Resident film babe Kristen Cochrane hand-picked 5 particularly excellent women-led films to see at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival (or let’s be honest, afterward, at a theatre near you).
As film scholar Rosanna Maule has pointed out, the notion of a classified “women’s cinema” has been a site of disagreement and controversy. Is it films for women, or films made by women? Is it both? And what does it mean to make films for women, anyway? As Maule recounts, the issue of what “women’s cinema” means is decades-old and ongoing:
At the 1987 edition of Festival de Films des femmes de Crétail, Chantal Akerman declared that women’s cinema was an “outdated” concept. Two decades later, Agnès Varda refused to present her film at the same festival to protest its “all women” policy and accepted the invitation to an open debate with Jackie Buet — the festival’s founder and director — to discuss the matter. In 2003, the Spanish film director Icíar Bollaín (whose films often address women’s issues) wrote a short article entitled “Cine con tetas” (“Cinema with Tits”) in a special issue of the feminist journal Duoda, in which she defined sexual difference a as a biological detail with no bearing on cinematic practices as a way to eschew general categorizations of women’s cinema.
As I have written before in the Slutever shortlists on women-led films for the Tribeca Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival, the figures counting female filmmakers, female actors, and complex female characters are perilously low. In her book New Technologies of Gender: Women and Film in the Digital Era, (excerpted above) Maule acknowledges the validity of a discussion surrounding a “women’s cinema,” but still cautions us to tread carefully. In other words, the word woman, like feminism (as Judith Butler reminded us in her seminal 1990 book Gender Trouble), is a precarious category and can privilege the frequently represented identities (e.g. white, cisgender, heterosexual women, etc.) while erasing underrepresented identities (e.g. racialized, trans, and disabled people). In this way, the term “women’s cinema” is a form of strategic essentialism, a term I am borrowing with great debt from eminent postcolonial theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, who used the term to describe how marginalized, oppressed, and subordinated groups acknowledge differences while embodying a collective identity.
Thankfully, the Sundance programming is reflective of a burgeoning desire to to showcase and investigate underrepresented identities. Here are five films worth checking out.
1) The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Desiree Akhavan)
Desiree Akhavan’s sophomore film is an adaptation of Emily M. Danforth’s 2012 novel of the same name. Set in Montana, The Miseducation of Cameron Post follows 12-year-old protagonist Cameron Post as she explores her sexuality in the wake of her parents’ death in a car accident. When she moves in with her aunt, the events take another harrowing turn as she is sent to a gay conversion therapy centre. This topic finds tragic relevance in contemporary U.S. society; the number of jurisdictions that allow conversion therapy outnumber the jurisdictions that have banned conversion therapy for minors.
2) Assassination Nation (Sam Levinson)
Assassination Nation looks like it might be one of the most talked-about films of 2018. Addressing our contemporary concerns on hacking and the women who are disproportionately affected by this phenomenon, Levinson’s thriller (starring Odessa Young, Suki Waterhouse, Hari Nef, Abra, and Bella Thorne) follows a group of women who go on a killing spree after having their information hacked in the small town of Salem, Massachusetts. The witch reference isn’t the only women’s rights nod in the film—keep your eyes peeled for many more cultural tributes sprinkled among the narrative.
3) Kusama – Infinity (Heather Lenz)
Yayoi Kusama is one of the most prolific—and prescient—artists of the latter half of the 20th century. Her iconic infinity rooms (a series which began in 1963 and is now an Instagram phenomenon) were recently featured in her long-overdue first retrospective, which took place at The Broad in Los Angeles and closed earlier this month. Born to a conservative Japanese family in rural Japan, she took on the postwar New York art world, tackling racism and sexism head on all the while befriending some of the biggest names in the scene. This documentary explores her life and her seemingly endless drive to create, write, and share her artistic perceptions of the world in various mediums.
4) Skate Kitchen (Crystal Moselle)
When a lot of us think about skateboarders, images of art bros who steal your girl come to mind. Skateboarding has historically been a male-dominated activity, sport, hobby, or nuisance, depending on how you see it. New York’s Skate Kitchen – a collective of female skateboarders – are actively dismantling the idea that women aren’t skaters, but they will probably also steal your girl. American director Crystal Moselle directed and co-wrote Skate Kitchen (with Jen Siverman and Aslihan Unaldi), a feature based on the real life female skate crew that also isn’t just made up of white people. The film follows Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), a teenager from the suburbs who starts hanging out with an all-female skateboarder collective based on the real-life one in New York City.
5) Never Goin’ Back (Augustine Frizzell)
Earlier this month, Addie Morfoot wrote in Variety that Never Goin’ Back (another Midnight section at Sundance alongside Assassination Nation) is a “high-energy romp [that] plays like a cross between Spring Breakers and Tangerine, as directed by Richard Linklater.” This coming-of-age comedy features two female working-class teenagers who decide to play hooky and spend a day at the beach. In an interview, Frizzell notes that her decision to make the film a comedy stems from her own experience with the tonal ambiguity of everyday life – with events that bridge the serious and the comedic. Namely, she drew upon her unexpected pregnancy at 18, which, despite the health and emotional issues it entailed, was “the best time.”
The Sundance Film Festival is on from January 18-28. See the full list of programming here :)
Kristen Cochrane is a writer and graduate researcher at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. Her current research is located in queer cinema, particularly in Latin America, but she also writes on topics related to culture, film, media and their intersections with gender and sexuality. Her work has appeared in Amuse/i-D, AnOther, Teen Vogue, Somesuch, and VICE.