Equal Rights, Equal Opportunity: Progress For All
1. I love the ideas and invitations that come through Facebook and Twitter. So when shazbennett tweeted “I hope at least one girl wears a tux on the red carpet tomorrow”, I re-found an old newspaper clipping of me in a tux (thanks, Sue, for that clippings book) and replaced the blue-for-Derek-Jarman image on my Facebook page. Arranged a big vase of sweet peas. I wanted to dress up somehow, somewhere, for Kathryn Bigelow, whether she won or not. (I felt so nervous during the Oscar ceremony. And after Jeff Bridges won his Oscar for Crazy Heart, I ran down the hill to see his movie rather than endure more waiting.)
And this morning I’m imagining Kathryn Bigelow using her two statues for a little post-party weight training (I’ve read that she likes to be ‘strong’, no surprise). What a stunning International Women's Day for women filmmakers, as we celebrate her achievement.
In interviews, I’ve heard Kathryn Bigelow talk about ‘tenacity’, many times. So again, it’s no surprise to read that she said ‘I am grateful if I can inspire some young intrepid tenacious male or female filmmaker, make them feel the impossible is possible’. So although this International Women’s Day post starts with celebration, it’s mostly about tenacity. Acknowledging the tenacity of women who live not too far from Jordan where The Hurt Locker was shot, the women of Nasawiya in Lebanon and of the Women’s Rights Movement in Iran And reminding myself to be tenacious, too. Thanks, Gender Across Borders, for suggesting a theme for your blogfest: Equal Rights, Equal Opportunity: Progress for All. Because today that's enhanced my tenacity.
As writers based in New York, London, and Los Angeles have shown, it may be terrific that a woman has finally won an Oscar for directing a feature, but women filmmakers have a long way to go. What needs to change? In New Zealand, a changed culture at the New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC)—our state film funding body—would be a great start.
2. A few weeks back I went to an NZFC launch of its Escalator/ Te Whakapiki initiative, featuring a masterclass (chaired by Jonathan King) with two guys from Shifty, a successful film about a young crack cocaine dealer, made through the British equivalent low budget programme. Each year for the next three years, Escalator/ Te Whakapiki will provide four teams of ‘talented, visionary filmmakers’ with $250,000 each to make an ‘edgy, challenging’ first feature film. The initiative’s ‘all about teams’ AND ‘specifically designed to support directors who are ready to step up to their first feature film’. The NZFC’s intention is that ‘each of the four films will act as a stepping-stone to bigger features for writers, directors, producers and crew’.
We’d recently spent our first two days filming Development-the-movie and knew we were going to have to increase our budget, but NZFC programmes like Escalator/ Te Whakapiki are not for us. But I thought I might learn some low-budget tips from the masterclass and was of course curious, after three years of monitoring NZFC programmes for my thesis. So I went down the road to the Paramount, my favorite movie theatre, to join in.
I lasted an hour and a half of the day-long programme, for pheromonal reasons, I realised later. Sitting in the Paramount was like being in the room when the men in our family play cards: testosterone beats out gender-neutral adrenalin every time. (It’s different when the extended, mixed-gender, family plays Racing Demon.) I needed to escape. I laughed at myself: You wimp, I thought.
But a couple of days further on, when I saw that although about 40% of fans on the Escalator/ Te Whakapiki Facebook page are women, only men are contributing to the conversations, I thought again. 'Where are the women's voices?' I wondered. And, ‘Hold on! Does the NZFC realise that Escalator/ Te Whakapiki provides a golden opportunity to experiment with strategies to redress the profound gender imbalance in their investment of public money?’ Perhaps not, perhaps because Escalator/ Te Whakapiki appears to exist within a particular history.
As I understand it, not too long ago the NZFC set up another low-budget initiative, for which Headstrong—producers Ant Timpson (the founder of the local 48 hour film competition now known as V48), Paul Swadel (now a development executive at the NZFC) and Leanne Saunders—won the tender. They produced two films before the initiative ended, with another group of features (still) in development with Headstrong the company. Men write and direct all their projects.
The NZFC knows, because I’ve reported the results of my research (a sample here) to staff members who still work there, that New Zealand women film writers and directors—our storytellers
• Want to make films
• Are talented: some of our foremost filmmakers are women, and women have a better track record than men at getting their NZFC-funded short films into ‘A-list’ film festivals (1997-2007)
• Made only 16% of the 30 NZFC-funded features 2003-2008
• Made only 9% of the 75 features made in New Zealand by New Zealanders 2003-2008 (including the 30 NZFC-funded films)
• Do not participate in great numbers as the storytellers in the 48 hour film competition now known as V48
• Often tell stories differently than men do (see here—sometimes the link doesn't work but the post's there—and here)
• Often compete differently than men and may compete better if we know that resources are set aside for women (researchers have found that ‘…a quota-like affirmative action environment in which women must be equally represented encourages many more women to compete’: Niederle and Vesterlund “Gender differences in competition.” Negotiation Journal October 2008)
• Are sometimes unsupported by women producers and decision-makers, for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the filmmakers’ work
• Sometimes have difficulties attracting the necessary international investment in their projects because of international attitudes towards ‘women’s’ projects
And the NZFC acknowledged over two years ago that it has a ‘gender problem’. The problem includes groups of problems within specific programmes. In relation to short filmmaking, for example, there's the problem that fewer women than men have made their first features after doing well with their NZFC-funded short films. And the problem that NZFC’s commitment to investment in women’s short filmmaking has been variable over the last few years, although it knows about the ‘gender problem’, and knows how well women’s short films do at ‘A’-list festivals: this year of 22 short-listed Short Film Fund projects women wrote only 13%.
3. So I wrote to the NZFC people I'd had contact with:
Can you let me know please, what strategies are in place to ensure that women directors and writers participate more strongly in Escalator than they generally do in NZFC initiatives?
I wish I didn’t feel I have to ask this question but I’m concerned for the following reasons:
At the Wellington launch it seemed to me that the audience was about 60% men, 40% women, and I think that the proportion of women there who were primarily producers rather than writers/directors was higher than the proportion of men who were primarily producers. But you have the list of who was there and I’ll love it if you tell me I’m wrong.
Also at the launch, the completely male panel put me off —though I wasn’t planning on becoming involved, but was really interested because Escalator seems in many ways a great idea—and I wonder if it made a difference to other women; I totally understand why it was so male, but a woman/women somewhere in there would have been terrific.
I’m working on an analysis of the Film Commission Review submissions for someone at the moment, went to a link Ant Timpson gave in his submission on Facebook and then to the Escalator page, and it’s remarkable how few women are contributing to lo-budget conversations (&, I’m not sure why, I hesitate to participate myself though I love Facebook, & am happy contributing to various international conversations online, though usually with women filmmakers).
I agree with those who say that Escalator has a kind of V48 feel and I know that women are not strongly represented as writers and directors in the V48 teams in past years; maybe it’s not a ‘feel’ that suits women.
Few New Zealand women writers and directors have participated in low budget filmmaking to date…(etc)
In the submissions you’ve had so far, is there an equal proportion of women and men storytellers (writers and directors) in the teams? I’d love to hear a ‘yes’ (if it’s true). If not, please can you work on achieving gender equity in the NZFC investment in writers and directors over those three Escalator years? It’s now over two years since the NZFC acknowledged that there is a gender problem within its programmes, and that’s given you a bit of time to consider possible solutions.
Do you really want to exclude the potential contributions of half the population, by failing to investigate/address the problem? Or have you got wonderful ideas no-one knows about yet? I so so hope you have—
I haven’t received any answers yet. Just some responses to my concerns, all from other scriptwriters. From one of my favorites (a man): ‘It feels to me like your frustration lies with women not stepping up to the plate as directors and writers. I really don’t see how that can be fixed unless -- well -- More women step up’. From a 21-year-old woman who suggested that women’s sports team experiences are different and perhaps less easily transferable to filmmaking than men’s: her netball team had been catty. She also supported another guy’s suggestion that women filmmakers are disadvantaged because they have less exposure to computers and to filming gear from an early age; this surprised me because I thought young people’s fluency with computers and probably with film gear was not gendered. From a woman who reminded me that the celluloid ceiling for pakeha women is a concrete wall for Maori women: this is a significant problem because our national founding document is the Treaty of Waitangi.
In the meantime, I chanced on an article about changing cultures when women’s participation is problematic.
4. I’d been thinking about how to use my brand new PhD in creative writing with my law masters, to get work. I have a contract to analyse the submissions to the government's NZFC Review, undertaken last year by Peter Jackson and David Court. But that won’t take long. So I wondered about advertising in LawTalk the New Zealand Law Society publication, to see if any lawyers could use a writer. And when I looked there—I love the serendipity—I found Brigid McArthur’s article in the latest issue, about the glass ceiling that prevents women lawyers becoming partners.
Brigid McArthur's a partner in a major law firm where women are partners in about the same low proportion as women directors’ and writers’ share of the feature projects funded by the NZFC 2003-2009. ‘Much of the change that has to happen is attitudinal’, she writes, ‘and attitudes are often unconscious and hard to shift’. She names ‘systemic failure’ as the cause of women’s low participation as partners. This failure carries financial and social cost, ‘not just for the women who are lost to the firm but for our clients and for the firm as a whole’. In my view, a similar systemic failure within the NZFC costs the women who are lost to the industry. It costs audiences too, and it costs the industry as a whole.
Brigid McArthur refers to research that’s found that when businesses recruit, train and promote women they make better and more innovative decisions, produce better products and ultimately attain better financial results than more traditional firms, and quotes Mary Cranston, the first woman to lead a large United States law firm: ‘it’s crystal clear that you can’t win the war for talent without winning the war for women’. To win the war for talent and for women (and with The Hurt Locker’s success the war metaphor seems apposite) cultural changes are necessary, to ensure that women have confidence that they will be given opportunities to develop their career ambitions. To make these cultural changes, Brigid McArthur’s firm has instituted an active programme; the NZFC could do the same with Escalator/ Te Whakapiki. I hope it will.
5. What could the NZFC do quickly and easily to acknowledge its systemic failure and the difficulties of changing unconscious attitudes, to win the war for talent and for women, and to encourage women to step up and participate in Escalator/ Te Whakapiki? Especially as the filmmakers selected will be fully funded in New Zealand and, if women, will not have to deal with—as is common with feature films—international funders’ attitudes towards women’s projects. And especially as those twelve whose projects are selected for Escalator/ Te Whakapihi are likely to have opportunities to go on to larger projects. Providing information about the initiative is not enough, in my view. Here are some ideas:
And that’s just for starters-- I'm sure others have more ideas, or will have, if they acknowledge that that equal opportunity means progress for all. Feel free you add them here, anonymously if you like. Or, maybe, someone will provide evidence that there's no problem (yet) with women's participation because 40% of the applications to date have women writers/directors. And that would be another reason to celebrate. More sweet peas, and some late roses, too.
• Ring fence a portion of the money available: I suggest following the Swedish Film Institute’s example, by deciding to allocate no less than 40% to projects with women as writers and directors, and no less than 40% to projects with men as writers and directors: say five films each with some discretion over the remaining two, are films that have a woman writer and a man as director, or vice versa
• Extend individual invitations to each woman writer and director who contributed to an NZFC-funded short film over the last decade
• Seek advice from Maori women’s television companies, about talent and how to nurture it
• Check out the women who’ve applied unsuccessfully to recent Short Film Fund programmes: are some of them ready to step up?
• Monitor the applications and seek more women’s applications, unless women writers and directors are attached at least 40% of the applications: if necessary ask individual women, especially Maori women, what would encourage them to apply
• Ask the industry guilds to extend a specific, warm and enthusiastic invitation to women filmmakers, on NZFC’s behalf, seeking our active participation as storytellers
• Bring in distinguished woman practitioners from other mediums and women filmmakers who are ineligible for the initiative to assess proposals and to plan the second stage of the programme, a boot camp for selected applicants. There’s a lot of collective wisdom out there about recognising and nurturing talent, successful storytelling, team work, and women as audiences. For example, in alphabetical order, and with some indications of the depth of experience available, and omitting the many well-known women who write and direct television where globally women are more strongly represented: Anne Salmond, Christine Jeffs, Cilla McQueen (an actor and visual artist as well as poet laureate), Eleanor Catton, Elizabeth Knox, Fiona Kidman (a script writer from way back), Gaylene Preston, Jenny Pattrick (a visual artist as well as a novelist), Joy Cowley (whose work’s been filmed in the past), Keri Hulme (trained as a director), Keri Kaa (a former NZFC assessor), Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, Niki Caro, Margaret Mahy (some of her work’s been filmed), Merata Mita, Patricia Grace, Renee, Riwia Brown, Roseanne Liang, Sima Urale.
• Make sure that some writers/directors/producers of completed features NOT funded by the NZFC share in the assessment an the planning for the boot camp, alongside other experienced and successful storytellers/producers like Indian Ink —there’s a wealth of experience and knowledge there, too, that could benefit women and men.
• Ask women writers and directors whose projects are selected for the boot camp what specific needs they would like met at the camp, if any