awe — the intentional grossness of ‘Jackass’ humor — but to fascinating characters doing fascinating things.”

For Masterson, the transition from acting to directing was long overdue. “Directing uses the full breadth of my creativity rather than a narrow bandwidth when I’m limited to me — my age, my sex.” She describes witnessing male colleagues who were of equal stature to her (“twenty years ago,” she jokes) having a comparatively easy time making their way as directors.

Masterson, meanwhile, tried unsuccessfully for years to get a few different projects off the ground. “I never had any trouble with people thinking I shouldn’t be the director,” she said, “but there is something about entrusting millions of dollars, as a business venture, to a woman.” This is less of an issue with independent films and documentaries, which helps to explain why so many women direct lower-budget movies. This year, of the 59 films, including shorts, directed by women, 20 are documentaries.

“As the money goes up, we can only trust our boys,” Abigail Child says sarcastically. An experimental and documentary filmmaker since 1970, Child believes it has become less difficult for female directors to make films — but only slightly. “It’s inching towards parity, although Hollywood is a boy’s club to the nth degree,” she sighs. Her documentary, “On the Downlow,” is about four African-American men in Cleveland who are in committed relationships with women on the surface, but secretly having sexual relationships with men. It was commissioned by a cable channel that backed out during filming; the rest of the production was funded by Child herself, who felt that the people and situations she’d captured were too remarkable to let go.

“The term ‘downlow,’ ” she says, “can describe anyone who’s cheating on their lover. This is an extremely important film for the African-American community, the gay community, for anyone interested in sexuality.” The fact that her film was made at a financial cost to herself makes it clear that money wasn’t a primary motivation. “I couldn’t support myself with the films I make,” Child says, “but this is too valuable to sit on the shelf.”

First-time feature director Talia Lugacy is equally committed to her work. “You sort of thrive on enthusiasm alone — and bagels,” she says. Her film, “Descent,” a psychological thriller, stars Rosario Dawson as a woman who is raped and sent into a spiral of drugs and despair before being reunited with her attacker. But “Descent” isn’t an open and shut drama. “It’s not your typical ‘Rah-Rah!’ we got what we wanted movie,” says Lugacy. “It isn’t biased towards men or women.” Lugacy, who co-wrote the movie with Brian Priest, spent eighteen months looking for financing, only to be told repeatedly to make changes. The level of emotion and violence made people, especially men, very uncomfortable. Ultimately, they shot the movie on 35mm film in New York, without changing a word of the original script. And like a true Hollywood ending, their determination and faith paid off: the film was recently picked up for distribution.

“Women can’t float by like some guys can; they have to be really good. You have to show them your stuff right away before they eat you alive,” says Abby Epstein, director of “The Business of Being Born.” The film examines the way American women have babies, interweaving personal journeys, including Epstein’s, of couples who decide to give birth on their own terms. Epstein, who comes from a theater background, said she worked with male actors three times her age who spent the first day testing her before she won them over. It certainly helped that her personality, in her own words, “can be very alpha.”

Previously, Epstein made a documentary about V-day, which is how she met Ricki Lake, the executive producer of “The Business of Being Born.” “Making this film answered questions that I didn’t know I was supposed to have,” said Epstein. “I would have gotten pregnant and gone to my ob-gyn and done whatever they told me to do. I wouldn’t have even known that there was another type of experience to have.”

As is the case with any labor of love, all of these films developed as a result of the filmmakers’ passion for their subjects. Surfer Carolina Cruz Santiago, for instance, chose to make a film for her masters’ thesis at the New School about the city’s surfing community. Like Masterson, her 22-minute “Aloha New York” marks her directorial debut.

“I’m interested in real stories, real people, and this was an exploration of my own story,” Santiago says. “I moved here from Hawaii and California and I was torn between being a New Yorker and a surfer. I started going to Rockaway Beach, where the community isn’t competitive at all. It’s shocking that, here in the cutthroat capital of the world, there’s not any aggression [among surfers]. There are doctors and waitresses and blue-collar workers but you’d never know that. Water is the great equalizer.”

When asked whether there are themes that female filmmakers gravitate to, Santiago shies away from stereotyping. But in general, she says, the topics women choose tend to be more humanistic. “My film is about a sport, but it’s also about how a sport allows us to transcend this place and be connected to nature and to each other.”

Connection is a theme also named by director Beth Murphy, whose documentary, “Beyond Belief,” follows two 9/11 widows as they travel to Kabul in order to help Afghani widows. “I did not set out to try to make films that focus on women,” she says. “My starting point was giving a voice to voiceless populations. You think, ‘Who is disenfranchised? Who might have the least amount of access to media?’ It was probably naïve of me not to see that these would be a lot of women’s stories.”

Still, like all of the female directors interviewed, Epstein is quick to explain that her films were not made for women only. “Men who see this movie are always surprised by how drawn in they are — it’s really about the human experience and not interfering in a life process. All of us have a connection to that.”

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