There was no announcement of a special dress code in the 2018 Sundance Film Festival program, no Facebook event calling all attendees to dress uniformly at the "Seeing Allred" premiere.
But the mainly female audience was spontaneously inspired to dress as the subject of the film, Gloria Allred, famously does: in all red clothing.
Allred, a controversial figure, is arguably America’s foremost women’s rights attorney. Her life is chronicled in a new Netflix documentary that played to a packed Sundance house last Sunday.
The unplanned, collective choice of color by those who came to the movie seemed to represent more than just a way to honor a prominent activist. The sea of red hats, scarves, sweaters and dresses overflowing Park City’s Marc Theatre appeared to symbolize the burgeoning sense of female solidarity that permeated the festival.
“This year’s Sundance feels like it’s all about women,” Maria Giese, a feature filmmaker and advocate for female directors, told the Deseret News. “The festival has captured this extraordinary time of change.”
The 2018 Sundance Festival was the first major film festival since the Harvey Weinstein story broke. At the opening day press conference, festival founder Robert Redford openly declared his support of the #MeToo movement, saying “change is inevitable … the role for men right now is to listen.” Sundance also announced it was partnering with the Utah Attorney General’s Office to make a 24-hour hotline available so that attendees could report violations of the festival’s newly revised code of conduct.
Festival films that touched on issues around sexual harassment, assault and discrimination against women — such as "The Tale," "RGB," "Half the Picture" and "Jane Fonda in Five Acts" — were screened to packed houses. Events exploring the same issues — including a talk by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and a New York Times panel featuring Jodi Kantor, the investigative reporter who broke the Harvey Weinstein story — drew long lines of people, willing to wait for hours in freezing temperatures.
At screenings and on the street, in coffee shops and at cocktail parties, the festival’s atmosphere crackled with conversations about the present and future place of women in the entertainment industry and in society at large.
‘The year of our awakening’
Despite pelting snow and gridlocked roads, about 1,000 people gathered for the Park City Respect Rally on the morning of Jan. 20. Speakers included Jane Fonda, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, U.S. Senate candidate Jenny Wilson and Gloria Allred, who fired up the crowd with the chant “Resist! Persist! Insist! Elect!”
“This entire year has been our winter of discontent,” said Allred. “But it has also been the year of our awakening, and awake we are to the lack of respect and denial of our rights as women.”
At a panel discussion hosted by The New York Times, investigative reporter Kantor described the explosive growth of women’s consciousness of their shared oppression.
“What has changed in the country over the past 15 weeks (since we broke the Weinstein story) is that what women have experienced in the workplace, especially with sexual harassment but also assault and … abuse … we have gone from seeing that as individual to seeing that as collective,” said Kantor. “We watched people … go from a place of personal stories which were very painful and turned them into a pattern that had collective strength to it.”
It was that same awareness of connection with women who had suffered similar trauma that gave director Jennifer Fox the courage to make "The Tale," a highly personal, painful recounting of her recognition of the sexual abuse she suffered as a child.
In the film, which premiered at the festival on Jan. 20, Laura Dern plays Fox at age 48. Fox’s mom, played by Ellen Burstyn, calls her to tell her that she came across a class assignment Fox wrote when she was 13 (titled “The Tale") which suggested that she had been sexually abused by her running coach, a man then in his forties.
Fox dismisses her mother’s analysis; she had always considered the man her “first boyfriend” and understood their affair as a consensual relationship. But as she delves into her past, she discovers a competing version of her original memory and must somehow find a way to reconcile the story she had always told herself with the dawning, agonizing realization of having been sexually victimized by a much-older man.
Fox told the audience after the film that her painful awakening to her own history of abuse ony came after working on documentary films in which she was talking to women all around the world about their own histories of sexual violation. Only by speaking with other women did she recognize the repressed truth in her own past.
“(Talking to these women) just blew my cover because an event which I called a relationship all of sudden wasn’t personal, wasn’t individual, but was actually universal,” said Fox. “That’s when I thought — it’s time to tell this story.”
Fox’s description of the importance of women’s collective experience, built by sharing their stories with one another and empowering one another to speak, was a sentiment echoed at the question and answer session after the screening of "Seeing Allred."
After the film ended, one of the women in the audience stood up to ask Allred a question. Because the questioner was standing at the back of the theater, it was difficult for Allred and the rest of the audience to hear.
“You know what I’m going to do,” said Allred, “I’m going to come down from this stage, get into the audience and give people my microphone.”
Now with the microphone in hand, the woman exclaimed, “Wow, that was symbolic. I was going to say that we are so inspired by your voice because it empowers us to have our own.”
“This is such an exciting time, but my question is: what do we do now?” a woman asked Allred after the "Seeing Allred" screening. “What do we do with all this energy and passion?”
The same question was asked at the end of almost every panel, screening and event at the festival that touched on the theme of women in the entertainment industry, hanging in the air like a dark cloud, casting a shadow of uncertainty over many of the festival’s attendees.
Even Allred seemed at a bit of a loss, offering only such well-worn slogans as “Sometimes that question is more important than the answer,” and “Do what Mother Jones said: Don’t agonize. Organize.”
Focusing on gender inequalities within the film industry, some of the festival’s female directors put forward more concrete solutions.
Director Amy Adrion spoke to the Deseret News before the Tuesday premiere of her documentary "Half the Picture" about the small number of female directors working in Hollywood.
At a time when women make up 50.8 percent of the U.S. population, just 4.2 percent of the 100 top-grossing American films are made by female directors. That statistic hasn’t changed over the last decade, according to Adrion.
This year, of the 122 feature films premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, 37 percent are directed by women. The "Women at Sundance" page on the festival website reads: “While markedly ahead of the mainstream industry, our commitment to achieving diversity among our filmmakers is still a work in progress."
Adrion believes that increasing the representation of women in positions of authority in the industry is key to changing the power dynamic that discriminates against women economically and artistically and makes them more vulnerable to harassment and abuse.
“If you change the makeup of the people behind the camera, you change the representation on screen,” she said. “If you change the representation of people on screen, you really can change the world for the lives of the men, women and children who live in the world. It’s a lofty goal, but that’s why we do this work.”15 comments on this story
Maria Giese, who appears in "Half the Picture," instigated an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigation into discrimination against female movie and TV directors in Hollywood in 2015. All the major studios are now in settlement talks with the federal government.
“When I look at the landscape for women in Hollywood, I feel like we’re looking at parched earth, like this war has happened, and now there’s all these little oases of life and energy popping up all over the place where women are getting their voices heard,” says Giese. “But we must recognize that solidarity is the way we’re going to make this happen. If we want women to succeed individually, we have to solve the problem collectively.”