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Why Is It Still So Bad? And What Could We Do About It?

A poster for Lynn Hershman's !Women, Art, Revolution


Last Saturday, film writer Thelma Adams moderated the annual Amazing Women in Film Panel at the Woodstock Film Festival, with three women directors – Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone), Susan Seidelman (best known for Desperately Seeking Susan) and Nancy Savoca (her latest, Union Square just at Toronto), critic Lisa Rosman, philanthropist Meera Gandhi, and activist Robin Bronk.

Before the panel, Thelma blogged about questions FB and industry friends had raised. And when I read the post and saw ‘B. Ruby Rich’ I was hooked; she’s my hero, a long-time writer about women and feminism and film, and staunch activist — her book Chick Flicks is a classic. Furthermore, many of the questions offered to Thelma are relevant to Kali Films' Indiegogo campaign for funds to complete Pratibha Parmar's feature documentary on Alice Walker, Beauty in Truth. My next post is an interview with Pratibha, and somehow Thelma's post feels like a good introduction. So here it is, with a couple of wee interjections from me, and with many thanks to Thelma. It's followed by extracts from Lynn Hershman's interview with B. Ruby Rich for the documentary !Women, Art Revolution, to provide a broader context, and some suggestions for change.

B. Ruby Rich: Why is it still so bad?

Thelma: I was going to try to start off diplomatically — what have the gains been, and why are we still falling short? In a summer where Bridesmaids and The Help bookended the mainstream box office, why were execs and crix (mostly male) so surprised…. Also, what does it take to get a woman’s narrative arc on screen? What do we have to change to get more there?

Laurie E. Boris: Where are the great stories about older women?

B Ruby Rich: And why have we still not caught up with the silent-film era, where women were kingmakers? Or with France, for that matter? [Wellywoodwoman: Or, maybe, Sweden?]

Thelma: The Iron Lady? I’m thinking Ida Lupino, @B Ruby Rich. I’ll raise that question. One reason vis a vis France is that they are more state-funded — isn’t that correct? I also believe, and argue please, that actresses have to step into producing in a major way a la Pitt & Clooney. Creating their vehicles, building them from the ground up, surrounding themselves with smart, savvy people. True? Not true? Partially true?

Lynn Zuccarelli Austin: I think it’s true. Someone like Lynn Novick who produces & directs docs with/for Ken Burns …is a power in her own right but doesn’t have the name recognition that KB has…despite his consistent and best attempts to always point out to audiences/interviewers when it’s her work vs his. [Wellywoodwoman: see this Women & Hollywood post.]

Thelma: Have women made marginally more progress in the world of documentaries? That would be a question for Barbara Kopple, who I’ll also see at Woodstock Film Festival this weekend.

Lynn Zuccarelli Austin: Jodie Foster seemed to be building a solid portfolio as a producer and then seemed to take a break…Who is on the cusp/horizon now? It seems that smaller, indie films have a stronger/larger female director or producer pool …true/false?

Thelma: It does seem that way … I’ll ask the three indie directors if that’s true.

Michelle McCue: I appreciate a raunchy comedy (Bridesmaids), horror, sc-fi (Marti Noxon’s Fright Night) and all sports movies (including the recent Moneyball). As I may not be in the minority anymore, what are these women’s opinions of the 3 genres I mentioned vs the superfluous “chick flicks.”

Lynn Zuccarelli Austin: By “smaller” I mean budget…and distribution, not importance. And could you get them to sign a pledge to not make any more Sex in the City sequels?

Kaitlin Sansoucie: Oh so many questions…. But firstly, I think things come down to a major set of money problems. Women don’t have money (not that most men have much more…). Where do we look for connections when we want to make a project happen? Men. Meanwhile, in Sweden the government says “Hey, we are giving scholarships equally to men and women – why aren’t women making as many movies? How can we get them to create?” what a dream! Here, there’s that level of competition to get funding that puts women off. How do we change that?

Also, the US barely takes its own business seriously… And art? It’s entertainment. It’s entertaining to watch women suffer their mistakes and relative independence! Some moms buy their daughters shirts that say Allergic to Algebra – they are the same moms who don’t take the movies their kids watch to be anything more than entertainment…yet their sons are learning how to have relationships by watching porn and their girls are failing math thinking they’ll just end up like Katherine – and that’s Heigl not Hepburn.

Kim Voynar: Kaitlin, among the many things you say here that I agree with, for me the most relevant point you make is “the US barely takes its own business seriously.” This is true in more ways than art vs entertainment, or the dumbing down of girls. We don’t take art — real art — seriously anymore. I think most people haven’t an inkling what art is, or what art means to them. And unlike many countries, our government really does not support filmmaking financially, or really even much to do with art generally.

Unfortunately, in a tough recession, the reality is that most people (not all, but most) are more interested in going to the movies to be entertained and escape for a couple hours from their crappy reality, not to ponder or appreciate art. This is clearly evident by the box office numbers I look at every week on MCN. Easy-to-digest entertainment sells and makes a profit, so that’s where much of the investment goes.

Back to the question, Thelma: I would love for you to ask each of them whether they feel there is a real indie film community in the sense of people supporting each other. And whether any of them have ever (or would ever) donate to a friend’s or colleagues’ film through a crowdfunding site.

Kate Sansoucie: Are there any male feminist filmmakers? I would love to hear what they have to say about that. What women in film do they look up to – theorists, writers, directors… Which voices are in their heads when they’re working?

Thelma: Thanks for all the good questions….mulling, mulling. The feature director, Lisa Albright, who I talked to yesterday at Woodstock’s Colony Cafe and has the Bernadette Peters film in the festival, Coming Up Roses, had this question to contribute: How will the digital distribution affect what we can make and how we tell our stories? Who’s going to watch a 90 minute film on an iPhone. How is the format going to dictate how we tell our stories?


Lynn Hershman's B Ruby Rich interview (2006) was a long one, and these extracts come towards the end. I think they're very powerful:

What advice would I give to young filmmakers? Um, the film schools are full of women now. But there also filled with ideology that says that you will fail or succeed purely on the basis of your own talent and brilliance. I would advise women to not believe that? I would advise women to make really strong contacts, with each other and with the men who are willing to be true collaborators. And I would advise them to kick out the stops. To kick through the plasterboard. I would advise them not to spend five years working on their screenplay, like some women I know.

I would advise them not to make polite films. I would advise them to make the lowest budget films they can, and the strongest voices they can, and to learn a lesson from the whole Riot Grrrls movement in music. In the old days I never would have believed that women would have broken through in rock music and not in film. That would have been absolutely inconceivable to me. And yet that's what happened.

And um, you know, I remember when Sadie Benning, first made her Fisher-Price pixelvision videos, and got celebrated all over the world by the time she was eighteen. And then kind of ran away from it. I remember thinking, why aren't more women doing this? Where's all the rest of them? Well, we're in a whole new technological moment again. When You-tube and podcasts are for a minute, just for a minute, scrambling the hierarchies. And I would say, Get in there fast. It's all gonna coalesce again.

The walls of the Red Sea are parting and they come back really fast. But you know, Stuart Hall, in his work in cultural studies has always pointed out, that amidst these hegemonic structures, there's always points of contradiction. There's always windows of opportunity that you can sneak through, when the gears are shifting. And I would say, 'Sneak through and keep going, and don't, like Lot's wife, turn back to see if anyone's gaining on you'.

The whole question of critical and popular support is a really crucial one. Part of the reason that the feminist art movement could happen, was that there were feminists writing about art. Part of the reason that the women's film movement could happen was that there were women starting magazines to write about them. Um, part of the reason that underground film could happen way back when was that there was an underground press.

Part of the reason that the anti-Vietnam War movement could happen the way it did was because there was an underground press. So, coverage is really crucial. Debate is really crucial. Um, I think kinship systems are really important. I think networks of/and friends are really important. So I would say, have a lot of parties. Play in traffic. Find backers. Don't be doctrinaire. Accumulate allies. And I think that men have a great ability to do this. Men have a great ability to get their game together, to be generous to one another and you end up with entourage, right?

Where's the women's version of entourage? I don't think it's really Charlie's Angels-maybe that's as close as it gets, but that would be depressing. So I would say that there need to be some girl gangs. That women need to take a page out of the Riot Grrrls' book. Take a page out of the Bitch magazine book. Um, and figure out, um, a DIY system that can work again.

Uh, the problem is, that women never feel safe enough to do that. That women never feel confident enough to do that. There's a terrible lack of generosity because everyone can see there's not enough to go around. They don't believe, that by getting more, everyone can get more. That more is more. Um, I like to think that women's sports helps this. I like to think that women's soccer helps this. That there's a way in which um, u h, team spirit uh can be taught (…?), in schools, in a way that wasn't possible pre-Title IX, when I went through. But so far, I can't say I've seen it. Carried through.

Um, I'm always optimistic, though. I think the technological changes right now, create a possibility, for a kind of amnesiac optimism.

The full interview, on video, is here.
The transcript is here.

Thanks to Stanford University Libraries for these resources, from their !Women, Art Revolution digital collection.

Thelma Adams says that there will soon be clips from the 2011 Amazing Women Panel on YouTube. Today I found this (interim?) one. I found it very interesting, though I wish the image and sound were better. Will keep an eye out for more--


  1. I also believe that the technological changes right now create new possibilities and I am feeling very optimistic.

  2. Thanks Elen. I'm hopeful, too! Always.

  3. Excellent postings here! Nice to meet you through my blog posting of last month on San Diego Writing Women. Will send your blog info to my friend, documentary filmmaker Lilly Rivlin ( Her wonderful film on Grace Paley (Grace Paley: Collected Shorts) won last year's Woodstock Audience Award. Hope you check it and her other work out soonish.
    Kathy Jones

  4. Thanks, Kathy. I'm thrilled to learn about Lilly Rivlin and her Grace Paley film, enjoyed checking out her site. And it's lovely to know about the San Diego Writing Women site, too, especially your own exploration of current publishing possibilities ( Hope it'll be a continuing story!


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