Talking to Middleburg Festival regulars that include Middleburg and Virginia locals, the Washington press, and D.C. cinemaphiles, there is a lot of praise for the location of the festival, the resort itself, and the outstanding quality of films. Film lovers get to see Jackie, Lion, Manchester By The Sea, Moonlight, and Loving ahead of general release, and they get to hear Hollywood experts talk about the state of the industry, all while enjoying the perfect setting of the Salamander Resort and Spa.
Day Two started in such an inspirational way. First up was the panel discussion, Women in Film: Changing the Numbers. Among the panelists were Bo Derek, Cassian Elwes, Angie Fielder (Lion), Lauren Versel, and Shanice Johnson, moderated by Washington Post’s Kristen Page-Kirby.
The panel talked about the ever-changing and all-important topics of equal pay and gender equality in film.
Cassian Elwes, who heads the Independent Screenwriting Fellowship, began the conversation by saying that he had created his annual fellowship as part of the initiative, along with Producer Christine Vachon. Its aim is to mentor up-and-coming talent. Each year the fellowship brings the winner to Sundance in an effort to identify fresh talent and introduce them to the world of professional screenwriting .
He also said he believed part of the solution to the current lack of opportunities for women in film begins with recognizing that the problem begins early on in the process of production decisions, far down the chain, and for that reason there need to be more women working behind the scenes. |He believes since he started working on his group’s initiative he has seen some measure of improvement.
There was a consensus that change is occurring. More actresses and other female filmmakers are talking about the issue equal pay, and there seemed to be a guarded sense of optimism among the panelists that pay equity is destined to happen. However both Derek and Versel concede that it’s a goal that has long been talked about but somehow has yet to be reached.
Model and actress Beverly Johnson, who was sitting in the audience, mentioned the many obstacles she has faced in having her book adapted for the screen. She talked about her experience with some scriptwriters who wanted to focus more on her marriage to a man who was in the mafia rather than center her story around her own career and achievements. Instead of acquiescing to these rewrites, she would rather have patience and wait for the right person — most likely a woman — who truly understands how to tell her story.
Elwes said, “Unconscious bias is part of the big problem.” He feels that junior male executives have a tendency to hire people who look and think like they do, and it’s those male executives who determine which projects get green-lit.
Versel mentioned that aside from unconscious bias, which often hinges on the theory that female-led comedies and dramas don’t sell overseas, there’s also the mistaken belief that American consumers don’t reliably buy into movies by and about women. He says most of the international distributors are men, and the severe lack of female buyers with the power to acquire films for the international markets means funding and packaging films with female leads is more difficult.
The hour-long panel concluded with a question about what we as the general movie-going public can do to help shift the change in the right direction. Panelists agreed that it starts with using the tools and voice that we all have at our disposal — we all have a computer, many millions of us are active on social media platforms, and some of us are influential in other outlets like blogs and traditional journalism online. We should feel empowered to use the combined strength of our voices to talk about gender inequality, and be encouraged to get others to talk about it, because the more we talk about it and are heard, the sooner change will happen.
The panelists discussed how there should broader us of tax incentives and they encouraged filmmakers in the audience to not only hire more women in Hollywood, but to do the same in support of women in regional film production in every state.
Elwes ended by saying the sexism he had seen in the industry has been a wake up call for him to strive for change.
After the privilege of hearing that inspiring panel conversation, it was off to the Hill School, a beautiful venue in the town of Middleburg not too far from the resort, to watch The Red Turtle. I’ve been wanting to see this film ever since I heard about its premiere earlier this summer at Cannes, and the subsequent talk of it being nominated for Best Animated Feature.
The Red Turtle is the story of a young man stranded on a desert island who makes several attempts to escape by building himself a raft, but each time his raft is mysteriously destroyed by a thud from underneath. One day he finds out that a red turtle has been repeatedly responsible for destroying his raft and foiling his getaway attempts.
When the man tries to exact revenge on the turtle it miraculously transforms into a red headed woman, and together they agree to build a life as partners on the island.
Laurent Perez Del Mar’s lush score is everything we need to embark on this wondrous journey of a man, his mysterious mate, and their idyllic existence on island. He provides a perfect harmonious accompaniment to this emotional and beautiful narrative.
In between screenings, I was able to wander along the main street of downtown Middleburg and immediately fell in love with the gracious simplicity of the community. It’s unbelievably serene, and all the locations of interest are within easy walking distance. However, if you’re not in the mood to walk, or you’re in a rush to get to another screening, there are well-timed and frequent shuttles to get you to your venues.
If you’re like me, walking back at your leisure, and you find that it’s begun to rain, a shuttle will soon come along and stop to pick you up if you flag it down. So, kudos to the shuttle drivers and festival organizers for keeping me dry so efficiently!
Next it was back to Hill School for the afternoon screening of I Am Not Your Negro. Raoul Peck takes James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, and explores the troubled state of race relations in the USA. Using movie clips, news archive footage, and Samuel L. Jackson as the documentary’s somber narrator, Peck crafts a well-researched and important essay on race in America. In the same way Ava DuVernay’s 13th provides a breathtaking wealth of information, Peck achieves a complementary effect along a parallel path. Peck sticks faithfully to the basis of Baldwin’s book, which takes a stunning look at the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr, and through skillful use of news footage, manages to connect these tragic threads with keen relevance to America’s present day turmoil.
Like 13th, I Am Not Your Negro is essential viewing, especially given the current political climate. One of the most indelible and powerful moments comes when Bobby Kennedy is shown saying that in 40 years there America will have an African-American president. Cut to footage of President Obama’s inauguration. With less than 100 days left for the Obama family in the White House, RFK’s prophecy strikes an incredibly poignant chord.
Then it was back to the Salamander Inn for a quick change into evening garb, for the Friday night Spotlight screening of Manchester By The Sea. Read Sasha’s review since she truly does it justice.
Phew. First full day done. I have to say as it’s my first festival I’m having a blast. There’s so much to see, so much to do. I have enormous newfound respect for every movie writer who does the festival circuit.
My day tomorrow begins with an event featuring AMPAS President Cheryl Boone Isaacs as keynote speaker. If Twitter is knocked out again as it was today off and on, I might have to Periscope the event, that way you can all feel a part of it. [and yes, here it is.]
Jackie, which I have already been lucky enough to see, will be screened tomorrow, as well. There will also some conversations and panels to attend before Saturday’s Spotlight film: La La Land.
For now, goodnight from Middleburg.