Waking the Lionesses

Female storytellers are finally getting their 15 minutes.

By Jill Orschel June 1, 2015 Published in the Summer/Fall 2015 issue of Park City Magazine

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Image: Jill Orschel

I watched this year’s Academy Awards with a friend at her Prospector neighborhood home. We prerecorded the show and fast-forwarded through yet another night of tall, golden statues going to the usual Hollywood suspects: mostly white men. 

We paused, however, during Patricia Arquette’s acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress. She won for her daring 12-year role as a true-to-life single mother in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. As the actress yelled out, “equal rights for women!” rousing Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez to their feet, my friend and I, both media makers, exchanged glances, feeling a mutual stir of excitement. 

These same sentiments were echoed over and over again less than a month earlier during several events held as part of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. The message to women in film was clear: now is the time to shine. “We’re in a watershed moment of collective consciousness,” stated Caroline Libresco, a Sundance Film Festival senior programmer and one of the masterminds behind the Sundance Institute’s Women Filmmakers Initiative. “Opinion makers and leaders from multiple sectors recognize the paucity of women working behind the camera as well as the lack of satisfying female protagonists in front of the lens,” she said. 

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Image: Jill Orschel

The Women Filmmakers Initiative was created two years ago in response to the startlingly low number of women working within the popular Hollywood film system. Research commissioned by the initiative through the USC/Annenberg School revealed how profoundly gender influences storytelling: one study found that movies made by men are more likely to depict violence, while those made by women tend to be more thought-provoking. Initiative founders and partner organizations hope that by leveling the playing field, they will both influence how stories are told and build awareness for the prevalence and manner in which women are portrayed on the screen as well.

This heightened awareness resonates in my own heart as I work on a feature-length follow-up to my documentary short, Sister Wife. (My new film tells the story of Cora Lee, a former plural wife and 14-year-old child bride from Colorado City who escaped unbearable hardship by creating an imaginary universe.) My goal as a filmmaker is to craft meaningful narratives with real-life material—to put a human face on often-marginalized people, thereby illuminating those universal ties that bind us. 

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Image: Jill Orschel

I was reminded that other storytellers are working to achieve goals similar to mine while sitting in on “Breaking the Silence,” a 2015 Sundance Film Festival panel discussion. The discussion centered on how women-specific issues like sex, power, violence, trauma, and recovery are explored in films likePrincess, Diary of a Teenage Girl, and Pervert Park. Libresco noted, “While these films all have different axis lines, styles, tones, and points of view, they all give voice to painfully difficult stories that many would be more comfortable burying.”

A few of the other films examined at “Breaking the Silence”—The Hunting Ground, Dreamcatcher, and Hot Girls Wanted—were executive-produced by Academy Award–winning Utah residentGeralyn White Dreyfous, cofounder of Impact Partners and Gamechanger Films, two of more than 30 filmmaking-related groups and companies collaborating with the Women Filmmakers Initiative. Dreyfous recognized that the LGBT community may have helped pave the way for the recent trend toward darker, more complex women’s stories. “The massive transformation this past year began when so many bold individuals started coming out and saying ‘this happened to me,’” she explained. “They didn’t bury it, but examined it.” 

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Image: Jill Orschel

Another of this year’s Sundance panels, “Power of Story: Serious Ladies,” featured Kristin Wiig (Saturday Night Live), Mindy Kaling (The Mindy Project), Lena Dunham (Girls), and Jenji Kohan (Orange Is the New Black), all creators of widely popular shows featuring what Libresco described as “a sizzling spate of female antiheroes available to us on that more proletarian of mediums: television.” Much like the way we loved Tony Soprano, women, with all their flaws, are being seen in a whole new light and are riveting audiences. “From time to time, from our vantage point as programmers collectively watching and filtering thousands of films, we see this phenomenon occur,” Libresco observed. “Multiple filmmakers, either consciously or unconsciously, tackle a particular subject simultaneously, and the audience, in turn, is ready to confront the issues being presented.” 

The way I see it, what was once shame, guilt, and doubt in the shadows is literally transforming into pride and empowerment before our eyes. It’s exhilarating to feel a part of this awakening. In my own work, I feel a renewed sense of confidence, even urgency, to tell an important story well. As for my place in the Equal Rights Movement, I empathize thoroughly with Jane Fonda, who, in front of a standing-room-only crowd gathered at the 2015 Women at Sundance Brunch, said, “We all know what we have to do. We have to not be quiet about it. We have to keep talking about it.” 

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