Did Last Year's HIFF Films Predict This Cultural Moment?

Sometimes filmmakers create stories that dovetail with current events or capture the zeitgeist in a way that seems prescient
Margot Robbie played Tonya Harding in the film "I, Tonya." Below, a scene from the film “In the Fade,” starring Diane Kruger. Both films, along with "Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri," had their United States premieres at the Hamptons International Film Festival.

In terms of offering an immediate response to major news and cultural moments, filmmakers are at a disadvantage. The medium’s demands — writing a script, hiring actors, building sets and booking exterior locations, filming the scenes, editing the outcome, and then finding a distributor — do not allow for a swift turnaround.

Yet sometimes filmmakers create stories that dovetail with current events or capture the zeitgeist in a way that seems prescient. A number of films shown last year at the Hamptons International Film Festival and now making the rounds of the awards circuit appear to have done this in their portrayal of wronged and often angry women having their say in nuanced or quite vocal ways. The fact that the revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s predatory behavior came out the day the festival opened has given these films a contextual trajectory from those early screenings to their runs in national and international cinemas, which will culminate in Sunday’s Academy Awards.

In a recent conversation over lunch at the Maidstone in East Hampton, Anne Chaisson, the executive director of the film festival and a film producer, said that “it’s time that women’s voices are heard, period.” Addressing the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements that have been galvanizing forces over the past few months, she said she wasn’t certain if more films were addressing aligned topics this year, “but if it felt like there was more of it this year, then I’m all for it.”

At the head of the line is Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri,” which is a favorite for a best picture Oscar, after winning best drama at the Golden Globes, best film and best British film at the British Academy Film and Television Awards, and best ensemble cast from the Screen Actors Guild. Frances McDormand plays a mother whose prompting of local law enforcement to find answers for her daughter’s rape and murder evolves into an extreme showdown of wills. The role has won her most every best actress award so far this year.

Accepting his award for best original screenplay at BAFTA, Mr. McDonagh said, “What we are most proud of in this Time’s Up era is that this is a film about a woman who refuses to take any shit anymore played by a woman who’s always refused to take any shit. I’d like to thank Frances McDormand for a performance that was as unapologetic as it was fearsome.”

While the daughter of Ms. McDormand’s character was raped and it is the mother seeking justice and revenge, not the father or brother, as is often the case in such stories, Ms. Chaisson wondered if it truly captures the moment. “ ‘Three Billboards’ is more of a murder mystery to me,” she said. The rape is part of the crime, but rape has been the subject or an element of many movie stories. The taboo subject for film has been sexual assault, not rape, she said. “The idea that touching a woman in an unwelcome way is bad, most people were afraid to go there. We’ve done every other taboo subject, but no one talks about this. Now, we are.”

“Three Billboards” joined other titles at the festival such as “In the Fade,” a German film by Faith Akin about a woman taking matters in her own hands to get justice for the murders of her husband and son, and “I, Tonya,” a revisiting of the Tonya Harding story from the subject’s point of view. “In the Fade” won the best foreign film award at the Golden Globes and “I, Tonya” garnered Oscar nominations for Margot Robbie, who plays Ms. Harding, and Allison Janney, who plays LaVona Golden, Ms. Harding’s caustic mother. Ms. Janney has snatched up the best supporting actress award from almost every nominating organization this year and is a favorite on Sunday.

“I, Tonya” is a very dark comedy about people struggling to lift themselves out of their circumstances, but who are always getting in the way of themselves in subversive ways. Ms. Harding suffered emotional and physical abuse by her mother and then her husband. For years, it has been assumed that she was behind a 1994 attack that injured Nancy Kerrigan, a teammate and rival. Ms. Harding was ultimately banned from competitive figure skating for life for her alleged involvement. “She said I didn’t do it, and we didn’t listen,” Ms. Chaisson said. “She had a terrible background and a horrible husband and we blamed her. The film was a wake-up call.”

She noted other films at the festival, including “The Square,” in which a journalist played by Elizabeth Moss confronts a man with whom she has had a strange interlude and who would rather avoid her. “She was saying, ‘We had a date. It was weird. Why can’t you talk to me about this?’ ” It was an awkward but real moment not typically seen in movies. "The Square" is nominated for a best foreign film Oscar.

Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected),” which is now streaming on Netflix, was critically acclaimed, but may have been shut out from awards consideration after Dustin Hoffman was accused of prior sexual harassment. 

In a subplot of the film, a reticent woman tells her brothers that when she was a teen, their father’s best friend exposed and touched himself while she was in a bathing suit in an outdoor shower. Her brothers engage in some belated revenge, much to her chagrin, resulting in a resonant exchange between the siblings. The sister corrects her brother when he says the man molested her. He replies “but let’s not minimize this, Jean. What he did was shitty and damaging.”

In terms of a more direct demonstration of the themes of #MeToo and Time’s Up, Ms. Chaisson said it may take some time for films to catch up. “The crop of movies that are out are not necessarily representing it yet,” she said. The New York Times noted that women were ascendant at January’s Sundance Film Festival, but that festival’s director said in the same article that “It usually takes about two years for topics to permeate.”

Ms. Chaisson had just returned from Sundance, where HIFF goes primarily to scout documentaries for its SummerDocs program. She said it had always provided a platform for films by and about women and that women continued to make their mark in independent film. That said, she does see more general interest in stories about women and renewed and increased pressure on studios to give women parity in pay and in positions such as director and cinematographer. 

She said it is time that their contributions and women-centered stories get the same attention and support of Hollywood. “There must be change. Everything that has happened this year demands it,” she said. “Any studio that remains tone deaf will deal with quite a force.”

“The Meyrowitz Stories (New and Selected).”
Anne Chaisson with Alec Baldwin and David Nugent during the Hamptons International Film Festival. Jackie Pape