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NZ Update #16: Celebrations & Problems


In Aotearoa New Zealand we're keen on movies with women protagonists, in a variety of genres. At the box office last time I looked, seven out of the top ten had women at their centre. But women wrote and directed only two of them. Just two more had women as co-writers–

*1. Ocean’s 8 $746,780 (dir Gary Ross, wr *Olivia Milch, Gary Ross; distr Roadshow)
2. Solo: A Star Wars Story $220,207 (dir Ron Howard, wr Jon Kasdan, Lawrence Kasdan; distr Walt Disney)
3. Deadpool 2 $207,067 (dir David Leitch, wr Drew Goddard, Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick; distr Fox)
*4. Hereditary $130,750 (dir/wr Ari Aster; distr Studiocanal)
*5. Tea With The Dames $106,154 (dir Roger Michell; distr Transmission)
6. Avengers: Infinity War $75,320 (dir Anthony Russo, Joe Russo, wr Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeeley; distr Walt Disney)
*7. The Bookshop $62,748 (wr/dir *Isabel Coixet from novel by Penelope Mortimer; distr Transmission)
*8. Veere Di Wedding $47,967 (dir Shashanka Ghosh wr *Nidhi Mehra, Mehul Suri; distr Forum Films)
*9. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society $44,785 (dir Mike Newell, wr Thomas Bezucha, Don Ross from novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Burrows; distr Studiocanal)
*10. The Breaker Upperers $41,182 (wr/dir *Madeline Sami, *Jackie Van Beek; distr Madman)

So yes, movies about women do well at the box office here, as in other parts of the world. But we're watching women's stories through a predominantly male lens, a male lens that usually includes a male cinematographer. That's more than 'not great'. Jill Soloway explains why better than I ever could, in her talk about the female gaze at the bottom of this post.

I saw two of these movies in the week they featured in this top ten: The Bookshopa beautiful meditation on the agency and courage of women and girls and how both women and men undermine and support them (with the best and most subtle performance I've ever seen from Patricia Clarkson); and Tea With the Dames I enjoyed that too, but I longed for a version directed by a woman, with a different gaze, different emphases (I think the director has a Lawrence Olivier fetish). And subtly different questions.

Frustratingly, women still struggle to access the resources to write, direct and distribute 'our' movies, stories that reflect our worlds, in all their diversity, rather than represent us through men's eyes. So it was utterly exciting to learn that Netflix has bought The Breaker Upperers. Warm congratulations to all concerned. About 60% of The Breaker Upperers' crew are women and it's beautifully shot by Ginny Loane, a woman cinematographer. It will now be seen globally and will entertain as effectively on small screens as on large, I reckon. (For the latest on Netflix's central role in getting diverse stories to diverse audiences, check out this article, with some great insights from Ava DuVernay).

But The Breaker Upperers is an exception. It's galling that, globally, now they know our stories make money, men tell them so consistently and get strong support to do so, from development to distribution and marketing. And that even when women write the screenplays, as they did in this week's list, they tend to be co-writers, are apparently not trusted to deliver on their own.

Annabelle Sheehan

In this context, it was heartening when Annabelle Sheehan, the new CEO of our taxpayer-funded New Zealand Film Commission/Te Tumu Whakaata Taonga (NZFC), announced that the organisation has a new and deeper commitment to inclusion and diversity. This commitment started – as is completely appropriate – with Te Rautaki, a policy initiated by the last CEO, Dave Gibson. Te Rautaki is based in the Treaty of Waitangi/Te Tiriti o Waitangi (1840) which guarantees Māori control of Māori treasures, including its language and its stories. More about this another day.

The same evening, the NZFC awarded the first Te Tumu Whakaata Taonga Māori Screen Excellence Award, for Māori filmmakers whose work makes an impact locally and/or internationally. The nine women of the extraordinary feature Waru each received $50k to assist with their work. It was a beautiful, brilliant and making-herstory choice; for the taxpayer to invest $450k in nine Māori women artists on a single day, in any medium, is unprecedented.

Most of the Waru women, with Carmel Sepuloni in red jacket (Associate Minister for Arts, Culture & Heritage)

Annabelle also announced that NZFC research and policy development is now underway to create programmes and funding that will support and encourage a range of under-represented voices in the film industry.



But. There's so often a 'but', isn't there? That night, it was the announcement of the NZFC's first initiative within its larger plan, for the 125th anniversary of women's suffrage in this country: the 125 Fund (deadline 13 August, 9 a.m.). The fund offers an investment of $1.25 million each for up to two dramatic features in any genre where the director and at least one other key creative is a woman.

From 2019 this initiative will be followed by designated production funds to support Pasifika filmmakers and other groups from a range of under-represented cultural and ethnic backgrounds, including the LGBTQI community and those with disabilities. But I worry that the NZFC's wider plan will go ahead before it has a more sophisticated and well-established strategy for achieving gender equity in its overall funding than it has at present. Because gender is an issue in every single under-represented group, whatever the cultural and ethnic background of its members. One of the 125 Fund's criteria reinforces my concern.

The 125 Fund felt all good, at first. Annabelle said–

'Women are significantly underrepresented in the New Zealand screen industry – as they are globally. With this unique initiative, we want to encourage ambitious women's voices and diverse scripts which depict meaningful representations of women in both character and story and provide new opportunities for New Zealand women filmmakers.'

But alas, there's a fundamental problem with encouraging 'ambitious women's voices and diverse scripts' without ensuring that these voices and scripts belong to women writers as well as to women directors. Yes, some projects will have a woman writer/director, so immediately a woman fulfils both the director's role and 'one other key creative [role]'. But the requirement that only one other 'key creative' is a woman opens the door to yet another script written by an ('ambitious') man. If that happens, bingo, the 125 Fund will benefit a male writer and encourage his voice; and the fund's integrity is immediately undermined.

I worry too that some people at the NZFC believe – erroneously – that  (as Jemaine Clement appeared to, back in 2015) we don't have enough women writers who can manage a feature, that those who can are 'exceptional', unlike men writers, who are seen as inherently more competent.

I also remember multi-hyphenate Katie Wolfe, one of the Waru women, speaking on Radio New Zealand last year, about a similar bias against Māori women directors–

"Before Waru was made", she said, "when it was pitched as an idea, someone quipped 'there wouldn't be eight Māori women in this country that could helm a feature film', which was just crazy because the women who helmed this feature film were incredibly experienced."

There's a long history of erroneous belief that there are few women who can write and/or direct and that those who can are 'exceptional' rather than normal. Of forgetting that we don't need 'help' (upskilling, mentors etc, which we're usually able to access when we need them), we need money and a more sophisticated industry culture.

Right now, today, there are heaps of women screenwriters. For a start, there are the nine Waru women, and at the moment they have more resources than usual to buy time, to write and develop an array of projects. In addition, New Zealand On Air (NZOA), that other taxpayer organisation, which funds television and webseries, recently released its 2018 Diversity ReportIt shows that 53% of the writers on projects NZOA funded were women – the same as in its 2017 report and a leap from the 37% in 2016; many of these writers will also have developed scripts for features. Lots of the local Women Who Do It on screen push the boundaries, often without NZFC support, and are ideal applicants for the 125 Fund.

Why would the NZFC not be more rigorous about their suffrage investment? Why is it so reluctant to place its confidence in the many many local women who write for the screen, often very well? Why doesn't it emulate Telefilm Canada’s policy, after it identified gender parity in director and screenwriter roles as requiring immediate critical attention, or – in a country with a similar population –  the Irish Film Board's commitment to various experiments to reach gender parity: they're achieving results? How can the NZFC even consider funding a script written by a man for a suffrage project?  I can hear the mutters and sighs of the women who signed the suffrage petition.

I also hear women decision-makers and influencers express opinions based on a deeply held belief that women are 'in deficit' and that the gender problem is our fault mostly because we lack confidence, don't compete strongly enough, need upskilling, aren't ambitious enough in our ideas, and aren't conceptually sophisticated. I hear these opinions regularly.

I now believe that many of women filmmakers' so-called deficiencies are because decision-makers, including the women and men within the taxpayer-funded system at the NZFC, perpetuate practices that aren't safe for women.  For instance, if we lack confidence it's with good reason, because decision-makers often undermine our confidence, starting with casual but heartfelt comments about our deficits and continuing through assessment and funding support. In that radio interview, Katie Wolfe echoed many women I've spoken with–

"Often when you're submitting work which is very female-focused, sometimes the reaction to it is 'that doesn't feel quite right' or 'I don't recognise that'. Of course you don't understand it, you've never heard it before. We're making the world care differently and see differently, because we haven't had the chance to hear these stories before."

Why aren't responses to difference more welcoming, more informed, more ambitious, more conceptually sophisticated? I think there's a good argument that many decision-makers are in deficit and that they need to upskill, so they can establish a safer culture for women writers and directors, in all our diversity.

Suffrage125 is a unique opportunity for the NZFC to take risks, to be bold, to express unambivalent enthusiasm for women directors and writers and cinematographers and producers and women and girls as protagonists, for all-women crews and new ways of working. To demonstrate that women filmmakers can be confident in the organisation's commitment to women and in the quality of its project assessment. Those suffragists would love that! But through its 125 Fund criteria, by offering valuable space to men's voices, the NZFC has – perhaps inadvertently, which is a worry –  marred an otherwise golden opportunity. Instead, it has chosen to feed the myth that women screenwriters are in deficit.

Jill Soloway argues that it's time for men to hold back. But few do, as that box office data shows. So I hope that the NZFC adopts Jill's argument and decides, within and alongside its 125 Fund, to prioritise the female gaze as expressed by writers (and cinematographers) as well as by directors. Or else, watch out for those suffragists... on the march to the NZFC offices in Ghuznee Street.





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