Beyond 'Career'

White Lies: Tuakiri Huna: the book
White Lies|Tuakiri Huna premiered on 27 June. It's a story about three women. And (yes!) it's New Zealand's very own Bechdel Test film. Adapted – from Witi Ihimaera's Medicine Woman novella – and directed by Dana Rotberg, a Mexican director living in New Zealand, it's doing well. Here in Wellington, it's towards the end of its theatrical release. The producer, South Pacific Pictures, is "very pleased", because it "continues to have terrific word-of-mouth which we know has contributed to its extended run at cinemas, both in New Zealand’s main centres and regionally." And White Lies|Tuakiri Huna is off to the Toronto International Film Festival's Contemporary World Cinema programme soon, where it will screen alongside some other interesting women-directed films. Dana Rotberg (Dana, although I've met her only once, very briefly) will travel to Toronto for Q & As following screenings on 9, 11 and 14 September.

The film has also generated a book. It includes three versions of the story – a new White Lies novella from Witi Ihimaera, the original novella, and Dana Rotberg's script. There are also stills from the film, an introduction from South Pacific Pictures' John Barnett ('John' although I don't know him) explaining how he met Dana Rotberg  and gave her a Witi Ihimaera collection to read, notes from Dana and from Witi Ihimaera, a thoughtful collection of acknowledgements from Dana and a full list of cast and crew. For me, it was a solid, fascinating read.

But today, I want to focus on two elements of the book, the Acknowledgments and the Introduction.

I often hear or read that if women are in a majority (on a selection committee, say) or in charge (of a gatekeeping function), things will improve for women artists of various kinds, including scriptwriters and directors for film and television. And every time I read that, I sigh. Because that hasn't been my experience. Most of those who've advocated for me and my own work have been men. Many of those I've observed advocating for women storytellers, as storytellers, have been men. There are a few notable exceptions, but as women, we're all socialised to support golden boys and stories about men.  And within institutions we tend to become part of the patriarchy. This is often necessary, to survive. Some of us bring resistance with us, are highly resilient and strongly supported and may be able to sustain our resistance. Others don't and aren't and can't.

I also sigh when organisation-speak – ‘career’, ‘mentorship’, ‘networking’ – and its associated paradigms dominate discussions about how to ensure that more work by and about women reaches screen audiences. I sigh at their primary focus on paid work, including circumstances where individuals, organisations and systems withhold appropriate payment from artists, in the contexts referred to in this poster, in internships and through illegal downloading.




Of course all these things are important. Of course I support people being paid for their work. But when organisation-oriented discussion focuses solely on individual ‘careers’, making money and comparative incomes, on structural problems like sexism and on negative questions about women’s behaviour, like ‘Why don’t women compete more?’ this deflects attention from other significant, gendered, and positive practices that affect women’s participation in organisation-dominated filmmaking, (or theatre, publishing, exhibition). As patterns of behaviour, these arts-specific practices can be described as ‘creative life making’ – I'd prefer another term but this will work in the interim, as a response to debates about 'creative work' and 'the creative industries'. There may be men with similar practices, but in my observation and from what I’ve heard these practitioners tend to be women.

The practices can sometimes be linked to 'career', to 'mentorship' or to 'networking' or to ‘work/life balance’ as expressed in other professions, in intersectionalities that parallel the intersectionalities of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality and class. But not always. I’m most familiar with them in association with women who are committed to the hard, solitary work of generating a story from scratch, using various literary and visual mediums, who view that work as part of a wider creative life that often embraces activism, who honour their wide-ranging interdependencies, and whose responses to opportunity are not governed by ‘career’ imperatives. But I think they may affect women's participation in filmmaking as writers and directors, too, remembering Meryl Streep's reasons about why she does not direct, in this clip (not available in New Zealand now and maybe not outside the United States); and her statement that "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."

Writer and activist Alice Walker provides an excellent example of creative life making because she’s had a highly successful ‘career’. She explained her position in an interview referred to by Pratibha Parmar, following the release of Pratibha Parmar’s film Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth (full interview below).
I have a certain spirit and I [do]n’t suppress it. I have tried hard to honor it...the spirit of creativity—standing with people who are in danger, the commitment to the people I love, including my daughter...I was brought up in a culture where to be a mother...was to be the mother in the old, old, old sense, where you were the mother to children everywhere.
Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980), the distinguished writer and activist who taught Alice Walker at college, provides an example of the how and why this kind of woman artist responds to ‘career’ opportunities. This comes from research for Throat of These Hours, a play I’m writing about her: the research has helped me understand the ‘creative life making’ option a little better:
After Muriel’s son was born in 1947, she was ‘saved by a benefactor in a curious and wonderful way,’ with money that kept her going until 1954 when she started to teach part-time at Sarah Lawrence College. She took other part-time jobs to support the teaching. 'The next most unpractical thing – next to writing poetry,' she said, 'is part-time teaching.' She never wanted more than part-time teaching because she felt her interactions with her students removed her need to go home and write a poem. And when Sarah Lawrence offered to give her tenure she said that if the college gave her tenure she'd leave. ‘I couldn't be a tenured professor at any college; it would make me very nervous’ she said. The college gave her tenure anyway. For her own protection, it said. And she left. And relied on part-time teaching, other part-time jobs, poetry readings and help from friends.
I think there are many women storytellers made ‘very nervous’ by institution- and organisation-oriented ‘career’ opportunities. In film this might mean that they do not compete for an Academy Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting, seek work at a large production company, pitch to Hollywood, or apply for state funding for a film.

Some also avoid teaching, especially if – unlike Muriel Rukeyser – they've worked beside men who sustain a teaching career alongside a critically and commercially successful artistic career. These men benefit within often-sexist institutions and often part of this benefit comes from the women who are their colleagues, who, to the detriment of their own creative work, not only have to live with the sexism but also tend to take more responsibility for the pastoral care of students. But whether or not this is part of their experience, women who select the creative life making option may prefer to teach (if at all) outside educational institutions or to depend on poorly paid caring or other physical work to support their storytelling habits and to open their hearts, to practise the empathy necessary to create stories. Any of these choices leaves them (us!) free to ignore apparently golden ‘career’ opportunities and other paid work if they don’t fit a considered and chosen direction.

I often refer back to poet/filmmaker/painter Joanna Paul’s statement from the 1970s, because I believe that many of women practitioners, even those for whom domestic life can be problematic, would share Joanna's understanding of the role of storytelling, beyond the constrictions of 'career', job, vocation:
As a woman painting is not a job, not even a vocation. It is part of life, subject to the strains, and joys, of domestic life. I cannot paint unless the house is in order. Unless I paint I don't function well in my domestic roles. Each thing is important. The idea that one sacrifices other values for art is alien to me, and I think to all women whose calling it is to do and be many things. To concentrate all meaning and all energy in a work of art is to leave life dry and banal. I don't wish to separate the significant and everyday actions but to bring them as close as possible together. It is natural for women to do this; their exercise and their training and their artistry is in daily living. Painting for me as a woman is an ordinary act—about the great meaning in ordinary things. Anonymity pattern utility quietness relatedness.
Embracing these ideas can happen at any time, too.  I enjoy the example here, where E.L. James acknowledges her 'successful career' before 50 Shades of Grey and seems to have adopted the creative life making option.
It seems her deepest desire is to be anonymous once more. She said: ‘I’ve realised I don’t want celebrity. I want to be able to go on the Tube and listen to my iPod and no one knows who I am. I’ve had a very successful career in TV, which I really enjoyed, so to have all this suddenly happen to me in middle age has been a huge bonus, but I almost feel as if it’s happening to someone else. Meanwhile, I come home at night and do the laundry and chat to my children and that’s the real part of my life.
A sense of generational interdependence (and its 'huge ties of love') is another element of 'career'-intersectional practices. The  artists I associate with creative life making often refer to their connections to those born earlier and later, often women and often in language connected to mothering, as a concept and as a metaphor. I'd like to know more about the parameters of this element, to hear it discussed in relation to the stories its presence generates, without judgment. As a broad reference point it embraces women storytellers' personal experiences of being mothered and mothering others, whether biologically or ‘in the old old sense where you were the mother to children everywhere’. When I read or listen to the stories, this mothering concept seems much grittier than ‘earth mother’ essentialism; has nothing to do with ‘having it all’ discussions; may detract from the experiences of these artists’ biological children – for whom I’ve observed that it may not be helpful to have a mother who is one of these women; and usually generates activism of some kind.

The activism is demonstrated through a practitioner’s deep commitment to a collective or collectives for whom 'career' language and practices are often meaningless or have a low priority. In another expression of intersectionality, this commitment may or may not include parallel engagement with ‘career’-oriented ‘networking’ and ‘community’, whether represented by social media engagement (E.L. James is an awesome tweeter) or by involvement with professional organizations like Women in Film & Television or the local Writers Guild. It will also, usually, include interdependency practices that may conflict with 'career' imperatives, practices associated with 'huge ties of love' – with celebration or crisis or neighbourly need, when we prioritise a visit or a call to say 'How can I help?', drop off some food or pick up and care for a child or an elderly person, take action to help the environment we all share, or to support those adversely affected by war or injustice.

Is it possible to pay attention to creative life making, to take it very seriously as a concept and a practice and to consider how to use its principles to enrich ideas for increasing the quantity of stories by and about women, especially onscreen? I just listened to Stephanie Meyer speak in a podcast (20 minutes in) about the 'village feel' associated with women working together to make Austenland and felt yes!, there's potential. Yes, it can be done.

Among the patterns of behaviour that characterise creative life making are life-enhancing practices associated with the reciprocity of deep collaboration: full-hearted generosity and its other side, full-hearted acknowledgement. This is where Dana's list of acknowledgements comes in. John's introduction to White Lies|Tuakiri Huna tells how he got a call from Rosa Bosch "an effervescent, incredibly well-connected film sales agent" based in London. Rosa Bosch told him that a friend of hers
...a film director who had been a leading light in the Mexican film industry in the early nineties, had now moved to New Zealand, and we should meet...Dana and I met and I asked what she wanted to do creatively. She told me she wanted to settle in New Zealand and be a mother to Rina [her daughter]. In late 2007, Dana invited me to a party she was having for her father, who was visiting from Mexico. I took her a book of Witi's short stories, Ask The Posts of The House. Some months later, Dana told me that she had found a project and that it was the novella Medicine Woman, which was one of the stories in Ask The Posts.
John, who also produced Whale Rider, was captured by Dana's focus on identity as a theme in Medicine Woman. And South Pacific Pictures took on board Dana and her script.

OK, this can be read as a fine example of a successful process that involved an established 'career', a well-functioning 'network' and (maybe) 'mentoring'. But note that Dana's response to John's question about what she wanted to do 'creatively' had nothing to do with 'career' and that her other response to his 'networking' initiative was to invite him to a party at home, to meet her father. And turn the last page of John's Introduction to reach Dana's Acknowledgments and there's further evidence of elements that have nothing to do with 'career' and its imperatives.

Almost all books have an Acknowledgments page, often interesting and amusing. But Dana's is a little different. It appears to flow from the circle of reciprocity, a storyteller's full-hearted response to the generosity of others. It starts with
I acknowledge with gratitude all those who made the film White Lies – Tuakiri Huna possible (in chronological order).
It continues for over six pages of thoughtful, highly specific gratitude. In comparison, Dana's scriptwriter/director notes are fourteen pages long, only just over twice the size.

The acknowledgements list starts with a look back, to Dana's own history.
Bobe Tere-Teresa Goldsmit Brindis: I made this film in memory of the tears I saw you shed, longing for the true colour of your soul.
It includes thanks to Dana's daughter, with specific details of her contributions, and to her parents.

The acknowledgements include some other 'obvious' ones like these:
Rosa Bosch and Sheila Whitaker: For believing that my voice as a filmmaker was still alive, no matter for how many years it had been silent. And for working so hard so we can all see this film fly high.
John Barnett: You took the risk and believed in me, a total stranger with an explosive temperament. And you produced this film, an extreme challenge for all of us, and the most sacred experience I have ever had as a filmmaker. I thank you forever.
Witi Ihimaera: For your Medicine Woman, a most beautiful gift.
Dana's list includes those who first read the script and to those who later worked on bringing it to the screen. It refers to individual members of the cast and crew and to the cast and crew as a whole.

It acknowledges Julie Paama-Pengelly: For my ta moko, the creative portal you drew on my right forearm.

It acknowledges many Tuhoe individuals and groups, who, it seems likely, did not engage with the filmmaking to network, for profit, or to be mentored, although these things may have happened.

It's hard to convey in summary the spirit of Dana's list and how far it goes beyond what I've read (or heard) elsewhere. It's not written from duty, to please or appease those with power to affect her 'career'. Nor to amuse the reader. It seems infused with love for Dana's family and for the diverse individuals and communities (South Pacific Pictures as one among equals), the broad collective which 'made possible' White Lies|Tuakiri Huna.

After I read these acknowledgements, I turned back to John's Introduction and reflected on its differences, how – understandably – its language is generated by 'career' practices that focus on the individual rather than on interdependence.

In presenting my analysis of aspects of this introduction I'm not criticising John. I have so much respect for him as an advocate for quality and diversity, apparently for their own sakes as well as for their commercial benefits. He strongly supported the script-writing MA course that I took, where equal numbers of women and men enter the course and women achieve equally with men. I love the way that he's created a globally unique organisation where women writers participate fully and where South Pacific Pictures productions reflect something of New Zealand's diversity (though I'm sad its present owners live outside New Zealand). I believe he's a visionary. But in juxtaposition to Dana's acknowledgements his introduction (which is of course an introduction, not acknowledgments) provides a fine example of 'career' thinking and its expression, practices that remind me of a Quasimodo poem Ognuno Sta Solo Sul Cuor Della Terra
Everyone stands alone at the heart of the world,
pierced by a ray of sunlight,
and suddenly it’s evening.
And although the introduction also provides heartfelt discussions of John's interest in identity and of the ownership of the ideas in White Lies|Tuakiri Huna, the 'career' context that they rest within lessens my heartfelt appreciation of John's role in helping to bring it to the screen.

It is of course appropriate that John's introduction is about his personal relationship to the film. But I struggled with his language, as the CEO of South Pacific Pictures and producer, because it doesn't acknowledge his presence within a collective and the generosity of others and there is some 'slippage' as a result, especially around the respective roles of producer and director.

The other day, I was in a house where they have an old Shorter Oxford Dictionary on the shelf, in two volumes. And I looked up 'producer'. It didn't have a definition for a film producer, but it did have one for a theatre producer as someone who
[puts a play] onstage before the public with the necessary complement of actors and scenic apparatus; manager or proprietor of a theatre.
Easily transferable to film producer. Then I looked up 'director'. There was no definition for a theatre or film director, but in general a director is
one who directs, rules, or guides, causes something to take a particular direction.
It seems to me that these old definitions, which derive from the words' Latin roots, distinguish the roles very well. A producer is the proprietor and the manager of available resources. The producer's role is to support a script writer and director to do her best work with the story. And when that's done, the producer takes that work to an audience. This is very similar to the way a publisher supports a writer's vision and takes it to readers, but a writer – of books or scripts – can be much more solitary than a director.

In contrast, a director, working with the resources the producer provides, is responsible only for what appears in the frame (though sometimes required to accept producer input that affects the choice of sequences that appear onscreen). Sometimes, the director is also the producer.

Unfortunately, because film producers and directors need some similar skills – advanced problem-solving, assertiveness, and the capacity to play well with others – the differences between creative producing and the artistic contributions of a director and her crew are sometimes obscured. This often happens when producers and directors are all described as 'filmmakers'. Parts of John's 'career' oriented introduction demonstrate this, when he places himself 'alone at the heart of the world' as someone who 'makes' films. He writes (emphases added):
White Lies, the film version of Medicine Woman, would be quite different from the other films I have made...one theme that captured me was 'identity', and that's something I am interested in...That was what determined my decision to work with Dana and to adapt Witi's work into the film...I am thrilled to say that I think the film Dana has made has realised the aspirations I had for this powerful story.
John's claim that he's made films doesn't work for me here, because, as I've tried to show, the producer doesn't make films; the producer (among others) makes them possible. And John seems to acknowledge this in his final sentence. And John didn't 'adapt' the novella, Dana did. And am I naive to think that a producer can have no direct aspirations for the story itself, because a producer is not responsible for the storytelling involved? Can't a producer hold only commercial aspirations, and the aspiration to be associated with any artistic success that a writer/director achieves? And what about that use of 'aspiration', anyway? Is 'aspiration' primarily about personal ambition, 'career', rather than collectivity? When I thought about this, I remembered Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" and thought, yes, that could never have been "I have an aspiration". This kind of introduction, I thought, is the inevitable outcome if debate about increased women's participation as storytellers for the screen follows the 'career' pathway only. And if the debate doesn't pay attention to other common 'heart' practices that women and some men engage with, I doubt that women's participation will increase.

Reflecting on the White Lies|Tuakiri Huna book, and the contrasts between its Introduction and Acknowledgements I remembered Carrie Tiffany's acceptance speech (audio) when she received Australia's inaugural Stella Prize for Mateship With Birds, back in April. And thought, yes, that's another example of behaviour that resists the language and imperatives of individual 'career' to focus instead on interdependence and reciprocity. It's another example of some of the beautiful things that women storytellers do that can be acknowledged and learned from and included in discussion about how to increase women storytellers' participation in public storytelling.



Carrie Tiffany, Stella Prize winner



The Stella Prize is
...named after one of Australia’s iconic female authors, Stella Maria ‘Miles’ Franklin, and celebrates women’s contribution to Australian literature. The Stella Prize rewards one writer with a significant monetary prize of $50,000.

The Stella Prize raises the profile of women’s writing through the Stella Prize longlists and shortlists, encourages a future generation of women writers, and brings readers to the work of Australian women.
The prize was established in response to VIDA’s well known ‘The Count’, which established that in the United States – as in Australia, but not in New Zealand – women writers are underrepresented in many of structures that support literature. And, as writer Kate Grenville points out on the Stella Prize site, women-only prizes have their place:
I am living proof that a women-only prize can be career changing. The Idea of Perfection, which won the Orange Prize, won no Australian awards and was only shortlisted for one minor prize. After that win my professional life turned around completely — suddenly my books were taken seriously, won prizes and for the first time featured on heavy-duty shortlists … Yes, a prize for women’s writing wouldn’t be necessary in an ideal world, but that isn’t the world we live in.
Carrie Tiffany's speech makes no mention of career, or networking or mentors, because, like Dana's acknowledgments (I believe) its purpose is to highlight the profound generosity it records.

It opens with a request for the longlisted and shortlisted writers to join Carrie. She says that this is because she's a little nervous. But in the context of what follows, I believe that she wanted to be sure that these other fine writers were also seen and acknowledged by the audience, as well as by her.  Carrie makes a lovely little joke (listen to the audio!) and then focuses on why the Stella matters. First, it honours the Australian women writers' tradition that made her work possible. In turn, she expresses her own appreciation.
The Stella is important because it fetes and honours the work of Australian women writers. When I sit down to write, there is an anchor that keeps me in place, and that anchor is all of the books that I have read. And on my desk just this morning, there were books by Christina Stead, Judith Wright, Thea Astley, Elizabeth Jolley, Shirley Hazzard, Beverly Farmer, Alexis Wright, Drusilla Modjeska, Helen Garner. My sentences would not have been possible without the sentences of these women, and the others I have read and continue to read. 
Carrie then refers to the facts, the stats, that affect Australian women writers:
The Stella is important because it helps to address the imbalance in attention given to the writing of male and female authors in Australia. I don't need to say them. The figures speak for themselves.
Then she moves to the Stella's significance in the larger community and from the past to the rpesent and future. I found this very powerful:
I think also the Stella is important because of the times that we live in. To write, and to take the work of reading and writing seriously, you must spend a great deal of time alone in a room. You must take yourself away from being looked at. And yet the pressure for women, I think young women in particular, is to be constantly available for a kind of sexualised visual consumption. To be preened and styled, tanned and exercised, toxically enhanced. The pressure for this has never been greater. For a woman to spend time alone in a room, to look rather than be looked at, means rejecting some of this pressure. It means doing something with your mind rather than your body. And I hope the Stella can demonstrate to young women that this too has its rewards.
Then Carrie talked about how two of the women on the shortlist had been instrumental in making her career happen. Neither of them as mentors. The first as an advocate for her work. Her first novel Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living had been ‘rejected by every publisher in Australia’ before it won the inaugural Victorian Premier’s Award for an Unpublished Manuscript in 2003.
I later learned there was one judge, a woman who literally beat the other judges into submission until my manuscript won that prize. It wasn't till after it won that prize that it was published.That woman was Cate Kennedy.
Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living was subsequently published by Picador, and became an international success.

Once published, that novel was launched by a ‘dear friend, a women writer I admire immensely' who had agreed to launch the book ‘only if she liked it, which is how it should be’. She did like the book, and gave a warm speech that Tiffany often looked back to for comfort. That woman was Michelle de Kretser. Again, this public support as not about 'career' or 'networking'. It was public support and advocacy that provided immediate and longer term personal sustenance.

Almost lastly (before some more acknowledgements related to her book), Carrie Tiffany moved from acknowledgement to generosity.
The Stella, as it has demonstrated in its openness and flexibility, is an opportunity to do things differently. It can be a way of celebrating the many rather than the few. And in that spirit I have returned $10,000 of the prize to be distributed among the shortlist. It should be more. I wish it could be more. But in fact I have some heavy duty creditors at the moment and I don't think I'm going to be able to keep this cheque secret. But I hope very much that in future years the Stella will be able to find funds to do this. I know they support my decision... and I think it would be a wonderful way of creating a new model for a prize which demonstrates something about the way women operate and the generosity of that.
‘This is selfish too,’ she added. ‘Because when you give writers money, you’re actually giving them time. And if I can hasten a little the next books from these women, well why wouldn’t I?’

Imagine if, as well as 'career', individual, thinking, discussions about increasing women's participation always gave equal weight to the elements Carrie refers to in her speech. Acknowledgement of what has come from other women writers and directors (problematic in film, where it is such a fragmented heritage): 'My [frames] would not have been possible without the [frames] of these women, and the others I have [watched] and continue to [watch].' Affirmation of women's resistance to pressure to be 'available for a kind of sexualised visual consumption', with special reference to the women of the next generation. Affirmation of the centrality of women's advocacy for and support for other women. Incorporation of the reciprocity practices that Dana and Carrie engage with. I think it would make a huge difference, not least to the women engaged in creative life making whose choice is ignored when it could be used as a model to build on and whose actions are (I think) often misrepresented and misunderstood, when they could be celebrated.

Finally, this glorious clip of three of the backing singers – Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer and Merry Clayton – portrayed in Twenty Feet From Stardom, an extraordinary doco.

The interview (which also includes discussion of music producer behaviour that is very director-like) starts by demonstrating how networking makes a career possible, when director Morgan Neville tells how producer (the late) Gil Friesen invited him to make a film about backing singers. And then illustrates the demarcation between the roles of producer and director. Morgan asks Gil 'What do you have in mind?' And Gil responds 'That's your job'.

Then the three singers take over. And I think their conversation reinforces my argument;  the clip is suffused with  creative life making and the women's acknowledgement and appreciation of each other and others.Yes, there's some of that career language. Merry Clayton acknowledges that Darlene Love mentored her. But what did she teach her? How to blend, to perform in a group. Yes, Merry Clayton sang her unforgettable part in the Rolling Stones' Gimme Shelter. But she had her warm bed in mind.  Darlene, Lisa and Merry join Dana and Carrie to reinforce the idea that to be in the world as a woman storyteller can mean doing differently and talking about it differently. There are no guarantees. Of course there are challenges, always. But honouring interdependence – those huge ties of love –  and working from the heart brings joy. Here they are.







PS I've finished this in a bus in a painter's garden, far from home.  And by chance, over the last few days I've heard new stories I could add here. Reassuring – this post took ages to write because I feel a little uncertain about it. Would love to know what you think.

For an excellent example of a New Zealand practitioner who fits this paradigm see Annie Collins: NZ Editor Extraordinaire.

29 September
And then there was Lorde, in this piece she wrote, which I read as a kind of manifesto. A landmark. So clear. So staunch. And illustrating similar creative-life-making traits. Bravissima!

Comments

  1. Marian, this is an amazing piece of writing that draws together so many important issues for women creatives today. Thank you for taking the time to put it into such a fascinating context. I think you've absolutely nailed the problems and the joys.

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  2. Thanks a million, Mandy. Lovely to read this comment at the end of a long day!

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