The “F” Factor

This is the first and last “Women In Film” article filmmaker Julie Talen wants to be in. She’d rather talk about multi-channel film narratives, a form she studied in-depth before using it to tell the story of a family’s fracturing in her recent debut feature Pretend. And you can see why. In the film, she pushes the form far beyond what filmmaker Mike Figgis attempted in Time Code, creating a visual symphony of multiple frames sliding back and forth, triptychs offering different simultaneous points of view, and audio channels overlapping—none of which has anything to do with her being a woman and everything to do with our “more, more” multi-windowed world and the possibilities of the digital medium.

After all, it’s been thirty years since the tumultuous gender politicking of the late 1960s and 1970s, and no one is naïve enough to expect that there’d be gender parity in the movie industry when it doesn’t yet exist anywhere else. But how far have women come in film? In a New York Times article earlier this year, Elvis Mitchell suggested that while unfortunate to have to point out, 2003 was a good year for women in film, because of such notable films as Lost in Translation, Monster, Something’s Gotta Give, Thirteen, Whale Rider, and the co-directed American Splendor. Let’s reconsider that: A strong year—for women—because five and a half films out of how many hundreds of studio, specialty, doc, and foreign films released were directed by women?

And that’s exactly Talen’s point. “The assumption is that women are a strange subset and that the real people who are doing it are male,” she explains. Call it the “F” factor, but a lot of women in the biz don’t want to identify themselves as “female filmmakers” for fear of being called a feminist (industry translation: “man-hater”). “I understand that in some way [the characterization as female filmmaker] takes away from their accomplishment as filmmakers,” says Women Make Movies’ Executive Director Debra Zimmerman. “But it’s affirmative action in a way.”

So what’s the view from the trenches? There are certainly plenty of women out there making films independently. How does the “F” word affect them? “I don’t want to be exoticized because of my ethnicity or because I’m a woman,” says Annemarie Jacir, director of the 2003 award winning short Like Twenty Impossibles. “It’s a dangerous zone because you don’t have the same opportunities, but I don’t want to be given opportunity because ‘Oh, you’re a Palestinian and a female director, and we don’t have enough of that, so here’s your role. We support you not because of the work you’re doing, but because of where you come from.’” Zimmerman acknowledges that this kind of boxing in is a huge problem, as with Sundance ’91 alum Julie Dash, who became the first African American woman to have a general theatrical release with Daughter of the Dust, and since then, says Zimmerman, “she’s had every kind of ‘girls in the hood’ screenplay sent to her.”

Does being called a female filmmaker, or an African American female filmmaker, or being part of a “Women in Film” issue ghettoize the women who are making films? Not according to Zimmerman, who still sees a need to highlight female filmmakers in an effort to counter their gross under-representation in the marketplace and at festivals. She points out that in the last three years, for example, the New York Film Festival included just two films by women per the twenty-five programmed each year, or fewer than ten percent. Sundance, on the other hand, offers more hopeful numbers, which Zimmerman attributes in part to programmers Shari Frilot and Caroline Libresco. This past January, she notes, if films co-directed by men were included, women filmmakers accounted for fifty percent of the competition films at Sundance, but in the features women directed just two out of twenty-two, with dismal figures from world cinema and world documentaries. At Toronto last year, in the main section excluding Canadian films, just two-and-a-half percent of the features were by women, while in documentary that statistic rose to twenty-five percent.

Holly Taylor, DP (left) on the set of Sherman Alexie’s The Business of Fancydancing.


Likewise, Holly Taylor, a Seattle-based cinematographer who shot Sherman Alexie’s The Business of Fancydancing and is in development on Alexie’s forthcoming What You Pawn I Shall Redeem, explains that as long as the facts are facts—such as the Academy of Arts and Sciences having yet to recognize a female director or cinematographer—sexism is alive and well. “It seems like things have changed because everyone uses politically correct language, but in fact, I don’t think it’s changed much at all,” Taylor says.

It is important to note, though, that women have historically had a much easier time assimilating the low cost, less commercial realm of documentary film. For Melissa Lohman (Grandpa’s Apartment) and Kelly Duane (See How They Run and Monumental—premiering this month at the Smithsonian), two documentarians very early in their career, being female has never been an issue. Their struggles are simply those of anyone trying to make documentary films—“less a gender dilemma,” as Lohman puts it, “so much as an artist’s dilemma.” She and Duane, along with Jacir, have never felt that being female should be primary to their work. Their projects are developed without any sense of obligation to tell “women’s stories.” Interestingly, though, Jacir mentions that someone once questioned her about why she wrote stories with male protagonists. She explains: “Because of the way things are, when I write a female character, the fact that she’s a woman becomes the point of the story. And I just want to write the story.”

As Gini Reticker’s and Lesli Klainberg’s documentary In the Company of Women (airing this month on IFC) charts, it was the first wave of women making films in the 1970s and 80s who really considered themselves female filmmakers. They mostly showed stories about women’s lives, in part because they had never really been seen before. And their work opened up the floor to future generations like Jacir, Lohman, and Duane, as well as Kim Peirce, Lisa Cholodenko, and Nicole Holofcener, who no longer feel they have to make films about women, much less identify themselves as female filmmakers.

Ironically, such progress has backfired somewhat in that it prevents some women from being eligible for funds available to female filmmakers if their work is not about women or from a particularly female point of view. While Women Make Movies is the largest distributor of film and videos by and about women, Zimmerman is quick to point out that their production assistance program is open to all women, irrespective of the type of films they are making—their distribution criteria, she says, are both “a political act as well as smart marketing strategy.” For thirty years, the non-profit organization has fought for getting forgotten women’s stories out there, and in doing so has established a successful niche for itself. But as Zimmerman puts it, “our biggest success would be if organizations like WMM went out of business because we were no longer needed.”

But whether or not women filmmakers identify themselves along gender lines, motherhood, if they choose it, is an irrefutable gender impasse. “My generation really thought that you’d get married at twenty-eight, and at twenty-nine you could have a baby strapped to your back calling ‘Action!’” laughs Talen. The physical realities of childrearing, of course, are much more limiting. “I was dealing with a huge shift in my identity, the very real physical demands—sleepless nights, breastfeeding, ‘wearing of the baby,’ and of course, falling in love with my child,” recalls Hannah Weyer, whose daughter was born while she was in post-production on La Escuela, the second of her two acclaimed documentaries about the migrant Luis family.

Likewise, both Klainberg and Reticker are moms, with Klainberg expecting her second child this June. “I’ve never been scared to talk about [having children], never scared I would lose a job,” she says. “Actually, having a child is an incredible time-management tool. I mean, if you thought you were organized before . . . ” In their film, In the Company of Women, many filmmakers, including Jodie Foster, talk about motherhood being a valuable contribution to the work they do. But like any working women, those in film must grapple with how to find a balance between professional ambitions and personal family desires. Reticker, however, feels that film may actually be more forgiving than other industries because it allows you to go in and out on a project basis.

For Reticker then, motherhood isn’t the barrier. “Our biggest barrier is getting funding for the kinds of stories we want to make.” Klainberg agrees, suggesting that the barriers are set up around executives’ perceptions of the audience—what it wants to see—and who the so-called audience for “women’s films” is. Part of Zimmerman’s advocacy is to dismantle these myths about the audience, particularly in the export/ancillary markets like Asia, which have become so crucial to a film’s viability. “The top four grossing pictures in the Philippines were by women,” she argues. “Women went out in droves to see these films.”

But there’s also a lot of myth about what “women’s films” are. You wouldn’t call Tanya Steele’s screenplay The Parachute Factory, which won the IFP Emerging Narratives Award last year and placed second at Slamdance, a chick flick. For one, it’s an indictment of violence—a story exploring how the Civil Rights movement was relevant to victims of domestic violence. “It deals in a lot of traumas and horrors that I think liberal folks might think they can’t take on in black characters because it might be too scary,” she says. But is her brand of violence somehow different because a woman writes it? “I don’t know. But I do know that the violence is rattling to some people because it isn’t gratuitous. It’s almost justified, so they can’t dismiss it.”

Similarly, the onscreen sexuality through the eyes of women can make men uncomfortable or even frightened, says Zimmerman. She cites Toronto 2003 films like Jane Campion’s In the Cut, Sue Brooks’ Japanese Story, Isabel Coixet’s Life Without Me, and 2001’s Baise-Moi. “They are all in some way about women being in control of their sexuality, or representing the way women explore their sexuality, in a way that I think men are actually afraid of.” In our visual culture, of course, this is because women’s sexuality has traditionally been controlled through objectification. So what do women want to see as an audience? Reticker points to Frances McDormand’s character in Laurel Canyon, directed by Lisa Cholodenko: “To see a woman just own her sexuality, and she’s not necessarily good or bad. One of the things Lisa says about it is that she wasn’t worried about portraying a good or bad woman, just an interesting one. And that feels like a real evolution.”

There’s no denying that the issue isn’t a lack of women making good films. Just look at Sundance, long a measure of the state of American filmmaking: In 2002, Rebecca Miller’s Personal Velocity took home both the grand jury award as well as the cinematography award for Ellen Kuras’ work; in documentary, Lourdes Portillo’s Senorita Extraviada took a special jury prize, and Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco won the grand jury prize for Daughter from Danang. Last year, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s American Splendor took the dramatic grand jury prize, while the directing award went to Katherine Hardwicke for thirteen, and Niki Caro’s Whale Rider received the audience award in world cinema.

But for all the attention women filmmakers may get at the rarefied atmosphere in Park City, in the larger world, there’s still a ways to go. Not only by rewriting the way women are viewed on screen, but also in being free from the myths about the kind of movies women make. What it means to be a female filmmaker, then, is less about meeting a quota or leveling the playing field. Says Reticker: “It’s not that women want equal footing with men so much as they want their stories equally valued in the marketplace.”

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