Annual stats tracking women's work in the film industry consistently indicate that production gatekeepers are slow to welcome the work of female filmmakers, despite the recent successes of studio-backed femme-helmed and femme-centric blockbusters, and the ongoing inclusion initiatives of feminist groups such as the Alliance of Women Filmmakers and Film Fatales.
The static stats cited result from meticulously researched studies that are undoubtedly reliable, and equally disheartening. However, despite those continually dismal stats, 2017 seems to have introduced an era of heightened awareness about female filmmakers and the importance of presenting female-oriented stories on big screens. There is on the horizon a bloom of cautious optimism.
Throughout 2017, women working in all sectors of the movie industry—including film journalism—were engaged in a full press movement to level the playing field for women in the film game. The emergence of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, along with the establishment of women-owned and operated production companies, the development of funding sources dedicated to femme-helmed projects, the demand for inclusion riders and film festivalsí focus on feminist programming herald a real and palpable change industry-wide.
As an activist group supporting feminist progress in the film industry, the Alliance of Women Film Journalists (AWFJ.org), a nonprofit professional association of women who write about film and the movie industry, keeps tabs on films made by and about women throughout each year, conducting what might be considered a very informal study of feminist film production. Each week, AWFJ scans releasing films to select our Movie of the Week (#MOTW), an endorsement feature published weekly on our website at AWFJ.org.
Our goal is to recognize excellent and relevant femme-helmed and femme-centric films and to boost public awareness about them. Our critical standards are high, and we strive to focus on films made by and/or about women, those that tell authentic women's stories about principal female characters who represent women with authenticity and respect. We consider narratives and documentaries, are open to all genres and to films from all corners of the globe. We particularly appreciate films that challenge stereotypical thinking and stir public debate. We don't consider budget or box office, nor do we keep account of crew members' gender. We focus exclusively on product that is becoming available to movie goers and, by publishing quotable blurbs and full reviews from our Team #MOTW members, we present an aggregation of women critics' individual perspectives about the selected film.
And, we have good news.
AWFJ's informal #MOTW study shows an encouraging rise in the number of femme-centric and femme-helmed films released theatrically during 2017. Out of the 52 films we selected for #MOTW endorsement, 38 were directed by women. And, that number is even more impressive when you consider that for five of the 52 weeks we found no releasing films that met AWFJ standards for endorsement, so we posted wraps highlighting previous #MOTW selections or recommending favorite films for holiday watching.
We're critics, not statisticians, but it is easy to calculate that 80.85 percent of our 52 Movie of the Week endorsements in 2017 were given to femme-helmed films.
Additionally, all of the 47 newly releasing films that received our #MOTW endorsement are femme-centric, except "I Am Not Your Negro," which is neither directed by a woman nor femme-centric but is of such great political, social and cultural importance that we simply had to feature it.
That said, it is important to note that for every femme-helmed and/or femme-centric film we featured as #MOTW, there were two, three or more other productions that we didn't pick—not because they were unworthy, but because our choice is limited to just one per week.
So, what are the titles of the films selected as AWFJ's #MOTW during 2017?
The list ranges from films by noted female directors who've garnered nominations and awards for their work to women directors who have mined miniscule resources to birth fabulous first features.
Included in that first category are Dee Rees' "Mudbound" (pictured at top), Ava DuVernay's "13th," Angelina Jolie's "First They Killed My Father," Amma Asante's "A United Kingdom," Agnes Varda's "Faces Places," and Kathryn Bigelow's "Detroit," among others.
But, this is really the moment, and a thrilling opportunity, to shine light on the lesser known films and the women who directed them. You'll find the full roster on AWFJ.org, by searching for "Movie of the Week." Hopefully, you'll seek out and see all of them. Here, in alphabetical order, are ten titles as teasers:
"The Breadwinner": Directed by Nora Twomy and produced by Angelina Jolie, this beautifully animated film tells the tale of a young girl who must pretend to be a boy so she can help her family to survive in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. In a most compelling and compassionate way, the film furthers understanding about women's struggles in repressive, misogynistic regimes through an affecting dramatic saga that appeals to both adults and children.
"The Divine Order": Swiss writer/director Petra Volpe focuses on the evolution of the womenís movement in a rural and very conservative town ruled by men who believe that giving women the vote defies divine order. Marie Leuenberger plays Nora, a woman who dramatically defies her repressive husband and risks her family life to lead other townswomen the polls. The well-produced and acted scenario is set in 1971, the year when women actually got to vote in Switzerland.
"Letters from Baghdad": Documentary filmmakers directors Sabine Krayenb and Zeva Oelbaum illuminate the fascinating story of Gertrude Bell, an extraordinary women, sometimes called the female Lawrence of Arabia. Bell traveled widely in Arabia before being recruited by British military intelligence during WWI to help draw the borders of Iraq. She was a British spy, explorer and political powerhouse, who back in the day advocated for fair play in the Middle East.
"Megan Leavey": A first narrative for documentarian Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the film is the story of a young woman (Kate Mara) who joins the Marines to escape her troubled circumstances, deploys to Iraq as a handler of a canine bomb detector, and saves hundreds of lives, including that of her beloved dog. The truth-based film about real heroism, opened opposite the full fantasy of "Wonder Woman," which got most of the attention that weekend.
"Novitiate": Writer/director Margaret Betts' fine first feature pulls back the veil on the cloistered lives of nuns and novitiates who enter convents to devote themselves to Christ. Focusing on the story of teenage novitiate Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), the film reveals the personal turmoil that follows her chosen orders required renunciation of intimacies of any kind. Cathleen's personal psycho-physical drama is set against Vatican II's revisions in the practices of nuns, a set of mandated changes that unhinge the convent's conservative Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo) and, on a broader scale, indicate that the culture and lifestyle of women religious is dictated by men. Whether you're Catholic or not, this compelling film will fascinate you.
"The Rape of Recy Taylor": Filmmaker Nancy Buirski's documentary weaves together archival footage and contemporary talking heads to create a compelling portrait of Recy Taylor, an African American woman who was brutally raped by seven white men as she was walking home from church in the rural South. The rape took place more than 50 years ago, but Recy's anger and her determination to bring her attackers to justice have contemporary resonance. Recy, who later teamed with Rosa Parks, became one of the heroic and courageous black women who lead the civil rights movement.
"Their Finest": Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig's British World War II dramady centers on a young woman (Gemma Atherton) who is hired to write purely patriotic screenplays that will boost the spirits of Brits as they stiff upper lip-it in the midst of air raids and shortages. Scherfig does a splendid job of making that movie-within-a-movie meme magical, the performances are superb and the satirical reveal about propaganda plays particularly well today, and the plight of a woman writer is still relevant in the present tense. Both the story and screenplay were written by women.
"Tomorrow Ever After": In writer/director Ela Thier's DIY futuristic and delightfully quirky sci-fi dramedy, a naive woman (Ela Thier, who also stars) comes from the future to the now as part of a research team sent to dig up our species' social history. When she gets separated from the rest of her team, she employs her implement, a universally useful access tool that looks like a credit card, to effort regrouping with her colleagues and to get her whatever she needs to survive in the present. Unfortunately it also gets her into trouble. "Tomorrow Ever After" delivers its sanguine and timely message like a well-aimed punch to the funny bone.
For more information on the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, click here.