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Women Breaking Barriers Panel
by Karen Pecota

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) hosted one of the panels held at the SundanceTV HQ (Headquarters) called Women Breaking Barriers. It was a conversation with accomplished women from various fields in the film industry moderated by HFPA member Elisabeth Sereda.

The panelists were brought out and introduced. Sereda then opened the session with  a presentation to Kari Putnam, executive director of the Sundance institute. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association gave a $50,000 grant to the Sundance Institute Women's programs. Putnam shared, "Supporting women has always been very meaningful for us and to have your help in this is extraordinary. This means so much to everyone at Sundance."

The panelists: Award-winning, Tina Lifford; award-winning cinematographer and director, Reed Morano; Golden Globe-winner, Sandra Oh; producer and president of Women in Film, Cathy Schulman and Golden Glove-winner, Octavia Spencer.

The first question asked was to share their first barrier they broke. Lifford starts and says if was with herself to find a way to overcome the barrier of herself that would get in the way of her success. Spencer said it was her role in The Help because friends fought for her to get the job. Schulman said that now a producer of over 100 movies she had to acknowledge that there were no glass ceilings. Sandra Oh reflects on an internal barrier regarding roles only given to women of color she had to break through. Morano shares that perseverance as a cinematographer in a man's world was key and felt her break was with her feature Frozen River.

Spencer shares how her friends while working on the film THE HELP, Jessica Chastain came to fight for Octavia in regards to equal pay. I guess there was unwritten code of discrimination in the amount of money actors of color vs. white actors were paid. Others shared personal experiences of inequality in the industry as well as their achievements witnessed in equality. Schulman weighed in with several experiences with her involvement with Women in Film. Each shared that having solid role models helped and is still helping to keep them balance, confident and grounded.

Spencer noted that to keep her dreams of freedom alive in the industry one has to recognize that, "There is no roadmap to justice or success. You have to make your own roadmap while on your own journey." Lifford noted that a fine role model of equality in the industry is Oprah and her journey. All panelists agreed. Oprah creates safety in numbers and works to have more women on set. She lead by example and doesn't tolerate bad behavior. She has fun and enjoys her job.

In light of the #Me-Too and #Times-Up Movements the panelists could not avoid mentioning that the timing is right to start the conversation about the horrific abuse brought to light but all concur that the problem is more systemic that requires change. Tina Lifford says, "I don't think we can underestimate the importance of the conversation."  All agreed that the role of men are apart of that conversation. They need men to have a productive conversation. Octavia Spencer feels like quietly listening is an important first step. She adds, "This is a wonderful moment that's happening right now. It is making us confront deep seated cultural issues, it's a paradigm shift." In her hopeful attitude she continues, "This can be frightening but we just need to take baby steps, put one foot in front of the other. It's not going to be easy but we'll get there."

The highly spirited panel discussion was one of the most transparent and informative I have witnessed at a film festival. The panelists were excellent communicators. They gave personal,  wise and intelligent answers to the hosts' questions that were relatable to the audience, not to mention enlightening, current and passionate.