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The Unspoken Biases in Film School

The Unspoken Biases in Film School

Film school has
become an inextricable step in becoming a successful filmmaker. I went to NYU’s
Tisch School of the Arts and have not regretted it. I know I would not be where
I am today without my education. 

But there are biases in film school that are never talked about. In my sophomore year I took a class called “Sight and Sound Film.” In this class we divided ourselves into groups of four and worked as a team for the entire semester. My class had 32 people in it, so we had eight groups of four people. There were two groups that were all-male, and no group was all-female. There was an unspoken belief that an all-female group was somehow illegitimate, not as competitive or talented. Looking back at this now, it seems so trite, but let me tell you that, at the time, there were no groups of women enthusiastic about working together as a production unit.

When I
made my thesis film, I hired many female department heads. This was unusual.
When conflict on set happened — something that happens a lot on any set — some commented, This is why you don’t
see a female-driven crew. Too many emotions
. These remarks were made in
jest, but even so, it reflects a perspective that’s damaging and dangerous for all
parties.

And this
wasn’t just a production problem. In my thesis class, the first half of the year
was a writing seminar. We were reviewing a script that featured a female
protagonist. I thought this character was irreverent, snarky, and depressed, but nearly everyone else in the class characterized her as a bitch: She’s such
a bitch
, What a bitch, etc. I finally put my foot down and asked, “Can we use a
different description?” I’m sad I even had to ask.

Exposure
to female filmmakers and characters — or the lack thereof — plays a big part in this. During freshman year, everyone was required to take a class called “Language of Film.” This focused
our critical eye and expanded our sense of film history. There were 13 films screened and only one by a
woman:Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners & I.
There was a specialized class called “Women in the Director’s Chair,” but the
class was comprised of all women except one male student. Films directed by women were literally classified
under an “elective.” They weren’t important enough for everyone to learn.

I once
had a conversation with a female classmate. I was speaking about my experiences
on various film shoots where I was one of the few women in a leadership
position. She responded, “I don’t care, I’m just one of the boys.” By declaring she was “just one of the boys,” she was implying a complacent attitude with the current male-dominated hierarchy in the industry
and saw no reason to change it. NYU accepted me because they believed my voice
was important. I’m proud that I’m a filmmaker who happens to be a woman. My
experiences are uniquely female, and that’s something everyone should be able to
see. 

In a
recent conversation, my roommate Maddie said, “It’s so damaging that you go to school to be educated and it’s a stepping
stone for so many artists and there’s an inherent bias.” There is no money being made in film school, so we can see that this is not a problem just driven by business
figures. It’s so important that we address how women, from crewmembers to characters, are devalued and denigrated in film school. It’s a serious problem, and the only way to begin fixing it is if we
begin the conversation. 

We need to use film school as a tool in the fight toward gender equality by examining biased attitudes towards how women are portrayed in the current cinematic landscape
and how we treat female co-workers. The abysmal statistics facing women — USC’s Media Diversity and Social Change Initiative found that in 2013 only 1.9% of all directors were women and only 29.2% of all speaking characters were female — just aren’t acceptable. And it’s galling that this disenfranchisement of women storytellers happens even in a relatively supportive environment like film school. 

There
are simple ways Tisch and other film schools can begin to address these biases. We can begin to balance the numbers in terms of
practicality and employment, such as hiring more women on crews and in leadership
positions. Everyone can take an active step in not only working with women, but
also valuing them as creative and business forces. We should embrace women taking
on crew positions that have previously held been de-facto boys’ clubs — camera and grip/electric departments — as well as embrace men in positions
that have been unfairly “feminized” — hair/makeup, production design, costume. This can
be achieved by introducing everyone to these positions early in film school.

Finally, a large part is perspective. It should be a requirement in writing classes for
all students to practice creating protagonists that belong to genders different from
themselves. Would a female character be so one-dimensional if she were your
lead? We learn about Scorsese, Coppola, Griffith, both Lees, Peckinpah, Ozu,
Lynch, and various others, but what about Alice Guy Blache, Lois Weber, and
Dorothy Arzner? These women helped build what we know as the studio system
today. But these voices are ignored. I developed my artistry and craft while I
studied at NYU, but there’s a gaping hole in our
education as filmmakers, and I’m ready to speak up about it. 

I hope you all can
join me.

Erica Rose is a Brooklyn-based writer/director/producer working in narrative, commercial, documentary, and music video formats. She recently screened her short film “Absolute Threshold” at the Brooklyn Shorts Festival.

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