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Film For female filmmakers in Canada, ‘the needle is moving’ – albeit slowly, and not for all women

Tracey Deer, third from left, watches a take on the set of Mohawk Girls.

EDOUARD PLANTE-FRECHETTE/La Presse

At this year’s Canadian Screen Awards, female filmmakers ruled. Women won awards for best dramatic series (Moira Walley-Beckett’s Anne with an E), best direction in a drama series (Norma Bailey for Mary Kills People) and a veritable avalanche in the film categories, including best motion picture, best feature length documentary, best production design, best cinematography, achievement in direction, achievement in editing, best original screenplay, and best original score. If the CSAs were the Oscars, people would be dancing in the streets.

But anyone curious about the current state of gender parity and hiring practices in Canadian film and television only needs to read the new Women In View 2019 On Screen Report, which was released Wednesday morning by the not-for-profit organization “dedicated to strengthening gender representation and diversity in Canadian media."

Co-authored by researchers Jill Golick and Amber-Sekowan Daniels, this year’s WIV report analyzed data from 2014 to 2017, looking at women’s contributions to writing, directing, cinematography and producing in Canadian network television narrative series, and English-language films funded by Telefilm. While there has been an 11-per-cent increase in women working from 2014 to 2017, only 28 per cent of contracts in Canadian TV went to female creatives in 2017. A damning 1.81 per cent (47 out of 3,206) went to women of colour, and just 0.69 per cent (22 out of 3,206) to Indigenous women.

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It could be worse. Before 2014, the entire database of working TV female directors in Canada recorded by WIV was just 16 names. In the past two years, 11 out of 17 new directors who received their first TV directing credits alone were women, while 2016 also marked the first-ever female cinematography credit on a Canadian TV show.

“I don’t think it’s such a sad story because in those first four years Women in View collected statistics, there was no growth at all,” says Golick, WIV’s executive director and a TV writer. Along with her colleague Daniels, Golick admits to being “obsessed with the numbers.” This year, the pair incorporated a new intersectional approach to their data, examining how race affects female filmmakers’ employability in Canada. For Daniels, a comedy screenwriter who grew up in an Indigenous community in Winnipeg, it feels heartbreaking.

“As an Indigenous filmmaker who also wants to make stuff, I don’t want to keep putting ‘zero zero zero’ on everything,” she says. “These numbers are hard to look at and hard to ignore. It’s bittersweet when there’s not a ton of actual new names coming in and it’s been the same women working who have been breaking barriers since the nineties.”

In 2016, many leading film organizations and broadcasters, including the National Film Board, Telefilm and the CBC, made commitments to reaching 50 per cent gender parity by 2020. The new WIV report offers actionable advice as these executives scramble to reach that goal within the next six months.

Sally Catto, general manager of programming for CBC English Television, says women now direct 50 per cent of all episodes on 15 CBC series, including both female-fronted shows such as Workin’ Moms, Baroness and Frankie Drake Mysteries, as well as more male-driven series such as Murdoch Mysteries, Schitt’s Creek and This Hour Has 22 Minutes.

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“It’s a top priority for CBC to be able to draw on the full, rich diversity of Canada’s talent pool to better reflect the country we serve,” Catto says, citing filmmakers such as Michelle Latimer, hired this year to direct a block of episodes on Anne with an E, and Aleysa Young, who’s directed Baroness as well as episodes of Kim’s Convenience and Cavendish, as two key examples of diverse talent. “[The CBC] is committed to maintaining our momentum and leadership role in gender parity and increasing opportunities for women, and this work requires constant care and attention.”

Yet, the report indicates that while more directing and writing gigs are being offered to women, they are being handed to the same go-to list of predominantly older, well-established and white names, forcing diverse voices eager for their first credit to continue to exhaust themselves in the job-shadowing and training programs.

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For writer-director Tracey Deer, a showrunner of the long-running comedy series Mohawk Girls, breaking into the industry has taken a long time. She’s only now earning her first network credit on a TV show that she didn’t create, having been hired to shape an Indigenous story line in the writer’s room on the third season of Anne with an E.

“I’m not a new talent. I’ve been working for a good 18 years and I’m just about to direct my first feature,” Deer says, calling from the Toronto set where her Anne episode is shooting. Later this year, Deer will direct her coming-of-age drama Beans, as part of a funding partnership between the Canadian Film Centre and WIV.

“The needle is moving, but there’s still a very big problem,” Deer says. “There’s a very specific list of women who people feel comfortable hiring and it’s like auto-pilot for them. As long as all the stories are still being told by white people, it’s not representative of the makeup of our country, and it’s not as interesting as it could be.”

Aya Cash in Mary Goes Round, financed by the Telefilm’s Micro Budget Program in 2016.

Courtesy of TARO

Gender parity initiatives have been good for some emerging filmmakers, including writer-director Molly McGlynn. After getting hired by Catherine Reitman to direct an episode of Workin’ Moms in 2018 off her TIFF short film 3-Way (Not Calling), McGlynn has experienced a swift ascent into full-time direction work. In the past two years, she’s shot episodes for the CBC series Little Dog and How to Buy a Baby, CityTV’s Bad Blood, as well as the ABC series Speechless, Bless This Mess, and Grown-ish, while her first feature film Mary Goes Round, financed by the Telefilm’s Micro Budget Program in 2016, earned McGlynn the $10,000 Jay Scott Emerging Artist Prize at this past winter’s Toronto Film Critics Association Awards.

“I found reading the report surreal because I realized I’m one of those people who bumps the numbers up,” McGlynn says. “But I always say that while things like the CBC parity [initiative] open the door, they’re not gonna keep you in the room. Whether [a showrunner] believes I can achieve it creatively, or whether I’m part of their quota, I’m always like, ‘I’m just gonna do a good job anyway because how else can you build a career?’ Still, it feels horrifying to me when you see certain groups of women, such as women of colour and Indigenous directors, who you can literally count on one hand.”

WIV’s report proves, though, that when women are empowered to create their content, gender parity and diversity is not difficult to achieve. For instance, female showrunners found a way to hand 53 per cent of their work to other women in 2017 (though with zero per cent Indigenous women and only 1.53 per cent of women of colour employed). Comparatively, male-driven programs employed 14 per cent women in 2017.

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Yet, while Canadian female filmmakers receive prize money and CSAs, they are doing so with fewer resources. In the film world, the amount of Telefilm-financed features directed by women between 2015 and 2017 grew from 20 to 31 per cent, yet the budgets stayed ultra-low, with a woman’s share of proceeds from the film never exceeding 20 per cent

“Look at the list of women-led series in this country," says Golick. "All these shows are building an audience; they’re not stealing anything from men. I know there are men out there asking, ‘But what about me?’ Just like there are white women who are worried about diversity and saying, ‘I thought it was my turn to have a career, why are you putting all these people ahead of me?’ We have to stop looking at the world as a place of limited resources and start to see how Canada is well-positioned to work in a global marketplace. If we have new kinds of shows telling unheard stories, we’re gonna open new audiences for our work, so everybody’s going to be better off.”

Special to The Globe and Mail

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