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March 08, 2005

Why Are Women Directors Such A Rare Sight?

My regular readers have seen me mention a few times that I used to work in the film industry. This article from The Guardian is so good that I decided to just copy and paste the entire thing here rather than excerpt it. I worked primarily as a lighting technician (gaffer) because that's where most of the work was in my area. I also worked as a regular and prosthetic make-up artist and a scenic artist. I was in two unions, a general union and the studio mechanics union. In the former I found mostly stage and concert work. The latter focused on film and television. I did not go to film school or major in theatre or film in college. I got into the field through the back door. I had done community theatre work as a volunteer, and realized that the gaffers and sound crew were always hired out. Those were the only people who were paid. I majored in art in college, and figured that lighting was a better fit for me than sound, so I first worked as a volunteer with the lighting technician, and was soon taking paying gigs in both community theatre and in the community at large. That led to a paying job with a non-union scene shop. Some of the guys at the scene shop also did union work, and they told me where to go and how to apply. I did, and ended up working in the two unions. The job was very fulfilling. I stopped working in the field about ten years ago, and I still miss it.

The hours, as mentioned in the article below, were horrendous. I often started at 6 am and worked well into the evening. For the concerts, I'd get there before rush hour in the morning to set up and work until mid-afternoon. To strike, I began work after the concert ended at approximately 11 pm and stick around for five hours or so. If I liked the band I always came early to attend the concert for free since I was part of the crew. That's how I got to see The Eagles, The Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, Eric Clapton, and many others. I had the best seat in the house - on the side in the wings with the crew or directly in front of the stage. I brought ear plugs to dull the damage to my ears. I sometimes drove home as people were commuting to work in the morning. It was difficult to work this schedule with a pre-school child, but I did have help. Women in the field who have children have had their own problems dealing with scheduling, child care, and being able to do their jobs because traditionally women have always been their children's primary caregivers. The article goes into this situation in more detail.

The lamps are heavy - at least 50 lbs. each. I never had a problem handling them or hoisting them over my head, and neither did any of the women I worked with. I was constantly shoving around road cases with the rest of the crew, and those things aren't light. Trusses jam packed with lamps and sound equipment are so heavy you need a huge crew to get them up in the air. Some of the women I had worked with were on the A-list, which is where you end up after you pass the journeyman's exam. I was B-list. I didn't work at it long enough to take the exam. One thing I've never been able to combat was my fear of heights, but I worked around it anyway. One good thing about my job was that I buffed up very quickly, and it didn't even feel as if I was exercising. I looked like Rachel MacLeish. The women were perfectly capable of pulling their weight on the set, and the guys never gave them any flack about it when I was working with them. In fact, everyone go along just fine and respected each other's work.

I've noticed when working in the field that there weren't many women working. Those that did tended to congregate in "traditionally female" jobs such as hair, makeup, and scenic. While there were women who worked as gaffers and grips, those jobs were mostly male-oriented. I have never worked on a job where a woman was the director. Most often, men also headed the departments. I have never experienced sex discrimination in the field, but many women have. Don't forget the lawsuits filed by women film makers when Schwarzenegger was running for California governor.

Reading this article brought back many fond memories for me.

Why are women directors such a rare sight?

As the UK's first major women's film festival opens in London tomorrow, we ask those involved in the industry why there are so few female directors

Monday March 7, 2005


Beeban Kidron

I once gave a talk at a girls' school and, once I'd finished, 29 out of the 30 girls wanted to be film directors. I think that's where we need to get girls interested in making films. We need to give them the idea that they can, that it's one of the things on their horizon. I think that for many young women it doesn't really occur to them that these are the functions in society that they can have. What we want is a whole generation of women who can think: "I can do whatever I want and I have a right to a voice and I can find the expertise to make that voice be heard in the world."

*Beeban Kidron directed Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason and Oranges are Not the Only Fruit

Naomie Harris

Film is such a male-dominated industry. There's a lot of "who you know" in terms of how you get promoted. The whole way the business is constructed [means there are ] just men at every level, which makes it really hard for women to get their feet in the door. Also, the way of working makes it very difficult for women to succeed in the business. It must be incredibly hard if you have children to navigate the hours.

I haven't been directed by a woman. I'd love to be; it would make a big difference. Often as an actress you can feel very alienated, especially if you are playing the female lead in a male-dominated cast and environment. It's very hard to feel relaxed, to feel able to express yourself and to feel that you will be heard in that kind of environment.

The other area that is really important to get women involved in - even more than directing, I think - is writing. Everything starts in the writing, and getting more and more women's perspective in the writing will have a huge impact on the quality of films we get. At the moment, we don't really see women as we see ourselves and as we really are because it's only men writing for us.

I've read a lot of scripts where I've thought: "No women would ever say that! No woman would ever behave like that!" Women are put into these categories of bitch, mother or sex symbol. If we had more women writing we would have a more realistic representation of what it's like to be a woman.

*Naomie Harris starred in 28 Days Later and is currently filming Pirates of the Caribbean, part 2.

Sarah Radclyffe

I've worked with embarrassingly few women directors throughout my career as a producer. Why? I don't know, is the honest answer. It's very unusual for me to develop a project without a director, and female directors just don't seem to send their projects in. I wonder whether there are many who want to go into directing.

So why do more women not want to direct? There are a lot of female producers, and that's true all the way through production. Perhaps that's something to do with having children. When you've just had a child, you can go back to the production side of things relatively easily. You can be reactive to problems that are coming towards you - that's fine. Whereas if you are directing, you are giving part of your inner self. You are giving your all and that's hard if you've got a young child. The majority of women give that part of themselves to their child, it's a fact of life. I think it's incredibly important that we get the female voice out there. We need female ideas and ideologies.

We have a frighteningly small list of female screenwriters in this country, sadly. We don't expect 50% of the working directors to be female - that's not going to happen, certainly not in my lifetime, but at least [let's have] a few more female voices out there, a few more visions.

There are some fantastic people coming out of film schools, directors and producers, many of whom definitely will make it. It's certainly the first time for a few years where I've found the next generation of film-makers coming into my office are women, which is great.

*Sarah Radclyffe co-founded the production company Working Title and is currently producing Tara Road, starring Andie MacDowell.

Polly Leys

It's always felt to me that there were quite a lot of women working in the film industry, although I am aware that the majority work in less visible roles. By this I mean more supporting, production-based jobs rather than the more prestigious creative roles of writer and director. Why is this? It's impossible to say without dipping into broad generalisations about the female psyche, especially issues to do with self-belief.

Rather than gazing at our navels continually, maybe we should spend more time acknowledging and celebrating the work of women who are making headway and in so doing create some positive role models for future generations.

The Australian film industry has an unusually high percentage of female film directors. I once asked one why they thought this was and she cited Jane Campion as the person who made it all possible. Looking back to the UK, yes, the percentages are still terrible and, yes, there is still some way to go, but we shouldn't overlook the importance and possible future impact of writers and directors such as Lynne Ramsey, Amma Asante and Gurinder Chadha, to name but a tiny few who are out already making a difference.

I recently sat on a panel to select the short films for the Birds Eye View film festival. There were more than 450 films submitted. That's 450 future female film-makers out there. That's got to be progress.

*Polly Leys co-produced The Full Monty.

Kelly Broad

I think it's lazy to say that women are better organisers (and hence more of them are producers) and men are traditionally more esoteric or creative (ie, directors). It is far more pragmatic than this. The director's role is an intense one and in the past it just hasn't been compatible with a woman raising a family. In the past decade we've seen a marked shift in the role of men sharing child-rearing and this has to continue. If we can share the child-rearing more equally, this will allow women more time to take on the incredibly consuming role of directing a film.

*Kelly Broad produced the Bafta-winning short The Banker.

Anthony Minghella

It matters in every possible way who is making films. That perspective and that purpose is determined by the personality of the director and it's very alarming and odd that that's the preserve largely of white men. You wouldn't want all the information to come from one distorted perspective. It's much better to have views from everybody, from all around the world.

There's so little opportunity at the moment for more than one tiny constituency to speak on film. I think the most exciting thing that is happening is that the way that film is being collected, broadcast and made is going to have a profound influence on the kind of messages we will receive as audiences.

In the past, films were enormously expensive to make, even the equipment was expensive, so of course it has gravitated to one essentially white, essentially male, essentially middle-class group who get to speak and have their say. And what's going to happen is that the means of production are going to be surrendered to almost anybody out there.

There are as many points of views and sensibilities in women as there are in men. The fact is we simply do not hear enough of any of them.

*Anthony Minghella directed Cold Mountain.

Mike Figgis

I could write a short thesis on why there were so many men in the film industry and I'd say it was to do with the weight of the equipment. One can understand how a hierarchy of men, a film crew, has built up. In order for us to handle 100 to 150 large men who are carrying equipment almost like an army unit, then it makes sense to put a man in charge of all of that because there are gender issues about control and authority. Just like in the armed forces.

The fact is that in the modern film industry those physical conditions no longer prevail; therefore there is no crude, physical reason why it should be so male-dominated. It is merely a hierarchy that has established a way of being and continues to try to hold on to certain rules about gender.

Film is very important to our culture - it is the main story-telling medium. If it's not representational both of either the gender or race of the culture in which we live, it is an incomplete picture. So it's crucial that women are reflected in the statistics of how many directors there are.

What do women bring to film-making? They bring a female perspective and, in a way, that's enough. To argue what a female perspective is is not really my place, but I know it when I see it!

I think one of the problems is because there's an inequality in the balance between female and male film-makers, there is the expectation that women should rush in and fill that gap with interesting stuff. But it takes a while for the water levels to get to the right balance. It's not like you can pass a law and say, "OK, now there will be more films made by women."

It is really important for aspiring film-makers - women, people from ethnic backgrounds that would not normally be included and also social backgrounds that, 10 years ago, would have been excluded - to realise that you don't need permission, you don't need anything to change, it already has changed. It's now possible to make a film without the endorsement of a male-dominated culture. Now there is no reason to prevent anybody from making a film. The technology exists, the equipment is much cheaper than it was, the post-production facilities are on a laptop computer, the entire equipment to make a film can go in a couple of cases and be carried as hand luggage on a plane. There is nothing to stop people making films.

*Mike Figgis directed Leaving Las Vegas

*The first Birds Eye View Film Festival runs from tomorrow until March 13. Screenings and events will take place in London at the National Film Theatre, ICA and Curzon Soho. For details see www.birds-eye-view.co.uk. Book tickets via the venues: NFT on 020-7928 3232; ICA 020-7930 3647; Curzon Soho 020-7734 2255.

Posted on March 8, 2005 at 03:11 PM | Permalink


Two Words: The Couch

Posted by: Roxanne at Mar 8, 2005 3:26:44 PM

This was interesting. You know, childcare can be a hassle, but even for women who don't have children, or who have a supportive partner, or whose children are older and can handle themselves, there is a big roadblock in nontraditional employment; I like to call it "inertia".

Networking in the nontraditional scene can be difficult to do cross-gender. Here where I am, there are few female role models and few female colleagues. It's a conservative area, so while most of the guys are cool, and some will invite female co-workers to lunch or a beer after work, many will not. And damn few will ever invite a woman to after-work socializing like parties, barbecues, golfing, fishing, hunting, skeet-shooting, bowling, shooting pool, or any of the other 'bonding' activities popular with the guys. The guys develop close bonds with one another and women are basically shut out of the process....especially if we are single. How does that translate to the job? Well, when it comes to opportunities, or choice of jobs, or layoff time....close friends get the 'breaks', people outside of the inner circle (women, men of color, organized guys) don't.

I find this dynamic much harder to fight than simple sexism, or ignorant bigotry. I'll work the bigots into the ground, ya know!! You can prove yourself to some unbelievers with your work, and if not, you've already won over the majority, so just keep the ol' nose to the grindstone. But this other thing...the inertia of change....that's a different animal. Added to the mix is the notorious nepotism in many nontraditional fields, and it's a helluva brew.

I knew this informal networking would be a problem for me, so in an effort to counteract it I became very involved with the Local from the moment I took my oath. I figured it was the best way to make myself 'known' outside the job. It helps, but it's a minor help.

And the situation replicates itself...the "inertia". There's not a critical mass of women, so our lack of presence, our lack of role models, our lack of strong male allies willing to buck tradition and be real mentors (as opposed to just another smiling face on the job), or lack of strong support from union officers and apprenticeship council members (who don't take female recruitment seriously), our lack of recognition or support from the contractors we work for....it all contributes to the lack of movement and change. The system feeds upon itself.

But I'm still gonna kick ass and take names, tho'. ;-)

Posted by: La Lubu at Mar 8, 2005 6:28:28 PM