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Movie Reviews : Women Directors Focus of ‘Calling the Shots’

Canadian film makers Janis Cole and Holly Dale interviewed on camera no fewer than 35 women, 26 of them directors, for “Calling the Shots,” their documentary on women directors (at the Beverly Center Cineplex).

The strength of their film is to suggest the wide diversity among women film makers, ranging from such mainstream directors as Randa Haines (“Children of a Lesser God”) to a determined independent like Lizzie Borden (“Born in Flames,” “Working Girls”), from such celebrated foreign directors as Agnes Varda and Margarethe von Trotta to the iconoclastic Franco-Belgian Chantal Akerman and Hong Kong’s remarkable Ann Hui.

However, Cole and Dale got so carried away with their charismatic interviewees that they let their film run on long after they had made their points. At 90 minutes, it could have been as terrific as its subjects; at 2 hours, it grows repetitive and tedious. (Nevertheless, it did receive the recent Women in Film Festival’s documentary award.)

What all these women have in common is the struggle they have had--and continue to have--in being directors in a profoundly male-dominated medium (which makes Sherry Lansing’s pronouncement that the film industry is “prejudice-free” all the more startling).

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Not surprisingly, many have taken the independent route, yet most of them--even forthright feminists--understandably express a wish to be able to be part of a motion picture industry in which gender doesn’t matter.

Cole and Dale have not done full justice to their subject. Martha Coolidge, who always cuts to the heart of the matter, says that when one woman director flops at the box office all others suffer, yet Cole and Dale have not probed deeper into the question why so many talented women can’t get beyond their first-time success.

They give far too much screen time to fellow Canadian Sandy Wilson, although she is as charming as her picture “My American Cousin,” and even to Lizzie Borden, as incisive and witty as she is about the realities of low-budget film-making. It’s frustrating to hear only a few tantalizing generalities from Ann Hui, director of the astounding, epic-scale “Boat People” and one of the most dynamic film makers in the contemporary world cinema.

Among those who make the strongest impressions are Penelope Spheeris, who talks of dealing with violence on the screen; Joyce Chopra, who reveals forthrightly the pain of having been fired from “Bright Lights, Big City,” which she began fresh from her highly praised “Smooth Talk,” and Joan Tewkesbury, who describes the toll film making can exact on family life.

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Katharine Hepburn speaks fondly of working for Dorothy Arzner, and Mala Powers has equally warm and admiring memories of having been directed by Ida Lupino. There’s an unidentified vintage still of a woman who certainly resembles Alice Guy Blache, the first woman film director, and there’s a shot of Lois Weber’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, yet there’s not a single word about these important pioneers.

You’re left wishing that Cole and Dale had taken interviewee Jill Godmilow’s words closer to heart on the necessity of documentarians to take responsibility for what they’re presenting. There’s so much that’s worthy in “Calling the Shots” (Times-rated Mature) that you can only wish it were better.


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