Women directed nearly one third of the films selected for the 2016 Atlas Awards International Film Festival, directed one half of this year’s documentaries, and wrote or co-wrote more than half of the festival’s officially-selected screenplays, putting the Atlas Awards far ahead of the top 250 films released in the U.S. in 2014, only 7% of which were directed by women according to a recent study. The gender representation at this year’s Atlas Awards even trumps Sundance, where for the last 13 years 25% of American directors have been women.
Here are some highlights of accomplishments at the Atlas Awards by filmmakers who are women:
This year, Escapes, directed by Spanish filmmaker Mercedes Gaspar and starring Huichi-chiu, won the Atlas Award for Best Feature Film as well as the festival’s award for the year’s best foreign language film: the Atlas Vitri Prize.
With the exception of the narrative short Winter’s Journey (directed by Susanne Boeing), which features Hermann Beyer in a leading role, every narrative film directed by a woman in this year’s festival also features a woman in a leading role. This year’s recipient of the Atlas Award for Best Actress, Michelle Brezinski, also wrote and co-directed (with Shannon Kohli) the film for which she won the prize: Madness, a drama about the Black Death in 14th-century England. The same is true of first-time director Dorothy A. Atabong, who wrote, directed, and starred in Sound of Tears, an exploration of young love and family honour in a patriarchal community — and the winner of this year’s Atlas Award for Best First Film.
Where Are You My Love?, which premiered at the Short Film Corner of the Cannes Film Festival last year, is the winner of this year’s Human Rights Prize, which honours the best film whose subject is a significant topic of human rights. The film is directed by Turkish filmmaker Merve Gezen and is the true story of two transgender friends (played by Seyhan Arman and Didem Soylu) making their livings as sex workers in Istanbul — featuring a cast of real transgender sex workers.
Lashes, the winner of this year’s Best Student Film, follows 16-year-old Ashley (played by Charlie Lewington) through one day where her true, authentic self collides with whom she has been trying to be. The film is Christine Sherwood’s graduation film from The London Film School, from which she received a masters degree in filmmaking.
The Tehran-based Iranian filmmaker Zahra Jafari is the director of two narrative short films selected for this year’s festival: Touch of the Rain and The First Smile After. Her films are portraits of women, snapshots of innocent perception, and loving stories of the triumph of imagination.
Defenders of Life, featured at this year’s festival, is directed by Dana Ziyasheva, the first-ever international civil servant from Kazakhstan at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris. Defenders of Life tells the story of an American youngster and his candid anthropologist mother in the hills of Southern Costa Rica, where the Ngäbe indigenous community is blowing on the last flames of an ancient civilization. The film opens conversations about indigenous identity in Costa Rica and has become central to debates on indigenous rights there.
Three narrative films directed by men also feature women in leading roles:
- Abbas Rafei’s narrative feature Oblivion Season, which follows the travails of a former sex worker in present-day Tehran, features as its lead actress Sareh Bayat — recipient of the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2011 for her role in Asghar Farhadi’s acclaimed (and Oscar-winning) A Separation.
- The American narrative feature Bondage, based on David Henry Hwang’s acclaimed 1992 play of the same name, stars Paige Davis, the American actress who co-hosted Home and Family on Hallmark Channel. Bondage features an amusing evening in the House of Bondage with dominatrix Mistress Terri (played by Davis), but when her customer insists on playing out racial stereotypes, he ends up challenging the very nature of her daily existence.
- Tawny Sorensen wrote and stars in the American narrative short The Cat’s Cradle, directed by David Spaltro. The film is based on Sorensen’s original play, All of the Elements — produced as part of the Manhattan Repertory Theatre’s 2009 Summerfest. In The Cat’s Cradle, as attempts to conceive become all-consuming to Jim and Amy, a young couple, stress and tension build between them and a romantic evening turns into a night of confessions and betrayal that will forever change their relationship. Nabil Vinas, Sorensen’s co-star, won this year’s Atlas Award for Best Actor for his role as Jim.
Feature documentaries by women that were screened at the festival include New Generation Queens: A Zanzibar Soccer Story (winner of Best International Documentary at last year’s Manhattan Film Festival) from American director Megan Shutzer, which tells the story of Zanzibar’s women’s soccer team while examining the history and culture of women’s soccer in Zanzibar; and Following Shira’s Journey: A Greek Jewish Odyssey, directed by Carol Gordon and Natalie Cunningham of Australia, which uncovers a sorely neglected and tragic aspect of Jewish history: Greek Jewish experience in the Second World War. Natalie Cunningham is the only filmmaker in this year’s festival to have three films included in the Official Selection: Following Shira’s Journey, co-directed with Carol Gordon, and the documentary short films Ror and You Know What? I Love You.
Parables of War, directed by American documentary filmmaker Nina Gilden Seavey, won the 2016 Atlas Award for Best Documentary Short Film. The film searches for a multi-textured answer to the timeless question of the human condition: how can civilization bind the wounds of war? Using MacArthur ‘Genius’ Award-winning choreographer Liz Lerman’s theatrical performance piece, ‘Healing Wars’ as a point of departure, Parables witnesses the journey of three men who are, in one way or another, all casualties of war. Ultimately, what is laid bare is the struggle of the wounded and of their healers that expresses itself both in art as in life itself. Seavey has received many awards and honours for her work, including an Emmy Award for her acclaimed documentary, A Paralyzing Fear: The Story of Polio in America.
The winner of this year’s Atlas Award for Best Original Screenplay is Pleasant Holler, written by Willow Alexander. The story takes place in eastern Kentucky, where police deputy Jerri Somerset, torn by her duty to the people of her community, the political forces in her department, and the needs of her pregnant wife Susie, is nonetheless determined to do the right thing when put in charge of solving a murder whose culprit may be too close to home.
Two additional screenplays featured in the Official Selection were written or co-written by women:
- Grace (the recipient of 71 awards, including the Grand Prize at the Hollywood Hills Screenplay Competition), by Lynda Lemberg and Jeffrey Allen Russel, is an historical drama that crosses the Atlantic between the U.K. and Canada in the 19th-century, when thousands of Gaelic citizens of Scotland were forcibly displaced and deported in the Highland Clearances.
- Miss C (winner of Best Screenplay at the Peachtree Village Film Festival and Best Feature Script at the California Women’s Film Festival), by Kelly Jean Karam, captures the bygone world of rural Florida in the seventies, when Miss C, through the unlikely bonds she makes with a group of cosmetic saleswomen, forges her own destiny beyond the confines of her backwater town, confronting her dark past — and finding true love. ■
Correction: women directed nearly one third of all films selected in 2016, not exactly one third.
For the full 2016 festival schedule with film synopses, visit this year’s festival page.
For more information about the Atlas Awards, visit our Awards page.