Telefilm Canada commits to parity. The National Film Board commits to 50/50 gender parity. Even the most skeptical feminist observer would have to admit that the landscape has a chance of getting significantly more fertile for female creators. Women working in the field say they do feel like the ground has shifted.
“I see a change in terms of programming and funding and distributing stories by and about women and I’m not convinced that this is just lip service,” says Maya Gallus (The Heat: A Kitchen (R)evolution, Derby Crazy Love), who’s been making documentaries for almost two decades. “I’m feeling positive because there are more women’s stories being told, more juries that are inclusive and distributors saying there’s an interest in women’s stories.”
But nobody’s doing a victory dance yet. There are still huge gaps when it comes to female editors, cinematographers, sound operators and directors. A study released last May from Women in View shows only small improvements. The most promising numbers indicate that between 2014 and 2017, women’s share of television film writing, directing and cinematography rose 6%, but women still represent only 28% of the creators in those categories.
One thing we can celebrate, however, is the number of women thriving in the documentary field.Last year’s edition of the Hot Docs festival featured more films by women and non-binary directors than men. There’s something about documentary that’s always drawn female artists. “The genre is more open to us telling stories,” allows Rama Rau (The Daughter Tree, League of Exotique Dancers) “If you go into fiction as a newbie, nobody’s going to give you a meeting, never mind give you a job. With docs, you just need a camera. Documentary is open and it’s addictive and that’s great because we want to continue to tell our stories.”
Former NFB head of English programming Michelle van Beusekom reminds us that documentary has been at the heart of the Canadian film industry for over five decades. “Canada’s filmmaking tradition started with documentary,” she says on the phone from Montreal. “And documentaries deal with social issues. Women are attracted to this kind of filmmaking because they often have an issue they want to bring forward.”
The smaller budgets are a huge factor. Fundraising is easier when you’re not looking for $20 million. Unlike directing a TV series, which demands brutal hours and almost no breaks over weeks of shooting, documentaries offer a more flexible schedule that can give mothers more time to meet their parenting commitments. And while we all want to avoid stereotypes, some are ready to say that women tend to bring specific skills to the documentary process.
“Women are often better listeners, which is really good for docs,” says producer Ric Bienstock (The Accountant of Auschwitz, Tales of the Organ Trade). “Women are good observers. Documentaries are all about accessing people and places and women are good at that.”
“But we are still stuck in the lower rung of the budget,” says Rau. “We have pressure to prove ourselves more than men and women of colour have to struggle more. The system is rigged so that broadcasters are only working with producers they’ve worked with before and want to associate with proven talent, which is a euphemism for ‘white males.’”
Putting a woman behind the camera and in the producer’s role is only half the battle. It’s equally important that films reflect women’s experiences and present strong female voices. Algonquin-Métis filmmaker Michelle Latimer, currently working on an adaptation of Thomas King’s book The Inconvenient Indian, says women’s power is where we choose to put our time and focus.
“If we don’t see ourselves positively or only through the male gaze, we internalize that representation,” says Latimer. “I’ve seen it in Indigenous communities. You’re talking to a fourteen-year-old and she’s already internalized an identity that’s projected through media.”
That continues to be a major problem even for veteran filmmakers. You’d think that if, like Gallus, you had a resumé containing ten strong film credits you wouldn’t have to battle for credibility—but you’d be wrong.
“For decades I’ve been exploring the complexities of portrayals of women on screen and even over the past two years I’ve been told it was too feminist, too niche,” says Gallus. “Our stories are considered special interest, meaning they’re minor narratives whereas male narratives are considered bigger and more important.”
“Look at the top ten documentaries worldwide. Almost none of them are about women,” says Debra Zimmerman, executive director of the New York-based feminist distributor and funder Women Make Movies. “Those large-budget films are called general interest, which is code for ‘about men.’”
That could change, though, thanks to the decreasing influence of traditional network broadcasters and the rise of streaming services like Netflix. Women in View executive director Jill Golick says that new funds for LGBTQ documentaries and a new initiative for Indigenous creators spells good news.
“Netflix’s subscription model caters to much more niche audiences,” she explains. “They’re seeing a demand for a new kind of product, new voices, new storytelling. It shows government policy makers that it’s good business and at the same time, they’re supporting new creators.”
The latest Women in View data makes it clear that the more women in decision-making positions, the more women they hire. Working with other women on docs is extremely important to directors in some cases, particularly when the subject matter demands it.
Rosvita Dransfeld says she never could have made Who Cares?, which follows two Edmonton sex workers as they work on the street, if she hadn’t worked with a female director of photography. Her sensitivities to the women were heightened from the start.
“Even before we started filming, there were concerns that I was exploiting the women and suggesting they wouldn’t consent,” she says on the phone from her home in Edmonton. “I asked one of the prostitutes to walk the street with me. [Having a female cinematographer] was a way to make her feel comfortable, because men in their world are a threat and extremely abusive.”
Rau, too, had specific reasons for wanting a female shooter for her documentary on burlesque dancers, The League of Exotique Dancers.
“I insisted on an all-female crew not only because I wanted to work with women but because the women I was interviewing would have been distracted by men on the set. These women are trained to speak and perform a certain way for a male audience. I wanted to shoot the film from a more intimate point of view and that’s why I decided I wanted to have female crew.”
Creators like Latimer are continually being told that the female talent simply isn’t there or that the women who are working in the field don’t have enough experience.
“That’s a copout,” she declares. “I think there are a lot of women out there, they just haven’t been given the opportunity. The producers say, ‘They’ve only worked on these network shows,’ but that doesn’t mean they can’t edit. That’s just all the opportunity they’ve been given. People see [hiring women with less experience] as a risk but if I worked on ten smaller projects with someone, I can make a calculated decision. There’s no reason they can’t jump on to a multimillion-dollar project.”
Aisha Jamal, whose first feature documentary A Kandahar Away was a hit at Hot Docs 2019, agrees. She cites a number of initiatives where women are posting opportunities and developing lists of female talent available for hire, such as the Canadian female film crew directory HERe.
“We tend to have to do the work ourselves and we have to find each other,” says Jamal. “People say all the time there aren’t enough cinematographers, there aren’t enough sound people. There are. I can name five women in each category. And I’m sure there’s more. You have to look for them and you have to be willing to take a chance.”
Liz Marshall (The Ghosts in Our Machine) has the same response to the idea that there aren’t female creators to hire.
“That’s ‘fake news,’” she says emphatically. “What’s not out there is advocacy and opportunities from gatekeepers, showrunners and experienced directors who are ready to break patterns.”
There can never be too many women getting trained for the job. Over twenty-five programs are training emerging directors across the country. Increasingly, writing and editing positions are opening up. But the training opportunities for technicians are rare and growing even more so.
Justine Pimlott, now an NFB producer, began her career as a sound technician and got invaluable training through Studio D, the NFB’s visionary feminist film unit, which was founded in 1974. But Studio D was shut down in 1996 and Pimlott says there remains a dearth of training opportunities since that time.
“There are more opportunities for female directors to shadow on series,” says Pimlott. “There’s even a growing gender-equity consciousness in terms of programming. But there’s a dearth of technical training.”
Training is essential, too, for women looking to take up positions as programmers, a field which would certainly increase the visibility of female filmmakers. Nataleah Hunter-Young, who has programmed with Hot Docs, TIFF and the Durban International Film Festival in South Africa, says women are hungry to learn and festivals are even hungrier for new blood in their programming teams. She trained as a social worker before she switched to film and that transition was made possible because of Black Women Film! Canada.
“Ella Cooper saw a need to develop women filmmakers and I was a member of the first cohort. It gave me confidence,” recalls Hunter-Young. “I found out how people became programmers. I became a pre-screener at TIFF and then Hot Docs and was at Durban within a year.”
The sea change required to give women parity in a very competitive field isn’t going to happen without a significant backlash. Many filmmakers talk about the increasing resentment from men who feel threatened, both personally and financially, by the rising tide of female creators in an industry with finite funding. When you’ve had 100% of the power, settling for only 50% tends to feel like oppression.
Says Marshall, “I’m a member of the Directors Guild of Canada and I know from meetings I’ve attended and from members that a lot of the guys that have been well paid are pissed because things are changing. All they’re thinking about is their own paycheque.”
Michelle Latimer agrees. “I’ve heard men in pretty powerful positions say, ‘You’re taking our jobs.’ This was in a situation where we were just trying to create parity on a series, so that if there’s ten episodes, five would be directed by women.”
On the job itself, male producers and crew haven’t always been exactly warm and toasty, even with those who have years of training and experience.
“Being queer didn’t protect me from sexual harassment,” Justine Pimlott points out. “I experienced diminishing, I experienced sabotaging, I experienced stonewalling.”
Which is to say that in many ways, working in film for women is like working anywhere else: you aren’t treated the same way as a man might be doing the same job. Your authority is often challenged by the men working under your supervision and sexual harassment is alive and well.
“There are guys that I’ve worked with as directors of photography that I’ll never work with again because they don’t want to take direction,” says Marshall. “There’s a fine line between that and having a collaborative creative partner, who can push back when needed. You need that and you want that. So, sure, collaborative angst is part of the process but sometimes there’s just a bullshit power struggle.”
Jamal recalls that it wasn’t unusual for someone to question her judgment but she says it’s how a male coworker does it that matters.
“They’ll say, ‘Do we really need to do this?’ In those moments, you don’t know: Is it my female status or my emerging status [that gives them doubts]? But the point is, if they don’t understand how [what I want] fits together, they don’t ask, ‘What’s your vision, how does this fit into the film as a whole?’ And I have to ask myself, ‘Do I feel supported or questioned?’’
Latimer even got hit on by one of her crew. “When was the last time I asked my boss for a date? Never in my life. I wondered, ‘Why is it okay that I’m working here as the director and producer on this show and that’s alright?’ We’re here to do a job and I don’t need to deal with sexualization when I’m working. It just makes a difficult job a lot more difficult.’”
“There are even more hurdles for women of colour,” Rau explains. “There’s a hierarchy. Documentaries blur it a bit more. But then you come on set, people look at you, and look around for the director. I’ve had to say, ‘I’m the director,’ and they go, ‘Whoa!’”
Not that these women don’t know how to maintain their dignity, step in and make it clear who’s running things. Indecisiveness can kill credibility. But it requires confidence in your skills and an ability to communicate.
“I’ve cancelled a shoot because crew members weren’t respectful enough,” says Dransfeld. “I’m the producer. In the end I know it’s going to be a good film because if not, I won’t get funding for the next one. I say to them, ‘My films are unusual but they are successful, so do your job.’”
“If I felt someone was challenging my choices because of my gender I would shut that down,” Gallus insists. “People perceive indecision as vulnerability. Even if you’re faking that authority, you have to convey that you’re in command. Crews are like dogs. They respect hierarchy and they want to know that the person in charge really is in charge, or that predatory aspect will come through.”
“I’ve seen a significant dropoff,” allows Latimer. “Women talk. They’ll say, ‘You can hire this guy and he’ll do a good job but here’s what you have to handle behind the scenes.’ I’ve noticed that the hard-to-deal-with guys are not getting hired as much and that’s amazing.”
For gender parity to be real, the next Women in View study will have to show an even stronger female presence on screen and behind the camera. The activism among lobbyists in the boardroom and creators on the ground that spawned the drive for equality has to continue to intensify.
“The paradigm shift is happening as a direct result of activism,” says Marshall. “It’s a movement and it’s creating a change.”
Looking for a road map to parity? Here’s what we need.
POWER AT THE TOP
The most significant finding of the Women in View study indicated that when women have positions of power in the industry, they offer more opportunities to female creators. (The same was true of Indigenous leaders and leaders of colour.) Real change requires more female decision-makers.
Where there’s policy, there’s action. Mandates from institutions like Telefilm and the National Film Board are making a real difference. The private broadcasters are lagging behind.
Creative and technical talent don’t just drop out of the sky. We need proper training programs and commitment from producers to include training in their production budgets.
There’s nothing like a role model to inspire younger women with creative aspirations. Women enter film schools in equal numbers to men and then quit in dramatic numbers. Many attribute that to the invisibility of female creators and their work. That has to change.