PARK CITY, Utah — At this year’s Sundance International Film Festival, more than half the feature-length movies were made by directors who identify as women. On its own, this may not seem like such a big deal; after all, two years in a row, women nabbed Best Director at the Oscars (Chloé Zhao for Nomadland and Jane Campion for Power of the Dog). And certainly some progress in gender equity can be registered numerically; in the United States, at least, female directors moved from single-digit percentages prior to 2017 to around 20% the past two years. But on the whole, the industry remains overwhelmingly male dominated when it comes to who’s at the helm.

During my first visit to Sundance in person, I saw 14 films, and then streamed another five upon returning home. While several titles from established women filmmakers stood out — Nicole Holofcener’s You Hurt My Feelings, Rebecca Zlotowski’s Other People’s Children, and Nancy Schwartzman’s Victim/Suspect — the bulk of the most compelling were from first-time female directors, many of them women of color, and the majority were made outside of the United States. Even the inconsistent debuts held promise, as did the variety of genres represented. 

Two of the most visually stunning — and emotionally gutting — films came from newcomers Glorimar Marrero Sánchez and Celine Song. Sánchez’s debut La Pecera (The Fishbowl) follows Noelia (Isel Rodríguez), a film editor who decides to forfeit treatment when her cancer returns with a vengeance. La Pecera avoids heavy dialogue and relies on the image for much of its power — from US grenades on the ocean floor to clumps of lost hair twisted into a makeshift talisman — and ends with possibly the most poetic final shot I’ve seen in years. Also plumbing the different selves women carry within, Song’s heartbreaking Past Lives explores the relationship between two childhood friends in Korea, Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), who are reunited in New York after decades apart. 

Shayda, dir. Noora Niasari (photo by Jane Zhang)

In much grislier fare, Aussie filmmaker Daina Reid’s first feature, Run Rabbit Run, thematically reminded me of Natalie Erika James’s Relic, a Sundance “Midnight” favorite from 2020. Starring Sarah Snook as a mother whose daughter’s behavior takes a startling shift after she discovers a lost white bunny, Run Rabbit Run loses narrative steam toward the end. Yet, the convincingly creepy kid, hauntingly gorgeous South Australian terrain, and inventive take on maternal trauma make the film a worthy contributor to the “mommy horror” genre. Equally terrifying, if in a wholly vérité way, is psychological thriller Shayda, Iranian-Australian director Noori Niasari’s debut. Starring the brilliant Zar Amir Ebrahimi (from Holy Spider), the film reveals the horrors of escaping an abusive husband. 

British first-timers included Raine Allen Miller and Charlotte Regan, each centering their films on often-overlooked London communities. Avoiding tired gender tropes, Allen Miller’s hyper-stylized Rye Lane is the rare rom-com in which its Black leads are permitted the same quirks and follies as White rom-com characters have enjoyed for decades. Regan’s Scrapper orbits the whimsical world of Georgie (Lola Campbell), an unsinkable 12-year-old girl living on her own in public housing after her mother’s untimely death. Imagine a more wholesome version of Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank. 

Rai Todoroff and David Bruning in  The Kidnapping of the Bride, dir. Sophia Mocorrea (photo Jacob Sauermilch)

In the documentary vein, women comprised more than 60% of directors — with first-timers making a solid mark. Amanda Kim’s Nam June Paik: Moon Is the Oldest TV pays reverent tribute to one of the most irreverent, and important, artists of the modern age, contextualizing Paik’s eccentric brilliance and technological prescience within today’s digital culture. Kristen Lovell’s The Stroll, co-directed with Zackary Drucker, recounts the trials and triumphs of transgender sex workers in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. Anchored by the voices of Lovell and other trans women who lived and labored in this rapidly gentrified neighborhood, The Stroll exposes the degree to which the stories of trans people of color have been erased from mainstream LGBTQ+ movements. Joining veteran filmmakers like Nicole Newnham and Tracy Droz Tragos, many of the new female-identifying documentarians aim to redress issues of injustice — from indigenous rights in Greenland to pervasive ableism within the medical industry.

In the narrative short category, The Kidnapping of the Bride, Sophia Mocorrea’s debut, offers a critical, often poignant, take on the ways in which marriage rituals across cultures can foster archaic attitudes toward gender and sex; when their Argentine and German families come together for their nuptials, the lead characters, Luisa (Rai Todoroff) and Fred (David Bruning), are pressured to conform to hetero norms. Mocorrea is currently developing a feature-length film around the same themes.

As I braved the Park City chill each day, the experience of watching so many very different debuts by so many very different women left my heart warmed and brain ablaze with what this might mean for the future. Male-directed titles lead the Oscars yet again this year (not one woman for Best Director, and only one female-directed Best Picture nom), but they do not reflect the reality of this evolving art and industry. It’s high time the Academy catches up to what’s going on in Utah. 

Greta Lee and Teo Yoo in Past Lives, dir. Celine Song (photo by Jon Pack)

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Eileen G’Sell

Eileen G’Sell is a poet and critic with regular contributions to Hyperallergic, Reverse Shot, The Hopkins Review, and The Riverfront Times, among other publications. In 2019 she was nominated for the...

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