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Female Filmmakers: What Can Their Experiences Tell Us? Part 1

May 25, 2011 | By | Add a Comment

Yolanda Green

It’s easy to get wrapped up in progress. Of course, generally, we can look at progress and feel a merited sense of accomplishment. But we can’t always be blinded by progress. Taking a deeper and closer look at what is actually happening in the film industry can allow us to recognize issues that exist and help us move forward. One way to do this is just by listening to people’s stories and opinions.

Justine Nagan, executive director/producer of Kartemquin Films

I’ve spoken to five women in the Chicago filmmaking industry, each with different experiences and perspectives about what it means to be a female filmmaker. I’ve found that progress is certainly something to be proud of in this industry, especially when it comes to females making an impact. However, there are still barriers that can still be broken.

Justine Nagan is executive director/producer of Kartemquin Films. She started working in public television in Wisconsin, learning the fundamentals of producing and editing. She eventually attended University of Chicago and met an associate at Kartemquin Films. From there, she was able to work her way up to her current position.

As a staff member of Kartemquin Films, Justine was able to be a part of a lot of productions that incorporated women’s issues. “A recent film was called In The Family, and…one of my colleagues had a genetic mutation that put her in a high risk of getting breast cancer. She had her breasts and ovaries removed and she was in her low 30s and wanted to get married and have a family, the film really followed her journey in talking to these other women about difficult choices – to help her inform her decision. It’s a very personal film and I think a very modern film about what it’s like to be a woman today.”

She’s also working on another film about Title 9 and the effect it has had on society and in women’s sports. “One of the stories follows the Chicago Sky – the women’s basketball team here and really talks about what it would take for a professional women’s sports franchise to succeed in the league, and what will it take for people to see it, and if our culture is ready for that.”

Despite the content of women’s issues in local films, there seems to be a gap between the number of male and female players in the national film industry. Somewhat recently, director Catherine Hardwicke stated that she was prevented from directing The Fighter. She said, “I couldn’t get an interview even though my last movie made $400 million. I was told it had to be directed by a man — am I crazy? It’s about action, it’s about boxing, so a man has to direct it … But they’ll let a man direct ‘Sex in the City’ or any girly movie you’ve ever heard of.”

This is perhaps an issue that most people do not talk about or simply do not know how to tackle. Maybe in order to break the gender gap in higher budget films and generally in Hollywood, looking into local markets seems like an important first step. For everyone, of course, experiences are different, especially in different filmmaking genres.

“I think it’s definitely an issue but it’s something more wide spread in the feature film world than it is in documentary,” Nagan explains. “Not to say that women don’t struggle in the documentary industry but I think for a lot of documentary and smaller budget, the director and producer is really the one pushing it forward, so in a way you have more flexibility. …I guess it’s a different set of gatekeepers than it is in Hollywood. I would say that in the documentary world – again, not that it’s easy to raise money – but a lot of those gatekeepers are women – both at foundations, broadcasters, and film festivals.”

Betsy Steinberg, managing director of the Illinois Film Office

Megan Vidis, president of Women in Film Chicago, feels that the climate for women filmmakers in the local industry is definitely changing. Women in Film’s goal aims to help improve this change by “promoting the careers of women working in film, advertising, commercials and various aspects of production.” Vidis has a generally positive outlook about the industry for women. “If you look nationally, Kathryn Bigelow won best director — first woman ever for a film that would have probably been traditionally directed by a man. I think in Chicago there are two women directors that have been working in commercials for a long time and the rest are men. I think it’s definitely still an industry dominated by men but that’s changing and will continue to change as long as women open their own production companies and serve as producers. There will be women behind the camera when there are women financing the films and generating content.”

One of those women who works on the financial/marketing end of the business is Betsy Steinberg, managing director of the Illinois Film Office, who began as a receptionist at a small production company. “Then I went on to work in commercials and advocacy films and from there I decided I really wanted to get back into documentary work so I spent several years producing directing and writing documentaries for cable channels like the History channel and A&E.” Currently, she’s devoted to letting people know that Illinois is the “greatest production center in the country.” She is not currently in the frontlines of filmmaking, but as a female in the Illinois film industry, she was personally able to move past any barriers that might have existed.

“I have never run into these issues. I do believe, however, that they very much exist in many places. I’m fortunate – I suppose I’ve had the good luck of working with pretty enlightened men who understand the immense capability and talent of women. Since I’ve been in the industry, I’ve often held jobs where I was completely treated as an equal to any men in my level. But having said that, I don’t think that everybody has experienced that same level of equality.”

Director and producer Laura Zinger of 20K films feels the same way. As a graduate from University of Illinois in Urbana, she gained her footing while working for Naperville Community Television, and has gone on to produce documentaries. Her work is very much focused on women’s issues. “I really am interested in portraying and examining the relationships that women have with each other, especially mothers, daughters, sisters, and the younger and older female generation that are in their 60s and 70s.”

Director and producer Laura Zinger of 20K films

In fact, one reason why 20K Films was created was to break away from the Hollywood option, considering how harshly discriminating that industry tends to be. “ A really cool female filmmaker I met at the Women’s International Film Festival in St. John’s Canada last year sent me a blog post about this screenplay contest specifically for women that awarded the best screenplay a sum of money that was not insignificant. The blog post was about how the contest decided not to grant an award that year. They wrote a public statement about how none of the screenplays entered were up to par with what the contest felt was good writing. The Blog post was called, ‘Subject: Sorry, Couldn’t Find A Woman Good Enough for the WASSERSTEIN prize.’ The link is no longer active unfortunately, but this is horrifying. Would they ever do this to a screenplay contest for men? No.” (See similar posts on the Wasserstein Prize here and here.)

Zinger had her own experience with this kind of discrimination while in LA. “I went to a beginning Screenplay writers group with my friend, Erin, who had also moved out there with me. We realized half way through the meeting that we had joined the wrong group. We thought we were sitting and talking to a bunch of beginning screenwriters, but we were in fact sitting with a bunch of men who wrote for the Smurfs. They were extremely kind when we realized our mistake and invited us to stay and eat with them, so we did. Near the end of the evening, one of the writers told us that we should consider trying to write for animation, because, and this is a direct quote, ‘Male writers needed something pretty to look at at 2am.’ I was floored after he said this… I think he was being serious in his statement and not flirtatious, which meant to me that sexism was alive and well in LA. Women were only there to look at, not to write or direct or do any of the highly creative positions that men were given and took for granted. I left LA after 9 months and didn’t look back. I really didn’t feel like it was any place for me as a person nor as a woman.”

While every female filmmaker has her own unique experiences, it is clear that there are trials that women still have to overcome in order to get their foot in the door. With Hollywood acting as a model for most filmmakers, how do we encourage women to work past the seemingly male-dominated industry?

This conversation continues in Part 2.

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