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quarta-feira, 11 de novembro de 2015

At Doc NYC, Women’s (Film) Work

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Janis Joplin, the subject of Amy Berg’s “Janis: Little Girl Blue,” which is the centerpiece of the Doc NYC festival program. CreditJay Persson/Getty Images, via FilmRise
Thom Powers, the artistic director of Doc NYC, the largest festival of documentary films in the country, said he didn’t realize what he had done until after this year’s lineup of 104 features was released. Someone else had to point out to him that his opening night, closing night and centerpiece selections were all directed or co-directed by women.
“In a way, it’s not surprising to me,” he said in an interview last week, “because I think documentary has long been an area where women directors have really flourished.”
Depressing statistics about the status of female filmmakers seem to issue almost daily from Hollywood. Only 18 percent of first-time directors of television episodes in a recent six-year span were women. The percentage of studio films directed by women hovers just below 10 percent; narrow the field to the top 100 box-office hits, and the number drops below 5 percent.
The figures improve, however, when it comes to independent film, and they nudge even higher in documentaries. Less research has been done in these areas, but a 2012 study found that 28 percent of film festival documentaries were directed by women. The figure this year at Doc NYC, which runs from this Thursday through next Thursday at the IFC Center, the SVA Theater and the Bow Tie Chelsea Cinemas, is 37.5 percent.
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Sharon Jones, performing at the Beacon Theater in 2014, is the subject of “Miss Sharon Jones!,” a featured portrait at the Doc NYC festival. CreditJacob Blickenstaff, via Cabin Creek Films
“Is it all good news?” Mr. Powers asked. “Is it total parity? Of course it isn’t. There’s a lot of room to go.” But the news isn’t bad, comparatively speaking, and it extends beyond directors to powerful executives like Sheila Nevins at HBO, Lisa Nishimura at Netflix, Diane Weyermann at Participant Media and Molly Thompson at A&E IndieFilms. “These are the top decision-making positions in financing documentaries,” he said.
The films Mr. Powers chose for his most high-profile slots are Barbara Kopple’s “Miss Sharon Jones!” (opening night); Amy Berg’s “Janis: Little Girl Blue” (centerpiece); and Dyllan McGee and Michael Epstein’s “Once and For All” (closing night), about the 1995 World Conference on Women in Beijing.
“It is kind of natural for films about performers to wind up in those higher-profile slots,” Mr. Powers said. “They make a more natural fit than documentaries that perhaps are taking you to a darker place.”
“Miss Sharon Jones!,” about the lead singer of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, and “Janis: Little Girl Blue,” about Janis Joplin, are among a cluster of films in the festival about female performers and artists. Among the others are Ron Nyswaner’s “She’s the Best Thing in It,” about the actress Mary Louise Wilson; Craig Lowy’s “OXD: One Extraordinary Day,” about the choreographer and dancer Elizabeth Streb; and Jack Walsh’s “Feelings Are Facts: The Life of Yvonne Rainer,” about the filmmaker and choreographer, all directed by men.
Asked whether her Joplin biography would have been different, had it been directed by a man, Ms. Berg said: “I think women look at women so differently than men look at women, obviously. I feel like for this personal and intimate a story, it helped that I was a female.”
“Janis: Little Girl Blue” makes extensive use of the plaintive, earnest, witty letters Joplin wrote to her conservative parents in Port Arthur, Tex., read in voice-over by Chan Marshall, the musician known as Cat Power. “I was very sensitive to her needs and desires that she was expressing in those letters to her parents,” Ms. Berg said. “I really do understand what she was going through. I remember being a teenager, and my parents were so terrified of the music I was listening to. Just the fear of what pop culture was going to do to my brain. And I understood that she was just trying to satisfy them but also follow her path, and she was so conflicted by that.”
Ms. Berg’s film, made for PBS’s “American Masters,” is a traditional, if particularly poignant, clips-and-interviews documentary about a subject who’s not around to speak for herself (though the device of the letters gives her a dominant voice in the film). Ms. Kopple’s film is a less conventional musical biography, largely concerning Ms. Jones’s battle with cancer while trying to hold together the funk-soul band the Dap-Kings, which she has fronted for 15 years.
“The first day of filming, the first time I had even met her, was the day they decided to cut her hair,” Ms. Kopple said. “It was an incredibly emotional moment to start getting to know somebody.”
Ms. Kopple had mixed feelings about whether a female director brought anything different to a film about a female performer. “I don’t know,” she said. “I have a sense of empathy, I have a sense of connection, and an understanding, maybe, that women share with one another. But I mean the film ‘Amy,’” about the singer Amy Winehouse, “was done extraordinarily well and that was done by a man. I think it’s how you connect with your subject.”
Noting that the question was “fraught with danger,” Mr. Powers answered anyway: “There’s an intimacy with Sharon Jones that it’s hard to imagine a male director having the equivalent of. And I think both films are notable for the real compassion that the directors have for their subjects. Maybe it’s a dangerous generalization to say that a woman director brings more compassion to their filmmaking than a male director does, but I can’t help but notice that.”
Looking at “Janis” and “Miss Sharon Jones!,” Ms. Berg concluded that the question of who made the movies was not the only issue. Choosing female subjects who are complex, and less than perfect, was crucial to changing the way Hollywood perceives women, she said.
“If we start portraying stronger, more flawed women, that will bleed into the rest of Hollywood,” she said. “It’s very rare to have a conflicted, flawed lead female in a big-budget feature. Sharon Jones and Janis Joplin, these are two very strong, conflicted women.”

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