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Disappointment, Gratitude & A Call For Help



It's New Zealand International Film Festival (#nziff) Time! Again. I've asked if the festival will follow Cannes' example and release details about how many women-directed works were submitted this year. My request was passed on to the programmers. No response yet.

And now the New Zealand feature-length selections have been announced, plus a doco by Florian Habicht which was not on the initial list (perhaps there are more to come).

Five narrative features. Not one has a woman writer or director. Only one, Gerard Johnstone's Housebound, has a woman protagonist.

There are nine New Zealander-made feature docos in the festival. Two that a woman has directed on her own and a third that a woman co-directed. Susy Pointon's Tūmanako/Hope is about life on the Hokianga, a 'documentary portrait of several generations of inhabitants: local iwi, long-established farming families, and the alternative lifestylers of the 60s and 70s who put down roots and stayed'. Sarah Cordery's Notes to Eternity is an analysis of the conflict between Palestine and Israel, featuring Noam Chomsky, Sara Roy, Norman Finkelstein, Robert Fisk and Moussa Abu Hashhash.

Abi King-Jones, who has co-directed three docos with Errol Wright, including Operation 8: Deep in the Forest (2011) and edited Alister Barry's A Civilised Society (2007) and The Hollow Men (2008) is Barry's co-director (and editor) in Hot Air, about climate change politics in New Zealand.

Jean Watson on her bike, in Aunty & The Star People

And there's a single doco about a woman, Gerard Smyth's Aunty and The Star People, about writer and philanthropist Jean Watson.

In New Zealand’s Best, the short film competition, festival programmers Bill Gosden and Michael McDonnell viewed 115 submissions to make a shortlist of 12, from which Andrew Adamson selected six finalists. Eleven is the only woman-directed work selected. Eleven is about schoolgirls and was first shown at the Berlinale. It's in every way elegant, a joy to watch. It made me think and feel. It's a must-see, I reckon, for anyone interested in women's filmmaking. Women wrote (Kate Prior), directed (Abigail Greenwood), produced (Kate Prior), shot (Ginny Loane) and edited (Annie Collins) Eleven. It's exciting to imagine that this team might make a feature.

In the Ngā Whanaunga Māori and Pasifika short film programme, Leo Koziol (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Rakaipaaka), Director of the Wairoa Māori Film Festival and Craig Fasi (Niue), Director of the Pollywood Film Festival, selected seven Māori and Pasifika short films. Women wrote and directed two, In The Rubbish Tin and Tohunga. Both feature girls.

In The Rubbish Tin
Riwia Brown (Ngāti Porou, Te Whānau-ā-Apanui) wrote and directed In The Rubbish Tin
Abandoned on her birthday, Pippa escapes into an imaginary world with her best friend Chubby
Riwia Brown's best known as the writer of Once Were Warriors, and has written other feature-length works. I'm waiting for a new feature from her, perhaps one that she directs.

Rebecca Collins (Te Rarawa [Ngāti Te Reinga]) wrote and directed Tohunga
When a young boy falls ill, a family turns to tohunga for help. Unknowingly, a young girl bears witness to a world never meant for her.
I compared the selections with last year and 2012, but because I don't keep the programmes and sometimes haven't posted about the New Zealand contributions separately, I may be mistaken. Please let me know if so. I think that in each of the last two years there was a single New Zealand woman's narrative feature in the programme. In 2012, there was Existence, written by Juliet Bergh and Jessica Charlton and directed by Juliet. In 2013 there was Fantail, written by Sophie Henderson (and directed by Curtis Vowell and in NZ cinemas now, see it if you can!). Both films have women protagonists. Both came out of the New Zealand Film Commission's (NZFC) low budget feature programme, Escalator. In the feature documentary programme, last year there was Jess Feast's Gardening With Soul about Sister Loyola and Amy Taylor's Soul in the Sea that featured Kirsty Carrington; and five other New Zealand women-directed docos on other subjects. I'm not sure about the docos in 2012.

In the short film programmes, last year and in 2012, women directed three of the six finalists in New Zealand's Best. Last year women directed three of the Ngā Whanaunga shorts (one of them also in New Zealand's Best) and the year before five out of seven.(Both years, there were other shorts by New Zealand women in the general programme and I imagine that'll be so this year as well.)

So, the presence of New Zealand women writers and directors at #nziff seems to be dropping. And regardless of the #nziff selection process, it seems there may be some 'pipeline' problems for women who make movies in New Zealand, particularly feature films. This may be partly because of our very low participation in films made without NZFC support (which mirrors our low participation in 48 Hours, only 6% directed by women). I suspect this low participation is because in general women have access to fewer resources – of time and money – than men do, although young women compete strongly in The Outlook for Some Day, New Zealand’s sustainability film challenge, for example. And when I thought about the pipeline, I returned to an essay I wrote recently for Women Screenwriters: An International Guide, about New Zealand women screenwriters' participation in feature film development.

From the Pipeline, With Gratitude to NZ's Women Screenwriters

I've been researching gender and the New Zealand feature development process for almost nine years now. It's always felt a little mysterious that there are so few NZFC-funded women-written and -directed features here, because women writers do so well in other mediums (for recent successes, think Eleanor Catton and Ella Yelich-O'Connor). And to give just one screen-related example, for a tiny country New Zealand women writers have had exceptional success at the Academy Awards. Jane Campion won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for The Piano (one of only seven women ever). Fran Walsh was nominated for the same award, with Peter Jackson, for Heavenly Creatures. She and Philippa Boyens, again with Peter Jackson, received a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay for Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and they won Best Adapted Screenplay for Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.

But over the decade to the end of 2013, women wrote only twenty-three percent of all narrative feature films produced with investment from the NZFC. And only fourteen percent of the NZFC-funded narrative films in that period had a woman protagonist (some of them written, co-written/directed by men).

For my PhD I recorded and analysed women's participation in the NZFC initiatives like its short film programmes, used as pathways to making features. I also analysed the applications and successful applications that women writers and directors made to the NZFC's feature development funding programmes, for the three years ending 30 June 2009. That research showed that women-written and -directed feature projects were not equally represented in applications (usually under 30%) and that they were allocated funding in a proportion that was roughly equivalent to their proportion of the applications. The number of their applications and successful applications diminished the closer their projects got to production funding. It seemed possible that women's projects didn't readily attract appropriate producers and directors and then were unable to cross that final hurdle into production because they struggled to find the necessary distribution commitments from outside the NZFC. Now, I wonder if scripts with female protagonists are problematic in the system.

For the Women Screenwriters essay, I thought an update was necessary and asked the NZFC for application information, offering to come in to record it from their files, as I did for my PhD. When a response wasn't immediately forthcoming, I made a big spreadsheet from the NZFC's annual reports, for the years ending 30 June 2010-2013.

I wanted to explore–
What proportion of the features funded for development had women writers;

What dollar proportion of the funding went to women-written projects (Do projects with women writers ask for as much money as projects with men do? Are they allocated as much money as men are?); and

Does it make a difference if women write with men? (Do projects with men and women writers ask for more money? Are they allocated more money? And, at the back of that another question, is it possible that working with a man gives confidence/credibility/privilege to a woman writer?)
I also referred to information from two New Zealand Writers Guild (NZWG) feature script initiatives, where scripts are blind read, its Unproduced Feature Script award and the Seed Grant programme, the latter recently devolved from the NZFC. From the information so far available I am satisfied that women writers participate in these initiatives as strongly as men do, and that the results reflect their altogether equal capacity. In the first round of the Seed Grant, for instance, there were 49 projects, 20 (40%) written by women. There were three successful applications, one script co-written by two women, one script written by a woman and a third by a man. In the next round (results in July) 30 of the 44 applications (70.5%) came from women, 13 from men and 1 was co-written by a man and a woman. It's unfortunate that the 'fairness' assurance that blind reading gives writers won't work once a script moves further into development.

In the past, at this very early stage of development, projects with women writers have been more successful than they have later in the development process and it's reasonable to infer that the rate of application must also have been higher. But never ever 70.5%! According to the NZFC annual reports, in the four years to June 30 2013, 29.2% of successful applications for funding in its seed development programme (including the programme's predecessor, the Writers Loan programme) were from women writers and 8.3% from women and men as co-writers.

Here are two summaries I created, with help from Katalin Galambos.

So yes, it may make a difference if a woman co-writes with a man (though at the early, writer only, seed funding stage the woman/man writer proportion of the investment dropped by 1%).

As I worked on my spreadsheet I became increasingly curious about some other issues including–
What is different and the same for women who write only for film and for those who write for some combination of theatre, television, film, webseries and the page?

What keeps women screenwriters going? What hinders them?

How do women who write for television and film experience the NZFC development process in comparison with the development process for television, via television network commissioners and New Zealand On Air's funding processes?
So I approached all the serious feature film writers I knew of, asking if they'd respond to a questionnaire. Script to Screen kindly assisted me by forwarding emails to some for whom I had no address. To my astonishment, of about 45 women I approached, directly or indirectly, 32 agreed to answer the questionnaire and 29 actually did so (including one who sent in her response after I first published this post). 'Astonished' because when I started to research this issue only two women would tell me their development stories in detail. It seemed that most were silent because they perceived discrimination but feared the consequences if they spoke out, even anonymously. This was overwhelming to encounter. And it's why I decided in the end to use autoethnography – the study of self in culture – as a methodology, to complement the bare facts of the statistics. This time around, I was surprised at some of those who agreed to take part. And surprised too at some of those who didn't.

Those who completed the questionnaire represent, I believe, a full range of New Zealand women who write feature film scripts: from the most experienced and award-winning (sometimes in other mediums) to those who've written several features but have yet to have one in production; women from three generations; Maori women in the same proportion as in the population; women from various New Zealand diasporas including Pasifika women (see here for my definition of 'diaspora'); queer and straight; lots who write in other mediums as well as for film; writers only, writer/directors, writer/producers and writer/director/producers.

After testing the questionnaire with a diverse group of four (big thanks to them and to the woman who picked up a significant ambiguity in the final questionnaire), I sent out the questionnaire with an introduction that included this–
I’ve allocated each participant a [random] number and asked you not to identify your projects by name, so that I can distance myself a little from what I already know when I read the responses. I will be the only person with access to the response files and I will securely delete them all once I’ve transferred all the information to a single masterfile without any identifiers. I may draw on the masterfile when writing/speaking in other forums e.g. my Wellywood Woman blog.

Please write as much or as little as you like. I’d love feelings as well as facts. There are no right or wrong answers. I expect only that your responses will sometimes surprise me and that I’ll learn new things, as I have throughout this eight-year project, especially in the interviews for Wellywood Woman. (I imagine that now and then as I read I’ll also feel delight and anger, will laugh, cheer, get a lump in my throat--) One tester responded in red type and the colour was helpful.

If you’d prefer to respond orally [three did, with one still to complete], I’m happy to Skype or to ring you. Please don’t hesitate to contact me with any questions...
I received a tsunami of information, far more than I could use in my allocated 4,000 words. Some was factual, like the numbers of feature scripts and full treatments the participants had written over the last decade and the proportion of their income they received from various kinds of writing. Some was about perceptions and feelings. Some responses were brief, others very long. I'm forever grateful to the participants.

In relation to 'pipeline' issues, several things struck me. First, almost 80% of the scripts participants had written had women as central protagonists. At first I thought, 'oh, probably the women who responded are more likely to be those who are interested in women's stories'. But no, when I checked the completed work of some of the women who didn't participate I established that they too tell women's stories. Is there some kind of (perhaps unconscious) bias against stories about women, among producers when they choose projects to work with, at the NZFC and among distributors? Certainly, until very recently, the received global wisdom has been that there are small audiences for films about women. Until very recently, women as audiences have been universally underestimated as a rich source of income. (I longed to see films from some of the scripts that participants told me about.)

Always, always, getting a feature film script onto the screen is very hard. And it's often difficult to know when a gender bias affects a script's progress to the screen. From the responses, I learned that some of these writers interpret rejection very differently than others. When recounting an almost identical experience, one viewed rejection as an NZFC failure to recognise a commercial project, another viewed her script's rejection as a gender-related decision. And perhaps for both projects either interpretation or both could be valid.

Occasionally, I read about overtly sexist behaviour. A writer whose work I love wrote about her experience with one script I long to see onscreen–
[Someone in the film world asked informally] who the protagonist of my feature film was. I said it was a little girl. They snorted through their nose and looked away. “Well there you go”, they said, “Who cares about a little girl?”
The completed questionnaires also reveal how significant advocacy can be for a talented and hard-working writer. For instance, one writer knew a fellow writer (a man) who suggested her name, among others, as someone worth considering for a project. She competed successfully for the work and worked hard. The project was successful and that led to more work. There were other similar examples. Sometimes the advocate also became a mentor, or a mentor became an advocate, but in this small sample advocates who provided a writer with opportunities or advanced their interests in another way tended to be different people than mentors who contributed to the work's development as a script. Do enough advocates – men and women – remember to include women in their lists when they're asked for suggestions?

My last question was about ‘How to create within our lives’, partly inspired by what Australian director Sophie Hyde had said in a recent interview. Here's the question–
How to create within our lives is historically a problem for many women. I added this section after one beta tester wrote about the ‘compulsion’ of film-making and another about her complex mix of writing and domestic responsibilities and her need for income. They reminded me of the issues that inspired two posts I wrote recently– Beyond ‘Career’ and Sharing The Love
Who and what keeps you going? How? What hampers the development of your feature film scripts/other writing/career (that you haven’t already referred to)? Do you think these things are any different than for the men you know who write feature films?
A couple of women, who have achieved considerable success in other mediums and who described ongoing struggles to find funding for their feature film projects, were adamant that despite this nothing hindered their progress. Others provided 'compulsion' reasons for keeping going. I especially liked this response for its detail about the daily demands of that compulsion and because it also illustrates that for some participants the main reason that they haven't made a feature is that they're not yet ready–
What keeps me going is an inner drive to never just be ‘normal’ that I’ve always had. It is unbearable for me to think about a life where I wasn’t working towards something more creatively. It is not about fame or fortune, it is about getting to the point where I know I am an expert at my craft, which I am many years away from. I suspect this all comes from growing up in a small, boring town with lovely (but very ordinary) parents. I can’t tell you where the needing more than that came from, it’s there and it’s in my best friend from that small town too (he’s working towards the same career as me in [another city]). This is how I know it’s nothing to do with our genders – it’s just who we are. I actually have no idea what drives my other screenwriter friends (male or female), but I guess it probably all comes from a similar place. As for what hampers me – time. Time is my biggest issue, because I need to work 40 hours a week at a job that isn’t screenwriting to pay my rent and put food in the cat’s bowl and so on.

This means I work very long days sometimes in order to cram in my day job, and some screenwriting, and meetings for other projects. But, as I said above, it is not an option for me to *not* do these things, and that’s fine by me. I do hope to one day avoid the 40 hour a week day job all together, but I’ve got a lot of learning to do before that so I better put in the long hours while I’m still spritely enough to do so!

One last thing I want to say: I don’t believe the projects I have listed above as declined funding applications give a super accurate reading when turned into data on their own. What a graph can’t tell you is that those projects are all learning projects, undertaken while in the very early stages of learning to write. When I look back over a few of them now (specifically feature A, and treatments D, E & F), I know exactly why they weren’t funded – because they’re completely shitty writing by a baby [writer] with zero experience in structuring a good story.

I really believe that screenwriting is a craft, and like song writing, it takes thousands of hours of practice. So to look at my results and think ‘This female writer has had every application declined’ doesn’t work without knowing the other side of the story – they weren’t ready yet and I wasn’t ready yet. I’m still not, but I’m getting closer as the years tick by. If you ask me to fill this out again in ten years and I’m still putting in the same amount of effort and everything still says declined, then I’ll be upset. But for now: it’s all just learning. If any of those projects had somehow been greenlit, I’m sure they would have been more detrimental to my career than helpful – so thank goodness they weren’t!
Finally, it surprised me that 'classic' gender issues continue to affect women's writing practices as strongly as ever. Yes, there are women who have outstanding support for their work in their domestic lives, from partners, from extended family. Some are able to take that for granted and this appears to make a significant difference to their progress and to their resilience when they meet inevitable setbacks. There are also women who are supported to a lesser extent, particularly by partners who subsidise the family income. Other women with children run their households and their careers while their partners run only their careers. Here's the fullest account of this relatively common 21st century experience–
I run the lives of myself and the children, whereas [my partner], who is in the same business as me but not a writer, essentially runs one life – his own.

He does domestic work when he’s home, but if he’s working he’s not home and he doesn’t think how it’s all going to run – how it will all be possible. He knows I will run it and he doesn’t think about how. When I am working, I have to delegate childcare and transport and meals and all the rest of it to someone else, actually figure out who is going to do it, organise that person and most times pay them. The brain-space and energy that this takes is something I think most men have no awareness of. Women accept that they are the bottom line for their children because it’s the bedrock truth – we want them to be happy and secure and well-cared-for and so we do the work, and men see us doing it and they think – sweet! That’s taken care of, I can just get on with what I do. And that would make life a whole lot simpler, to have someone else taking care of it.

But I, along with every other working mother I know, would much rather have this double workload than be without my children. And because insisting that the load be equally shared just feels like the road to a lot of arguing and resentment and an unhappy home, a bad atmosphere. Fifty years of feminism hasn’t chipped away at this one all that much! But I’d still rather be a woman today than at any other time in history, with the choices I have and the ability to make my own living and have children...I don’t see men being privileged in my working life but I do see them being enormously privileged in their domestic lives! And I think women allow them to be privileged because we love our children.
More from another writer, about how domestic privilege may affect how men work on their careers–
The pressures have been different — [my partner] doesn’t feel torn down the middle by the emotional demands of children and creative work — but the pressure for him to earn money at the expense of following his passion has been intense... [He] has been doggedly determined, and has put himself out there with producers and networking in ways I never have — and probably never would — and he’s starting to see results but it has been a long, hard road. I have seen him thwarted by issues that have nothing to do with gender, but that perhaps a lot of women, especially those with children, don’t have the time or energy to persist with. A lot of what passes for filmmaking in this country is ninety percent bullshit and ego (people with no craft skills or rigour talking up their latest project over a beer at [a fashionable bar]) and it’s a side of the industry I have no time or patience for. ([My partner] comes up against this problem time and again but he’s more prepared to drink the [fashionable bar] beers…☺) However, I think if you look at the other ten percent, at who is making films in a serious way, without all the bullshit — the quiet achievers — you’ll find a lot of them are women... I too will be taking the stealth approach.
Do these cultural differences affect women's participation in 48 Hours, too, that blokey bastion? They certainly seem to affect women screenwriters without children when they consider having children–
I have had very slow periods where work is not forthcoming, and have been rather poor at times, but have not had to seriously consider giving up what I love doing (and hope I’ll never have to!) In this way I do not think I am any different to the men I know who write feature films – we are all trying to fit writing around our day jobs, friends, partners and families, and are trying to balance our need for financial security with our need [for] creative fulfilment. I am lucky to have a supportive partner with a ‘regular job’ whose pay check we can hopefully continue to rely on, even if mine is entirely unreliable!

I am thinking more and more about what having a family of my own would mean for my writing and the progression of my career. My home is currently also my workspace – an arrangement that would be much more difficult with children around (although some women, like my marvellous script editor seem to manage this well – [our meetings] are constantly interrupted by small voices calling out to her from the other room!) While I imagine I’ll be able to continue working on projects with flexible deadlines, I worry about whether I would be able to continue doing TV work, which requires weeks of solid time in the writers room. I also wonder whether I will stop getting offers of work as soon as I make the decision to have children. I don’t believe that this is the way it has to be, and hope that if [I work] with other women we will be able to find ways to continue making films and telling stories in ways that suit us and the lifestyles we choose to have.
There's so much more I could add, but I hope this gives a flavour of how some of the issues affect women who write features and in turn perhaps affect the statistics.

Statistics from the NZFC and NZOA

While I engaged with the questionnaires, every now and then I sent a reminder to the NZFC about the application stats. Eventually, I asked for the information under the Official Information Act. And because I was thinking about some of the writers' responses about the differences between development in New Zealand television and development with the NZFC (which I may write about another time) I decided to ask NZOA for its gender stats too, for dramas they've funded since 2009. By then it was only a fortnight or so to deadline. And both sets of statistics arrived at about the same time, just as I was about to send off my essay.

The NZFC didn't send me the raw data (I wouldn't of course expect any identifying details re applicants, beyond gender), just some bar graphs with some details as notes, as a .pdf labelled 'Presence of female writers in applications and funded applications in the fiscal years 2009‐2014'. I learned from this that I need to be very careful to be precise when requesting information.

At first glance, I couldn't align the information in the NZFC graphs with what I recorded and knew. And after a closer look I have a number of questions. In particular, the graphs don't distinguish between women writers and women writers who write with men. What that means, using the figures from the pie charts above as an example, is that the information provided in the 'women and men' slice is added to the 'women' slice to make the 'women's presence' 30.3%. But because the graphs don't provide parallel information about the 'men's presence', we don't see that the 'men's presence' is (in the pie chart example) 75.7% and that the combined total for both genders is therefore more than 100%. This has the effect of making women writers' participation appear stronger than it is.

NZOA sent a letter with the statistics it supplied, which show a strong representation of women writers in dramas they fund. But the list came with a caveat–
The type of information that you have requested is data that we generally do not collate. However we have compiled a spreadsheet of information listing key drama creatives that we do know, and hope this may be able to assist you... Please note that many of these programmes have multiple writers: for example, a series like Nothing Trivial could have more than 10 credited writers. It is this kind of data that we do not have.

Please treat this data as correct but incomplete. We have not included scripted comedy series such as Agent Anna.

I suggest you contact the producers and co-writers directly for more information.

A Call For Help

Right now, I'm torn. My draft essay's in and the editors say that they'll send me their comments before the end of their summer. I'm glad I wrote it. I feel privileged to have read the stories I received and I enjoyed crafting a piece that I believe does justice to New Zealand women screenwriters who write feature films.

But I need to check and break down my own NZFC Annual Report-generated spreadsheet by year, to create graphs that parallel those supplied by the NZFC and further understand the discrepancies I perceive. How can I integrate the information I now have? And, did I make mistakes? (I don't think so.)

And the thought of contacting producers and writers for more information, as NZOA suggests, is daunting.

At the moment, I can't face doing the necessary work on the NZFC and NZOA-generated statistics. I do 'academic' work like the Women Screenwriters essay because it follows on from my PhD and because I'm curious and because I'm an activist. But I'm not working from within an institution with access to its resources, I'm not paid to do any of it, I'm not a numbers natural, have to do my tax. And I have other research and writing I prefer to do, am desperate to take my imagination for a run.

Help!!! Is there someone out there who has statistical skills and more resources than I have, who would like the challenge of completing this little project, so that I can confidently refer to the NZFC and NZOA statistics in the final draft of my essay? I paid Katalin Galambos to help but she's gone now and I can't pay you. But I'd be forever appreciative, delighted to credit you and you'd be free to access the information for your own publications (though not the questionnaires).

(In a related issue, because there are many more features made in New Zealand now than there were a decade ago, it's no longer possible to feel confident that it's possible to be comprehensive in this small country, to use it as a microcosm for exploring global gender-in-film issues. I'm aware, for instance, that even though I'm blessed to work with Michael Stephens to maintain my ongoing list of all New Zealand feature films produced, because his interests are slightly different than mine, it's harder now to sustain it with accuracy.)

In the meantime, I await the full #nziff programme and look forward to its many treats, hoping that next year there'll be at least a couple of narrative features written by New Zealand women. (Of the programme so far announced, I'm most excited about Alice Rohrwacher's Le Meraviglie/ The Wonders, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes. I'm slightly obsessed about bees.)

Note: I've added information since this was first published, to take account of emailed responses and a second thought or two.