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The NZ International Film Festival – 1. New Zealand Women

The Context
This week, the United Nations women's agency, UN Women, joined forces with activist and Academy Award-winning actor Geena Davis, to support the first global study of how women and girls are portrayed in family films. The study will examine the top-grossing international movies in Australia, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Russia, Spain and the United Kingdom. According to Geena Davis, the current dearth of female characters of substance in family films means that children are being taught that girls and women 'don't take up half of the space in the world'. And for Lakshimi Puri, acting head of UN Women:
Gender representation in film influences the perception of women and girls, their self-esteem and the relationships between the sexes... We cannot let the negative depiction of women and girls erode the hard gains that have been made on gender equality and women's empowerment.
Also this week, in a  report for CNN, Melissa Silverstein of Women & Hollywood wrote:
It's clear that Hollywood has a woman problem. It's not just that they don't trust the vision of a woman to direct; they don't trust that people want to see our stories. There's a prevailing sense that male stories are universal, for everyone, and that women's stories are just for women... [Movies] are a reflection of who we are and what we value. They are what we talk about at work on Monday morning. They are how we socialize. When we don't see women, and we don't see women's stories, we get the message that women don't matter as much, that our stories don't count, that our experiences are less valid.
And then Jane Campion gave the following advice in an interview:
My advice to young female filmmakers is: please do not play the lady card [on social media women filmmakers have debated what she means here by 'lady' and 'the lady card']. Don't feel sorry for yourself. Just do your work and let someone else deal with the politics.

But we should mandate that 50% of films produced are made by women. That would be possible with public money. Instantly the culture would change. It can be done.
These reports affected me more than usual, because this week, ever optimistic, I opened this year's New Zealand International Film Festival (#nzff) programme.

The #nzff 2013 Programme & Narrative Films Directed By Women
In 1893, New Zealand became the first self-governing country in the world where all women had the right to vote in parliamentary elections, so this year we celebrate a very special 120th anniversary. Maybe, just maybe, I thought, those who influence the programme paid attention to this anniversary and devoted a Big Night or two to women directors? They might also have noted the Venice Film Festival director Alberto Barbera's statement at Venice last year, where women directors were very well represented: "The selection criteria were the absolute quality and the respect of diversity"? Searched beyond major festivals, where women directors' participation is often problematic because of the way the structures work? Paid close attention to women's and queer film festivals, where I believe that there are some treasures, especially at the festivals in Asia and Europe? For instance, Pratibha Parmar's Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth has had an enthusiastic reception from a variety of audiences in the United Kingdom and the United States. Ava DuVernay, who won the US Competition at Sundance last year with Middle of Nowhere and founder of the hugely successful African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement has just been announced as director of Selma, the Martin Luther King project produced by Brad Pitt's Plan B. And she describes Beauty in Truth as 'An intimate, exquisitely rendered portrait of one of the great artists of our time'. Next week, it will be the Outfest Fusion Centerpiece Gala Screening. It would have been a great choice for the #nzff. But the festival isn't celebrating the women's suffrage anniversary by searching for women-directed films that are made with skill, courage, imagination and heart. So alas, Beauty in Truth is not in the programme.

This is the fourth year that I've counted the women-directed narrative features in #nzff. 2010: 13%. 2011: 12.5%. 2012: 14%. I wasn't going to count this year, but the Women Make Movies list at the back of the the #nzff catalogue is incomplete, so I changed my mind. And trudged through the list. Because there are so many hybrid features now, with documentary and fictional elements, I defined a narrative feature as a feature-length work with a credited screenplay. For example, Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell about her own family credits a screenplay, so I counted it as a narrative feature. Result – in 2013 women directed 12.8% of the narrative features at #nzff. Down from last year, slightly up from 2011. I wasn't expecting 50% but it'd have been a treat to see a truer reflection of women directors' participation in feature filmmaking in many parts of the world – somewhere between 16-21% if we exclude Hollywood.  And there's only one woman-directed feature I'm unfamiliar with, Eliza Hittman's It Felt Like Love. In Wellington it will be preceded by The Professor, a short adapted from an Olivia Davis story, by Eliza Hittman's fellow New Yorker (and New Zealander) Alison Maclean. I wanted more surprises; they could even have come via a few more woman-directed films that were shown at Cannes, using the posters collected by FCTV/WIFTV Paris.

Still from Alison Maclean's The Professor

The New Zealand Films

A. Features
The #nzff features that New Zealand women directed, both narrative and documentary, show us that 120 years after we got the vote women "don't matter as much, that our stories don't count, that our experiences are less valid." Even to women directors. There are only two New Zealand features by and about women – both docos – though there's a narrative feature, Fantail, that a woman wrote.

It' s impossible to know how many New Zealand women directors have tried to make films about women and found – as is true elsewhere in the world – that they are more difficult to fund, even in this crowd-funding age. It's impossible to know how many women-directed films were submitted to, or sought by, the #nzff or strongly advocated for, by distributors and others. It's also impossible to know how many of our women directors prefer to make films about men (something I too have done). I used to love seeing 'men's' stories through women's eyes, and why not, when as a feminist, I believe that every issue is a feminist issue? (I'm also attracted to men's films about topics that exist because of feminism, like Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin's Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer and Alex Gibney's Silence in the House of God, an account of the Catholic Church's persistent protection of its priests, both showing at #nzff.) But I wish wish wish that the festival included fewer films mostly about men, directed by women.

I'm unlikely to watch another New Zealand film with a boy or a man as the central character, whoever directs it; I've seen enough, though I'm tempted by veteran filmmaker Shirley Horrocks' Venus: A Quest because I love family histories and this one promises 'a meaningful intersection of the personal, the historical and the cosmic in scientific enquiry'. Just once, I'd like documentary-maker Annie Goldson (this year  represented by He Toki Huna: New Zealand in Afghanistan, co-directed with Kay Ellmers)  to make a film that centres on women and maybe in New Zealand. I'd like Zoe McIntosh, interviewed here,  about the wonderful-looking The Deadly Ponies Gang, to do that, too. And although I'm delighted to see Us and the Game Industry in the programme, a new film by Stephanie Beth, who also made the feminist classic I Want to Be Joan (1977), I'm disappointed that the 'us' does not appear to be women especially when sexism is a huge issue within the game industry and its products.

Sister Loyola and her compost heap, from Gardening With Soul
It's somehow fitting that each of the two features by and about women has 'soul' in the title. Jess Feast's doco Gardening With Soul, is about a year in the life of nonagenarian Sister Loyola Galvin, from the Sisters of Compassion, who follow the vision of their legendary founder Mother Aubert, to 'meet the needs of the oppressed and powerless in their communities'. As a bonus, Gardening With Soul is edited by Annie Collins, a living treasure of New Zealand film. I'll be there! Amy Taylor's Soul in the Sea  "explores the impact of Moko, a ‘friendly dolphin’, on the eastern coastal communities he frequented in the six months up to his death in 2010 – and one woman’s quest to befriend and protect him". The woman at the centre of the story is Kirsty Carrington. I hope both these films get super-enthusiastic audiences.

Jane Campion and Gaylene Preston, two of our living director grandes dames (the third is Ramai Hayward), chose to make television series this year – Top of the Lake and Hope & Wire (not yet broadcast) respectively. (In the interview where Jane Campion advocated for quotas she also stated "It almost feels like TV has the smart audience. You can be more adventurous in TV than you can in film, as viewers know the world's a strange place and don't mind seeing it. You can be as ambitious as you want".) Both are represented by 'Making Of' features.

Australian director Clare Young directed the must-see From the Bottom of the Lake, a portrait of Jane Campion at work on Top of the Lake, described as 'intimate, elegant and funny'. Must-see because any film about a New Zealand woman artist at work is a rare event and this artist is very special to us as well as to the global film-loving community. Gaylene Preston's 'Making Of' film is her Making Utu (1983). It accompanies Geoff Murphy's new cut of his epic, Utu Redux and 'celebrates the chutzpah, ingenuity and burgeoning national pride of a bunch of young cowboys out in the wild making the epic New Zealand movie of their dreams'. It will be an engaging contrast to From the Bottom of the Lake. And I love it that both Jane Campion's daughter Alice Englert and Gaylene Preston's daughter Chelsie Preston Crayford also have work in the festival. Alice Englert appears in Sally Potter's Ginger & Rosa, as Rosa. Chelsie Preston Crayford, who is also an actor, co-wrote and directed a short film in competition, with Sylvia Varnham O'Regan: Here Now, in which she also acts. She talks about it here. Two pretty special film-making matrilineages?

Sophie Henderson in Fantail
Another actor, Sophie Henderson, wrote and acted in Fantail. Here's an interview with her. Let's hope that all goes smoothly with her next feature script and that she moves into directing soon.

from Lauren Jackson's I'm Going To Mum's
B. Shorts
It's great to see that women directed three of the six the finalist films in New Zealand's Best Short Film Competition (selected by Alison Maclean from a shortlist of twelve chosen by festival programmers) and two have women as central characters.  Chelsie Preston Crayford's Here Now is joined by Lauren Jackson's I'm Going To Mum's, and Aidee Walker's Friday Tigers| Nga Taika o Te Ramere; Aidee is another actor/director/writer who appears in her own film. Women also directed three of the seven Nga Whanaunga Pasifika Shorts. Lauren Jackson's I'm Going To Mum's is there again, alongside Catherine Bisley's Wide Eyed and Renae Maihi's Butterfly.

There are more shorts screening with features, some perhaps from that shortlist of twelve: Kirsten Green's Strongman, Mei Ling Cooper's The Small Movements, Gaylene Barnes and Ed Davis' The Mobile Meat Processing Unit,  Belle Barber and Linden Kirkby's Nell the Narcoleptic – Asleep on the Job, Prisca Bouchet and Nick Mayow's Le Taxidermiste.

These directors are our future. Let's go to see their new work, talk and write about them, look out for their crowdfunding campaigns. Let's treasure them.

Trailers etc - Happy to hear of more!

The Deadly Ponies Gang

Us And the Game Industry

I couldn't find the Gardening With Soul trailer on YouTube or Vimeo and the NZ Herald trailers have a strange big player if I embed them, and play automatically. But here's the Herald link if you want it.

Soul in the Sea 


Friday Tigers|Nga Taika o Te Ramere 

Booking details at #NZFF (differs according to your region; I've linked to Wellington).

For the festival's narrative films written and/or directed by women from other parts of the world see here


  1. Towards the end of this interview Dana Rotberg discusses what it was like to make the Kiwi film White Lies without any male leads. Although her film isn't the festival, it's doing the rounds at almost the same time.[cast]=103

  2. Many thanks, Miriam. I'll add the link here, too:


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