SXSW highlights outstanding female filmmakers

Female filmmakers have always been better represented at festivals than in mainstream Hollywood and SXSW this year is no exception. What is exceptional, however, are the three women who have given us outstanding films at the Austin, Texas film festival: Laura Terruso (“Fits & Starts”), Miao Wang (“Maineland”) and Jessica M. Thompson (“The Light of the Moon”).  The films, all very different from one another, create captivating stories to both entertain and enlighten us.  

I had the pleasure to see and connect with these talented women to discuss their films and what motivates them.  

LAURA TERRUSO previously known for the hit indie film “Hello, My Name Is Doris,” brings us another insightful yet hilarious film called “Fits and Starts” starring Wyatt Cenac and Greta Lee.  As David (Cenac) struggles with his writing career, his wife Jennifer (Lee) is skyrocketing to literary fame.  This inequality and inadvertent competition creates ironically humorous situations as the two attempt to forge ahead. It’s a realistically humorous and heartfelt journey along the bumpy road of marriage.

Terruso wrote this film while in the graduate program at NYU and fondly recalls looking out over Washington Square Park while in the library nestled in the “comfortable aeron chairs.” “Fits and Starts” is a very personal film for her as she “…set out to explore the joys and discontents of being part of a ‘creative couple’—looking at the relationship dynamics that emerge when people share the same profession as their spouse.”  

Terruso has always seen, as she says, “… the world through a comedic lens” and fondly recalls a childhood memory where she sobbed after a performance in a play because no one laughed.  Finding humor in reality is Terruso’s gift as is evidenced by the “Salon Scene” as it “… really allowed me to let my imagination run wild and I love the characters that emerged.”  When asked to pick her favorite, she said, “My characters are like my children—it doesn’t feel right to pick a favorite!”

Terruso is passionate about every aspect of filmmaking but now is focused solely on writing and directing.  Is it more difficult being a woman in this aspect of filmmaking?  Terruso responded, “No, I think making a living in the arts isn’t easy for anyone regardless of gender.  Gender doesn’t really factor into the work.  It may factor into the opportunities, but never the work itself.”  Her advice to women in the field was quite simply put, “Make something…never ask for permission.  Keep on creating work.  The world needs to hear your voice.” 

MIAO WANG brings her second full-length documentary film to SXSW about high school Chinese students who choose to study abroad in the U.S.; specifically Freyburg, Maine. From the interview and application process to their graduation day, Wang gives viewers insight and broadens our own cultural perceptions as we grow to know these young students.

Wang, a transplant from China at the age of 12 to Boston, knowing no English, felt a certain kinship to a group of Chinese students participating in the study abroad program.  She relayed, “The experience of coming here as a teenager is a shared experience” and not an easy one.  Happening upon this boarding school as she screened her first documentary feature film “Beijing Taxi” there, Wang knew she wanted to tell this story, but needed a way to capture the entire process and now she had a way to do so.

Wang explained, “Every single [Chinese] student wants to study abroad” due to a dissatisfaction with the Chinese educational system and an intrigue in learning to think critically and innovatively as the Americans do.  In addition, she said, “Families also want their kids to get away from pollution” and the excessively demanding and difficult college entrance exams as those who fall below the top of the class also may fail in life.  

Wang sees that both American and Chinese students want to connect, but don’t  always know how to do so. Wang recalls, “At that age, it’s hard enough to be with other teenagers” let alone attempting to cross a cultural bridge.  Wang also remembers her own teenage and high school experience, saying, “I didn’t like high school!  For me, [it] was all alienation…Finally, I had gotten over it and then I put myself back in high school!”  She laughed loudly, “What was I thinking?”

Politically, Wang is concerned over the future of knowing and understanding others of different cultures.  She recalls, “In the last few years, there was an open door policy in the U.S. Dept. of Education [with] an emphasis on trying to open up the cultural exchange and educational exchange program…It’s really the best way to have people really understand each other.”  She continued, “That’s the only way to get to know people and to realize that we’re not that different.”  

Wang finished editing the film just after the election, seeing that the film “became more relevant and timely.  Suddenly, there’s more urgency for this film to be out there.  It should be starting this conversation about why it’s important to have this exchange and the immigrant experience.  It’s not easy for anyone.  It’s enriching in so many ways, for both sides.”

JESSICA M. THOMPSON’s debut feature film as both writer and director, “The Light of the Moon” (winner for Best Narrative Feature Film, Audience Award) dramatically and realistically addresses the topic of rape and one victim’s attempt to regain normalcy in her life.  Starring Stephanie Beatriz and Michael Stahl-David, the film is one of the most poignant and brilliantly depicted films addressing this topic yet.

While Thompson made it clear that this is not an autobiographical film, she was motivated by a close friend who was attacked in NYC.  Thompson felt that the issue of rape and sexual assault hadn’t been properly portrayed in media, especially by male writers who, as Thompson said, “…use it as a plot point, but don’t delve into it.”  

She continued to reference television shows that use it as a sex scene, creating a character who prior to the attack was uninteresting and and then becomes more so afterward.  She adamantly stated, “What message are you sending?  Where is the strong woman that’s going through it?  When I heard what [my friend] went through and afterwards including the hospital, the police, the lawyer… I was compelled to write this story.”

Thompson passionately spoke about how creating this story affected not just her, but everyone on the set.  Making a concerted effort to employ women and a diverse group who aren’t readily given opportunities like this, Thompson was overwhelmed by the reaction of “…every single woman… thanked us and said they were also a survivor.  It was heartbreaking, but also empowering…”  The number of women affected by rape and sexual assault is much higher than we like to believe.

Thompson and Beatriz both expressed the hope that “The Light of the Moon” will  create a conversation about this topic.  Thompson said, “Our overall aim…is to stop this, stop men raping.  End rape culture…I think we need to start the conversation much younger and I think people can use this [movie] to now have a dialogue to talk about this more…and we need to talk about this in a really serious way.  Men need to be a big part of this conversation because they’re our best and strongest allies.”

All three women and all three films find a way to make communication the focal point in their enlightening films about various relationships.  This common thread weaves together a vibrant picture for the strength and beauty of females as filmmakers.

© Pamela Powell (3/17/17) FF2 Media

Photos: Laura Terruso, Miao Wang, Jessica M. Thompson

Photo Credits: Jake Price; Stedfast Productions

Tags: FF2 Media

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New York native film critic and film critic Pamela Powell now resides near Chicago, interviewing screenwriters and directors of big blockbusters and independent gems as an Associate for FF2 Media. With a graduate degree from Northwestern in Speech-Language Pathology, she has tailored her writing, observational, and evaluative skills to encompass all aspects of film. With a focus on women in film, Pamela also gravitates toward films that are eye-opening, educational, and entertaining with the hopes of making this world a better place. 
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