In less capable hands, Amy Adrion’s debut feature could feel like just another panel discussion about women in the film industry. But even the much-missed Nora Ephron, who notably lamented women in film panels, would find it difficult to grumble at Half the Picture. The documentary features so many charismatic and thoughtful contributors that it effortlessly balances the heartbreak and trauma of being a women in Hollywood with the pride and euphoria of creative fulfilment and success; producing something far more intimate and memorable than an industry event could ever dream.
Adrion and her (mostly) female shooting crew capture first-hand accounts from some of the world’s leading female directors, including Ava DuVernay, Lena Dunham, Brenda Chapman and Miranda July. Interviewing many of the women in their homes, the documentary is profoundly and empathetically engaging. Everyone seems relaxed and in their element. They speak with Adrion as a peer and equal, letting their guards down to reveal personal and professional struggles, whilst showcasing the unique and determined personalities that qualify them for the top jobs. Adrion’s respectful lens opens spaces for the contributors to speak at length about themselves, their career battle-scars, as well as the future of the industry. But even when discussing larger societal issues, each subject’s individuality and passion for their craft takes centre stage.
This is especially true for the film’s most emotional and galvanising scenes. In a moment of despair and vulnerability, Miranda July discusses the challenges of choosing between motherhood and directing. Tearing up at her guilt for even finding this such an upsetting subject, she conveys just as much through words unsaid as those that she manages to muster. Similarly, Patricia Riggen lays her deepest fears honestly on the table, questioning her self-doubts and low self-esteem in a heart-wrenching testimony to the degradation of persistent sexism and racism. In both instances the women recognise how white, patriarchal society is designed to make them feel this way, but they vow to keep fighting.
Penelope Spheeris and Jill Soloway appear to have won the war already, though, and their exuberance steals the show. Spheeris is a hilarious delight, speaking with wisdom and wit about everything from studio films and unwanted sexual advances to working while heavily pregnant and taking her daughter to heavy metal gigs (who is now, allegedly, getting her own back by rescuing St Bernard dogs!). Soloway, meanwhile, is wonderfully insightful; offering thought-provoking ideas throughout the film. After several directors have spoken about motherhood – including Gina Prince-Bythewood, Jamie Babbit, July and Spheeris – Soloway considers how mothers simply don’t get the opportunity to make art, asserting that this absence has created a empathetic void in our culture.
Soloway’s comments feel particularly striking in the current climate of #MeToo, and this is underlined by their presence in a documentary full of love and warmth – made by a woman, a mother, who has filled the screen with an empathy and understanding which, sadly, feels so rare. Half the Picture is a brilliant celebration of creativity and accomplishments, calling out the rampant sexism inherent in Hollywood whilst looking to a brighter tomorrow. That these women have had to endure so much but can still smile and laugh is a testament to their strength and perseverance. It’s time we paid them more attention.