The past year has placed a renewed focus on the struggle of female directors in Hollywood. While 2017 represented a step forward, Greta Gerwig‘s nomination marked only the fifth time in Oscar history that a woman had been nominated for Best Director. Before Patty Jenkins, blockbuster filmmaking had been almost entirely a boys club. For women looking to break into the industry, the outlook has been bleak. That’s why director Amy Adrion took on the issue of female representation of directors head on. “Half the Picture” brings together dozens of women directors to explain their experience in the industry. This results in an open-ended conversation about why women do not get the same opportunities as men.
Adrion opens the film with many of the women directors explaining their breakthrough films. One of the early women filmmakers is Gina Pryce-Bythewood who’s “Love and Basketball” became influential for many. We get Ava DeVernay discussing her shorts before her breakthrough with “Middle of Nowhere” at Sundance in 2012. A series of female directors, including Kimberly Peirce, Lena Dunham, Jill Soloway, Mary Harron, Brenda Chapman, and Penelope Spheeris drive the conversation with their experiences.
One of the formalistic choices that will appeal to some viewers but alienate others is the lack of structure. The conversation is a free-flowing one, assembled from the different topics each filmmaker discusses. Rather than having a straight narrative to follow through to its conclusion, the film transitions between the director’s discussion. It’s a strong choice that forces you to sit with the realities of what these women go through.
There are some big issues at the center of the discussion. The lack of opportunity presented to women at the highest levels is chief among these issues. Many of the women reach a level of success, yet do not receive real opportunities to keep working. The similarities between the women’s experiences are sadly consistent. Even after scoring hits, they often don’t get a real second opportunity. There are also issues with critics, with women making up only 27% of Rotten Tomatoes critics. Finally, there are issues with the actors, who may not include women directors on the list of talent they’d like to work with. Overall, these systems combine to stop women from directing, despite the fact that around 50% of Film school students are women. It’s a staggering dropoff the higher you go, which only further justifies the existence of the film.
One of the very cool touches of the film is the conscious choice to show Adrion and her crew working on the film. With many of the interviews, a 2nd camera shows Adrion engaging in the conversations with the filmmakers. Her extended crew is also made up of women, from gaffers to cinematographers. To show the woman behind the camera while discussing the films in question is a very strong choice. Not only does it show other women that they can direct, but that there are many positions of importance for women in film. It’s one of the highlights of the film and displays the very thing the film is advocating for.
Something that does harm the film slightly is the timing of when it wrapped. The last big film to release from a female director is “Wonder Woman,” and there’s no mention of “Lady Bird” or Greta Gerwig by name. Even the iconic moment of Natalie Portman at the Golden Globes is missing from the film. There’s no discussion of Weinstein or #MeToo. It’s unfortunate for Adrion that the film wrapped when it did because it likely would have cleanup up my issues with the film. Hopefully, Adrion can get a sequel to this documentary that will allow her to tackle these big issues. She’s clearly talented enough to do so.
Overall, “Half the Picture” examines an essential topic to Hollywood today with grace. This is the result of a system of oppression, one that goes back generations. It is not something that will change because of a single year. Instead, continued pressure should push studios to hire women directors.