Film Review: Half the Picture

Despite leaning a bit rudimentary, Amy Adiron’s documentary on the gender discrimination faced by female directors is an important resource.
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Hollywood has a gender discrimination problem. Well, step back: The world has a gender discrimination problem, but it’s particularly bad in Hollywood. Of the 100 top-grossing films in 2016, 4.2 percent were directed by women. And things aren’t getting better: Gender disparity among the ranks of film directors, though certainly a more visible topic than it used to be, hasn’t improved in the last 20 years. As pointed out by Sundance Film Festival senior programmer Caroline Libresco, approximately half of directing students are women; in the indie space, at least judging by the Sundance lineup, female directors hover at around 25 percent of the total. “There are serious cracks in the pipeline from 50 percent to 4.2 percent. What are those cracks in the pipeline?”

Here to examine this issue is director Amy Adrion, who interviews a whole slew of experts—academics, journalists, film festival professionals, but mostly female directors themselves—in Half the Picture, an examination of the hurdles faced by female directors. It’s a multi-faceted topic that Adrion tackles in somewhat broad strokes, lending the whole thing something of a Gender Discrimination in Hollywood 101.

We get a few minutes on the particular difficulty women have getting a second film before moving on to discuss on-set discrimination from male crewmembers, the lack of female critics, and the importance of taking a chance on women who are, on paper, less experienced than some of their male counterparts. The struggle of mixing moviemaking with motherhood, and of dealing with people who assume one precludes the other: check. The role of agents and big-name actors in writing director wish lists with no women on them: check. The current legal struggle to bring studios to task for decades of gender discrimination: check.  These are important—necessary—conversations to have. It’s just that Half the Picture tries to have a lot of them in its 94-minute runtime, to the point that the mere existence of female directors from the first half of the 20th century—people like Lois Weber, Ida Lupino and Dorothy Arzner—are relegated to an end-credits slideshow.

All that is to say that if you’re already familiar with the grim reality faced by female directors in Hollywood, Half the Picture comes off as somewhat rudimentary. But, hey—there are a bunch of people who still think that women don’t face systemic discrimination in Hollywood based on their gender, and if Half the Picture gets through to just one of them, that’s a good thing.

Even for the more up-to-date, Half the Picture has quite a bit to offer, courtesy of the candid conversations with female directors on the struggles they’ve faced over the years. It’s when Half the Picture goes from the general to the specific—Patricia Riggen recounting her struggles with a white, male AD on the set of The 33, Ava DuVernay on the difficulty of breaking into TV post-Selma, or director Martha Coolidge being instructed by male executives to “guarantee us that you will deliver naked breasts in four scenes” in Valley Girl—that it gets really good. (Also every time Wayne’s World director Penelope Spheeris talks. More than anything else, Half the Picture teaches that she’d be a great person to have a drink with.)

Half the Picture’s focus could use some tweaking, and its artistry is lacking; what we’re looking at here is essentially a series of talking heads, interspersed with some images of headlines (a boring choice), stock footage of Los Angeles and the odd chart. But as a platform for those who want to hear about the reality of being a woman in Hollywood from dozens of women who have lived it, it’s an invaluable resource.

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