Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.
In spite of all the focus on gender inequity in the film and TV industry over the past few years, the discrepancies are still dire. The visibility of the #MeToo movement and the sexual-abuse scandals that have rocked Hollywood may give the impression that women are making gains in the industry, but statistics still show them sliding backward in terms of representation: recent numbers show that half the students at the major film schools are women, but 91 percent of studio movies are still directed by men. And every study on the subject suggests widespread discrimination against women in terms of pay rates, hiring rates, and awards recognition.
Amy Adrion’s feature directorial debut, Half the Picture, tackles many of the problems facing women in the entertainment business, including sexual harassment, overt sexism, discomfort with the entire idea of female leadership, and the even greater barriers for women of color. Women are fighting back by using new tools to make inequity more transparent, bringing the discrimination to the attention of the ACLU and EEOC, and hiring each other whenever possible, to get around the old-boys network that still dominates the industry. But for women trying to break in, the obstacles are still severe. Female TV and film veterans are still routinely told they aren’t experienced enough to direct a TV pilot, while their less-experienced male peers are promoted and encouraged.
Although facing down decades of systemic discrimination can be exhausting, Half the Picture keeps the tone light and upbeat. Adrion focuses on the voices of women who’ve shoehorned their way into the industry and have inspiring stories to tell, as well as discomfiting ones.
What’s the genre?
Talking-head documentary. It consists almost exclusively of interviews with prominent women, both directors and scholars. To anyone paying attention to the field right now, or over the last 20 years, there are a lot of familiar names here: Ava DuVernay, Lena Dunham, Penelope Spheeris, Jill Soloway, Catherine Hardwicke, Miranda July, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Kimberly Peirce, Mary Harron, Rosanna Arquette, Kasi Lemmons, Karyn Kusama, and many more.
What’s it about?
Every aspect of being a woman in film and TV: finding or making opportunities, dealing with abuse and condescension, bringing personal stories to the screen, dealing with doubtful male gatekeepers, being asked to mentor male peers and prep them for promotions that aren’t available to women, and so forth. Some of the personal stories are outrageous and enraging, and some are triumphant. These are, after all, the women who made it past those gatekeepers and into the industry. Others are enlightening, as women consider their own sexism, its impact on their projects, and how to fight it.
What’s it really about?
The basic underlying message of Half The Picture is “Sexism sucks, but don’t let it stop you.” DuVernay demonstrates it by publicly confronting a grossly insubordinate crew member, and Harron by declaring that no one should wait for studio permission to make a movie. Miranda July tells a winning story about how, in the VHS days, she invited women to send her the short films they’d made, and sent every subscriber a compilation collecting 10 films by women — which helped all the participants feel less isolated, and more like an underground community.
Dunham discusses the criticism of her work, and how she came to a place of “That’s your issue to deal with, not mine.” Brenda Chapman discusses being pulled from her Pixar movie Brave, and how she spoke up at the Oscars after her bosses told her she wasn’t allowed to talk, even if she won. There’s a lot of smiling, gentle, quietly angry resistance in this movie, from women who’ve learned to ignore men who tell them no, even if they’re everywhere in a monumentally male-dominated business.
Is it good?
Half the Picture doesn’t forge any exciting new ground for a documentary. It’s a small movie of modest intentions, largely good-natured and collegiate in spite of the frustrating stories it showcases. But Adrion puts just enough powerful statistics on the screen to make her point without bogging down the story. She keeps the images bright, the editing tight, and the pace brisk and lively.
There are upsides and downsides to this approach. By whisking from topic to topic, she covers a lot of ground, and brings in a lot of voices. She also elides over the consequences of some systematic issues — even the worst horror stories breeze by in a minute or less before she’s off to the next area. This keeps the film positive, but it doesn’t always feel like the most respectful or in-depth way to deal with the interviewees’ issues. A story about gross sexual bullying (of the “if you want to make this project, we’re having sex now” variety) blitzes by with no clear resolution, and so does the story of DuVernay’s confrontation with her insubordinate employee.
In an increasingly fierce, name-and-shame world, Half the Picture already feels dated, because the interviewees are so cautious and circumspect about identifying or even confronting their abusers. It’s a reminder of how much the conversation around sexual harassment has changed in just the past few months.
One of the film’s greatest values, though, is as a helpful checklist for cinephiles who want to see more terrific films made by women. It’s a pocket education in great female filmmakers past and present, and it lets so many of them address why they’re interested in the field, what stories they managed to tell there, and how they overcame their obstacles. Half the Picture feels uplifting, both because of these women who succeeded, and because they came through their personal gauntlets with such confidence, humor, and determination to improve the industry for the women who follow them.
It’s also subtly uplifting in another way: without calling attention to it, Adrion sometimes pulls her camera back to reveal the all-woman crew actually making Half the Picture. It’s a startling image, initially, to see women operating the cameras, sound equipment, and lights, and it takes a moment to realize why — anyone who watches behind-the-scenes features has seen this same setup a thousand times, with only men involved.
Adrion’s film isn’t just about teaching moments, though. It’s also plenty entertaining, and worth the price of admission for the profane, cheery frankness of Penelope Spheeris, the punk-rock director who started with the Decline of Western Civilization doc trilogy, then wound up directing films like Wayne’s World, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Black Sheep. Talking about why she eventually dropped out of the filmmaking business to build houses, she cackles, “I got sick of taking the shit when I took the money.” Half the Picture suggests there’s a lot more shit to come for women in the industry. But it also suggests that with more attention and pressure being focused on the blatant discrimination in the entertainment business, and more people finding ways to dodge the entrenched studio system, women may find a way up out of it.
What should it be rated?
Maybe PG for a a spattering of salty talk, but for the most part, this film could be shown in any school club that focuses on young filmmakers.
How can I actually watch it?
It’s now widely available on VOD services, streaming rental services like Amazon and Vudu, and on DVD.