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Toni Erdmann Review: See this Winning, Woman-Directed, Oscar Nominated Film

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Oscar nominations were announced this week.  Women working behind the camera inside and outside Hollywood and their supporters around the world were chagrined, if unsurprised, to see the list of Best Director nominations comprised entirely of men.  Worse yet, director Mel Gibson, who has been accused of anti-Semitism and repeated domestic violence, took the place of any number of equally qualified women in the same field. Anyone hoping for more recognition of those female directors by The Academy can at least celebrate the nomination of German indie Toni Erdmann for Best Foreign Film. It is helmed and written by director/screenwriter/producer Maren Ade, and is getting a wide release to art houses across the country this weekend.

Toni Erdmann is a quirky, often charming movie about Winfried Conradi, a retired teacher who yearns for and works towards a closer relationship with his grown and career-obsessed daughter, Ines. With a two hour and forty two minutes running time, you’d think this movie would have a complicated and very involved plot.  Actually, it’s quite simple. After Winfreid decides he wants to be closer to Ines, he repeatedly goes to her office and to her business trips, much to her annoyance. The ways he goes about getting her attention are what make the story fun, compelling, complicated, and quirky.  The film’s name, Toni Erdmann, refers to Winfried’s alter ego.  Erdmann is the brash, snaggletoothed, shaggy-haired, yet somehow enigmatic character he plays when he shows up at Ines’s business events.  Audiences are witness to a series of very strange, and often awkward encounters, at various points involving a naked brunch, a karaoke rendition of a Whitney Houston song, and a Bigfoot costume.

The success of this film, and the way it sinks into your psyche to stay, is based in the three-dimensional characterizations, and the slow, authentic evolution of the father-daughter relationship from estranged to deeply connected.  It couldn’t be further from the trappings of a Hollywood feel-good flick. There aren’t neatly tied bows in the way of comfortable conversations, or platitude-filled speeches by the movie’s end. The interactions are just as weird, nutty, and love-filled as in any real familial relationship. That is what makes the film so beautiful: Just because there’s disfunction, doesn’t mean there isn’t love, and a desire to connect.

There’s an argument to be made that if women in the world of cinema are welcomed into the Hollywood studio system, movies like this one would be in shorter supply.  I’d argue that, indeed, there would be more of them, because women who make films are more often involved in the writing and producing.  In fact, the two women who have been nominated for features at this year’s Oscars both own and head production or film distribution companies: Maren Ade co-founded the production company Komplizen Film, and the other nominee, Ava DuVernay, who directed, co-wrote, and co-produced the eye-opening and fascinating documentary 13th, founded the independent distribution company ARRAY.   

Toni Erdmann is a great example of a film that should have been considered for more than just the foreign category at the Oscars. It already won five awards at the 29th European Film Awards, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenwriter, Actor, and Actress, and it is the first time a film directed by a women has won its top award. It won all these awards for good reason. This movie has the sort of staying power that will make it a long-appreciated favorite for many who make the effort to seek it out in theaters.  Unfortunately, being both foreign and female-directed, given the current climate at the Academy, we should be grateful it has been recognized by the Academy at all.  With that said, foreign film lovers, those who support women in film, and the 98% of people out there who know the challenge of transforming a strained parental relationship, will do well to add Toni Erdmann to their must-see movie list this Oscar season.

Film grade: A

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This Weekend The Middleburg Film Festival Celebrates Women in Film

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This Weekend The Middleburg Film Festival Celebrates Women in Film: A wide range of films and panels feature women in front of and behind the camera.

2016 has been a topsy-turvy year for women. On the one hand, it’s possible we’ll elect the first female president in history. On the other, disrespect and ignorance around women’s issues have been in the news all year, with the insults during the election, sexual exploitation by celebrities, the questioning of women’s stories of abuse, and more, making the headlines. One subject that has gotten positive attention is the importance of and genuine interest in balancing the numbers of women working in Hollywood, both in front and behind the camera. The Middleburg Film Festival, happening this weekend from October 20th through the 23rd, is playing a powerful and positive role in highlighting the best women working in all roles both inside and outside the studio system.

Since their beginnings only a few years ago, Middleburg Film Festival has always paid attention to the best films in which women play an essential part. Seven films out of the featured 25 are directed by women, but when asked if that’s a conscious effort, executive director Susan Koch said, “We think about it, but we don’t make our selection just because it’s directed by a woman. I think what we’ve found when you look at the statistics, when only 4% of films in Hollywood are directed by women, and we have over 25%, we’re really happy about that. The films we have also hail from all over the world. They just show you the women are out there are making great films. We like to mix it up, not just showing Oscar buzz films, but the independent gems, and especially when you’re talking about women, they often have to do the independent, smaller films, because they’re not given the break to do the larger studio films.

Some of the highlights supporting women in film include the seven films directed by women:

  • Certain Women: a feature film directed by Kelly Reichert, starring Laura Dern and Michelle Williams
  • Toni Erdmann: a feature film directed by Maren Ade about a father attempting to reconnect with his estranged adult daughter, which has already won awards including Best Film at Cannes this year.
  • A Classy Broad: a documentary directed by Anne Goursaud about Marcia Nasatir who was a powerful woman in film and the Vice President of United Artists in the 1970s.
  • The Man Who Saw Too Much: a documentary directed by Trisha Ziff about a tabloid photographer in Mexico.
  • Sonita: a feature film directed by Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami, which won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary, about an undocumented Afghan refugee women living in Iran who dreams of being a rapper.

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  • The Edge of Seventeen: directed by Kelly Fremon Craig starring Hailee Steinfeld.
  • L’avenir (Things to Come): directed by Mia Hansen-Love, who won the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin Film Festival, stars Isabel Hubbert as a Parisian philosophy teacher who finds herself having to start again.

There are also films featuring a diversity of women onscreen:

There are also a number of films featuring women in lead roles, including Aquarius, starring Sonia Braga, Custody, starring Catalina Sandino Moreno in a courthouse drama, Jackie, starring Natalie Portman, about Jackie Kennedy, a documentary about a 13 year old eagle hunter in Mongolia, the first ever in her region calledThe Eagle Huntress, and Loving, co-starrring Ruth Negga about the landmark case that changed the laws for interracial marriage that took place in Virginia.

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Panels and discussions with powerful allies of women in film are also a highlight of the festival:

There is a panel discussion called Women in Film: Changing the Numbers on Friday morning, with high-profile female producers including Angie Fielder (Lion, Wish You Were Here) and Lauren Versel (Custody, Arbitrage) as well as Cassian Elwes (Blue Valentine, All is Lost, Dallas Buyers Club) one of the most powerful independent producers in Hollywood. About the panel, Koch says, “We think that you can’t talk enough about it. We have one male on that panel, Cassian Elwes, who is a very well known producer. The reason he’s included is because he has a mentoring program and he’s bringing in his mentee. When we talk about how to solve the problem, it’s not just the women who are going to solve it, the whole industry has to step up and make a commitment to change these numbers”.

The keynote address for the Middleburg Film Festival is being delivered by Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs on Saturday, and there’s “Wine and Conversation” with Oscar nominated Production Designer Jeannine Oppewall (Seabiscuit, LA Confidential, Pleasantville) also featuring Anne Hornaday, Chief Film Critic of the Washington Post. About the subject of women in film, and creating equality in Hollywood, Sheila Johnson, Founder of the MFF says, “We’re two pretty powerful women and we go after what we want. We have Sheryl Boone Isaacs coming in also and we’ll be talking more about all this and i’m very excited.”

Film lovers in the area, as well as the increasing number of fans who are making an effort to get here, should also be excited, too. Those who want to see more diversity in storytelling, portrayal, and film artistry will benefit from the festival’s natural inclination to be more inclusive. As to expanding awareness and being ever more inclusive, Johnson believes “the word is getting out there. We have female filmmakers now calling us wanting us to show their films, because they know we are so inclusive of them, and really do want to celebrate women in film. I think that reputation is out there, so I think it will keep getting easier and easier for us to attract women doing film.”

The Middleburg Film Festival runs from October 20th to October 23rd in Middleburg, Virginia, which is located one short hour from the center of Washington, DC. For more information, visit: www.middleburgfilm.org.