Friday, November 28, 2008

Apron Strings & Mamma Mia


I was excited: two films made by women and about motherhood, showing at the Embassy Theatre, just down the road. Apron Strings, a New Zealand film written by Shuchi Kothari and Dianne Taylor and directed by Sima Urale (with mothers who cook for a living) and Mamma Mia (with a mother wearing a carpenter's apron).

That was my second photograph. With a mother crossing the road and people sitting at the celebrated Deluxe cafe next door to the Embassy. And yes, it's the same Embassy Theatre where The Return of the King had its premiere in the era when Wellington became known as Wellywood because Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh made the Lord of the Rings trilogy here.

I've been trying to find out why Apron Strings is the first New Zealand film written and directed by women since Gaylene Preston's Perfect Strangers (2003).

Does the New Zealand Film Commission, the state agency that develops and supports our film-makers and feature films prefer to support men who want to make feature films?

Or is it women filmmakers' own fault? Do we have to learn to write better stories? Be better directors? Be more competitive? More courageous? As energetic as men in advocating for our work? More willing to work as writers- and directors-for-hire? Over the last couple of years I've heard so many people, women and men, say that if we're good enough and do the 'right' things, our films will be made.

Jane Campion or Meryl Streep might not agree. Getting the money to make a film is a problem for every filmmaker. But according to them, it's harder for women.

When Jane Campion presented a short fantasy film, The Lady Bug,  at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival—about a woman dressed up in an insect costume, who gets stomped on in a movie theatre—she described The Lady Bug as a metaphor for women filmmakers:
I just think this is the way the world is, that men control the money, and they decide who they're going to give it to.
And when Meryl Streep was in Australasia promoting Mamma Mia she too talked about studio executives' lack of support for 'women's' projects. They don't think women's projects are marketable and are surprised when films with women as central characters are successful:

M.S. Devil Wears Prada took [studio executives] completely by surprise. Mamma Mia had a budget about this big. [She demonstrates a tiny budget.]... A musical is expensive. We did it on a diet... I'm hopeful that they'll learn that there's a market for these entertainments but they seem to need to learn the lesson every year.
On the days when I hear "We have so few films written and directed by women because women just aren't good enough", as I often do, I hold on to what Jane Campion wrote in support of the Gender & Women's Studies programme at Victoria University of Wellington:

Women may be 50% of the population but they gave birth to the whole world, why wouldn't we want to know what they think and feel?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

From the edge of the harbour, Te Whanganui-a-Tara, Aotearoa, also known as Wellington, and Wellywood

Movies didn't help. Though I experienced some wonderful moments among the afternoon audiences. (I arrived late for Nights in Rodanthe and thought the woman along the row and I were the only viewers-- until the credits rolled, and from out there in the darkness I heard sobs and many many sniffs; and noses being blown.) 

Architecture books and atlases in bed at night didn't help. Even the quince and then the apple blossom-- Even finding tomato volunteers that had survived the winter tucked up against the compost heap-- Even the return of the bumblebees and each day a solitary honey bee among the blossom and flowering sage and borage and calendula-- Even sowing marbled round beans that someone's soldier uncle smuggled back to New Zealand in the toe of his sock at the end of the Second World War--

Nothing helped. After two years working on my PhD I was desperate. 

Yes, I could have partied for a week or two. Got over it. But I wanted my daily life to be as Virginia Woolf describes the novelist's life: 
...to proceed with the utmost quiet and regularity... so that nothing may disturb or disquiet the mysterious nosings about, feeling round, darts, dashes and sudden discoveries of that very shy and illusive spirit, the imagination. 
If I stopped to party, I might never regain the apprentice script writer equivalent of what Woolf called:
...the novelist's chief desire... to be as unconscious as possible. (Selected Essays ed D Bradshaw, OUP 2008, p.143).
And then one day I turned onto the wharves from Oriental Parade on the way to a quiet and regular session at the public library. And thought "O, I've forgotten to get dressed". I looked down and saw that WHEW I wasn't in my night clothes. And realised that I'd overdone the unconscious bit, had lost the plot. 

Ten minutes later, in the library, I found Norman Mailer's The Spooky Art; Some Thoughts on Writing, Random House 2003.

Mailer was 80 when he wrote The Spooky Art but his voice reminds me of a child's voice, testing how words can best convey the magic of his world. He also articulates my own problems: fear; and the monotony of marking down words: 
There is always fear in trying to write a good book [or script]. That is why there are many more people who can write well than do. And, of course, many can't take the meanness of the occupation. There's nothing so very attractive about going into a room by yourself each day to look at a blank piece of paper (or monitor) and make calligraphic marks. To perform that act decade after decade punishes through the very monotony of the process (p.127)
Forget the "decade after decade" I thought: this PhD, its autoethnography and scripts and activism, its quietness, its regularity, feels like a prison already. And moved on to the next paragraph.

And went HEY THANK YOU OLD MAN. This is what he wrote:
The act of writing itself, taken as a physical act, is less interesting... than painting, or, certainly, sculpture, where your body is more exercised in the doing.  
And of course, less interesting than making a film. AHA. I needed to exercise my body in the doing.

So I borrowed a son's camera. And started. With a pic of a container boat outside the window. And a tug.