Skip to main content

Crew members Cheryl Sileikis, Maya Bankovic, Cait Lusk, April Mullen, Stephanie Fabrizi and Faye Mullen are photographed on the set of Below Her Mouth, an indie film due for release in 2016.Erin Simkin

The other night, a couple of women in cocktail dresses and heels stood on Church Street in Toronto's gay village, giggling at the men strolling past. The wind was beginning to pick up; as if to ward off the chill, they clung tighter to each other and launched into a reedy rendition of Cyndi Lauper's Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.

And they were having fun, sure, but they were also there as part of a bid for women to be taken more seriously. Actors Natalie Krill and Melanie Leishman were in their final night of shooting on Below Her Mouth, a $2.2-million indie film which, as far as anyone knows, may be the first feature made in Canada with an all-female crew. From producer to director, drivers to best boy (best girl?), there wasn't a Y-chromosome in sight.

Produced by Toronto-based Serendipity Point Films and starring Krill (the TV show The Next Step) and Swedish model Erika Linder, Below Her Mouth is billed as a boundary-pushing drama about a brief but consequential romance between two women. The idea for the crew's unique composition arose as producer Melissa Coghlan (who previously worked on TV shows Say Yes to the Dress Canada and Steven and Chris) and screenwriter Stephanie Fabrizi began discussing how they could sensitively approach the film's delicate subject matter.

"There's a lot of emotional and physical intimacy in the film," said Coghlan, "so we thought it would be a great experience for our actresses if they could have the comfort of knowing they'd be directed and shot by women. And from there, it was like, 'Wait a second, we should get [a] female sound [operator], and we should have our gaffer be a woman. And our grip.' It just kind of went from there."

As they began hiring, "some great guys I'd worked with … were calling around, trying to help us crew up," said Coghlan. And she realized that having an all-female crew could pay other dividends by helping to solve one of the industry's most intractable problems.

That's because Hollywood is still reacting to a series of little earthquakes that roused it from a shrugging indifference toward the chronic second-class citizenship of women in the industry. Last December's hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment revealed that actors Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams had received less compensation for their roles in American Hustle than their male counterparts Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale and Jeremy Renner, or writer-director David O'Russell. A couple of months later, Patricia Arquette used her Oscar speech to declare: "It's our time to have wage equality once and for all, and equal rights for women in the United States of America." Though she was speaking about the wider economy, Hollywood bosses knew they were in her sights.

Last month, Lawrence spoke out again about the issue, in an essay for Lena Dunham's "Lenny" newsletter. In "Why do I make less than my male co-stars?" Lawrence mused about her failure to secure a bigger payday, noting, "There was an element of wanting to be liked that influenced my decision to close the deal without a real fight. I didn't want to seem 'difficult' or 'spoiled.'" Speaking of women in the industry who don't demand equal treatment, she wrote: "Could there still be a lingering habit of trying to express our opinions in a certain way that doesn't 'offend' or 'scare' men?"

The fight continues here in Canada, too. At last month's St. John's International Women's Film Festival, the advocacy organization Women in View released its 2015 On Screen study, which outlined the continuing struggles of women working behind the scenes in the Canadian film and TV industries. It noted that, of the 91 feature-length films that received money from Telefilm Canada in 2013-14, women comprised 17 per cent of directors, 22 per cent of writers and 12 per cent of cinematographers.

Television wasn't much different: Women comprised 17 per cent of the directors of 29 live-action, English-language drama TV series funded by the Canada Media Fund in 2012-13 (the last year for which all data were available). On 17 of the 29 series, not a single episode was directed by a woman.

The study notes that, while the issue is an economic one, perhaps the bigger problem is women's under-representation on screen: "We found that both men and women content-creators tended to favour characters who are like them." Having more women behind the camera is, in time, expected to lead to there being more women in front of it.

There is a chicken-and-egg aspect to the problem that Below Her Mouth is trying to help solve. At a panel discussion during the Toronto International Film Festival in September, a couple of female producers on the hit TV show Orphan Black explained that, though they made every effort to hire women in key positions such as writers or directors for the most recent season, there are simply fewer women who have the sort of experience that would qualify them to work on the show. The best ones are usually booked long in advance.

Coghlan said she has a few hopes for Below Her Mouth. "If we could encourage even one woman to enter the industry or try a job they didn't think they could – that would be a huge accomplishment," she said. She noted that a woman the production had originally brought on as an unpaid intern was quickly made a production assistant and then bumped up to be a third assistant director. "She said she never would have thought she'd be able to have a job as an AD," recalled Coghlan.

But the young woman soon realized the possibilities. "I remember the first night on set, when she yelled for everybody to be quiet," Coghlan said. "I looked at her – she's a pretty quiet person – and I said, 'You found your voice tonight!' That's pretty cool."