Feminism Motivates the Doc Mogul: Debra Zimmerman

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Debra Zimmerman is the latest Doc Mogul, joining past luminaries Rudy Buttignol (2007), Nick Fraser (2008), Sheila Nevins (2009), Jan Rofekamp (2010), Ally Derks (2011) and Diane Weyermann (2012). The award is given out annually at the Hot Docs festival to recognize an individual who “over the course of his or her career has made an essential contribution to the creative vitality of the documentary industry, both in his or her home country and abroad.”

Since her appointment as executive director of New York’s WMM (Women Make Movies) in 1983, Zimmerman has taken the feminist non-profit organization from grassroots production facility to the world’s largest distribution outlet of films by and about women. WMM celebrated 40 years in business with an ambitious program of 40 international screenings over the past year, capped off with the Doc Mogul Award for its tireless promoter and hands-on leader, Debra Zimmerman.

The Startup of Women Make Movies
WMM was founded in 1972 by Ariel Dougherty and Sheila Page, who started the collective to give women access to 16mm equipment. Handmade signs were hung in laundromats and stores throughout New York and centred in the Chelsea district, where WMM was originally housed. The signs advertised for women who wanted to learn how to make movies, leading to free workshops held in church basements and resulting in 40 or more films being made. While the initial focus was geared to production, it became apparent after 10 years that women who were making films now needed to get their films shown.

Zimmerman had worked as an intern at WMM for a brief period in the late ’70s then went off to produce films before returning in 1983 to help out when the feminist organization lost funding and was in threat of collapse in the early Reagan era. Working closely with Lydia Dean Pilcher (a grad student at the time who went on to produce for Mira Nair and others), they spearheaded the shift to distribution. Zimmerman calls it “a pragmatic decision. Distribution was the only income-earning stream at the time. Even though we had no staff and no funding, there were still people requesting the films we distributed. We refocused the organization around distribution, and that remains our focus to this day.”

The benchmarks that Zimmerman and her staff use when selecting a WMM film are: having a woman’s perspective, a unique or personal story and an inventive approach to presenting current events and history in ways not seen before.

The WMM catalogue boasts close to 600 hand-selected films, mainly documentaries. Canadians represented in the collection include Min Sook Lee (My Toxic Baby), Christine Welsh (Finding Dawn) and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy (Saving Face, Highway of Tears). Bearing an uncanny Rolodex recall, Zimmerman is like a proud mother counting off a seemingly endless list of major awards for WMM films and their filmmakers, and the accomplishments of former interns who hold key positions in the industry. She is most gratified by WMM films having been nominated for or winning Oscars for seven straight years, a remarkable run that ended only this year.

An initiative that Zimmerman holds dear is WMM’s response in 2001 to 9/11. In the midst of a “hate” campaign directed at Muslims in America, they offered their extensive collection of films about Muslim women free of charge to any community, cultural or educational organization to use for discussion and education. “WMM is in the process of moving but with our current location being close to the [former] towers it meant that we all felt what happened, and we wanted to do something,” says Zimmerman. “Being able to offer our films for free at that time was a great give-back we were able to do.” At the heart of Zimmerman’s work ethic, and what brings her the greatest satisfaction, is getting films into the hands of the people who most need to see them.

While the day-to-day operation of WMM focuses on distribution and new acquisitions, there are three opportunities a year for women to apply to the Production Assistance Program. The program has helped hundreds of women get their films made through crowdsourcing, individual donors, government grants and foundations. Films can be helped at any stage of production: for instance, Boys Don’t Cry was helped during script development.

Although WMM has shifted in focus from making movies to distributing films by and about women, Zimmerman points out that very little has changed for women filmmakers in the four decades since she first joined the organization as an intern back in 1978. “WMM is an initiative meant to go out of business when women reach equality,” she says. “When women have equality there is no longer a need for us. But that hasn’t happened in 40 years, and I don’t see it happening in another 20.”

A Feminist Politic that Works
Kathryn Bigelow’s 2010 Best Director Oscar for The Hurt Locker was seen initially as opening-up opportunity for women directors. However, two years after her groundbreaking nod, the exact opposite happened when out of 21 films in competition at Cannes last year there was not a single one directed by a woman.

When it comes to disparities between men and women in film, Zimmerman gets passionate in sharing her deep reaching knowledge. “Only five to seven percent of top-grossing films were directed by women last year,” she says. “Most people deciding on who makes films are men. Seventy percent of critics are men. It is mainly men programming at festivals. WMM has been around for 40 years and we’re still talking about the disproportion of women, and even [the] entire lack of women in competition at Cannes or nominated for Oscars. I’m still looking at festival programs that have one woman director in competition, maybe two. And not only a few festivals, it happens at many. It’s still very much a male-dominated world.”

She observes copious funding inequities: “Women still rarely get the million-dollar documentaries; it’s mainly men. We did a funding study and learned that films by women and about women get the least amount of money, and the least attention. Films by men and about men get the most money. And funnily, films by men about women get less money than films by women about men. So it is not just about gender with who is making the film, it’s the film’s perspective that’s important.”

Both subject and content are important to Zimmerman and her staff when selecting films to add to the collection. Among WMM’s most salient goals are having people see films about women to think about film in a different way, and giving young women images of themselves that are different from what they see on television.

WMM is a feminist model that succeeds. The selection and promotion of strong, innovative docs has put the WMM film collection, the organization and Zimmerman in high demand. She is called on to serve on boards and arts juries, and to hold workshops and discussions. She is often asked, when holding public talks, why there is not a ‘Men Make Movies’, a question that inevitably prompts her trademark hearty laugh and quick quip: “There IS a Men Make Movies! It’s called Hollywood.”

“I am absolutely, unabashedly and proudly feminist,” Zimmerman enthuses. “The organization was built on a politic of feminism that has never changed. Our mission is exactly the same now as it was at the startup—to facilitate the production, promotion, distribution and exhibition of films by and about women, only now we don’t just facilitate distribution, we do the distribution.”

Forming a Career in Film Distribution
At least two life-changing events that Zimmerman fondly recalls were instrumental to her long career in film distribution and advocacy work for women directors.

An event she considers monumental was “[w]hen I went to college and I found art that was huge. I started believing that art could change people’s lives. And it can.” She was in her late teens at the time, and just a few years later she made her way to what became the next big event. “I was at a ‘womyn’s weekend’ gathering in a big barn in upstate New York,” she says. “We screened films, and the audience was all ‘womyn’, and I remember seeing my life reflected on film. That had a great impact.”

Even before these big shifts, seeds were planted for her future dream career at the forefront of women’s film distribution. She remembers being a “baby feminist” in high school and helping to get a ban on girls wearing pants to school rescinded. The film that stood out to her at that time was The Trouble With Angels (1966), which turned out to be directed by the trailblazing female director Ida Lupino.

After returning from upstate New York, Zimmerman started riding her bike past WMM for several months before finally working up the nerve to ask for an intern position. It wasn’t until five years later, after leaving the organization and returning, that her destiny to advocate for WMM from the executive’s chair was cemented.

“I started for 50 dollars a week. I was often in the office alone and would have to put the answering machine on to go to the bathroom.” She laughs recalling those lean times. “Now we have a staff of 11, 12 to 20 interns a year and a board of directors, all great and wonderful people who taught me everything from keeping the books to working with graphics.” WMM has gone from being a collective to being membership-driven. “We are proud of our earned-income status.”

Zimmerman considers herself lucky to have a job she helped create, and that reflects her interests in experimental film, advocacy and international concerns. She says that part of the success at WMM comes from letting filmmakers lead and seeing what subjects they address. It’s what keeps them on the cutting edge.

Passion, Energy and Success
“I’m passionate about distribution,” says Zimmerman. “It’s so rewarding to sit on a plane and have a stranger say that they saw a WMM film in a women’s stud[ies] class and it changed their life.”

Zimmerman touts the importance of WMM’s earned-income status because it eases their reliance on government grants and funding support. “WMM is roughly 80 percent self-sufficient, and we have gone from an annual budget of $43,000 to now over $2 million a year,” she says. “I’m really proud of that. Each year WMM returns between $200,000 and $300,000 to filmmakers in royalties.”

While WMM has focused on distribution over the past 30 years, the Production Assistance Program that helps women filmmakers raise funding at any stage of production has assisted almost 1,000 films. In recent years WMM has helped raise as much as $3-million to assist women filmmakers.

When WMM recently launched a broadcast initiative to insure that films by and about women were widely available to television audiences, they surpassed 100 films being broadcast on U.S. channels such as PBS, HBO, Sundance and Discovery.

They also work with women’s groups interested in starting up women’s film festivals in countries that include Turkey, Chile and Taiwan.

The WMM goal is for the widest audience reach to effect the most change. “Our films are by women, about women and for everyone. We’re interested in advocacy,” Zimmerman says, “and for that you need to go beyond your own community.”

In choosing Zimmerman as this year’s Doc Mogul, Hot Docs’s executive director, Chris MacDonald, says, “Debra’s passion, energy and leadership have had a remarkable impact on the world of film. During her tenure, WMM has helped hundreds of female filmmakers create and distribute game-changing, award-winning and mindblowing films.”

Zimmerman received her 2013 Doc Mogul Award at a luncheon on April 30, 2013, during the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival (April 25 – May 5, 2013).

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