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Heroines of Cinema: Hiring Women in Theory and Practice

Heroines of Cinema: Hiring Women in Theory and Practice

It sometimes feels like those who complain about the status of women in film and those in a position to do anything about it are two different breeds. In writing my Heroines of Cinema column for Indiewire, I was nothing if not happy to highlight the problem. But having taken a break in order to make a feature film, I found myself realising that I was now, however modestly, in the opposite chair.

Talking of breeds, let’s be up front – I am a privileged white man, as in the type that has been ruling the Western world since any of us can remember. It is a status I have long ceased finding incongruous with being a committed feminist, but I remain aware that rallying against female discrimination in the industry and attempting to advance my own film career are not necessarily mutually beneficial activities.

Which is not to say that the opposite is true. Having moaned about the dearth of cinematic roles for elder women, I got to make a film starring two women in their fifties, with four of its five principle roles being female. But the blank screenplay page is an easy place on which to enact change compared to the toxically entrenched sexism of the film industry.

As a microbudget production, my producer and I did not have the luxury of hiring on any basis other than merit and suitability, so I was happy to calculate in retrospect that our overall crew was 54% female. However, this statistic does not tell the whole story. Firstly, when excluding those not normally present on set, the figure falls to 43%. Secondly, our hiring reveals clear gender divisions along stereotypical lines, with our production office, casting, hair, make up and art departments being 100% female, and camera, lighting and sound departments entirely male. Moreover, none of our female heads of department (excluding the producer) had any men working beneath them.

This matters because it was clear to me that such gender trends led to environments that were clearly colored by their demographic distribution. For example, there were many times during the filming day when myself, the cinematographer, the 1st assistant director and the gaffer – all men – would be alone together. At other times, we were joined by further technical crew with only one or two women among them – typically either the script supervisor, the production designer or the producer.

This only happened in fits and starts, but the atmosphere was palpably different from times when women from the cast or various creative departments were present en masse. In the absence of females, certain crew members spoke in subtly different tones – never sexist in a reprehensible way, but often veering worryingly in that direction. When only one woman was present, her gender felt like a significant detail to many of those around her. And certain men were far less happy to take orders from a woman when it was being observed by other men.

It is not news to me that, outside the bedroom, I prefer a gender equal environment. Having always attended mixed-sex schools, and hardly being a macho type, I have only ever been segregated for the occasional hour of sport in my youth. Given my inglorious record in that discipline, working alongside women has always been my ideal, rather than an obligation, and let alone a chore.

But that preference doesn’t absolve me from all culpability. What, for example, about this article I wrote about the difficulties faced by female cinematographers in getting hired? In practice, I have now worked with a male cinematographer on my last three projects. Does this make me a hypocrite?

In this instance, I hope I can plead the benefit of the doubt, since I have worked with a female cinematographer in the past, offered one a job fairly recently, and dream of working with Reed Morano or Ellen Kuras, if only they’d have me. The trickier question, in my case, comes in the field of composing, where I have established a fantastic working relationship with a particular male composer that I hope to continue indefinitely.

The logical outcome of this, clearly, would be never working with a female composer. Does this matter? It may be a moot point whilst I remain in a position of negligible power or influence in my chosen profession. But as someone aware of discriminatory structures that don’t affect me personally, it is hardly a scenario to feel comfortable with.

I understand more and more why the film industry has a reputation for cronyism. A film crew is an artificial and precarious community which can be easily disrupted by one toxic dynamic, and it is not only tempting but wise to nurture and maintain relationships from one project to another. I am not surprised by how frequently this happens, and when those with hiring privileges are presented with a heavy male bias, it is easy to see how they continue to hand the lion’s share of the jobs to men.

Nor are impenetrable collaborative relationships the realm of men only – I don’t see any male editors poaching Thelma Schoonmaker’s gig with Scorsese any time soon. Personally, my other rock solid relationship besides the composer is with a female producer, and I don’t believe that a commitment to gender equality means that individual personal relationships such as these need to be compromised.

But as a general stance, I cannot escape the idea that some form of quotas are required. In what way exactly may depend on circumstance, and certainly the more well-funded and established a production, the more accountable it ought to be. But legislating against an overall gender bias in either direction cannot be a bad place to start. Nor, surely, can the idea of requiring individual departments to hire both genders. The notion that a full-scale camera department on a studio film could not find a single woman to hire is ludicrous, yet many do it.

Quotas for recruitment as opposed to actual hiring may be an even better idea. Of course, interviewing a woman for a job and then not hiring her is hardly a recipe for revolution. But as a long-term strategy, a friend’s recent suggestion of 50% shortlists – considering an equal number of men and women for every job – has obvious appeal. Film is a business in which it pays to have contacts, and it is rarely unproductive to cast the net wide. Perhaps that is the answer to my composer quandary – rather than feeling that re-hiring a male composer is a sin, I should be asking myself who I would hire if I was determined to hire a woman? I have no doubt there is someone brilliant out there, who I would be better off knowing than not. And even if she didn’t get the job, the chances of working with her at some point are far from slim, given the contingencies of this industry.

I find it useful when suggesting such solutions to think about how I would explain it to the male crew I have worked with. On a production with a budget and a script like ours, these men are not entitled egotistical misogynists, but talented professionals and friends who in many cases do not have regular incomes or a wealth of career opportunities. Nobody wants to discriminate against such people. But they must understand that they are being enlisted as one element of a large workforce, and that their skills are only relevant in terms of how they relate to everyone else’s. I am convinced, now more than ever, that one of the key ingredients to a happy and productive film set is a healthy gender balance. And for that you need brilliant men and brilliant women alike.

Matthew Hammett Knott is a London-based filmmaker and writer. Follow him on Twitter.

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