Film Program Nurtures Women Directors

by Nick Obourn

Columbia’s School of the Arts had good reason to celebrate at this year’s Academy Awards when alumna Kathryn Bigelow (SoA’81) received two Oscars for her film The Hurt Locker. She received awards for best picture and best direction, and the movie won a total of six Oscars. 

Bigelow’s selection was also a milestone, making her the first woman to win best director. She has picked up nearly every directing honor possible through the awards season, sweeping the British Academy of Film and Television Awards and the Director’s Guild of America award for “Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Feature Film.”
Director Kathryn Bigelow on the set of The Hurt Locker
Director Kathryn Bigelow on the set of The Hurt Locker
Image credit: Kathryn Bigelow and 42West
Yet while she is certainly the best known of the School of the Arts Film alums at the moment, she is only one of a number of directing-alumnae getting attention. And that, say some of the school’s professors, has much to do with the Film Program’s overall approach.
“The mission of Columbia’s Film Program has always been to nurture the original voice of the writer and director,” said Annette Insdorf, director of Undergraduate Film Studies and former chair of the school’s Film Program. “We choose women—and men—whose unique voice comes through. It’s true that two of the film program chairpersons have been female—me from 1990 until 1995 and more recently Bette Gordon—but the male chairs have been exceedingly supportive as well.”
The school has a number of enthusiastic and accomplished women on its film faculty in addition to Insdorf, such as Katherine Dieckmann, a film and video director who is also an assistant professor, and directors Mira Nair and Gordon. In addition, the Carla Kuhn Memorial Lecture Series often brings female directors and writers to speak on campus.
This past year has been particularly good to the school’s film alumnae. Cherien Dabis (SoA’04) wrote and directed the critically acclaimed 2009 film Amreeka, which was a selection for the dramatic competition at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and had its international debut at the Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival last year. “Cherien was a student in my advanced screenwriting workshop and started the script for Amreeka in the class,” said Dieckmann. “We stayed in touch after she graduated, and I read many drafts of that screenplay. She is a strong and singular talent.”
At this year’s 2010 Sundance Film Festival, director Lisa Cholodenko’s (SoA’97) The Kids are All Right sparked a bidding war between studios vying for its distribution rights. (The winner was Focus Features, which is headed by James Schamus, who also is a faculty member at the School of the Arts.) The movie stars Julianne Moore and Annette Benning as a lesbian couple whose children decide to seek out their birth father. Also at Sundance, Nicole Holofcener’s (SoA’88) Please Give, starring Catherine Keener, Amanda Peet and Rebecca Hall, caught the eye of Sony Classic Pictures, which will distribute the film. And J. J. Adler (SoA’09) won three awards for her feature New Media from Women in Film, a nonprofit organization that supports the efforts of women filmmakers.
And at last year’s Oscars, Courtney Hunt’s (SoA’94) film Frozen River was nominated for two awards: Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress. It also won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.
Other award-winning alumnae include Kimberly Pierce (SoA’96), who directed Boys Don’t Cry; Sophie Barthes, who directed Cold Souls and studied film at SoA but graduated from Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs in 2003; Beth Schacter (SoA’04), who directed Normal Adolescent Behavior; Shari Stringer Berman (SoA’95), who directed American Splendor and The Nanny Diaries; and Emily Abt (SoA’04), director of Toe to Toe. Dieckmann believes that SoA is successful at nurturing such talent because “the most important aspect is that everyone on the faculty supports women, or to put it another way, approaches female filmmakers as automatically equal to their male counterparts and focuses on helping them develop an individual voice.”
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