Women Are a Greater Presence at 26th Hamptons International Film Festival

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Russell Hornsby and Amandla Stenberg in "The Hate U Give." Photo courtesy of HIFF

It’s the movements — #MeToo, Time’s Up and the Women’s March.

It’s the ousting of sexual predators — Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and Kevin Spacey, just to name a few.

And it’s the women who are finally rising to the top.

This is the year of the female, and the Hamptons International Film Festival is right on board — with a staggering 45 percent of this year’s 125-film slate directed by women, screening at various East End venues through Columbus Day weekend.

“That was not intentional, to be perfectly honest,” Executive Director Anne Chaisson said. “We strive to do this every year. And, it just so happened, the films that have opened for the past two years were directed by women, which we are delighted by.”

On Thursday, October 4, the 26th annual festival will kick off with “The Kindergarten Teacher,” starring Maggie Gyllenhaal as Lisa Spinelli, a well-intentioned educator who becomes dangerously and disturbingly attached to one of her students — whom, she believes, is a child prodigy.

Sara Colangelo, the director of “The Kindergarten Teacher.” Photo courtesy of HIFF

It was a bold choice for the festival, and for an opening night film, according to writer and director Sara Colangelo. She based her award-winning adaptation — which received the U.S. Dramatic Directing Award at the Sundance Film Festival — on the 2014 Israeli film by director Nadav Lapid, though she took some artistic liberties.

“I really wanted to anchor the story more in the kindergarten teacher’s point of view. The original moved between the young boy’s point of view and the kindergarten teacher’s, and I really wanted to make this a feminine story,” she said. “I don’t know what that means exactly, but it was just something I felt I could do, rooting it in this woman’s unique psychology.”

The role is challenging and complicated — “You’re definitely on a ride when you’re watching the film, and it really unravels into psychological thriller territory,” Colangelo said — and Gyllenhaal will explore it during the talkback series “A Conversation With …” on Friday, October 5, at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor.

“Talk about a strong woman,” Chaisson said. “Wonderfully, we have a huge spotlight on female directors and talent, but in the industry, it’s been a fight for a very long time. Women have known these stats since the dawn of film. And it’s absolutely, still, a major inequality.

“In the independent film world, you will see it more equal than you will in the Hollywood world,” she added. “I think Hollywood went from 4 percent of films directed to — last year with the Me Too movement — jumping up to 6 or 7 percent. There is a long, long way to go in the industry at large.”

By just age 19, actor Amandla Stenberg said she has already seen the disparity between the sexes in Hollywood. Her breakout role as Rue in “The Hunger Games” has allowed her to rise up in both the roles she takes on and her social responsibility, she said.

Appearing at HIFF as one of this year’s Breakthrough Artists — who will speak on a panel on Saturday, October 6, at Rowdy Hall in East Hampton — the star of George Tillman Jr.’s “The Hate U Give” said she was inspired to take on the lead role of Starr after reading the eponymous young adult novel by Angie Thomas.

“It’s a beautiful book. It allows the space for blackness to exist in a way that’s really multi-dimensional and authentic and real, and gave us the humanity that we’re not often afforded in media,” she said. “That’s what really blew my mind open, specifically for Starr and her experiences as a black girl and having to co-exist in this world.”

Starr’s experience as a 16-year-old girl living in a mostly poor black neighborhood — while attending an affluent, predominantly white private school — mirrors Stenberg’s own upbringing.

“I grew up in a neighborhood that was mostly black and mostly low income, but I attended a school that would take an hour and a half in the morning and two hours after school to drive back from, that was pretty homogenously white and wealthy,” she said. “It was a place where I didn’t feel seen and understood, and I struggled with that for a while in the way that Starr did. She is my ride or die. She is my home girl.”

But that is where their life paths split. Stenberg never witnessed the shooting of an innocent black man by a police officer, but Starr does, and finds herself at the forefront of a fictional “Black Lives Matter” protest — one that resembles the movement of today.

“I’ve never been able to play a character before who is real in a grounded way, and so courageous, and is an activist,” Stenberg said. “That feels really special and is such a huge honor. I feel like she’s a character who I needed. She’s so inspired, so incredible, and hopefully will be a character that will make other black girls feel seen and heard, and have their voices validated.”

Named “Feminist of the Year” in 2015 by the Ms. Foundation for Women, Stenberg is no less of an activist herself, speaking out on LGBTQ and women’s rights in recent years.

“It’s a real time of accountability,” she said. “I’ve been able to be a part of the Time’s Up movement and be a part of those meetings, and be brought up into Hollywood at a time where we are no longer accepting — especially as women — of these really misogynistic and exploitive systems that Hollywood has been built upon.

“It’s really refreshing now that we’re resisting that, and I’m seeing a major shift in the way in which women support each other, in terms of how we actively resist the way things have been,” she continued. “It’s one of the most powerful moments I’ve ever witnessed, which is why it’s such an honor to be included in it at this point in time.”

Rory Kennedy, the director of “Above and Beyond.” Photo courtesy of HIFF

Documentary filmmaker Rory Kennedy — whose most recent film, “Above and Beyond: NASA’s Journey to Tomorrow,” explores the history and research of the 60-year-old agency that her uncle, President John F. Kennedy, jumpstarted — said while moves have been made at leveling the gender playing field, there is still a long way to go.

“The statistics are appalling when you look at them,” she said. “I’m in Washington right now and just did a screening of the film on Capitol Hill, I’m listening to these Kavanaugh hearings, and I think we’re surrounded by it, unfortunately. Anywhere there is power and there’s a lot of money, there is pretty extreme examples of sexism. I think there are people who are being forced out, and there’s a cleanse of sorts — and I think that is progress.”

One year after the Harvey Weinstein allegations ignited the #MeToo movement, Tom Donahue’s new documentary “This Changes Everything” — which will make its United States premiere at HIFF — looks at the film industry’s role in reinforcing gender dynamics over the last century by speaking with a group of female titans in Hollywood: Meryl Streep, Jessica Chastain, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Reese Witherspoonand even Stenberg.

“Since the dawn of filmmaking, this has been an issue,” according to HIFF Artistic Director David Nugent, “and one of the things I didn’t know about it was, early on, it wasn’t really the case. There were a lot of females early on in the film industry, and then that changed. And it’s changed, and it’s really gone downhill. Hopefully it’s swinging back the other way.”

Last year, HIFF’s programming racked up 47 Oscar nods — a record for the non-profit film festival — and screened the eventual Best Picture, Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water.”

“It was the eighth year in a row the Best Picture played here,” Chaisson said.

“I hope people take chances on some of the films, though,” Nugent added. “I think we have a lot of good films this year, and we look forward to watching the ceremony in late February and see what comes out ahead.”

Perhaps it will be the year of the female after all.

The 26thannual Hamptons International Film Festival — featuring a wide slate of screenings, panels, awards and parties — will be held from Thursday, October 4, through Monday, October 8, at various locations across the East End. For tickets and a full schedule, visit hamptonsfilmfest.org.

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