Over the weekend, I saw a bunch of SIFF movies, and it didn't occur to me until after I'd watched them all that they had one thing in common: They all were directed by, written by, and/or starred strong women. Ten or fifteen years ago, these movies would have appeared as a festival within the larger festival under a Feminist Films banner, but now they're standing on their own.
Frances Ha was directed by a man—Noah Baumbach, doing maybe the best work of his career—but it was co-written by and stars Greta Gerwig. As a young New Yorker whose friends are all growing up and moving on, Gerwig's Frances is a very likable protagonist. She's self-conscious, but not in a late-Woody Allen sort of way. She's often impolite, but not standoffishly so. She causes a lot of problems for herself, but she's not a composite made up of the sum of her personal problems. Frances Ha is a remarkably good-hearted story that brings to mind a cross between Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky and one of Woody Allen's better, earlier New York films.
Sini Anderson's The Punk Singer, which I saw a preview of and which screens on Friday and Sunday this weekend at Harvard Exit, is a straightforward documentary about Bikini Kill/Le Tigre frontwoman Kathleen Hanna. You're not going to see anything new, technique- or structure-wise, but the story is compelling from start to finish because the subject is fascinating, and the footage of Hanna dancing around stages (from shitty Olympia dives to a protest in Washington DC to some fancier clubs) is super-entertaining to watch. If you're into films that stretch the capabilities of documentaries, Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell is for you. Polley, who has evolved from an excellent actor into an excellent director, brings a special kind of confidence to her first documentary. Perhaps that's just because she's working with such a familiar cast: Stores We Tell is about Polley's mother, who died young and who left behind many secrets, including the identity of Polley's real father. It's a movie that alternates easily between warmth and prickliness. From the too-passive, highly inexact title on down, Polley spends a bit too much time focusing on the power of stories when she already ably demonstrates the power of stories with her story (every time I see or hear someone expounding on the importance of stories to human beings—it happens a lot on NPR—I get the feeling that it's just another way to compliment the audience for spending their time consuming a storytelling medium), but otherwise, Stories We Tell is a moving, generous account of a family's secrets and strengths.
And then there's the vampires. Byzantium is directed by Neil Jordan, but its cast (Gemma Arterton, Saoirse Ronan) and its screenwriter (Moira Buffini, adapting her play of the same name) are all women, and it's a decidedly feminine take on the vampire myth. The greatest joy of Byzantium is that it's not a reheat of every other vampire story that's come before; these vampires have different weapons (rather than fangs, they have long, sharp thumbnails that they use to pierce arteries) and origins than any cinematic vampire you've seen before. Byzantium begins with the end of one life for our vampires (Arterton has the harder role, here, as she's got to make a vampire/stripper seem not like a From Dusk Till Dawn-style cliche, but Ronan is typically incredible as an eternal 16-year-old) as they're forced to flee one small British town and head to another. This is something they've been forced to do again and again, as they're chased by mysterious agents every time their cover story slips. Byzantium is a slow-burn movie—the script smartly drops the viewer into the middle of the narrative and slowly reveals the backstory in dollops—but it's worth it, as the vampires at the heart of the story are forced to consider whether eternal life means an eternally unchanging life.
None of these movies are similar in theme or plot or structure, but they're indicative of a greater sea change in the filmmaking world. It's no longer necessary for a film festival like SIFF to cordon off a selection of movies as "women-made films." There are enough quality films featuring women that they can't be contained anymore, and there are plenty more movies to come in SIFF demonstrating the importance of women in film; hell, the closing night gala, The Bling Ring, is produced, directed by, written, and stars women. This is the new normal, and it's awesome.