Change of Direction; Opportunities for Women Filmmakers Are All Too Rare in Hollywood. Luckily, There Are Other Options
Pepper, Tara, Barchfield, Jenny, Newsweek International
Byline: Tara Pepper (With Jenny Barchfield in Paris)
When British director Gurinder Chadha started work on "Bend It Like Beckham," she was determined to prove that a film with an Asian star could be a mainstream commercial success. Now Chadha is taking her inventive melding of East and West a step further: her new film, "Bride and Prejudice," due out next month, features the Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai in her first English-language role, and transplants Jane Austen's 19th-century country-house classic to 21st-century India, Britain and Los Angeles. "I wanted to show that there is an alternative to Hollywood," says Chadha. "I wanted to do a Bollywood-style movie for audiences around the world. I thought because I would be introducing new concepts and styles, it would be best to use a story that people were familiar with."
Chadha's confident vision has thus far turned up box-office gold. The bittersweet "Bend It Like Beckham" became a surprise worldwide hit in 2002, grossing more than $30 million. Her next project--a $90 million Hollywood epic billed as a prequel to the 1960s TV comedy "I Dream of Jeannie"--will propel Chadha into an elite class of blockbuster directors. But she'll be one of very few women there. According to "The Celluloid Ceiling," a study released this summer by Martha Lauzen, a communications professor at the University of San Diego, women directed just 6 percent of the top 250 films in 2003--down from 11 percent in 2000. "When you take the longer view, I do not see a pattern for improvement for women directors in film," she says. "I don't think Hollywood is going to change of its own volition."
That doesn't mean there's no hope. As the summer's mindless blockbusters fade into memory, women directors are taking center stage with a spate of more serious, emotionally driven art-house films. Barbara Albert's striking "Free Radicals," which follows a group of people recovering from a car crash, is the highlight of a new series at London's National Film Theatre. Lucrecia Martel's soon-to-be-released tale of a young girl's sexual awakening, "The Holy Girl," won plaudits at Cannes in May. And Anne Fontaine's "Nathalie," currently in theaters, stars Emmanuelle Beart in the unusual role of a hooker hired by a wife to seduce her husband.
In Britain, a new program called Directing Change aims to keep that momentum going. "There are a lot of emerging young women directors," says Jane Cussons, chief executive of the nonprofit Women in Film and Television. "We've got to root out the talent and create the conditions in which it can flourish." To that end, Directing Change assigns up-and-coming women filmmakers to apprentice on high-profile features. When Stephen Frears starts shooting "Mrs. Henderson Presents" with Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins this week, Scottish director Angela M. …