Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Canadian women in film ascend Whistler to talk industry's gender-parity promises

Go sell it on the mountain

Director Ingrid Veninger in Whistler on Dec. 3, 2016.

The top women in Canadian film and television ascend Whistler to ensure the industry's gender-parity promises don't evaporate into thin air

If you want to crack a glass ceiling, a mountain seems like a good place to plot strategy. Last weekend, more than 100 women who work in film and television production ascended Whistler Mountain for an event the Whistler Film Festival cheekily called Women on Top. It was a power breakfast that came with healthy servings of optimism and empowerment, and gender parity in the industry was top of mind.

"2016 was the year the conversation changed," filmmaker Trish Dolman, one of the attendees, says. "In screen-based media, this is no doubt the year of women."

In March, the National Film Board announced that half of its films will be directed by women and half of its budget will go to productions directed by women. In June, the CBC announced that at least half of the episodes on upcoming seasons of some scripted series including Murdoch Mysteries and Heartland will be directed by women. In April, Telefilm Canada and the Canada Media Fund issued a joint statement, committing to "viable and lasting solutions" to bring about gender parity in screen content financing. And in September, Telefilm pledged to have a feature-film portfolio that better reflects gender, diversity and Canada's indigenous communities by 2020.

Story continues below advertisement

Carol Whiteman, right, executive director of Women In the Director’s Chair.

"This is a transformational moment," says Carol Whiteman, whose organization Women In the Director's Chair (WIDC) is marking its 20th anniversary. "This is a turning point."

Yet Canadian statistics revealed in Whistler by CMF president and chief executive officer Valerie Creighton do not paint a pretty picture.

In 1,280 CMF projects from 2011-12 to 2013-14, women accounted for just 23 per cent of directors – with higher representation in lower-budget projects, Creighton explained during her Women on Top keynote. Women represented 34 per cent of screenwriters and 39 per cent of producers.

The numbers come with a caveat: Because gender reporting has not been mandatory, the CMF manually tracked the data based on first names. Still, the inequality is evident, and the numbers follow even more dismal statistics gathered by Women in View – whose "2x More" initiative calls for the industry to double the number of Canadian women directors, beginning with scripted-episode television, over two years.

Whistler Film Festival executive director Shauna Hardy Mishaw.

"We have this massive amount of talent in the country and we need to find ways to let our own distinct voices have their place in the world. And I don't think we've done that yet," says executive director Rina Fraticelli. Creighton – who calls gender parity a personal preoccupation – wants to bring in concrete strategies: Funding initiatives? Regulations?

"We tend to try in our program to use a carrot, not a stick. But we've done both and we're not averse to both," she says. "But the problem is not just about the lack of women directors, in my opinion, from what I've seen so far. It's a really systemic psychology that we're going to try to shift."

Documentarian Fern Levitt.

A CMF strategy is coming. Up on the mountain, Creighton announced her "firm intention to bring forth concrete, impactful proposals" to her board for implementation by April 1, 2017.

Story continues below advertisement

"If we can all work together to right this ship, it's my hope that when that female writer, producer, director calls for first day, she doesn't have to go to hair and wardrobe to find female faces."

In 2013 at this same festival, Ingrid Veninger – a Toronto-based actor who branched out into directing – won an award from the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Surprised and thrilled as she collected the prize, she spur-of-the-moment announced an initiative she had dreamed up: a $1,000 grant for six Canadian women – including herself – to each write an original screenplay. She asked: Who in the room would step up with the $6,000 to support them?

Leslie Ann Coles, director of the Female Eye Film Festival.

"Silence, it was silent," she says, three years later. "Everyone was turning around looking at everyone else." Finally, a woman shot out of her seat: Oscar-winning actor Melissa Leo, at the festival with her film Prisoners. "I'll do it!" she shouted.

"It was like a Rocky moment," says Veninger.

The first project to come out of this – Veninger's Porcupine Lake – was shot last summer and will be completed by Christmas. Leo, who has remained involved in these projects, is credited as the film's "Foremother."

For the playing field to be levelled, women need help getting in the game. Regulation and incentives will help, but also key will be mentoring and hiring women.

Story continues below advertisement

"It's vital that one does that, mentor young women – and men. Because we've had a rougher deal so far all over the world, I have a proclivity towards women completely. So I'm biased," says veteran Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta, wrapped in a shawl in a chilly Whistler conference room.

Film director and screenwriter Deepa Mehta.

There are certainly challenges, and at a female-forward festival like Whistler – run by a woman and programmed with 31 features and shorts directed by women – you hear lots of stories about gender-specific challenges.

Amy Jo Johnson, a Hollywood actor (Felicity, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers) who is now directing films – and living in Toronto – tells a story about making her debut feature, The Space Between. The film, on a tight budget, was shot in Southwestern Ontario in 17 days – and that meant moving quickly. Johnson's fast pace encountered some resistance. When she talked to one of the cast members about it, his advice hit home.

"If you were a dude, that person wouldn't even care; they would just listen to what you had to say," he told her.

"And I was like oh, you're so right."

Austrian action-sports film maker and professional skier Sandra Lahnsteiner on Blackcomb Mountain.

Sandra Lahnsteiner, an Austrian skier-turned-filmmaker who makes action-sports films featuring female athletes, was upset when festivals early on held women-targeted screenings for her films. "Our film is not just made for girls," she told a panel called Behind the Lens – the Female POV.

You also hear about pluses. Access, for instance – when a documentary subject is female, or, as Veninger did in Porcupine Lake, you've cast female adolescents in your film about a love story between two 13-year-old girls. "Connected to access is trust," she says.

Austrian pro skier and filmmaker Sandra Lahnsteiner, middle, on the Whistler Village Gondola with other attendees of the Women on Top breakfast

Mehta's new film Anatomy of Violence, about the brutal, fatal 2012 gang rape of a woman on a bus in Delhi, told from the perspective of the rapists, may have been perceived differently – perhaps even have been more difficult to get made – had it been directed by a man.

"The choices I've made have a lot to do with who I am and … they have everything to do with the fact that I'm a woman," says Mehta, about her career. For her documentary Broken, Lynn Spencer follows Ballet BC ballerina Simone Orlando from the stage to the hospital, where she undergoes surgery for a debilitating hip injury.

"It required me going into the surgery with her," says Spencer. "And a lot of things happened in the hospital room as things do. … Had I been a man it would have been incredibly awkward. To the point that she might have called it off."

Producer Trish Dolman.

Trish Dolman cites a similar story when talking about a documentary she directed, Ice Girls, about three young figure skaters. "We were in dressing rooms with girls," says Dolman, who hired a female cinematographer and sound recordist for the project.

As she's talking, Dolman's five-year-old son is waiting patiently to ski. Work-life balance is another issue if more women are going to be attracted to the director's chair. The demands and hours in this business can be gruelling, so how to make that work with motherhood?

"As women we have to create our own culture around work," says Dolman, who set up a room at her office for her son's crib, breastfed him in the edit suite and brought him on set – even if the odd take was compromised by his crying.

Producer Jennifer Holness sits on the board for Women in View, where she advocates for diversity in the industry.

If Canadian film is going to reflect Canadians, there's of course another crucial piece to this: cultural diversity. Shoot the Messenger co-creator Jennifer Holness, who is black, says she has encountered racism regularly in her career. As a Women in View board member, her mandate is to promote racial and cultural diversity. "For all the challenges that women face, what people don't understand is that there are even greater challenges as a woman of colour."

Creighton says a detailed report, Women in Canada's Screen-Based Industries – involving several organization – is to be delivered in the coming weeks, ahead of the CMF initiatives to be announced by next spring.

"We know how bad it is, there is no question," she says. "We want to make sure we've done deep homework and that whatever we do can actually have a meaningful impact."

Report an error Licensing Options