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Can these movies start a conversation around women's rights?

Actress Cate Blanchett stars in the 1950's lesbian romance film,
Actress Cate Blanchett stars in the 1950's lesbian romance film, "Carol," directed by Todd Haynes.
Wilson Webb/The Weinstein Company

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With growing momentum to investigate — and perhaps change — Hollywood’s male-dominated hiring and compensation practices, industry leaders can no longer say with a straight face that women receive equal opportunity and equal pay.

But this fall, several films arriving in theaters tell stories of women and girls striving for equality on screen. And it’s not just for the sake of statistics: filmmaker Todd Haynes says women’s stories actually speak to universal truths.

In these movies, women and girls — some real, some fictional — try to be their true selves and fight for dignity and fairness.

The movie “Suffragette,” which opens Oct. 23, is a drama about the often violent struggle for women’s voting rights in early 20th century England. The film stars Carey Mulligan and Meryl Streep as activists who are targeted by British authorities for demanding access to the voting booth. And for that some women are beaten, one loses her son, and one loses her life. “Suffragette” director Sarah Gavron talks about what the filmmakers found in their research:

There’s this whole shocking material you can unearth about women who went to prison, who were force fed, who sacrificed so much in their fight for equality, who lost families, jobs, homes and faced incredible brutality from the police and state. And that is what wanted to tell — that untold story that’s never been seen on our cinema screens.

The feature-length documentary, “He Named Me Malala” (in theaters now), tells the story of Malala Yousafzai.

She’s the teenager from Pakistan who was shot in the head and nearly killed by the Taliban for saying that girls and women have a right to be educated in her country. The film’s director is Davis Guggenheim:

Malala and her father started telling their story in Pakistan out of a need — their schools were being blown up, their livelihood was being taken away, they were under threat and they need to tell their story. And it's part of what they do. And so they completely let me in.

Oddly enough, it was the story of Malala and the actions of others fighting for women’s rights that inspired "Suffragette" director Sarah Gavron and helped her see the modern-day suffragettes in our midst:

When we were researching the film we were looking at the new activism in the U.K. We were looking at Malala and Pussy Riot and all those people challenging repression in their own states.

“Carol,” which opens Nov. 20, is another period film that has modern resonance. Same-sex marriage is legal today, but in this fictionalized story set in 1950s New York, it absolutely wasn’t. Two women fall in love, and are punished for expressing their true feelings.

The movie is directed by Todd Haynes and it stars Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett. It’s based on the novel, “The Price of Salt,” by Patricia Highsmith. Haynes recognizes that, as society evolves, there is still a need to remember the past:

There’s no way that contemporary audiences would be able to watch a film like "Carol" and not think about where we are today. That said, it’s about a very specific time that we can’t forget about.

The movies that Haynes makes typically feature a female lead, but he says that’s not a political act on his part:  

I’ve always been attracted to stories about women. The conditions that women deal with in their lives are often domestic constraints and, really, the realities of life that we all struggle with. And they’re not by definition as much about escapism.

Haynes refers to the fact that big movie studios increasingly make films that cater to an escapist cinematic experience — usually with male leads and almost always with male directors. So it's not surprising that it took more than a decade for the “Suffragette” filmmakers to find the backers for their movie. Still, director Gavron says these stories are tapping into a cultural conversation that finally enabled her film to get made:

Had we tried to make it four or five, or maybe even two or three years ago, I’m not sure we would’ve gotten it financed. There was something about the fact that this is the conversation now, that there is this emerging new activism, that there’s an awareness that there are so few women in the film industry. There’s an awareness that people want these stories. Women are half of the population, they buy over half of the cinema tickets. There’s an appetite for these stories.

Movies can have a tremendous impact in the way that people see the world around them. And that’s increasingly important when so many people rely on pop culture as a news source. Perhaps Meryl Streep said it best when she described the obligation that filmmakers have in "a non-reading world":

Increasingly what's on our screens is our history ... so it's important that women's stories and the things that interest them, concern them [and] confound them are on our screens.

This fall in theaters, these stories may very well have the power to start a conversation among audiences, just as they're starting to fuel conversations for filmmakers such as Davis Guggenheim, director of "He Named Me Malala":

And so I think, What kind of father am I? Do I see my daughters as equal to my son? And sometimes I don’t answer that question very well. When I read something interesting I say, Hey Miles, did you hear about this? I don’t say it to my daughter.

So even as the film business continues to hire far more men than women, and pay those men more, it can still take a far more egalitarian stand when it comes to the stories on screen.

And, quite ironically, this Fall that issue is women’s rights.


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