Women in Film

Festival Success while studying at SFS

An interview with Sydney Film School Alumni, Megan Baker

by Nicole Newton-Plater

megan bakerSydney Film School would like to congratulate Megan Baker who’s film ‘Generation Girl’ has been named as one of the finalists for the Uni Shorts International Student Film Festival!

The Uni Shorts Film Festival will take place in Auckland this October and will feature the best in student made films from around the world. ‘Generation Girl’ is a perfect example of the exceptionally high quality of film that gets made by students while in attendance at Sydney Film School. Many people believe that the time to submit your film into festivals is once you have completed school, but Megan’s film is proof that the films made by the students at SFS during the semester are of such a high calibre that they are worthy of festival submission and acceptance.

We thank Megan for taking the time to talk to us about her experience with her film and it’s submission into the Uni Shorts Film Festival.

Congratulations on being selected as one of the finalists for the Uni Shorts International Student Film Festival! Can you please tell us a bit about your entry, ‘Generation Girl’?

‘Generation Girl’ was written by Fiona Gillman and shot on 16mm film. I connected with the important feminist comments the script presented, such as body image, portrayal of females in the media and misogyny. The film follows the events that unfold when two girls realise they’re after the same boy. It’s a satirical comedy with a big twist at the end!

How did you find out about the Uni Shorts Film Festival and what made you decide to enter?

A fellow SFS student James Harris entered the film into the festival and I was very excited when we got the news that the film had been accepted.

Did you make ‘Generation Girl’ especially for the Uni Shorts competition?
No, we made it as a major Sydney Film School Part 1 project.
In your opinion, what makes a film stand out to the judges in a film festival or competition?
A film that understands and follows the language of cinema is all well and good, but it’s nothing without a strong story and a compelling comment.

Do you think that it is a good idea to make a film with submitting it into a film festival in mind, or should that thought come after you have made it?
I think that having a festival in mind can be distracting and might tempt filmmakers to change their ideas to appeal to festival panels, rather than tell a story with your own artistic vision. Films shouldn’t be made to win awards, they should be made to express ideas and tell stories.

How did what you have learnt at Sydney Film School help you to make ‘Generation Girl’ and enter it into Uni Shorts?
Making the film was the learning experience in itself, which is what I think is unique about Sydney Film School. You’ll learn more by making films than studying them.

Do you believe that students should be submitting films into competitions before they graduate to gain experience in this for when they graduate?
Definitely, there’s nothing to lose by entering films into festivals and it’s a great learning process. 

What are you currently working on?
I’ve just finished an Art Department Assistant role on an upcoming ABC show called ‘Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am’. I built some really weird and crazy props which was great! The show airs in November, keep an eye out for it!!

A SFS Q & A with Maya Newell, Director of acclaimed new Australian film ‘Gayby Baby’

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After screenings at HotDocs in Toronto, Sydney Film Festival and the Melbourne International Film Festival, Maya Newell’s Gayby Baby has been highly acclaimed by audiences and critics alike and has just been announced as one of the AACTA nominees for Best Feature Length Documentary. 2006 Sydney Film School graduate Newell made Gayby Baby in order to give a voice to the children of same-sex parents as they have a right to be heard through the political climate noise. The film is Newell’s debut feature and will receive a cinema release on September 3.

We have had t​he good fortune to speak to Maya Newell and we thank her for taking time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions about Gayby Baby and the ways in which others can learn from her experiences.

Interview and article by Nicole Newton-Plater

Q. Congratulations on Gayby Baby being nominated for an AACTA! You must be absolutely thrilled!
A. Oh, yeah…we are still pinching ourselves! It’s really, really exciting. Also because a lot of the other films nominated are quite large budget films and it feels like we’re The Little Film That Could!

Q. Gayby Baby is such a beautiful film as it goes into the homes of children with same-sex parents and shows that they really are just normal children living what is presently a semi-unique situation. Was this something you strived to do, show the balance between normalcy and unique?
A. Yes, I mean I think this is a question that comes up a lot when people are speaking about our families and that is what is different and what is the same. I think the film really speaks to the idea that, of course our families have all the same banal and intricacies of any of our straight parent counterparts, but at the same time there are a lot of unique and exciting things that happen with gay parents and hopefully we are at a point where we can celebrate those differences. A lot of the time we say that children of gay families are normal and that they are the same as everyone else, but I think we shouldn’t have to say that our families are normal in order to be seen as equal.

Q. You literally spent years with the four families featured in the film. How important was the editing process with all the footage that you had in making sure that what you were trying to say with the film got across to audiences?
A. In documentary I believe that the editing is everything. From writing to beginning to end, the biggest part in writing comes from the editing room. So it’s absolutely essential. We had a really fantastic editor, Rochelle Oshlack who was responsible for Bran Nue Dae and the First Australians series and she just really worked magic on the film and brought a real intimate touch as she has a lot of attention to detail in her editing and I learned a lot from her. At the same time through the whole process we worked in a very collaborative way as we had a lot of input​.​

Billy Marshall Stoneking was the Executive Producer of the film and I believe he has also taught writing at Sydney Film School before. He has accompanied me as a creative companion ever since my first film, Richard which I made at Sydney Film School and every film I have made since. Of course, my producer, Charlotte (Mars), who I suppose is often confronted with and frustrate​d​ by the idea that the producer is not creative because in actual fact we have worked very collaboratively throughout the film. To tell you the truth, I don’t actually know how many hours we had in the end because we don’t really measure it by hours anymore, we measure it by terabytes. ​We probably had at least a hundred hours and we spent almost eight months editing the film so it couldn’t have been that easy!

Q. You, yourself are a child of same-sex parents. Was making the film an emotional experience for you?
A. Yes, definitely. The genesis of the project comes from a place of wanting to speak out and give a voice to the children who grew up in a family like mine. When I was a kid, there was definitely no documentaries about kids growing up in same-sex families and our voice was completely unheard. So one of the beautiful thing​s​ about making the film was I got to spend time with children from same-sex families around the country and I think there was a certain level of connection that was achieved because of my own upbringing. I was able to ask questions which maybe drew connections between my life and theirs. I think that definitely the level of intimacy in the film is largely because of the emotional, personal connection with the subject matter.

Q. Do you believe that it is important to write and make films about something you know or that is close to your heart?
A. I do, and I really like the concept of tribal storytelling. I think that idea really comes from a place of saying something that you care about. It doesn’t necessarily have to be you have same-sex parents and therefore you are making a film about same-sex parents, but as far as you do have an emotional connection to connect with that tribe or group of people who you are trying to represent. You have to authentically want to tell their story, so that while not everyone does that when making films, some of my favourite stories are tribal stories.

Q. In the background of Gayby Baby is the political question of same-sex marriage in Australia, yet the film isn’t about this. What were some of the challenges in making sure that the film wasn’t political?
A. You know, I think we have never denied that the context in which the film was made in is very political and in the end that is the draw card for a lot of people to come and see the film as it is so highly debated in Australia at the moment. However, the film is not political at all. When you watch it, yes it is a film about children growing up with same-sex parents but it is largely a film about parenting and growing up and it connects these pivotal human experiences. I think if audiences are drawn to the cinema because of the political content, I hope they leave the cinema understanding​,​ acknowledging that it is not really a political story, but a story about what connects and what separates us. I think that has been a challenge through the whole making as well, that I believe making an ad for gay families or making something with direct political persuasive techniques is never going to trick anyone because in the 21st century we are very used to advertising and understanding how the media works to convince us of things.

Q. What was your experience like working with children?
A. Oh, they are surprising, amazing, delightful and moving. I have now watched them grow up for over five years so they are now young teenagers and they are part of my family. I think we never give children as much platform as we should as they are very wise. It has really been a delight. They are like my family and I really wouldn’t make a film about anyone who I didn’t respect. So I think we will have that ongoing relationship for the rest of our lives.

Q. What advice would you give to people who are to work with children in film?
A. I think it ​is ​probably similar to anyone you are going to be making a film about, which is just acknowledge that they know what they want. I think with children there is a higher level of attention to the consent process because at every stage of their development they need to be reminded of what they have committed to and the implications to that when they get older. I think as a child and as you grow up you enter into different levels of consent. So that is something we have done in this film. They whole way through we have had conversations about the implications of doing a film between us and the children.

Q. So Gayby Baby has now been part of HotDocs and Sydney Film Festival, and is about to be part of the Melbourne International Film Festival. What is something you have learn​ed about submitting to and getting selected for film festivals?

A. I’ve learn​ed something about film festivals which I didn’t know in my earlier films which is I think that duration of your film really counts. I used to be of the party that “Whatever, my film is 20 minutes long and that’s just the way it should be and they will take it because it is brilliant”, but I think you can really hinder your opportunities for an audience if you do decide to make something of a shorter length. I made a shorter film called Two which was 18 minutes, but if I had probably been less of an egotist and cut it down a little bit it may have gone further. I think if you are making a film which is 20 minutes in a shorts program you are literally making it that much harder for yourself because you are saying your film has to be as good as two people’s other films in that program. It may be brilliant…but you don’t want to stack the odds against yourself.

I think it is natural as a first time film director to take advice from people you know and trust because there is that many thousands of entries so I think it is really good to align one’s self and show what you have made to a more experienced director or producer so they can put a red flag on it to the festival that you are trying to get into. I think that is a really great tip as well.

Q. What are some of the things you have learn​ed from you previous documentaries that you have been able to apply to Gayby Baby?

A. I don’t know if there is that many because every film and every story is its own beast, but you just have to trust your own instinct in everything, not just creatively. Also knowing the industry and your rights in the industry. If something feels funny, it’s normally because something is funny. Work with people you love and respect and not for any other reason.

Q. What is coming up for you next in regards to directing?
A. Well, there are lots of stories that I am excited about making. Gayby Baby is not going to be my last film. So just developing other projects. I am really passionate about documentaries at the moment so I think I am going to be staying within that realm for a little while longer.

Q. What advice would you Gayby-Babygive to people looking to get into documentary filmmaking?
A. Just spend lots of time with people and pay attention to a lot of the amazing things going on in the world. Read the paper, listen to podcasts, be inspired.

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.)