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The Surge of Women at Sundance – And What it Means For Filmmaking

Women directors reached parity in the competition section, and it is changing the content and tone of the movies

Sex is always a big topic at Sundance, but this year it come from the women’s perspective. That’s because for the first time Sundance has an equal number of women as men directors in competition — eight — with more than a dozen other women directors in other sections of the festival.

So, yes, Sundance 2013 brings men with midlife crises (Drake Doremus’ “Breathe In”) and closeted literary giants (“Kill Your Darlings”). But suddenly there are women with midlife crises too, and life-altering problems told from a female perspectiveGetty Images.

>> In “Concussion” by Stacie Passon (below), a woman adopts a secret life as a lesbian prostitute.

>> In (right) Lynn Shelton’s “Touchy Feely,” a massage therapist (Rosemarie DeWitt) seeks to understand why she suddenly can’t touch her clients without disgust.

>> In Anne Fontaine’s “2 Mothers,” not in competition, two best friends  – played by Naomi Watts and Robin Wright — have long-term affairs with one another’s sons.

>> In “Afternoon Delight,” writer-director Jill Soloway explores the ennui of an L.A. housewife who tries to rescue a stripper by hiring her as her nanny.

The topics in the documentary section also suggest a women’s perspective by filmmakers, whether in “After Tiller,” about the four remaining doctors in America who perform late-term abortions, or “Anita,” a look at the life of Anita Hill and her explosive accusations against Clarence Thomas or a deep dive by Christina Voros into the online sex industry (“kink”).

Liz Garcia, director of the feature "The Lifeguard," said, “It’s tremendously exciting for me to have achieved the dream of career in a year when it is so important for women. I’m so proud.”

Also read: Sex – and Life – From a Woman's Perspective in Sundance (Photos)

After Tiller slideshowAfter so many years of debate over the reason for the lack of women directors, it is hard to know if this year marks a watershed of change or represents a welcome one-time bump. Either way, the directors themselves believe it represents a significant step toward greater balance.

“I think it’s only a matter of time that women achieve parity,” Passon, the director of “Concussion,” said in an interview with TheWrap. A commercials director for many years, this is her first feature film. “Because of technology, we’re starting to see new distribution platforms and a low barrier to making movies,” she said. “I never saw a reason to do a film, I thought it would never get made. Before, the chances (for financing) were lottery-esque.”

Shelton (“Humpday,” “My Sister’s Sister”) is no newcomer to Sundance, but in introducing “Touchy Feely” on Saturday, she said that the story came largely from her own life, channeled into the character of Abby, played by DeWitt.

“This is a film more from the inside out,” Shelton said. “I was drawing a lot from my own experiences. This is ripped from the pages of my own life — the crying in the grocery store…. The precariousness of self-confidence, the need to figure out how to ground yourself.”

The comment points to how much independent filmmaking is driven by the vision and voice of the director, who in many cases is also the writer.  As DeWitt noted: “I didn’t understand this character at all. It requires a tremendous amount of (faith). You leap in with Lynn and you’re not sure where you’re headed.”

Many of the movies by women directors deal with women exploring their sexuality, either at a young or old age. And the classic Sundance coming-of-age theme plays differently when a young girl is doing the aging.

Naomi Foner (right), a veteran screenwriter, joins the lineup in directing her first film at age 65, “Very Good Girls” starring Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen, in the premieres section of the festival. That one is a coming of age story about two young women who fall for the same guy, in a long, hot New York summer.

Foner, who is also the mother of Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, said thatGetty Images it was largely fear that had held her back from directing until now. “What’s sad is I could have done it sooner, and I didn’t,” she said in a reflective conversation on Main Street in Park City. Foner, whose ex-husband is director Stephen Gyllenhaal, said she worried about things she shouldn’t have – upstaging her husband, or not knowing which lens to use in a shot.

“I thought I needed to know more than I did,” she said. “An aspect had to do with my sense that I wasn’t up to it, that I didn’t have the training.” Over time she learned that others on the set could substitute expertise she lacked, and she learned from observing other directors – and also disagreeing with how they shot her scripts.

Foner (right) says she is determined to have a third act in her career as a director. “I have 25 years of creative work ahead of me,” she said. “Now my children are grown and I have the freedom to do what I couldn’t do before. And I want my daughters and my granddaughters to see that.”

In “The Lifeguard,” first-time director — and former lifeguard — Garcia tells the story of a 20-something woman who hits the panic button in her young career as a reporter, and moves back home with her parents to take up the lifeguarding job she had in high school.

Getty ImagesKristen Bell (right, with Garcia) plays the smart and sassy Leigh, and this film — like several others — depicts her having a lusty affair with a younger man. In this case, an under-aged one.

Garcia is critical of what she calls “pervasive sexism” in the entertainment industry. “On every level, bias is allowed,” she said. “I’ve seen female directors mistreated by DPs, and their concerns ignored by showrunners.”

Said Bell, who stars as the lifeguard of the title, “I’m less excited about how many female directors there are as I am exasperated that it’s getting this much attention. We’re 50 percent of the world — handle it.”

Passon predicted that the rise of women directors will change the content of movies: “Certainly the subject matter is more emotive. And the emotion put into play is maybe more guarded, more reserved, more internal.”

She added:  “We’re going to evolve as we become more powerful. People say who would believe lesbian prostitution? But of course it does exist.”

Watch the video of Garcia and Bell discussing these issues: