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New Zealand International Film Festival—Some statistics

I really really didn’t want to do this. I’m sick of counting. Hated it when an interviewer recently called me an ‘academic’. (My on-paper-that-lasts-500-years PhD certificate now in a battered file box, next to a fading Fiona Clark photo of me in Ruatoki, wearing a big black hat and shades, eating a feijoa, back in 1980.)

But my tax return was done. And the washing. And the dishes. It was too wet to mow the lawn. Too cold to weed or prune. And anyway I was a bit crook. Though I made it to the Sunday market for this week’s pumpkin, eggs, tomatoes, limes, apples, onions. Enjoyed the big electronic sign that said “SEA SIDE ONLY” (some big run along Oriental Bay): appreciated the direct message, as I consider going to live in Berlin.

So I read the papers (nice Kerre Woodham piece on illegal downloads in the Herald on Sunday). And did those things that I said I’d do. And refrained from doing the things I agreed not to do (often a bit more difficult). And wished I hadn’t finished T Jefferson Parker’s The Renegades (he has this great little obsession with sunset language). And felt sad that I missed the Thomas Oliver Band gig the night before. (Wanted a listen and a dance, so much, but would have been crazy to risk the night cold and get crooker.) Wished I hadn't forgotten to buy sugar, so I could make lime marmalade.

And, as I mooched about, I kept noticing the New Zealand Film Festival’s Wellington catalogue.

Most years I book far too many sessions and end up giving away some tickets. I need lots of breaks between films to absorb them. So this year I wasn’t going to book, except for Kathy Dudding’s Asylum Pieces, a treat with a dear mate who lives out of town, and Yael Hersonski's A Film Unfinished. So I could have shoved the catalogue under some books, and gone to look for our recycling bin; it disappeared on Thursday and maybe blew into the Town Belt, or to Johnsonville, or to the airport. And, after all, in the last few weeks I’ve had some very beautiful conversations with the youngest generation of women scriptwriters and filmmakers (including the chat that gave me ideas about Berlin). I became convinced that their talent and tenacity and entrepreneurship, gorgeous energy and utter charm will ensure that —soon—women will write and direct 50% of New Zealand’s feature films.

But. I’ve noticed that many of the most recent New Zealand women-directed features have male protagonists: Home by Christmas, The Vintner’s Luck, Apron Strings (maybe, that one’s arguable), The Strength of Water, After the Waterfall (all NZFC-funded) and The Insatiable Moon. Athina Tsoulis’ Jinx Sister, Christine Jeffs’ Sunshine Cleaning (from memory the eighth most commercially successful indie film last year) and Emily Corcoran’s Sisterhood, all about sisters and none funded by the NZFC, are exceptions. And Jane Campion’s Bright Star. I can think of just one New Zealand woman protagonist over the last while whose impact comes near that of real-life Topp Twins in their doco, or Robyn Malcolm's Cheryl West in tv's Outrageous Fortune: Geraldine Brophy's Jill Rose in Second-Hand Wedding (also developed outside the NZFC).  Of recent telefeatures Until Proven Innocent (written by women) had a male protagonist, but not Fiona Samuel’s Piece of my Heart

And I've wondered why so few features—by men or women—pass the Bechdel Test, with at least two women in them, who talk to each other about something besides a man? I’m all for women writing about men, but I hunger for more films about women. And I’ve begun to wonder whether the smart thing to do, if you want to get a film funded—or to win an Oscar—is to write about men. Or is it even smarter to write films about women, because there are so many of us who long for them? (Sometimes I forget that this blog is for Development-the movie and about the context it's being made in, so here's a wee plug for our movie, filled with women, who talk to each other about all kinds of stuff: line up to buy your virtual ticket to Development-the-movie here, and if you buy a couple, we’ll send you a souvenir tea-towel. Aprons for special people, soon(ish)).

And then, mooching towards yet another piece of toast and cup of tea, I thought about features with women protagonists that recently stalled in development.

And, finally, remembering the You Cannes Not Be Serious campaign, and that lovely sense of connection to a larger world through the WomenDirecting4Women and Women & Hollywood solidarity, I felt kinda obliged.

So I downed the tea and toast, stopped mooching, opened the catalogue and started counting. Fictional features only, because women are traditionally strong in documentary, though a check would be interesting.

I identified 77 fictional features in the Wellington programme. Women wrote and directed ten, 13%, even less than the 16% of women-written and directed features that the NZFC funds annually: Puzzle (Natalia Smirnoff); Lourdes (Jessica Hausner); White Material (Claire Denis); Please Give (Nicole Holofcener); After the Waterfall (Simone Horrocks); Father of My Children (Mia Hansen-Love); The Runaways (Floria Sigismondi); The Tree (Julie Bertuccelli); Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik); Women Without Men (Shirin Neshat). Of these, Puzzle, Lourdes, The Runaways, White Material, Please Give, The Tree, Women Without Men and possibly Winter’s Bone seem to pass the Bechdel Test (just on 10%). There are a further five features where women share the principal storytelling roles: Melody for a Street Organ (Kira Muratova, director); Love in a Puff (Heiward Mak, joint writer); Amer (Helene Cattet, co-writer/director); My Dog Tulip (Sandra Fierlinger co-director/animator); Summer Wars (Okudera Satoko, writer).

No wonder I didn’t want to do the count. By late Sunday afternoon, I was a bit cranky, wondering who was responsible for this gender skewed programme. Director Bill Gosden? Programmer Sandra Reid? Or the New Zealand Film Festival Trust, which presumably sets the festival policies? Catherine Fitzgerald (also WIFT New Zealand's president) chairs the trust, and, surprisingly—because sometimes people say that if a higher percentage of women are involved in governance things will improve for women—half the trustees are women: Andrea Haines, Robin Laing, Jane McKenzie, and Catherine. The guys? Lindsay Shelton, Peter Hay, Tearapa Kahi, Andrew Langridge.

I know that many of us who love film look out for a good film regardless of who made it, and there are plenty of them on the programme. I can’t wait to see I am Love, Animal Kingdom, The Illusionist, Kawasaki’s Rose, Farewell, Predicament. I’m a sucker for the Doors, so hope I get to When You’re Strange. I want to see Clio Barnard’s The Arbor, because it’s about a woman playwright. I want to see Suzanne Raes’ The Rainbow Warriors of Waiheke Island, Gillian Armstrong’s Love, Lust and Lies, Sabina Guzzanti’s Draquila—Italy Trembles. But where is Cheryl Dunye’s The OWLS? Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right, which made it into the Sydney Festival? Belinda Chaykor’s Lou, getting great reviews in Australia? Nicole Conn’s Elena Undone? Claire McCarthy's The Waiting City? Sophie Letourneur's La Vie Au Ranch (Chicks)? Claudia Llosa's The Milk of Sorrow? If the makers of these films didn’t apply for inclusion, why were they not invited? 

I believe that those of us women who make films need more models of women’s fictional filmmaking, especially models of films that pass the Bechdel test (if there were more of them, it might become more 'normal' to fund them?) and especially experimental films, given that many of us tend to eschew traditional narrative forms. We also need films about women artists: Where’s the well-regarded doco The Heretics in this programme, where almost 80% of the films about artists are about men? Is the Film Festival programming making a negative contribution to women’s participation in filmmaking? After doing the maths, I protest. If the legendary Kay Armatage could often manage 50% women’s films at the Toronto Festival, we can do better here.

And—this exercise has changed me. I’m prioritising the NZIFF features that pass the Bechdel Test. Yes. Even if it means I miss out on Tilda Swinton. I might even book some seats.


  1. Rah, rah, rah! Thanks for this post, Marian! Love it! Sure, it's sad, depressing (like Ophelia thinks hard indicated) but it also can light a fire under our bums! I'm excited about the future of women in filmmaking...

  2. I am sorry to see the women I work with accused of not measuring up because several films you would like to see are missing from the programme. There are two films on your list we tried very hard indeed to secure for the Festival, but the owners of both, to our dismay, had very different plans. But maybe we too give ourselves a licence to decide that women’s work doesn’t always measure up. There are in fact three films on your list that our programmers saw and decided were much less likely than other contenders to find favour with our audience, which we know comprises a significant and discerning number of women.

    Kay Armatage was in the happy position of having a mandate to promote women’s filmmaking at a hugely subsidised cultural event and I agree that she discharged that mandate extremely well. We, however, depend for more than 90% of our income on ticket sales. Maybe a more effective way showing a male-dominated industry that there is real support for women’s work might be to shine some light on the films we are actually showing. We believe the fact that there are seven new feature-length films by New Zealand women on the programme is something to celebrate. And the only film I have suggested might be a masterpiece in the 2010 programme is Kira Muratova’s Melody for a Street Organ. We’ve done what we can over the years to support this great, too-little-seen filmmaker. We’d be very pleased if you saw fit to encourage your readers to check out her astounding film. There are many seats still available.

  3. @Ophelia Thinks Hard —Yes, the reality can be depressing. And, for me, a source of enduring grief, which gets triggered at unexpected times, as when I read in Simone’s post the other day: “After the Waterfall is not the first film I have developed. The other two projects had female protagonists, but in the end they just didn’t get the money. I don’t know if that was a factor, but statistically it is harder for women directors to get a film funded, and it’s even harder still if the hero is a woman. So you just have to be aware of that.” But then I read your elegant challenge to filmgoers to use the Bechdel Test and it was like talking with the brilliant up-and-coming women filmmakers, I felt hope that things will change, globally, if we just keep talking about the issues and searching for solutions. I agree with you that a partial solution is being a committed, enthusiastic and informed audience member for women’s storytelling in film, and demonstrating our interest (if we have it) in films that pass the Bechdel Test. See you at the movies!

    @Kyna And there you are, Kyna, working flat out to realise our shared hopes that things will change. Thank you for this, love your optimism.

    @Bill Uh-oh. When I named women and men in various key roles at the NZFF and used question marks about their individual responsibility, I was implying that the statistics illustrated a systemic failure for which the responsibility was collective. I’ll insert another sentence that makes that explicit, soon. My primary disappointment is not about particular films, but about the low numbers of features with women writers and directors, but it’s helpful to hear the history behind some of the gaps. I’ve also heard from other women who share my disappointment and who would love a change. Would the NZFF consider a Bechdel Test section another year? I appreciate the need to sell tickets, but I think you might be surprised at some of the factors that attract an audience. For instance, the premise behind
    "The Milk of Sorrow" is fascinating for any woman who has breast fed.

    I hope the NZFF is a huge success this year. I do love it, and the way it travels round the country for months, as a national tourist attraction as well as something for all of 'us'.


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