#MeToo and More at Film Fest

Sharing stories of rage, healing, and activism
Cait Cortelyou, Sontenish Myers, and Nancy Schwartzman made a splash at this year’s Hamptons International Film Festival with their films and a lively talk on Friday morning. Durell Godfrey

On a weekend when the United States Supreme Court solidified a conservative majority, prompting protests among those fearing its future decisions, the Hamptons International Film Festival offered a slate of films and programs that reflected this moment and events that have led up to it.

On Friday, four women filmmakers gathered at Rowdy Hall in East Hampton to share their stories of rage, healing, and activism one year after the beginning of the #MeToo movement.

A year ago, the first stories about Harvey Weinstein emerged as the festival was opening for it 25th anniversary. The news created a prism through which to view many of the films at the festival last year and those released in the year that followed.

In response, the festival brought together Cait Cortelyou, Sontenish Myers, and Nancy Schwartzman with Melissa Silverstein as moderator at Rowdy Hall on Friday morning for a talk called “Our Bodies, Our Stories.” The stories their films tell are about women dealing with violations to their rights or their person and how they addressed those circumstances.

Ms. Myers’s short film “Cross My Heart” is about “when someone you love hurts someone you love” and how “to be a warrior for them,” she said. It also addresses the downside of women keeping secrets for other women, and why that might not be the best choice after all.

“Ask for Jane,” by Ms. Cortelyou, looks at a group of women in Chicago in the late 1960s called the Jane Collective who learned how to give safe but illegal abortions to more than 11,000 women who had no other options for the procedure. “The thing is, there are pockets all over the United States where this is happening right now in 2018,” Ms. Cortelyou said. “There are women performing underground abortions safely and illegally” in states were the laws are restrictive or where providers are scarce.

“It’s devastating that it’s come to that, but also encouraging that where there is a need for this, women will step up and make it happen,” she said.

Ms. Schwartzman’s film “Roll Red Roll” focuses on Steubenville, Ohio, and a blogger who published disturbing evidence of a sexual assault of a teenage girl by members of the town’s high school football team. She noted that some of those who show her film say, “ ‘Oh, it’s about rape, so all the ladies should come.’ Uh, no, we’ve already lived these stories.” Instead, she said, she likes making space for people to share their viewpoints and begin discussing the issues. 

“I’ve had really surprising and affirming experiences in terms of who is in the room,” Ms. Schwartzman said. Like the Traverse City, Mich., football-loving crowd she said was enraged by the film. “That was great.”

With so much political and cultural backtracking, the women on the panel were still positive about the future. Ms. Myers said she sees this as part of a cycle that will have its own backlash. Others noted the gains that have been made and continue to develop toward increasing parity in the film business, including an initiative called 50/50 by 2020 that aims to have half of Hollywood films made with women in high positions by that date. Anne Chaisson, the director of the festival, said that HIFF itself was at 45 percent this year. That represents evidence of female voices being expressed and being heard.

Other films in the festival dealing with themes related to female empowerment and other groups underrepresented in the culture included “This Changes Everything,” directed by Tom Donahue. The film looks at those current efforts of film and television to even up the media landscape with women and people of color in leading roles behind and in front of the camera. 

The film shows this being addressed — slowly in some cases but surely — in everything from children’s entertainment to Geena Davis’s Herculean efforts to gather the data that has shown just how minuscule a percentage of Hollywood product has had significant roles for women. 

Similar efforts have been launched in television and have already reaped rewards, as in the case of the FX network. When the head of FX, John Landgraf, discovered it had the worst record of all the networks, he turned it around, and in only a couple of years it came to have the best record. FX has also enjoyed a year of awards recognition for its programming, making it a positive example for all.

Taking a different tack, Alexis Bloom’s “Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes” shows the various rises and falls of the media visionary. The film, which won the festival’s award for best documentary, goes back to Mr. Ailes’s roots in a proud working class community in Ohio, his rise through both television and the Republican power structure (and his role in grooming later leaders such as Ronald Reagan, Mitch McConnell, and Rudolph Giuliani) to his crowning achievement, the creation of Fox News. 

The film notes his tendency toward mythmaking about himself and others and a knack for stealth in his attempts to power grab. “You couldn’t see him maneuvering,” said one early colleague on “The Mike Douglas Show,” who was pushed out by his machinations. His attempts at another kind of grabbing — i.e. at female underlings who wanted to advance their careers — are also covered in detail. One woman recalled being told, “If you want to play with the big boys, you have to lay with the big boys.”

The film incorporates old footage of Mr. Ailes, who died last year, in interviews with other now-disgraced media giants such as Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer, underscoring how prevalent the abuse of female staffers has been in the media business. Under Mr. Ailes, the network alone paid out $163 million in settlements.

But the true culmination of all of his efforts, Ms. Bloom suggests, is in the election of President Donald J. Trump. Fox News has been an unquestioning supporter of the president, with some former employees even joining his staff. These include Bill Shine, an executive fired at Fox for ignoring the harassment cases there. He is now deputy chief of staff of communications at the White House. 

After the screening, Ms. Bloom said Alisyn Camerota, an anchor at Fox News for 16 years who left in 2014 because of harassment, joined her at a post-film discussion last week. “She said in Brett Kavanaugh’s speech she hears Bill Shine and Roger Ailes in the syncopation and the pacing,” Ms. Bloom said. “He’s ‘on message’ and a federal judge doesn’t speak that way.” Now, he is our latest Supreme Court justice.

“Ask for Jane” examines the efforts of women to learn how to provide safe abortions, first when they were illegal and now in areas where access is severely limited.