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At Sundance 2019, women push beyond ‘female stories’

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Chukwu at the award ceremony


Last Saturday, February 2, the 2019 Sundance Film Festival drew to a close with Chinonye Chukwu, writer/director of Clemency, the biggest prize winner.

The Nigerian-born, Alaskan-raised screenwriter, producer and director, Chukwu, whose works had received several recognition, grants and awards, broke down a new barrier: she’s the first black woman to win the festival’s biggest prize, the Grand Jury Prize for her U.S. Dramatic entry. She joins Desiree Akhavan, Ryan Coogler, Damien Chazelle, Rebecca Miller, and many more as winning the biggest prize for their U.S. Dramatic entries.

However, in 2012, Ava DuVernay had won the directing prize to become the first black woman to do so with her second narrative offering, Middle of Nowhere. Vernay did not win the grand jury prize.Hosted by the filmmaker and actress, Marianna Palka, at the Basin Recreation Fieldhouse in Park City, Utah, the event saw women making a statement that the face of Sundance is a woman.

It was a banner year for female filmmakers, as each of the four Grand Jury Prizes given to films in competition — the festival’s highest honours, as voted on by individual juries — was directed or co-directed by a female filmmaker, reflecting last year’s Directing winners, who were all women.

This year’s other Grand Jury Prize winners include, Nanfu Wang’s One Child Nation (U.S. Documentary), Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir (World Dramatic), and Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s Honeyland (World Documentary). Last year’s winners boasted four female directors taking home the individual directing awards, including Sara Colangelo, Alexandria Bombach, Sandi Tan, and Isold Uggadottir.

At this year’s festival, women directed 46 per cent of the competition films, representing 56 films across four categories. In the U.S. Dramatic Feature category, female filmmakers were the majority: They comprised 56 percent of all directors, helming 16 films.

Sundance 2019 boasted 47 features directed by women (39 per cent) and 39 shorts directed by women (53 per cent). Women directed 45 per cent of all short and feature films at this year’s festival. Chukwu wrote and directed the death row drama, which stars Alfre Woodard as a prison warden struggling with the emotional demands of her job.

Clemency, which is Chukwu’s second feature, explores the life of a woman Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) so consumed by her routine, and to large extent, her humanity as well. But over the course of the devastating process of preparing for another execution, Bernadine injects the drama with the tantalising possibility that humanity might creep back in.Bernadine was already a cold, humourless overlord, but the backlash to the execution only makes matters worse for the next victim in line.

Beyond that, the flick illustrates how systematic execution can destroy both ends of the equation. Woodard portrays Bernadine as a shell of a woman a few shades shy of robot. Eric Kohn wrote of the film in IndieWire’s review, “Woodard embodies the extraordinary challenges of a woman tasked with sending men to their death, while bottling up her emotions so tight she looks as if she might blow. Writer-director Chinonye Chukwu’s second feature maintains the quiet, steady rhythms of a woman so consumed by her routine that by the end of the opening credits, it appears to have consumed her humanity as well.”

Kohn, said, “at a time when movies can be reverse engineered to generate awards season buzz, Clemency provides a welcome alternative: a mature star-driven vehicle elevated by a brilliant performance that deserves all the awards it can get.”He continued: “As icy prison warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) embodies the extraordinary challenges of a woman tasked with sending men to their death, while bottling up her emotions so tight she looks as if she might blow.”


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Chinonye Chukwu
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