Unconventional Women

Screening of Like the Water in Rockland, Maine
This is a guest post by Emily Best.

I am lying on the floor of a small bedroom in an East Village mansion in New York City. It’s the holding room of a site-specific production of Hedda Gabler in which I am playing Thea, and Caitlin FitzGerald (who is soon to co-star in Showtime’s Masters of Sex) is playing Hedda. We have been playing for about two weeks to sold out, packed crowds of 28 people who sit around the living room while the show happens so close to them they can feel us breathing (and we them).

We are warming up. I am reading over some sides that Caitlin is preparing for an audition the next day–for the role of a chronic masturbator. The dialogue is trite, the character non-existent. This woman who stands across from me every night in full possession of the force of her intelligence, complexity, delicacy, beauty, humor, and wrath is auditioning to play a trope. 

Director Caroline von Kuhn on set with Like the Water cast
I remember that day as the deciding factor for me. For Caroline von Kuhn–who wrote a piece for Bitch Flicks about directing Like the Water, the film we would eventually make together–I’m not sure what it was. Or for Caitlin, who was perhaps tired of being asked to audition for parts like that. Or for the other seven women who would join the production of our film, all of whom I count as dearest friends. But somehow, together we decided we would attempt to make a film about women we recognized. We would attempt to make a film about women who do not fall into one of two categories we typically see in films: the mouthy, too-smart for her own good teenager, or the emotionally stunted 35 year old for whom the solution to the world’s problems is a man. (You could add to this perhaps the oversexed Other Woman and the mean mom/stepmom.)

We wondered what it would be like to make a movie about situations familiar to us, with characters who react the way they do in life: imperfectly. But it was also important for us to include something about the nature of our friendships: funny, challenging, loving, and absolutely necessary.

DP Eve Cohen — Like the Water and Mana O’Lana: Paddle for Hope
We made Like the Water to lean against what we felt like were the conventional portrayals of women in their 20s and 30s. Until we made the film, I hadn’t gone out of my way to seek out the ways other directors were pushing the boundaries of female characters. It was only through my own experience producing Like the Water that I realized just how difficult a task it is to fund and lock down distribution for a film that bucks these conventions. So when we started Seed&Spark, I suppose it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that most of our early submissions both for crowdfunding and distribution were from women. It’s so exciting to be able to bring together a slate of films that I hope adds to the conversation about those conventions, and also what it means to be unconventional.

My good friend Anna Kerrigan made her directorial and acting debut with the film Five Days Gone, an exceptional screenplay she wrote which she turned into a feature film about family, sisterhood, and the subtle complexities in relationships between men and women. In The Sound of Small Things, Pete McLarnan found an actress who possessed so much of her own life, he turned the camera on her and for the most part, stayed out of her way. (This film has one of the most beautiful, intimate scenes of a deaf woman finding an unconventional way to connect to her musician husband.) In Café Regular, Cairo, Ritsh Batra trains the camera on a Muslim woman testing her relationship by playing with taboo. In I Send You This Place, Andrea Ohs opens her creative world to the audience as she explores her relationship to her brother’s schizophrenia. And in Mana O’Lana: Paddle for Hope, documentarian Eve Cohen enters into her mother’s story of arduous ocean paddling with a group of determined breast cancer survivors.

Film posters and stills
None of these women can be put in a box or labeled, reduced or diminished. In many ways, all of these films are political acts, though I am sure few intended them to be. I look forward to adding films to this conversation and learning from the discussions that ensue. Hopefully those teachings will filter back up through the chain, and the next generation of studio writers will give us new, broader conventions–ones we will happily defy with the next generation of independent films.

Like the Water, inspired Seed&Spark. Before producing Like the Water, Emily produced theater, worked as a vision and values strategy consultant for Best Partners, ran restaurants, studied jazz singing at the Taller de Musics, tour guided and cooked in Barcelona, and before that, was a student of Cultural Anthropology and American Studies at Haverford College. Recently, Emily was named one of the 2013 Indiewire Influencers, dedicated to 40 people and companies who are asking the big questions about what the independent film industry is today (and why) and, more importantly, what it will become. Emily is touring film and tech festivals around the world, Sundance and SXSWV2V to Sheffield and Galway, to educate filmmakers and learn their best practices in connecting with their audiences to build a sustainable career. Emily founded Seed&Spark to make a contribution to the truly independent community in which she would like to make moving pictures. In 2011, she had the great fortune of producing her first feature with a remarkable group of women. The spirit, the community and the challenges of that project.