Berlin: Women Directors Grab the Spotlight

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Sam Taylor-Johnson's 'Fifty Shades of Grey' is among the Berlinale films directed by women

Female filmmakers have a strong presence in this year’s lineup, but insiders say plenty of obstacles remain.

On Thursday, Isabel Coixet became only the second female director in the 65 years of the Berlinale to open the festival after Margarethe von Trotta did so with Das Versprechen in 1995.

This year’s lineup puts a strong spotlight on women directors, such as Sonja Heiss’ Forum entry Hedi Schneider Is Stuck, about a woman whose life slips out of control when she gets panic attacks, Benoit Jacquot’s competition film Diary of a Chambermaid, starring Lea Seydoux, and Coixet’s Nobody Wants the Night, starring Juliette Binoche. Then, of course, there’s Fifty Shades of Grey, one of the most hotly anticipated films in the Berlin lineup, directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson.

Read more Berlin: A Dinner With Festival Director Dieter Kosslick

Festival director Dieter Kosslick said in the pre-Berlinale press conference that he was “pro quota” when it came to showing more films by female directors, but admitted the festival has a long way to go. He emphasized that a recurring theme at this year’s Berlinale was films about “strong women in extreme situations.”

The opening night set the stage for a range of other films featuring female protagonists. The competition alone also includes two other films from female directors that will compete for the Golden Bear: Sworn Virgin, the feature debut of Laura Bispuri about a young woman in a remote Albanian village who takes an oath of eternal virginity, and Body by Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska (In the Name Of), about a public prosecutor and his anorexic daughter dealing with the loss of a loved one.

Overall, 116 of this year’s 441 Berlinale films are by women, according to Kosslick. That amounts to about 26 percent of this year's Berlinale movies. The three films by women directors competing for the Golden Bear amount to 15.8 percent of the 19 total in competition. In comparison, the 2014 Cannes competition had two female directors (Alice Rohrwacher with The Wonders and Naomi Kawase with Still the Water) out of 18 films, or 11.1 percent.

"I try to never keep track of these things, because when I keep track I am always depressed," Coixet told The Hollywood Reporter about the relative presence of female directors in Berlin and at other festivals.

Producer Francine Raveney, director of the European Women’s Audiovisual Network, told THR that the new film from Coixet, the organization’s honorary president, was “a great way” to kick off Berlin. “We are thrilled that she is opening the whole festival,” she said. "It’s a story about two women facing their own emotions, fears and the elements together. That’s so unusual in a film given such wide publicity."

She suggested that public funding of movies in Europe was among the factors why female directors and protagonists were prominent in Berlin this year. “When private investors put money into a big blockbuster, people look at who is the big actor," Raveney explained. "That essentially means male protagonist. In the more public European financing [model], there is more opportunity for diversity.”

Raveney said that EWA, which is organizing or involved in various events in Berlin, is planning to conduct research on the situation of women in film across Europe. “We want to get actual numbers and also do qualitative interviews with producers and directors about obstacles, including possibly self censorship, and recommend best practices,” she said.

Micah Magee is also among the female directors bringing their voices to the Berlinale. Her film Petting Zoo will have its world premiere in the Panorama Special section of the festival. The film is about a 17-year-old who gets a scholarship offer for college and wants to have an abortion, but runs into strict opposition from her parents.

“I think that festivals and distributors really want to see more films directed by women and do their best to get them out there, because they know there is an audience waiting, but it is difficult because there are fewer films made by women to begin with,” Magee told THR.

Her husband is Danish director Johan Carlsen, which whom she has a small production company. “We tag-team to co-produce our own films and take care of the three kids and the dog, so I am very lucky to have in him a partner who understands what it means to make a film,” Magee said. “So I never had to make a choice between work and family as I think many women have to do."

Pamela Rolfe and Scott Roxborough contributed to this report.