The glass ceiling is alive and well and living in Hollywood (and anywhere else movies are made). Focus in on, say, the Independent Spirit Awards, whose nominations were announced this week: Six filmmakers up for best director – and not a woman among them.
“I just about fell down,” Siobhan Devine, a Vancouver-based director whose first feature has its world premiere at the Whistler Film Festival next week, says. “In 2015. I couldn’t believe that nobody was embarrassed.”
It is 2015, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reminded us when asked about bringing gender parity to cabinet. And yet a stunning gender gap persists in the movies.
Cannes may have made headlines for its high-heels-or-bust red carpet stance this year, but the crème de la crème of film festivals is falling down in other ways when it comes to les femmes. Only two films that screened in competition this year were directed by women. That’s the same as last year, up from one film in 2013 and zero films by women in 2012.
Paul Gratton took notice of this. So when the director of programming for the Whistler Film Festival realized that 10 of his feature film selections and more than 40 per cent of the short films for this year’s WFF have a female director, his immediate thought was: That was easy; why isn’t this happening elsewhere?
“I don’t set out for a quota and I never choose films directed by women out of tokenism or trying to hit a target,” Gratton says. But he believes films by women should “easily” make up one-third to 50 per cent at festivals.
That said, Whistler is screening 46 features – so he hasn’t hit that percentage, either. (Further, two of those 10 features were pulled by their distributor last week and Gratton was unable to replace them with female-directed films.)
The Whistler Film Festival, which begins on Wednesday, certainly does not have the power, profile, or pickings, of many film festivals, including Cannes, but programming – even unintentionally – 10 (down to eight) feature films made by women makes a statement. Further, WFF is shining a spotlight on the issue at its concurrent industry summit with an intensive mentorship program for female screen directors (Mary Walsh is one of the participants) and a panel discussion.
Devine, who will be on that panel, has given the issue a lot of thought, but remains puzzled as to why this is still happening.
“That is the million-dollar question. I have no idea. Truly I don’t. I think the opportunity’s not there because nobody wants to rock the boat.”
Devine listened to Trudeau and his new cabinet being sworn in on her car radio and thought, “Jeez, if the Prime Minister of Canada can do that with what you have to say are more important jobs – then maybe we could just do that in film and television and the world would not end.”
Gratton suggests film festivals should simply try harder to program films directed by women. “That sounds really smartass. But again, I didn’t have to try that hard,” he says. “I still think they’re not trying hard enough because the world’s changing.”
Even in this changing world, the picture of this industry remains sobering. A recent study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University showed that of the 250 top grossing films in the United States, just 7 per cent were directed by women. Broaden that out to the top 700 theatrically released films in the United States in 2014 (excluding foreign films) and 13 per cent of the directors were women.
The Canadian Unions for Equality on Screen study Focus on Women 2013 found gender inequality in the film and TV industry in this country as well. It cited an earlier study (Women in View on Screen 2012) that showed women composed less than 20 per cent of directors and 21 per cent of screenwriters.
Perhaps we’re at a tipping point. Meryl Streep is funding an initiative that will mentor female screenwriters over the age of 40, announced at Tribeca. In her acceptance speech at the Oscars this year, Patricia Arquette called for pay equality for women. Jennifer Lawrence recently wrote an essay, Why Do I Make Less Than My Male Co-Stars? (sparked by learning, thanks to the Sony hack, that she was being paid less than the guys she worked with on American Hustle). The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and the national ACLU Women’s Rights Project have called for an investigation of “the systemic failure to hire women directors at all levels of the film and television industry.” Ashley Judd’s revelation this fall that early in her career she was sexually harassed by an unnamed studio mogul was met with support (for her) and outrage (for him). A recent piece in The New York Times Magazine, The Women of Hollywood Speak Out, reported on a “toxic brew of fear and sexism” in the industry, observing that the leap from directing indie to blockbuster films “is almost exclusively reserved for young guys in baseball caps who remind older guys in baseball caps of themselves.”
In Canada, the group Women in the Director’s Chair is working on fixes, offering professional development for mid-career female Canadian directors. Devine won the WIDC Feature Film Award in 2013, a life-changer that allowed her to make her first feature, The Birdwatcher, which premieres at Whistler next week.
The film, about a single mother’s (Camille Sullivan) quest to make plans for her children after a cancer diagnosis, was made predominantly by women. In addition to Devine, the film’s screenwriter, editor, composer, many of the key crew members and most of the cast were female.
Interestingly, that San Diego State University study found that films made by female directors employed “substantially higher percentages of women in other key behind-the-scenes roles.” For example, on films with female directors, women represented 52 per cent of writers. But for films directed by men, women accounted for 8 per cent of screenwriters.
Breaking into television, where Devine has spent most of her career, is also tough, she says. “It’s hard for everybody, but it’s harder for women. There are sometimes no women directing any episodes of an entire season of a show. It’s not just infrequent; it happens a lot. And so how is [a woman entering the business] ever going to think that they are going to get to the top if they’ve never seen a female direct?
“I’d like my daughters to think that if they want to direct TV or movies … they can,” Devine adds. “At the moment it’s easier for my daughter to go and be a brain surgeon than to direct TV. How insane is that?”
Jude Klassen, who will also premiere her debut feature film at Whistler, has found it difficult to sustain a career in television. Klassen, who lives in Toronto, has written for film and TV (and for print as an entertainment journalist), but as employment has dried up, she has launched a bunch of her own projects, including quirky, raunchy music videos; Rob Ford has been a key muse.
Klassen’s film, Love in the Sixth (which features a cameo by The Globe and Mail’s John Doyle) is an extension of those projects. Super low-budget, it was made for about $5,000 in hard costs – which doesn’t include the meals she prepared in her slow cooker for the all-volunteer cast and crew (“I had neighbours’ kids holding reflectors”). It stars Klassen and her daughter Mika Kay as a single mother and her smart, dystopian daughter who try to navigate relationships, the Harper government and climate change through mother-daughter talks and musical numbers. Female BFFs figure prominently, too.
The cast is predominantly female, the story is told from a female point of view and there is a message of female empowerment woven into all the wackiness. “And at the end of the day, I’m the sheriff,” Klassen says.
I asked Klassen, who will also be on that Whistler panel, if she has a prescription for the gender inequality in the film business.
“Be conscious, question misogyny,” she responded. “Raise feminists – boys and girls. We can evolve. Until then, sisters, create your own work.”
The Whistler Film Festival runs Dec. 2-6.Report Typo/Error