Interview: Muriel d’Ansembourg – BAFTA Nominated Writer/Director

“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, they are a sign of respect for the creativity and understanding of the female gaze. This will remain untouched until the birth of the new Art, when a surprising number of women were appreciated in front of and behind the camera, 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”, especially in the UK. in July 2013, the BFI 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 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). Data that testify to the widespread flair of misogynystic attitudes within the Seventh Art. Even more perplexing if we consider that women aged 35 plus make up the biggest part of British cinema-goers.

After decades spent ignoring the elephant in the room, the Industry masters have finally got it. So, while new critical trends bring back the Feminist Film theory, 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. And top class film events competed this year to break their records of selected female filmmakers.

Yet, despite all the recent years of silence, a new wave of young female filmmakers managed to push through. And Female filmmakers’ communities in the UK are more lively than ever, brimming with incredible talented fresh authors.

We met one of the most promising indie female filmmaker of today, asking what’s her take on women in the industry.

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 FF (http://colchesterfilmfestival.com/) and a BAFTA 2013 nomination.

As a woman and a filmmaker, do you think there’s a problem concerning women in the Industry?

As it stands now, the film industry is still dominated by men.

The higher the ladder you climb the fewer women you pass, but that’s not only the case in film. I’m a London based writer-director but lived most of my life in Amsterdam. The Netherlands is considered the best place for women to be a director at the moment with 39% being women. In the UK this is around 14%. Funny isn’t it, that I decided to move to a place where the figures aren’t in my favour, 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 cinema. So this is an opportunity to enrich our cinema.

In her 1975 Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Laura Mulvey introduced the concept of “male gaze”. Are we still at that point?

Change never seems in a hurry, so I guess fourty years isn’t that long in the eyes of change. The male gaze is still very present in mainstream Hollywood cinema. 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, with the risk of becoming too self conscious, thereby losing their natural behaviour in favour of an imaginary ideal.

This male gaze is also very present in music videos, and I’m always surprised when I hear people say that young girls are taking control by using the male gaze to their advantage. I don’t see how that can be an advantage. Having to be sexier and sexier, and in the end just doing exactly what the guys in control of the gaze want, does not give you any true power.

In 2013 only 14 feature films were directed by women in the UK compared to 164 directed by men. So, why are there so “few” women in filmmaking?

I thought that most women preferred directing independent films, making them less interested in directing mainstream big budget movies. I had to adjust that view as I have met plenty of talented female directors who would give an arm and a leg to shoot a “big” film. It has been researched that women and men directors get the same box office result when given the same budget, so why so few? It’s a burning question.

I don’t find gender inequality an easy thing to talk about., but our society is still rooted in a patriarchal system. Most of the positions of power and prestige are held by men and I still see most women taking on the biggest part of the parental chores. And men are missing out here 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 a puzzle in which women at the top might be the missing piece; as role models and mentors for the young.

Just a provocation. What is a film for “women”? Is there any discernible female sensibility in film?

I think putting things into neat little boxes means you are reducing something, which can be a killer for creativity and finding one’s unique voice. 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.
As for a specific female sensibility in film, I’m not sure if it exists. Although…I’ve come across scenes in films in which I felt ‘there’s a female mind behind this’. For instance there’s a particular sex scene between Kate Dickie and Tony Curran in Red Road by Andrea Arnold. The way we are taken into this scene, the build up, the particular details, the focus on female pleasure, it felt very much like a women’s perspective and it felt believable to me, all the way through. It’s fascinating to see something that feels new yet strangely recognisable at the same time. We’re not that used to seeing female sexuality portrayed this truthfully, this raw and in such detail. I see so little of this which I truly believe is a loss for both men and women.

Which advice would you give to a young female filmmaker or film school graduate?

Don’t let yourself be fooled by preconceived ideas of what a director is or should be. Everyone has their own style of doing things. The world needs uniqueness, especially in the arts. Don’t let the business side take over too much of your mindset while you are still in the process of creating, as it will kill your spirit. You will never be everyone’s cup of earl grey. Wanting to be liked by all is a trap, but it’s tricky because it is so deeply ingrained in our culture and definitely in the upbringing of most girls. Don’t let it stand in your way of speaking up, giving your opinion, disagreeing. It’s nice to hear your voice in here.