Marian Evans, writer Cushla Parekowhai, painter Allie Eagle
Marian Evans, writer Cushla Parekowhai, painter Allie Eagle

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.

 Madeline McNamara in "Development"
Madeline McNamara in "Development"

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.