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Yes! #gendermatters at Bord Scannán na hÉireann/The Irish Film Board

In late December, the Irish Film Board, or Bord Scannán na hÉireann (IFB/BSE), announced its six-point Gender Equality Plan (Information; Funding; Training and Mentorship; Education; Enterprise; and Partnership). The plan includes a target of achieving 50/50 gender parity in funding over the next three years.

The IFB/BSE is the national development agency for Irish filmmaking and the Irish film, television and animation industry, the Irish version of Screen Australia and the New Zealand Film Commission, although there are some differences. For instance, IFB/BSE is responsible for Screen Training Ireland, the national screen training and development resource and the New Zealand Film Commission isn't involved in television – that's New Zealand on Air's responsibility.

For those of you not familiar with how these agencies work, the respective Acts of Parliament that established each organisation also established their boards, equivalent to boards of directors, appointed by their respective Ministers. These boards are responsible for policies and strategy. The organisation's staff are the public servants who implement the policies and are responsible to the board, which in turn is responsible to its Minister. IFB/BSE's board is half women and half men, with a higher proportion of them practitioners than among those on the Australian and New Zealand boards. Screen Australia's board is also half women and half men (with two women's terms about to expire). The New Zealand Film Commission's board has three women (including the Chair) and five men.

When I gathered together all the information about the IFB/BSE Gender Equality Plan, to post, I was especially intrigued by the role of the Equality Action Committee (EAC), four women (Lauren MacKenzie, Liz Gill, Marian Quinn and Susan Liddy) who represented the Writers Guild of Ireland and the Screen Directors Guild of Ireland in discussions with the IFB/BSE.

Lauren MacKenzie is a widely produced screen writer, producer and script consultant, whose work I haven't seen – one of the sadnesses of discrimination against women filmmakers is that we don't see enough of one another's work, though that's changing a little. Liz Gill (I loved her Goldfish Memory) is a writer, director and producer. Marian Quinn (whose 32A I also loved) is an actor, writer and director.  And Dr Susan Liddy is an academic. I asked her some questions. Many thanks for responding so fully, Susan!

Susan Liddy & Marian Quinn photo:
WW After the IFB/BSE announced its policy, the Writers Guild of Ireland (WGI) and the Screen Directors Guild of Ireland (SDGI) issued a press release to welcome it. It congratulated the IFB/BSE on its commitment to achieving 50/50 gender parity for writers and directors in feature film production within three years and added–
We have been pressing the Board on this important issue for a number of years.
But from here, it seems that the board hadn't listened to the writers and the screen directors, until  the extraordinary, powerful #wakingthefeminists campaign that followed Dublin's Abbey Theatre's announcement of its 2016 Waking The Nation ten-play programme, with just one by a woman. The campaign began with a huge public meeting, in November. The size of the meeting and the reach of the campaign, for a country of 4.8m people (vs 4.6m in Aotearoa New Zealand, 23.9m Australia, almost 5m in Sydney) was really impressive. And the level of support that came in from around the world was, I think unprecedented.

Onstage at the November meeting photo: Fiona Morgan

The audience photo: Fiona Morgan

Outside the Abbey Theatre photo: Fiona Morgan
This seemed to become the immediate catalyst for the policy. You wrote a letter to the paper, Annie Doona made her statement as Acting Chair of the IFB/BSE board and then the IFB/BSE worked very hard to provide statistics and create a policy (all here). Just six weeks or so from beginning to announcement. Is that really what happened?

SL No, it didn't happen quite that quickly. It was quick alright but it had been boiling away for a year and a half I’d say. The pressure was building. The issues were being discussed at the IFB's board level after my interviews especially (see below). The previous Chair Bill O Herlihy died and Annie Doona took over as Acting Chair which was very significant. Women in Film & Television Ireland (WFT) had been making representations to the IFB around this time too. Then The Abbey struck and my letter hit the paper. There was a flurry to react quickly before the tide turned in their direction maybe? Obviously I can only surmise about the impact of these things. But I do believe that building and maintaining momentum is key to keeping these issues to the fore.

Annie Doona
Around this time – November – I had also issued James Hickey, CEO of the IFB, with an invitation to attend a colloquium I've organised in my university on March 4, 2016. Entitled ‘Women in the Irish film industry: from the margins to the centre’ it promises to be an invigorating day of reflection on Irish women's position in the industry and, importantly, a day in which we discuss solutions and ways forward. Our keynote speaker is Anna Serner of the Swedish Film Institute. James Hickey will also present. Others include Holly Aylett, head of research for the European Women's Audiovisual Network; WGI and SDGI; Screen Training Ireland; Screen Producers Ireland; Annie Doona in her capacity as President of IADT, a third level educational institution which houses the National Film School; and an IFB project manager yet to be named. Plus there are others who are soon to confirm. Perhaps it was a case of an assault on all fronts?

WW Do you think it helped that there are equal numbers of women and men on the IFB board? And/or that there's a high proportion of film practitioners on the board?

SL While I think that equal representation of women and men on boards is important, in this case women were not always and inevitably interested in, or aware of, gender issues. In contrast some men, like documentary filmmaker Maurice Sweeney, were concerned and quite supportive. What seems to be important was that two women, Annie Doona and Katie Holly, were both informed and actively wanted change.

Katie Holly
Together, they were willing and able to argue the case and carried others along. I’m sure it was helpful that Annie Doona had a lot of credibility among her colleagues and later became Acting Chair.

Regarding the IFB having a high proportion of practitioners I think it’s desirable that it should be comprised of professionals from a range of disciplines. Annie Doona is not a practitioner but an academic, yet we feel it was her insight and awareness of gender politics, particularly, that facilitated the dialogue and thrust for change.

WW Did representatives of your producers guild also participate in the policy formation?

SL No the producers have not been vocal on this here as yet. That said a number of women on the WFT committee are producers themselves.

WW How did you become involved?

SL My involvement has roots in in my day job! I am a lecturer in the Department of Media and Communications in Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick. Gender has been central to my teaching and researching so I have always been interested in and aware of gender issues.

My involvement in recent events began with research I undertook in 2014/15. This work set out to understand how the Irish Film Board makes sense of the low numbers of women writers and directors in the Irish film industry, something which was, and is, of great concern to me. I interviewed James Hickey; Mary Callery one of three ‘project managers’ (effectively the commissioners who make the day-to-day decisions about funding); the then Chair Bill O Herlihy; board members Katie Holly, John Rice, Maurice Sweeney and Annie Doona who was at that time a board member and not Acting Chair as she is today.

Those interviews uncovered whether whether there was a problem at all. The findings are soon to be published by Feminist Media Studies in an article entitled "‘Open to all and everybody’? The Irish Film Board: Accounting for the scarcity of women screenwriters". I am currently awaiting the proofs and that piece should be available online in about 6 weeks. It’s a fascinating glimpse into how the IFB assess the situation and it includes illuminating dialogue direct from the interviewees.

What did I want? In a nutshell, to raise awareness of a problem that didn’t seem to be widely viewed as a problem; to start a debate; to press for statistical information to be gathered and publicized as a matter of course – so crucial in order to adequately monitor the gender landscape. I was also pushing for the IFB to take a leadership role and to implement some strategies that would facilitate the inclusion of greater number of women writers and writer/directors.

I travelled from Limerick to Dublin to conduct the face-to-face interviews ranging from about an hour to an hour and 40 minutes each. Two IFB members wouldn’t engage with me. One Board member initially agreed to answer some of my questions by email because a face-to-face interview wasn’t possible. The responses to those questions suggested very little understanding or concern about the problems facing women writer/directors. This particular interviewee eventually decided that they didn’t want to go on record at all and withdrew from the process. The other just evaded contact after initially saying yes. James Hickey made only one project manager available to me even though I wanted to speak with all three. He said they would all be saying the same thing anyway – the IFB didn’t have a gender policy!

During the interviews it became clear that very different views on women’s underrepresentation existed among those who create policies and make decisions that affect so many creative lives. There were individuals who literally had no gender analysis at all and others who were aware and concerned about the situation. Even at that stage I was struck by Dr. Annie Doona’s analysis and her awareness of the problem not only in the film industry but at a broader societal level. She has a background in gender research herself and was familiar with many of the underlying issues. Ironically I remember being told by someone not to pin any hopes on her as she was (only) an academic! Katie Holly, too, had a keen interest in these matters and wanted to do something about it though her position was perhaps a little less proactive at that stage.

I know that the questions I posed were prompting discussion at board level because a journalist contacted me later on asking why my name was coming up in a number of documents he had managed to access from the IFB! Because of the inevitable delay in preparing a paper for publication and a publication date, I decided to write a piece for the magazine Film Ireland, now an online publication, and during the Abbey debates that piece was circulated quite a bit on social media.

In early July 2014 I sat on a ‘pop up’ panel at the Galway Film Fleadh, initiated by some women who would later emerge as the organizing committee of WFT Ireland. At the Galway Film Fleadh this year July 2015 a second panel discussion on took place. Members of the IFB including James Hickey were in the audience and from the floor I challenged two notions that seemed to be emerging in some remarks made by members of that panel. First, I felt that women’s lack of confidence was being given undue weight as a central problem and secondly I was concerned about the implicit suggestion that things were gradually improving although they could be better.

Susan Liddy speaking from the floor at the WFT panel discussion at the 2015 Galway Film Fleadh
My position was that while women’s underrepresentation in the Irish film industry is as a result of many factors and while it is true that for long-lasting change to occur attention must be directed to the film schools, to training and so on, that is not the only problem nor can it be the primary solution. Power lies at the heart of much of it. There are those who have the money, those who are getting the money and those who are trying to get a look-in – women, for instance! Deputy CEO Teresa McGrane was on the panel that day and had gathered a few statistics which she shared with those present and there was a sense of something akin to gratitude that she had done so! The point I made and have been making for the last number of years is we are taxpayers and this is public money. We have a right to statistical information. Hence I am very happy to see a commitment to the collating and publication of statistics in the recent IFB statement. The IFB is charged with creating a distinctive Irish cinematic voice. It is more than ‘a funder’. It is a development agency with a wider remit and responsibility.

It can be uncomfortable to challenge the IFB especially when Ireland is such a small country with a small industry and when some IFB individuals are sitting in the room listening! But it has to happen. I feel that a softly softly approach is still a fall-back position for some people and perhaps there is a wariness at challenging the IFB with too heavy a hand when it is also the hand that feeds – I don’t know! That said, I do feel that the anger unleashed by the women of the Abbey Theatre has empowered women in the film industry to stand up and be counted.

Having completed my research on the IFB I directed attention to the experiences and narrative interests of Irish women screenwriters; work that is ongoing. In November events at the Abbey and Waking the Feminists catapulted these issues onto social media, print, journalism, radio and television news. Same old story; different stage. I wrote a letter to the Irish Times in which I laid out the reality for women in the film industry and two days later I cut my college lectures short and headed for the Abbey Theatre in Dublin! An invigorating morning.

One question I raised from the floor that is preoccupying me of late is this idea of ‘quality’ and how it is measured. Who decides what is ‘good’? And how does that process fit into a gender hierarchy? This issue of women’s work not being ‘up to the mark’ raises its head often and also did during these debates. The point was made that if women’s projects aren’t selected it is simply because they aren’t good enough to be selected. A big, big discussion but a crucial one that we must have. This isn’t to say that there can be no measure of ‘quality’ but the criteria need to be rigorously debated and monitored.

WW I’m especially interested in the Equality Action Committee of the two guilds, which 'has been involved in fruitful discussions with the Film Board'. When was the Equality Action Committee formed? Were you all part of that guild work over a number of years, or just in those last six weeks?   Is this paid work?

SL Marian Quinn had set up informal Women’s Open Coffee gatherings around film festivals a few years ago. They eventually fizzled out. I had attended one or two sessions but was only on nodding terms with her. We came together on the back of the 2015 Galway Film Fleadh debate. After the panel discussion in the Fleadh, we spoke on the phone, emailed and met again at the Abbey in November. We reflected on the Marriage Equality Referendum result here last year and believed that Ireland could take another leap for equality by taking a lead in the gender debate within the Irish film industry. On paper it looks as if the IFB has done that but it will be the practice of the expression of equality that will reveal the extent of their commitment.

We are all guild members.

Lauren MacKenzie
Lauren is Deputy Chair of the WGI and Liz is a board member of the SDGI. Mix into the equation the fact that I was actively researching and challenging women’s underrepresentation and the funding decisions made at the Irish Film Board (and subsequently the experiences of women writers /directors).
Liz Gill
Add the fact that Marian had a history of being proactive with the Open Coffee initiative – you had four people who were active, informed and primed to act. Marian spearheaded the EAC. She contacted the CEO of both guilds and it was at her suggestion that the EAC was formed. The four of us came together and, with the support of the two guilds, set out to actively pursue an equality agenda.

Birch Hamilton

I’d like to pay tribute here to David Kavanagh (WGI) and Birch Hamilton (SDGI) the CEOs of both guilds. They have encouraged and supported us in the EAC and, most importantly, have trusted us to represent the interests of both guilds at policy and negotiation stages.

David Kavanagh
I would characterize the EAC approach as quite a forthright one and it is heartening that both guilds endorse that position wholeheartedly. Both are committed to supporting lasting and tangible equality for Irish women writers and directors.

EAC's 5-Point Plan actually accords with the values and objectives of Screen New South Wales and the Swedish Film Institute. As you know these bodies call for an unequivocal public endorsement of 50/ 50 gender equality and that is our position. For us nothing less than a strong message from the Irish Film Board of a clear and unwavering intent to do likewise would have articulated a support for the core values of equality; the cornerstone of any lasting structural change.

Measures such as those suggested by Screen Australia, for instance, may well be useful in addition to a monitored 50/50 policy. But we don’t think they are far-reaching enough. They are short-term and not grounded in a shift in core values. We feel they will create little more than a transitory impact. For us, our 5-Point Plan is the most effective way forward in the longer term–
Gender policy effective immediately; 
Commitment to achieve 50/50 gender parity within 3 years; 
Continuous assessment of the statistics, reported monthly; 
Commitment to consciously promote women in the industry; and 
Resources to take the lead and educate the industry about unconscious bias.
It is true that you will hear whispers in some quarters that careers could be damaged if people speak out and so on. I think the four of us feel the issue is bigger than our individual selves and we haven’t discussed those fears to any great extent. It is true that with the support of two guilds we are in a stronger position than if we were a group of concerned women who were independently challenging the system. Also, given the high profile nature of the issues now I would be confident that those who have been engaged in challenging the IFB and the system at large will be assessed by the same criteria as anybody else. However, those criteria must be transparent and gender must be factored into the equation. For instance, are the criteria for ‘good stories’ too narrow? This is a crucial area. I think that being an academic means these issues are central to my research and I can write about them in academic articles and in the popular press if need be. I have a broad gender analysis and can at times make links between inequalities in many areas even if there doesn’t appear to be any connection. The EAC will continue as a group and will monitor the implementation of the equality measures. We are also concerned about opportunities for women writers/directors in television and will be exploring that in time.

There is also some reassurance in knowing that Annie Doona is Acting Chair for the present and that there are supportive voices within the IFB. Of course it is early days and we are as yet unsure how these 50/50 aspirations will materialize. For instance, it is important that project managers are fully on board with the new system. These are the individuals who will be assessing the projects. How will they operationalize the decisions of the Board?

In Sweden, Anna Serner ultimately oversees the implementation of the 50/50 targets. She will be in place until her retirement! The situation in Ireland is quite different. Board members serve for a four year term. It is conceivable that, for instance, Annie Doona’s term of office will not be extended if a new minister is appointed. In such a scenario who will see to it that these new measures are bedded in?

And no, this is not paid work!!!!

WW As a group, what information and models did you work from when you formulated arguments to present to the IFB, especially as it seems from here that during the policy formation the only statistics available were your own and maybe David Kavanagh's?

SL When interviewing the IFB members in 2014/15 I discussed the work of Anna Serner. I also interviewed Anna a few months ago in relation to the research I am currently undertaking so I’m familiar with the Swedish model. My colleagues on the EAC are also aware of Serner’s work and we leaned heavily towards her 50/50 approach. She is an inspirational leader and has had, I think, a big impact on those interested in an equality agenda in the film industry in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe. I have also interviewed and met with Francine Raveney of the European Women's Audiovisual Network who is another important voice in Europe. I do think that a strong community has developed across Europe.

WW Are there aspects of the policy you’re particularly proud of?

SL For the EAC 50/50 over three years is the jewel in the crown. It is a bold, clear statement of intent. Training, mentoring etc are useful and valuable in a different way but you will meet women writers/directors who say – ‘enough with the training! we’re trained quite enough already’! Some feel they don’t have the time or inclination to go through another process to make them ‘better’. Indeed, many would argue that they are ready and able now and have been for a long time.

Saying all this is not to deny the usefulness of training and mentoring. There is a place for training, for mentoring and allied support for young women who might not otherwise consider that the film industry is for them, especially as there are so few female voices on the horizon. I think we undoubtedly need to target education and training at a much earlier stage. The danger is that when those initiatives become the major focus it can justify inaction now. Arguably training initiatives can sometimes be more palatable to the powers that be because such initiatives don’t rock the boat too much.

The 50/50 ensures that the equality agenda isn’t put on the long finger and diluted by an imbalanced focus on training programmes but is current and dynamic. Remember there are women filmmakers who have waited a decade and more to have a second film made. Some feel they don’t have the time or inclination to go through another process to make them ‘better’; they are ready and able now and have been for a long time.

WW What about intersectionality?

SL Our focus in on women because of the serious imbalance in the Irish film industry and in funding allocations. This is not to deny that there are other inequalities at work; we are the Equality Action Committee and, to take just one example, we are aware that there are problems around representations of sexuality, race, ethnicity in IFB funded films and in the television output of our national station, RTE. But the gender divide is staggering and must therefore take priority at this time.

playwright Janet Moran at the November #wakingthefeminists meeting photo: Fiona Morgan

WW Because of the new focus on parental issues (e.g. Raising Films) and after seeing this image from the Abbey Theatre meeting, I wonder whether you discussed the role of parenthood in filmmaking and whether to refer to parenthood in the policy.

SL This did not arise as an issue for us. Our aim was to identify a 5-point plan that would cut to the core of what we identified as key issues for women writers and writer/directors in the Irish film industry today; issues that the IFB could take action on immediately. This is not to discount the importance of parenting issues in the culture at large but for the EAC parity of funding in the key to moving forward; to introduce childcare into the equation potentially dilutes that focus.

WW How much of the policy is affected by the economic realities of women-as-audiences; the value of engaging with all of the talent rather than a small mostly male section (perhaps the writers and directors guilds' foremost concern?); or the now-established economic value of features with a female protagonist?

SL I don’t know. I know that many on the board are aware of the economic realities. But that said …the Irish film industry is a small one. We produce a small number of films each year and I don’t think that this decision is about an economic reality. I think it’s about the realization that the IFB is funded by the State and must be accountable. It isn’t acceptable to overwhelmingly fund male-driven projects. Neither is it acceptable to be the national film agency and not attempt to increase the numbers of women writers and directors.

Yes, the guilds are most interested in the writers and directors.

WW Did the EAC and the IFB consider a dedicated women’s fund? If so, what were the issues discussed and decided?

SL The EAC have discussed a dedicated women’s fund but disregarded it. We fear it will lead to women being sidelined in a different way. A couple of years ago it may have seemed like a good step in the right direction in as much as it was better than an outright denial of gender-related problems! However, the EAC believes that the time has passed for such initiatives.

WW WFT is very new. Why did it start up at almost the same time as the policy? How did it fit into the preparation of the policy?

SL The WFT only formally launched in late September but a core group has been working away behind the scenes to set up the organisation even before that. Teresa McGrane, Annie Doona and Katie Holly, all on the IFB, are WFT members – as I am myself, in a gesture of support and solidarity. Members of the WFT committee have also been meeting with Annie Doona in her capacity as Acting Chair of the IFB. The EAC and the WFT share a number of aims – the need for statistical information and education on unconscious bias. But their focus is perhaps directed more towards training initiatives than ours is. Of course the WFT represents many different sectors and to that extent is a broad church. The EAC is concerned with equality for women writers and directors; the storytellers, the artists, who are of central importance in facilitating a nation to tell stories about itself.

WW I love the clarity and simplicity of the IFB policy and, especially, its statement that 'There needs to be a holistic and integrated approach to achieve real change’. But I wanted more detail when I read–
The aim is to stimulate applications for development and production funding with female creative talent attached. The target is to achieve 50/50 gender parity in funding over the next three years.
In Ireland, are producers ‘creative talent’? How will the 50/50 be measured? (I read the Writers Guild note of '50/50 gender parity for writers and directors in feature film production within three years’ but am checking because I was a little surprised that in announcing their 50/50 by 2018 target, Screen Australia included female protagonists alongside writers, directors and producers, in effect underpinning male privilege – imagine all those male writers/directors breaking out their scripts with female protagonists and grabbing women producers, just to get the 50/50.)

SL The detail will have to be teased out. I would think that the term ‘creative talent’ does not usually relate to producers here. I take the point that it is potentially quite a minefield. When we discussed all this with Annie Doona she did acknowledge that there was much to be worked out especially in relation to production. This is a process that we in the EAC have already started. We have also contacted Annie Doona to arrange a further meeting and are awaiting confirmation of a date. Going forward, we think this will have to be monitored very carefully.

The hope is that the 50/50 over three years has sent out a strong signal to female writers – send in your work! There is a place for you in Irish cinema and we are interested in hearing your stories. Perhaps women writers will emerge in greater numbers than before without any further inducement. Or it may take time and require a more proactive approach initially. Time will tell.

WW I love the emphasis on partnerships and on training re gender bias. What do you see as the challenges and benefits  inherent in these elements of the policy?

SL We believe it’s important for everyone to recognise that we can all harbour bias and be unaware of it. Yet it can have a profound impact on the world around us. This isn’t about pointing the finger at any group of people or scapegoating individuals. It’s about all of us acknowledging a reality and re-learning where necessary.

WW There’s no budget announced for all this work.  And it will be expensive to implement such a comprehensive programme. Do you have any idea of the costs involved and how they will be managed?

SL No, this is pretty much hot off the presses especially as Christmas has intervened. There is still much to talk about. How will all this be operationalized? At the moment we just don’t know! Certainly 50/50 development funding can more quickly and relatively easily be put in place. Production funding is more complicated and undoubtedly will be the subject of a lot more debate. I see the announcement as hugely important because it acknowledges the problem and sees the IFB publically commit to gender parity over three years. I know from the extensive interviews with IFB personnel what a leap that has been for many concerned. But the devil is in the detail as they say. Watch this space!

WW How will the policy affect project assessment practices? Will there be new assessment criteria, as in Australia?

SL Don’t know yet….all to be worked through I would say.

WW I’ve heard of American-based women with Irish connections hoping they can access Irish funding now. What role(s) do you see for these women and for women from other parts of the world who are interested in co-productions? (A shameless plug here, an example in case there are Irish women looking for a novel to adapt: New Zealand multi-award-winning YA writer Mandy Hager's  Dear Vincent, set partly in Ireland, is a co-production just waiting to happen, as a feature or an animation.)

SL To be honest we haven’t really had an opportunity to reflect on this or other ramifications of the IFB announcement because it came so close to the Christmas break. Many people didn’t even return to work until January 4th! The EAC meeting next week is the first of the new year and doubtless all these issues will be the subject of much scrutiny and debate.

WW Inevitably, as women writers and directors come to the fore, some men will lose out. It’s great to see the support from the David Kavanagh and Maurice Sweeney. Are other men in film likely to be as supportive? How will the eventual, inevitable, disappointment of some of them be managed?

SL Yes there is only so much funding and as women step up to claim their share, some men may well lose out. As Anna Serner found in Sweden there may be a period of time in which the stories that women bring to the table feel fresh and new – because so many of them haven’t been heard before. I’m not sure what to say about managing male disappointment though. Women have had to manage theirs for years!

The film industry is a tough business for men and women. But women need a fighting chance to gain a foothold. These initiatives will hopefully provide that.

It is true that many men support what they perceive as a reasonable and fair argument. But it’s early days and many more may not yet have digested the changes that are afoot and the implication of those changes.

WW What is your personal dream in relation to the implementation of the policy?

SL A film industry that is rich in texture. New stories, different and varied voices. I hope it will bring a new vibrancy to the Irish film industry. Stories about all of us, for all of us.


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