Every November, for the past 30 years, AFI Fest takes over Hollywood. With dozens of films that highlight the works of emerging filmmakers, world cinema, retrospectives, and a handful of big budget flicks, AFI Fest is one of the more original festivals around. It also happens to be the only major festival that’s free to the public, which makes sense because it’s put on by the American Film Institute. Opportunity and education are two of its biggest goals. It’s a festival I’ve attended for the past three years and have always left satisfied. This year, AFI’s program was filled with an array of women-centered films, including Dee Rees’s Mudbound, A Fantastic Woman starring Daniela Vega, Aaron Katz’s thriller Gemini, and the five female directed films listed below.
1. What Will People Say, directed by Iram Haq
Winner of this year’s New Auteurs Audience Award at AFI Fest, Iram Haq’s latest feature is a semi autobiographical drama about a teenage girl caught between two cultures. What Will People Say centers on the life of a sixteen-year-old Pakistani girl named Nisha, played brilliantly by Maria Mozhdah. Though she lives in a traditional Pakistani household, outside, Nisha indulges in Norway’s westernized culture. That is, until Nisha’s father walks in on her with a boy. From there, Nisha is ripped away from her friends, flown to Pakistan, and left in the care of her aunt. This drama explores womanhood caught between tradition and autonomy. Haq balances the two worlds evenly, offering sympathy and perspective to both sides. But Nisha will go to great lengths to guarantee a life of independence.
2. Fits and Starts, directed by Laura Terruso
Major babes Greta Lee and Wyatt Cenac star in this hilarious comedy about one couples artistic journey. David and Jennifer are writers, and like so many people claim, there isn’t enough room under one roof for two artists. Jennifer is a successful novelist and well, David’s ongoing first draft has been written in fits and starts. Despite the two having met when Jennifer was an MFA student with David as her professor, Jennifer has managed to bypass her husband at top speed. Director Laura Terruso comically battles the assumption that being the husband of a successful artist means that they’re just that, the husband of a successful artist. The film takes place over the course of a couple of days and is filled with caricatures of pretentious artists who, as David eventually points out, have created some absolute crap. On a more serious note, Terruso focuses on the importance of balance and presence in a creative relationship.
3. Ava, directed by Léa Mysius
A winner of the SACD Award at this year Cannes Film Festival, Ava is a deeply moving coming of age story about a thirteen-year-old girl who learns that she’s going to lose her sight in just a few short months. For her directorial debut, Léa Mysius focuses on the uncomfortable transition between childhood and young adulthood. For Ava, an observant, intelligent, and adventurous girl, growing up female is less than desirable. But when she becomes infatuated with a young vagrant, Ava sets out for the journey of a lifetime. Ava is a film about young, female sexuality and the traditional gender dynamics that attempt to define and confine this growth period.
4. High Fantasy, directed by Jenna Bass
High Fantasy is an experimental study of race and gender in South Africa. Part science fiction, part comedy, director Jenna Bass’s latest film begs the question, “What would happen if you woke up in someone else’s body of another gender or race?” In short, a group of diverse friends, Tatiana, Xoli, Lexi, and Thami set out for a weekend of secluded camping in the middle of a large piece of land that has been in Lexi’s family for years. Tensions rise when Xoli gives Lexi a history lesson about the land and its ownership. But it isn’t until the group wakes up the following day, each of them in a different body, that they begin to grapple with the topics of race, gender, and history. The cast played an instrumental role in the making of this film. Between working alongside Jenna with the script and cinematography, High Fantasy is a collaborative effort to get viewers to think about their own role in society.
5. Bright Sunshine In (Un beau soleil intérieur), directed by Claire Denis
French filmmaker Claire Denis has been directing films since the 1980s. Her latest venture, Bright Sunshine In, starring Juliet Binoche, is a romantic comedy that chronicles one woman’s journey to find love. Isabella is a divorced, middle aged, and successful artist who has terrible luck with love. Determined to squash the belief that love dies after middle age, Isabella is willing to try out anyone, even if they’re married bankers or moody stage actors. Bright Sunshine In is a departure from Denis’s previous work, but no less entertaining.
Top photo: Fits and Starts
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Samantha Ladwig is a writer and film critic. Her writing has been published by Vice, Birth Movies Death, Bust, Huffington Post, Broadly, IGN Entertainment, and others. More of her work can be found at samanthaladwig.com.