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Sundance panel explores gender and cultural equality in film industry

The annual “Women Breaking Barriers” panel, hosted by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, explored how the industry has changed since they first began the event three years ago. (Niveda Tennety/Assistant Photo editor)

By Kristin Snyder

Feb. 2, 2020 10:26 p.m.

This year, 44% of the films premiering at the Sundance Film Festival were directed by women. But women only made 34% of films originally submitted.

For Kerry Washington, she said she’ll know the industry has found equality when women can exist beyond statistics.

The actor and producer was one of four panelists on the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s “Women Breaking Barriers, Year 3: How Far Have We Come?” The annual panel, hosted by Elisabeth Sereda, explored the ways in which women have broken through the film industry’s glass ceiling in recent years to work against bias in the industry. Other panelists included director Julie Taymor, writer-director Frankie Shaw and filmmaker Lisa Jackson.

Washington said though she enjoys being on any set, working with women provides a level of understanding that doesn’t exist when working alongside male colleagues. While pregnant on the set of “Scandal,” for example, she said the male producers immediately worried about logistical issues it would cause, but writer and producer Shonda Rhimes was just excited for her.

“I don’t want to have the idea that working for men is always terrible,” Washington said. “But there is a lot of learning in working with women. I am encouraged and led toward excellence by people who aren’t afraid of my light.”

[Related: Second Take: List of best director nominees indicate gender inequity remaining in Hollywood]

Sereda then asked Taymor about her international body of work, and Taymor said she was not interested in sharing her own stories and instead turned to narratives from other cultures. Taymor said her work was similar to how men have been allowed to write female narratives.

Washington, on the other hand, said one must consider structural inequality and access when approaching another culture’s story. Whereas Taymor was allowed to go to Indonesia and make films there, Washington said she, as a black woman, might not be granted the same access.

Shaw agreed and said it is important to focus on intersectional equality when it comes to filmmaking. When she approaches a story, Shaw said she considers whether she is the person best suited to tell it. For Jackson, it is obvious to her when people who are not suited to share a story do so anyway.

“There is a phrase in indigenous filmmaking: ‘nothing about us without us,’” Jackson said. “That doesn’t mean every person has to look the same. But when you watch a movie about your community, you know when it’s not an inside job.”

The key to creating sensitive, authentic stories is in collaboration, Washington said. As she works on her upcoming show “Little Fires Everywhere” alongside Reese Witherspoon, she said both of their characters come from vastly different backgrounds. In order to bridge that gap, she said the pair focused on having what were at times difficult conversations about privilege and personal experiences with each other. But ultimately, having such conversations led them to create a better show and offered a chance to better support each other as women, she said.

“That sisterhood allowed the story to deepen. … Walking that walk together makes the world richer,” Washington said.

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Kristin Snyder | Alumna
Snyder was previously the 2019-2020 Arts editor as well as the 2018-2019 Theater | Film | Television editor.
Snyder was previously the 2019-2020 Arts editor as well as the 2018-2019 Theater | Film | Television editor.
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