If it feels like this year’s Sundance Film Festival is stuffed to the gills with buzzy films, hot sales titles, and hits-in-the-making that all happen to be directed by women, the numbers don’t lie. Nearly half of all projects at this year’s festival were directed by women, with a new high-water mark both in the features space (55 percent directed by women) and overall competition titles (56 percent directed by women). And while this year’s breakdown of filmmaker demographics is revelatory on its own, that’s not the only reason why the 2022 festival has felt so special.
Though this year sees a slight fall in overall female-directed projects, women are still dominating this year’s festival, and that’s a trend that goes far beyond the numbers. It’s not just demographic breakdowns that are changing at Sundance, it’s also the films that are earning the most accolades and interest, with many of this year’s early standouts hailing from female filmmakers.
The biggest sale of the festival so far has seen Sara Dosa’s already-beloved documentary “Fire of Love” spark a bidding war before notching a buy from NatGeo that includes a full theatrical release. Other female-helmed projects arrived at the festival with distribution in hand, like Mimi Cave’s buzzy Midnight pick “Fresh” (which Searchlight will take to Hulu in March), Krystin Ver Linden’s feature debut “Alice” (to Vertical Entertainment and Roadside Attractions), Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes’ “The Janes” (to HBO), Amy Poehler’s Amazon doc “Lucy and Desi,” Audrey Diwan’s Venice winner “Happening” (set for a May release from IFC Films), Hanna Bergholm’s “Hatching” (IFC Midnight), Mariama Diallo’s riveting “Master” (Amazon), Rory Kennedy’s doc “Downfall: The Case Against Boeing” (Netflix), and many more.
Still on offer: some of the most talked-about and best-reviewed films of the festival, many of them with massive (read: bankable) names attached, all of them helmed by a crop of new and established filmmaking talent who just so happen to be women. On the narrative side, those films include U.S. Narrative Competition contenders like Jamie Dack’s “Palm Trees and Power Lines” and Nikyatu Jusu’s “Nanny,” which have both earned high marks from critics and are firmly in the mix for the festival’s biggest prize.
Similarly, the U.S. Documentary Competition section boasts films like Margaret Brown’s lauded “Descendent,” Meg Smaker’s provocative “Jihad Rehab,” co-director Julie Ha’s “Free Chol Soo Lee,” and the fascinating “The Exiles,” co-directed by Violet Columbus and making major use of Christine Choy’s archival footage.
And the Premieres section, which includes 20 titles across both narrative and documentary, is stuffed with buzzy titles still in search of homes, including “Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul,” “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande,” Lena Dunham’s “Sharp Stick,” Phyllis Nagy’s “Call Jane,” Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allyne’s “Am I OK?,” Nina Menkes’ “Brainwashed,” and Eva Longoria Bastón’s “La Guerra Civil.” That’s where the festival’s prime features are programmed, and this year’s female-forward lineup is among its most impressive in years.
Over the past five years, the number of female filmmakers debuting work at the festival has ticked dramatically upward, though 2022 is the first time their films have been the majority in both overall features and the five competition categories. Last year, 53 percent of the films in the festival lineup were directed by women, marking the first time women were in the majority across the entire festival (including shorts and New Frontier projects).
The year before, the festival hit parity, with women representing 50 percent of directors for the first time ever, though just 29 percent of the competition lineup was helmed by women. In 2019, 45 percent of all Sundance films were directed by women (and, to keep it going: in 2018, that figure was 37 percent; in 2017, it was 34 percent).
While the parity line of 2020 might seem like the biggest sea change for Sundance’s demographics, the shift really began in 2018 when, for the first time in the festival’s then-34-year history, directing prizes went only to women. The winners spanned all four major categories — narrative and documentary, U.S. and world cinema: Sara Colangelo (“The Kindergarten Teacher”), Alexandria Bombach (“On Her Shoulders”), Sandi Tan (“Shirkers”), and Isold Uggadottir (“And Breathe Normally”). The next year, “Clemency” filmmaker Chinonye Chukwu became the first Black woman to win the fest’s highest prize, the Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Dramatic Competition section.
And last year, Sian Heder’s crowdpleaser “CODA” swept the ceremony, earning four U.S. Dramatic Competition awards, including the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award, plus a directing accolade for Heder. Not to be outdone on the doc side, Blerta Basholli’s “Hive” won three awards in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition, including the Directing and Audience awards and the Grand Jury Prize.
Festivals have not always provided the most welcoming home for female filmmakers — and some, like Cannes, continue to struggle to even pretend to reach parity — but that’s changing, too. The latest report out of The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, titled “Indie Women in a Pandemic Year,” found that the festivals it chronicles “streamed/screened almost equal numbers of documentaries directed by women (an average of 7) as by men (an average of 8). Festivals screened an average of 6 narrative features directed by at least one woman versus an average of 9 narrative features directed exclusively by men.”
The festival world has long lagged behind when it comes to parity, but a recent uptick in female-helmed features, the kind that (wouldn’t you know it?) are good enough to win major accolades is only continuing to grow. Last year, female directors won major prizes at Sundance (Heder and Basholli), Cannes (Julia Ducournau’s “Titane,” only the second female-helmed film to win the Palme d’Or), and Venice (Diwan’s “Happening”).
It sure seems like we’ve come a long way from Cannes head Thierry Frémaux’s declaration in 2016 that the world was simply lacking in female filmmakers. “What percentage of filmmakers in the world are women?” he wondered. “According to a recent report, it’s 7 percent.”
Those numbers were outdated then; at this year’s Sundance, they finally feel like a thing of the past.