The 2019 Atlanta Film Festival is packed with female-powered stories. Indeed, 50 percent of the films on offer at this year’s festival were made by women – a number on par with previous years’ festivals, though one that certainly carries more weight in the current cultural climate.
To highlight these stories, the Atlanta Film Society created New Mavericks, a programming block launched in 2013 to celebrate female-directed films. The 2019 New Mavericks track, presented by the ATLFF and Spanx founder Sara Blakely’s The Sara Blakely Foundation, included 44 feature-length and short films, including opening-night feature The Farewell, that shone a light on strong female characters.
So what does it mean for an audience to see stories from a woman’s perspective? What does a movie look like when women not only star in it, but also write, direct and command their own narratives? ARTS ATL recently caught up with a few of ATLFF’s featured female filmmakers, writers and actors to learn more.
LULU WANG, Director (The Farewell)
ARTS ATL: You previously told a version of The Farewell’s story on an episode of This American Life. Why did you feel like it was important to explore it again through film?
Lulu Wang: I just wanted to capture an authentic dynamic between the family members, and as a woman in a family, the relationship between me and my mom is just more complicated than the relationship between me and my dad. And the relationship between my mother and her mother-in-law is also very complicated. And so I think that I wanted to just capture the fact that there is love in these relationships, but it’s not all happy-go-lucky.
ARTS ATL: And why do you think that it’s important that stories like this, ones that explore cultural family dynamics, be told?
Wang: I think these types of stories need to be told because I don’t see it as specifically a Chinese story or a Chinese American story. I see it as a human story first and foremost. And secondly, it’s an American story, and America is composed of people like me. I believe that having multiple perspectives is what makes America the country that it is. So I think to embrace people that have multiple perspectives and are able to see things from multiple points of view is a huge contribution to society and allows us to have these complex conversations. I think embracing that diversity is wonderful because it actually represents the country that we live in.
ARTS ATL: From your position now as a director of a critically acclaimed film, what do you see as a benefit of bringing a female lens and perspective to the director’s chair?
Wang: It’s shocking to me that we don’t embrace females in the director’s seat — because I think women deal with all of these complexities, and we are, from a societal perspective, constantly entrenched with emotional language. I think a lot of women are able to deal with emotions and how to process and how to navigate. I can’t speak for other female filmmakers, but for myself, I approach things not with a lens of good versus evil. For me, I approach my stories through the lens of grace and acceptance.
ARTS ATL: What advice would you have for an aspiring female filmmaker?
Wang: Well, there was a DP [director of photography] when I was making my first film. I was insecure because I had never made a feature film before. I didn’t go to film school, and I said I don’t know if I know how to direct. And this very established cinematographer said to me, “You don’t need to know how to direct. Film is a language.” As long as you know what you want to say, your department heads are your translators. It made me realize that more women should direct because women are great at communication.
ERICA SCOGGINS, Director (The Boogeywoman)
ARTS ATL: Boogeywoman is a type of coming-of-age film that explores “the horrors and wonders” of growing up as a female. How much of your own experience did you bring to the film?
Erica Scoggins: Yeah, I think the essence of my experience, and most of my friends, which was this kind of shame around having your period when the other sex is around. There were all these things that would pop up in everyday life that made me think, “Wait, sexism isn’t dead. It’s still around.” The whole premise of The Boogeywoman is the absurdity of being horrified by something that’s really natural.
ARTS ATL: We’ve all heard about the Boogeyman. Who is the Boogeywoman?
Scoggins: I thought, “What if there was a Boogeywoman? What would she be?” The idea of a “bad woman” is someone who is independent and voracious and doesn’t discriminate in choosing sexual partners and isn’t ashamed of her body. So I thought, what if there was this evil Boogeywoman? So what I end up doing is turning gender roles on their head.
It becomes much more nuanced when you try to put a woman in this villainous role. So, something I’m really interested in is finding the evil that exists in women because I think all people have it in them. I think having female perspective in the male-dominated genre adds this nuance. It’s another view that I think is valuable.
ARTS ATL: Do you feel like the film ultimately said what you intended it to say when you began making it?
Scoggins: I think so because I don’t have an answer. It’s more of the question. After the first screenings, hearing people talk about the final scenes, it sets people’s minds in the right direction in terms of experiencing this big event with this young girl. It’s more about what this young woman knows about her body. I think another thing I’m interested in is intuition as opposed to knowable facts. I think you can feel that in film as a medium.
ARTS ATL: What has the response to the film been like?
Scoggins: A young girl stopped me and said thank you for making this, and then a young boy told me it grossed him out. It’s definitely divisive. People are more comfortable seeing someone get murdered on screen than to see a girl’s bloody underwear, so that’s part of the point of the film. It disturbs some people and makes other people excited.
AMBER MCGINNIS, Director (International Falls)
ARTS ATL: What first inspired this film?
Amber McGinnis: As an artist, I like to invest in people. The writer Thomas Ward is someone that I’ve known for 10 years now and someone I’d always wanted to collaborate with. So when he sent me the play version that he wanted to adapt into a screenplay, first I was like, “I love Thomas, I want to work with him,” but then once I read it, I really fell in love with the story. It’s about a woman’s journey to authenticity, and that’s something I really try to pursue in my own life and in my work.
ARTS ATL: How does the female perspective, or the female gaze, inform International Falls?
McGinnis: The story is semiautobiographical. The stage version of the story follows the male character as the protagonist, and when I partnered with [Thomas Ward], we moved things so that Dee became the protagonist. We felt that her journey was more interesting and that there was more to explore through her lens. We wanted to track the journey from her perspective, so having a female protagonist definitely shaped the way we approached the story. We didn’t want it to be one of those stories where the female meets the male and he guides her towards something. She was on a journey herself, and the relationship was just the catalyst.
ARTS ATL: How has the landscape of filmmaking changed, in terms of gender representation, since you began working as a director?
McGinnis: I’m sort of new to the indie film industry. I’ve had a career as a theater director. I know in the theater scene people are working very hard to bring more women’s voices into writing but not so much with directing. Their focus hasn’t shifted to that yet. I feel like with film, it’s much more of a director’s medium. I want to see people taking more steps to include more women because our stories need to be told as well. Even if women directors aren’t telling female-centric stories, our perspective on humanity and the world shifts how we craft these stories.
DAWN LUEBBE and JOCELYN DEBOER, Directors/Actors (Greener Grass)
ARTS ATL: Both of you wrote, directed and costarred in Greener Grass. Had you worked on previous projects together?
Dawn Luebbe and Joceyln DeBoer: The Greener Grass short film was the first project we worked on as a duo, but we met at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York, where we were put on a house team performing sketch with 12 other people. Since then, we’ve made two other short films and directed a couple episodes of TV, and now we’re inseparable.
ARTS ATL: Greener Grass has been described as an absurdist comedy, a satire, a new take on The Stepford Wives. How has the public responded to it?
Luebbe, DeBoer: We have been so blown away by the response. We went into Sundance, where it premiered, anxiously hoping it would go over well. We love that people take ownership of the film. So when we were in Utah, we had women asking, “Did you write this about Utah? This has to be about Utah women,” and we were like, “no.” Even when we were filming in Atlanta, they were like, “You wrote this about Peachtree City, right?” So it’s really fun for us. We intentionally set it in this timeless suburbia in Anywhere, America.
ARTS ATL: Talk a bit about the experience of working on a truly female-driven film.
Leubbe, DeBoer: The majority of our department heads were women. And I feel like as we were hiring people, this is maybe naive, but it didn’t occur to me. And then we got to set, and we were like, “Oh, we’re surrounded by women. This is great.”
We just chose the best people for the project, and that happened to be a majority who were women.
AWKWAFINA, Lead Actor (The Farewell)
ARTS ATL: How was it working on this film with folks like Lulu Wang and your costars, like Tzi Ma?
Awkwafina: I think I’m very spoiled when it comes to the people that I’ve been able to work with. I can’t imagine a world where I only work with men. I’ve only imagined working with female and male directors, a mix of them. And I’ve never worked with an Asian American director, so it was really cool to work with Lulu because she wants everything to be for the good of the story. It was a good collaboration, and I would love to work with her again.
ARTS ATL: Your role as Billi was very different from the one you played in Crazy, Rich Asians. How was it, preparing for a more dramatic part?
Awkwafina: I don’t know; I was very scared. I had never done a drama, was not good at Chinese, but Lulu was great. So we went out there, and I learned as I went. I was also really affected by the entire experience, and that really informed my performance.
ANALEIGH TIPTON, Actor (Summer Night)
ARTS ATL: As an actor, do you feel like you have some type of control over the narrative of a film?
Analeigh Tipton: No, not at all. I think it’s put out there in a certain way, and that’s how we’re seen. I think it’s really frustrating. That’s why I write now.
ARTS ATL: And what are you currently working on in terms of your writing?
Tipton: I’m working on a screenplay. So I have a few things in development; they’re all very female-forward. They all have to do with science or physics. It’s very STEM-based and scientifically historical. So I’m looking forward to women to be represented in that way.
ARTS ATL: What’s the best advice you’ve received as a woman in film?
Tipton: I have a mentor who’s a woman and a writer, and she had written a film, and I was going to act in it, but it never got made. We had a meeting together, and I told her about my directing aspirations, and out of the blue, she said, “Well, you should direct this.” And she was so sincere. I had never had another woman look at me and say “you can do this” in the film industry. She was the first one, and I just realized how important that is to pass on.