Women in Cinema: Film Independent held its annual Los Angeles Film Festival from June 1-9. The slate of offerings this year gave me hope for the future of women in cinema. Not just in front of the camera, but off screen as well.
From films about and created by women, to a panel with women cinematographers, the program directors for Film Independent showed their commitment to promoting women in the film industry.
Through films, Q&A sessions, interviews, and panels, I saw some themes begin to emerge. I soon realized that if women are going to have more of a voice through film, it will start not with the studios, but with independent work.
Whose job is it?
We have all heard the statistics over the past couple of years. There’s the 2013 Gender Inequality study that revealed only 9% of directors are women. Around 15% of writers are women, and among cinematographers, the number is a pathetic 2%. In fact, an updated study from the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film shows that the numbers dipped a little bit in the years after Kathryn Bigelow‘s historic Oscar win, but ticked up a bit in 2015.
But one of the questions that never seems to be answered is: who is responsible for putting women filmmakers to work?
Amber Sealey, director of No Lights and No Land Anywhere, said:
I thought, ‘My God, that’s awful. I cannot believe that so few women are directors and producers and people in power in these situations.’ And I always thought it was someone else’s job to come in and make it better…I was always like, ‘Why doesn’t someone come in and fix this?’ And I realized, wait a minute. I can come in and do my part.
Of course, there’s not a clear cut answer to the question. It’s sort of a chicken and egg situation. If the studios hire more women behind the scenes, they will have more opportunities to showcase their abilities and tell their stories. And if women showcase their abilities and tell their stores, the studios will, theoretically, hire more of them.
So what can women do to get more work in film and television?
Making their own way
Many women in the industry have decided not to wait to be given opportunities or “gifted” with jobs. Cinematographer Amy Vincent (Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan) said, “I don’t wait around. I find things to do.”
Actress Gemma Brockis echoed those thoughts. “I make my own work in London,” she said. “I’m creating my own roles…I’m aware that’s not the norm.”
But maybe it should be.
Amber Sealey director of No Light and No Land Anywhere, after realizing that she has a voice in putting women to work in Hollywood, made a decision. “I have the power on my film sets to hire as many women as I can, so I actually made it a mandate that we were looking for women for as many positions as we could.”
And this is really the beautiful thing about independent film. When politics and publicity aren’t driving creative decisions, directors and producers are free to hire as diverse a group of people as they wish. Which is exactly the kind of thing Film Independent and other organizations like it seek to promote.
Of the 63 feature films that played at this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival, women directed or co-directed 20 of them. And that’s not to mention the many films that were written, co-written, produced, edited, or shot by women.
Identifying the issue on-screen
It is easy to quantify and analyze the numbers of women working off screen, but what about what the audience sees? How do we determine success as it relates to story and character?
Due to a lot of factors in storytelling, this is sometimes difficult.
Take, for instance, 10 Cloverfield Lane. It features a very strong female lead, and she holds her own against a male villain throughout the film. However, she’s also the only named woman in the film, against two male co-stars. Does this count as a female-centric film?
Or, there’s The Conjuring 2. That film features several strong female characters, much of the story centering around a terrified mother (Frances O’Connor), her haunted daughter (Madison Wolfe), and a renowned psychic ghosthunter (Vera Farmiga). And yet, it was co-lead Patrick Wilson who got top billing.
There are a lot of factors and negotiations that determine whose name gets to be first in the credits, but that only further confuses the issue of gender inequality in film.
Stories about women
Melissa Finell, director of the hilarious film Sensitivity Training, said, “I tend to always write stories about women.” But she clarified, “Those are just the stories that come to mind, the experience I’m most interested in and that I relate to myself as a woman. But I don’t set out to make a statement in that way.”
Amber Sealey, though, specifically wanted to make more opportunities for women. “My background is as an actor, so I came at this with a different interest.” Sealey went on to explain, “As a performer, I was tired of the roles I was being offered, which was like, ‘Well, can you wear a bikini?’…There are so many rich characters in the world and I thought, ‘Why can’t I portray these characters on screen?'”
Remy Auberjonois, who directed Blood Stripe (LAFF winner for US Fiction), set out with the specific goal of telling a story about a female Marine with PTSD. “I was drawn to it because this is a story that hasn’t been told. We wanted to show the experience from a female point of view.”
Co-writer and star of the film, Kate Nowlin, added, “It was a conscious decision not to make [the lead] a mother. Not to give her that softening aspect.” She went on to explain that since most female military characters are mothers, and that their stories tend to focus on the impact of military life on a mother, they were determined to show a different angle.
Melissa Finell explained what she wants to accomplish through film. “As a filmmaker, my main concern is in the story and making it the most compelling story possible for the audience.”
Film Independent is an organization that cultivates filmmakers. So, they have made great strides to promote women in cinema. Throughout all of cinema. Giving filmmakers the opportunity to tell their stories, and to promote the work and talents of women is one of their active goals.
And many filmmakers are taking advantage of this opportunity.
Amber Sealey said, “I think there is a change. It’s happening slowly, but certainly in television. And I think it’s happening slowly in films as well.”
Share your thoughts in the comments!
*Many thanks to Amber Sealey, Gemma Brockis, Melissa Finell, Kate Nowlin, and Remy Auberjonois for taking time to speak with me and contribute to this article. Look for their films at festivals throughout the fall, and hopeful in theaters and/or VOD soon.