A Golden Age for Women Who Make Movies? (2)

Niam Itani, the only woman finalist in YouTube's Your Festival  competition at the Venice Film Festival
In A Golden Age for Women Who Make Movies (1)  I included an article where Kurt Andersen claimed that thanks to "commercial and critical breakthroughs among independent films, a shift seems to be happening"  for women filmmakers. Thanks to this new model, which I call the 'quilting bee' model, there may be a revolution-in-progress in the United States that will result in lots more films by and about women. A golden age. Is the golden age well-established? What role do festival curators have? What role for all-women teams? Does where we live make a difference and what can we offer and learn through making cross-border connections? Does 'film' matter so much now we have multiple platforms?

Is the golden age already with us? Has 'the spread of the digital image finally thrown open the doors to equality', outside Hollywood?
The most recent statistics I can find about the gender of independent film directors of feature length narrative films (not documentaries) come from the Swedish Film Institute, the Centre National du Cinema et L'Image Animee (CNC) in France and the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film in the United States (CSWTF ). In Sweden,where the state funder has a gender equity policy, in 2010 women directed eleven percent of all features and nineteen percent of features with state production funding. In the same year, of the state funded features in France, twenty-one percent had women directors. In contrast, women directed nine percent of the United States top-grossing ('Hollywood') features; there are no statistics I know of for American women directors working outside Hollywood, in independent film.

None of this research includes information about the choices and obstacles that affect women directors at each stage of development and into production. My New Zealand research showed that these are myriad and their dynamics are complex. For instance, over the period I studied in detail from 2006-2009, the state funded fewer women-directed short films than shorts that men directed, but those films got into A-list festivals at a higher rate than the men's. A much smaller proportion of women than men applied for early feature development state funding and the proportion became steadily smaller as projects moved towards production. So there were issues around why women did not apply (did not want to compete?) *and* what happened when they did apply (discrimination?).

Again and again, I hear the word 'obsession' in relation to making feature films and it's possible that many women are less likely than men to engage with this obsession. Perhaps it's a big 'plus' for the quilting bee kind of filmmaking that it's more likely to be 'habitual' than 'obsessional'? Meryl Streep provides a powerful – and rare – example of a woman who could easily direct if she wanted to (imagine!) but has considered and rejected (conventional) directing because of its demands. She's said: "I have a holistic need to work and to have huge ties of love in my life. I can't imagine eschewing one for the other." And directing is a step too far, as she explains in this clip:



For whatever reasons, it seems that the golden age may not be here yet. And although a 'new' model may provide the compost for lots more films by and about women, there will be no golden age unless institutions (and the people within them) change too, by welcoming women's projects and helping them to reach audiences. Film festivals play an important role, especially major festivals, which is why the historical lack of women's films in competition at Cannes continues to attract protest from organisations like La Barbe and Women & Hollywood.

Just as we don't know how many women-directed projects in development enter the Swedish or French systems, or how many women writers and directors and how many men writers and directors pitch Hollywood projects, we don't know how many women submit their films to festivals like Cannes, Venice, Toronto. The CSWTF statistics, for instance, show that women directed fifteen percent of narrative films presented at twenty-five American film festivals during the 2008-2009 year, but there's no information about the proportion of women directors among the films submitted, how many of these directors were American or how many were the directors of 'foreign' films. (The CSWTF figures for the American festivals are very similar to New Zealand's, where women directed fourteen percent of the narrative features in the current international film festival, after thirteen percent in 2010 and twelve percent in 2011.)

Because the doors to equality are arguably not yet fully open, for many reasons, women directors need the support of festival curators and others associated with major festivals like the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and the Venice Film Festival, which announced their selections last week. Both include a reasonable proportion of women-directed films.

Alberto Barbera at Venice
The TIFF selection is not surprising, because Kay Armatage embedded the festival’s support of women directors when she was TIFF's international programmer from 1982-2004. In There She Goes: Feminist Filmmaking & Beyond she explained how she worked, a fine example of how decision-makers who curate festivals affect their content (a section I've referred to before):
Although my beat also developed as a low-budget independent, New York 'underground', formalist documentaries, avant-grade, 'new narrative', new Black British, and queer cinema, I was primarily known internationally...as a dedicated programmer of women directors in many cinematic modes. In Toronto, you could count on seeing the most recent Potters, Akermans, Ottingers, and Rainers as they appeared, along with new voices such as Monika Treut, Julie Dash, Tracey Moffit, Moufida Tlatli, Rose Troche, Samira Makhmalbaf, and Nicole Holofcener. In my festival selections, I averaged at least 50 per cent women directors through the mid-1990s (I always counted), at which point the numbers of women's films on offer unfortunately dwindled. Nonetheless, my last year at TIFF, 2004, proved exceptional in this regard: many of the most well-established women directors as well as a handful of newcomers were there with their new films.
Alberto Babera
In Venice, some programmes – discussed below – take a proactive stance to welcome women's work. This is not new, but this year the festival has a new director, Alberto Barbera, who has based his selection on criteria that embrace women. During his announcement of the Venice Film Festival's 2012 selection, Alberto Barbera said:
The selection criteria were the absolute quality and the respect of diversity.
Is this a first for a director of a major film festival? Of any festival? Does this begin a revolution within the film festival world that will assist a women filmmaker revolution-in-progress?

Although Alberto Barbera has said that it wasn’t a conscious decision to include twenty women directors, thanks to his criteria women directed three of the eighteen features in competition at Venice (seventeen per cent) and co-directed one more, a huge improvement when compared to Cannes. These proportions are similar to the proportion of state-funded women-directed films produced in France and Sweden in 2010 and the fifteen percent in the American film festivals studied by the CSWTF. And the proportions of women directors selected for some Venice programmes are similar to comparable programmes at Cannes. At both festivals women directed a third of the short films in competition. The proportion of women-directed feature films in Venice's Orizzonti, 'new trends' is twenty-two percent; the proportion in Cannes' Un Certain Regard, 'new talent' was seventeen percent, again very similar to the available statistics.

'Diversity' is not only male/female diversity of course. It's impossible to tell whether, for instance, LGBTI filmmakers and themes are well represented. But I was delighted when I read that Alberto Barbera also said:
We have taken some risks. The program includes confirmed auteurs, many Europeans, but also lesser known directors and unknown young filmmakers coming from distant countries that lack a film industry. Two prime examples are a short film produced in Nepal and the first film directed by a Saudi Arabian woman. What is interesting is that, despite the crisis, there is a great excitement for production worldwide. Countries such as Guatemala, Indonesia, and Malaysia are beginning to emerge thanks to new low cost digital technologies. This phenomenon is followed and encouraged. Festivals must recuperate their function as explorations of new aesthetics and languages and not only be an opportunity for recognition and homage. The recurrent themes of the selection are the crisis (economic, but also of values, behaviors, patterns and human relations), loneliness and isolation (a consequence of the crisis) and fundamentalism (religious and economic).
This beautifully reinforces his clear statement about criteria. His strategies open up opportunities for everyone, at one of the world's foremost festivals. Diversity: a broad embrace. Risk. Powerful themes. May his festival be the most successful ever. May his ideas spread to festivals everywhere.


Although Alberto Barbera does not focus specifically on gender there's evidence that some programmes at Venice *do* take a proactive stance and welcome women's work and did so before Alberto Barbera's arrival. In the Critics Week's list and in the Venice Days Official Selection a third of the films directed by individuals are women-directed. The Venice Days programme, promoted by the Italian film directors' and screenwriters' associations, is modeled on the Cannes Directors Fortnight. It "draws attention to high quality cinema, without any kind of restriction, with special care for innovation, research, originality and independence". And as well as including a high proportion of women-directed films within their Official Selection, Venice Days includes a discrete programme called Women's Tales – The explosion of female creativity in the era of the digital image, described this way (I love some of the language):
The oldest showcase for cinema in the world, the Venice Film Festival, will this year be shining the spotlight on the quality of female creativity. Not a cosseted ghetto, nor the feigned surprise of the new (women filmmakers and artists require no rhetoric underscoring), but a moment of reflection and the emphasizing of a profound transformation, with the spread of the digital image finally throwing open the doors to equality. Venice Days has regularly given voice to women filmmakers over the years, based on the objective quality and class of content that artists the world over have entrusted to us, a case in point being the 2011 edition featuring four female directors from a range of cultures: Russia, Palestine, Italy and Brazil. As of this year, in partnership with Miu Miu, this artistic awareness is transformed into an organic project which promotes critical reflection and creative showmanship over three days of events, dedicated to women, their dignity, their battles, their expressions. The Miu Miu project dedicated to a female outlook on the big screen has already produced four short films, entitled The Miu Miu Women´s Tales, which will be presented collectively for the first time ever, in the presence of the directors, Zoe Cassavetes, Lucrecia Martel, Giada Colagrande and Massy Tadjedin.
Essentially, Women's Tales appears to be a branded entertainment exercise for Miu Miu, a high fashion brand of women’s clothing and accessories from Prada. It involves a diverse range of women directors who interpret the brand from their individual perspectives. Three of the finished films are already on Miu Miu's site, here. (And if I had any doubts that branded entertainment was embedded within 'serious' filmmaking, this short dispelled them - Welcome Back advertises the New Yorker's iPhone app and according the credits is 'A short by Lena Dunham'; it's a branding exercise not only for Apple and the New Yorker but also for the filmmaker?)

 

The 'icon' of the Women's Tales project is Maya Deren and her first film, Meshes of Afternoon (1943), will be shown alongside the new short films. And that's not all. Perhaps the most valuable element of Women's Tales is the associated programme:
The three days of Women´s Tales will also include two Q&As with international protagonists of film culture, as well as a collective discussion with some of the most innovative women working in the Italian cinema.
I long to be there, to learn more!

Venice also hosts the Gucci Women in Cinema Award, funded by another fashion house. This award recognises 'outstanding artistic achievement by a woman in filmmaking' and the nominees include Nadine Labaki, director of Where Do We Go Now?; Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, director of Saving Face; costume designer Colleen Atwood; filmmaker/ actress Brit Marling and veteran editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who has received seven Academy Award nominations for best editing, and has won three times. (I love it that the award focuses widely.) I wondered if there's space for more sponsors of women's programmes in Venice, beyond the fashion world, and asked an elegant friend who's lived a long time in Italy about her preferred Italian car. She tweeted back– Make: Alfa Romeo Model: Spider. So I checked the Spider out and saw that there's a new Mazda MX-5-based Alfa Romeo Spider coming soon. Would that work for another women's programme at Venice, as the basis for a branded entertainment programme, for a special programme, or for an award?

I think that Women's Tales  and the Gucci Women in Cinema Award concept are globally unique within film festival programmes. Will other major festivals develop similar programmes? And are there opportunities for women's film festivals – who may have a central role in any golden age for women filmmakers – to try to attract sponsors through branded entertainment?

A few weeks ago, Helen Mirren challenged the Czech Karlovy Vary International Film Festival to increase the numbers of women-directed films they present to 50%, within five years. That's a big ask, because of the other steps in the process; curators are not the only ones who need to change. But if the Venice festival says it welcomes diversity, and some of its programmes focus on women directors and honour women's artistic achievement in filmmaking, maybe investors and producers and agents and publicists and distributors and even Hollywood will take a fresh look at what they do. And women who use the 'new' indie model will be there and ready to engage. Which international festival will get to that magic 50% first?

What role for all-women teams?
I like to think that any golden age is fun, and if the 'new' way of working that Anne Thompson identifies suits some women filmmakers and helps create a golden age for women who make movies I imagine it will be a *lot* of fun. If it also follows common quilting bee practice more women will choose to work with all-women crews, and that could be a special kind of fun. I remember Ruth Korver, a 48 Hours veteran, talking about the 'best fun ever' she had the year she was part of an 'all-lady' 48 Hours team and Francesca Jago, another 48 Hours director, talking about the pleasures and challenges of an 'all-girl' team, a year ago: I hope the 'new' way of working provides lots of information about all-women teams, alongside all the other important discussions. One of those discussions has to be about the effects of geographic circumstances.

Does where we live make a difference and what can we offer and learn through making cross-border connections?
Women directors in North America, like Sarah Polley and Lynn Shelton, live with the Hollywood/indie polarity in a different way than women in Western Europe and in other places like Australasia, where we have additional issues around gender equity and state funding bodies (as well as some access to state funding benefits). And women directors outside 'the West' are different again. Perhaps there's already a golden age for women filmmakers who work outside Hollywood and Western cinema? For those of us in the West who seek new ways of working, will taking a global perspective encourage us to take risks that enrich our experiments?

The Venice selection and Alberto Barbera's statements in particular made me re-visit the issues I explored last year, when I wrote about MAMI, the Mumbai Film Festival, where women wrote and directed six of the fourteen films in its first-time feature competition, and where the previous year the festival had an all-women jury headed by Jane Campion. Kathy Wu's view gave me a new reference point, which I think is relevant to any 'golden age' discussion:
If you feel frustrated by the lack of female directors, try looking outside of Hollywood and Western cinema. Just look at what the female filmmakers in Iran are capable of achieving, in an environment that is infinitely more hostile and difficult then here in the West. Some of the most exciting, challenging and powerful women filmmakers in the world today can be found working in the most surprising of locations, speaking the most curious of languages, fastidiously producing their own extraordinary visions of the world. Go and seek them out, because they need your support.
If I experiment with a new model in New Zealand, I imagine that if I pay attention I can learn a great deal from people who work in an environment that is 'infinitely more hostile and difficult than here in the West'. Yes, these directors may need my support, but they're also arguably my big sisters in this context and provide models of courage and imagination. If I move across borders to seek out and watch their work, their visions and their practices may inspire and challenge me in unexpected ways. I thought about this as I followed Niam Itani's tireless Your Festival campaign to become one of the ten directors flown to Venice with her short film SUPER: FULL, the only woman who made it through. I think about this as I follow Ana Lily Amirpour's clever crowd-funding campaign for A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. I think about it when I feel gratitude that accomplished women directors born outside New Zealand work here: Dana Rotberg, now in post-production on Medicine Woman; Gaysorn Thavat whose feature was recently funded for production by the New Zealand Film Commission; Zia Mandviwalla whose short, Night Shift was in competition at Cannes this year. And a tweet this morning reminded me that for some women there are also exciting new models within very difficult environments close to home, notably the African American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM) which has been integral to the renaissance of African American film-making; Ava DuVernay is a visionary filmmaker who has been central to this golden age, and it's thrilling that she's a woman.


Renowned indie producer Ted Hope has just announced that he will be the next Executive Director at the San Francisco Film Society (SFFS), a move he sees as an extension of producing, reversing the order of the two things that matter most to him – making indie films and fighting for their future. And I thought of AFFRM when I read about his justification for his move:
The future doesn't come from Hollywood and New York. It's Silicon Valley and the Bay Area. I want to be at the center of that culture, that defines itself by innovation, wants to try new things and not live through risk mitigation, that wants to dream big. Everything that once represented the indie film community is out there now...I deeply believe that the system can be built...that allows artists and investors to make sustainable movies that connect.
The future is also AFFRM and other film festivals that engage with specific communities, online and in cinemas. Also with women. Also outside the United States. Will Ted Hope emulate Alberto Barbera's wide embrace? His mission is to "save independent film" (as he and the SFFS know it) and that might just require him to form strong new alliances that benefit equally both the independent movie-making closest to his heart and those who've been marginalised there. Will he acknowledge AFFRM's vision and leadership? Seek out and partner with key organisations associated with women's film festivals, like Viscera, the Internationales Frauen Film Festival, Women Make Movies, the Network of Asian Women's Film Festivals? Ask Beti Ellerson for advice about all the African women's festivals? Will he welcome the women of CIMA, their European Women Audiovisual Network (EWA) and their South American allies? Check out the Kin Festival in Armenia and Flying Broom in Turkey? Fingers and toes crossed for life-enhancing outcomes for all, filmmakers and audiences.

Finally, when I researched MAMI I liked what Satyen Bordoloi wrote in a review of Kamila Andini's A Mirror Never Lies, one of the six women's films in its first-time feature competition:
Considering the films in competition, there is perceptible difference between films from developed worlds like Europe, North America and Australia and those from developing worlds. Whereas the former have intellectual control, the ones from Latin America and Asia carry a spiritual strength rarely achieved in cinema. Seeing and putting these films into perspective, it is evident that the hope of cinema lies in the latter.
The implications of this seem profound, particularly when I remember how long it's been since a Maori woman wrote and directed a cinema feature (Merata Mita's Mauri, in 1988).

Does 'film' matter as much as it used to, now we have multiple platforms?

In the last week, I've been reading Andrea Phillips' A Creator's Guide to Transmedia Storytelling, which, like Miu Miu's Women's Tales, inspired me to think again about media convergence. I was very taken with Andrea's reference to the rule of thumb in many industries, that you can get something done cheap, fast, or well: pick any two. According to her:
The equivalent transmedia pick-two-of-three is again a little different: cheap, deep, or mass-audience: pick two. It's possible to play both ends of the rope and make a rich and very deep experience for an audience of millions, but it'll cost you. Know what your priorities are.
And then, a random wee group of Twitter links made me think further. Are there ways to tell stories visually and to find an audience that may work better than film for those attracted to the 'quilting bee' idea? Here are some of the questions and links that have stayed with me. Most of them I've asked before, but somehow they feel more urgent than they were.

1. Are there ways to tell and disseminate stories that are as satisfying and less demanding than feature films?
Even if the new model's attractive, maybe it's time to explore alternatives more rigorously. What are my storytelling priorities? What are my two priorities among cheap, deep, or mass-audience? My work/ money priorities? The 'quilting bee' paradigm arose because feature filmmaking has become less sustainable for many independent filmmakers and even less so for women. And according to a Guardian article, "It is almost impossible for someone working in the creative arts to make a living from it" – most people have day jobs to support their own arts practice, maybe on someone else's projects. Fortunately, there are *lots* of storytelling alternatives.

2. Do my screenplays have to be movies? Are they films? Why would someone pay to see them at a cinema?
These questions came from a screenwriter who wrote about his own experience of hearing it from potential producers. 'Cinematic' ain't necessarily what it used to be. And even Jane Campion is working on a television series, Top of the Lake.

3. There are now a million ways to combine images and words and sound, on many many platforms. Could I – for example – engage with writing apps, or in the crossover between books and television?
I read one article about children's picture books and apps, which quoted an editor who said (slightly edited)
We'd love to find authors who are interested in working on apps...But writing a highly interactive, multimedia children's app that is a satisfying reading experience is not the same as writing a picture book...apps are more collaborative processes than printed books – more, perhaps, like writing a film-script than writing a book – and may require authors to be thinking more about what goes into animation and coding. They're non-linear experiences too, where the linear narrative sits alongside interactive elements.
And I read another article about a new alliance between Random House and FreemantleMedia who 'have teamed to develop scripted TV programs through the newly created Random House Television imprint. They will work with Random House authors and editors to scout for material to be developed for U.S. and international markets.'

4. Is the 'cinema' audience the one I want to reach?
A New Zealander wrote an article called Why Hollywood is losing its grip on my generation. And that made me ask myself – again – which audience(s) I want to reach with my stories. I've been watching women's webseries for a while now, and experimenting with short stories and combining different media. I'm less inclined towards a ninety minute run as a viewer and as a maker. And the stories I want to tell are about illness, old age, and death.

So... With all of this in mind, and unresolved, I'm moving forward. Always a tricky balance. Research. Activism. My own stories.

And for now, a taste of the women at Venice. Mira Nair's The Reluctant Fundamentalist will open the festival (out of competition) and I love these two interviews with her. In the first she discusses obsession, audiences for documentaries, deciding to make features, poverty, the fairy tale story of her Salaam Bombay, stories about marginal people. In the second where she talks about the film that changed her life. Susanne Bier's Love is All You Need is also showing out of competition and this is the trailer.

Many thanks to Vittoria Scarpa @cineuropa, for translation and resource assistance.


Mira Nair




Susanne Bier's Love is All You Need trailer



Niam Itani's SUPER: FULL, one of ten short films in the Your Festival final.

A Golden Age For Women Who Make Movies? (1) (A new era of digital women's filmmaking)
A Golden Age for Women Who Make Movies (3) (the International Women's Film Festival Network)


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