Sometimes A Ballerina’s Tale feels like the work of a publicist rather than a documentarian, but it’s still worth seeing.
People often think of film festivals primarily in terms of the movies screened, but there’s another hugely important element included in many festivals: panel discussions and guest speakers on topics relevant to the film industry. I had the good luck on Saturday to hear one of my academic idols, Stacey L. Smith, speak as part of a presentation about the barriers faced by women directors.
Smith is the Director of the Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative at the Annenberg School of Communication at USC, a think tank that studies inequality in the entertainment business. They’ve produced many reports documenting the unreal view of the world as presented in popular movies and television (mostly male, mostly white, hardly any sexual minorities) and a similar lack of diversity behind the scenes in terms of directors, writers, cinematographers, and so on.
It’s worth noting that films made by women tend to have more realistic gender balance, more female lead characters, more ethnic and racial diversity, and more nonwhite lead characters than the typical Hollywood product, so the issue is not just one of fair labor practices, but also of the kind of world pictured in our popular entertainment.
Smith and colleagues are working on a project to trace the career trajectories of women directors, and she presented some of their findings regarding the rather leaky pipeline for women from film school (where they are well represented) to directing big-budget features (where they constitute a tiny minority). More detail on this issue is available in a recent report from the Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative and LUNAFEST, the latter a festival of short films by and about women, so I’ll just highlight a few points here.
One is that lots of women get a successful start in the directing business, with almost a third of the short films screened at 10 major festivals (Sundance, Venice, Cannes, etc.) directed by women. However, the world of feature film directing is far more male-dominated, with just 4.1 percent of the 100 top-grossing films from 2002 to 2014 directed by women. Interviews with female directors found that the most-cited barriers to their continuing to work as directors included problems of work and family balance (64 percent) and financial issues (61 percent), followed by problems related to the subject matter, cast, or crew of their films (29 percent), and the fact that the entertainment industry is primarily male (25 percent).
A panel of women who directed films screened at LUNAFEST added more detail to these general conclusions. Many cited problems with getting financing, preconceptions about women directors (i.e., that they would only be considered for films with a female lead), or the (erroneous) belief that films with female directors or female leads are not profitable. For instance, Leah Meyerhoff, director of the 2014 film I Believe in Unicorns, noted that she was told at one point that she’d have more luck getting funding if she rewrote the script so that the lead character was a boy rather than a girl.
The discussion also covered things that women directors could do to get their films made, and actions that others could take to create more opportunities for women directors. One is to create their own networks and communities through social media and through organizations such as Film Fatales. Another mentioned was harnessing the power of female stars, some of whom have successfully demanded a female director for one or more of their films. No one on the panel expressed a belief that the power structures of Hollywood were particularly eager to change so that the responsibility for changing the opportunities available rested on those most interested in seeing the changes take place.
How appropriate is it that on the same day I heard Smith and the panel of female directors, I got to see Paul Feig, director of Bridesmaids and the upcoming female-driven Ghostbusters, receive the Athena Film Festival’s 2016 Leading Man Award? Very appropriate, of course, particularly since he was introduced by Kate McKinnon, who will be playing a nuclear engineer in Feig’s Ghostbusters. Both had a lot to say about opportunities for women in the entertainment business, both in front of and behind the camera, and one can only hope that their success defying the conventional wisdom about women not being funny and women-driven movies not being successful (fun fact: Bridesmaids made $288 million, over 40 percent of that overseas) will bring about some changes.
Back to the films, I saw A Ballerina’s Tale with what appeared to be a sellout crowd on an unseasonably pleasant Saturday afternoon, demonstrating the depth of audience interest. This documentary, directed by Nelson George, celebrates the career of pioneer ballerina Misty Copeland, who among other things is the first black woman to be named a principal dancer of the New York City Ballet.
Born in Kansas City and raised in Los Angeles, Copeland got a late start in ballet at age 13, but her talent quickly became evident. She won a dance competition for young people, then joined the Studio Company of the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) at age 17. When Copeland hit puberty, she gained so much weight she lost her ballerina figure, beginning a struggle with eating and body image disorders. These issues were exacerbated by the reality that she was the rare black dancer in a largely white ballet world, and she began to wonder if she just had the wrong body type for ballet.
Copeland achieved a number of firsts with the ABT, including being the first black woman to dance the Firebird with a major ballet company. In part, because she was aware of her importance as a role model and cultural ambassador, she persisted in dancing while injured, resulting in a shin fracture that nearly ended her career. However, she was able to overcome that setback as well, and resumed her career with the ABT, while also becoming well-known to the general public through, for instance, her ad for Under Armour.
Copeland’s story is inspirational, and there’s a lot of great dancing captured on film in A Ballerina’s Tale, including some of Copeland as a young teenager. The film as a whole seems a bit unfocused, however, with random anecdotes salted here and there, sequences that go on far too long without making any particular point and an unfortunate tendency to raise issues without treating them in any depth. Indeed, sometimes this film feels like the work of a publicist rather than a documentarian, but it’s still worth seeing, particularly if you are interested in ballet. | Sarah Boslaugh