The issue with "Female Filmmakers"
Sydney Film Festival has brought the city to life the past few weeks with hundreds of films playing across several venues. I have broken my movie-watching record with a total of 14 movies seen during the festival. Some incredible, some bizarre and some that are still lingering with me long after seeing them.
Of my 14 movie festival run, 4 of these were directed by women. Of these 4 female directed films, I only knew 2 of them were directed by women before walking into the theatre.
As a woman working in the film industry of course supporting women filmmakers is at the forefront of my mind. But this does not weigh remotely on whether or not I'll actually go and see a film purely because it is directed by a women. Are my loyalties are out of line? Or is it that not enough female directed films were on offer? Nearly 60 female directed films were showing at SFF this year amongst some 200 total, and honestly I think that's a pretty sincere effort.
But are female filmmakers really getting the representation they deserve?
During the Festival I attended several panels inviting filmmakers and industry elites to talk about many different issues circling the business end of the film industry. One of these panels from the SFF Program Strand: Europe! Voices of Women in Film featured 9 women filmmakers who had their films screening as part of the festival. In a room full of extremely talented and ambitious women, it was fascinating to hear their take on being minority filmmakers in a profession still dominated by men.
We are living through a time where Hollywood is under a microscope, the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements and subsequent Harvey Weinstein exile from tinsel town are still fresh in collective memories. Both emerging and established female filmmakers are still trying to find their place as they rise through this new media landscape.
2018 is proving a pivotal time in the rise of gender equality in the film industry.
2018 saw Frances McDormand winning the Academy Award for Best Actress and powerfully exclaiming in her acceptance speech, "I have two words to leave with you tonight, ladies and gentlemen: inclusion rider!" This being a battle cry for a contractual level of diversity both in front of and behind the camera. The fight on the Hollywood front lines for issues like the gender wage gap and more female representation culminated not long after McDormand’s Oscar win. At the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, 82 women helmed by Cannes Jury President Cate Blanchett marched the Palais steps to protest the dismally low acceptance of female filmmakers over the festivals lifetime. Of nearly 180 films that have competed at the prestigious festival only 18 have been from female directors. The Time’s Up movement is certainly steamrolling the charge for change. However, in 2018 still only 3 female directed films screened at Cannes out of a total of 21 in competition.
Attending the Europe! Voices of Women in Film panel at the Sydney Film Festival, I felt a slight uneasiness in the air. On the one hand to be seated in a room with 9 up-and-coming female filmmakers was bright and inspiring. Their films have been invited to the festival from countries all around the EU, and they as filmmakers have been given a platform to discuss their work with festival goers and industry professionals alike. However, on the other hand the disparity of women in the film industry was the elephant in the room. For these women to be singled out as “female filmmakers” and not simply “filmmakers” is to stoke the fires of gender division. Not necessarily in a negative way but with 2018 being such a strong year for talking about women in film, it's going to spark conversation that's for sure. A female directed film is inevitably packaged with the label that it was in fact directed by a woman. It pigeonholes the filmic work with an overtone that is not always welcome when these women want simply to stand out on their own merit regardless of gender.
One of the first questions posed to the panel asked if the Time’s Up movement had shed light on their projects in a way where they might have otherwise been unnoticed. To this the panel unitedly said yes. They had all felt the societal shift towards the conscious inclusion of films directed by women in both the Sydney Film Festival and many festivals around the world. The Time’s Up movement has been nothing but positive to lift up female voices who otherwise might not have secured funding for their projects. It might be hot property right now for films with female directors/key creatives but will the trend last?
When discussion turned to several EU countries introducing official quotas to ensure gender equality, the room was divided. While a push towards gender balance is the ultimate goal for the industry, meritocracy is the only way this can be fairly achieved. Female filmmakers want their work to stand out and be heard not because they themselves are women and a minority but because the work is deserving.
Polish director Jagoda Szelc’s debut feature Tower: A Bright Day screened as part of the Sydney Film Festival program. During the panel, Szelc stressed several times how urgently the divide between male and female filmmakers needs to be closed. Szelc adamantly refuses to be considered exclusively a “female filmmaker” as she does not accept the associated categorisation. "I cannot be a female filmmaker if I don't know what that is... what is a male filmmaker?" The gender of the director does not play a role in defining the film's subject matter as either masculine or feminine. A female protagonist can show masculine qualities and vice versa. Being female filmmaker ultimately bears no weight on the subject, quality or execution of the film itself.
When asked about practical ways to bring about change in the industry Szelc said, “we also should start really young to change things. It has to do with identification. When I was young I was brought up to identify with men in films and series… and I did, it’s not a problem, it’s fine, they are also people. So we should have our kids identify with either gender that it’s not strictly if you’re a man or a woman.”
There might be talk of countries implementing quotas to see an equal number of male and female films getting made but for true change to occur it's mindsets which need to change at the top level of production, financing and festival selection. Outspoken actresses and celebrity protests are all spotlighting the issues for the world, now it's up to the film industry to regulate itself to change. Strict quotas for statistically approved gender equality seem like a rigid way to go about it and I hope for everyone's sake they don't come to fruition. I'm an advocate for gender equality (as a female film critic I also experience gender imbalance in my field), but I hope for a push towards diversity stopping shy of controlling quota systems.
Movies do not exist in a vacuum, the context of the casting, filmmaking process and possibly the gender of the filmmaker behind the work are important to the overall story. It's unavoidable for these factors to be considered in evaluating any film. At the end of the day without a conscious push to diversify films from a range of backgrounds, perspectives and of course genders, the industry will not evolve with the progressive values of globalisation. Movies have always been a reflection back onto the society from which they were made. That's as true now as ever.
2018 has been a revolutionary time for the film industry not just in Hollywood but also around the world. We are seeing more inclusivity than ever before when it comes to funding at the lower end of the scale. The propping up of first time and emerging female filmmakers seems to be at a peak in the Australian development space thanks to Government incentives. Screen Australia's "Gender Matter" aims to disburse 5 million dollars into a Five Point Plan aimed to "address gender imbalance in the Australian screen sector." To put it bluntly, it's a helpful time right now to be a woman seeking Government funding for film projects.
The Europe! Voices of Women in Film panel ended on a much lighter tone once the path to change and more diversity as a whole in the industry seemed possible. It might not be at the level it should be but hopefully in a future not far on the horizon. While looking around at her peers, Dutch filmmaker Nanouk Leopold said, "I'm really happy that we are here as a group and we're addressing this thing... I think we should unite and take over." At this comment the audience shared a laugh. A take over of women in the film industry is still a long way away from any reality, but we are heading slowly towards a path of equality and that's good enough for 2018. Bring it on 2019.
“Vivid Ideas and SFF Present: In Conversation with European Women Filmmakers” was held on June 10, 2018 as part of the Sydney Film Festival Program.
Panelists: Stienette Bosklopper, Isabella Eklöf, Nanouk Leopold, Fanni Metelius, Katharina Mückstein, Virpi Suutari, Jagoda Szelc, Ana Urushadze, Blerta Zeqiri.
EUROPE! VOICES OF WOMEN IN FILM
Cannes 2018: 82 Women Protest for Equality on the Red Carpet: ‘Let’s Climb!’
Gender equity debate in film and TV divides the industry
July 1, 2018: This article was featured on Screen Queens