Behind the Camera


HOLLYWOOD has a poor record of giving women the opportunity to make movies. Female directors, producers, and studio chiefs have been exceptions to the rule of male-dominated cinema. Yet many women have established themselves in the filmmaking world by setting up outside the gates of the major studios. Several of them brought new works to this year's Sundance Film Festival, an important showcase for independent productions. The event turned my thoughts once again to a perennial question: Is there a basic difference between movies made by women and those made by men?

Opinions about this vary. Kathleen Shannon, former head of the National Film Board of Canada's all-woman Studio D, once told me that teams of women and teams of men would produce different results if given the same assignment of filming a city street: The men would tend to film people in motion and concentrate on parts of bodies, while the women would tend to film people in stable groups and depict bodies as harmonious wholes. But other observers say this attitude stirs up stereotypes of its own, needlessly limiting female and male filmmakers.

Hollywood provides ambiguous evidence on the issue. ``Blue Steel'' is as macho as the usual police melodrama even though Kathryn Bigelow directed it, and there's little that is ``feminine'' about violent pictures like ``Aliens'' and ``The Abyss'' that Gail Anne Hurd produced. On the other hand, it can be argued that the gentleness of Penny Marshall's directing was the factor that made ``Big'' a bigger hit than other ``body-swapping'' fantasies that preceded it, and that the same quality helps Ms. Marshall's current ``Awakenings'' avoid being a clinical case study.

Independent films offer a better laboratory for studying this issue, since they're made outside Hollywood's high-pressure financial atmosphere, and may reflect the personalities of their makers.

No movie I saw at Sundance seemed more personal or heartfelt than ``Daughters of the Dust,'' which was written, produced, and directed by Julie Dash, an African-American filmmaker. Her earlier ``Illusions'' took place in Hollywood and used big-studio filmmaking as a metaphor for power manipulations based on gender and race; to date, her career has shown a special sensitivity to female characters.

Set in the early 1900s on an island near the Carolina coast, Ms. Dash's new movie focuses on the Gullah ethnic group descended from African slaves. The main characters are members of a family about to move to the mainland - a prospect that distresses the matriarch of the clan, and produces varied reactions in the younger generation. The film has a rather sparse narrative line to stretch over nearly two hours; some of its performances are strained. It has been filmed with astonishing visual imagination by Dash and cinematographer Arthur Jafa, however, and burrows into the minds of its female characters with a care that few recent Hollywood movies can approach.

For a closer look at independent films by women at the Sundance Film Institute, watch for a review of their work on the Feb. 26 Arts page.

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