Women directors are cracking the glass camera in the world of film

THIS month, Jane Campion’s New Zealand-set Top of the Lake launched on Foxtel. The international acclaim given this visually stunning, six-part teleseries about a female detective searching for a missing young girl has cemented Campion’s position as one of the world’s leading visual storytellers.

Not long before, US director Kathryn Bigelow’s feature film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty, had great box office and critical success, following on from her achievement in becoming the first woman to be named best director at the Oscars for Iraq war tale The Hurt Locker.

These successes may look like important breakthroughs for women filmmakers, but look closer and it often seems to be the same old story of a few successful women being allowed to rise to the top of a male-dominated establishment. The phrase “the glass ceiling” has long been a popular way to describe the apparently invisible barrier keeping many women from top executive positions. To look at the low percentages of women across the world with careers as film directors is to wonder whether there’s not also a glass camera.

The debate about potential barriers facing women filmmakers is nothing new but has been blowing up again lately thanks to events in the world of film festivals – the place where new talents are most likely to be discovered and nurtured outside of Hollywood. A furore erupted last year when Cannes, the world’s leading film festival, decided not to admit a single feature directed by a woman into its official competition. Festival chief Thierry Fremaux claimed this was purely for artistic reasons. Yet at least one obvious contender, Cate Shortland’s critically acclaimed end-of-World-War-II tale, Lore, was completed in time for the event (the Australian-German co-production went on to win rave reviews in the US and Britain).

Then in February, the biggest US film festival, independent hit-maker Sundance, made headlines for the opposite reason. Exactly half of the films in its official competition were female-directed, a historic breakthrough achieved apparently on the quality of the work rather than a quota system. This made the Cannes imbalance seem even more odd and opened up the question of whether female filmmakers were finally starting to break through in numbers closer to their proportion of the general population – at least in the US independent sector.

In corporate Hollywood, by contrast, women make up only between 4.5 per cent and 5 per cent of directors, according to the most recent surveys of the top-earning studio movies. Screen NSW head of development and production Megan Simpson Huberman, points to an apparent anti-female prejudice in the US studio system, where “every year there’s a film designed for women that succeeds at the box office, and every year they say, ‘who knew?’ They said that about Bridesmaids, The Devil Wore Prada, Twilight, Bridget Jones. Then the next year, they remember nothing and are again surprised. There’s a collective amnesia.”

In Australia, things look a lot more equitable. Women make up 18 per cent of film directors, according to figures collected between 2006 and 2011 by the federal agency Screen Australia, with a higher proportion of those women directing documentaries as opposed to features. The representation of women becomes a lot higher in producing, where women make up 34 per cent of the total, double the rate of directors (female screenwriters are in-between, at 24 per cent of the total).

Deciding whether Australia’s proportions are high or low is the old glass half-full, half-empty conundrum. Women’s representation here is not far behind France, which claimed 21 per cent in 2010 and is often seen as having a relatively strong track record (perhaps, significantly, the first woman to direct films, starting early in the 20th century, was France’s Alice Guy).

According to France’s Cahiers du Cinema magazine, the proportion of women directors in Sweden, Denmark and Britain is between 10 per cent and 12 per cent. Parts of Latin America have higher percentages, Brazil with 15 per cent and Argentina with between 20 per cent and 25 per cent. These figures should be treated with caution – they don’t all measure exactly the same time period – but nonetheless they do make the Australian industry seem relatively open to women.

None of the half-dozen women filmmakers and handful of executives Review spoke to for this story alleged sexism within the Australian official funding system. At Screen Australia, women, including chief executive Ruth Harley, hold six of the top nine positions. So if blatant sex discrimination does not seem to be an issue, why do the lower numbers of women filmmakers matter?

The answer depends on whether these figures reflect purely voluntary decisions or more insidious, albeit informal, barriers. Here the answers became more complex. Are women simply not as attracted to the profession in the same numbers as men? Are they – as many suggested – affected by family and child-rearing pressures as they hit their 30s, the age when most directors make their first feature? Are there also subtle, psychological pressures on women? When Campion became the first women to win the top prize at Cannes with The Piano, she became a potent role model for local women filmmakers. There are others, especially Shortland and veteran Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career; Little Women). But our young male directors have a dozen or more successful Australians of their gender to look up to, and literally hundreds of great directors throughout cinema history.

Beside the inevitable questions of social equity are important aesthetic considerations. If half the world’s population is discouraged, for whatever reasons, from forging ahead into filmmaking careers, the cinema world is robbed of variety, significant new talent and innovative ideas. Its insights into the human condition remain narrower than they might be.

Directing some of the most memorable, distinctive titles released last year were Australia’s Cate Shortland (Lore), Lebanon’s Nadine Labaki (Where Do We Go Now?) and France’s Maiwenn, Celine Sciamma and Mia Hansen-Love respectively with Polisse, Tomboy and Goodbye, First Love, all with stories focused on female characters. Polisse illustrates how a female sensibility can bring freshness to an over-familiar genre, the police procedural, by focusing on the work of a child protection unit. Tomboy, a quiet masterpiece about a pre-pubescent girl passing herself off as a boy, was distinctively feminine in its viewpoint and intimacy. Lore showed a teenage girl forced to take leadership of her siblings in Germany at the end of World War II, and Labaki’s film humorously imagined a village’s women attempting to prevent their men from getting dragged into another civil war.

Clearly some male directors have a gift for telling female stories – Ingmar Bergman and Eric Rohmer spring to mind. One of the most critically acclaimed independent US films of last year, Beasts of the Southern Wild, is told from the viewpoint of a young girl, yet directed with keen sensitivity by a male, Benh Zeitlin (note though it has a female co-writer, Lucy Alibar, who also wrote the play on which it’s based).

Nonetheless according to a Sundance Institute study of filmmakers who had films screened at that festival between 2002 and 2012, “female directors are more likely to feature girls and women on screen than male directors. This is true in both top-grossing films and critically acclaimed projects nominated for best picture Academy Awards over a 30-year period. It is often as true for women producers as it is for women directors.” The study’s authors also concluded that “female producers and directors affect not only the prevalence of girls and women on screen, they also impact the very nature of a story, or the way in which a story is told. Examining more than 900 motion pictures, one study found that violence, guns/weapons, and blood/gore were less likely to be depicted when women were directing or producing, and thought-provoking topics were more likely to appear.”

So why the lower numbers, here and elsewhere? Local women professionals offer wide-ranging speculations based on personal experience. Director Christina Andreef (Soft Fruit) says despite women being “socialised to be leaders these days, by school and by parents”, they can have confidence issues on set. “I read something Jane Campion wrote, that women have to get on their suits and armour and get over their sensitivities,” Andreef says. “One of the best outcomes for female filmmakers is realising you don’t have to be popular in that playground way. I think men can shrug off the workplace stress that comes with the need to assert that things go in a certain way. On film sets these do test you, but that’s probably true of most first-time filmmakers. But I think women can’t take it on the chin so easily. It is a particularly feminine thing, about not liking to be disliked.”

Jennifer Kent, working on her debut feature The Babadook, a horror story with a feminine twist, says she has felt no bias against her becoming a filmmaker here. But many people tell her it’s weird for a woman to be interested in horror. Also, “crews are used to taking directions from men, but not so much from women. I got to the point where I thought, ‘Oh, f . . k it, I don’t care.’ Women are not socialised into being in positions of control where you’re making decisions. You can’t be worried about the opinions of people around you.”

Kent recalls a crew member telling her he’d worked under another woman director “who let the reins go. [But] you almost strangled the reins”, which she took as a back-handed compliment. “If a man said ‘No, I want that, no discussion’, that’s more accepted. Film directing, you have to be a leader. I was not educated in school to do that. It was seen as an unfeminine quality. It’s taken me a while to say ‘It’s OK, you have to operate at a different level to become a film director.’ ”

Many women suspect unconscious gender bias is a factor in parts of the industry. Outside Screen Australia, industry gatekeepers tend to be men. These are the commercial film funders, including the powerful overseas sales agents (though there are signs this is changing); festival selectors (who influence which films get seen and bought); and critics (in a recent US survey, films directed by women consistently received shorter reviews than those directed by men).

Parenting pressures were frequently raised spontaneously. Directing can be a particularly punishing job that requires intense focus 24/7. Because it involves unpredictable and inflexible schedules, plus lots of travel, women directors with children need a partner who’s prepared to take the lion’s share of the parenting when required. Martha Coleman, Screen Australia’s head of development, says this is why she’s not surprised there are many more female producers than directors. The latter must “completely immerse themselves in a two-year commitment. Producing is damn hard work, but you can work from home, you can delegate, and you’re using a part of your brain that you can separate from.”

Documentary director, producer and lecturer Rebecca Barry feels the main issue is “why women don’t choose to direct, rather than their being stopped. The lifestyle [of directing] is a calling and you have to sacrifice a life of security, and the mainstream says you have to get a mortgage and a family. Maybe for women it’s harder to make the choice if you’re intending to have a family.” Teaching, she has found women students can be less likely to put themselves forward as directors, and if they do direct, they are more likely to co-direct with a man.

Producer Trish Lake believes film schools steer women towards producing and away from directing at an early stage. But according to Sandra Levy, head of the Australian Film Television and Radio School, this is not true at the federally funded school because all students apply for a particular specialisation and don’t change once they’ve started. “We don’t guide them into producing. There’s no bias in our education system.” The male-female ratio for all students averages 60-40, regardless of specialisation, and that goes for the directing course, too.

“The big issue,” Levy says, “is to get people who invest in feature films to take women as seriously as they do men. Getting to direct their first feature is not that easy, there’s a natural attrition rate anyway and maybe more attrition right away with women. I’ve heard women say they don’t feel they are taken seriously.” In addition, Levy points out the woman-directed student films at the school are “more small, intimate and domestic and the feeling is that they are in the ‘TV’ box. The boys come in with sci-fi westerns and talk the language of cinema. Most women writers and directors write about the intimate.”

Yet maybe things really are looking up for female directors, not just because of those recent Sundance figures, but also because of the unashamedly pro-women commercial bias of leading independent distributors such as Hopscotch and Palace Films, both of whose slates this year are 50 per cent women-directed. Palace general manager Nicolas Whatson, says women make the decisions about what to see at the art-house end of the business, so when he’s considering buying up rights, “the very first question I ask is, ‘will it appeal to women?’ I won’t go anywhere near any film that doesn’t appeal to a female audience.”

At Hopscotch, where three of the four buyers are female, managing director Troy Lum says the 18 per cent representation of women directors in Australia “should be higher. I still think it comes from an era when men had to be in positions of control. I think that could and should change. I think it’s a shame we are not seeing more female voices in the independent films we are seeing.” But that may be changing at last. When money is involved, things usually do.

L Y N D E N   B A R B E R

(The text was originally published on March 30th, 2013 here
Lynden Barber is a Sydney-based freelance journalist specialising in film and music and a feature film script assessor.
In 2005 and 2006 he served as Artistic Director of the Sydney Film Festival.
He teaches Screen Studies at the Sydney Film School.)

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