'Half the Picture': Film Review | Sundance 2018

Courtesy of Ashly Covington
Jill Soloway in 'Half the Picture.'
Preach, sister!

This broad-ranging documentary, the first feature for Amy Adrion, explores the question on everyone's lips in this industry: Why are there so few female directors?

Half the Picture is a vital, comprehensive documentary on a subject that's so fundamental to the industry it's about, you have to wonder why dozens of movies on this scale or bigger haven't already been made. It seems absurd that we've had to wait until 2018 for a film to address the essential question at the core of this inquiry: Why are there so few women film directors working today? What stands in their way? What forces conspire to keep them from working? Sure, as journalist Rebecca Keegan points out, it's a subject she herself has written about endlessly as have many others (myself included), one that's been debated in the press and various other media platforms for many years now. And yet, Half the Picture is arguably the first film to tackle the subject on such a scale. It's about effing time.

The first feature-length film for director Amy Adrion, whose shorts have played Tribeca and other festivals, Half the Picture is not a perfect work. Offering a nicely lit but hardly innovatively assembled parade of talking heads, it stresses content over form, leaving the interviewees to do the heavy lifting of holding viewer attention. Of course, some will wonder why several of the most famous female directors in the industry — Sofia Coppola, Kathryn Bigelow and Jane Campion, to name but three — are not interviewed here. Were they just too busy to do an interview, or were they too hard to contact or did they have objection to the film's basic premise? 

No film on this subject will ever manage to please everyone or cover every base, and actually the relative scarcity of the biggest names means more time can be devoted to the very articulate lesser-known talents. What Adrion and her collaborators have constructed is a comprehensive and admirably diverse survey of U.S.-based talents. Many women of color are represented, as well as women from the LGBT community, and it's particularly pleasing to see Brenda Chapman, co-director of the animated film Brave, given the same amount of airtime roughly to the live-action directors. (She was pushed off the film that she conceived from the start by the studios, who were worried the end result would be too feminist-preachy and not sufficiently commercial. At least she kept co-director credit and still won an Academy Award in the end.)

Throughout, commentators speak eloquently about the issues at hand in the abstract, as well as from personal experience. Indeed, personal experience repeatedly proves larger points about the problems facing female directors.

The first 10 minutes or so kick off with recollections about how some of the interviewees fought their way in or just stumbled into the job by accident. For example, a consistently hilarious Penelope Spheeris got a foot in the door by knowing how to work the equipment and then just picking up the camera to film the punk scene she was a part of for her seminal doc The Decline of Western Civilization (1981). That led to work on Saturday Night Live, which led to directing Wayne's World because Lorne Michaels felt guilty for stiffing her on some SNL gigs, according to her.

Transparent creator Jill Soloway recounts a more conventional route via the writers room and "low-level bribery" as means toward her first directing gigs. Elsewhere, several interviewees expand on the Catch-22 problem that dictates it's impossible to get hired to direct TV episodes if you haven't already directed TV episodes — and having made a feature film or even two doesn't count.

No doubt there will be male viewers, and women ones as well, resistant to even watching this film because they'll be expecting pained memories of harassment in the work place, angry denunciations of the patriarchy and the like. Well, yeah, there is a lot of that stuff, but so there should be, and what's so pleasantly surprising is how much humor, sagacity and honesty there is on display as well. At one point, Transparent director Nisha Ganatra talks about how easy it is to fail to give another female a filmmaker a leg up, like when she was watching show reels of DPs and naturally found herself ranking the men's work as better until she realized how the women cinematographers were usually working with far fewer resources.

It's also hugely refreshing to hear several interviewees discuss how having children has frankly damaged their careers, or conversely how not having kids was an advantage. MVP Spheeris wins the award for funniest admission of defeat, saying she's practically given up on filmmaking and now devotes her energy to house-building projects. The implication is that construction workers are less sexist and difficult to manage than the average male-dominated film set.

However, the film is not in any way a whingefest of self-pity and ends in a largely positive, realistic place, noting the recent box-office success of Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman and other female-directed hits. Of course, there's still room for improvement right across the industry and its ancillary fields. Soloway, for instance, modestly proposes that all critics on the trade publications should be women from now on. 

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres)
Production: A Leocadia Films production
With: Rosanna Arquette, Jamie Babbit, Brenda Chapman, Martha Coolidge, Lena Dunham, Ava DuVernay, Nisha Ganatra, Lesli Linka Glatter, Catherine Hardwicke, Mary Haron, Chris Hegedus, Miranda July, Rebecca Keegan, Karen Kusama, Martha Lauzen, Kasi Lemmons, Caroline Libresco, Kimberly Peirce, Jennifer Phang, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Melissa Silverstein, Lynn Shelton, Stacy Smith, Jill Soloway, Penelope Spheeris, Sam Taylor-Johnson, Daisy von Scherler Mayer, Lucy Walker
Director: Amy Adrion
Producers: Amy Adrion, David Harris
Directors of photography: Yamit Shimonovitz, Soraya Selene
Editor: Kate Hackett
Music: Laura Karpman
Sales: Submarine

94 minutes