Big Picture: could I do that?
1. 'could I do that?
Lisa Gornick gets to me with almost every one of her film drawings. Sometimes (today) her drawing leads to a blog post. Here, in Big Picture, the little figure, even from the back, seems full of wonder at the image on the wall. I related immediately to her wonder, and to the question it prompts. Another drawing a few weeks ago took me back to the novel chapters I lost when my laptop died. & the lower case titles help, too: they remind me that I'm quiet & curious wellywoodwoman at heart, weeding and mulching (sweet-pea straw, seaweed, untreated wood chips from a son’s carpentry) and waiting for another son to deliver horse manure. Not Wellywood Woman with Wellington Boots on, Kicking Bus Tires in Courtenay Place, Cocktail Glass in Hand.
Big Picture also reminded me that I write this blog because I asked 'could I do that?' Could I explore my experience as a woman within filmmaking culture(s), write about it, make up a screenplay about women engaging with those cultures, and then turn the screenplay into a film? Today, it looks like I can. This week, thinking about women’s participation in filmmaking. Filming our clip for PassItOn. And then graduation, walking up onto the Michael Fowler Centre stage, standing there while someone read a short abstract of my research, receiving my PhD, then climbing more stairs, to sit behind university staff. (Not easy.)
2. More questions
Of course, after ‘could I do that?’ come other questions. ‘do I want to do that?’ and ‘how do I do that?’ Feature filmmaking’s hard for everyone. It demands—as I’m constantly reminded—ongoing skill development, and deep commitment to the sustained hard work of problem-solving, assertiveness and alliances. Resilience. Tenacity. For women, statistics like those from the Cannes Film Festival show that there are also systemic issues that affect our progress. Now that I've moved from 'could I do that?' and 'do I want to do that?' to 'how do I do that?' it's a little late for statistics to deter me, but collectively, whether they're generated nationally or internationally, they're daunting.
Fortunately, if the answer to ‘do I want tell stories on screen?’ is ‘YES’, there are many options. For someone who wants to have an (intermittently) regular income and loves television, there's television. In New Zealand, a high proportion of the ‘go-to’ writers for television are women, and I’ve heard that some pragmatic women writers and directors choose to work in television because of the economic benefits. Some of these women make feature length telemovies.
For someone like Anne Flournoy, who describes herself as a ‘reformed Sundance filmmaker’, and makes a webseries, The Louise Log, autonomy and peace of mind are important, so they affect her choices:
I'd finish a film, put it in a ‘jiffy’ bag, and send it off to a film festival. This was how you got noticed, and if you were really lucky, got some press. The brass ring, never assured, was a distribution deal with a major company. Today, thanks to the Internet, I've short-circuited this process—and transformed my work and my life...Peace of mind has followed. I can snarl at ‘powerful’ people. I can even spend an entire party with my back to the crowd, bent over the hors d'oeuvres. I hadn't realized that my filmic need for a movie star to ‘attach’ to my script, or my quest for a producer with access to financing, had warped my social life for years. Whenever I met someone, my mind raced to who they knew, if they'd be willing to help me, and, most urgently, how I could start a conversation with them when I felt so desperate and fraudulent...[Now] there is an immediate audience for my work, and the rest is up to me.Other women, like me, are drawn by the feature film’s long form, the idea of a big screen and a community sitting in front of it, watching my film together. (I also love the idea of distributing a film through the internet and on cellphones
To make a feature film, we need money. In New Zealand that usually means approaching our state film funder, the New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC). And according to my PhD research it has a gender problem; its investment in women writers and directors is far less than its investment in men, in its feature film programmes, in its short film programme—the traditional 'pathway' to feature filmmaking—and in various other programmes. This is a concern, because New Zealand ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1985; as a state, New Zealand—and its agencies, like the NZFC—must encourage the participation of women in public life on equal terms with men (article 7). And screen-based storytelling is certainly part of public life.
But whatever the NZFC statistics measure, they are only a starting point. Sometimes but not always, the gender imbalance I found was because fewer women applied for assistance. Fewer projects with women writers than with men writers applied for early feature film development funding. (Were women whose short films played at 'A' list festivals not as well nurtured at the NZFC as the men? Did some women choose not to apply for 'peace of mind' reasons? Did women writers find it more difficult to find a producer than men did?) But at this early stage, the projects received funding in roughly the same proportion as the applications made. Further on in the development process projects with women writers became progressively less successful at gaining support. (Were the projects too 'different', for staff, readers, private investors, distributors? Is there a shortage of good advisers for women's scripts? If given a choice, when the competition gets more intense, do most women and men favour a project written and/or directed by a man.
At Cannes, was there no woman-directed film in competition because there were fewer women's projects in the mix this year? In the recession, was the competition for finance so strong that financiers resorted to a default project evaluation that favoured men as directors? Or...? Or...?
When the NZFC released some statistics about the first stage of its its low-budget Escalator Te Whakapiki programme, funding four features a year over three years, I didn't want to respond. It felt too complicated, too hard. But another Lisa Gornik picture Keep on Trucking, encouraged me to give it a go.
3. Escalator Te Whakapiki
Escalator Te Whakapiki is ‘specifically designed to support directors who are ready to step up to their first feature film’, and is ‘all about teams’. I argued in an earlier post that it appeared to be oriented to male applicants; its culture compromises some women's 'do I want to do that?' and 'how do I do that?' Later, the NZFC made some effort to encourage women to participate, through film-related guilds and organisations. (And I recently heard an NZFC staff member say that the organisation is trying to open up access generally).
The initiative received applications from 251 teams, with 753 individual story ideas. The statistics released show two things only, the gender of NZFC's primary contact within each team, and how many women were in the twelve teams chosen to participate in the programme's 'boot camp'—a male concept, to me—from which four projects will be chosen for funding. The NZFC's primary contact was with a man for 173 teams, and with a woman for the balance, about a third. There are no details about whether the contacts were directors ‘ready to step up’, or held other roles. In the boot camp teams there are twenty-six men and six women. Women’s participation in these teams is in roughly the same proportion (18.75%) as their participation as writers and directors of the feature films the NZFC funded for production between 2003 and 2009 (16%). But not all the six women are directors.
Because of the programme’s aims, from a gender perspective, there are two things to measure, not included in these statistics; next year the NZFC will collect and analyse information more rigorously. The first is the participation of women directors who are ready to step up to their first feature films. The second is women’s participation within teams, with a distinction between the storytellers (writers and directors) and the producers and technicians, and a category for storytellers who are also producers.
Who authors the story ideas is crucial. As Rachel Millward of London's Birds Eye View said in a recent debate:
Films are a hugely powerful force in our culture. So, just as I want more than four women in cabinet, so I want better representation of women's stories on screen….Of course men can make wonderful films about women…but that doesn't make it OK to champion so few female creatives. I want to hear women tell me stories.I share her longing: I want to hear women tell me stories, and care deeply about their presence in Escalator Te Whakapiki teams as the storytellers. If they don't apply and they're not selected and supported to make their first feature film, they will fall behind the selected male directors on that career escalator, just as they fall behind men on the traditional NZFC funding pathways.
Historically women participate more often as producers of New Zealand feature films than as writers/directors. Rachel Millward again:
...women in film are tending to go into management/production roles rather than writing/directing. Producing is an important and often very creative role, and great that more women are making their mark in this way. But it's as if there's a resistance to women telling their own stories rather than facilitating men to tell theirs.Again, I agree with Rachel Millward. I think too that the ‘as if there’s a resistance’ sometimes comes from women as well as from men. The culture of filmmaking needs to shift in some way, to ‘as if there’s a longing’ for women to tell our/their own stories, a longing that’s shared throughout filmmaking culture, by the NZFC, by producers and by women writers and directors.
Aspects of attitudes to statistics about women filmmakers remind me of attitudes to violence against women. Many people used to find it hard to talk about violence against women, or still do. There's a 'silence' issue for some people about the statistics too, and about the realities behind them. This week, a man, filmmaker and blogger The Kid in the Front Row has written about this topic, in two landmark posts. In the second, The Missing Voice of Women in Film, responding to comments on the first, he said
...it was great to see people engaging in a difficult subject, one that's hard to grasp and discuss because, it never really gets discussed. It gets mentioned, then passed over.
Then he goes on to identify
…a feeling of helplessness. That for this issue to be taken seriously, Spielberg needs to deal with it, or Julia Roberts needs to start a campaign; rather than us exploring the notion that we play a part, as writers, directors, actors, bloggers, etc.Attempting to silence those who speak out is a strategy that helps perpetuate silence. Director Ruth Torjussen experienced this reality when she organised the You CANNES Not Be Serious petition and she received
...a sudden rush of emails saying that the petition could actually do more harm than good and that we should stop moaning and ‘get on with it’.I remember working in a women's refuge years ago and listening to women whose friends and family had said similar things to them, that (often 'for the sake of the children') they should accept their husbands' and partners' violence as part of life and just 'get on with it'. Acting to stop the violence, or speaking out about it, would 'do more harm than good'. For the sake of our film work, should we stay silent about inequity?
Some women and men who do speak out blame women writers and directors. They say that it's usually women writers' and directors' fault if their projects don't move forward, that some women aren't tough or competitive or competent or hard working enough. Blaming women is also a common tactic in debates about violence against women.
A couple of years ago there was an advertising campaign about domestic violence where a series of men, some well known, reiterated 'It's not OK'. To get from resistance to women telling our own stories, to a widely shared longing for women's films, do we need ongoing campaigns that include more men and women, like You CANNES Not Be Serious, saying 'Here are the statistics. They're not OK'?
The Kid in the Front Row's made a start. He concludes:
My hope is that we can start to understand and appreciate the depth of this issue. It's not simple, there are many layers to it. My hope is that we can begin to see it as something that affects all of us and is caused by all of us. And my belief is that by being more aware and by discussing it—we can begin to change things.In the meantime, what might encourage more women to create teams and to join teams for next year’s Escalator Te Whakapiki, especially women who want to make a feature? One possibility is a separate initiative for women. Another is setting up a series of intensive workshops for women who plan to join or create teams in next year’s Escalator Te Whakapiki.
I like the idea of a separate initiative, because, as research shows, women compete differently. And I got a new perspective on this from the You CANNES Not Be Serious campaign, among the comments on the You CANNES Not Be Serious petition, where two women compare filmmaking to sport. Leigh Ryan writes that she was
…shocked to discover the level of inequity in a festival that celebrates all facets of human experiences. Categories need to be created beyond the standard. Men and women should compete with their own sex just as in sport. The way the system is now is blind and creates a false set of values.And Elka Kerkhofs says:
Why should we women compete with men in the first place? Cannes should set up a competition for women directors to compete with other female directors. Makes common sense, just like at the Olympic Games, women don't compete in the male dominated athletics now do we...... No we have a separate competition! Women just work differently and we have different sensibilities and different speed of working! It clearly makes sense that women should not try and swim upstream in a male dominated industry but be a separate river flowing downstream alongside the already very established male river!I've observed that some women's 'different' sensibilities express themselves as much in filmmaking as elsewhere. In a very simple example, on Jeff Steele’s blog Film Closings, few of us women participated in the comments until he wrote about caring for his dying mother, instead of going to Cannes. Until then, I wondered if Stacey Parks and I were his only women readers.
Although I imagine that the idea of a separate programme—at the NZFC or within a major festival—would (like a quota) horrify many women writers and directors it could be a partial, temporary, solution until the present imbalance is redressed. And if more justification is necessary, what about all the research that says that young people often learn better and more happily in single sex schools? At the moment, women directors who want to make their their first features have to fit into the 'boys school' culture which suits some but not others, and the Escalator Te Whakapiki programme is not a good co-ed model.
As for the second possibility, who could organise intensive workshops for women who might join or create Escalator Te Whakapiki teams next year? The various guilds—the New Zealand Writers Guild (NZWG), the Screen Directors Guild of New Zealand (SDGNZ), the NZ Film Video & Technicians Guild (Techos Guild), NZ Equity—are obvious possibilities. And Nga Aho Whakaari, Women in Film & Television (WIFT), Script to Screen. But after reading all their submissions made to the New Zealand Film Commission Review, I'm not optimistic that any of them will make that kind of commitment individually, or work co-operatively to advance the interests of women filmmakers.
4. New Zealand Film Commission Review and gender
We've been waiting and waiting for the results of this review, undertaken by Peter Jackson and David Court. I have a theory that we’ll be presented with the outcome of the review indirectly. A few weeks ago, the Government promised a new-look science R&D spend that weighs public investment towards commercially successful companies, and, like science, filmmaking—and all screen-based media—will benefit New Zealand most if it creates New Zealand-owned intellectual property for global distribution. So, maybe, following the review, public investment in film will be more slanted towards commercially successful companies oriented to global markets than it was in the past. But I’ll be very surprised if the review mentions gender.
Peter Jackson has said: "The film making talent of NZ does not reside in the office of its producers–it’s to be found in the hearts and minds of its writers and directors". And for economic reasons presumably he—and the Government—would want that talent pool to be as large and deep as possible. And it can't be unless it includes women writers and directors. Peter Jackson may also—like Meryl Streep*—know that for the last two decades the increase in women's employment has been the driving force behind economic growth, so more women making films could significantly benefit the industry. But, although the directors associated with Peter Jackson's projects tend to be men, his primary co-writers are women, so he may not view New Zealand women's low participation as writers and directors of feature films as reflecting anything other than women's choices and comparative talent. And in the written submissions to the review from film industry organisations—the NZWG, the SDGNZ, the Techos Guild, Nga Aho Whakaari, Script to Screen and NZ Equity there is no reference to gender, although the Techos Guild, NZ Equity, Script to Screen and Nga Aho Whakaari showed concern for equity issues in their reference to Maori. (I'm coming to WIFT.)
There were 57 written submissions, 48 of them publicly available on the Ministry for Culture & Heritage’s website and some available on request, under the Official Information Act. People also made oral submissions, in camera and—I understand—unavailable under the Official Information Act.
Film Auckland (the first point of contact with the Auckland screen industry), almost uniquely, did mention gender:
Film Auckland suggests a more transparent and consultative process for selecting NZFC board members. Variety amongst members is important but there also needs to be greater representation from the screen industry. This diversity of representation should be based not only on gender and ethnicity but also on industry and locality.My own submission to the review was simple (the most I could do at the time). Accompanying five draft chapters of my PhD thesis Autoethnography and New Zealand women’s participation in scriptwriting for feature films and a list of particularly relevant page references, so the reviewers didn't have to wade through the whole thing, I sent a single paragraph:
It is essential that any change to the Film Commission Act incorporates an explicit gender equity provision, to protect the interests of women writers and directors in whom the Film Commission has made measurably less investment than in men, without justification, for some time.The chapters laid out the global context, the various gender statistics that I’d measured, and a complex web of possible reasons why the NZFC investment in women writers and directors was so much less than in men, in every programme, every year. They also referred to NZFC's acknowledgment, through the then CEO Ruth Harley, that it had a 'gender problem', following publication of the statistics in a report I made to the industry in 2008.
In contrast, WIFT wrote, in a 1,393-word submission:
Women participate in all roles and at all levels in the New Zealand film industry, in greater proportion than almost any other country in the world. Notwithstanding that under-representation in several areas remains an issue for women, the recent or impending release of high profile films Untouchable Girls: The Topp Twins, The Vintner’s Luck, Home By Christmas and The Strength of Water) demonstrates a high level of writing, directing and producing participation. We trust this is a sign of things to come.Almost all the rest of the submission was general.
I’ve been a WIFT member for a while now. I’ve enjoyed WIFT’s free screenings of films like An Education, and last year an excellent evening seminar series. I know women who’ve taken part in WIFT’s mentoring scheme, as mentors or as mentees. I also presented my early research on NZFC’s dismal level of investment in women’s feature film development to a WIFT Auckland committee in 2007, and sent WIFT links to relevant articles I wrote for the web, like an analysis I made for WIFT NSW, hoping that all members could have access to the information for use if and as they wished. So this part of WIFT’s submission might have been a surprise, because there is as far as I know no evidence that shows that women participate in all roles and at all levels in the New Zealand film industry in greater proportion than almost any other country in the world.** And because women wrote only 16% of the films that the NZFC funded for production, from 2003-2009, and participated at a low level in other NZFC initiatives, with some notable, occasional, exceptions. And WIFT, like the NZWG and the SDGNZ knew that.
But it wasn't a surprise. Last year, for her birthday, I took a dear friend to a fund-raising WIFT screening of Christine Jeffs’ Sunshine Cleaning. As I remember it, in front of a full house of mostly women, the evening’s MC referred to an overseas article that asked “Where are the women directors?” She talked a little about the international issue, referred to some of the films listed in the WIFT submission to the NZFC Review and then asked again “Where are all the women directors?” And answered “In New Zealand.” The audience loved it. I didn’t want to spoil my friend’s birthday treat, or I’d have leaped to my feet and said “So how come only 9% of all our features and 16% of NZFC-funded features for the last six years (now seven years) have women writers and directors?” Over time, I’ve learned that WIFT prefers to celebrate local women’s successes and to support us through its mentorship programme and its Film School scholarship than to speak out publicly about local inequities that affect its members (as for example the NZWG did in its submission about generic problems for writers who seek NZFC development funding; as a member I appreciated this.
I was, however, surprised to read a little further on in the WIFT submission
We also strongly believe that industry knowledge and experience should be represented at Board level to inform strategy, and that appointments should reflect a commitment to ensuring women are equally represented at the Board table.Since one strand in the complex web of reasons for the NZFC’s low investment in women writers and directors is that women do not necessarily support other women, having equal representation of women on the NZFC board would not necessarily help women filmmakers. It would however help women who want to play a role in governance. So I wonder why WIFT would seek equity for those women and gender diversity on the Board without seeking equity for women writers and directors within the NZFC's investments. A little further on, WIFT introduced its concluding summary: "WIFT applauds the achievement of the Commission to date".
I know acknowledgment and celebration of success is an important strategy. I love it: the clapping, the eating, the talk, the singing, the dancing, the flowers. Mentorships, workshops and scholarships are great, too. But, in my view they are not enough.
Collectively, the NZFC review submissions demonstrate, I believe, that the guilds and other organisations have a 'gender problem' that contributes to and reinforces attitudes behind the 'gender problem' at the NZFC; they welcome women as members but do not speak up about the inequities we face. For women, the 'do I want to do that?' and 'how could I do that?' of Escalator Te Whakapiki could however change, if the film organisations co-operated to help deepen and strengthen the talent pool and to support women ready to step up to their first features. Wouldn't it be wonderful if they did? New Zealand was the first country in the world where women got the vote; we could become the first country in the world where women write and direct half of all features.
5. 'how do I do that?'
So. Working through the 'how do I do that?' of Development, I've concluded that aligning our project with the international movement concerned with women's participation in filmmaking is a good idea. That's where understanding, support and audience will come from. A significant proportion of our Facebook members and three-fifths of this blog's readership belong outside New Zealand. And we now have a United States marketing consultant, Kyna Morgan, who offered her help via our website, has started her own connected blog, works on our Facebook page, and is coming over to help in the summer.
And it was lovely to join in the Cannes protest from here, to feel part of something bigger. And then, while the Cannes Festival was on, and one of her producers was there looking for traditional funding, Afia Nathaniel (pictured) launched her crowd funding website and Facebook page for her feature Neither the Veil Nor the Four Walls.
Afia's response to 'how do I do that?' is stunning and an inspiration. Her site is conceptually elegant and beautifully executed. And it nicely bookends The Age of Stupid's legendary crowd funding campaign, also initiated by women, as the two campaigns that changed crowd funding for ever. I've always had a little resistance to crowd funding, because the conversation about it has been male-dominated; and we've seen it as only a small component of funding for Development. But the Age of Stupid and Neither the Veil Nor the Four Walls complement each other to show what a beautiful thing crowd funding can be for women.
In the meantime, my steadfast belief that New Zealand could be the first country in the world where women write and direct half of all features affects my 'how do I do that?' Here at the end of the world women have a special blend of characteristics: talent, tenacity, courage, humour, inventiveness and warm hearts. New Zealand women just need a little push now and then, a very old woman told me yesterday, as she reminded me of the central place that women held in our anti-apartheid movement and in the protests against the Springbok Tour in 1981. Once we're into it we're unstoppable. And so are women around the world.
So today, at Development, we're on to it. Thinking about how best to do our project and to support others in the climb towards that fifty percent. About reaching around the globe, through blogs, phone calls and texts, Skyping, Facebook and Twitter, with downloads and streaming. And with co-productions, connections with incentives like our Screen Production Incentive Fund. New Zealand has co-production agreements with: Australia, Canada, France, Italy, Singapore, Korea, UK, Germany, Ireland, Spain. Happy to collaborate with any of you women out there in the world with ideas about these-- Tomorrow.
Anne Flournoy: How the Internet revamped my career
The Kid in the Front Row
Kyna Morgan's blog HerFilm
The Louise Log (Anne Flournoy)
Melissa Silverstein of Women & Hollywood articulating reasons behind the international statistics talking with Julie Rigg on ABC’s Movietime
Meryl Streep on women in the economy, within a wonderful commencement address at Barnard (the subtitled transcript's slightly inaccurate in interesting places)
Neither the Veil Nor the Four Walls website and Facebook page
Rachel Millward & Catherine Shoard on Cannes
Ruth Torjussen Looking Forward to a More Inclusive Cannes in 2011
Wellywood Woman earlier Escalator/Te Whakapiki post
You Cannes Not Be Serious petition
**The most recent research I know of is Lorraine Rowlands' thesis (2009, see sidebar for link) on freelance workers in the New Zealand film industry. She found that the overwhelming majority of her respondents felt that they were not sufficiently rewarded for their efforts and often found it hard to make ends meet financially. And she found that for women, the situation was even worse than it was for men.