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Beyond the Female Gaze and Towards a Documentary Gender Equality

A Female Gaze of Unequal Proportions

Anna Serner.
Photo: Marie-Therese Karlberg.


“I am a 50/50 person and I think everything else is actually rubbish.… Anything else is discrimination.” This fierce statement, made by Swedish Film Institute director and CEO Anna Serner, set a provocative and promising tone at IDFA’s (International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam) 2014 programme, The Female Gaze. And like the many other women who had gathered in Amsterdam from around the world to engage in discussions around women in documentary, I sensed the urgency and indignation as well as the promise of community and empowerment that would shape this long overdue festival initiative.

Heddy Honigmann.
Courtesy Cobos Films.


The programme featured 15 world-renowned women filmmakers, all of whom were asked to curate three films (one that inspired their work, one of their own, and one from a promising emerging talent), which resulted in a 28-film programme, along with an extended panel of committed industry leaders, critics and academics, and a retrospective on Dutch female auteur Heddy Honigmann (the latter of which included a selection, by Honigmann, of top ten documentaries).

Motivated by the realisation that equality is far from a real achievement despite the fact that women are better represented in documentary than in the more cut-throat world of fiction filmmaking, themes in IDFA’s maverick programme focused on women’s participation behind and in front of the camera, access to institutional funding and support for women filmmakers, the actual question of the female gaze, and last but not least inclusion and recognition for female docmakers in festival programming. It is hopeful to note that the latter crystallized in a commendable selfreflexive study on IDFA’s own programming track record for the last 11 years (undoubtedly inspired by Sundance’s similar stock-taking exercise in 2013). This was a straightforward yet elucidating exercise, which every festival that boasts about diverse curatorial practice should probably undertake.

Marie Mandy.
Courtesy Women Make Movies.

The programme precipitated a reflection and a certain clarity regarding the ways in which funding mechanisms, representational modes and curatorial and exhibition processes are contiguous and interface with each other. Lack of access to funding was a recurring theme in almost all of my conversations with women filmmakers. From veteran American doc icon Barbara Kopple (who, I was stunned to find out, still struggles occasionally to get her films financed) to fearless and brilliant Indian director Nishtha Jain (who points out that women’s storytelling is seen as too risky to financially back up), to Belgian director Marie Mandy (who admitted that these days she can’t make films with a strong woman’s point of view because broadcasters are not interested in the subjects she wants to deal with), to the dynamic duo co-founders of celebrated Loki Pictures, Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing (the latter of whom mentioned she often feels compelled to only use her first-name initial to hide her gender), discrimination around access to funding is the debilitating obstacle sabotaging the majority of women’s professional careers. Perhaps it all comes down to the fact, as Golden Bear-awarded Bosnian director Jasmila Žbanić artfully interjected during IDFA’s Female Gaze panel, that women want to get paid and they are right to demand 50 per cent of the jobs. At the time her intervention elicited cheerful applause and chuckles in the mostly-female audience, but the levity soon waned as some of us reflected upon the fact that ultimately it all comes down, as she said, to questions of dominance and power, and women doc makers are still not holding enough of either.

Documentary is a more democratic medium than fiction filmmaking. It has featured egalitarian production practices based on collaboration, trust, mutual aid and respectful equity—not just among members of the creative team but between crews and subjects as well. (The doc-purgatory of lower budgets might have something to do with that, but I like to think of independent documentary filmmaking potentially as a feminist and anarchist practice as well.) Indeed, as is the case with most independent productions, women’s lead of and participation in documentary crews is much more pronounced than in top-down, ego-is-king fiction filmmaking.

Women have made greater inroads as producers of documentary than in any other position behind the camera. In the American context this is confirmed by the revelations made by the pioneering 2013 Sundance Institute/Women In Film study of the independent feature film scene, which is quite similar to the Canadian context (according to Women in Film and Television). To many working in the field, the consolation this statistic presents wears off like a weak sedative once we realize that women’s numbers plummet even in that occupation—that is, as soon as the prestige of the position elevates. And let’s not deceive ourselves for too long. No matter how talented, famous or successful, female producers still remain largely underappreciated and unnoticed in the shadow of male directors.

The Sundance study also concluded that women directors tend to hire more women in key creative positions, and concerted efforts around mentorship and awareness-building are key to rectifying the gender imbalance. Mentorship was a recurring theme during the Female Gaze debates as well. Consensus formed around the notion that the best way for women to encourage and support each other’s work was via formal and informal mentorship networks, which seem to abound in Europe but are significantly lacking in North America. Another common conclusion drawn out of both IDFA’s and Sundance’s exercises was the realisation that the gendered nature of networking—where men still seem to hold the imbalance of power in every aspect—is yet another daunting barrier to female creators.

Jaslima Žbanić.
Courtesy Film Press Plus

Critically assessing documentary gender inequality almost two years after the release of the Sundance report and with its conclusions in mind, at IDFA I was struck by the idea that male industry honchos still aren’t really that interested in hearing what women have to say. That disappointing state of affairs was, much to my regret, reinforced at IDFA’s Female Gaze forum.

A Gender-Equal Film Industry?

Anna Serner spoke stirringly about creating a 50/50 balance in her national cinema and nailed the main obstacles to balanced funding practices. By describing how essential it is to counter stereotypes used to sideline women filmmakers, create mentorship programmes, sustain awareness-building initiatives and monitor funding allocation and industry practices with the objective of reversing discriminatory trends, she reminded us that strategic and discerning policymaking along with a proactive, self-reflexive approach can set the stage for true reform and “a gender-equal film industry.”

If examples like the Swedish initiative exist, and they seem to turn the tides while challenging patriarchal norms and discrimination in the European cultural industries, why aren’t more countries following suit? Here in Canada, where taxpayers subsidize similar grant-funding organisations, the number of women filmmakers is dwindling, and the question is urgent. Our publicly funded institutions should be, but aren’t, making strides toward decisive, sustained gender equity. Shouldn’t such institutions (the public kind) be held to higher standards in order to reflect the needs and desires of half the constituency they are meant to serve? To echo Barri Cohen’s frustration in her recent POV op-ed Policy Matter: The JG Effect, Canadian cultural policymakers have a long way to go. She argues that “in spite of withering statistics about women creators, there is still no quota system at, for instance, Telefilm Canada to encourage more women directors, no out-front policy in the still hopelessly male-dominated Directors Guild of Canada, no rigorous push by Women in Film and Television to see women in better positions of creative power.”

Recently some positive announcements from the Canadian private sector lit up the dark skies when in January 2015 Bell Media announced a new programme committing 50 per cent of BravoFACT and BravoFACTUAL funding to female-led projects. We are yet to see what kind of results this programme will render and if it will indeed manage to contribute to higher numbers of female applicants. If the corporate sector can catch a whiff of what needs to be done to encourage women’s participation, then it really is high time for our public funders to wake up, catch up and give equal due to female independent filmmakers.

In Equal Representation We Trust

The rubric of IDFA’s Female Gaze programme provided some, although not sufficient, opportunity to critically engage with the significance of female representation both behind and in front of the camera in documentary today. This of course was an analysis that could be, and has been, applied to fiction cinema. With regard to who holds the power behind the camera, Patricia Zimmerman cautions against extolling the work of the individual, the director-auteur, and recklessly crediting them with the whole of the final product. In the brilliantly assembled collection Feminism and Documentary, Zimmerman, the volume’s editor, maintains that this practice undermines the collective process of filmmaking and inevitably erases women’s labour and their contribution to the creative process in secondary, less glamorous positions.

It is impossible to achieve consensus regarding the issues women filmmakers should privilege in their work. Women’s experiences and creative impulses cannot and should not be confined by their gender, and they should be as free to explore the unlimited wealth of subject matter the world has to offer, just as men are. Marie Mandy, whose documentary Filming Desire was in my opinion one of the quintessential films with an explicit female gaze at IDFA, wonders why many women refuse to call themselves female directors. “They live in a woman’s body and theirs is a female experience of the world. To pretend this does not affect their creative process is to deny something of their own identity,” she said. Undoubtedly, who we are affects our point of view, so it is essential that these experiences and perceptions are represented by the ones who live them.

Pirjo Honkasalo.
Courtesy Folkets Bio

Pirjo Honkasalo, Finland’s first woman cinematographer and a multi-talented, multi-awardwinning director of The 3 Rooms of Melancholia, astutely observed in an interview that social injustice often informs women’s work because they are more often than not the bearers of the injustice. “Violence in women’s films comes out of a social cause,” she argued, and subsequently added that in women’s films violence is rarely gratuitous, self-indulgent or selfsufficient; in fact, it is rarely violence for its own sake. Indeed, documentaries such as 12th & Delaware (H. Ewing and R. Grady) and Gulabi Gang (Nishtha Jain), where female directors explore the effects of violence and trauma that is deeply embedded in the oppressive systems of religion and patriarchy, engender some of the most truthful and authentic representations of women’s experiences in documentary today.

Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady.
Courtesy Loki Pictures.

If women’s issues and empowered female subjects are the first two additions to the Women Make Movies executive director Debra Zimmerman’s revised Bechdel test for documentary, I would hope for a diversity that allowed for as broad a range of women’s experiences as possible, where the specificity of the story allows (as in survey docs, for example). It is naïve to believe that if we replace the white, middleclass, cis-gendered male in his role as the prime subject/maker of an overwhelming majority of documentaries with an equally educated, middle-class, heterosexual white woman, an equitable gender quota will be reached. Despite the commendable efforts of the festival in creating the Female Gaze programme and conducting a selfreflexive study of its programming, little was done to address and discuss those very same questions of representation and agency at the event. Nishtha Jain reminded me that when Western women filmmakers are not aware of the ramifications of speaking on behalf of people of the global south without having a serious understanding of the complexity of social and cultural specificity of those places, then reductionism, superficiality, sensationalism and even racism are possible results.

And What of Programming?

Nishtha Jain.
Courtesy Nishtha Jain.


As a programmer and director of Cinema Politica, I have become increasingly interested in the ways in which documentary film festivals curate their programmes, specifically with regard to representation of gender, race, class and sexuality—not just on the filmmaking side of the process but in the subject matter of the exhibited films as well. The motivation for writing this piece partially came from my own desire to establish a self-reflexive programming practice but also to pinpoint or conceive of innovative practices that could bridge the representational gap in programming and consequently contribute towards more equitable and diverse festival programmes.

I believe there is lack of critical engagement with this disparity, partly because festivals are assumed not to subscribe to commercial tendencies where lack of diversity is the modus operandi, and partly because there is the widespread notion in the liberal West that a film is a film is a film and that programming should be first and foremost predicated on objectively positioned merits. This tendency excludes taking into account the context in which the films are produced, funded, distributed, sold and seen. Considering little can be done while all of these stages are unjustly embedded in systems of white hetero-patriarchy, we need to focus on context, not shut it out.

IDFA’s Female Gaze programme was certainly a step in the right direction if only by creating a critical forum where women doc-makers could come together and voice their concerns about the issues at hand. Thanks to the programme, female representation in the 2014 festival rose to 40 per cent, and IDFA admitted that their average of screening about 30 per cent of female produced docs in the last 11 years has to be improved via concerted efforts and renewed strategy in programming.

I am optimistic that The Female Gaze will serve as a launch pad for such an inquiry and hopefully inspire more self-reflexive programming practices in other documentary festivals. The recognition that programming is no longer simply an innocuous curatorial process but instead a political practice affected by the commercialization of the documentary festivals, which suffer from financial and populist pressures, is the first step to strategizing how to develop more equitable programming practices, including around gender. Some of the preeminent doc festivals around the world are led by women programmers (including IDFA) and I am confident that we can trust them to continue the work they have begun towards reaching a more balanced and diverse programme for their festivals.

As a community, we need to build support networks and create mentorships by and for women filmmakers; hire women to work on films; and if there are two equally qualified candidates, make sure to hire the one that is from a more marginalized group in the field, whether it be a women, an Indigenous person, or a differently-abled person. In Canada, we need to pressure grant-funding organisations to implement funding quotas. People around the world are doing it and they produce some of the best docs in the world. And if you’re a broadcaster, diversify your stories and storytellers. Lastly, festival programmers should ensure that there is balance in the films in competition: if women’s history is a counter-history, and documentary is historically situated to engage with it, then what we need is counter-programming, and more of it!

If we want to see beyond the female gaze, then those of us working in the documentary field and those who enjoy documentary must take the gospel out of the feminist church and bring it to the festivals, the funders, the broadcasters the policy-makers, and remake documentary in our own dynamic, diverse, multivalent and women-powered image.

Read more about documentary and feminism in the POV article Documentary as a Feminist Art Form, or Let’s All Move to Sweden.

Svetla Turnin is the co-founder and executive director of Cinema Politica, the largest campus-based exhibition network for political documentary in the world. she recently co-edited Screening Truth To Power: A Reader on Documentary Activism and hopes you’ll buy a copy.

View all articles by Svetla Turnin »