Policy Matters: The Screen Cockblock

Is it time for the "gender chill" to melt?

7 mins read

“I decided very early that I should stop talking and act.”
—ANNA SERNER, CEO, Swedish Film Institute

What does it take to have gender parity in the director’s chair? So asked a number of women’s film and television groups this past year in a series of panels at the Venice and Cannes film festivals, which called for the TV and film industries to end censorship of women’s views on the world. And this fall our own Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) will be hosting a session to answer this question as well (September 10, TIFF Industry Conference).

I myself asked this parity question nine years ago in POV, occasioned by the dearth of women directors, of any age or race, at 2007’s Toronto and Cannes festivals. It did lead to a programmer change at TIFF for the following year, but at the national funding output level? Crickets. Nearly 84 per cent of all director jobs and funding continue to go to the “norm” of white men in Canadian cinema, scripted series and big-action documentary series.

Now, with the drive of filmmakers like Naomi Jaye (director, The Pin, 2013), the Film Fatales Toronto chapter (linked to the L.A. founding group) and award-winning former Studio D exec producer Rina Fraticelli, current Executive Director of Women in View (WIV), real change may finally be at hand.

Early in 2016, Jaye initiated the #EasyParity campaign to demand of Telefilm and other public funders (CMF and CAVCO) that they prioritise director equity and fair opportunities for women directors of colour. Meanwhile, WIV’s ‘2X More’ campaign was launched to double the number of women directing scripted television in Canada from the current 17 to 35 per cent.

It will be a tough slog to put that agenda front and centre. Thus, the TIFF ’16 session will present Telefilm Canada’s own plans in the context of big changes already being made by co-panelists like Directors UK’s Stephen Follows and the Swedish Film Institute’s (SFI) CEO, Anna Serner. Already, Telefilm has indicated that it will be making a big announcement on parity at TIFF (I suspect the operative word will be “voluntary”).


What will the cultural policy makers learn? Follows will suggest we follow the money in leveraging all public film and TV investments, tax credits and grants into a rigorous and accountable incentivised regime. This is something Anna Serner pioneered for Sweden, where she has actually achieved parity with all publicly funded films. It’s what the Australian and British Film Institutes are following now with their own diversity and parity schemes. And here’s the kicker: Serner fucking did it—and in less than three years since her 2011 appointment. #EasyParity indeed. (Read more about Sweden’s success with gender parity in ‘Documentary as a Feminist Art Form; or, Let’s All Move to Sweden’.)

Pay attention Canada, cuz here’s how. One, Serner slammed the argument that competent women directors don’t exist. Two, she crushed the meritocracy chestnut that women are incapable of excellence. In a Vice/Broadly interview she said, “Quality is in the eye of the beholder. Audiences just aren’t used to how women tell stories. We dared to say that there is quality even though we are not used to seeing that quality.” How does one push the boundaries of storytelling, of form and aesthetics, of the very notion of merit itself, if the inclusion of new voices is blocked?

Three, she went on a big education campaign to upend the myth that only boys want to be directors (in spite of the fact that 51 per cent of film school students are women—a figure that is as true in the U.S. and Sweden as it is in Canada). Digging deeper she found young women were selectively discouraged from seeking director jobs on the grounds that “it’s too hard for you.” She countered that since most folks in power are white men, they just hire their own in a standard risk-averse way. And finally she ensured that not just annually, but each month, parity at the SFI is achieved in all funding decisions. No waiting for an annual review with apologies for missing the mark.

It’s true that private industry is still gendered and mainly white. But Canada’s screen industries are publicly funded from snout to tail anyway, so it’s well past the time to punch a hole in the circle jerk of decision makers calling the shots against women directors of all races. It will take acts of Parliament to incentivise all federal and provincial tax credit systems, and one can only hope that Telefilm will finally lead the way and end what Dr. Catherine Murray at Simon Fraser calls the “gender chill.”

Barri Cohen is an award-winning producer, writer, and director. She co-produced Phyllis Ellis’ Toxic Beauty (2019) and is currently completing a feature documentary for the Documentary Channel.

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