‘This Changes Everything’: Film Review | TIFF 2018

Tom Donahue’s documentary ‘This Changes Everything’ examines efforts from within Hollywood to redress the gender imbalance and features a large roster of big-name interviewees, from Anita Hill to Zoe Saldana.

Featuring a strong, eclectic and impressively starry roster of women working in front of and behind the camera, This Changes Everything offers up a handy-dandy, quickfire history lesson that points out how, for generations, sexism and prejudice in the entertainment industry has shut out and silenced filmmakers who aren’t straight white men. Better yet, it also explains how folks are now pushing back and using the law, media pressure and other forms of recourse to change the numbers. As always, it’s a story eminently worth telling, especially for the benefit of younger generations whose exposure to feminism may have started with buying a ticket to Wonder Woman last year.

Indeed, Wonder Woman‘s director Patty Jenkins is one of the many voices heard here. She, along with many others, weighs in on the need to offer little girls — and boys — a chance to see that women can be the heroes, the protagonists, the lead figures in the stories we tell. It’s a subject this interviewee here, as well as one of the film’s executive producers, Geena Davis, is clearly passionate about. Along with many others who spoke to Everything‘s director Tom Donahue (who also made the docs Casting By and Thank You for Your Service), like Natalie Portman and Chloe Grace Moretz, Davis talks without self-pity about feeling objectified by the filmmaking process. Rose McGowan, now inextricably linked to the #MeToo movement, wryly reflects on what it was like to be so often the only woman on a set in the early part of her career, keenly aware of how the camera operator was tracking her rear end.

The Bottom Line

Sisters have done it for themselves — so why get a guy to direct?

Throughout the doc, women bear witness to what it felt and feels like to see characters onscreen like themselves, even if the film or TV program had it flaws. Sandra Oh speaks movingly about The Joy Luck Club and its singularity at the time, one of the only films to put female Asian characters at the center of its story. Provoking what’s surely the doc’s biggest laugh, Tiffany Haddish relives the thrill of watching Diahann Carroll whaling on Joan Collins in the classic Dynasty catfight, and yet never going to jail for it.

But to such diverse representation up on screens, battles must be fought, executives persuaded and, most of all, women hired to write, direct, produce and advocate for such stories in the first place. Davis explains how her foundation has made a point of using data to show in stark math just how small a percentage of women occupy various parts of the industry, from the number of directors of top-earning films in recent years (as we all should know by now, the figure has actually gone down since the 1990s) to the paucity of leading female protagonists. Of course, breakout successes like Wonder Woman are finally changing the story, a hopeful message that dominates the doc’s last act.

That said, older viewers are likely to have some “feedback” (as in the passive-aggressive kind of feedback comedian Hannah Gadsby so vividly describes in Nanette) they might wish they could share with the filmmakers. There are some tonal problems here, particularly around the way the film tends to homogenize very disparate views and opinions into one sweet, easily digestible polemical smoothie.

The documentary Half the Picture, directed by Amy Adrion and which premiered at Sundance earlier this year, overlaps considerably in terms of subject matter (and also subjects themselves, with quite a few interviewees present in both films), but it leaves a stronger impression that there is a plurality of viewpoints out there, not all of them in sisterly agreement. (Yes, I am aware that even comparing these two films critically risks replicating the very same divide-and-rule strategies that have forced female filmmakers to compete with each other for years rather than collaborate and collectivize. So sue me.) Incidentally, both of these docs conspicuously have no interviews with several of the industry’s best known and most lauded female directors, such as Kathryn Bigelow and Sofia Coppola, who have expressed the view, at least in Bigelow’s case, that they much prefer to be seen as simply directors, not as female directors.

There are problem areas in terms of style as well as content. This Changes Everything‘s choppy, frenetic approach to editing makes for an uneven rhetorical texture. Sometimes it feels like a disproportionate amount of attention is applied to legal cases and internecine DGA politics, leaving only a scant amount of time for a cursory history of women filmmakers from the silent era onwards. The musical score, composed by Leigh Roberts and Allison Piccioni, is way too prominent in the mix and by a massive distance much too reminiscent of old-school TV documentaries, underscoring every emotion with obvious musical cues.

Finally, inevitably, there will be viewers who may feel understandably perplexed as to why, even though an end credit points out that 75 percent of the crew that worked on this film was female, it’s still a man getting the director’s credit here, and a man (Stefano Ferrari) taking the director of photography credit, especially when there are so many outstanding female cinematographers emerging now. By the end, it feels like This Changes Everything is just that little bit too much behind the curve of history, despite the boo and hiss-prompting appearances from President Donald Trump and footage of the Women’s March. The title of the doc actually refers to the many false dawns of hope, for example after the surprise success of Thelma & Louise (1991), which observers at the time took to augur impending change. And yet the last 10 minutes of the film seem to dispense exactly that same kind of this-time-will-be-different optimism. Please forgive an old lady over here if I say I think I’ve seen this one before and know how it ends.

Production company: Creative Chaos Ventures
With: Geena Davis, Meryl Streep, Chloë Grace Moretz, Yara Shahidi, Natalie Portman, Taraji P. Henson, Reese Witherspoon, Cate Blanchett, Jill Soloway, Shonda Rhimes, Alan Alda, Sandra Oh, Anita Hill, Jessica Chastain, Rose McGowan, Judd Apatow, Rosario Dawson, Maria Geise, Amandla Stenberg, Maureen Ryan
Director: Tom Donahue
Producers: Ilan Arboleda, Kerianne Flynn, Tom Donahue
Executive producers: Geena Davis, Regina K. Scully, Ku-ling Yurman, Madeline Di Nonno, Steve Edwards, Jennie Peters, Simone Pero, Patty Casby
Director of photography: Stefano Ferrari
Editor: Jasmin Way
Music: Leigh Roberts, Allison Piccioni
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF Docs)
Sales: Creative Chaos vmg

97 minutes