By Matthew Hammett Knott | Indiewire March 24, 2014 at 10:53AM
Writing this column, my gender makes me well aware that issues relating to women in film can be experienced quite differently in theory and practice. But this is scant insight compared to that offered by New Zealand writer, activist, academic and filmmaker Marian Evans, Wellywood Woman. Traversing the divide between the theoretical and the practical, her Development Project has led myself and many others to some crucial insights concerning some of the many issues facing women filmmakers.
Outsiders might think that women in film in New Zealand have it good. From the legendary Jane Campion to Whale Rider’s Niki Caro and Fran Walsh, co-writer and producer of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, its heritage of women filmmakers is rich, while its proud feminist history (it was the first country in the world to give women the vote) would appear to create a supportive environment in which women can make films. But, as Marian explained to me, this is far from the case.
The Development Project began life as a PhD
I got lucky. I completed my scriptwriting MA at Victoria University of Wellington’s International Institute of Modern Letters, which is partly responsible for a national culture that expects women who write books to be as well-supported as men and their books to be as often read (Recent Booker Prize winner Eleanor Catton is a graduate). To my surprise, I won the prize for the best scriptwriting portfolio, with a feature script. And then started to wonder why women write and direct very few of New Zealand’s feature films.
When I talked about this, most people pointed to our well-known women filmmakers and denied there was a problem. If there is one, they said, it’s women’s own fault: they don’t compete. Eventually women screenwriters and directors told me stories about their harrowing experiences, but were understandably reluctant to speak out publicly. I wanted to find a way to investigate the facts and make change, while experimenting with development pathways for my own feature scripts. And I got lucky again, accepted into IIML’s creative writing PhD programme to do exactly that.
She began to integrate the analytical with the personal
As a lawyer and activist I was already profoundly intimate with mechanisms used to silence women and strategies that can end that silence, particularly strategies that help bring women’s stories into the public realm. For example, I’d led the collective that published Keri Hulme’s the bone people, New Zealand’s first Booker Prize winner. So as one element of my research I analysed the New Zealand Film Commission’s allocation of funding to women writers and directors, to identify possible institutional barriers for women and publicise the results, to see if they would stimulate change (they didn’t). In parallel, using my own scripts, I explored the barriers I myself created and sometimes transcended, as a writer who happens to be a woman. I wanted to know my strengths and weaknesses, who my allies were and who might support women who didn’t have my limitations.
This led her down some surprising routes
My primary thesis script, “Development”, is about a group of Wellywood women who want to make movies. I experimented with non-profit funding, but when we started shooting found that my script took longer than a minute-per-page, meaning the budget was too small. Then my 94-year-old star had to pull out after two days. I learned some painful lessons. Post-doctorally, I’ve focused on media convergence and alternatives to film – comics, plays for stage and radio, a novella with moving image, cheaper ways to present my stories. I’m building an understanding of what each offers. Regardless of what happens to my filmmaking, I’m creating other opportunities to present my work.
I often explore ‘absent’ motherhood. ‘We think back through our mothers’, wrote Virginia Woolf, and for me this includes artistic foremothers. I believe it empowers women to connect with this rich heritage as often as possible, but it tends to disappear among default references to men’s work. So I’ve written “Throat of These Hours”, a stage play and a radio play about American writer Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980), to provide a bridge to her work among the ideas of two contemporary characters, one of them a songwriter. Working with composer Christine White who has set some of Muriel’s poems to music, I’ve loved the extra dimensions poetry and music add to the scripts. I also love comics and wrote an animation, now in post-production. After “Throat of These Hours” I have my eye on a fine New Zealand young adult novel that I think could be an extraordinary animated feature.
Her project’s scope and potential is greatly fortified by its online presence
Because New Zealand is small and my work is controversial sometimes I get lonely. Writing is a solitary pursuit. But the global connections I’ve made through social media sustain and stimulate me, especially those with other practitioner activists. I also feel deep appreciation for those who develop gender statistics and models for change in other parts of the world.
Thanks to my ongoing research, writing and analysis, I can share a substantial and integrated database. My academic and activist selves appreciate this because it fulfils my desire to be useful to women who make movies. And my creative self is pleased because this is also useful for her. And entertaining!
She concludes that the biggest problem facing women filmmakers is cultural
Society has a powerful heritage of disrespect towards women. It goes way beyond physical violence, to various emotionally abusive behaviours – silencing women who speak out; misrepresentation and underrepresentation of women and girls; withholding resources of time, money and appreciation from women. All these behaviours affect women’s storytelling in public forums and on screens.
Mary Beard recently gave a wonderful lecture called The Public Voice of Women, about how we’ve been excluded from ‘authoritative public speech’ since Homeric times. Today, writing and directing films can be seen as a kind of authoritative public speech, primarily the 'business of [white] men', who are now discovering that filmmaking can generate good business if it tells stories with women as central characters. But the old old tradition is so deeply embedded that decision makers don’t embrace women as the writers and directors of the stories. This behaviour will be very hard to shift.
She believes that women’s conscious or unconscious knowledge of the weight of this heritage is a factor
We have to deal with serial violation, direct and subtle, on a daily basis. We may have learned the truth that golden boys usually win. So we have to apportion our energies and manage risk with great care.
I met a friend in the street recently, who’d been active in a campaign around violence against women. You’ve been busy, I said. Yes, he said, I’ll be glad to get back to normal. And I realised that for women, there is often no ‘normal’ like his to get back to. Certainly not for me. I don’t see myself as a victim – I’m too committed to problem solving. But because ‘normal’ is living among actual and attempted violation of women, like many women I’m very careful to expose myself to more risk only when I have appropriate support in place.
Institutional change will require more widespread support
There are influential men who will ally with women and who will advocate for them. In general, it’s harder for women to advocate for women because they are themselves women, subject to the constant stresses that entails. They often don’t want to risk their livelihoods. It may be easier for some powerful women to advocate alongside powerful men. Has anyone asked Brad Pitt to assert his influence with various studios and agencies? Or George Clooney?
Actresses, too, can play a role
Meryl Streep has quietly set the standard. Of her last eleven features, women have written and directed five, and a woman wrote the sixth. That’s no accident. If Amy Adams, Angelina Jolie, Cate Blanchett, Helen Mirren, Jennifer Lawrence (who got her start with a woman director), Judi Dench, Julia Roberts, Lupita Nyong’o, Oprah Winfrey and Sandra Bullock did the same there’d be a revolution!
But legislative change is also required
Ideally, institutional change (in public or commercial organisations) is backed by embedded gender equity policies like those we now see in European film funds. This is thanks in large part to Scandinavian models and the European Women’s Audiovisual Network’s hard graft, often justified by reference to United Nations human rights mechanisms and to domestic laws. Without embedded policies, change is only partial, dependent on whoever’s running the show at the time.
I’m tempted to engage with a second (law) PhD to experiment with legal remedies in New Zealand. Others are talking about a direct appeal to the United Nations. But effective policies can be quite simple, like the modified Rooney Rule the researchers for the Geena Davis Institute have suggested, where studios could elect to require that women and people of color are at minimum considered for open directing jobs, making diversity part of the fabric of decision-making at the earliest stages of a movie’s lifecycle.
Meanwhile, women filmmakers need our support
The industry isn’t just Hollywood. And there are some wonderful things happening outside Hollywood and outside ‘the industry’ altogether, where many women ‘push the medium’. Let’s identify them and support them, in their crowdfunding, through advocacy, putting them in touch with helpful people and institutions like those European film funds, cooking for them, paying to watch their work, writing about them.
Filmmaking practice could become more female-friendly
Sophie Hyde’s film “52 Tuesdays” won awards at Sundance and Berlin. She worked on “52 Tuesdays” each Tuesday and only each Tuesday for a year, telling the story of the relationship between a woman transitioning gender and her daughter. She inspires me with this powerful and ‘gentle’ model for women, particularly those with family responsibilities that conflict with six weeks of intensive production.
She is not opposed to some good, old-fashioned separatism
Separatism isn’t always appropriate. But it’s sometimes misunderstood and undervalued. If Women Make Movies didn’t exist for all these years, many, many films would be unavailable. And the women’s festival tab on my site is one of the most-used. Festivals are safe spaces for women to meet and share their work, to share information and develop strategies. In a separatist environment, women can experiment, take risks. They may also reach insights and audiences not accessible to a mixed group.
But don’t try calling her a ‘female’ filmmaker
I HATE ‘female’. For me it equates with the essentialism of ‘cunt’ (which I prefer). It’s just a dreary biological fact. Call me ‘woman’ every time, because the word embraces nature and nurture. I’m a queer version of a woman and everything I do comes from that. And a queer version of a filmmaker too. But when I hear I’m a ‘woman’ filmmaker or storyteller, I’m reminded that I work within an analytical framework that celebrates and explores the complexity and diversity of being a woman, where my primary loyalty is to women and our stories. And that’s ace.
Heroines of Cinema is a bi-weekly column written by Matthew Hammett Knott, a writer and filmmaker based in London. Follow him on Twitter.