Sunday, March 2, 2014

Get Your Hopes Up


Get Your Hopes Up (Ballance St Wellington) photo: Phantom Billstickers
I'm at the bus-stop. Feeling gloomy. Ages ago I agreed to write about New Zealand women screenwriters, for an international guide. And now the deadline's looming and I've lost interest.

In the eight years of my Development project, nothing has changed in New Zealand. Creative New Zealand and the New Zealand Film Commission, the organisations that distribute public funds to filmmakers and other artists, have no gender policy. They don't record gender statistics consistently. And they never publish them. Nor does New Zealand On Air, which funds some movies for television, and is required to consider women as an audience. The film guilds – publicly funded – don't make diversity statements or produce diversity reports.

And change is slow everywhere. Callie Khouri knows what she's talking about, from a career that stretches from Thelma and Louise to Nashville. She said the other day, in response to a question about conditions in Hollywood in general and for women who write feminist content–
Clearly there’s much more awareness about it. …I’d love to be able to point to one thing that says it’s better, I’d love to be able to. It’s really beginning to be the world’s most boring conversation, you know? I think everybody’s sick of talking about it, I just wish it would change.
In New Zealand, but differently, I feel the same. Yep! I'm bored with the conversations about women screenwriters – and women directors. As well as gloomy.

And then, across the road from the bus stop, I see this poster, from poet Lucy Orbell's The High Point project, where she takes the 'don't' from negative clichés. Here she asks 'What's the worst thing that can happen if you do get your hopes up?'.

So what's the worst thing that can happen if I abandon boredom and gloom and get my hopes up (again) on Oscar day, here in a culture infused with screen offerings from the United States and Europe, living a bike ride along the shoreline from Hollywood-in-New Zealand, Peter Jackson's base, where other men who direct and produce come and go with their own projects, like James Cameron, now living an hour away, 'over the hill' in the Wairarapa? (Peter Jackson writes and produces with women. He’s directed interesting films about young women and girls. He employs many women. He engaged Amy J Berg to direct West of Memphis. He’s very generous in providing access to his resources to many New Zealand filmmakers, women and men. But as far as I know no woman, except possibly Fran Walsh, has directed a second unit on his big projects.) Disappointment’s the worst thing that can happen if I get my hopes up? I reckon. Worth a try.

Get Your Hopes Up (Cuba Street Wellington) photo: Phantom Billstickers
As a colonised viewer I’m going to focus on the United States with some reference to Europe, Australia and New Zealand. (I wish I had more access to information from South America, Asia, Africa and the Middle East, because from the little I do know the issues there are both the same and different and thought-provoking.)

To start with, the mix of gloominess and hope in the info coming in from the States. And then the things that get my hopes up –
The film industry is not just Hollywood

Men

Pushing The Medium: Women Who Are Telling Stories That Otherwise Might Not Be Told

Human Rights Mechanisms

Actors

Women's Film Activism in Europe 
So. Starting with a mix of gloominess and hope. As Oscar night draws near, can I get my hopes up for women writers and directors when I see that some terrific work by women writers and directors is among the films nominated?
Sara Ishaq's Karama Has No Walls for Best Documentary – Short Subject
Jehane Nehaim's The Square for Best Documentary – Feature
Frozen, written and co-directed by Jennifer Lee for Best Animated Feature Film
Selma Vilhunen and Kirsikka Saari's Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?) for Best Short Film (Live Action)
Before Midnight, which Julie Delphy co-wrote, for Best Adapted Screenplay
Dallas Buyers Club which Melisa Wallack co-wrote, for Best Original Screenplay
Yes, I can.

But this hope exists alongside the sadness that there's no woman nominated for Best Director, no woman-directed film nominated for Best Picture, that Nicole Holofcener's Enough Said is invisible in the nominations (I had especially high hopes for her elegant script), that Sarah Polley's extraordinary Stories We Tell is not among the Best Documentary nominations.

And there's more sadness to move past before I reach the hopeful bits. I love it that the women-centred films Gravity (multiple nominations including Best Picture and Best Directing etc), 20 Feet From Stardom (Best Documentary – Feature), Blue Jasmine (Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress for Cate Blanchett) and Philomena (Best Picture and Best Actress for Judi Dench) are nominated for Oscars too. But men directed all of them! This reflects the realities shown Vocativ’s report (including a fab infographic) that, except for Jennifer Lee's co-direction of Frozen, men directed all of the 50 biggest United States box office movies that featured 'quality onscreen time for women' in 2013, films that included The Heat and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire alongside Gravity and Frozen.

Furthermore, Martha Lauzen's annual Celluloid Ceiling report shows that in the United States women filmmakers' overall participation in various roles in the 250 top-grossing films did not improve. She told Women & Hollywood–
The film industry is in a state of what might be called gender inertia. There is no evidence to suggest that women's employment in key roles has improved over the last 16 years. I think Manohla Dargis got it right when she told Variety recently, 'Hollywood is failing women' and 'Until the industry starts making serious changes, nothing is going to change.' 
BUT, is Hollywood really failing women? Is there some room for hope here? I think so. Two hopes.

The first is that Hollywood has taken a fresh look at potential audiences, in a process that may have begun with the success of Mamma Mia in 2009 (although that wasn't of course the first commercial success of its kind) and then Bridesmaids, and and and... I'm an audience member who goes to and talks about movies with a diversity of women. Frozen, Hunger Games, Gravity and Philomena have entertained us recently. We've been delighted by the centrality of female protagonists in these films. Hollywood hasn’t ‘failed’ us in the way it used to, and we’re confident that Hollywood will experiment with more diverse women’s stories any day now, written and directed by men.

Julie Delpy
Actor/writer/director Julie Delpy beautifully articulates the probable reason for this in an illuminating interview–
...majors think 'oh there's a market there', so they take over and try to format it.
Now 'the majors' are trying to format for the market for films that feature women, it's inevitable that they'll engage the same white heterosexual men as writers and directors who they always engage. And after all, women who write can write authentically about men, so why can't men write authentically about us and direct us (even though they've often done these things badly)?

The second hope is the effects of ‘narrative exhaustion’. Tambay Obenson wrote about this the other day, inspired by George Clooney's recent comments about World War II film content having reached its use-by date and an article about by screenwriter, director and critic Paul Schrader. Tambay Obenson argues that–
…reading a [Paul Schrader] sentence like "almost every possible subject has not only been covered but covered exhaustively," demonstrates that his POV is a myopic one, in that he's white and male. So, from the lens through which he sees the world and thus cinema, yes, of course it feels like narrative exhaustion, because Hollywood's story is a white, heterosexual male dominated narrative. So when he says "almost every possible subject" I'd add, "about white heterosexual men"... "has not only been covered but covered exhaustively."

What Mr. Schrader seemingly fails to realize is that the dynamic of any random story can quickly change when a black person (or any other *minority*) is introduced (particularly as the lead character in the story), and since we've barely begun to really scratch the surface of what we call *black storytelling*, that ‘narrative shortage’ he talks about eludes black filmmakers and audiences - as well as women, Latinos, Asians, members of the LGBTQ community and other so-called *minority* groups.
It’s possible that Hollywood’s response to white, heterosexual, male ‘narrative exhaustion’ partially explains its new investments in stories about women as well as the other so-called ‘minority’ groups. In conjunction with Hollywood’s new trust that audiences are there for interesting women protagonists in these stories, that’s hopeful. But will white men write and direct nearly all of them?

Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the Academy’s first African-American and third woman president, following Bette Davis(!) and screenwriter Fay Kanin, doesn’t talk about ‘narrative exhaustion’ but she too is hopeful that more diversity is on its way.

Cheryl Boone Isaacs
And because she’s in such a powerful position that makes me hopeful. This is what she says in a Hollywood Reporter interview–
Q: The Academy has invited more women and minorities to join. How much progress has it made?
CBI: In the 30-odd years I've been in this business, there have been many changes – but not enough. But I think right now the collective consciousness is such that all folks are being much more open to bringing in new voices, different stories. When films are not segregated, if you will – whether it's African-American, Chinese-American, Latino – and have the ability to get made and then to be distributed to a wide audience, box office will increase. And therefore, more opportunities will be available. And that's how you grow this.
Q: Do you think those efforts to develop a more diverse membership are reflected in this year's nominations?
CBI: Oh, absolutely. We have an African-American writer, 12 Years a Slave's John Ridley. Steve McQueen and Alfonso Cuaron nominated for best director. And a good number of female producers. Every year we have foreign-language films, but this year we have a film from Cambodia, a film from Palestine. It wasn't that long ago that all the foreign-language films were European.
I’m delighted that Cheryl Boone Isaacs believes that the collective consciousness is changing. And that this year’s nominations reflect the Academy’s efforts to develop and more diverse membership – as well as the excellent work of the individuals she refers to. But the collective consciousness and the Academy’s diversity has not so far benefited women writers and directors and I don’t think the ‘growth’ she refers to will do it.

And I hope that the ‘good numbers’ of women producers don’t distract Cheryl Boone Isaacs from the issues around women writers and directors. Although there's some crossover between the challenges that face women producers and the challenges that face women writers and directors there's not enough to make meaningful any discussion of 'women filmmakers' and  'women content creators' that includes all three groups. There are always women producers in there, doing well. And I’m glad when they do well. But very often they do well because they choose to support men who write and direct, rather than women.  In general, they’re unlikely to provide opportunities for women writers and directors any day soon. That's why organisations that fund and produce only women-written and women-directed work are so important, like Gamechanger Films and Tangerine Entertainment and non-profits Octavia Films and Chicken & Egg (I considered creating a Pinterest board for women producers who consistently support women writers and directors and the only one I could think of – other than writers and directors who produce their own work – is Australian Jan Chapman, often Jane Campion's producer. Send me more if you have them!)

So, the gender inertia in Hollywood appears to be an inertia in only two respects that are relevant here. There's inertia about responding positively to pitches from women writers (some of them also directors) or employing them to write projects that are already in development. And there's inertia about employing women directors. It’s a challenge to know how to shift that inertia, when Hollywood now knows for sure that audiences including women like me and my mates (mostly feminists) often don't care at all about the diversity of writers and directors, so long as they are well-entertained by stories about interesting women.

So, again, what gets my hopes up for the necessary systemic change? I’ve often spoken and written about paying attention to ‘the cracks in everything, that’s how the light gets in’. Where are those cracks? And the soft spots? And what else might illuminate hope?

A few weeks ago a remarkable blog from Lexi Alexander set the interwebs on fire. An Oscar-nominated director, she followed her wonderful post about seeking a meeting to direct The Expendabelles, late last year, with a more general one, where she (like another director, Maria Giese, in her series of thoughtful posts in Women Directors: Navigating the Hollywood Boys Club) records the dismal record of the Directors Guild of America in relation to gender – which appears to be mirrored by similar ineffectiveness within the Writers Guild of America (but see Footnote 1 below, which details an excellent Writers Guild of America West initiative, in conjunction with their excellent diversity report, produced every two years). Lexi concluded that in Hollywood, after 35 years of acknowledging a gender 'problem'–
1) Those who have promised to bring about change were insincere.
or
2) Those who have promised to bring about change were not very smart.
(In New Zealand, the problem's been acknowledged for around seven years with no promises ever made, so I guess we have a few years to go.)

Thanks to Lexi, then, I'm looking for the cracks that let the light in, the soft spots, AND asking Where's the sincerity? Where are the smart people? Here’s where I hope to find all these things. Better to Get The Wrong Idea, I've decided, than to have no ideas at all.

Get The Wrong Idea (Cuba Street Wellington) photo: Phantom Billstickers

The Film Industry Is Not Just Hollywood
The film industry – even in the United States – is not just Hollywood. I get my hopes up when I keep this in mind, especially, as Richard Brody of the New Yorker pointed out the other day, there’s now a significant overlap of Oscar contenders (traditionally ‘Hollywood’) with Gotham and Independent Spirit nominees (both for traditionally ‘indie’ films made with 'an economy of means': there's currently a $20m budget ceiling for the Independent Spirit Awards). This year, for instance, 12 Years A Slave (like Gravity an American-British co-production) was nominated for Best Picture in all three (two winners yet to be decided) and has just won Best Picture in the BAFTAs as well. In that overlap, and in co-productions, there may be new spaces for women writers and directors? What might help develop those spaces? Let's start with men.

Men
There are good men who will support and advocate for women writers and directors in various ways. Is it time for the Directors Guild of America and the Writers Guild of America to seek out these men, acknowledge their contributions to opening space for women writers and directors and to ask for their advice about the issues?

Lexi Alexander wrote this
Women in Hollywood have no male allies. There are some who pretend to be on our side, but yeah, not really. They may say the right thing because, after all, they're liberals and that's a public image they'd like to keep up. Others may actually believe in gender equality, but are not willing to put up a fight for it that could sacrifice their own status or relationships.
And I agreed with her at first, instinctively, especially when I watched Brad Pitt speak about Steve McQueen, director of 12 Years a Slave. He said he (Brad Pitt with his Plan B hat on) is a 'big fan, been knocking on [Steve McQueen's] door for a while' (see clip below). And I thought 'Is Brad Pitt a big fan of women directors, other than Angelina Jolie? Is he knocking on their doors too?'

And then I found out that yes, Plan B is producing Ava DuVernay's Selma, as is Oprah Winfrey. But what about Debra Granik, director of Winter's Bone? Has Brad Pitt checked what she's doing since Winter's Bone launched Jennifer Lawrence and won four Oscar nominations in 2010? What about... What about... And then this morning, in a Hollywood Reporter interview following 12 Years A Slave's Best Feature win at the Independent Spirit Awards, Brad Pitt gave me further reason to think he might knock on women directors' doors and might advocate for and support positive change, as well–
We loved [12 Years A Slave]. We made this part of our mandate – actors, directors, filmmakers that we believe are pushing the medium – more difficult material that might need that little extra push, that's been priority number one for us.
[And now (March 26) I see that he has just EPed Big Men, a doco written and directed by Rachel Boynton]

Brad Pitt & Rachel Boynton
And then I reflected on other men who've helped women writers and directors to succeed, both well-known and lesser known. A recent Vogue feature on Lena Dunham records that after her Tiny Furniture won the Best First Screenplay title at the Independent Spirit Awards. Judd Apatow offered her help and counsel if she ever needed it. “I felt an instant connection to her work, because it reminded me of movies that I admired,” he says. He became the producer for Girls.

And I remembered Thuc Nguyen of The Bitch Pack telling me in detail about how men in Hollywood support her–
If it were not for the kindness of Evan Charnov, I would know nothing about 'the industry'. I did not come to Los Angeles to participate in it. I moved to LA after 9/11 from New York City and intended only to be here briefly, but things didn't turn out that way.

My day job for Evan was being his assistant for a Bruckheimer / Warner Brothers television show that was bizarrely short lived. I have done all kinds of work in LA - in commercials and most recently translation work for a production company that is making segments for PBS's This American Life.

My experiences in the industry thus far are that you really do need a strong support system so as to not let things get you down. I was lucky to be protected by much of the politics of day to day production work by Evan. 
And then there's Dee Rees and Spike Lee. Spike Lee taught her at college. She interned for him. He was a reader for her Pariah script. This is what she's said about that, in an interview with Monika Zaleska –
MZ: I know Spike Lee was involved informally and then came on as an executive producer. You guys had a working relationship for a while when you were at NYU. I want to know what that was like!

DR: [laughs] He was one of my professors, and he’s really great because he’s a working director. He teaches and has open office hours like any other professor. The thing I love about Spike is that he’s very honest and upfront, he’s not going to sugar coat it. He’s not going to dance around it. He’s also very humbling. I remember I had just done the screenwriting lab at Sundance. So I’m feeling kind of like…[laughter] special. And the first thing he does, he’s going to read a new draft of the script, is take a sharpie out. He went through the whole script and said ‘corny,’ ‘bad,’ ‘too long,’ ‘what does this mean?’ He makes you get your head out of your ass. You can’t have this esoteric bullshit film school answer.
Last year, when Jane Campion won the Carosse d'Or at Cannes, she dedicated in to her cinema 'godfather', renowned cinephile Pierre Rissient, who was there to see her collect the prize. Pierre Rissient is a Frenchman who discovered Campion's short films at the start of her career in Australia and had them shown in Cannes. She barely knew of the festival at the time, but Rissient insisted she attend.'He's supported me, he's been very loyal, he's helped me get finance,' she said in an interview.'Now he's a very old guy, a beautiful man, and to have a godfather like that in this industry is very helpful and very moving.'

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (the comic)
And then there's Ana Lily Amirpour and her A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. An actress friend of one of the SpectreVision guys – Elijah Wood, Daniel Noah and Josh C. Waller – gave them Ana Lily's script and then they met her and, according to one of them in a video interview 'It was immediately evident that she was destined to be a profoundly powerful voice in cinema and we wanted to be involved in anything she did.' They became her Executive Producers.

Finally, last month, Francine Raveney of the European Women's Audiovisual Network told me
I am very much in favour of working for gender equality alongside men as they have as much to benefit from equal opportunities as women. There have been some men who may have seemed – to me at first at least – rather traditional or even resistant to the topic, who have in fact turned out to be extremely supportive and to back up the project as much as they can. For example, company owners, or colleagues who encourage their female counterparts to attend our courses, or individuals from extremely traditional societies who have embraced the importance of women having an equal voice.
I think that men like these will continue to support individual women AND they will support concrete action from the various guilds, starting with the Directors Guild of America and the Writers Guild of America. What kind of individual women writers and directors might they be most likely to support? Those that 'push the medium' (Brad Pitt)? Those with whom they have an 'instant connection'(Judd Apatow)? Those who are 'destined to be a profoundly powerful voice in cinema' (SpectreVision). Yes, Yes, and Yes.

And where might these women be found? My guess is that they are likely to be among those who are telling stories that might not otherwise be told and among the women who perform as well as write and direct. Here are my hopes about women in those groups. But support of individuals is not enough, so to follow, I'll add my hopeful suggestions about the use of human rights mechanisms to provide a strong underpinning for women writers and directors as a group, in all our diversity.

Pushing The Medium: Stories That Might Not Otherwise Be Told
I've always loved this statement from the Writers Guild of America (West): 'Industry diversity is not only about equal access to employment opportunities; it is also about opening space for the telling of stories that might not otherwise be told'. We now know for sure that (for slightly different reasons) Hollywood and its audiences don't care about the gender or other personal characteristics of the writers and directors of its women-centred blockbusters, and although I hope that will change, I think it’s time to pay very close attention to the prolific and inventive women screenwriters and directors who open their own spaces for stories that might not otherwise be told. They're a significant source of hope for me. 
Una Noche poster
I think they're often the women that men will help, but paradoxically they're already doing it for themselves, on their own terms, as multihyphenates. Lucy Mulloy, producer-writer-director of Una Noche, spoke about this in an excellent @antkaufman article about the women nominated for Independent Spirit Awards.
I know a lot of women making films now, but they’re making them outside of the industry. And they’re making them happen themselves, as writer-producer-directors, and making them on their own terms.
As Stacie Passon says in the same article–
Being a multihyphenate makes you 'more nimble'. It's not going to make you a better filmmaker, but it may help you negotiate the hills and valleys of this business.
And if you're an actor who's a multihyphenate there's an additional benefit, according to Lake Bell–
It's helpful to have your main actor in the room with you, even if it's yourself.
And these multihyphenates aren't necessarily interested in working for Hollywood studios. This is what Stacie Passon says about that–
[The studios] need to keep the butts in seats. And I’d be happy to help them do that, but that’s not my primary goal...I’m happy I’ve been able to do things my own way. That, to me, is being successful.
Lake Bell has her doubts, too, although she's had offers to make 'all kinds of big-ass movies'–
Would I go to work on a Hollywood film? As long as it was good. But to have the delicious taste of making my own content, and the satisfaction I’ve got from that, I don’t really need the empty carbs. Life’s too short... Why would I set myself up for failure? And why do I want to spend all those years not nurturing my own children?... Because it’s taken [women directors] longer to get here and we’re slightly more a specific breed, maybe we are just interested in doing the things that we want to do.
In that recent interview with Julie Delpy, she rejects both Hollywood and the American indie world. She looks to Europe for her money–
I like where I stand: I make independent movies funded by European companies. It gives me a certain freedom: 2 Days in New York for example. It's both French and German, and there was no American money involved, even though it was filmed in New York. As I have a European passport, I can get a lot of help from governments, TV channels... and the money is easier to handle than the American, which is not that interesting [for me] because it comes with a lot of strings attached. Plus, American independent movies are under-financed. There's nothing left. It [the indie scene] was killed by the Weinsteins. Now, real American independent movies have a budget of $500,000 at most. They are really small movies, which are mainly first features or experimental, but you can only ask people for favours once or twice to fund them. But me, I’m on my my fifth movie. I can’t ask people to work for free anymore, it's not normal.
Inside the United States there are more and more women who are opening spaces for stories that might not otherwise be told, for whom 'narrative exhaustion' is irrelevant. They use various ways to keep working. To name just a few – There's Nicole Holofcener, who moves between working for hire in television and making her own features and in this interview discusses some of the differences in each for her, as a writer and director. I suspect she partly works in television to fund her films. As Anne Flournoy, the 'recovering Sundance' multihyphenate maker of the wellknown comedy webseries The Louise Log (now in its third season) tweeted the other day–


There's Kelly Reichardt (who combines directing with teaching); Ava DuVernay (who combines everything, including innovative distribution through AFFRM); Lynn Shelton (who exemplifies the 'quilting bee' model: "[I can] pick up a camera, and call [my] friends and say, ‘let’s go make a movie!’ And if we fail, like, we’ll just shove it under the rug."). There’s no gender inertia here. And when these women offer advice – like Jane Campion (in a Wellington workshop late last year) and Ava DuVernay – I'm all ears and optimism. (See the clip from Ava at the end of this post if you haven't seen it, with another from Cheryl Dunye.)

52 Tuesdays poster
And then there are the 'newbies' – who, if you look closely, aren't really 'newbies' – who come up with something brilliant. One of them is Australian Sophie Hyde, who directed 52 Tuesdays, and has won the World Cinema Directing Award, Dramatic at Sundance and the Crystal Bear and the Siegessaeule Readers’ Jury Award at the Berlinale. This is how she describes her inquiry, in a superb interview with Danielle Lurie–
We had the opportunity to make something that was a genuine investigation of narrative – how it was made (shooting one day a week every week for one year and scripting as we went) as well as how it is viewed (every Tuesday is seen in the film). These rules or parameters helped us explore how we make films and how we construct our lives, so we were always working toward the finished film but we were also deep inside an experience ourselves. I wanted to see if there was another way to make, outside of the industrial model where for 6-8 weeks I couldn’t do anything else and I couldn’t see my child. It intrigued me to consider another way – perhaps a way that is closer to the working model of documentary making, which we were used to – but it was still consuming.
(Writer and director Danielle Lurie's Sundance series reminds me of Paris Review writer interviews – they're a stunning 'craft' and 'women' series, profoundly enriched, I think, by her own experiences as a practitioner.)

Investigation like Sophie Hyde’s – or, as Jane Campion calls it, ‘inquiry’ – really matters to me because I believe that the women whose work comes out of autonomous investigation and inquiry will inevitably tell 'stories that might not otherwise be told', from responses to their own diverse experiences, some of them related to gender. (To give one example, this week I fell over a trailer for Canadian Kelly Ann Benz's comedy Naked Night Bike, about early menopause,which seems also to inquire about issues around women's infertility.) These women, I believe, get below the surface of women's storytelling and will continue to do so.

Because of this potential, I believe that it’s vital to distinguish these writers and directors from those who want to be writers-for-hire and directors-for-hire inside Hollywood, to realise the ambitions and visions of others whose primary motivation is to entertain huge audiences and to make money. Yes, as in Hollywood, these women's investigations incorporate skilful shaping of a story that audiences will respond to. And, yes, like Hollywood-employed writers and directors, they want to entertain audiences (Sophie Hyde’s twitter profile says ‘I make films, I want people to see them’).  And yes, sometimes these women's interests will cross with Hollywood interests, especially for writers with spec scripts and for women who've directed several of their own features outside Hollywood. Their work may or may not be 'entertainment' for a particular Hollywood-defined quadrant and may or may not generate a profit, at least partly because it's unlikely to be supported by a Hollywood distributor and a Hollywood-style marketing budget. But the world needs many more women-created stories where women investigate what lies under the surface.

So let's identify who the inquiring writers and directors are and support them, outside Hollywood and – for some – on their way to Hollywood, support them, respond to their work and learn from it.

One way to do this, especially when they're starting out, is to find them and support them through their crowdfunding campaigns. I've loved doing this intermittently, through spreading the word on social media and donating when I can afford it. And I've never once been disappointed by the quality of the final works. The films and their makers excite me and I believe they deserve substantial audiences. Another way to join in, is to seek out and embrace the various separatist initiatives. You'll find some wonderful writers and directors there because separatism provides resources and safe spaces to discuss stories that otherwise might not be told, to experiment, to take risks, to fail (Hollywood's much kinder to men who fail than to women who fail) and to grow. Separatism nourishes confidence. Look out for what the women-only funders are funding. Check out the writers and directors showcased in other separatist film initiatives like competitions and awards (see tab above). Support that veteran miracle that is Women Make Movies and the Activist sites and blogs in the tab above. And yes! the women's film fests. They're a big part of this and I hope they find ways to take their fests online soon.

Another element of my commitment to women writers and directors is learning to recognise and appreciate and engage with the investigations that underpin their work, to go beyond the entertainment they offer me.

Because the language of ‘inquiry’ and ‘investigation’ is more often used in discussions of non-fiction (and sometimes by artists and writers in other mediums than film) it was at first easier for me to understand in relation to documentaries than narrative films. I'm sure it's possible to write effective screenplays and to direct entertaining narrative films without prioritising complex investigation (though even commercials – and I love a good commercial – rely on investigation into what sells a product). But I’ve begun to understand self-generated ‘inquiry’ since I heard Jane Campion talk about it and as I obsess about the life and work of United States poet Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980). Here's my experience, in case it's useful.

One of Muriel's favorite assignments for her students was to ask them to complete the sentence ‘I could not tell…' and thinking about this helped me understand why, when I write or draw or film fiction I rarely start with a story I know from beginning to end because I tend to begin from something that I could not tell until I write about it, a kind of silence that’s a mystery to me, that troubles me.

I fail a lot as I investigate situations and behaviours and images and characters and dialogue and mediums and genres and work patterns that intrigue me. But every so often within an investigation my thoughts and feelings – and those of my characters – come together in a magic, new understanding and I tell something of what I could not tell. The possibility of that moment of magic and/or its visual equivalent is what gets me up in the morning, tapping the top of my kitchen timer to get me started on that crucial first forty minutes.

Another time, Muriel wrote–
And then a poem began. I went into a great storm about that poem which was building and forming. I lived like that for two weeks, and finally one night I got up and wrote down the poem.
This makes sense too. To search as a narrative or documentary filmmaker for what 'I could not tell' (which in a doco is often what a participant tells, as I saw demonstrated last week when chatting with a World War II pilot), means living within a great storm of inquiry that may last for years not weeks, as we work to share the outcome with the world. And neither process is about about being 'employed', as many artists and writers in other mediums know. It's about what Lake Bell calls 'the delicious taste of making my own content, and the satisfaction I’ve got from that'. (The ‘could not tell’ and the storm may also happen when writers and directors are hired to work on others' projects. And with academic inquiries. But differently, because of the employment aspect.)

So where does this leave the women writers and directors who do want to work for Hollywood, or to find an independent producer? Are there human rights mechanisms that will benefit them, ensure that their interests are protected? And my interests as a woman in the audience who cares about the stories and the women and girls who are characters in them? I hope the answer's Yes.

Human Rights Mechanisms
It will take more to make change than women writers and directors seizing the opportunities available in the fresh gaps created in 'the-industry-that-is-more-than-Hollywood. More than individual men (and women) who advocate for and support individual women. More than the hard work of women who push the medium. Much more than the limited diversity programmes now available. The change has to be systemic. And human rights/ civil rights mechanisms are best suited to make this change (for a recent example, think gay rights).

What are the rights mechanisms that can be used to help make change, to increase industry-wide participation by women writers and directors and to bring more gender balance to content?

First, there are some possibilities available through the United Nations. Some rights derive from the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. These include the right to be free from discrimination and ‘[require] the Government and anyone carrying out a public function to observe these rights, and to justify any limits placed on them’. New Zealand has also agreed to take ‘all appropriate measures, including legislation, to ensure the full development and advancement of women’ in the ‘cultural field’ (United Nations 1979) through ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW 1981).

Article 7 of CEDAW (often described as an international bill of rights for women)  requires countries that ratify the convention to encourage the participation of women in public life on equal terms with men. Arguably, telling stories on public screens is one way to participate in public life. Where countries have ratified CEDAW and their governments fund film-making, is it possible to take action in reliance on Article 7? I'd like to think so. It seems to me that New Zealand's state agencies, like the New Zealand Film Commission and Creative New Zealand must encourage women's access to state-funded programmes as a way to encourage the participation of women in public life. But at the moment they don’t.

Academic Mary Beard has just published a marvellous piece called The Public Voice of Women, about the historical silencing of women, which I think reinforces this argument. In it, she explains that in Homeric Greek 'muthos' (from which the English word 'myth' derives) –
...signals authoritative public speech (not the kind of chatting, prattling or gossip that anyone – women included, or especially women – could do).
Way back then, when Homer wrote the Odyssey, authoritative public speech was seen as the business of men. And today, writing and directing films can be seen as another kind of authoritative public speech that is primarily the 'business of men'.



Alternatively, in 1995, through the Beijing Platform for Action, all United Nations member states agreed on the need to increase participation of women in the media and to work against stereotypes. The Nordic Gender & Media Forum (a collaboration between Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) is an explicit regional response to this. It is collecting gender-based statistics on the Nordic media industry (film, journalism, advertising and computer games), and will present them for discussion at various seminars during the northern spring of 2014 and at a conference on good practice in Bergen on May 7. It will also publish examples of good practice from Nordic countries.

And I was encouraged when I watched an interview with New Zealand's former Prime Minister, Helen Clark, where (2:29) she says 'the silver bullet for development is investment in women and girls'. She's a profound lover of the arts, and is being suggested as the next Secretary-General of the United Nations, so that’s an excellent reason to start thinking now about how human rights legislation might be used to support more women film writers and directors and better onscreen representation of women and girls.

The United States signed but never ratified CEDAW and I'm not sure about its relationship to and use of the Beijing Platform For Action – maybe Hillary Clinton and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media are onto its potential. But other mechanisms are available. The other week, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California has sent out a call for stories from women directors who have experienced discrimination–
Have you been refused jobs despite being qualified? Have you been told that a show doesn’t want women directors or won’t hire more than one? Have you consistently been given less episodes than your male peers? Have you encountered barriers to your career because of discrimination against women in directing?
It's a very 'legal' call, with no promises made–
This form is not a solicitation or an offer by the ACLU of Southern California to represent you. We cannot promise you that the information you provide will lead to any specific action on the part of ACLU So Cal. If you contact us, the ACLU may not do anything, including contact you, about your situation.
But, given that the ACLU is the United States' '...guardian of liberty, working daily in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties that the Constitution and laws of the United States guarantee everyone', the ACLU's interest in the issue certainly gets my hopes up!

And there are always relevant domestic human rights and civil rights laws. There’s judicial review in many countries, where the court decides whether a government agency’s administrative actions are legal. This is perhaps useful where public funders fail to consider gender issues. And there’s sometimes an opportunity to sue, as a group of ten thousand American television writers did in 2000, on the basis that they were discriminated against because of their age. Many of the links I had to this action are now dead. But according to the most substantial one I can find, written in 2008 when the first action (against ICM) was settled–
…[it] currently consists of 23 class actions in California state court against the major TV networks and production studios, including ABC, CBS, Disney, Fox, NBC Universal, Columbia, Warner Brothers and talent agencies ICM, Creative Artists, Endeavor, Paradigm and Wm. Morris.
I can’t find what happened to the rest of the class actions, but I do know that it was easier to find evidence of discrimination on the grounds of age than it would be to find evidence of discrimination on the grounds of gender.

Paul Sprenger, the lead attorney said, in an interview with the AARP Bulletin (no longer online)
This is far and away the best case on the merits that I’ve had. No-one in Hollywood would say publicly 'I don’t hire women' or 'I don’t hire blacks' but they will say 'I don’t hire older workers'.
And scriptwriter Nora Ephron expressed a similar view in conversation with Marsha McCreadie, for her book The Women Who Write the Movies; From Frances Marion to Nora Ephron
Though I have experienced some blatant examples of ageism, there’s never been a moment when I heard someone say, 'Let’s get a guy writer'.
I’m hopeful that help may be at hand with the evidence that will give a case merit, at least in the United States, perhaps within the stories the ACLU is collecting or through a concept called the null hypothesis, which you can read about here in Maria Giese’s article.

Finally, just this week, The Representation Project, which grew out of Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s film, Miss Representation, sent out this open letter to Hollywood executives, inviting them to transform culture, to do the right thing in relation to the women and girls who watch their movies and who could write and direct their movies.


What might the 'right thing' entail? We’re all familiar with the American Humane Association’s trademark accreditation at the end of film credits confirming that no animals were harmed in the making of a film. It was established in 1940 and the Humane Association is active in films that want the accreditation during preproduction, on the set and during post-production and marketing. While the process isn't foolproof, it is reassuring. We’re familiar too with the rating system that protects children and young people from seeing onscreen behaviours that may harm them. And I imagine that most of you who read this will know that there’s now a consensus that women and men are often harmed in overt and subtle ways by the realities that comparatively few women and girls appear onscreen, that when they do appear they're not diverse, that they're portrayed in very limited roles, and that we're also harmed by the reality that there are too few stories told by a diversity of women, whose lived experiences inform the work they make. If you’re not familiar with these ideas, check out The Representation Project. Or the work of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which recently produced this poster.


How could accreditation and ratings be used to make change? Might elegant and straightforward strategies for making change build on the No Animals Were Harmed principle and use mechanisms like accreditation and ratings to attract commitments from the executives addressed in the Miss Representation letter? Would they work with the Writers Guild of America and the Directors Guild of America and activist organisations like the Geena Davis Institute to develop guidelines like those for the No Animals Were Harmed accreditation?

Rather than an umbrella guideline that guarantees that No Woman Was Harmed, there could be a group of accreditations and ratings, making progress bit by bit. And I believe that they'd add value to the productions that used them, internationally.

Ellen Tejle with the A-Rating logo
There’s already the A-Rating from Sweden (see below).  And the Danish Paging It blog has a 'green P' for movies it finds especially noteworthy in terms of good female representations. Could they be joined by an FQ (Female Quotient)-rating for productions that follow the suggested Geena Davis practice? I know I'd love this, and so would my mates.

And/or could there be an accreditation for productions that followed a modified Rooney Rule, as Stacy Smith, Katherine Pieper and Marc Choueiti, the researchers for the Geena Davis Institute since 2006, suggestedthe other day–
Transparent decision-making practices surrounding hiring are a first step toward change. One means of achieving this would be for Hollywood to consider a modification to the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which requires at least one person of color to be considered for certain head coaching positions. Beyond the NFL, at least one educational institution has shown that considering more women for open positions can influence diversity in a male dominated arena. Studios, production companies, or agencies developing and packaging films could elect to require that women and people of color are at minimum considered for open directing jobs. Diversity can become part of the fabric of decision-making at the earliest stages of a movie’s lifecycle.
With support from all concerned– guilds, activist organisations, major networks and production studios and their executives, agents, actors, writers and directors, some of them individual powerful men, is it possible eventually to create a system modelled on No Animals Were Harmed a system to cover the whole of a project – development, preproduction, on the set and during post-production and marketing? I reckon! 

My mates and I would be delighted to see 'The Writers Guild and Directors Guild Diversity Guidelines were followed in making this film' in the credits. Whether they were the American Writers and Directors Guilds or the United Kingdom's, or New Zealand's or... or... or... What d'you think? Any similar suggestions? Let's get our hopes up! And the hopes of women around us, including actors.

Actors
Women who act (or are or have been otherwise involved in performance) are an essential element in any change. First, there are those who write or co-write screenplays and who sometimes direct them, sometimes produce them and sometimes star – often the the multihyphenates I've already mentioned. In the United States and England, there have always been some of these: Andrea Arnold, Barbara Streisand (coming back!) Emma Thompson, Sally Potter. Today, there seem to be more and more. And that gets my hopes up, for sure. These women know what they're doing and do it so well, because they've been working with scripts and on set for years and years. They're also very likely to 'push the medium' and to tell stories that otherwise might not be told. Off the top of my head, again only in the United States and in England and in alphabetical order, there's Amma Asante, Angelina Jolie, Brit Marling, Greta Gerwig, Julie Delpy, Lake Bell, Lena Dunham, Lupita Ngyong'o, Miranda July, Natalie Portman, Nia Vardalos, Octavia Spencer, Rashida Jones, Regina King, Sarah Polley, Scarlett Johansson. (We have a strong cohort of women who act and write in New Zealand short filmmaking, too. And 'our' Sophie Henderson wrote and stars in Fantail, directed by Curtis Vowell and just sold for international distribution.)


Then there are the actors who may not write and direct, but who benefit from women-centred projects, like those from this year's Hollywood Reporter Roundtable, where one question was 'Are people writing better parts for women now?' This is how the Hollywood Reporter edited the response for its print edition

OCTAVIA SPENCER: Well, you have a fresh crop of female writers, and men are writing better parts for women and realizing that women can open films. I think we're making strides. We're not there yet, but I'm really excited about the past couple of years.
EMMA THOMPSON: What the ding-dong heck is going on if this is still something we're talking about?
OPRAH WINFREY: I love that, with 'the ding-dong heck.'
EMMA THOMPSON: You can have it, you can use it.
OPRAH WINFREY: Well, look at our culture.
AMY ADAMS: It's what sells, right? It's a business. It will make a difference when we as women can support each other and celebrate each other.
JULIA ROBERTS: Yeah, but those women are like, 'Well, I would love to do that. But I have to make dinner, and then make lunch for tomorrow.'
In the video interview, supposedly the ‘full uncensored’ video, the responses are longer, and Julia Roberts' comment is missing. But the first time I saw the video I remember feeling a sense that the other participants agreed with Amy Adams, whose comment is longer on the video. Here's a transcript of it (around 14:00)–
I mean it’s what sells, right? It’s what sells. It’s a business as much as it’s an art form to all of us sitting here and we put our artistic selves into it. It is a business. And at some point you speak to the women out in the world and say 'Come support us. Come support other women. Be enthusiastic to see smart women of all ages and all races portraying life.' And that’s what will make a difference, when we as women support each other and really celebrate each other.
These actors and Lupita Nyong’o, who was also at the table, are powerful women. Individually and collectively they can make a difference, through instructing their agents to seek out women-written scripts with parts for them that they’ll love. I hope they make that leap. Some are in the actors who write and direct group already and they can also produce women's work: it was a delight a month after the Roundtable to  read that Oprah Winfrey had joined Ava DuVernay's Selma, as a producer (she's also producing The Hundred-Foot Journey, starring Helen Mirren, written and directed by men).

Meryl Streep at #Oscars14
These actors can also follow Meryl Streep's example and let it be known that they’re interested in women directors and then find and work with various women directors. I just looked up the last eleven features Meryl Streep worked on – or is still working on – starting with Mamma Mia (2008). Men wrote and directed five. Vanessa Taylor wrote the sixth, Hope Springs. And women wrote and directed another five: Mamma Mia (wr Catherine Johnson, dir Phyllida Lloyd), Julie & Julia (Nora Ephron), It's Complicated (Nancy Myers), The Iron Lady (wr Abi Morgan, dir Phyllida Lloyd) Suffragette (wr Abi Morgan, dir Sarah Gavron). Yep. That's an even gender split of writers and directors. Meryl Streep's a star. In more than one way. She's set the bar for every woman actor. My mates and I already respond to Amy Adams' call: 'Come support us. Come support other women. Be enthusiastic to see smart women of all ages and all races portraying life.' Now, all of you actors, please, please respond to Meryl's quiet leadership. And if you're anxious about women directors in general, read Jennifer Ehle's tribute to Kathryn Bigelow. And Meryl's beautiful tribute to Phyllida Lloyd, in the clip below.

Women's Film Activism in Europe
My only hope for women's film activism in Europe is that it will continue to go from strength to strength, with its fascinating strategies and alliances. For example, the A-rating in Sweden; the Charte d'Egalite in France (which may have inspired the latest Miss Representation initiative?); the pan-European European Women's Audiovisual Network. These are inspiring and imaginative initiatives and provide much-needed models of what imagination and hard work can do.

I've been surprised by some criticism of the A-rating, as a tool among many tools. The Bechdel Test and the A-rating are both playful and serious and that's why I love them. And the A-rating is useful. Firstly it attracts an audience hungry to hear women's voices, women's stories, women's conversations. For instance, I've been watching films about women writers and the other day saw The Hours for the first time. And loved it. It includes many conversations between women who talk about something other than men: a mother and daughter, sisters, employer and servants, lovers, mothers from different generations. If the A-rating had been in existence earlier it would have had an A++ rating and I might have watched it long ago! Secondly, when the A-rating labels a film, it says that the people who apply that rating cherish what women say to one another however briefly. They believe that women's conversations with one another matter and we should pay attention to them. In a world that tends not to value women's voices and relationships between women, that's huge. Thirdly, a 'proper' A-rated film doesn't just squeak past with two lines exchanged about flower arrangement. It helps enrich and deepen the heritage of stories about women.

One outcome of all the European activity is particularly impressive. Eurimages, the pan-European film fund, has imposed a 'gender grid' on films that apply for funding, alongside with established criteria used to assess a project. The gender balance of the creative team -- the writer, director and producer -- will now be taken into account and the organization is committed to achieving a 50/50 balance by the next funding cycle. This may have implications for American residents with European passports and even for backward Australasia, if we seek European co-productions.

So there are some cracks that let the light in for me, some soft spots. Ways to test where the sincerity is? Places to find the smart people? I reckon. And now, a final message from Lucy Orbell!

Set Your Heart On It (Wellington city) photo: Phantom Billstickers
Yes. I can do it. That screenwriter essay. My scripts. I can Get My Hopes Up. I can Set My Heart on the change I want to see. I hope you can, too.

Footnote 1
After I finished this post, the Writers Guild of America West announced the 2014 honorees for its Feature Access Project. Coordinated by the WGAW Diversity Department–
...the project seeks to identify outstanding diverse writers and make their scripts available to entertainment industry decision-makers, including producers, studio executives, agents and managers, in order to help raise their profile and generate potential employment opportunities. Minority screenwriters were invited to submit a current, feature-length, unproduced spec script. Entries were read and scored on a blind submission basis by a panel of judges comprised of WGAW members recruited by the Feature Access Project Advisory Committee.

The decision to target minority writers was based in significant part on the data and analysis contained in the 2011 Hollywood Writers Report Executive Summary. Statistically, minority writers are the most underemployed group of writers in feature films. In 2009, employment of minority writers in the feature films declined for the first time in a decade – from 6% to 5% of all writers employed in this segment.
Here they all are. Don't they look wonderful! And we can read their scripts and contact the writers' agents from the Writers Guild site!

photo: Michael Jones
Left to right: LaToya Morgan, Galen Tong, Q. Terah Jackson III, Soo-Hyun Chung, Tianna Majumdar-Langham, Chris Bessounian, Joy Kecken, Nayan Padrai, and Radha Bharadwaj

Footnote 2
Many thanks to Shaula Evans of The Black Board for the Mary Beard reference. Shaula creates the most beautiful forums and has just started a new one, for discussion of issues around writing female characters, inspired by the Geena Davis Institute poster.

Lucy Orbell links

My warm thanks to Lucy Orbell for the inspiration. Read more about her work here (thanks, Debbie!) and here and here and here.



Brad Pitt: A big fan, been knocking on his door for a while...


Cheryl Dunye asks 'Why Hollywood?'


Ava Duvernay's Film Independent keynote address


Meryl Streep & Phyllida Lloyd

4 comments:

  1. As ever, I feel nourished after reading your blog, Marian - even though I (personally) have extremely mixed feelings about Hollywood "product" (and dislike way more films than I like), I appreciate the balance you bring to the discussion. Here's to you, my friend!

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    1. Many thanks, Kate. This is one of my favorite comments ever. I hadn't thought of my mission as being 'to nourish' but it's a joy to hear that I've nourished you! :)

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  2. This is so great-- so thorough, and as always, spot on! Thanks, Marian. I'll repost everywhere...

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  3. Very happy that you like this, Maria! And many thanks for reposting, much appreciated!

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