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Caryn Coleman on The Future of Film is Female’s Return to MoMA

Little Woods

With the epic nature of the #MeToo movement and the independent film community’s goals to program female voices (at Sundance 41% of features and episodic had a woman director, while 52% of shorts did) one would think there’d be progress within the larger film community. But Caryn Coleman, who runs the Future of Film is Female fund and MoMA screening series reminds us, there’s still a need for activism. The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s 4% Challenge shows that there hasn’t been any dramatic changes in the representation of women directors. From 2007-2018, just 4% of the directors of the 1,200 top grossing films were women. In the community, minority and female filmmakers are looking for champions taking tangible acts to change the narrative. Luckily, Coleman is one of them.

The Director of Programming/Special Projects at Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn, and the head programmer for the annual Nitehawk Shorts Festival, she has been plugged in to fresh artistic voices for some time now, taking her abilities to focus on women in film in 2018. Her initiative, The Future of Film is Female (FOFIF), provides funding for short films (often the overlooked child in the family of film) and partners with the Museum of Modern Art for a seasonal, two-year screening series. This month, it will run at the museum from February 14-21 and screen features such as Clara’s Ghost, Destroyer and Little Woods, a number of short films and a series from The Eyeslicer.

We attended last summer in the inaugural series, as Coleman partnered for one screening with NoBudge to showcase female filmmakers’s shorts. This year, we wanted to chat with Coleman about the the roots of the FOFIF and series, and all of the ways in which it seeks to put eyes on the work, and faith in potential employers and collaborators. The feature films are one-to-two years out from their festival runs or releases and are mainly early in the directors’ careers, or very much in line with their unique capabilities. “I feel this gives a good snapshot of what’s happened in film over the past year,” Coleman tells us. Many of the shorts screen before each feature, such as Sasha Wortzel’s Happy Birthday, Marsha! before Blame, and Eleanor Wilson’s Low Road before Madeline’s Madeline.

As much as many female filmmakers want to be considered for the quality of the work and not just because they’re women — a point we discuss with Coleman — she urges, “I don’t think we’re anywhere near the comfort zone of equal representation to have the luxury of not reminding people: this was directed by a woman.” The series and fund does just that — putting the female programming front and center, and with Coleman and MoMA’s taste, the quality guaranteed. She adds, “I don’t want anyone to miss a director like Barbara Loden again.” We’d have to agree.

Filmmaker: Tell me about the beginnings of The Future of Film is Female. Where and when did the venture come about?
 
Coleman: The Future of Film is Female project really stems from my work at Nitehawk Cinema and, specifically, the Nitehawk Shorts Festival (NSF) that I’ve been directing for the past six years. Since the 2016 election, as a programmer, I’ve had to take stock on what was important for me to put out into the world and how my role could help a diverse range of filmmakers tell the stories that are important to them. So, it became a conscious effort to integrate films directed by women into our regular programming and insert this acknowledge of the lack of representation in the industry into what we do.
 
The NSF has always hovered at gender parity and, through that festival, I’ve developed some of the most meaningful, supportive, and evolving relationships with women filmmakers. I wanted to be able to assist them more, outside of exhibition, because I’ve just been so organically attracted to the work they make. My intention was to launch FOFIF in November 2017 during the festival so that I could wear one of the shirts and generate conversation. However, being in charge of a festival meant that I was way too busy to make that happen in time. And so, I launched the first funding campaign with the white shirt that is in homage to the “Future is Female” shirt that Labyris Books did in the 1970s. The idea was simple: buying the shirt meant that all the proceeds would help a female filmmaker make or finish her short film while wearing the shirt made a statement that addresses the lack of and potential for women behind the camera.
 
Filmmaker: Why did you choose to partner with MoMA specifically for the screening series?
 
Coleman: I can’t overstate how much having a relationship with MoMA means to me, both personally and professionally. I could be chill about it but, let’s be honest, it’s an extraordinarily big deal to have this platform, in one of the world’s greatest cultural institutions that has the deepest dedication to film as an art form, in which to promote a new generation of filmmakers.
 
Rajendra Roy, the Chief Curator of Film at MoMA, is the one who reached out to me. We’ve had a great relationship throughout the years and the timing was perfect as I had just finished my first funding campaign. It was the right time for the film world to have a response to the treatment of women in the industry. At his encouragement, we made it an ongoing series in order to show a deep commitment to supporting contemporary films directed by women. And, I also have to say, that by inviting me to guest-curate this series on an going basis, MoMA is actively becoming part of a solution about representation in cinema. There are a lot of books and film series now about overlooked women in film history and this is something that The Future of Film is Female program at MoMA actively tries to combat. I don’t want anyone to miss a director like Barbara Loden again.
 
Filmmaker: I went last year for your Shorts Program with NoBudge, and it was incredible and so filled with up and coming filmmakers. How does your programming selection work? Apart from great material, do you also have your finger on the pulse of new voices?
 
Coleman: Kentucker Audley and what he does with NoBudge is the absolute best. It’s funny because we have very similar aesthetics when it comes to shorts programming and yet we never overlap too much. So, it’s wonderful because the breadth of what audiences see is widened and I get introduced to amazing new filmmakers. I work with him regularly at Nitehawk, where we host NoBudge Live screenings every other month, so I had complete confidence that the program he’d put together would be stellar. I also thought including Kentucker was important because, well, he’s a man. He’s a man who is doing the right thing in what he does and features women filmmakers regularly on his website. That’s absolutely something that needs to be supported.
 
So, whereas I invited Kentucker to curate his own program for the July 2018 season and The Eyeslicer for the February 2019 season, I program all of the other films (shorts and features) myself. To start, I am looking to have a well-rounded program so it’s important that I have documentary, horror, comedy, and drama. That also means including women of color and female-identifying directors. I am also fortunate enough to bring filmmakers who aren’t based in New York which expands audience’s familiarity with international films they may not ever have access to (like Maysaloun Hamoud’s Bar Bahar or Veronica Kedar’s Family).
 
The films, particularly features, are one-to-two years out from their festival run or release and are typically a director’s debut or follow up feature. I feel this gives a good snapshot of what’s happened in film over the past year. The idea is to screen films that we feel are important markers in a director’s career, ones that may get lost in the shuffle but shouldn’t. I’m shocked at how many people in last season’s screenings, which we sold out, had not seen the film. Some of which are streaming on Amazon or Netflix and had major releases.
 
But, basically, I look for films that I love and want to share with everyone who will watch.
 
Filmmaker: The program also funds short films. What are opportunities rising filmmakers should know about?
 
Coleman: Yes! I love short films so, so much. I treat them on the same level as I do features, and it’s why FOFIF is for short filmmaking…I want more! As for other funding opportunities, Panavision’s “New Filmmaker Grant” is one to mention. It’s an amazing ongoing grant program where they will lend filmmakers equipment for their shoots and, as you can imagine, having this quality of material for no cost is extremely helpful.
 
Filmmaker: Each season “reflects and responds to changes in filmmaking, financing, and exhibition as the industry responds to the ongoing lack of equal representation.” I love this in your mission statement. How did this season evolve from last and adhere to this?
 
Coleman: Thank you! While things have certainly developed in terms of conversation, I’m thinking of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s 4% Challenge, there hasn’t been any dramatic changes in the representation of women directors. I’ll just point to every major award nomination except for the Independent Spirit Awards who have seemed to not see any movies directed by a women last year!
 
I recently had a conversation with Karyn Kusama (who will be at MoMA for a screening of her latest, Destroyer) where she said that Me Too was still just a hashtag and that we’ve yet to see what that has really meant. I’m paraphrasing, obviously, but I do think that’s where we are: some people are putting things in motion for change and we’ll really see the fruit of that labor in the years to come.
 
But for now, for The Future of Film is Female at MoMA, we’re putting these films out into the universe and creating conversations around them. I think I’d have to wait until the end of the February program to see if anything has changed fully from seven months ago in terms of reception but there are some obvious examples already. For instance, we’re showing Nia DaCosta’s debut Little Woods with Tessa Thompson (filmed before she really hit) and I was terribly excited when it was announced she’d be directing the Candyman remake with Jordan Peele’s company. That’s the kind of growth we’re championing. I’m dying to see where things land in two years.
 
Filmmaker: How do we balance promoting “female filmmakers” with also elevating women as just good “filmmakers?” I find that there’s a lot of discussion around promoting the female aspect as there is the quality.
 
Coleman: This is a really good question. I don’t think we’re anywhere near the comfort zone of equal representation to have the luxury of not reminding people: this was directed by a woman. “Woman directors” certainly shouldn’t be a genre but we don’t live in a world where women’s work is viewed with the same reception or financial support with the same amount of frequency as men’s. That’s the reality. And so, at this point, it’s a duty to promote female filmmakers as aggressively as necessary.
 
That said, I draw some boundaries. Although we have gender parity at the Nitehawk Shorts Festival, I do not have female filmmaker sections. Rather, I do make a big deal that 50% of the directors aren’t men. I remember our department at Nitehawk programmed a women directors series in 2013 (which, by the way, no one really noticed or cared about at the same) and debated heavily on whether or not the title should point out that fact. We ultimately went with She Made It as a happy medium since it wasn’t overt but we realized that, otherwise, people wouldn’t understand the entire point of what we were trying to achieve. I also have to say that I work with male filmmakers and their films all of the time. It should all be a part of a healthy ecosystem!

Filmmaker: It’s about giving women jobs right now and hiring them – will there be potential collaborators invited to the series? How does the program do its best to ensure success for the featured artists?
 
Coleman: I agree with you completely. For upcoming versions of FOFIF at MoMA, I’m always open for conversation about how to be more inclusive but there is definitely a benefit to having a focused point on view on achieving our mission. I invited The Eyeslicer to be a part of the MoMA series this February and they had three filmmakers — Lauren Wolkstein, Jennifer Reeder, and Kelly Sears — curate their female-directed episode (which will eventually be part of The Eyeslicer Season Two). NoBudge will be back for the third season this summer.
 
As for the FOFIF fund, we are working on partnerships with post-production companies helmed by women to offer complimentary services for filmmakers, other clothing companies and festivals to spread the word, and we’re also planning on producing our first zine in the spring.

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