The Obamas, Woody Allen, and the U.S.-Europe Divide

B. Ruby Rich


Writing from Paris at the moment, a stone’s throw from the Archives Nationales, I can’t help but reflect on national character and the differences that span the Atlantic. There are kiosks in the street with a striking poster for Céline Sciamma’s new sensation, Portrait de la jeune fille en feu, and a Sciamma retrospective playing at the MK2 theater down the block. They remind me that France has more women directors per capita than any other country outside of Scandinavia. Articles chart an unprecedented boom in French women directors, though massive disparities still exist in the industry, and the numbers are exploding, with a 62 percent increase in women directors in less than a decade.1


Kira Muratova

Even the Cinémathèque Française, notoriously hostile to honoring women directors, staged a major retrospective of the Russian-Ukrainian director Kira Muratova.2 The three-week series opened at the end of September with a grand screening of her Korotkiye vstrechi (Brief Encounters, 1967) in the huge Henri Langlois theater, packed with hundreds of eager fans, dignitaries, and Eugénie Zvonkine, the wonderfully energetic Muratova scholar overseeing the screenings and conference. Perhaps soon Muratova will be as prominent a figure in film history as she deserves.

Still, in a local Télérama roundup of cultural goings-on in September, prime real estate was devoted to Woody Allen.3 Its article “À l’ombre de #MeToo” could best be described as an appreciation of Allen, complete with a pull quote about how Allen, rejected by Hollywood, finds that Europe “stays faithful” (no irony). With his A Rainy Day in New York in Paris theaters and a new film readied in Spain, Allen is delighted. “In Europe, people have more sense than in America, are less sheeplike. They have more discernment chez vous,” he gushes. For decades, France has been the best market for his films, the reporter notes, in a fawning profile that deems Allen “undaunted” by #MeToo politics.

Meanwhile, an issue of Deadline released at Toronto had a telling assessment of film festivals in the United States and Europe.4 In an article subtitled “How Are Festivals on Both Sides of the Pond Responding to Controversial Directors in the #MeToo era?” Andreas Wiseman—hired onto Deadline Hollywood last year—cheers on brave European festivals for their refusal to bow to criticism, praises Berlin and San Sebastián for showing Casey Affleck’s directorial debut, approvingly cites a “leading festival executive” (unnamed) who commends Venice’s Alberto Barbera for “not buying into optics,” and even reports that the new Polanski “is said to be a strong film” but “no U.S. buyer has bitten.” I quote this much to give an accurate sense of tone: men are making great films, women are causing trouble, and how sad that U.S. festivals and distributors have no courage. He ends his report with relief that “there are those still out there willing to take a risk on the art and—whisper it—even on the artist.”

It wasn’t that long ago that Wiseman had written for Screen International on the women-in-heels fracas at Cannes and earlier sexual-harassment scandals. Now this. I fear that the anticipated backlash has taken root: women who are victims of assault and discrimination are being recast as harridans or liars, as the battle to remake perpetrators into victims of #MeToo surges forward, its PR well under way. The dog whistles are loud and clear: the boys want their playing fields back.

Brands: Open and Shut

In September, MoviePass, which was bent on being either the salvation or the destruction of movie exhibition (depending on whose predictions you believed), closed up shop.5 Dedicated to getting movie lovers into theaters with a monthly fixed-rate pass modeled on Netflix, it styled itself on Uber, called itself a disrupter, then failed to make the formula work and went out of business, blaming consumer fraud. It’s a blow to students everywhere, but new, theater-controlled versions are starting to test the waters.


Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar with Michelle and Barack Obama.

Netflix, so derided in the A-list festival world and justly feared by movie-in-the-dark lovers (like myself), has also been a force for good. Amazon just signed the wondrous Phoebe Waller-Bridge, post–Emmy success, to a reported $20 million deal. And Apple announced, in the wake of launching its own streaming service and revealing a partnership with the esteemed production company A24, that it is committed to opening all its films in theaters, beginning with three in late 2019.6 Netflix meanwhile has signed the Obamas themselves. Yes, Barack and Michelle Obama’s new company, Higher Ground Productions, inked a deal with Netflix in 2018.7 They want “to harness the power of storytelling” And they’re choosing projects that touch “on issues of race and class, democracy and civil rights,” projects that they hope “won’t just entertain, but will educate, connect, and inspire us all.” Keep reading: in this issue, FQ offers a look at their first release: Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar’s American Factory. I am definitely ready to have a force for good enter the world of film production.

RIP Robert Frank

Photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank died at the age of ninety-four on September 9, 2019. Five years ago, I saw a magnificent exhibition, “Robert Frank in America,” curated by Peter Galassi for Stanford University’s Cantor Art Center, comprising the photographs from Frank’s landmark book The Americans along with dozens of photographs taken at the same time but not included in the original selection. Connie Wolf was the Cantor’s director back then and wrote the foreword to the catalog; to her delight, Frank himself appeared one day with his wife June Leaf for a tour of the show. They were celebrating his ninetieth birthday. He was a wonderful guest, generous with his time and with the Stanford students.


Robert Frank

Frank changed photography forever and spanned generations of both artists and genres in his lifetime.8 His most influential film for me was Pull My Daisy (Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie, 1959), with a score by David Amram, narration by Jack Kerouac, and a cast that included Allen Ginsberg, Alice Neel as the bishop’s mother, Larry Rivers as Milo—and Delphine Seyrig as Milo’s wife, who is tasked with preparing dinner for the bishop as a motley crew play out their shenanigans all around her. When I met Delphine Seyrig years later and told her of my affection for the film, she looked stricken: “Don’t you think it’s awfully sexist?” For its era, perhaps, but it still ranks for me as a wildly inventive and groundbreaking work of film in a “beat” mode.

In This Issue

This issue of Film Quarterly examines at length the careers of two women filmmakers with major legacies of documentary and a commitment to a life—one in the American Midwest, the other in the heart of Paris—lived in partnership, community, and filmmaking.

An expansive view of a cinematic life well lived is provided by Patricia Aufderheide’s exhaustive excavation of the career of Julia Reichert (and collaborators), spanning her work from ’70s feminist documentaries all the way up to a Netflix deal and that Obama certification for American Factory. With “Julia Reichert and the Work of Telling Working-Class Stories,” Aufderheide emphasizes Reichert’s class roots, Midwest base, and institutional routes as key to her ability to access personal experiences for multiply awarded documentaries.

FQ contributing editor Joan Dupont stages a posthumous interview with Marceline Loridan-Ivens through conversations with eight people who were close to the filmmaker, sound recordist, activist, writer, and public figure, from her childhood to her death in September 2018. Dupont mines friendship like an archive, plumbing the depths of Loridan-Ivens’s circles for key stories and memories that help to explain her life and work in cinema after her first appearance as the memorable figure with a microphone in Chronique d’une été (Chronicle of a Summer, Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch, 1961).

Sarah Kessler’s “Alone Again Tonight: Russian Doll” analyzes the wildly inventive Netflix show (2019–). Kessler applies José Muñoz’s concept of “brown feeling” to Natasha Lyonne’s character, Nadia Vulvokov—game designer, Holocaust descendent, and denizen of the East Village—as well as to Charlie Barnett’s forlorn Alan Zaveri as her co-avatar in somebody else’s infuriatingly designed game.

Film exhibition looms large in this issue, beginning with Aboubakar Sanogo’s contribution to the histories and importance of FESPACO on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary. Claiming it as “Africa’s most important film festival,” he charts its founding, recent selections, and new challenges. FQ‘s books editor, Carla Marcantonio, shares her experience of the fabled Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna. Jamie Berthe parses the significance of Film Forum’s major survey series “The Hour of Liberation: Decolonizing Cinema, 1966–1981,” while Müge Turan’s “You Don’t Own This War: Arab Women’s Cinema Showcase” analyzes the importance of the work in a recent Toronto series. And finally, there’s my report on the year’s crop of outstanding films on offer at TIFF this fall.

FQ‘s columnist Bilal Qureshi returns with an incisive look at the collusion/collision between brown bodies and pop music in two of this year’s British films with a lot at stake: Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light and Danny Boyle’s Yesterday. Caetlin Benson-Allott brings her perspective to bear on the theme of “race, rage, and genre revision” that she discerns running through the films Ma, Firecrackers, and Little Woods. New columnist Manuel Betancourt makes his debut in this issue with a column that, post-Roma, looks back at Mexico in the ’80s through three key films: Las niñas bien, Esto no es Berlín, and Museo.

Bruno Guaraná takes over the Page Views column with this issue through a conversation with Gustavo Procopio Furtado on the occasion of the publication of his Documentary Filmmaking in Contemporary Brazil, a book made even more urgent by the Bolsonaro regime’s actions. Lead critic Carrie Rickey expresses her respect for the deployment of actor-network theory in Hitchcock’s People, Places, and Things by John Bruns. Other writers in this issue take up a range of recent books: James Cahill’s Zoological Surrealism: The Nonhuman Cinema of Jean Painlevé, Hannah Frank’s Frame by Frame: A Materialist Aesthetics of Animated Cartoons, editors Mette Hjort and Eva Jørholt’s African Cinema and Human Rights, and Cáel M. Keegan’s Lana and Lilly Wachowski.

In closing, Film Quarterly directs you to its ongoing and expanded presence online where, in addition to a selection of articles and prior editorials, you can find the Quorum column edited by Girish Shambu (always open for contributions), periodic video postings of interest, and the occasional FQ podcast by Bilal Qureshi and me at https://filmquarterly.org.


1. Agnès Poirier, “France’s Female New Wave,” The Guardian, March 24, 2011, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2011/mar/24/france-women-directors; and Sheena Scott, “International Women’s Day: An Increase in Women Film Directors in France, Study Shows,” Forbes, March 8, 2009, http://www.forbes.com/sites/sheenascott/2019/03/08/international-womens-day-an-increase-in-women-film-directors-in-france-study-shows/#c2ac8037d98e.
2. For more on the history of the Cinémathèque’s hostility to women directors, see Judith Mayne, “Scandale! Dorothy Arzner in Paris,” Film Quarterly: Quorum, July 12, 2017, https://filmquarterly.org/2017/07/12/scandale-dorothy-arzner-in-paris/. Mayne rightly contends that “French cinéphilia is far more diverse than this most venerable institution would have one believe.”
3. Louis Guichard, “À l’ombre de #MeToo,” Télérama, no. 3636 (September 18, 2019): 23–26. Ironically, the same issue has a tribute to Robert Frank.
4. Andreas Wiseman, “Atlantic Crossings: How Are Festivals on Both Sides of the Pond Responding to Controversial Directors in the #MeToo era?,” Deadline.com/AwardsLine, 32.
5. Nick Statt, “MoviePass Is Shutting Down September 14th,” The Verge, September 13, 2019, http://www.theverge.com/2019/9/13/20864873/moviepass-app-shutdown-out-of-business-movies-subscription. See also Brent Lang, “How MoviePass’s Former Chairman Plans to Save the Floundering Company,” Variety, September 17, 2019, https://variety.com/2019/film/news/moviepass-chief-ted-farnsworth-bid-1203338913/.
6. Nicole Sperling, “Apple Steps into the Movie Business,” New York Times, September 27, 2019, http://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/27/business/media/apple-movie-theaters.html.
7. Rachel Yang, “Barack and Michelle Obama Set ‘The Fifth Risk,’ Frederick Douglass Biopic among Initial Netflix Projects,” Variety, April 30, 2019, https://variety.com/2019/film/news/barack-obama-michelle-higher-ground-productions-announces-seven-upcoming-netflix-projects-1203201329/.
8. For a wonderful tribute by other photographers, see Megan Paetzhold, “Robert Frank’s Legacy: Nine Photographers Reflect,” New York Times, September 13, 2019, http://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/13/obituaries/robert-franks-legacy-nine-photographers-reflect.html.

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