You might say it was Woman Power out in force that dominated the Telluride Film Festival’s first day Friday, although Suffragette co-star Meryl Streep balked when I used that term with her. “I am so tired of hearing about female empowerment,” she told me at the Focus Features party at Arroyo following the World Premiere of the film at the Herzog Theatre Friday night. “I just want women to be included.” Indeed. And they certainly were in the first day’s programming led by Focus’ October 23rd release, Suffragette, a movie dealing with one factory worker’s (played beautifully by Carey Mulligan) continuing fight to gain women the vote in 1900’s London. Directed by Sarah Gavron, written by Abi Morgan and produced by Alison Owen and Faye Ward (all were in attendance), the film drew a warm reaction. I had gotten an early preview so I knew they had the goods with this one.
Streep travelled again to Telluride to support the project in which she has about a four minute cameo as Emmeline Parkhurst, the leader of the movement. It’s just one scene but it echoes throughout the film. “I believe in this subject and am happy to be part of it,” she told me. The filmmakers and Streep (who got a standing ovation when introduced at the beginning) all sat in the first row of the Herzog, which annoyed Owen, who normally likes to be in a better position to judge what the crowd is feeling. It is hard to do it from that vantage point to be sure. I told Owen (who produced the Mary Poppins saga, Saving Mr. Banks) that a day earlier someone had told me the younger generation of women who could really benefit from this movie probably won’t go because they don’t even know what the title means. I pointed to the famous song in the iconic Mary Poppins about suffragettes, saying every generation since then has to know that word and its significance. She agreed and started singing the song’s lyrics verbatim right there like she was in a karaoke bar.
Owen had high praise for the absent Mulligan (who is expecting any minute), saying she really exceeded every expectation. This is Gavron’s second trip to Telluride. She was here last in 2007 for the wonderful Brick Lane, as was Morgan. “It’s so great to be back here. It’s a great festival, ” she told me recalling our first meeting at that Telluride. “And this time it is with such a much bigger film for me.”
The movie has possessed her for ten years, including six years actively trying to get it made. There was much talk about the end credits crawl of all the countries that have given women the right to vote including the astonishing fact that this is still an ongoing issue in some parts of the world right up to 2015. Very powerful stuff. I really hope this film will resonate, particularly in a time when the mere right to vote is taken for granted. Focus Features’ chief Peter Schlessel was beaming at the party. The movie clearly means a lot to him and he was passionate about acquiring it. It’s a short trip for Schlessel as he heads back Saturday. The Danish Girl, another prestige awards contender from Focus, has its North American premiere next weekend at the Toronto International Film Festival following Venice’s World Premiere. He was praising the performances of both Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander (she could probably land a nomination in either Supporting or Leading , depending on how the Oscar campaign winds blow). “Eddie is just such a generous actor to his co-stars,” Schlessel added.
Earlier the Fox Searchlight documentary He Named Me Malala launched for the big ticketed crowd of patron, sponsor and platinum pass holders at an afternoon preview at the Chuck Jones Cinema atop the mountain. It was warmly received and won a standing ovation when moderator Ken Burns introduced director Davis Guggenheim and Malala’s father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, for a post-screening Q&A. Like Suffragette, this film really socks home the intelligence, perseverance and strength of women, this time embodied in the spirit of Malala, the Pakistani girl shot in the head and face by the Taliban for suggesting that girls have the right to an education. She has lived to become a true inspiration for girls and women worldwide and this docu proves it. Although she couldn’t make this first ever public screening due to school duties, Malala was skyped in from Birmingham England to the Q&A, and after several minutes of watching her silently on the big screen, the audio finally kicked in and she spoke to the 500-plus crowd, charming them by saying her impressive report card was better than getting the Nobel Peace Prize (which she got in 2014). Guggenheim, an Oscar winner for An Inconvenient Truth, said that absent producers Walter
Parkes and Laurie MacDonald had approached him with the project after traveling to London to meet Malala in hopes of doing a theatrical narrative film about her. After that meeting though they decided it had to be a documentary instead. Image Nation and Participant Media joined in and now the film is ready for a worldwide release beginning in October. Although the documentary steers clear of edgier areas in confronting the violence and mindset of the evil forces that attacked and nearly killed her, it is to be commended for shining a positive light on an area of the world, with its increasing horrific violence against humanity, that seems impossible to understand. Davis explained he was purposely not trying to tell a global political story , but rather one about a father and a very courageous daughter who has used her mis-fortune to educate the world on the urgent need to promote education for young women.
The director admitted that arriving on a structure that worked was very difficult, as the film cuts back and forth between her life now and before the shooting, even using several animated sequences to illustrate Malala’s own words and feelings. Malala herself said she has “forgiven” her attackers and that it doesn’t matter if they were arrested or not. She said she hopes to go on to Oxford, maybe Stanford, and is now exploring colleges.
There was some criticism that the film might be too sugar-coated, but Guggenheim was steadfast in his approach. “The problems over there are too hard to solve, the images are terrifying,” he told the audience. “As a citizen of the world I feel paralyzed, in a world of tyranny, that courage can win…It’s speaking up and expressing your voice. That’s power. I felt if I could tell this story and show the bravery of this father and daughter it would be good for my daughter and your daughters.” Among those viewing the film were Streep and director Alexander Payne (he caught the late evening showing), the latter telling me at the Focus party that he was extremely impressed by the movie.
Another female-centric, forward-thinking movie, Carol, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara , which debuted in May at Cannes and Friday had its North American premiere at Telluride also was winning praise. Mara, though her resume is still brief, got a special tribute before the film was unveiled to what I hear was just as strong a reception as it got in the south of France. Director Todd Haynes was among the contingent from the film attending. The story of a love affair between the wealthy and married Carol and the department store clerk she falls for in the repressed era of the early 50’s tells a bold tale of two women, two human beings who are brave enough to embark on a forbidden relationship.
And let’s not forget one other very determined woman who made a huge imprint on the 2015 Telluride’s first day. That would be legendary singer Aretha Franklin who won a last minute injunction from a Denver judge to stop the planned first-ever screenings of a long gestating 1972 documentary focusing on the making of her latest album at the time. She was enforcing rights she claimed she had in determining if her likeness could be used, and she prevailed against all odds. The late director Sydney Pollack never completed the film, called Amazing Grace, reportedly due to sound synching issues. Franklin is determined to stop it from being shown ever and, at least at Telluride, she has succeeded. It’s still scheduled to debut in Toronto later this month and she may have to fight the Canadian courts to stop that. Nevertheless Franklin, like Malala and the women depicted in Carol and Suffragette, demanded and has gotten some much needed R-E-S-P-E-C-T here in Telluride. More power to them all.