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Women in Filmmaking

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“There are certain things which the eye of a female can

see quicker than those of a hundred men”.

When Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was writing these words in “The Freethinker”, cinema was a far cry from its’ early pioneering experiments. Yet beyond their literary convention, they are a sign of respect for the creativity and deep understanding of the female gaze. This will remain untouched for more than a hundred years, until the birth of the new Art, when a surprising number of women were appreciated in front of and behind the camera. Most of them having a crucial role in the development of films as we know them, such as Alice Guy-Blaché, the first true female director in history and (perhaps) the first director of “narrative” films.

With such a promising premise, even the most talented screenwriter would have struggled to imagine such a bleak future scenario for “female” cinema.

Let’s face it: the film industry seems to have become a “Men’s Club”: in July 2013, the British Film Institute released statistics revealing that, in the previous year, a mere 14 feature films were directed by women in the UK, compared to 164 by men. While a recent study of the UK Film Council found out that female screenwriters are still under represented (less than one in ten of the BAFTA nominees and winners).

Things are not better elsewhere. A 2014 US study by the “Center for the Study of Women in TV and Film” showed that women comprised 17% of all professionals working on the top 250 grossing films of that year, while they accounted for just 7% of directors. And it’s not uncommon for “established” women filmmakers to call to mind their depressing past struggles against raised eyebrows and closed doors. They can testify to the widespread flair of misogynystic attitudes within the Seventh Art. Even more perplexing if we consider the movie-going population, which is roughly equally balanced between men and women (with women aged 35 plus making up the biggest single part of UK cinema audiences, according to the UK Film Council).

After decades spent ignoring the elephant in the room, the Industry masters have finally got it. Or so it seems. So, while new critical trends bring back the Feminist Film theory, referring to “classics” like the 1975 Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (women as objects of cinematic pleasure, admired by a phallocentric “male gaze”), the followers of the new gender-inequality crusade sift through every upcoming film using the “Bechdel Test” to verify its women-friendliness. Meanwhile, the 2015 Cannes Film Festival has opened for the first time since 1987 with a film directed by a woman. Oscar winning actress Geena Davis launched the Bentonville Festival, designed to champion and promote women filmmakers, and top class film events (Tribeca, Sundance, Visions du Réel, to name just a few) competed this year to break their records of selected women filmmakers. Moreover, initiatives such as Dazed’s “Female First” and The Week’s “Girls on Film” campaigns are now increasingly tipping the scales towards women directors.

Is too much of a good thing a bad thing? Let’s wait and see.

Yet, despite all the recent years of silence and contempt, a new wave of young female filmmakers managed to push through without accepting compromises. And Female filmmakers’ communities all over the world are more lively than ever, brimming with incredible talented fresh authors.

We met three up and coming female filmmakers of today, asking them what’s their take on women in the industry. Their statements have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Photos © Luke Varley

Writer/Director Muriel d’Ansembourg (www.muriel-dansembourg.com) ran a production company in The Netherlands before settling in London, where she studied Directing at the London Film School. Her graduation film ‘Good Night’ was theatrically released in the UK and screened at over 200 festivals, winning various awards and nominations, including Best Screenplay and Best Editing at Colchester Film Festival (http://colchesterfilmfestival.com) and a BAFTA 2013 nomination. Creative Skillset marked Muriel as ‘One To Watch’.

I once thought that most women preferred directing independent films, making them less interested in big budget movies. I had to adjust that view as I’ve met plenty of talented female directors who would give an arm to shoot a “big” film. It has been researched that male and female directors get the same box office results when given the same budget. So, why there are so few women in filmmaking? It’s a burning question. The Netherlands is considered the best place for a woman to be a director at the moment with 39% being women. In the UK this is around 14%. Women in the UK aren’t less talented or less eager to work in this field, so what’s going on?

As it stands now, the film industry is still dominated by men and the “male gaze” is still very present in mainstream Hollywood. In contemporary Independent cinema things are a bit better, but it’s there too. The tricky thing about the male gaze is that women start to look at themselves through the eyes of men, becoming too self-conscious and losing their natural behaviour in favour of an imaginary ideal.

Our society is still rooted in a patriarchal system. Most of the positions of power and prestige are held by men. When I look around me I still see most women taking on the biggest part of the parental chores. And I think men are missing out there as well, as they end up not getting to spend enough time with their kids. It’s a tricky balance. The pay gap between men and women is slowly closing, but the fact that it still does exist is barking mad. All this affects the way we look at girls and boys, our upbringing, what we emphasise as important for each gender and what gives them their sense of self-worth and place within society. The film industry is just a tiny piece in this puzzle, a puzzle in which women at the top might be the missing piece; as role models and mentors for the young.

Putting things into neat little boxes means you are reducing something, which can be a killer for creativity. The world is starving for unique voices. I once read that the difference between individual girls and individual boys is much bigger than the difference between a so called ‘average’ girl and an ‘average’ boy. When I catch myself generalising I also catch myself being lazy, cutting the corners. Being vulnerable or being strong, for instance, aren’t particularly male or female traits, they are human traits and I enjoy seeing them in both sexes, in life and in the cinema. Same goes for seeing directing as a ‘male’ thing. It’s not. It’s a job, and a job is neither male nor female. However, I do feel there is a shift in awareness at the moment, creating an opening for change to manifest. Women tend to write and direct more films about complex female characters, something we still lack in mainstream productions. So this is an opportunity to enrich our cinema.

Italian Documentary Filmmaker Maria Tarantino graduated in philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. After ten years of academic studies, she moved into filmmaking and directed “Inside Out”, screeneed at the London Independent Film Festival and broadcasted on BBC World. In 2014 her feature doc Our City (www.ourcityfilm.com) screened at IDFA in Amsterdam, at the 11th Docville Leuven and at the KFDA Brussels 2015, finding theatrical release in Belgium.

Prejudices and inequalities exist, but it’s hard to talk about them. No one will ever tell you straight in your face that they prefer a male director, soley because he’s a man. I worked for 10 years within a TV station and every single time (and it was rare) that there was a woman operator working on the set the impression was that she was not right for the job, she was not as reliable as a man. Baseless prejudices, but palpable and real.

Then there are the statistics: women are exactly half of all students of film schools worldwide, but only a fifth of them “break through” compared to a third of their male counterparts. Sometimes even in film schools, the teachers are all men, or only male teachers hold senior roles. It’s the Cinema structure as a whole created by men for men. Including women in this structure is not enough, we need to change the system from the inside.
Women offer a different viewpoint on the world. It comes from different needs, physical, mental and biological differencies. “Different” does not mean better or worse, but it can be useful for thinking outside the box. Instead, I do see a standardization of taste to which women must conform to “get the job”.

Then there is another big thing: there’s not enough suppot for women who want or have children, once you’re out you’re out. At IDFA, the Danish producer Sigrid Dyekjær said that in their production budget they include: “Child Care”. Pure Science-Fiction for other parts of Europe! Yet, if the cinema structure was designed by women, this would be standard. I think that many women give up their career because of this: sacrificing their jobs for “family”, but in truth they shouldn’t have to make the choice between the two.

Now “Women in Cinema” is a trendy topic. The risk is to deal with the problem in a superficial way, to offer pretty useless palliative remedies. Instead, we should identify the problem from the source: tones, attitudes, “subliminal” influences, thinking patterns, not only in the cinema industry, but everywhere. The irony is that if you’re a woman and you are surrounded by men, you too will become a bit sexist. If they had asked me a few years ago if I wanted to work with a man or with a woman I would not have had any doubts: a man of course. Because he can handle the job …

Since 2005, Belgian actress and director Maaike Neuville (www.innis.be/portfolio/maaike-neuville-actrice) has been working in Belgium and the Netherlands theatre, cinema and TV. In 2013, she graduated from the Brussels’ Luca School of Arts. Her short film “Sonnet 81” has premiered and won awards at different international film festivals, such as Flanders, Brussels SFF and Leuven SFF. Maaike is now working on her first feature.

Sometimes discrimination takes different forms: being also an actress, I notice how often young female actresses are offered always the same kind of roles to play: young, beautiful and spontaneous. Only on rare occasions they have the opportunity to play a character who has more qualities, who is layered, nuanced; who is, in other words, a human character.

I think that the problem of discrimination will remain in the industry until we will finally stop thinking about “male” and “female” directors and just see a director as a “director”. I have watched very intelligent films, directed by men as well as women. It is time for us to stop thinking in categories and realise how absurd it is. And when we arrive at that point, our relationship with films will be richer, our films more nuanced, our views wider. The films I like to watch are made by good directors, whether they’re male or female. It simply does not matter to me who shot it. Is it a good film? Does it have a coherent story to tell? All those things matter more than the director’s gender.

That’s why I’d like to give an advice to young filmmakers: do what you like to do, and not what you think is expected from you. Write about what you like to write, not what you think producers or distributors or festivals would like to see. Only then you will find the necessary freedom to make something authentic.