Female filmmakers have a strong presence at AFI FEST this year. In two films, JELLYFISH, from Israel, and WITH YOUR PERMISSION, from Denmark, the female filmmakers' sensibilities impact character development and choice. Though the directors come from different cultures, the ties that bind their films are family, personal relationships, and love or the lack of it.
In writer/director Shira Gefen's JELLYFISH, co-directed with her husband, Israeli novelist and short-story writer Etgar Keret, a Tel Aviv wedding introduces us to the individual stories of three women. There's Batiya (Sarah Adler), boyfriend- less and stuck in an endless waitress job. Then comes Joy (Manenita De Latorre), a Filipina caregiver who only thinks about being with her son back home. Last is Keren (Noa Knoller), the bride, who breaks her ankle and sets the scene for a honeymoon gone awry.
The story is about individual circumstance and feelings of misplacement or missing human connections. It develops through beautifully shot scenes of homes of the elderly, a hotel room, and Tel Aviv beaches. The sensibility in the film is weighted towards the feminine perspective, as the main characters are women within the circumstances of love, either familial or romantic. The directing duo won the Cannes Camera d'Or for Best Feature and the film was nominated for 10 Israeli Oscars.
Gefen hails from the theater as an actress and with theatrical directing experience. JELLYFISH is her cinematic directorial debut. While describing the circumstance and sensibility of a woman filmmaker in an industry where they are the minority, Gefen states, "In the theatrical hemisphere, women are more prevalent than in the film world. Theater, there is no felt gender difference. The film set proved to be a very masculine space."
But Gefen's strong comfort level around actors and creative spaces comes from her first acting roles after acting school. The leap into directing has been complicated. Gefen illustrates, "People who knew me as an actress found it difficult at times to accept me under a different hat. But compared to other film directors, I feel my journey was relatively an easy one."
Gefen's perspective in terms of gender roles on set has changed. She even goes so far as to make a valid comparison to the environment of war. "After my directing experience, I'm less surprised there are so few women directors. Many times I found the crew using war and army-like speech, and in war, woman and man aren't equal."
But she endures this gender gap by writing female characters into her story. "In a sense, each of these characters is an extreme side of my personality." On a life note, Gefen was in her last month of pregnancy during shooting, a fact, which she states, "amplified my womanhood."
As co-directors, Gefen and Keret worked on each scene together, rather than splitting responsibilities throughout the film. She credits her co-director and life partner, Keret, with helping in "all the gender conflicts."
A strong woman with a keen eye for story and on-screen development, Gefen and Keret bring out the sensibilities of imperfect relationships and the possibilities of what could be.
WITH YOUR PERMISSION, a black comedy from Denmark, tells the story of Jan, an overbearing restaurant manager, who won't admit to wrongdoing. His despairing wife, Benti, is a frustrated opera singer seething with a monumental anger. The pair instinctually relies on rage for survival, yet director Paprika Steen, known for acting in the early Dogma 95 films, transcends the hatred to make the story one of love.
For Steen, working as a female director may have to do more with genre, rather than gender. In Hollywood, there are various theories as to why there are significantly fewer female directors than male: historical factors, political agendas, and personality factors, raising families. But in Denmark, Steen, in part, attributes her sense of gender equality to there being many successful female directors. She notes, "I don't feel that I'm strained or suppressed or something like that as a female director. But even so, there's somewhat of a wonder if a woman does cynical dark comedies or heavy action films; it would be a little like a female fireman or a female multi-billionaire computer girl.
Steen was first an actress, but always knew one day she would direct. She considers film to be the most romantic, escapist, and manipulating art form. "And that's probably also a very good description of me."
Story over gender is what's important. The film speaks for itself, and while, the director as a male or female will bring a unique perspective to the methodology of the story, in directing the actors and bringing the written page to the screen, Steen refrains from using gender issues as a crutch. It can only help, even though the protagonist is male and the environment of the household is female dominated. "I sort of plant myself where the good story is," explains Steen. "I don't think about it as a male or female story; I see it as a human story, so to speak."
Steen's upbringing helps her sensitivity, having grown up with four brothers. She admits to seeing the male angst and competitive nature first hand; a cynical sense of humor only compliments this, as well as in WITH YOUR PERMISSION. "It bores me to think of art as a "gender democracy." Nothing in this world is equal -- unfortunately for us women -- but because I'm a woman, the stories I tell will always be told from a feminine perspective; it's a very macho story through a very feminine soul."