More Women, Less Men, and a Possible Future of Cinema
[Editor’s note: this is a guest post from director Gina Telaroli. Enough said.]
Over the past few months I’ve been spending more time than normal at the gym, getting up at 5:30 AM and arriving there by 7:00 for yoga or a cardio/weights/TCM combo before heading to my job for the day. When I made the decision to kick it up a notch from my usual two days a week, my reasons were probably a New York City cocktail of anxiety, sublimation, and restlessness from having a day job that keeps me at a desk. What I realized after a month or so of increased activity was that the results I was getting (physical, emotional) were directly connected to the effort I was putting in. I was somewhat shocked. This may seem obvious as you read it (and it is), but as an independent filmmaker — and especially as a female independent filmmaker — I think I’d forgotten what it feels like to put in a certain amount of effort and actually achieve a correlating result.
Gym endorsements aside (Equinox didn’t make me do it) correlation really is at the heart of many problems facing film. It’s always been a somewhat lopsided endeavor, the making being incredibly intense, with whatever emerges after a movie’s completion never equaling everything that went into it. But that lopsidedness has been hitting a lot harder these Instagramable days, as an increasingly large amount of people want an opportunity to make something they care about or, perhaps, become famous — we don’t yet have systems that can handle all that desire, which is very scary for everyone currently in control of those systems. That fear is exerting itself in a plethora of ways, one of them being a stubborn and hyperbolic maintenance of the status quo, one that — much to the dismay of my XX chromosomes — is a predominantly white male status quo.
The internet, social media, and large scale email hacks have made it possible for the inequality to be pointed out and when confronted with it many politically righteous people, even many men, have no problem concurring that women are disadvantaged and that that isn’t fair. A few men will even go as far as to admit that they might be advantaged or at the very least that they don’t understand precisely what it is like to be a woman in this system. But privilege, sexism and racism are not individual issues, they are systemic issues, and they are undeniable no matter how uncomfortable or contradictory it may seem. I am equally oppressed (my gender) and oppressor (my race) and good progressive men, regardless of their individual opinions, are still oppressors in the sense of the privileges they still have and the opportunities that undeniably come more easily to them, even if it doesn’t feel like they are.
When you have an industry that is pre-dominantly male, where men have been over-rewarded since the invention of the industry and the art form, and that industry is experiencing a huge transition and is wildly unstable and people are scared and thinking about themselves first and foremost, a change as large as leveling the gender playing fields becomes highly unlikely. It’s extremely difficult for anyone to make a film (or write about them) these days and that is always going to trump the fact that it is undeniably more difficult for women to make them. The other half of the “more women” equation is rarely mentioned in the recent outpouring of articles and tweets about ultimately finite resources (film budgets or grant rewards) or opportunities (film festival slots or directing jobs): if women are going to become more advantaged, if the playing field is going to be even, men will have to become more disadvantaged and have less opportunities. This isn’t a man-hating opinion (I don’t hate men and in fact I quite like them) but a resource-oriented fact. In short, if there are going to be more women in the system, there will have to be less men, which of course every man is OK with as long as it doesn’t affect them personally…
Where this leaves me as a female filmmaker is mostly feeling like a plastic bag (in the Katy Perry sense, not the Sam Mendes or even the Nathaniel Dorsky sense) in a place that looks a lot like purgatory. As a woman in film there are a lot of things you experience that seem wrong, some more concrete than others, things you’re fairly certain are connected to your gender. You can’t quite prove them but something doesn’t add up, especially when you talk to male filmmaker friends about the opportunities and support they receive in relation to their resumes. I have conversations about those things with female filmmakers, writers, and artists quite often. It’s almost like we’re all living the same life as Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight, caught in a perpetual loop of knowing something isn’t right but not being able to prove it, with Joseph Cotton (now dead for 21 years) nowhere to be found.
Alongside those less provable things however, there are some concrete and disturbing facts — the recent DGA report that highlights the shockingly low amount of women hired to direct TV speaks for itself. When I decided to look at numbers from twenty international and domestic film festivals that either have categories devoted to new films, filmmakers, visions, voices, forms, or what have you, women came in at 15 percent in terms of line-up presence. Which, to flip it, means that right now, on average, film festivals are 85 percent male. The festival that had the best percentage of women came in at 30 percent and the worst came in at 0. Those numbers don’t exactly encourage me to come home from after a 9+ hour day at work and spend my night sending emails and filling out forms.
The arguments that attempt to explain and justify those numbers are all pretty weak, and hearing them is infuriating, with arguments of quality or merit being especially spurious. It’s unclear to me why exactly women should only be allowed to make perfect movies that gross tons of money when for all of cinema’s history men have been able to simply make movies — some good, some not so good, some well-attended, some not so well-attended. If you want to look at some hard numbers, men have undeniably made many, many more unsuccessful, poorly reviewed movies than women have and most likely ever will, given the bogus standards to which women are presently being held. Equally spurious to the quality argument is the statement that there are simply more male than female filmmakers to choose from. It’s a dangerous, lazy, and self-fulfilling prophecy, because there will not be more female filmmakers unless we invest in them, mentor them, support them in substantial ways, and make the various film industries an open, safe, and sustainable space for them to create. I, and many others, are right here. In other words, if you are a funder, producer, programmer, distributor, or studio and you are genuinely concerned about “quality” and whether or not audiences and critics will go for a movie directed by a woman, all I can say is get over it, open your mind to something other than yourself, and maybe hire a better marketing team.
On the more artistic front, the reality is that culture is still quite closed — defined by and for men, and mostly white men. Our entire understanding of what is good or bad when it comes to cinema is based on a history of male defined terms. I’m not saying we should eradicate those terms and that history; I deeply value our cinematic heritage and respect many of the men who made it. If anything, I think we are in desperate need of a systematized education of it, as I suspect a large part of the problem is that film history is not being taught and made accessible to the masses, especially at a young age. If more people, different kinds of people, were drawn to cinema and the population in general understood where it came from, experienced the movies first hand and learned how they work, I think it would help with what really needs to happen — preserving the past in a meaningful way while simultaneously opening ourselves beyond it and moving past the limitations it placed upon itself. Otherwise I can’t help but wonder if we are doomed to just keep repeating things.
The same fear that is keeping men in and women out is doing more than just upholding misogynistic standards though — it’s hurting cinema itself. There is little to no room for experimentation in the industry, in either Hollywood or the film festival art world, for anybody at any level. Everything is hype, masterpiece-or-bust style. In comparison, the best discussions I have on films these days aren’t the over-confident, bombastic ones but the uncertain ones, the curious ones; they are few and far between. But they do happen, more often than not in real life, and I’m thankful to have a few people in my life who I can have these conversations with. The other day I was talking to an older male filmmaker friend about the work of a new female filmmaker. His comments were that there was something in the movies he hadn’t quite seen before, something he didn’t understand, but that he found that sensibility and sensuality interesting and exciting. It’s a humble way to think about movies, one requiring a generous person willing to admit and be open to things they don’t intuitively understand or, more importantly, have no personal benefit to them. In other words, you have to put someone and something ahead of yourself, which these days, given society’s focus on the individual, our “phones,” and the intense instability in all facets of the film industry, is becoming harder and harder to come by. It’s my way (Buffy Saint-Marie for the better, Frank Sinatra for the worse) or the highway (all care of the information highway).
Some days, the harder ones, I wonder if the problem is me and if the answer isn’t to fight harder, work harder, be better, and try to make my way into the systems that exist today. After all, they are the only proven path (discounting being born onto it) to something that might traditionally resemble success. But, seeing that I was raised Catholic and making movies is the closest I ever plan on getting to giving birth, I also think about Joseph and Mary and the inn. I think about Joseph and Mary going to the inn, Mary with a baby in her belly, and the inn saying there was no room for them. Instead of demanding a room or fighting their way into the inn or looking for similarly comfortable lodging, they focused on the baby and his birth and found a nearby stable, where they had privacy and quiet. It wasn’t a prestigious birth with pomp and circumstance, but a humble one. Not to mention, do we even know if the inn was would have been worth a fight, if it was actually that much better? It’s quite possible the inn was full of cockroaches and had dirty cum-stained sheets. Friends who have been successful on the festival circuit over the past few years more often than not tell me that the entire process, from applying to traveling to and from the festivals, doesn’t add up to much in the end. It is great to have the films seen in nice theaters and it might be fun for a while to travel and see people, but it isn’t a system that prioritizes filmmakers. It gets old and the benefits when it comes to trying to make a life as a working filmmaker are far and few between.
If that all seems a bit contradictory at times — well, it might be, but that’s actually OK. These issues are complex, constantly changing, and concern actual living, breathing and extremely fallible human beings. I don’t have concrete answers on what the larger answers are but I do know the only way we might find them is to get beyond easily promoted arguments, think about how things actually work, and work together to meaningfully support the thing we care so deeply about. For me personally, I also know part of that answer is to continue to find ways to make my work and have it seen, while waiting to see how things shake out (they always do). Which leads me to the appropriately titled Here’s To the Future!, my most recent feature film. You can read about it (and me) here; we got lots of great press at our premiere last year.
Starting on November 9th I will be self-releasing the film online at http://h2phttf.tumblr.com.
The release is happening in partnership with another film, Kurt Walker’s Hit 2 Pass. As his name would suggest Kurt is indeed a man, but his movie is one that I like very much and, more importantly, speaks to the smaller, more open films that I talked about above. We’ll be putting the films online for two weeks on a website of our own making. They will be technically be free but we hope people will consider putting their money where their mouths are and supporting the work via the PayPal links on the site. It’s an experiment of sorts, an adaptation of how I released my last film Traveling Light. I’m not sure about the results it will yield but I do know that I will have given people an opportunity to see and support the film and learned something about how to move forward.
And if you happen to be in New York, Here’s To the Future! as well as a program of my earlier work, will be screening at Brooklyn’s Spectacle Theater starting on Thursday November 5th. Spectacle is a great space devoted to screening forgotten, rare, and strange films, as well as unconventional and truly independent new ones, like mine. So, come on out to a screening and kill two birds with one stone by supporting a female filmmaker, as well as a space that is making it possible for smaller films to exist and be discussed on their own terms.