Thursday, February 9, 2012

New Zealand update & a warm welcome to Mexican filmmaker Dana Rotberg

Dana Rotberg shooting Otilia Rauda (2001) 
In New Zealand, we're used to the mobility of our women filmmakers. Some of them have lived out of New Zealand for years. Jane Campion is in Queenstown shooting Top of the Lake, a six-part television series she wrote with Gerard Lee, her co-writer on Sweetie, a film I love. I think it's the first project she's shot here since The Piano. Niki Caro is to write and direct a film about opera legend Maria Callas. Last year, Simone Horrocks became the first New Zealand film maker to work with a full Chinese crew and a Mandarin script, when she joined China's Wang Lin as co-director on the film Unforgettable Love.  Alison Maclean was last year one of three directors of the Canadian sitcom Tuesdays and Thursdays. Miro Bilbrough's Venice is in post-production in Australia. Some recent announcements provide other examples of our mobility and one of them made me think afresh about it.

Dianna Fuemana
First, a Script to Screen panel (Roger Horrocks, Tui Ruwhiu, and Script to Screen's Esther Cahill-Chiaroni) awarded the 2012 US Screenwriting Internship Scholarship at Christine Vachon and Pam Koffler's legendary Killer Films in New York to writer Dianna Fuemana. It also awarded Catherine Bisley a special second scholarship. Dianna Fuemana's plays include My Mother Dreaming, Mapaki, The Packer and Falemalama and have been widely produced. Dianna's won a Chapman Tripp Theatre award as Outstanding New Writer of the Year, and three of her plays have been published. She's written episodes of Interrogation and Good Hands for television and has a feature film script in development with the New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC), which funds the internship, along with Gary Hannam’s Film Investment Corporation Foundation. Dianna's also won a Creative NZ Pacific Innovation and Excellence Award, among other distinctions. Like previous winners, Dianna will spend three months in Killer Films’ development department.

Catherine Bisley
Catherine Bisley will be based with Killer Film’s upcoming production Kill Your DarlingsJohn Krokidas' first feature film about writers Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs (I'm soooo envious). Catherine graduated from Ken Duncum's scriptwriting programme at the International Institute of Modern Letters in the same year as Tusi Tamasese, writer/director of O Le Tulafale/The Orator which has just shown at Sundance. She wrote and directed the short films Alwyn Motel and The Fish Will Swim; her feature script, December, is in development with the NZFC. She's well known for her film commentaries on websites such as Lumiere Reader and NZ On Screen.

As a writer I loved reading this in the Script to Screen announcement (also the source of most of my information about the winners):
There were some very talented young directors and producers and we will be watching their future careers with great interest. However, Script to Screen’s no. 1 priority is the development of screenwriting and thus the internships went to two applicants who had displayed an outstanding talent and commitment in writing.
The third finalist was also a woman, Sally Tran. So of course I asked how many women applied: 16 out of 33. We participated and we did super-well. Warm congratulations to Dianna and Catherine, wonderful to imagine them over there having an amazing time!

Then, last week, Kirstin Marcon released the trailer for her The Most Fun You Can Have Dying, in cinemas 26 April. Produced by another woman, Alex Cole-Baker, The Most Fun You Can Have Dying was shot in Europe (London, Paris, Monaco, Milan, Munich, Berlin, Venice) and New Zealand (Auckland, Hamilton)—now that's mobility (!) The Most Fun You Can Have Dying is the outcome of a seven year process, following two short films, She's Racing (2000) and Picnic Stops (2004). Starring Matt Whelan (My Wedding and Other Secrets, Go Girls: New Zealand's Hugh Grant?), Roxane Mesquida (Rubber, Kaboom, À ma sœur!), and Pana Hema-Taylor (Boy, Spartacus), it's a love story, based on Steven Gannaway's novel Seraphim Blues:
Michael has life pretty sweet. His girlfriend adores him, his best mate David is loyal to the end, and David's girlfriend doesn't mind a quick hook-up either. But his self-regarding lifestyle comes crashing down when he finds out he has just a few months to live. Desperate to live fast, Michael steals the $200,000 raised for his treatment, and catches a one-way flight to London. Everything changes when he meets the ethereal Sylvie; a beautiful French drifter.

I'm always very happy when a film a woman writes and directs makes it through the NZFC's development process; it's a moment of deep celebration because the NZFC makes such a tiny investment in women's feature development. The NZFC's most recent development funding (summarised in its December newsletter) invested in only one woman writer, Dianne Taylor (Apron Strings) with a project called Winter, and in not a single project that a woman is to direct: that's $9000, not quite 10% of its investment in that round. The annual talent award funding wasn't any better. Only one woman, Catherine Fitzgerald, a producer (O Le Tulafale) received a talent award—$50,000 amounting to 25% of the total amount awarded. In contrast, five men received talent awards, and four of them were writers. Was there really no woman writer who deserved a talent award in 2011? Of the six features the NZFC listed as in production or post-production—alongside The Most Fun You Can Have Dying—is one project a woman has written, Briar Grace-Smith's Fresh Meat.

And then in that newsletter there's the big surprise. South Pacific Pictures' Medicine Woman, based on a novella by Witi Ihimaera (Whale Rider, Nights in the Garden of Spain) has received NZFC production funding. According to one review, Medicine Woman, from the collection Ask The Posts of the House, is:
...salvaged from an unproduced television script, [and] takes its postcolonial vision straight, with its moving portrait of Paraiti, a traditional Maori healer faced with a dilemma that shows how Pakeha "civilisation" has "infiltrated and invaded the moral world that [she] has always tried to protect".
The surprise is not that there's another Witi Ihimaera film now in pre-production. The surprise is that Medicine Woman's director is Dana Rotberg, a Mexican woman filmmaker born in 1960, whose Ángel de Fuego opened the Directors Fortnight at Cannes in 1992. She also won the NHK Award at Sundance in 2000, an award to 'honor and support emerging independent filmmakers whose originality, talent, and vision can contribute significantly to the future of world cinema'. And her Otilia Rauda (2001) continues to excite writers. One blogger wrote recently:
Dana Rotberg is definitely my favourite female director from the Latin Americas, even though I’ve seen only two of her three feature films to date–the other being the amazing Ángel de Fuego. Her minimal edits and theatrical-style of direction make us delve into the characters and listen to what they have to say more closely. Her films have simple themes, quite unlike the philosophical arguments of a Catherine Breillat, and yet equally passionate. I sometimes wonder whether it is her films that helped me understand women better.
The centrality of women in Dana Rotberg's films shines through everything written about them. On imdb, a 'review' of Dana Rotberg's first feature, Intimacy (1991) says:
I saw this Mexican film perhaps 12-15 years ago at a university screening, with subtitles. It's probably unavailable in video/DVD except in its own country. The film concerns a hen-pecked husband, so timid he does not dare drive a car, who embarks on an affair with a much younger woman (Lisa Owen) who lives in the same apartment building as him and his wife. He finds eventually that the young woman is as equally demanding as his difficult wife, and leaves them both in a bittersweet ending. It's an enjoyable film, nothing artistic, but captures a slice of small lives in a big city while giving a hint of the expanding role of women in Mexico.
And according to Elissa Ratkin, in her book Women filmmakers in Mexico: the country of which we dream, Dana Rotberg's also been "a strong advocate for women in the cinema, having argued that a larger female presence would invigorate the industry and bring in new perspectives".* Any woman who advocates for other women, in an industry where it often benefits women to advocate for men, to tell stories about men, to produce for male storytellers (respect to those like Alex Cole-Baker who choose women's projects), and/or to be silent about inequities is pretty special, in my view, and I'm thrilled that Dana Rotberg's here as a model and inspiration for women in this country.

Another writer, David Maciel, in an article about Mexican filmmaking from 1985-1992, notes that for three years in the 1990s, when Dana Rotberg was working in Mexico, "almost half of the quality Mexican productions had women in directorial roles" and asserts that "The single most dramatic aspect of present day Mexican cinema is the rise of a distinctly Mexican feminism, with women exerting major influences in all aspects of Mexican filmmaking". So she was part of a movement that made change, and presumably can teach us about that, too.

So what's not to celebrate about this surprise? Why am I thinking again about 'our' women filmmakers' mobility, and ambivalent about Dana Rotberg's distinguished presence? In the past, I've advocated bringing in a woman director from outside New Zealand to tell one of our stories. In June 2010, after the legendary Merata Mita died, without being able to fulfil her dream of bringing Patricia Grace's Cousins into production, I wrote:
I think that it’s too expensive not to make Cousins. We in Aotearoa New Zealand need this film. The world needs this film, especially the half of us who are female. As a tribute to Merata, to her extraordinary life and work, would it be possible for everyone concerned to put everything aside to make Cousins? Could the NZFC declare a moratorium on all other features until Cousins goes into principal photography? Search internationally for a script expert or two if necessary, if managing the three-protagonist/single protagonist narrative is too challenging locally? Search the highways and byways of international and local funding, for people and institutions who understand the human rights elements that underpin Merata’s vision of brilliant Maori story telling, whose contributions could supplement the NZFC’s? Could we all donate a dollar for each of our own cousins? Could the government request a wee Cousins tithe from cinemas for a year, and from patrons at next year’s Rugby World Cup?

And since Merata cannot direct, what about an international director? I think Cousins is probably too complex a project for a first-time feature director, and now there’s no second- or third-time Maori woman director amongst us. Ramai Hayward said on that KOHA programme [referred to earlier in the post]: “We need filmmakers with authority who can interpret our emotions, our feelings, because that’s some thing no-one else can do for us. No Pakeha can do it for us”. But it’s possible that a director with authority and with experience of colonization processes could relate to the girls, the women, and the story, and make the necessary interpretation. Someone like Gurinder Chadha for instance, now writing a script about the 1947 partition of Pakistan and India. Or Samira Makhmalbaf. Or Wanuri Kahiu, currently researching a narrative film about the Kenyan land freedom army.
Now, I'm happy to add Dana Rotberg's name to the list, in part because I believe her work addresses and resists the colonisation of women's bodies. But I'm nevertheless very sad that four years after Dr Ruth Harley—then CEO at the NZFC—acknowledged that the NZFC practises gender inequity, nothing much has changed (although I think there have been improvements for Australian women filmmakers since Ruth became the CEO at Screen Australia). Yes, we have two women writers off to New York (notably not selected by the NZFC, although partially funded by them), and yes Kristin Marcon's feature is here at last, and yes our women are going well outside New Zealand. But our last film written and directed by a Maori woman is Merata Mita's Mauri, in 1988, twenty-four years ago. It's been too long.

And yes, South Pacific Pictures has a much better gender track record than the NZFC. As Jo Johnson, SPP’s development executive wrote to me last year, when half the applicants to and participants in the SPP Emerging Writers Lab were women:
For more than ten years, at least half of South Pacific Pictures’ television series and feature film output has been created and written by women and have women as central characters… [She lists the titles.] … This is not ‘good business sense’, but because the women involved are the best creative talent available and the stories depict a mix of characters from the real world. We have never found gender to be an issue with respect to employing creative personnel, be they writers, directors, production designers, editors, composers etc. We did not choose the successful applicants for our Emerging Writers Lab based on their gender or ethnicity; they were chosen on their writing ability and previous industry experience–it is by chance that we have ended up with an even balance of women and men.
Given SPP's philosophy, it's no surprise that it went outside New Zealand to find a director for Medicine Woman.But if the NZFC had done its job as well as SPP does—over the decades since Mauri was released—SPP would have had many more options. If SPP can practise gender equity in New Zealand with great success, simply by focusing on the best talent available and stories that depict a mix of characters from the real world (and these strategies have made great business sense, regardless of what Jo wrote) why can't the NZFC?

Unfortunately, the NZFC can now use the funding of Medicine Women to enhance its gender statistics while not in fact investing in the advancement of New Zealand women writers and directors. When will it commit to investing directly in a larger pool of local women writers and directors of feature films, especially Maori women, to "invigorate the industry and bring in new perspectives"? Is it going to fund Maori women interns—and feminist interns who are not Maori—to shadow Dana Rotberg on Medicine Woman (my hand is UP)? Or is it not, because it is anxious that we will be radicalised by this fine filmmaker? What programme for aspiring and established women filmmakers (our storytellers) has the NZFC invited Dana Rotberg to present, when her directing duties allow? Has it organised a curated showing of her films? Has it asked her advice about invigorating the New Zealand film industry with diverse women's features? Has it ever invited Alison Maclean to return and share her wide experience with the NZFC and with our women filmmakers, offered to fund New Zealand women to intern with her? Invited Jane Campion to participate in similar initiatives?

In a nice piece of serendipity, the NZFC is calling for stakeholders' opinions about its directions. Now is the moment for women in film, and taxpayers, to make our concerns known. I hope I'm not alone in asking the NZFC to increase its direct investment in feature films that New Zealand women write and direct and as part of that to expose us—and themselves—to the feminist inspiration and leadership that Dana Rotberg, Alison Maclean and Jane Campion can provide.

*See also her 1997 Spectator article on Dana Rotberg.

Update
According to an SPP press release on 16 March Dana Rotberg "immigrated to New Zealand with her daughter in 2004 and has been developing Medicine Woman with SPP for the past four years": makes me wonder whether other women filmmakers from outside New Zealand are also quietly living here. When I wrote this post, the only information SPP could give me was:
Unfortunately, there’s not much we can say at this stage except that we’re in the early stages of pre-production and the story is based on a story by Witi Ihimaera. We can certainly facilitate an interview with Dana but would be much closer to the film’s completion/release. 
And here's a pic of acclaimed singer and songwriter Whirimako Black as Paraiti, the protagonist, "a medicine woman – a giver of life – who is asked to hide a secret which may protect a position in society, but will destroy a life."

Others in lead roles are Antonia Prebble (Outrageous Fortune, Spies & Lies, The Almighty Johnsons) as the wealthy Rebecca Vickers and Rachel House (Boy, Whale Rider) as Maraea, Mrs Vickers’ servant. Medicine Woman will be released in New Zealand cinemas 2013 and is funded by the NZ Film Commission and NZ On Air.

Love this image of Whirimako Black in 'real life':

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