The lessons of the 52 films by women pledge

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Early this year the hashtag #52FilmsByWomen popped up in my Twitter feed. Research led me to Women in Film (WIF), a non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting equal opportunities for women, encouraging creative projects by women, and expanding and enhancing portrayals of women in all forms of global media. WIF set down a challenge: watch a film directed by a woman once a week for a year.

I am terrible at finishing things so I’m always looking for things like this to prove myself wrong. I joined the pledge to watch 52 films by women (sitting at over 10,000 pledges to date). As a critic I am aware of how messed up the gender imbalance is in filmmaking. I didn’t want to treat this process as an exploration of the bleeding obvious. I saw this pledge as not only a challenge, but a responsibly, a chance to push myself to seek out more films made by women.

There were times where it was easier to revisit a film because I could take it off my DVD shelf at home, so please excuse my laziness. I also included films co-directed by a woman as well as trans filmmakers, if you have a problem with that, try telling these people to their face that they didn’t direct a film or are not female – good luck with that.

As of the beginning of December, I’d completed the challenge and found it more revealing about how we decide what to watch, the careers projection of female directors and how male filmmakers are a big part of the problem without knowing it.

It’s our responsibility to level the playing field

A lot of finger pointing goes on when it comes to gender inequality in the film industry. Sure, there are problems with funding bodies, film festival selection criteria and programming, award representation, wonky gender initiatives and more. The blame game is a distraction in this space while the real problems continue unhindered.

So while the industry types bicker, a portion of the responsibility lies with the audience to level the playing field. As a critic, I am part of that audience and a contributor to the ongoing conversation about film. The power of this responsibility didn’t hit until I was faced with choice at the ticket counter.

We all have the films we’re dying to see that we preference over others. One weekend at the beginning of November, I was trying to catch up on the films I had missed and the lineup was overwhelming: Sully, Nocturnal Animals, The Light Between the Oceans, Julieta, American Honey, I Daniel Blake, The Handmaiden, Captain Fantastic, Café Society and Arrival. One of these is not like the other. If I was to play favourites, I’d go with The Handmaiden. If I was to go with a big award winner from Cannes, it would be I, Daniel Blake. I’m doing 52 films by women, so I bought a ticket to American Honey (for the record, I had just seen Fish Tank and was very keen to see what Andrea Arnold did next).

The pledge had changed my approach, not in a way that gives these films special treatment, but I saw the wall of male directed films coming at me and I had to address the imbalance myself. Filmmaking skews male so you have to poke it back. We make these choices each time we go to the cinema and this isn’t a dismissal of the other films. I got to them in the order I deemed necessary but I had to reorient my thinking towards balance and put personal preferences aside. And this isn’t done under the assumption that all female directed films are going to be quality. Guess what? Women can make bad movies, too, which I’ll get to shortly. Every film selection is a gamble but if we want to see more female directed films, we need to shake up the way we approach the ticket counter.

The disappearing directors

Something I loved about this challenge was discovering films I’d never seen before. The joy was abruptly killed when I’d look into what the director did next. Usually, a barren IMDB bio waited. A surprise for me was Floria Sigismondi’s The Runaways from 2010. All the music biopic cliches are in this film but it’s so damn electric with its take on gender roles and sexuality during a fluid time. Surely, Floria Sigismondi went onto more feature film work? Nope. She hasn’t directed a film since 2010 but has kept busy with music video work and directing episode of the TV series Hemlock Grove, Daredevil and the upcoming American Gods. Directing TV is not a step down in any way but based on what I saw in The Runaways, I want another feature film from this director. I found this story multiplied across a lot of female directors and it became more disheartening when critical and financial hits resulted in zero work for a lot of filmmakers. As pointed out by Scott Mendelson in his Forbes piece: Female Directors Don’t Need ‘Experience’ — They Just Need To Get Hired:

“Here’s a fun example: CBS Films opened Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ The Kings of Summer in just four theaters in May of 2013. The film never went wider than 65 theaters, and the relatively well-received “teen coming of age” film earned just $1.315 million. A month later, CBS Films released Maggie Carey’s The To-Do List in 591 theaters. The relatively well-received “teen coming of age” movie earned $3.491m. Maggie Carey has yet to make another feature. Jordan Vogt-Roberts is directing Kong: Skull Island for Warner Bros./Time Warner Inc.”

Further to this point, female directors are just not allowed to fail like their male counterparts. We expect female directors to make life-changing cinema or to get the hell out of the industry. Throughout this process I kept thinking, who is the lady equivalent of Michael Bay?

Look at Rachel Talalay who directed Tank Girl (yes, I am a fan) in 1995 and has never directed another film since, but has been working in television (this became a trend). Tank Girl only made back $6 million from a budget of $25 million. Compare Tank Girl to another film that came out in 95, Cutthroat Island, which had a reported budget of $115 million and made only $10 million at the box office. Talalay disappeared from film directing but Cutthroat Island’s director, Renny Harlin, has made eleven films after one of the biggest box office flops to date, that also bankrupted the production company, Carolco Pictures.

Most male directors are hired for their next project while their latest film is festering at the box office. It sounds odd but we need to let female directors fall on their faces but still be allowed to get back up again.

Men need to learn to say ‘no’ to things

In the hunt to find films directed by women I was always disappointed to see the most feminine looking films had a dude behind them. Look, not every film about men or women needs proper gender assignment but I found it bizarre that something like 2016’s Bad Moms had not one, but two male directors!

Sometimes outsiders can bring the best point-of-view to a piece of work but there were a lot of films that do not benefit from the male point-of-view. Directors want to work, it’s ultra competitive, I get it, but male directors need to learn to say ‘no’ to gig when they think they’re not the person for the job. You can transfer this to any profession. It’s tough when trying to carve out a career but these filmmakers need to have a level of self-awareness when they are handed a script for a film called A Woman’s Way. Bro, say no.

Directors for hire

I want to end on a positive note, and putting older films viewed as part of the pledge aside, there were plenty of films from the last decade-and-a-half with directors putting forward work that should bounce them into new feature film projects.

On the documentary front, my list included Jennifer Peedom’s Sherpa, Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami’s Sonita, Ondi Timoner’s Dig!, Laura Gabbert’s City of Gold and Jane Pollard’s 20,000 Days on Earth.

The narrative feature list boasted an impressive group of talented filmmakers including: Christine Jeffs’ Sunshine Cleaning, Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages, Rosemary Myers’ Girl Sleep, Anna Billers’ The Love Witch and Viva, Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang, Marjane Satrapi’s The Voices, Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood, Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Chevalier, Houda Benyamina’s The Divines, Lorene Scafaria’s The Meddler, Jocelyn Moorhouse’s The Dressmaker and Elizabeth Wood’s White Girl.

52 and beyond

The pledge is something I plan to do every year from now on as a way of keeping everything discussed here top of mind. If others don’t make change a topic of conversation, we have to do it ourselves.

Cameron Williams

The Popcorn Junkie

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