Half the Picture documentary review: a woman’s place is behind the camera (Sundance London 2018)

part of my Movies for the Resistance and Directed by Women series
MaryAnn’s quick take: Authoritative and insightful, this essential film gives much needed cultural breathing room to some remarkable Hollywood women to discuss how they are undermined or shut out entirely from the industry.
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for movies about women
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Get new reviews in your email in-box or in an app by becoming a paid Substack subscriber or Patreon patron.

If you’ve been paying the teensiest bit of attention to what’s going on — and not going on — in Hollywood, there isn’t a lot in Half the Picture that will be news to you. But there is so much authority and insight in this film that is it essential viewing nevertheless for anyone who cares about all the great stories we are not seeing on our TVs and in our multiplexes because the voices of women storytellers are far too often stifled.

Jill Soloway
Jill Soloway

With her feature debut, director Amy Adrion delivers a straightforward talking-head documentary that gives time and space — much needed cultural breathing room — to some remarkable female film/TV directors and industry watchers to discuss all the ways in which women get shut out of the power corridors of the pop-culture dream machine, and constantly undermined if they do manage to find their way inside. It’s an infuriating litany of willful ignorance (pretending unawareness of the existence of women directors), blatant misogyny (assumptions that women can’t handle big budgets or technical equipment), unwillingness to give women the benefit of the doubt that men get (taking a chance on an unproven guy but not the woman with few or no credits), setting hurdles higher for women (presuming that parenthood makes women but never men unsuited for demanding jobs), and, of course, outright sexual harassment and abuse. And if getting a foot in the door is difficult, it can be even harder to land that second job; even after women demonstrate they can deliver financially and critically successful work, they’re back to square one when it comes to convincing the gatekeepers that they’re worth it for the next job.

Even extraordinarily talented women gaslight themselves: Maybe they’re not getting the jobs because they’re just not good enough?

The crucial strength in Half the Picture comes in simply hearing so many extraordinarily talented women — a short list: Gina Prince-Bythewood (The Secret Life of Bees), Miranda July (Me and You and Everyone We Know), Catherine Hardwicke (Miss You Already), Mary Harron (American Psycho), Karyn Kusama (The Invitation), Kimberly Peirce (Carrie), Penelope Spheeris (Wayne’s World) — describe, over and over, the same ways they second-guess themselves: that the reason they’re not getting the jobs is because they’re not working hard enough, or because they’re just not good enough. This is often how misogyny operates: it makes women doubt ourselves and not the culture in which we move; it isolates women, ensures that if we do manage to break into a male-dominated field, we’re the only woman in the room. The mere knowledge that, hell yes, this shit is happening to all women is hugely liberating: no, it’s not us. We are not the problem. We don’t need to be gaslighting ourselves anymore. (There’s also something shockingly refreshing in realizing that there is not a single male face on camera in this film, and not a single male voice is heard. Men are not required for a discussion to carry the weight of authority.)

Gina Prince-Bythewood
Gina Prince-Bythewood

There’s a bittersweetness to Half the Picture that should not be ignored: Patricia Riggen (The 33) laments that so far, “I have not made the movies that I’m here to make,” and it’s impossible not to see that this is likely true for most or all of the women filmmakers here, never mind all those who gave up before making it this far. But while the topic under discussion is enraging, this is not an angry movie. There is so much to be positive about here! Like how Ava DuVernay (Selma), pictured at top, as executive producer on the TV series Queen Sugar, has committed to hiring only women directors, hence using the bit of power she has accrued to pay it forward. Like how Jill Soloway (Transparent) pooh-poohs all the macho nonsense about how making movies is like “waging war” and requires a “general” to lead; there is nothing inherent masculine about this job, no real barriers of that sort to women who want to do it. Not that anyone sensible believes there is, but if everyone were sensible, this movie wouldn’t have been so needed in the first place.

viewed during the 2018 Sundance London film festival

share and enjoy
If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
If you haven’t commented here before, your first comment will be held for MaryAnn’s approval. This is an anti-spam, anti-troll, anti-abuse measure. If your comment is not spam, trollish, or abusive, it will be approved, and all your future comments will post immediately. (Further comments may still be deleted if spammy, trollish, or abusive, and continued such behavior will get your account deleted and banned.)
notify of
1 Comment
newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
view all comments
Stacy Livitsanis
Stacy Livitsanis
Mon, Jun 11, 2018 5:30am

Can’t wait to see this. Here’s a short doco from 2015 called Celluloid Ceilings that covers similar ground:


A friend of mine is writing a book on women in horror, and through helping her with some research, it was deflating to reaffirm the existence of all of these barriers again and again. Just one example: Carol Frank made only one movie – Sorority House Massacre – in 1986, and it was a decent slasher with an unmistakably feminine imprint. She had clear directorial talent that could have matured into something greater. But Frank was never heard from again. Meanwhile, hack wankers like Jim Wynorski, Fred Olen Ray and Albert Pyun, among many others, have pumped out hundreds and hundreds of risible nondescript perfunctory garbage throwaway nothings with no merit and no hint of ‘artistic’ improvement whatsoever.