The Active Complex Female Protagonist Whispers, in Aotearoa New Zealand
(first published 25 July 2015)
The first part of this series delighted in the roar of the collective, global Activist Complex Female Protagonist who works to improve representation of women in front of and behind the camera. (It was a limited record because I can only access information in English and — sometimes — in French.)
The second celebrated a recent surge in this protagonist’s work, in Australia.
This post focuses on gender equity in New Zealand feature film funding. Like other European and British Commonwealth countries we have taxpayer-funded systems to support local screen production– feature filmmaking, short films, webseries, transmedia work and television. And like theirs, our hard data demonstrates that fewer producers apply for development and production funding of women-written and -directed features than for features that men write and direct.
One suggestion for New Zealand is that among other taxpayer-funded systems we create a women’s film fund, to provide an incentive for producers and support women writers and directors. This sent me back to similar funds in the past and to my own history with women-only initiatives. So, even more than usual — autoethnography has always been my methodology for this project — this is a personal post because I read and thought about what I researched in light of my own experiences, waaay back and over the last decade.
We’ve got to get it right this time. — 70s feminist film activist, still working to achieve gender equity in film funding
The New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) is New Zealand’s film funding body that allocates public money to develop and produce feature films and runs various other programmes. Set up in 1978, with a wide range of functions and powers, it complements New Zealand On Air which has a mandate to ‘invest in diverse local television, radio, music and digital media for New Zealand audiences’; it contributes to production costs for many NZFC-funded feature films that show on our television screens as well as in cinemas.
Last September, the Directors & Editors Guild of New Zealand and WIFTNZ called a public meeting where they asked “Where Are The Woman Filmmakers?” Those who attended that meeting supported the idea of a women’s film fund. Hmmmm, I thought. And resolved to explore what that might mean. Later that month, it was announced that Jane Campion, as a member of the government’s Screen Advisory Board, was going to focus on gender equality.
What, I wondered, is the current best practice when working for gender equality and/or gender equity in film? Would a women’s film fund help? It’s taken me a while, reading lots, talking to women around the world. In the meantime the NZFC has announced some minor gender initiatives, which do not include a women’s film fund.
Earlier this year, among the reading and thinking and questioning and listening, I saw two images from the Berlinale. The one that heads this post is from the Pro Quote Regie group of German directors. Pro Quote Regie ran a campaign at the 2015 Berlinale that was notable for its energy, clarity and high production values. It is a group that seeks a funding quota for women directors, a quota that increases over a decade, in steps, until funding for women and men is equal. And, as shown in the above image, their poster cites Jane Campion: ‘When it comes to public money, it has to be equal’.
The only English discussion of Pro Quote Regie (Facebook, Twitter) I can find is in Belinde Ruth Stieve’s SchiSPIN blog, until recently the single regular source of information about gender and German film and television. The post outlines Pro Quote Regie’s suggested strategy for developing equal allocation of public money for feature films–
The female quota first of all is a signal, pointing to a nuisance, an imbalance, and of course it is a measurement category. What I regard as the most important demand of the Pro Quote female directors is their first, [for a] ‘comprehensive sociological study on the career progression and professional situation of female directors as well as to the allotting praxis of broadcasting corporations and funding bodies under gender aspects’…Pro Quote Regie sets up their quota demands in three steps: 30 % female directors in 3 years, 42 % in 5 years and 50 % in 10 years. The reason for the 42 % is that this number indicates the share of women among film school graduates in directing in Germany in the last years…[Some people] got worked up about the fact that the 50 %-demand comes to more than the share of women in directing. But today in Germany for example the share of men in directing is much higher than their share among all directors, but who is bothered by that?
Pro Quote Regie’s demand for a quota was probably influenced by the Swedish experience. In Sweden, thanks to the Film Agreement between government, parliament, film producers and television broadcasters, 50% of any film promotion budget must, by the end of 2015, be awarded to women in the fields of direction, screenplay or production. Preliminary results are positive, as the figures show, in this second image from the Berlinale, from the Swedish Film Institute’s CEO Anna Serner.
Anna Serner has reported on the Swedish gender equality policy at the Berlinale, at Cannes and at least one major women’s film festival, Seoul International Women’s Film Festival. She’s very generous with her time. And she was one of the the first people I approached when I was thinking about women’s film funds, at the same time as I read about some state-funded women’s film programmes of the past — a women’s film fund (Australia 1976–1999); a women’s film unit (Australia 1984); and women’s studios (in Canada: Studio D 1974–1996, including New Initiatives in Film 1989–1996; and Studio B Regards de Femmes 1986–1996) and approached women who’d been involved with some of them.
Then, after the NZFC initiatives were announced, this April, I decided to assess those in light of the successful Swedish practice, the broader New Zealand context and what I know of the historical initiatives.
What, I asked Anna Serner, is best practice for government film agencies who develop gender policies?
Anna Serner emphasises that any declaration of the will to change must come from the top–
It’s essential that the head of organisation shows that everyone involved really wants to make this come true.
…there is not one best practice except to establish a practice. I believe the most urgent issue is to start working to create equality. And to do that you need to set a goal, choose a strategy and start work to be able to measure how your work is doing.
And women-only funding is an option–
The easiest thing in a short term is actually to create a ‘women’s only’ funding. That creates interest from the production companies to start looking for female creators, as they realize that there is money in it for the company. Women on the other hand know that they have a fair chance to get money, which will raise the amount of women’s applications… the business gets used to [counting] women, as they get used to the fact that they [make] as good films as the men. And that is of course positive.
But she emphasises that this is not a long term solution. An organisation that creates a ‘women-only’ fund doesn’t necessarily have to change its way of working. There has to be a structural change within the organisation itself–
As soon you stop having divided funding, nothing has changed [because of] the idea that men should have their money no matter what. I think it’s fundamental that we shift that structure. That we as funders learn how to find talent equally between the sexes without divided funds.
Statistics-keeping is essential–
We (the funders) need to be aware all the time. I think it’s fundamental to count all the time. In every decision count and add the numbers to the previous [numbers]. In that way…all decisions can be followed and be influenced by a dialogue around how the decisions were made.
And everyone needs to be on board–
The funders can’t change the structure alone. We also need to work with the industry and schools as all structures starts there. The easiest way to make the business cooperate is to show that the funder is serious and is looking for films created by women. In Sweden we have noticed both a much bigger interest from the production companies since they realized that we were serious.
Finally, women can do it (I’ll return to the ‘new perspective’ idea later)–
Films made by women have had great success in festivals and awards, because of the fact (I believe) that they tell stories with a new perspective.
The New Zealand Gender Initiatives
The NZFC’s four gender initiatives are headed by a two-sentence preamble–
The voices and perspectives of women are integral to telling the stories of our country, its culture and communities. We are committed to increasing awareness of gender equality in the New Zealand screen industry, and we aim to do this by–
Collecting and publishing information and statistics on women working in the screen industry…
Setting a 50% target participation rate for women film-makers in the professional development area…
Identifying and engaging with female film-makers…
Encouraging proposals from guilds and industry organisations that support the professional development of women in the screen industry (this includes a programme suggested by Jane Campion, offering scholarships across different disciplines in the screen industry where female participation is low — the first scholarship is for a woman cinematographer).
I couldn’t go to the launch of these initiatives and am glad I didn’t because these initiatives are so small (I might have wept). There’s been no public response to them that I know of, though I’ve had chats and messages. I hope that soon all New Zealanders who care about our films will take up Monica Davidson’s recent challenge from Australia–
Australian [and New Zealand] women are, from a broad society point of view, allowed to be loud, robust, energetic, powerful people. We don’t have to sit around and drink tea and wait for someone to ask us to dance. That’s a good start.
If fifty percent of Australian features were written, directed and produced by women, can you imagine what that landscape would look like? I think there are some dinosaurs in the works who would probably be very, very frightened of what that world would look like. I can’t wait to see it. I want to be in that world. I want to do some dinosaur frightening.
In the meantime, here’s my whisper, a critique that I hope encourages others to speak out and to act — I’ve found it disappointing that not one New Zealand filmmaker — no woman and no man — has spoken out publicly in support of Jane Campion’s work towards gender equality. Nor any actors.
And before I start, I acknowledge the assistance I’ve had from staff at the NZFC, since the then-CEO Ruth Harley opened the funding files to me in 2007. This analysis is not a critique of any of them. They work very hard in demanding circumstances. And within their necessary limits they have all been courteous, friendly and helpful to me, always.
The first sentence has little meaning without the kind of structural change that Anna Serner advocates. It isn’t backed by any plan to establish gender equity in allocation of its own funding from taxpayers and doesn’t provide a funding incentive to create ‘interest from the production companies to start looking for female creators’. There isn’t a defined goal.
And look at the second: ‘We are committed to increasing awareness of gender equality in the New Zealand screen industry’. This isn’t a commitment to increasing an awareness of gender inequality. Nor is it a commitment to increasing gender equality. I think the industry is aware of the issues. If anyone who reads this is uncertain they exist, these new sites tell the kinds of stories I’ve heard many times in New Zealand– Raising Films (Making Babies, Making Films, Making Change: Facebook, Twitter), Shit People Say to Diverse Filmmakers and Shit People Say to Women Directors).
And who is the ‘we’ in the second sentence? The NZFC Board that ‘meets every two months to set policy and budgets, monitor progress against targets and budgets and consider applications for feature film production financing’, headed by Dame Patsy Reddy? Or is ‘we’ some of the NZFC staff, after informal consultation within the industry? I understand that a staff member wrote a briefing paper, which was not available to me — I was asked not to make an Official Information Act request for it — and that there was no formal consultation process and no formal policy documents exist.
Or is ‘we’ the NZFC staff plus the CEO, Dave Gibson? Someone reminded me that the two previous CEOs had done nothing to support women, so he should be commended, but is this much more than ‘nothing’? In assessing the presence of Anna Serner’s pre-condition for gender equity, that it’s ‘essential that the head of organisation shows that everyone involved really wants to make this come true’ I think it’s fair to say that the chair of the NZFC board — also chair during the last CEO’s reign — and the organisation’s CEO do not want gender equity within NZFC-funded programmes, particularly feature film funding, the most costly allocation. I’ll look at possible reasons for this in a mo.
The Data Keeping
The statistics initiative is more than ‘nothing’. ‘Statistics-keeping is essential’, says Anna Serner. It’s terrific that the NZFC is now committed to collecting and publishing information and statistics on women working in the industry. Those already published are excellent. Yay. Because the organisation’s funding far more documentary features — where globally women do well, possibly because they’re cheaper to make, possibly for other reasons — I also hope that it will emulate Screen Australia’s practice and record and publish fictional feature and documentary stats separately. I understand that the NZFC has for some time collected diversity statistics in its short film programme and look forward to seeing them published. It will be interesting to observe what other information about women in the industry is published.
Setting a 50% Target in the Professional Development Area
To move on with Anna Serner’s list, even though The NZFC gender policy doesn’t mention a goal in its preamble, has the NZFC ‘set a goal, [chosen] a strategy’ here? Not really. As one producer wrote to me, ‘there is very little commitment to an actual increase in production which is where it counts’: in fact, there is no commitment at all. There is no commitment to developing more women-written features to be directed by women, either.
And I’m doubtful that this initiative will indirectly increase the numbers of women written and directed features in development and produced because, as I understand it, ‘professional development’ refers not to feature projects but to one-off $5000 awards ‘to help cover the costs of a professional development opportunity either in New Zealand or overseas’–
Applicants can apply for up to NZ$5,000 to help cover the costs of a significant professional development opportunity in their area of expertise. For example, this might be taking part in an international workshop or masterclass. The award will assist with direct costs, and travel and accommodation expenses.
Furthermore, the ‘50% target participation rate for women film-makers in the professional development area’ is already more or less achieved, according to a report of Dave Gibson’s speech at the launch. Professional development may also, for statistical purposes, include participation in programmes run by NZFC-funded organisations like Script to Screen and the New Zealand Writers Guild — each of them already pretty on to it with diversity including gender — for which filmmakers don’t apply directly to the NZFC.
Identifying and Engaging with Women Filmmakers
This is a kind of sleeper policy. It implies that the NZFC has not been adequately identifying and engaging with women filmmakers in the past and I think it’s excellent that they own this failure and are committed to making a change–
The Talent Development team will spend more time identifying and maintaining engagement with promising female feature screen-writers and directors with a view to nurturing professional and creatively beneficial relationships with producers.
But this process needs to be fleshed out and transparent. ‘More time’ could be five minutes. How does the NZFC currently identify promising men screenwriters and directors? Will it use the same strategy to identify promising women writers and directors? And there’s no commitment to measuring the success or failure of this initiative. Has the Talent Development team made a list of promising women yet? Has anyone approached the Talent Development team for assistance yet and how were they helped?
And, very importantly, how will the Talent Development team persuade producers and distributors that women are just as investment-worthy as golden boys, especially as the NZFC itself shows no sign of believing this? Where are the funding incentives for producers to engage with women writers and directors? (As I finish this, I see that four of the five Fresh Shorts projects for 2015 are written and directed by women; and that the seven-person selection panel included five women, among them Sima Urale, Annie Collins and Whetu Fala. Now that’s a very fine selection panel. I’m hoping for more like it. And a fine outcome for women, though they/we have achieved well as short filmmakers for years, without any noticeable effect on our representation as writers and directors of feature film projects.)
Encouraging Proposals That Support the Professional Development of Women
It is great to have the cinematographer scholarship proposed by Jane Campion as the first of these proposals and to know that this initiative will be ongoing for women who work in various technical fields. As I mentioned, Script to Screen and the Writers Guild already do very well in supporting the professional development of women as evidenced by the lists of those they provide funding for and by women’s strong participation and achievement in both organisations’ programmes that evaluate through blind reading.
But again, this initiative sidesteps an opportunity, to tell all those organisations it supports: ‘Work towards gender equality or lose your subsidies’. Examples? The NZFC-funded 48Hours festival, notorious for the low participation of women as directors and writers. And the New Zealand International Film Festival.
Conversely, it would have been possible to identify and fund programmes that already support the professional development of diverse young women and do this outside the education system. These young women are the future and they engage and achieve strongly in The Outlook for Someday and Inspiring Stories, for example, programmes that have much in common with 48Hours. But NZFC funding for Inspiring Stories has been withdrawn and as far as I know it hasn’t been offered to The Outlook for Someday.
The ‘Deficit’ Concept’s Role
Collectively, as several people pointed out, in a term that wasn’t then familiar to me, the NZFC’s gender initiatives initiatives are predicated on a ‘deficit’ concept, that women in general ‘aren’t ready’ for serious investment. They/we and need support to ‘catch up’ and it’s probably our own fault, because we’re under-prepared, under-trained. The reality is, it’s not women filmmakers who are in deficit. The deficit is within all those taxpayer-funded organisations and programmes that consistently fail to work towards gender equity.
In a four-minute film that accompanied the launch, which the NZFC kindly shared with me — not online because it hasn’t got releases from the participants — a small group of women who work in film spoke about their views of some of the issues. Unfortunately two of them reinforced the deficit idea, implying that women are to blame for our circumstances, that we should try and fail and fail again and try again, cultivate resilience (they may have qualified their comments and their qualifications got lost in the editing). But all artists have to cultivate resilience, and try and fail and try again, not just women, so I’m not sure that these contributions were helpful. Yes, some women do sometimes lack confidence, but this may be a reasonable response to the kinds of abusive experience documented in Shit People Say To Women Directors. When these experiences are generated by other women — as they sometimes are — this can be doubly debilitating.
The systematic application of the deficit concept has all kinds of outcomes. Women fear that if they ask for better treatment they appear to be seeking support just because they’re women rather than because their/our work is of appropriate quality. Then they/we wonder if they really are under-prepared, under-trained and untalented. As director and activist Lexi Alexander points out (in a tweet now deleted)–
A system that continuously tells one group that they are lacking, produces a group of people who feel inadequate. That’s how they win.
— Lexi Alexander (@Lexialex) July 13, 2015
One justification for major shortcomings within the NZFC initiatives is that the Swedish Film Institute has a remit that’s different from the NZFC because it exists to support the Swedish language (I don’t know if this is true). In New Zealand, I was told, film is more important as a vehicle for growing our economic wealth.
When I thought about this, and particularly about diversity being profitable, it seemed strange that the chair of the NZFC board, Dame Patsy Reddy, hasn’t insisted on a more effective gender policy, because she is a lawyer and company director who must be aware of parallel debates about gender issues in her professions and of the economic benefits of diversity. Then I fell over an article about Dame Silvia Cartwright, a New Zealand lawyer who has just returned to live in New Zealand and that offered a partial explanation, that human rights have lessened in significance in New Zealand.
Human rights, economics and gender equity
Dame Silvia came to prominence when she headed the Cartwright Committee of Inquiry into the Treatment of Cervical Cancer at National Women’s Hospital, the result of a feminist investigation into malpractice in a public hospital. She later became the first woman to be Chief Judge of the District Court, the first woman High Court judge and our Governor-General, before she became one of two international judges on the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, a joint initiative between the government of Cambodia and the United Nations. This is what she’s observed since she got back here–
As a community we are less interested in human rights than we were. Of necessity, we have become very interested in economic survival. The rights issues have taken a second place.
According to the article, Dame Silvia says discussion is less than she recalls, and there is less interest in promoting equality between those of differing ethnicities or gender.
The room for discussion has narrowed. To me there is an element of our society that is damped down or missing all together.
In my last post, I wrote about the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and how it has been invoked in legal actions in New Zealand and could again be invoked in Australasia to challenge the policies of Screen Australia and the NZFC. I referred to the just-published Fault Lines: Human Rights in New Zealand, where the authors note that in 2012 the CEDAW Committee had expressed concern that New Zealand ‘had not taken sufficient measures to ensure that gender was mainstreamed into all national plans and government institutions as requested by the Committee in its previous concluding observations (p79)’. The NZFC is only one organisation that has not mainstreamed gender in its plans; and as far as I know not a single organisation in New Zealand’s Ministry for Culture & Heritage, its umbrella, has done so. New Zealand On Air’s diversity is the closest I know of.
Dame Silvia’s interview is a timely reminder of the larger context that the NZFC works within and that it is under pressure to achieve economic benefits. But it doesn’t explain why the organisation’s leadership doesn’t embrace ideas about the economic benefits of diversity as expressed through gender.
How to emphasise the economic benefits of an embedded gender equity policy I wondered? What about the Top-20-grossing New Zealand-made feature films ever, excluding Peter Jackson’s blockbusters, all co-written with women? Does this list show that women-directed films is good commercial practice? I think it does.
Women wrote six of this Top-20 (30%), including three of the top five. This isn’t surprising. New Zealand is perhaps the only country in the world where women writers in all mediums are well published and well received, except perhaps in theatre. Our only two Booker Prize winners are women, one of them Māori. Our only Neudstadt prize-winner is a Māori woman. And of course there’s song-writer Lorde.
Women directed four in this list (20%) — two in the top five. In global terms this is pretty good, with one doco — Leanne Pooley’s The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls, and one hybrid — Gaylene Preston’s Home by Christmas.
It is also a better result than might be expected from the overall participation of New Zealand women in feature filmmaking from 2003 up to December 2014. Of all features produced during that period — including telemovies and features not funded by the NZFC and narrative and hybrid features but not docos — women wrote 17%, or 28% if scripts with a male co-writer are included and directed 13%, or 17% if with a male co-director. I suspect that if a writer/director gender comparison was made of the NZFC’s last two decades’ investment in feature development and in feature production, it would show that investment in projects with women writers and directors was as profitable as investment in those with men. Women may even do better.
So the list provides a strong message: Invest in feature projects of women writers and directors and we will deliver.
At least seven of the films have Māori or Pasifika directors, all men and all of the six Māori and Pasifika films released in the last five years are centred on men, as is Māori-directed The Patriarch, now complete and — from what I’ve seen in its trailer — Tammy Davis’ Born To Dance. The last NZFC-funded feature written and directed by a Māori woman was Merata Mita’s Mauri in 1988, though Briar Grace-Smith has written two features for theatrical release and two for television and Marama Killen has written and directed one self-funded feature.
Overall, one quarter of the Top-20 have female protagonists. Women wrote all these and directed three out of five.
Exactly half have Māori or Pasifika protagonists. Of those ten, two have female protagonists, Once Were Warriors’ Beth Heke and Whale Rider’s Paikea Apirana.
This information belongs alongside several more facts. The first is the fresh, global, acknowledgement that features with women or girls at their centre have a huge market, as evidenced among the top twenty on today’s (late June) Box Office Mojo’s The Past 365 Days releases, with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (5); Cinderella (10); Inside Out (11); Pitch Perfect 2 (14); Home (15); Mad Max: Fury Road (19), as well as Gone Girl and Fifty Shades of Grey.
This fact is reinforced by research around the income generated by Bechdel Test films, where — somewhere in the film — two women talk to each other about something other than men. Here’s an infographic.
The audience for entertainment with women at its centre has been regularly causing surprise for a long time now. Back in 2008 when I started this blog, my second post was about two women-written and -directed films showing near my home: Mamma Mia and New Zealand’s Apron Strings, directed by Sima Urale. In it, I quoted Meryl Streep —
‘Devil Wears Prada took [studio executives] completely by surprise. Mamma Mia had a budget about this big. [She demonstrates a tiny budget.]… A musical is expensive. We did it on a diet… I’m hopeful that they’ll learn that there’s a market for these entertainments but they seem to need to learn the lesson every year.’
The second fact is that men wrote and directed The Hunger Games, Cinderella Home and Mad Max: Fury Road (with, I understand — though she isn’t listed in the credits at imdb — advice from Eve Ensler). A man directed Inside Out, which did have a woman co-writer. Is it possible to argue that women writers and directors are not necessary, from an economic perspective, even for films with a female protagonist? In New Zealand, why not leave it to those New Zealand-based men who write and direct, those who’ve already had some commercial success? There are several reasons why not.
One is that women do participate strongly in the American blockbuster successes, though primarily as writers. So — as in New Zealand — gender diversity has a history of economic benefit. When I looked at them, of the Past 365 Days releases top twenty, 40% had women writers or co-writers. Of the six films with a single writer (although some of these also credited ‘character’ writers and books) half were written by women. In contrast, women directed only two of the listed films (10%), for reasons articulated in the current action against the big studios and others, being pursued by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Another reason is that New Zealand has a wealth of skilled women screenwriters to meet the ‘newly identified’ market for features with female protagonists, including Māori and Pasifika women who write screenplays with female Māori and Pasifika protagonists, which have proven commercial value. When I researched the work of New Zealand’s committed women screenwriters last year, for a chapter in an international book, 85% of the scripts they wrote had female protagonists (see article here, in Dear Jemaine). These were representative responses from the full spectrum of women with expertise and produced experience in film and/or theatre and/or television, and the full range of age, ethnicity, and sexuality. Because New Zealand’s population is so small it’s possible to be confident about this: I was surprised that for every key representative of one group who declined to participate, there was at least one corresponding representative who chose to take part.
But the main reason — putting human rights arguments to one side — is that as noted, our New Zealand statistics show that women-written and/or directed features sell well in New Zealand and, in three cases on our Top-20 list, internationally. There’s also evidence that women’s work is of high quality from South Pacific Pictures, one of New Zealand’s most successful production houses, which produced four of our Top-20 features: Whale Rider, What Became of the Broken Hearted, Sione’s Wedding and its sequel. Back in 2011 — South Pacific Pictures has since been sold to offshore interests — Jo Johnson, its development executive, told me–
For more than ten years, at least half of South Pacific Pictures’ television series and feature film output has been created and written by women and have women as central characters… [She lists the titles.] … This is not ‘good business sense’, but because the women involved are the best creative talent available and the stories depict a mix of characters from the real world.
We have never found gender to be an issue with respect to employing creative personnel, be they writers, directors, production designers, editors, composers etc.
But, of course, employing ‘the best creative talent’ is good business sense. It worked and probably still works for South Pacific Pictures. It could work for the New Zealand feature film producers and the NZFC, too.
I’m convinced that the New Zealand Film Commission could safely insist on gender equity with no fear of a reduction in quality, based on: the Top-20 evidence; the evidence that New Zealand women directors also achieve better results with their short films than men do — as measured by the NZFC itself, though it’s probably time they repeated this research; women’s achievements when Script to Screen and the New Zealand Writers Guild use blind reading as part of their assessment in various programmes; and when we are welcomed, as young women are at Inspiring Storiesand The Outlook for Someday and as women are at South Pacific Pictures. If the New Zealand Film Commission embeds a gender equity policy it can expect improved economic returns. Add in the human rights argument, however unfashionable it is, and ‘when it comes to public money it has to be equal’ seems irresistible. Again: Invest in women’s feature projects and we will deliver.
And, if it’s necessary to start with a dedicated film fund, there’s already an excellent model in place, He Ara.
The He Ara precedent
Although, unlike New Zealand on Air, the NZFC doesn’t have a mandate to increase diversity, it does have an affirmative action film fund, He Ara (‘ara’ means ‘pathway’) established in March last year within the New Zealand Film Commission. It is–
…a devolved [feature] development scheme aimed at assisting established New Zealand writers, producers and directors of Māori and/or Pasifika heritage to express authentic Māori and Pasifika film perspectives.
He Ara is aimed at supporting filmmakers in the creation of distinctive feature film drama or documentary projects, shaped through their chosen development framework. We are offering devolved development funding and modest overhead support via this initiative.
The primary purpose of the fund is to support New Zealand filmmakers of Māori and/or Pasifika heritage to further create a diverse range of quality New Zealand films through:
- increased development of culturally diverse, outstanding New Zealand projects and talent;
- utilising Māori and/or Pasifika story models based on a traditional Māori and/or Pasifika knowledge base; and
- Māori and/or Pasifika screen professionals forging stronger ties with the international marketplace.
The first three groups were funded in June, a second applicant in February this year. Possibly more since then. Unfortunately, because there is no umbrella gender policy that is embedded within every NZFC programme, all this funding could go to projects by and about men. But some of those involved in the funded groups are are women so with luck — and a lot of hard work — there will soon be more features from Māori and Pasifika women. Taika Waititi (Boy; What We Do in the Shadows) who is part of one of the groups took a Madeline Sami/Thomas Sainsbury feature project to Cannes this year (based on Madeline’s Super City character, the narcissistic cheerleader Pasha Patel, and partly set in India). Producer-writer-director Ainsley Gardiner, part of another He Ara group, is working on a feature animation, The Song Jar, with Briar Grace-Smith,’which turns the child-parent relationship on its head’.
With the He Ara precedent, it’s understandable that some women would like a parallel women’s fund, set up with similar parameters. There are many and diverse established New Zealand women writers and directors — including Māori and Pasifika women who won’t benefit from He Ara — whose ‘authentic perspectives’ or ‘story models’ and ‘traditional knowledge base’, to use the language of Te Ara, could benefit from this kind of development assistance. Not to mention the writers and directors who are discriminated against, just because they happen to be women, or have projects with women protagonists (especially now men are more likely to create projects with women protagonists).
But would this be enough, without an overall gender policy that addresses all of Anna Serner’s factors? Would it even be possible, given that there have historically been so few New Zealand producers committed to and accomplished at advancing women-written and -directed features? John Barnett, an exception, is gone. And among established New Zealand women directors there doesn’t seem to be the same enthusiasm for gender equity that there is from their counterparts elsewhere, like the women of Pro Quote Regie in Germany. Their lack of public support for Jane Campion’s commitment is startling. Where are their joint statements or even a single individual press release? Where’s their solidarity? Their tautoko? Where are the pictures of them all emerging from a meeting with her, especially those of them who have significant international experience and could be engaged in the same kind of activities as Taika Waititi? Are they frightened to speak out in case they risk funding for their own projects? Are they so used to being ‘exceptional’ that they’d prefer not to have to compete with other women?
This silence gives me yet another reason to mourn the late, great, Merata Mita. I think she’d have voiced her public support for the kaupapa. (‘Too busy’ can’t be anyone’s excuse here, given Jane Campion’s commitment.)
Or is the silence just because there’s no history of collective women filmmaker activism in New Zealand, like the herstories of Australia and Canada, with an exception I’m coming to? Would the silent ones have spoken up if we’d had more of this kind of herstory?
And then there’s WIFT, in Wellington. I fell over its latest meeting about gender equality by accident, when I was looking for something else on its website. Notice of the meeting was not posted on its Facebook page. And when I asked members, including emergent directors I knew, if they knew about these meetings, if they’d been at the May meeting or were going to this one, the answer was No (though a couple wondered if they’d missed an email in May and an email now — many of us don’t open all our emails any more.) And why ‘No’ for this one? Too far at lunchtime and during the week for people working outside Miramar. School holidays. Whatever happened to those old practices within New Zealand feminist groups, of evening and weekend afternoon meetings and of providing childcare for important occasions like this one?
I really hope that the May meeting and this one will not be counted as the ‘women’s guild consultation’ if there hasn’t been a verifiable and genuine attempt to include all WIFT members, at times and places that are most likely to work for most of the group. And with support for those who have children. It’s a side issue here, but still important: if WIFT doesn’t model best practices that take women with primary responsibility children into account, it’s unlikely the wider industry will.
So what about that single New Zealand feminist filmmaker group? It was called the Auckland Community Women’s Video. Carole Stewart worked there with Nancy Peterson and others and her perspective (2021: now unavailable but see here re that group) is the only New Zealand one that reminds me of the Australian and Canadian stories of feminist film activism, outside government-funded initiatives. (I understand that the Community Women’s Video archive is in the New Zealand Film Archive but can’t find it in the catalogue.)
Mary Tomsic explains in relation to the Australian groups that collective ideology and achievements were more important within feminist film groups than a focus on individual achievement. Developing skills tended to be linked to political activism rather than to employment or a career and this account of the Auckland Women’s Community Video shows that it had this and much else in common with the Aussie and Canadian groups, with its emphasis on documentary (though the Aussie groups also produced experimental work and drama) and on grassroots community engagement. Here’s Carole–
My introduction to film was at the National Film Unit [sold in 1990] where I worked as one of the first women editors in the 1970’s, and then worked as documentary editor in television. The Street, Some of My Best Friends Are Women and the Women series were some of the films I worked on during those years, all ground-breaking films which were controversial in their time. The Women Series was commissioned by TV One, and for the first time ever was made by an all-women crew at a time when it was still rare for women to work as directors, and on camera and sound.
Becoming involved with Women’s Community Video in the late 1970s was a way of working at grass roots level, teaching and working with women who wanted an accessible vehicle of expression for their own reality at a time when the media reflected primarily male, heterosexual views and values. Film can be a powerful means for positive change. That was my motivation for becoming involved, to present a view point which was not mainstream, one that I always hoped would make people think and see things in a different way.
I made Even Dogs Are Given Bones [1981, about the dispute between the clothing workers at the Rixen factory in Levin and their employer who decided to close the factory] at a time of intense political activism in New Zealand politics, and my own involvement in feminism, lesbian rights and anti-racist activism (Bastion Point and the Springbok Tour). I have always felt strongly about injustice and oppression, and the rights of all people to be treated fairly, with dignity and respect. There had been a lot on the news about the women of Rixen and their protest, and it felt important to document their struggle to been seen and heard in a more complete way.
The focus on audience and distribution was crucial. For Even Dogs Are Given Bones, trade unions and women’s groups throughout New Zealand were key, with Australian distribution via ‘a women’s group in Sydney’. Reading Carole’s account for the first time in years and wishing I could find more online about her group, I imagine that it would be very at home in the crowdfunding- and niche market-oriented practices of today.
Historical Women’s Film Funds & Women’s Studios in Australia and Canada
It’s been hard work, reading about state funding for women’s filmmaking in Australia and Canada, with programmes that started in the feminist context of the 1970s and ended in the 1990s: various government organisations were involved, sometimes with a name change or two and each with its own acronym.
At the time, each country was attempting to build a profitable and prestigious film industry, but diversity and gender equality were not integral to that ambition and investment in the women’s programmes was very limited, although women’s issues then occupied a central position on both national and international policy agendas.
By focusing here on just a few factors that I think are relevant to the current New Zealand debate I can’t do justice to the publicly-funded women’s film initiatives, and the varied theoretical frameworks within which they’ve been analysed. And I can’t do justice to the feminist film groups out in the community that co-existed with them. Their concatenation of stories about the Activist Complex Female Protagonist has yet to be fully told.
At the end of this post I’ve listed key sources so you can read more. I haven’t fully referenced quotations within the text unless I can link to them directly as I usually do and I didn’t want to have footnotes. It’s been strange to have to read books and hard copy articles to access information because Google’s reach on this topic is inadequate and online information was often paywalled; I can’t always ask friendly academic mates to provide access to it.
Many thanks to the women in Australia and Canada who spoke with me at length or corresponded about the women’s film funds and studios. I hope they’ll correct me if I get something horribly wrong.
Special thanks to Jeni Thornley (who in her time as manager of the Women’s Film Fund worked hard to increase the diversity of its reach, to lobby for gender equity in funding allocation throughout the institution it was part of and to establish an archive), Rina Fraticelli (who as the second head of Studio D also worked towards diversity, sought to produce longer films, and, partly through federal assistance programmes, built bridges with women filmmakers who were disaffected) and Kay Armatage (a member of Canada’s first women’s film festival collective who went on to an influential, distinguished career as a programmer at the Toronto International Film Festival). Their expertise and generosity particularly helped my understanding and one of them contributed the sentence that heads this post. Rina and Kay also shaped the St John’s Summit on Women in Media Communique, seeking gender equity in Canadian film and television, signed by a broad range of Canadian women’s media groups.
The taxpayer-funded women’s film programmes I read about were the Australia’s Women’s Film Fund (1976–1990) and its successor the Women’s Programme (1990–1999); Canada’s anglophone Studio D (1974–1996) and its New Initiatives in Film, (1989–1996), designed to address diversity of women’s experience; and — much much less — the francophone Studio B Regards de Femmes (1986–1996).
There was also, in 1984, the Women’s Film Fund’s Sydney Women’s Film Unit (followed by the Victorian Women’s Film Unit in 1985), established in response to the Women in Australian Film Production Survey. The survey found that ‘the Australian film industry discriminates against women and overwhelmingly exclude them from high positions’ and recommended that the Women’s Film Fund–
1. Ensure that films made about women were made with women having creative control.
2. Create opportunities for feminist ideas, issues and ways of working to be developed in film.
3. Lobby for the distribution and exhibition of films made by women.
This in some ways echoes the intentions of all the programmes I read about, although they interpreted these intentions variously and their emphases shifted at various times to training and employment and sometimes included other elements like research. What I like about these recommendations is that they are so tightly focused. No ‘deficit’ element.
I found it challenging to evaluate the initiatives, partly because they didn’t operate in isolation. Looking back, especially at their beginnings, they appear to be strongly influenced by the ideas and work of many feminist film groups that operated within the highly organised and politicised women’s movement of the day, often but not always without government funding.
I imagine that feminist film group members were exposed to many feminist ideologies — like radical feminism, black feminism, womanism, Marxist feminism, lesbian feminism, cultural feminism, socialist feminism — and tended to embrace one ideology more than another. Even, I found, Anarcho Surrealist Insurrectionary Feminism.
As part of the women’s movement, they worked alongside other women — activists, artists, writers — who insisted on their right to what Mary Beard has called ‘the public voice of women’. They researched and reclaimed women’s histories, including the herstory of art and film and literature, spoke out about violence against women and the rights of women to control their bodies and to have access to childcare. And they made stuff. I like the term that was often used for this surge of activity: ‘women’s liberation’. And I love Australian Loma Scarles’ statement made within the context of a discussion of one of Sydney’s Women’s Film Workshops–
With all this going on in the prime myth-making machine of our times, we WILL invent ourselves, the age of the New Image is at hand.
These activists would also have been exposed to a wide range of feminist theorists, often through small magazines: from Simone de Beauvoir to Germaine Greer, from Audre Lorde, Tillie Olsen, Joanna Russ, Nicole Bosshard and Adrienne Rich, to Angela Davis and Alice Walker and ‘the French feminists’, from bell hooks to Ntozake Shange, to Mary Daly, Margaret Atwood and Gloria Steinem, Monique Witting, Dale Spender and Judy Grahn. And lots more. (No apologies for the blocks of names within this section, it’s part of celebrating these women’s contributions.)
As filmmakers, perhaps, they also saw and read John Berger produced his television series and book, Ways of Seeing (1972). They probably read and debated Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, about the concept of the ‘male gaze’ as a feature of gender power asymmetry in film. They learned that traditional film language was as patriarchal as the language of the spoken word. They saw and discussed the documentaries, short films and experimental work of many women filmmakers outside their own countries, who were making similar explorations. It was an exciting time, when as Joanna Russ puts it–
Consciousness-raising developed theory from experience, connected experience to theory, and thereby…made knowledge.
It generated a knowledge base and films and working practices that, I believe, are useful now.
In Australia, the earliest collective activity seems to have been the 1973 Womenvision weekend conference in Sydney. Then there were Cinematrix (Perth); Sydney Women’s Film Group and Feminist Film Workers (Sydney); Feminist Film Group (Adelaide); and the Melbourne Women’s Film Group and Reel Women (Melbourne) and the Wimmins Film Collective of which I found just one mention, in passing. These groups developed skills, made films and produced film catalogues, distributed, exhibited and discussed their own and other women’s films and lobbied for change. Almost entirely unpaid. According to Mary Tomsic, they valued a film ‘not by its financial success but by its community circulation, and audience responses were gauged by discussion created in both print and person.’ From what I’ve read and heard, the groups’ internal debates were also necessary, time-consuming and challenging.
Among the films that arose from this activity, between 1974 and 1980, were Film For Discussion (Martha Ansara with the Sydney Women’s Film Group 1973), We Aim To Please (Robin Laurie and Margot Nash 1976) and Maidens (Jeni Thornley 1978), My Survival as an Aboriginal (Essie Coffey 1978), Size 10 (Sarah Gibson and Susan Lambert 1978) and For Love or Money (Megan McMurchy, Margot Nash, Margot Oliver and Jeni Thornley 1983)
As far as I can see, only My Survival as an Aboriginal and For Love or Money received public funding and For Love or Money was the only one to be funded by the Women’s Film Fund. Here’s the trailer for My Survival as an Aboriginal, the first documentary by an Aboriginal woman.
It’s no surprise that it was difficult for the groups to sustain a high level of commitment over a long period. But their influence was profound, on individuals as well as (until the mid-late 80s) on the government initiatives, where at times some of them were employed.
As an example of their influence, I found a public lecture that renowned producer Jan Chapman gave, where she acknowledged the strengths of the Sydney Women’s Film Group. She listed the group’s activities, demonstrating that although they tended to be linked to activism rather than a career they also affected women’s careers in the screen industries. The Sydney Women’s Film Group lobbied, with others, for the Women’s Film Fund. It held workshops and emphasised de-mystifying the technical aspects of filmmaking. It organised conferences and film festivals. It published a catalogue of women’s films (divided into ‘Films that Challenge Patriarchal Attitudes’ & ‘Films by Women on Diverse Subjects’) that became some of the most popular titles rented through the Sydney Filmmakers Co-operative. It also lobbied for a course for women at the Australian Film and Television School; Jan Chapman took part in this course and it gave her and others ‘the confidence to push our way through a male dominated system’. She acknowledged ‘considerable support from men’ —
…but without the influence and political lobbying of these women I don’t believe I would have had the subconscious conviction that I liked that collective involvement with an idea, that I could make films, and that what I wanted to say, even if intimate, domestic and personal in scale, was just as interesting as the mythic male legends.
It’s also not surprising that the groups’ focus on political activism inspired debate about the comparative value of focusing on activism in film rather than on personal career goals. For instance, at one Sydney Women’s Film Group meeting it was suggested that a criterion for course participation be that people ‘have something they want to say on film rather than a desire to build a career.’ I will return to this.
Canada’s first women’s film festival in 1973 aimed ‘[to reclaim] the lost history of women filmmakers and to celebrate the contribution of women outside the purview of a masculinist orthodoxy’. And Canadian feminist film groups also worked hard to train women to make films, to establish ‘a women’s aesthetic’, to create an audience for women’s films and to put women filmmakers in touch with one another.
These groups too toured with films for screenings and post-screening discussions. They too created catalogues and even mobile film libraries. They too were spread across the country– the Vancouver Women and Film Group or ISIS and Women in Focus (Vancouver); Reel Feelings and inner visions/ARC– Access Resource Catalogue (Toronto); Reel Life (Halifax); and Vidéo Femmes in Montreal founded in 1973. Remarkably and uniquely Vidéo Femmes still operates, as a small independent and non-profit production house which ‘subscribes to a form of filmmaking that incorporates an emphasis on artistic expression and social commitment’ and recently amalgamated with another community filmmaker, Spira. I think its survival may be because — like that other veteran, Women Make Movies established in New York in 1972 — it has a formal non-profit status and has focused on the educational market.
Inevitably, in both countries, there were tensions between the groups and the institutional programmes. In Australia, according to Mary Tomsic, the ideal of feminist filmmaking as a form of political expression and action conflicted with the fund’s focus on craft skills and careers, to the detriment of creativity and style. Some feminists felt that their political work should be paid for by the state. They criticised the Women’s Film Fund because it provided only short term employment. Others criticised it because its existence contributed to the idea that women are a sub-group of ‘the disadvantaged’, another version of the ‘deficit’ model, the idea that women aren’t competent filmmakers.
In Canada, there was conflict between Studio D and independent filmmakers, especially when the independents competed for federal funding and lost out to Studio D, where filmmakers had greater security of employment. Some independent filmmakers also criticised Studio D privileging content over form — the overuse of social realism, the didactic at the expense of the experimental and more contemporary form — and for losing touch with the feminist film community, particularly in its second decade.
Today, after hearing ‘We’ve got to get it right this time’, the collective herstory of the complex feminist female protagonist in these film institutions is illuminating for me, even in its fragmented form. I want to celebrate their achievements, given the institutions’ lack of comprehensive gender equity policies, the tensions — between articulating difference and the overarching national goals for filmmaking and with activists and filmmakers outside the institutions and the absences of successful models for advancing women filmmakers’ interests and for providing adequate budgets. I also want to celebrate the achievement of the Canadian and Australian feminist film groups that lobbied for and co-existed with and challenged the directions of the programmes, in both countries. I especially want to celebrate the initiatives’ films because those films, along with the Women’s Film Fund’s oral histories, are for me their primary legacies. Sometimes the initiatives had a limited focus, as did Studio D with its (usually) short documentaries with a social realist aesthetic. Sometimes, as in Australia, they attempted to address multiple needs with very little money. But in the Swedish gender equity terms, with the films they achieved goals.
So what are the key factors about the Australian and Canadian initiatives that seem relevant to the debate about gender initiatives in the New Zealand Film Commission? I’ve tried to understand their differences and similarities and the extent to which these match the Swedish model and their relevance in the current New Zealand context. Most importantly, what worked for women filmmakers? What didn’t?
Genesis & funding
None of the initiatives was established with the goal of achieving gender equity or from the perspective that diversity has economic benefits.
The first-established, Studio D within Canada’s National Film Board, was an International Women’s Year (1975) project, established after the release of two well-received women-produced and directed documentary series about women made by women working for the National Film Board. One series was in English and the other in French and they seem to have grown out of a programme called Challenge for Change, established in 1967, which ‘sought to encourage experimental approaches to the use of film and television in the fostering of social change’. The English language filmmaker lobbied for and then headed Studio D, but her French counterpart rejected the offer to head a francophone equivalent because she thought the meagre funding would marginalise women’s work; she continued to lobby unsuccessfully for funding equal to that of other French productions and eventually another woman set up Studio B Regards de Femmes.
The Australian Women’s Film Fund was established outside the Australian Film Commission, among a group of government-funded International Women’s Year projects and then moved to the commission. One of the Women’s Film Fund’s most successful initiatives, the short-lived Women’s Film Units, took advantage of a federal job scheme’s funding.
(In New Zealand, Some of My Best Friends Are Women was also assisted by International Women’s Year funding.)
The budgets were limited, in both countries. In Canada in 1974–75 the initial budget was so small that it was all used for a training project called Just a Minute — twenty-seven one minute films from all over Canada. In Australia, after an initial big investment from International Women’s Year its tiny annual budget was about the equivalent of two documentary fellowships. But although the funding level for both was always low, it seems that Studios D and B Regards de Femmes had secure funding until they closed and for a long period provided continuous work for women directors. None of the umbrella agencies ever expanded into affirmative action beyond the studios in Canada and the Women’s Film Fund in Australia, with policies of equal allocation of funds to women and men filmmakers.
Some of the Women’s Film Fund budget was allocated to feminist film groups. Reel Women for example, in Melbourne, received a one-off grant from the Women’s Film Fund, of $10,000 that they made last for three and a half years of running programmes.
Studio D’s social purpose (‘many of our films did not just report on social movements but were part of their impetus’, according its founder) meant that its usually short and mostly documentary films were made to be screened to community audiences rather than on television or in theatres. This single focus and its capacity to attract project funding and to employ directors may be why it did so well. It seems that the films of Studio B Regards de Femmes had a more personal orientation. I couldn’t find out enough about them to be sure, but it shared the distinction with Studio D of producing some of the most widely sold and watched productions that came out of the National Film Board.
Studio D produced 125 films and won more than 100 international awards. Three of its short films won Academy Awards: Beverly Shaffer’s I’ll Find a Way (1977) won Best Short Film, Live Action; and Terre Nash’s If You Love This Planet (1982) and Cynthia Scott’s Flamenco at 5:15 (1983) each won Best Documentary (Short Subject). Studio D also produced two significant longer films: Bonnie Sherr Klein’s Not a Love Story (1982) and Lynne Fernie and Aerlyn Weissman’s Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives (1992).
In Australia, the Women’s Film Fund motto was ‘Films about women…Films for women…Films by women’. It aimed —
[to foster filmmaking that] went beyond stereotyped portrayals of women to explore the range and depth of female experience.
But its energies and allocation of its funding were more diffuse than Studio D’s, because it also aimed —
[to] assist talented women to develop filmmaking skills. …to promote new attitudes — in the film industry and amongst film goers — to women’s potential as film makers and film subjects…
At the beginning, the Women’s Film Fund supported three commercial features, all directed by men: Caddie (1976, wr Joan Long, dir Donald Crombie), The Picture Show Man (1977, wr Joan Long, dir John Power) and Dawn! (1979, wr Joy Cavill, dir Ken Hannam). (Until Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career (wr Eleanor Witcombe) in 1979, no woman in Australia had directed a feature since the 1930s.) But later the Women’s Film Fund could fully fund only two or three short projects a year, characterised by low-budget, independent and innovative filmmaking.
One of its catalogues lists Helen Grace’s Serious Undertakings (1983; Erica Addis also listed as director at the link); Lee Whitmore’s Ned Wethered animation (1983); Sarah Gibson’s Age Before Beauty (1980); Mary Callaghan’s Greetings from Wollongong (1982); Bread and Dripping (1982, directed by Wendy Brady, Donna Foster, Margot Nash, Elizabeth Schaffer, Vic Smith); and the doco For Love or Money(1983, directed by Margot Nash, Megan McMurchey, Margot Oliver & Jeni Thornley) a documentary which I think may be the only feature-length work from that the Women’s Film Fund funded during this period.
The fund’s work included TV series development, and for some time it provided for development of adventurous feature scripts but couldn’t help with production. It was also often a fund of second or last resort, after the Australian Film Commission and/ or funding bodies in individual states, all with bigger budgets. (In theory woman filmmakers had equal access to all funding programmes; but in practice, as today, they didn’t.)
As part of its activities, the fund toured its films nationally and Australian women films to Nairobi for the International Women’s Film Festival to mark the UN End of Decade Of Women. It supported the Black Women’s Film Workshop (Brisbane), was an information and resource agency, funded publication of Don’t Shoot Darling!
When the Australian Film Commission (a precursor to Screen Australia) established the Women’s Programme to replace the Women’s Film Fund, the programme focused on lobbying, researching conditions in the industry, developing more and varied training schemes and some oral history of women filmmakers, an archival programme. One of its later managers described the Women’s Film Fund as having two roles, of fostering new talent to counter the disillusionment of women trying to get into the industry and sponsoring high quality films that were ‘clear and accessible’. But from this distance of time and place, it seems obvious that if an explicit gender equity policy like the Swedish one had been embedded throughout the Australian Film Commission, with goals and a plan for reaching them, the lobbying, the affirmative action work, the research and training schemes (other than the Women’s Film Units) would not have drained funding and energy from film production.
In retrospect and from outside Australia, it seems that one of the Women’s Film Fund’s most successful initiatives was its short-lived Women’s Film Units. Through the federal employment scheme referred to, they aimed to give women much-needed credits and career-enhancing credibility, while ensuring that ‘films made about women were made with creative control and create opportunities for feminist ideas, issues and ways of working to be developed in film’. The units achieved their aim, though generating significant criticism, by producing short nine films in a single year in the Sydney unit and six in Melbourne.
I don’t know enough about the two or three short films a year that the Women’s Film Fund supported, nor about the ‘adventurous’ scripts that they supported in development. But the Victoria Women’s Film Unit completed six films of lengths between ten and 35 minutes. The 35-minute work was Blood Ties, a narrative fiction in three parts, each directed by a different woman: Louise Hubbard, Jane Stevenson and Danae Gunn. The others were Egami, Sue Ford’s experimental fiction; High Heels, a short doco by Sue Brooks; Pre-Occupied, a narrative drama by Solrun Hoaas about the dilemma of a professional woman over whether to have a child and the moral implications of making documentaries; Sunday Lunch, Claire Dobbin’s drama; and Tango Delta, an experimental narrative by Jenny Harding.
The Sydney Woman’s Film Unit’s nine films, ranging in length from a 30-minute doco to a 5-minute animation were– After Hours, a drama by Jane Campion; Bronco, a comedy by Deborah Kingsland; Girls and Guys, a satire by Cynthia Connop; Gloria, a doco about an Uruguayan activist, by Patricia Boero; Lily, a drama doco on Australian racism by Julie Money; Mothers, another drama doco, by Sabina Wynn; Margot Nash’s Teno doco; Julie Cunningham’s Double X animation; and Irina Dunn’s Fighting For Peace, a doco on the women’s peace movement.
By the mid 80s, in both countries, the programmes had to change direction, to address women’s diversity. At the Women’s Film Fund, as manager of the fund, Jeni Thornley, a filmmaker who had been part of feminist film groups, wrote that it had become–
…crucial for the Women’s Film Fund to break through the notion of women as a single identifiable group with identical needs and problems, and to begin developing programmes that take into account the impact of class, race and ethnic origin on women’s access to both employment and funding in the film industry… [and] to clarify the common problematical areas for women as a group.
Among other underrepresented groups, women from Australian and Canadian indigenous and multicultural communities had many stories to tell, in many different forms. Some did so from the 70s, indigenous filmmakers Alanis Obomsawin in Canada and Essie Coffey in Australia, and migrant women like Sophia Turkiewicz and Ayten Kuyululu in Australia, probably others in Canada.
Studio D developed the New Initiatives Fund in 1989 to support diverse women filmmakers in Canada. I don’t know how successful initiatives were in supporting films and filmmakers from these underserved communities, but in the late 80s there seems to have been a flowering of women directors in both.
After all this, do I think that a women’s film fund or women’s studio would work in New Zealand (or even Australia), to increase women’s participation in and achievement in feature filmmaking? Reluctantly, I argue that it would not.
For whatever reason — quality, economics or human rights (or all of these) — it is the institution’s responsibility to embed gender equality throughout its programmes including feature development and production, to set goals to achieve this, to make a plan, monitor its success and adjust it when necessary. Anything less is not going to be effective.
Studios D and B, Regards de Femmes and the Women’s Film Fund developed various programmes to address women’s ‘deficits’ in training and opportunities, over decades, but the record shows that they had very limited short and long term effects on feature filmmaking. In Australia and Canada the conditions under which women make movies are fundamentally unchanged from the 1970s, and the feature statistics are consistently no better than anywhere else. It’s difficult to see how a New Zealand fund or studio would have any better outcome. Unless exactly half of the NZFC’s budget for development and production of feature films is also assigned to projects written and directed by women, any budget allocated to a film fund or studio would be inadequate — it wouldn’t result in more features by women and would further ghettoise women.
The feminist film groups contributed significantly to successes within the earlier initiatives. Today, women’s issues aren’t centre stage nationally or internationally and New Zealand film feminism is almost non-existent, though it’s good to see that Film Fatales now has a Wellington branch and in Auckland, The Waking Dream Collectiveof emerging women filmmakers aims ‘to tell captivating and unique stories from the margins and give a voice to those not often heard on screen’. New initiatives are necessary to do the work feminist film groups did in Australia and Canada, to engage support and to develop audiences.
Finally, addressing women filmmakers’ perceived ‘deficits’ is now not an issue. As far back as 1987 many women as men were full time students at the Australian Film, Radio and Television School (founded in 1973). Women participate fully in similar education opportunities in New Zealand as well as professional development and, once gender equality is taken seriously, once they finish their education, if they too are serious they will find and be offered appropriate support for their work.
But now, for me the knottiest problem: the role of Anna Serner’s statement that women write and direct stories with a ‘new perspective’. Because of — often unconscious — bias it may be necessary to explore this issue in relation to equal allocation of funds for feature films, alongside those of quality, economic return and human rights. Do women offer something that men cannot, regardless of the gender of the characters in the stories they/we tell? And if so, is it necessary to identify and nourish that ‘new perspective, perhaps in a women’s film fund?
A New Perspective?
One of the women interviewed for the short film shown at the NZFC gender policy launch referred to women looking at the world through a different lens than men, another way of describing that ‘new perspective’ Anna Serner refers to. How does this different lens work, when there are films about women that men make with integrity, like The Clouds of Sils Maria, written and directed by Olivier Assayas and Grandma, written and directed by Paul Weitz? And do women always look at the world through a different lens and provide a new perspective? Is there perhaps a spectrum that corresponds to the gender spectrum within the community as a whole and is that spectrum perhaps fluid for individual writer and directors, so we move to and fro along it?
Diversity has economic value, as the New Zealand success of Maori and Pasifika stories shows, and even though it’s difficult to articulate and complicated to nourish women’s diversity and new perspectives, ‘to get it right this time’ we must try.
To rephrase the He Ara policy, it’s possible to imagine ‘assisting established New Zealand [women] writers, producers and directors…to express authentic female film perspectives… [in a] a diverse range of quality New Zealand films by women through —
— increased development of culturally diverse, outstanding New Zealand projects and talent;
— utilising [women’s] story models based on a traditional [women’s] knowledge base; and
— [women] screen professionals forging stronger ties with the international marketplace.’
Many of you have a much more sophisticated understanding of theory than I do, of the debates about a different lens, ‘the female gaze’, women’s ‘different voice’, debates shaped by the ideas of writers like Laura Mulvey or Carol Gilligan, by the différence theories, by Agnès Varda’s cinécriture (and more!). So feel free to skip this section, where I approach women’s stories with a new perspective almost solely from my own experience as an activist and a practitioner — a writer who sometimes writes and directs film, assesses feature scripts and helps select short films for festivals.
In contrast, some of you may hope that I’ll identify ‘authentic female film perspectives’, ‘women’s story models’ and ‘a traditional women’s knowledge base’. But others can help you do that better than I can. So you might want to skip this section too. And skip this bit if you aren’t much interested in New Zealand stories and examples; or examples from visual art or literature — a well-developed site of gender equity here because New Zealand women writers for the page are more strongly represented in publications, reviews and awards than women writers anywhere else.
To reiterate: this is not an attempt at definition; it’s an attempt to explore the conditions that might generate and nurture new perspectives by New Zealand women in feature films within a framework of quality, economic imperatives and human rights. It does so within the historical realities that affect women’s story-telling, as identified by Tillie Olsen in Silences–
[P]ressures towards censorship, self-censorship; toward accepting, abiding by entrenched attitudes, thus falsifying one’s own reality, range, vision, truth, voice, are extreme for women writers (indeed have much to do with the fear, the sense of powerlessness that pervades certain of our books, the ‘above all, amuse’ tone of others). Not to be able to come to one’s truth or not to use it in one’s writing, even in telling the truth having to ‘tell it slant’, robs one of drive, of conviction; limits potential stature; results in loss to literature and the comprehensions we seek in it.
It does so because these realities exist for women screenwriters today, as Jill Soloway illustrated last week in a powerful speech at a Wifey Presents event, a celebration of female filmmakers, in collaboration with Film Fatales. She’s woken up to ‘the state of emergency when it comes to the female voice’, she explained–
There is a real all-out attack on us having subjectivity, so I just beg everybody to be relentless in their pursuit of their voice…I just want all the female creators to keep an eye out for that thing that says don’t do it, it’s not good enough, it’s not ready and you’re not right, and know that that’s the uninvited guest that’s always going to be there in your unconsciousness. That’s a product of growing up other, of growing up as not the subject. You think there’s something wrong with your voice all the time… It’s like directing is female desire over and over again, and film is the capturing of human emotions and somehow men were able to swindle us into believing that that is their specialty. All they told us our whole life is we’re too emotional to do any real jobs, yet they’ve taken the most emotional job, which is art making about human emotions and said we’re not capable of it. I just want to make sure you know I’m always plagued by insecurities. The insecurities are always going to be there. Notice them when you’re there writing, when you’re trying to get your thing out there, when you’re setting up your night where you’re showing your films. It’s always going to be there. The world, the matriarchal revolution, is dependent on female voices and speaking out loud. Please keep making things.
Here’s a little introduction, about how I understand the potential for a new perspective within gender policies and the complexities of its relationship to women who write and direct. Throughout it I hold in my mind that being a woman is just one aspect of us as human beings. And that the meaning of ‘woman’ is debated. For instance, I just reread what Tilly Lloyd wrote, years ago–
…lesbians get referred to, and still refer to themselves, simply as women. Which we are but queerly.
Women screenwriter and director identities and gender policies
New Zealand is small. And, as already noted, we didn’t have feminist film groups that explored how ‘traditional film language was as patriarchal as the language of the spoken word’ and experimented with making new kinds of films (though individuals sometimes did and Auckland Community Women’s Video was a blessing). Today there are many films by women that we hear about but aren’t distributed here and we often don’t get news of films which may be available online. We have to travel a long way to any women’s film festival that shows features. So we have a smaller pool of women’s films as examples to draw on than women have in the United States or Europe and few local conversations about women-directed features. So my perspective is limited.
In films that have made it here, it’s often just single scenes that convey a new perspective to me, like a sex scene in Andrea Arnold’s Red Road, a kitchen scene and a conversation between two women in Ava DuVernay’s Selma. Or a single piece of dialogue that reinforces a theme, like the reference to a ‘triple-pleated mushroom collar’ in Jane Campion’s Bright Star. But when that happens I get a burst of particular, visceral and rare pure pleasure and realise that I have a deep hunger for more of it. (The same thing may happen, for different reasons, during a film a man’s written and directed, as it did when I watched Tangerines the other day).
Sometimes, I don’t immediately recognise it. But if I’m reading a woman’s script and I keep ‘tripping’ on bits of it — the turning points aren’t where I’d expect, or the theme(s) or genre(s) don’t seem to mesh with what I’ve been told they are, instead of assuming that the writer doesn’t know what she’s doing, I begin to hunt about for a new perspective’s presence, to be able to engage with it fully and helpfully if in fact it is there. If it’s there, I may have to identify an alternative model being used and support it as thoughtfully and strongly as possible. Or, if it seems that the writer hasn’t made that kind of conscious choice, but is trying to conform to ‘industry expectations’ which don’t fit the story she wants to tell, it may be helpful for her to go in search of ‘women’s story models’ and to search in ‘women’s knowledge bases’ or in search of story models and knowledge bases that better suit another element of her identity. Or both.
Expressing a new perspective can require a fundamental shift of focus. I sometimes struggle with it myself, because as a woman I’m colonised in a variety of ways; I’m programmed to refer and defer to a default white male heritage. For instance, when I occasionally write short fiction as an exercise, or short non-fiction (yes, I can!) it’s terse because I’m heavily influenced by Hemingway and (Ahem. Yes.) by Robert B. Parker. And why not? The main thing is that I’m aware of making that choice and that there are other, woman-generated, options that may work better.
But these options attract problems, for any of us. Back in 1996, Linda Seger’s interviewees, all women filmmakers, told her over and over again that women did not need to and should not tell stories the way that men do. They emphasised character, behaviour, emotions and relationships, alongside a deep interest in both the human experience and the transformation of women. But then (as now) they didn’t have enough models for how to tell their stories and express themes that had not been shown before. According to Linda Seger, when — for instance — a writer/director abandons a straight linear structure to write/shoot a script where action is de-emphasised and the proportions of emotion and psychology become greater —
[S]ome women…may not yet have the craft to make these different models work. Although these kinds of stories can be done for a much lower budget than the more action-oriented models, if they fail, women know they usually don’t get another chance. If they compromise, they feel they aren’t truly telling their stories.
And however highly developed a woman scriptwriter’s craft is, she says, if she’s found her voice, even if she writes something considered by most to be a great script, many potential investors will probably consider it not commercial because it’s unlike other films on the market. Or, the writer may have to adapt her voice to meet investors’ demands, whether the investor is a state funder (in New Zealand) or a purely commercial entity. According to Linda Seger again —
…[this] often removes originality and authenticity… [The work] begins to look derivative, predictable, and all the same. It also limits the kinds of films that are made — another voice never emerges.
She quotes Roseanne Barr as saying —
Today you can’t tell the difference between something produced by a woman and things produced by a man…and that disturbs me. When women’s voices sound like men’s, then women have effectively been censored.
These are not problems that affect men in the same way, regardless of the medium or model they use. Every so often I fall over a story that reminds me of how easily men’s stories reach the world and women’s stories do not. That’s our heritage from the Mary Beard-identified history of the public voices of women. Our stories aren’t necessarily secret, but outside the public life of literature and film we often live our lives and tell our stories ‘differently’. So there are many many stories that men may not be able to tell successfully because they happen in spaces they do not enter. If we don’t tell them (maybe) no-one else will. This story is a very simple example. For me it symbolises many other ‘differently’ stories by and about women that remain private stories, though they often provide considerable drama.
Ursula Bethell (1874–1975) was an acclaimed New Zealand poet and a friend and mentor to many men in New Zealand’s artistic life of her time, a woman who lived for years with a woman companion. Given this excerpt from one of her letters towards the end of her life, about a young woman friend, written to that young woman’s new husband when they were on their honeymoon, I feel confident in naming her as queer and/or as a lesbian –
Now you know what those dear little breasts are for — & the dear little small-of-the-back is no doubt appreciated even more than by me! For touch. And for sight I think sideways on getting in to the bath one catches the best of both curves. Are those beautiful grey eyes being stung to sight of more earthly beauty everywhere than they’ve dreamt of? Everything should *mean* more to those eyes than to the un-purged ones — don’t you think so? (Dear me, I *am* letting myself go!) Do you both feel that the fields & the mountains are the right setting?
Ursula is buried in Rangiora, in the South Island, and Bill Manhire, a former poet laureate and a strong supporter of women writers, visited her grave and tweeted about it–
— Bill Manhire (@pacificraft) September 30, 2014
His tweet was picked up by a local blog, Stephen Stratford’s Quote Unquote. ‘Bill Manhire tweeted melancholically this morning’, Stephen wrote. ‘You can see what he means’, he added, beneath the photograph. Immediately, that becomes the authoritative story, the public story: Ursula’s grave is neglected and the plaque misspells her name. Who knows, this public story-telling could have led to crowdfunding to maintain this significant poet’s grave, to replace the misspelled plaque.
The women’s story about Ursula’s grave wasn’t tweeted. It didn’t appear on Quote Unquote. For years, an informal and fluid group of mostly lesbians and at least one poet, Heather McPherson — whose series of poems about visiting the grave remain unpublished — have maintained Ursula’s grave. Regularly. When I checked on Facebook, often a little less public and more conversational than Twitter, women who care for the grave confirmed this. (One respondent wrote: ‘Effie Pollen, [Ursula Bethell’s] life-partner, is buried at Karori Cemetery in Wellington, with her family. I’ve cleaned that grave up a few times too, and planted freezias’.) Weeding, flowers, the lot, whenever these women — from all over New Zealand — are passing. This is often the way women do things. Differently. Consistently. Quietly. (And, yes, there are gaps. And Bill Manhire must have visited in one of those gaps, with his sharp eye for an aberrant spelling, not discussed in the Facebook conversation.)
Moving out from New Zealand to the world, in general, ‘a new perspective’ is complicated by how women identify as writers and directors.
At the World Conference of Screenwriters last year, which produced a Women’s Resolution, David Kavanagh from the Writers Guild of Ireland presented his research into funding of women-written features in Ireland, including their development. The session was streamed, so I watched him refer to ‘angry debate’ among the women scriptwriters who met to discuss the research, some of whom may have been also directors. As I understand it, some insisted that they write ‘differently’ and their scripts are therefore unattractive to producers and funders. Others counter-insisted that they write in the same way that men do.
This division between Irish women screenwriters seems to echo a similar division between women who insist that they’re ‘directors’, not ‘women directors’ and the women who insist that they are ‘women directors’, because they view the world through a different lens than a man. This is often opened out further, as Ava DuVernay does when she says–
I want to be defined as a ‘black woman filmmaker,’ because that’s the lens through which I’m working…That is my gaze. I’m proud of it. I don’t feel like it’s any less or limiting. I’m a black woman filmmaker and my films are just as valid as the white man filmmaker and whoever else….Why do we have to strip off who we are to fit in a dominant film culture?
But like so many other identities, identification as a woman screenwriter or woman director or as a writer (who happens to be a woman) or director (who happens to be a woman) can be fluid. Not just because identities are anyway complex. For instance, a writer- or director-for-hire may sometimes see herself as a gender-neutral person doing a job of work, just as the male writers and directors of The Hunger Games, Home, Cinderella and Mad Max do when they direct stories with female protagonists. But on other occasions she may choose to experiment with a ‘women’s story model’ or to draw from what she understands as a ‘traditional women’s knowledge base’ (of which there are many and diverse).
I can easily imagine myself as just ‘a writer’ if I’m asked to adapt someone else’s work for stage or screen though I wouldn’t commit myself to work that I found offensive because of its content: life’s too short. But as a director who is a mother of young children, particularly if she doesn’t have wrap-around family and other support, I think I’d be more likely to identify as a woman director because of the circumstances in which I work. I also might call myself a woman director if I was working in a way modelled by women who have established alternative ways of making and distributing a feature, as Sophie Hyde did with 52 Tuesdays and Ava DuVernay and others do. As a director of a film that I wrote or another woman wrote and which came from women’s history or lesbian history or from the experience of contemporary women or queers I might define myself in another way because the work would absolutely be about the lens through which I was working, regardless of the external circumstances that surrounded that work.
I don’t know if those Irish women screenwriters and directors who insist that they write ‘differently’ also call themselves ‘women screenwriters/directors’ or if those who insist that they write like men always call themselves ‘writers/directors’. Some of those who believe that they write ‘differently’ or with a new perspective may not in fact do so, but work entirely within dominant paradigms. Some of those who believe that they write like men may in fact do so through a different lens, with work informed by a women’s traditional knowledge base. I imagine that, as with identity, there are always crossovers and movement.
But overall I believe those Irish women who insist they write differently. And those who insist they write like men (and who would argue that they aren’t ‘censored’ as Roseanne Barr suggests they may be). I also believe that the institutional and organisational deficits I’ve discussed mean that —
- The majority of New Zealand writers and directors who happen to be women are discriminated against, just because they’re women (as are those in Ireland and every other country in the world);
- Women may experience a further layer of discrimination if they write and direct ‘differently’ or from a ‘new perspective’; and
- Sometimes, when women’s feature projects are supported ‘differently’ is edited out during development because producers and others don’t get it.
Arguably, if a gender policy is established throughout the NZFC programmes, women who write and direct ‘like men’ will be able to participate fully in feature development and production. They will contribute work that is of high quality with a good chance of bringing economic benefits. They will be fine. Women who prefer to write ‘differently’ but can modify their work to fit expectations will also do well. Sometimes work from either group will cross over into ‘differently’ and a new perspective. And with all those scripts with female protagonists ready and waiting, there could be an exciting burst of New Zealand features that meet the newly identified global demand for women and girls as central characters. But work that’s profoundly different or new may struggle to enter and to get through the NZFC development process, not because of the NZFC’s practices but because producers (women and men) and funders and distributors and marketing systems won’t change overnight.
So what about the women who insist that they write and direct ‘differently’ and can’t/won’t do otherwise, who might introduce a new perspective of high quality? Are they perhaps the ones who are most likely to experiment with ‘women’s story models’ and to work from whatever traditional women’s knowledge base they choose? Would they miss out? Would we-the-audience miss out?
Maybe and maybe not. Perhaps it depends on the vision and quality of producers and their investment in marketing new perspectives effectively. Perhaps it depends on genre: a new perspective can of course embrace any of the genres we’re accustomed to. Perhaps it depends on what happens internationally with ‘women’s story models’ and the use of traditional knowledge bases; the Activist Complex Female Protagonist is volatile and daily increasing in power. For instance, on August 14, at a high-level conference on Women in the European Film Industry, representatives from 47 European countries will work on a declaration that is likely to affect gender policy in filmmaking throughout Europe.
But I’d like that new perspective and ‘differently’. I believe that there’s an audience for features that use women’s story models (my favourite one, with multiple protagonists and slow change over a long period, is already doing well on television and the internet) and for work that uses any model to build on and extend women’s knowledge, whether or not it is traditional. I often refer to the experience of writer and director Andrea Arnold, twice winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes, winner of the Sundance Short Film Prize and an Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film. Regardless of how she describes herself she seems to me to be a woman writer/director who writes and directs ‘differently’. This is how she spoke of her experience at Films de Femmes, one of the oldest women’s film festivals–
I always notice how few [films by women] there are at film festivals. I went to Créteil International Women’s Film Festival in France with Wasp in 2004, stayed on for a few days and watched all these films by women. I spent the whole time crying because there were so many films that had so much resonance for me, being female. It actually made me realise how male-dominated the film industry is in terms of perspective. If you think about a film being a very popular and expressive way of showing a mirror on life, we’re getting a mainly male perspective. It’s a shame. I saw a lot of fantastic films at Créteil that I never heard about again.
What factors might help projects by women who create ‘differently’, from a new perspective, flourish? Or hinder them? I’ve reflected on three: the complexities of community, the pain of divided loyalties and the beauty of lived principles.
The Complexities of Community
As communities themselves, members of the historical feminist film groups interacted with many other communities. These included: the theorists I’ve already referred to; alternative film groups that included men; international feminist and feminist filmmaking groups (if only through what they produced, published and distributed); federal and state funders like the National Film Board of Canada including its women’s studios and the Australian Film Commission and its Women’s Film Fund; and women’s communities who located and generated women’s knowledge and women’s story models. All those interactions — in various ways and in varying degrees — must have affected the films they made ‘differently’, from a new perspective.
Today, contexts where women’s story models and women’s knowledge bases can be explored and affirmed include: online networks of women who watch and write about women’s filmmaking; the Films Fatales director groups that are proliferating around the world– including a New Zealand group; and women’s film festivals. How do they nurture ‘differently’ than a film school, say, or a feminist film group of the 70s and 80s? What more is necessary? I’m going to try to explain, with two examples from my own life, one where a spectrum of ‘woman’ practitioner and working ‘differently’ predominated, and one where a spectrum of ‘writer’ predominated. They happen to be artist and writer communities but I think they effectively illustrate the effects of specific conditions. Again, within and between each spectrum there’s alwaysmovement and there are some women who move easily between them.
The first community is from my deep past among other women, particularly in Wellington Women’s Gallery collectives within the larger women’s art movement of the late 1970s and 1980s, the same time as feminist film groups flourished overseas. At the gallery, a core concern was to redefine what a ‘gallery’ meant, to recover our history and to express it ourselves, to invent new ways to do this, to support one another to make work that dealers and publishers saw as ‘risky’, in a variety of mediums. Discussion and debate with women who did not exhibit was key, because women’s knowledge bases and women’s — often halting — story models were central to feminist activism, as privately experienced lies, secrets and silences were exposed and explored. Yes, it was in some ways very like I imagine those feminist film groups were (and my evaluation of them is probably affected by my own experiences).
I was invited to participate in a women’s art movement exhibition in 1977 and from 1980 spent almost four years as a co-ordinator at the Women’s Gallery among other co-ordinators who, unlike me at first, were serious feminists and artists. We found that the ‘risky’ work — by artists and writers who happened to be women, by women artists and writers and by those who didn’t define themselves as artists and writers — had enthusiastic audiences and sold very well, whether it was visual art or printed texts. Within that community- and women-centred context, it was also a given that women who didn’t define themselves as ‘artists’ or ‘writers’ or ‘feminists’ could make powerful work that deserved an audience, not least in the performance art of protest, out on the streets.
Exhibitions were almost always group exhibitions and usually on a theme, like Women & Violence; Lesbiana (the only exhibition open only to women); Mothers; Women & the Environment; Maori Women — it was the puawaitanga, the blossoming time, as the public voices of Maori sovereignty increased in volume, a sovereignty that included stories and images.
We had close relationships with other feminist groups, some of whom had offices nearby and there were many associated programmes where the themes were explored among women who weren’t exhibitors and/or art-related skills were shared. The collectives sustained all this but generous artists who were co-ordinators and therefore didn’t have time to do their own work did most of the demanding day-to-day work. Those women contributed to the ‘differently’ by introducing a diversity of images and mediums and views and performances within a single space and encouraging — and benefiting from — wide-ranging discussion about them. The artist as curator. The artist in service of other artists. The artist as creator and sustainer of community, in deep — and often conflicted — engagement with audience and community, always someone in the gallery to welcome and provide information and support.
Sometimes the work was understood as ‘transgressive’ or ‘subversive’. Sometimes it was a hard-won expression of painful experience about which there had until then been silence or invisibility. Sometimes it was a quiet, simple statement of things-as-they-are, often unseen or unheard outside the domestic sphere. Sometimes it was a spontaneous performance. Often it was experimental.
From this background, I think that ‘differently’ is unpredictable and often expressed most effectively when it is explored among women, where ‘differently’ is ‘normal’ and welcomed, appreciated and reinforced. And as I reflected on women’s film funds of the past and read the list of films made by the Sydney Women’s Film Unit in 1984 and watched one of them, Jane Campion’s nuanced short After Hours, I didn’t change my mind.
This is the Women’s Gallery’s response in 1980 to ‘Why a women’s gallery?’ as it worked towards ‘differently’ and a new perspective; perhaps it has some relevance to how these terms are used today and to ‘Why a women’s film fund?’–
Women artists have been seen to have been in the minority throughout history. Men have defined the human experience through their art and women have often felt excluded. Men have also defined the female experience — we have see ourselves through men’s eyes, whether it be the famous female characters of literature, the celebration of the virgin mother in our religion or the female nudes painted by men throughout history.
Art must express the whole person, but all too often women, in suppressing their femaleness, fail to express their wholeness.
When we undertake the task of breaking out of the images men have presented to us and exploring our exclusively female experience, then we become vulnerable. We uncover private and previously unexpressed areas of ourselves. We lack a positive tradition to encourage and confirm us in what we see. There are few women artists to endorse our new vision. The only tradition we have to draw on is one where women have been suppressed by a predominantly male culture.
This means that we need to withdraw and gain confirmation from each other before we are ready to announce our insights to the ‘outside world’ i.e. our culture, which, despite the changes that have taken place, is still undoubtedly male dominated.
Hence at certain key moments men may be excluded from some event, not out of spite (as some would have it), but because we need to draw on the special advantages of being exclusively among women. An all women gathering makes the audience participants and includes everyone in our event. This separatism is not an end in itself, it is simply part of a process. The process is one of self-discovery, of building our traditions by going back to the roots of our experience.
In the end we hope to redefine not only what is female but what is the human experience.
Of course, this manifesto failed to take into account the differences among women. Many collective members’ and visitors’ ‘female’ experience, expression of ‘wholeness’, self-discovery and self-determination could not be safely explored or fully supported at the Women’s Gallery. From what I’ve read and what I know of other women-run frameworks of the time, including the feminist film groups, this was often the case. From the beginning there were tensions within our collectives of mostly Pākehā women in their 20s and 30s. Some of these were between lesbians and straight women, as noted by Tilly Lloyd–
I remember controversies at the Women’s Gallery, in particular that we felt the Gallery was very heterosexual, and that the heterosexual women found it very lesbian. I remember too having talks about where women’s art might actually intersect with women’s art– is it possible to name a place…and say this is what the female artists and the lesbian artists share together no matter what.
There were similar tensions between mothers and ‘child-free’ women artists and writers; between artists who primarily wanted a career that matched those of well-known men and between artists who wanted primarily to explore ‘female difference’. Later there were tensions between Māori and Pākehā collective members.
Run by volunteers, who sometimes shared income from government work schemes, the gallery folded after four years: it became too hard to sustain. But being among those women nourished me and enlightened me, introduced me to writers like those I listed in the section about the feminist film groups, to ideas and images and stories I’d never have otherwise heard. It taught me that conflict is normal. It taught me to ask ‘Who benefits?’ every time. It taught me lots about new perspectives, difference and the obstacles that faced women who wanted to engage with women’s knowledge bases and women’s models of storytelling.
Twenty-five years later New Zealand’s International Institute of Modern Letters provided a contrast, a rich experience that did not highlight women’s knowledge bases or women’s story models, did not nurture the kind of new perspective that Anna Serner refers to.
The Institute of Modern Letters — founded by Bill Manhire — is arguably the institution primarily responsible for the present and globally unique gender equality in New Zealand literature, through its welcome to women students, through its associated publisher Victoria University Press — which has often taken the first books of graduates, thus providing a bridge for them to a ‘career’ — and through its advocacy for its students and graduates, women and men (fortunately in a generation where, as often hasn’t happened in the past — and also demonstrated in the male/female co-writing and -directing stats — the work of women writers and artists and directors whose domestic partners are also artists, writers or directors is often nurtured and celebrated within those relationships). I’m deeply grateful that I studied at the institute for my MA in scriptwriting and for my PhD, with staff and students I love and in a workshop-based structure; and for the skills and many fresh opportunities that the study gave me.
As a ‘writer’, after I got over the culture shock, I was deeply nourished: after years of listening almost exclusively to women and reading almost exclusively women’s writing and being dissatisfied with what I saw onscreen, I learned to appreciate aspects of reading and writing books and movies that I hadn’t appreciated before. But although my unique world view was encouraged at the institute, as was that of every other student I observed there, the teaching and discussion default reference I experienced tended to be to white men writers and to women writers who’ve achieved within western literature (or onscreen). In that context, I realised afterwards, my lens shifted. From what I hear something similar often happens happens during filmmaking training, if only because of the sheer volume of widely disseminated and discussed work that is written and/or directed by white men.
The Institute of Modern Letters’ system works very very well for any woman who wants to achieve as a writer for the page. They (we) adapt brilliantly to the system and reap the rewards, during and after study. For the scriptwriters at the institute (and after film school), without access to a ‘bridge’ like the Victoria University Press, it’s a different story. And some women who study there do — of course — sustain and develop their ‘differently’, against the weight of the default culture. (Images associated with the work of three of them are included below in the final section.)
And however benevolent they may be at various times, all these institution-based endeavours are forever part of the patriarchy; assimilation can come at a cost. Regardless of any bridge, women who choose to train and then achieve as writers and filmmakers face the same issues as those who choose to train for and achieve within bureaucracies, in the legal system, in academia. Unlike feminist film groups or the Women’s Gallery these aren’t places to explore patriarchal language or women’s knowledge bases or women’s story models, unless as a subset of the main inquiry, into white-male-dominated literature, film, law, administration, management.
This is why I argue that because of the cost of filmmaking, it’s likely that films by women — even or especially those with female protagonists — are more likely to get funded, made and distributed if their makers define themselves as ‘writers’ and ‘directors’ and choose to write and direct at the ‘men’s’ end of the spectrum and if their work fits the expectations of a filmmaking tradition that is largely male. And I believe that those whose work presents — or, if funded, would present — a ‘different’ gaze, a new perspective are less likely to be supported.
In addition, some women may struggle with divided loyalties, between their (our) deep hunger to inquire into ideas about a women’s knowledge base or a women’s story model and their (our) equally deep hunger for and satisfaction from affirmation within the dominant storytelling systems. My dual community experiences as outlined, decades apart, create tensions in my responses as a ‘writer’ and an activist practitioner and I can imagine others feel similarly, especially if we want to be accepted as ‘writers’ and ‘directors’ rather than ‘women writers and directors’ or if as ‘women writers and directors’ we don’t want to be perceived as ‘difficult’.
The Pain of Divided Loyalties
It’s vital to identify and support women who prefer to write from a new perspective, ‘differently’, because they and their work may be undervalued and attacked and in some cases lost. Every time our loyalties are divided and we don’t speak up to support these women or to challenge others who belittle or, without justification, underestimate them and their work we share the responsibility for this happening. This section is a plea for sisterhood, for advocacy and support for women’s stories told by women in ways that they (we) determine for ourselves, drawing on whatever genres and influences we choose and with extra support for those whose work doesn’t fit within the dominant paradigm.
Ages ago, I wrote a screenplay with a Queen Bee character who as a decision maker in the film industry advocated relentlessly for Golden Boy directors and belittled women directors. I hope I’ve become more understanding of women like her, often stuck in a situation where they are dependent on men for their income. And I wish I didn’t have to deal with my own divided loyalties, between women in general and writers in general, between writers who are Golden Boys and women whose work fits comfortably with theirs and women who work ‘differently’. These divided loyalties create cognitive, emotional and creative dissonance and sometimes debilitate me. I’ve learned that I’m especially debilitated if I avoid acknowledging my divided loyalties or if I stay silent about my views. Here are two examples.
Patrick Evans’ (no relation) hybrid work Gifted (2010), a kind of docudrama in print, about writer Janet Frame (1924–2004) caused the first. Because of my Institute of Modern Letters training I could appreciate its concept and its skill. But I also read it ‘differently’ within my long experience and study of violence against women. To me, it reads as an obsessive man’s attempt to control the story/ the public image of a powerful woman who kept her distance from him within her lifetime.
Because of my women-only training, Gifted — a work unmediated by the ethical constraints of academic research or biography — recalled my experiences of patterns of behaviours that emotionally violent people use to control others by misrepresenting them. (If you’re reading this from outside New Zealand and saw Man Up, think of the Rory Kennear character, who unfortunately was allowed to dominate that romcom’s last few seconds.)
In particular, Gifted reminded me of how some men assign status and attempt to control the space women inhabit by belittling their ideas, beliefs or capacity and how I explored these ideas in my thesis, in relation to how these patterns of behaviour may be used to hurt women filmmakers. For me, Gifted is a good example of a New Zealand attempt to use mechanisms described by Joanna Russ in her classic How To Suppress Women’s Writing, the ways in which men can assert power over women who write, even once they die. (These mechanisms include but are not limited to– misrepresentation of women writers’ ideas; ignoring them completely; dismissing their work because they write about the ‘wrong’ things; condemning them for writing in the wrong genre; blaming them for what others have deleted from their work; or simply joking about them.)
To me, Gifted demonstrates the ongoing fear of and resistance to powerful women artists and writers who, like Janet Frame, choose to write or behave or direct ‘differently’ or from a new perspective. I also remember Rita and Douglas, Dave Armstrong’s adaptation of artist Rita Angus’ letters to composer Douglas Lilburn. Maybe, these men who write about women artists and writers and their work tend to write about them only when they can bring them into relationship with a man — when I read Jill Trevelyan’s fine biography of Rita Angus I found other aspects of her life and some of her actions much more interesting and dramatic than her relationship with Lilburn. (I await plays about Robin Hyde and Charles Brasch, Robin Hyde and Starkie.)
I worried about being unfair about Gifted. I know that many writers — some of them women — will disagree with me. But I also conjure the face and voice of another woman writer, now dead as well, who was a close friend of Janet Frame: I think Gifted would have horrified her. And after reading and listening to Patrick Evans’ statements about Janet Frame and his relationship with her and her work, after reading what Janet Frame’s biographer wrote about that relationship — and noting his care to provide ‘balance’ — and after reading what one of Janet Frame’s literary trustees wrote about Patrick Evans’ play based on the novel, I decided my perceptions were justified.
And then I read a newspaper report, about a short fiction which some representatives of the literary community condemned as an ‘attack’ on another writer who had died, although the character’s name was not that of the dead writer, so the reference to him was only inferred. And this time the dead writer was a man. After that demonstration of a double standard, another mechanism described by Joanna Russ, I stopped worrying. And it was good for me to be reminded that even though — or, perhaps, because — conditions for New Zealand women writers-for-the-page are so good, some women, ‘differently’ women, aren’t safe. Gifted is a wilful act of colonisation, in contrast to Bill Manhire’s and Quote Unquote’s entirely innocent colonisation of the story of the maintenance of Ursula Bethell’s grave. Thinking about it reminds me of something the late director Merata Mita said in relation to Utu (1984) —
I learned from the process of making Utu that sometimes if you are working from a different value system, and you place a different value on story, on place, on characters whom still have living descendants, who you know really well in your country, that sometimes it’s dangerous to meddle with the truth in history. Because you’re meddling with people’s lives, people who are still living.
Later again, I found Maria Wikse’s excellent Materialisations of a Woman Writer: Investigating Janet Frame’s Biographical Legend which ‘seeks to redress the excessive commitment in scholarship to maintaining, even celebrating, Frame’s reputation as a psychologically disturbed writer’.
There are so many fascinating stories about New Zealand’s other distinguished artists and writers who are now dead and how their lives influenced their work and their work influenced their lives. If he must write about writers and literature I wish wish wish that Patrick Evans would focus on New Zealand’s dead white men writers who were married and usually had children and on their work and their relationships with women and other men. Is there an unwritten law that protects from colonisation the stories of New Zealand heterosexual and bisexual men who wrote or made art but not the stories of single, childless women, or, as also in Gifted and Rita and Douglas, homosexual, childless, men?
(After I finished writing this and opened some emails and clicked through to the cover of a friend’s forthcoming book I saw that Patrick Evans has a new book coming, ‘a hilarious and troubling satire on the making and manipulation of literary fame’ about ‘trustees of the literary trust set up to memorialise New Zealand’s greatest writer’. Given that Janet Frame’s trustees — particularly her niece — have questioned aspects of Gifted I suspect that this new work is partly a Joanna Russ-type joke about them. If so, it’s not funny.
Hell has no fury like a man denied entry to a woman’s shelter shed, I reckon. Unless it’s the fury of a man who squints through the chinks in its back wall, spins an ‘authoritative’ and ‘clever’ report from his limited perspective; and is then challenged about the quality of his story (How dare they question me!?). ‘Marian’, said a stern friend when she read this, ‘Remember Frame’s In The Memorial Room? Take a deep breath.’ ‘I do’, I said. ‘And I have’, I said. ‘Two deep breaths. And I still feel troubled.’)
Fortunately Janet Frame’s own work is stronger than Gifted. But because of double standards and because of fear, the work of women who live, write and direct ‘differently’ or from a new perspective may not reach the screen, unless these women find advocates like the advocates — women and men –that Janet Frame found. Other women in particular may be reluctant to risk making work ‘differently’ or from a new perspective and to risk supporting it, because of the risks that come with providing that support.
I understood more about my divided loyalties and ‘differently’ when late last year Te Ara — the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand published its section on ‘Creative & Intellectual Life’. Someone posted the launch speech of the man who had overall responsibility for Te Ara and I was shocked that when he referred to those who’d contributed to our creative and intellectual life, his list was overwhelmingly male. Yikes, I thought, and went to look at that section of Te Ara. And read all the sub-sections.
When I got to the literature sub-section I rejoiced to see women writers represented in about the same proportion that they are in our gender-equal published and awarded literature. But, although there were women included whose work draws on women’s knowledge bases, with a single exception (Lydia Wevers on fiction) it seemed that the ‘literature’ authors, women and men, apparently unaware of the role of ‘differently’ — or feminism — made their choices according to how well those choices connect to the default white male tradition. This was especially noticeable in the poetry entry, which I was perhaps particularly sensitised to, because an English mate from the international feminist film community had just sent me a collection of poems called Furies: A Poetry Anthology of Women Warriors.
Many of the poems in Furies made me gasp, excited and nourished me. They were written ‘differently’ and presented in a selection where the differences enhanced and amplified one another. I hadn’t read a collection of New Zealand poems that affected me as Furies did for a long long time. And few New Zealand women’s individual poems have affected me so strongly since some of Heather McPherson’s and Keri Hulme’s in the 1980s.
Neither Keri nor Heather — nor Janet Frame — were among the many women poets listed in Te Ara — the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand’s ‘Creative & Intellectual Life’ section and suddenly it made sense: like the poets in Furies, Heather and Keri and Janet are women whose lives and work are made ‘differently’, and this may be one reason they were excluded. (In the poetry entry this failure to affirm work that achieves ‘differently’ extended to genre: for instance, there was no reference to the contributions of ‘differently’ poetry like rap, to poets who write or wrote in Māori, or to poems that are contained in songs, like Syd Melbourne’s.)
I wanted to celebrate the women included and I did. Of course, not every poet could be included in a brief survey, but I was torn as I remembered how Keri’s He Hōhā and Heather’s Theology and a Patchwork Absolute brought me into reading poems with fresh eyes. There was no-one in that Te Ara list who had provided me with the same quality of new perspective in their poems, although I’d often enjoyed reading them and appreciated the skill that shone from many of them. And I thought, aha, this reinforces my fear about what will happen if the NZFC has a gender equity policy: ‘differently’ writers and directors who happen to be women will be excluded.
And then I thought, does it really matter? Do I need to write about my divided loyalties when reading Gifted or, especially, Te Ara? And I thought, yes, because if I have to face the discomfort resolving my love of Golden Boys and their work and my love of women and their work, and my attachment to the work of women who achieve within the default male system and my attachment to the work of women whose work is excluded from that system, there may be others who also worry at the same issues. As women did back in Sydney in the seventies, when they considered as a possible criterion for workshop selection that women ‘have something they want to say on film rather than a desire to build a career’.
I want my grandchildren to have access to better information than Te Ara supplies in its ‘Creative & Intellectual Life’ section. I want also them to have easy access to films that provide a new perspective, that draw on women’s story models and women’s knowledge bases, their ‘differently’-ness. And one way to help ‘differently’ flourish in feature films may be by paying attention to specific work-life practices that help generate it.
The Beauty of Lived Principles
We’re used to ideas about filmmaking models that enhance creativity by providing parameters within which to work: limited budgets(!); the Dogme manifesto; the 48 Hours film competition.
And beyond the childcare and extended family and community imperatives that affect many women’s storytelling (see Tillie Olsen’s Silences for the best-ever exposition of this issue, taking into account how women’s lack of time, money and space limits our ability to write, and the difficulties caused by responsibilities for children, all compounded by the effects of what she calls ‘accidents of birth’ like class and race), there’s a significant life-and-work model that I think has to be taken into account in any discussion of ‘differently’ work that is of high quality.
This is the choice of some women to experiment with life-enhancing new ways of filmmaking, that generate work of high quality and may provide an income but are not primarily oriented to economics. Lydia Lunch expressed one motivation for engaging with this model, in a recent interview–
‘If you’re doing it for the money, you’re not doing art. You’re doing commerce,’ she said. She says that being an artist is not a career choice, but a necessity ‘if your blood boils’.
Or, as Mary Lee Settle said in a Paris Review interview–
Writing is its own act, not its rewards — like the whale is the whale and not its metaphor.
That Sydney Women’s Film Group discussion of selection criteria for a training course also distinguished between the work and its economic benefits when it suggested prioritising ‘people [who] have something that they want to say on film rather than a desire to build a career’.
I’ve written about this before, but think it’s important to refer to it here, especially now that Sophie Hyde has demonstrated a new filmmaking model with the multi-award-winning 52 Tuesdays, produced by working on the project once a week over a year. That wasn’t necessarily any easier than the ‘normal’ way of filmmaking, but it’s a great example of the possibilities for invention of new ways of working that will provide new perspectives. She says —
The benefits of shooting in that way are working with the cast to gently create and reveal their characters. They were able to settle into being those characters on screen in a way that might have been harder (or different) during a 6-week intensive shoot. Another benefit was being able to be with my daughter, a lot. That doesn’t mean it was easy but it does mean I wasn’t working 20 hours a day for 6–8 weeks. The ability to focus on details was also lovely. The challenges are similar. It was hard to come in and out of life so consistently, to find a way to make without the adrenalin. It was like a marathon and there were times where each of us wanted to stop.
Many other women are finding that making webseries helps them not just to establish work/life balance, but to invent a rich life that embraces commitment to an art form.
Two New Zealand women who provide models for practices that are different and beautiful and generate significant bodies of work that I find different and beautiful are visual artists, Dame Robin White (1946-) and Joanna Margaret Paul (1945–2003). This is what Joanna — also an experimental filmmaker and poet — wrote, back in 1976. It’s a manifesto–
As a woman painting is not a job, not even a vocation. It is part of life, subject to the strains, and joys, of domestic life. I cannot paint unless the house is in order. Unless I paint I don’t function well in my domestic roles. Each thing is important. The idea that one sacrifices other values for art is alien to me, and I think to all women whose calling it is to do and be many things. To concentrate all meaning and all energy in a work of art is to leave life dry and banal. I don’t wish to separate the significant and everyday actions but to bring them as close as possible together. It is natural for women to do this; their exercise and their training and their artistry is in daily living. Painting for me as a woman is an ordinary act — about the great meaning in ordinary things. Anonymity pattern utility quietness relatedness.
Until a couple of years ago — I don’t visit art galleries much these days — I’d almost forgotten about Robin White. Then, I was passing through Wellington’s City Gallery and saw her huge huge tapa (bark cloth) works in Kermadec, made in collaboration with Tongan women and particularly with Ruha Fifita. Rangitahua is one of them.
These tapa are known as ngatu in Tonga. I saw a ngatu out of the corner of my eye as I hurried past, went into the space where they covered the walls and had to sit down. They were extraordinary; coming across them without preparation had the profound shock of a sudden death. I had no idea Robin was working with Pasifika women (from Kiribati, Fiji and then from Tonga) and on such a huge scale. The work has stayed with me ever since. Later, I watched a video where Robin spoke about her contribution to Kermadec, about the use of ngatu for narrative purposes and about developing a concept and then taking traditional women’s work into new areas.
When I read avidly about Robin and her work (starting here) and searched for more images I realised that like Joanna she brings the significant and everyday actions as close as possible together, with chance and the unexpected woven into both. Her prolific output, her shifts of medium and responses, reminded me of how prolific Joanna was and how she too shifted medium, from drawing and painting to film and, after one of her daughters died, to publishing poems. Their lives and work appear to have a beautiful integrity and that, I believe, affects the work’s quality.
For Robin as a young woman, teaching brought a move into screen printing, including images of land and buildings and portraits of family and friends. Then children and portraits of children and sometimes their toys. And I remembered that during this period, like Joanna (who was for a time associated with the women’s art movement in Christchurch as well as in Wellington) Robin contributed to Women’s Gallery exhibitions, particularly strongly in Mothers and in one or more of our exhibitions of diaries and artists books; her close attention to daily life seems to continue — as recently as last year, she held an exhibition entitled This is the Day though the title probably had multiple meanings.
Robin, who now lives in New Zealand, began to work with Pasifika women in Kiribati, where she lived for 17 years. Her studio burned down and she started to collaborate with local women, using traditional techniques with them.
When I listened to Robin speak about her latest work, Koe Hala Hangatonu/The Straight Path I was also reminded that she is open about her spiritual practice (Bahá’í) as Joanna was as a Catholic and then a Quaker. For them, I suspect that is another element of the everyday and the significant. This is what Robin said–
That idea of the straight path, is also that idea of… this is the path that we are meant to follow and it’s the right path, it’s the right way to behave, it’s the right way to go about your life and so the whole idea of working collaboratively was part of that message as well.
Robin and her collaborators work in ways that create new perspectives that grow from women’s knowledge bases and a women’s storytelling model. I’d love to see her model used in filmmaking, with which ngatu-making has lots in common. In one report of Koe Hala Hangatonu/The Straight Path Robin explained that–
…the project was making work that, while acknowledging and honouring tradition, explores new themes, and new images… My approach is to see development as a continuum, taking what we have learnt from the past and applying it towards addressing contemporary issues and themes. I want to raise awareness of the potential for the traditional story-telling aspects of ngatu design to be applied within a contemporary and evolving social context.
And there’s more! As in film, each stage in the process of making ngatu takes ‘hours, days, and months of continual work, time that is filled talking, telling stories, and sometimes singing’. Obviously, sometimes there has to be silence during film production. But what would happen if filmmakers chose to integrate the significant and the everyday more fully into those long days? Eating together is already a given. But could they/we open more space for storytelling as we work? And singing?
Although Joanna’s manifesto explicitly refers to women and is therefore arguably part of an authentic and perhaps traditional women’s knowledge base and provides a structure for developing a women’s story model, and although Robin’s recent work engages very closely with a Tongan women’s traditional model, those who engage with a practice that brings significant and everyday actions as close as possible together aren’t limited in their range of mediums or genres or influences. It isn’t a practice based in social realism. As with the filmmaking models referred to, the apparent ‘constraints’ allow freedom to draw on many influences within any project.
For example, although all very grounded in Joanna’s own time and place — a place that was often a version of her kitchen table — her work in a recent exhibition used words from Horace and Sappho in a way that reminded me of Colin McCahon. It included landscapes, a portrait, watercolours influenced by Bonnard, Rita Angus and Margaret Stoddart, drawings and stunning mixed media works.
In Art New Zealand, in 1977, Robin White wrote about her sense of place, in New Zealand and in her art–
My family has been here for many generations — my father’s lineage goes back to the Māori and my mother’s goes back to the first settlers in the Bay of Plenty area. I really do feel this is my country. I’ve got no particular interest in any other artistic heritage and I don’t feel I owe anything to what’s happened in Britain, America, France or Italy.
And Rangitahua reminds me that Robin White had Colin McCahon as a teacher, her portraits and landscapes show New Zealanders Rita Angus’ and Don Binney’s influences. It reminds me of the work of Ralph Hotere, too. It also recalls Ad Reinhardt’s work. And some of her other ngatu and woven works remind me of Andy Warhol’s.
Feminist film groups also drew on diverse influences and genres when they brought significant and everyday actions as close as possible together. Those whose work I’m most familiar with, in Australia, drew on the varied theoretical debates — artistic and feminist — of the day and often made their work within everyday environments where it embraced and was informed by activism they shared with women in the wider community who were also developing their public voices, in other mediums and other contexts.
Voices from the New Zealand women’s art movement affirm the value of this approach, too. Allie Eagle’s written–
I’m very grateful for all those times & processes/ relaxing in non-commercial situations where the focus on artistic production was on the quality of our lives and communication not marked by boundaries of isms and excellence — things that seem to thwart open dialogue & taking risks & inevitably prevent less ‘professional’; women entering into the dialogue. In that context I received generous matronage.
And in an interview, Heather McPherson said–
I wanted to redefine greatness in terms of content and perception of content, and its relative place in our lives. The main thing was that we saw art as artist’s process, it has to arise from a specific focus, and the unmentionables, whether child-care or menstruation, being part of our lives, should be part of our art.
Finally, this model and Sophie Hyde’s model are not just for women with children.
Yes, research shows that women still have the primary responsibility for child care and anecdotal evidence demonstrates that women who make feature films while they have responsibility for children need intensive extended family support, through provision of additional income or of free child care. It also shows that in the United Kingdom only 14% of women working in film have children compared with 74% of women working in other careers. Change is necessary and tested, successful, work models like these may help some women with children. But Joanna and Robin established and developed their practices before they were mothers. And I doubt that members of feminist film groups who brought life and art as close as possible together as they developed their public voices did so because they had responsibilities for children.
I celebrate the beauty of the lived principles of Joanna Paul and Robin White and the feminist film groups and New Zealand’s women’s art movement. I hope they’ll become part of discussions about new perspectives. And I hope for a major retrospective of Robin White’s work, with a big book (calling Cushla Parekowhai!), a film, an Arts Foundation iconship and exhibitions all over the world acknowledging the beauty and integrity of her life and work.
In conclusion, I question Anna Serner’s ‘new perspective’ as an essential element of women’s full participation in NZFC funded feature films. But I long for women-written and -directed features that are created ‘differently’ and provide new perspectives. These may be excluded in an all-programme-embracing gender equity policy at the NZFC with a formal goal of producing as many features made by women as by men which would provide economic benefits. If projects by those who draw on women’s knowledge bases to work ‘differently’ and from a new perspective tend to be perceived as ‘risky’ and struggle to find support, they will need an appropriate community of support that includes visionary advocates and a community that acknowledges the problems of divided loyalties and the need to support different ways of working. For this group alone, a women’s film fund along the lines of He Ara would be ideal. If this is provided, and their work is effectively marketed and distributed I believe it will have a substantial audience. My suggestions for change are based in this belief.
Moving from deficit thinking to achieve gender equity & high quality feature films by women that bring economic benefits
Within an overall commitment to embedding a gender equity throughout its programmes, the New Zealand Film Commission should move right away from deficit thinking, to focus on ideas for projects, on their development (if necessary within a programme based on the He Ara model) on execution and on getting them to appropriate audiences. No more training, mentorships etc unless they’re offering access to very sophisticated level women’s-film experience on international projects outside New Zealand and then only exceptionally– in New Zealand, I believe, women who are serious can get the training and experience they need, in any aspect of filmmaking and to find mentors. I have a long list of how this might be done. As a basis, three essentials–
1. Establish a formal gender equity policy on the Swedish model, with goals and a plan for achieving them that includes consistent reassessment based on hard data; AND
2. Establish a women’s film fund like He Ara, to fund only the development of feature film projects by women who work ‘differently’ and who want to provide a ‘new perspective’: ‘to express authentic female film perspectives… [in a] a diverse range of quality New Zealand films by women through–
- increased development of culturally diverse, outstanding New Zealand women-written and -directed projects and talent;
- utilising [women’s] story models based on a traditional [women’s] knowledge base; and
- supporting those associated with these projects to forge stronger ties with their niche and growing international marketplace AND
3. Establish a three ticks system like the British Film Institute (BFI)’s, that works to ensure on- and off-screen diversity across every single programme it funds. Designed to ‘address diversity in relation to ethnicity, disability, gender, sexual orientation and socio-economic status’, it is led from the top: the BFI is ‘committed to engaging the UK film sector to build consensus around the best ways to approach diversity industry-wide, to develop an action-plan for change right across the UK’s film industry value chain’.
The necessary investment in the film fund initiative would be only a fraction of what’s been spent on the development of men’s features over the last decades and on initiatives that have primarily benefited men who write and direct, like 48 Hours and the New Zealand International Film Festival. Perhaps funding of these could be reduced to reflect the gender disproportionality inherent in their programmes and the money saved applied to a women’s film fund (another — additional — option is to instruct the festival to send a selector to at least one major women’s film festival each year).
4. Then, to achieve both gender equity and features with a new perspective–
A. Consult with — and support — New Zealand screen-oriented programmes where women have consistently participated and achieved: Inspiring Stories; International Institute of Modern Letters and Victoria University Press; New Zealand Film School; New Zealand Writers Guild; Script to Screen; Show Me Shorts; The Outlook for Someday; University of Auckland’s Screen Production Programme. Get representatives of these groups in a room together for a day and brainstorm about the gender and ‘new perspective’ strategies that have worked (and not worked) for them and how and why. (None of my lists are complete, but this one excludes organisations with a direct commercial interest in production, even South Pacific Pictures.)
B. Find out what works for people and organisations outside New Zealand who are working hard to achieve gender equity and new perspectives–
The new producers of women-written and -directed movies: from the people at Tangerine Entertainment to Dede Gardner and Brad Pitt’s Plan B;
The innovative distributors, like the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AAFRM) which has had remarkable success in using established networks to market and distribute feature films for a solace ‘niche’ market; and
The institutional activists: the Sundance Women’s Initiative; the European Women’s Audiovisual network that works closely with European public funders; Women in the Directors Chair (run by the non-profit Creative Women Workshops Association) and in some ways the inheritor of Canadian women’s film activism. Founded in 1997, it is–
…a seriously road-tested, award-winning intensive hands-on modular mentoring initiative specially designed to advance mid-career women screen directors, their careers, and their narrative fiction projects. As of 2015, over 200 WIDC alumnae across Canada have directed 1,000+ hours of award winning screen entertainment, including 37 feature films. WIDC alumnae have created 6 network fiction television series, show running 10+ series.
Like the AFFRM it has been canny in attracting allies: it was–
…Created through an initial collaboration among The Banff Centre, ACTRA and WIFT Vancouver, WIDC receives major funding from Telefilm Canada, and key support from William F White Intl, Panavision Canada, SIM Digital Group, Encore, Deluxe Entertainment Group, North Shore Studios, The Bridge Studios, Vancouver Film Studios, Front Row Insurance, Actra Fraternal Benefit Society, UBCP/ACTRA, IATSE 212, ACTRA Alberta, IATSE 669, Independent Production Fund and the participation of many other industry organizations and individuals, including Canada’s three major international women’s film festivals (St John’s, Toronto and Vancouver), the Whistler Film Festival, unions and guilds across Canada.
C. Build on strengths and available resources to get feature films made.
The most significant strength and resource I can identify in this context is that of women who perform and write and/or produce and/or direct. Some who provided me with some of my best performance experiences over the last year are represented in the three images here.
Internationally there’s Amma Asante, Angelina Jolie, Barbra Streisand, Cate Blanchett, Drew Barrymore, Elizabeth Banks, Jodie Foster, Julie Delpy, Lake Bell, Lupita Nyong’o, Melanie Laurent, Nadine Labaki, Natalie Portman, Sarah Polley, on and on they go.
And there are New Zealand women in the same category. — Aidee Walker, Angela Bloomfield, Anita Ross, April Phillips, Catherine Downes, Chelsie Preston-Crayford, Fiona Samuel, Florence Noble, Ghazaleh Golbakhsh, Jessica Hansell, Jo Randerson, Katie Wolfe, Lorae Parry, Loren Taylor, Lynda Chanwai-Earle, Madeline Sami, Madeline McNamara, Michele Amas, Natalie Medlock, Pinky Agnew, Pip Hall, Rachel House, Rebecca Barnes, Renae Maihi, Rose Matafeo, Sophie Henderson, on and on they go, too.
They’re all talented, trained and experienced. Among them they’ve provided entertainment in a variety of contexts, including standup, street and musical performance as well as theatre, television, webseries and film. So why not further invest in them, collectively?
Invite them for a weekend or week-long workshop with Jane Campion, with generous sidekicks like Briar Grace-Smith, Sima Urale, Lorde; and the Flat3 and the Candle Wasters collectives.
Ask participants to pitch their ideas to Jane Campion and to the others, to give and receive feedback. (Is that film idea really a tv series? Or theatre? Or a webseries? Or a telemovie? Are you thinking about this, or that? Have you thought of…? Who’s the likely audience?) And to support one another to make plans for moving their projects forward. (What problems do you need to solve, aesthetically and practically? What do you need now? What’s your plan? How can I help?) This is one way to replicate the conversation, support and debate/conflict that was crucial for feminist filmmakers, alongside actual and virtual conversations with funders and distributors, white male traditions and men who are also filmmakers.
My writing buddy’s off the road at the mo and I miss her, but over the last few years one of the best things I’ve learned comes from her and other women who act: actors are ideally placed as writers/directors/producers because they tend to have many and often all of these characteristics–
They are highly motivated not only to make films but to make films that provide parts for women;
They are diverse in background and in their approaches to story-telling and entertainment;
They have structure, character, dialogue and genre hardwired through physical and emotional as well as intellectual skill, knowledge and experience (I’m envious of this);
They are community oriented, have clear ideas about what makes development and production experiences work for everyone and have had extensive practice in doing their bit within groups;
They are very very comfortable in workshop situations, so a workshop like the one I’ve suggested would be dynamic, challenging and highly productive, build supportive working relationships among them, nourish them and advance their work as filmmakers and as actors;
They are extraordinarily dedicated and hard-working and tend to be in it for ‘the doing’ of it more than for ‘career’ or ‘money’ so they are fabulously focused — if you doubt this, watch Cate Blanchett’s interview with Anne Summers the other day (where she also refers to issues around women’s public voice and to our work processes being ‘different’);
They are resilient: they’ve learned the hard way to deal with endless disappointments, to problem solve, to survive and thrive;
They are imaginative, open to provocations, experiments, flexible, risk-taking;
They are analytical and enjoy debate;
They are funny and fun, inventive and playful;
They are generous;
They have the courage and endurance of ANZACs and conscientious objectors, of mountaineers and astronauts, of mothers and other carers; and
They are highly aware of audience and totally committed to reaching an audience.
Consistent investment in these women over five years — and in other performers like them whose names I’ve missed today — would be a winner, I reckon. Because they are winners. And some of them will be in an especially strong position to work on features with new perspectives.
D. Amalgamate the New Zealand Film Commission and New Zealand on Air. They already share some things. In this age of media convergence, amalgamation would make it a whole lot easier for women to move between film, television and webseries, instead of being pigeonholed, as sometimes happens now. This happens to men too, but from what I hear this pigeonholing is a sometimes convenient excuse that masks gender prejudice. Amalgamation would also encourage flexibility of ideas around exhibition/ distribution, audience and funding. It would also provide synergies and conserve resources.
E. Lead global development of the niche market for women-written and directed films that present a ‘new perspective’, in New Zealand and internationally, through contributing strongly to the online and real life networks that work towards building audiences for films made by women. This is necessary (see Andrea Arnold, above). It also, I believe, has more potential for economic success than funding individuals to build ‘stronger ties with the international marketplace’. This development might include–
–Consulting with the AFFRM: it uses many of the audience-reaching mechanisms that feminist film groups used in the past, plus skilful use of allies and of social media, with great success;
–Consulting with the newly established, Wales-based Bad Wolf’s owners, Jane Trantner and Julie Gardner, the former BBC executives responsible for Dr Who and much more;
–Consulting with Jill Soloway’s WifeyTV, which aims to ‘to give you a place where you can always go to watch something that’s actually compelling. Complicated. Real. Funny. Sexy. Alive. Like you.’
–Expanding the NZFC’s (and New Zealand on Air’s) online services to provide a rolling, internationally oriented, women’s film festival, with front women (those actors again!) who will discuss their own and other New Zealand women’s films as well as international women’s films and introduce and moderate panels that discuss women’s films made within and outside New Zealand. This would go some way to compensate for the consistent inadequacies of the NZFC-funded New Zealand International Film Festival, in its selections of films by women.
As participants in this proposed festival, alongside directors and writers and producers, why not beam in actors who support women filmmakers and will attract big audiences, like Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren? Why not ask the big women’s festivals, from Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas to nominate films for inclusion? These days, setting up this kind of thing is Not Hard. (And as an ongoing ‘festival’ it would avoid any rights and potential geo-blocking problems?)
This is a modified version of an idea I wrote about in more detail here. It could be a contemporary version of the highly successful distribution and exhibition work of the feminist film groups and would have multiple benefits–
It would promote New Zealand women’s work globally, within an appropriate context;
It would build relationships between women filmmakers and audiences around the world and in New Zealand;
It would bring prestige to New Zealand, as an innovative leader in the newly acknowledged market for films with female protagonists and the developing market for films by women that have a ‘new perspective’;
It would bring to New Zealand many many films that are currently unavailable — just last week I had a twitter exchange with a New Zealand critic who like me is waiting for Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Beyond the Lights — like Andrea Arnold, we miss many women’s films because a. producers invest less in marketing women’s films than men’s; and b. distributors tend to support films with a big marketing budget and haven’t quite caught up with ‘the women’s audience’; and
It would draw attention to and illuminate the issues around ‘new perspective’ and ‘differently’ — this is the only ‘educative’ function that at a national level can only be carried out by the New Zealand Film Commission.
F. Set up a filmmaker-in-residence programme where women filmmakers’ exploration of a ‘differently’ or ‘new perspective’ feature script will be appropriately supported, in a kind of ‘women’s studio’ environment. This could be associated with an academic (Laura Mulvey, anyone?!) who, regardless of discipline, has a sophisticated understanding of difference and a ‘new perspective’ or in a city — in New Zealand or elsewhere — where there’s one or more women writers and directors or a feminist/women’s film community to provide appropriate stimulus and support. (I’ve loved my time as a writer-in-residence online; it’s enriched me and my work in a million ways, but residence-in-the-flesh would be highly beneficial for others, I reckon.)
G. Child care. Not all mothers choose integrated models like those Sophie Hyde has experimented with and Joanna Paul engaged with and Robin White engages with still. Nor should they have to. So why not lead the way internationally on this issue too? Isn’t it just another contribution to the wellbeing of film workers, like the provision of food? Why not support the inclusion of child care as a welcome-to-New-Zealand budget line? Expand the BFI three ticks policy to a four tick policy so that if productions — including international productions — provide child care they get additional or preferential funding or tax benefits? This would also benefit men working in the industry.
H. Partnerships and non-profits. These are obvious ways both to increase the quality and volume of support for films by women and to support filmmaker-in-residences etc. Look at the success of AFFRM, Women in the Directors Chair and others. Consider the marketing campaign for Selma, where black businesses bought tickets for many thousands of teenagers to see the movie for free. Women’s Tales continues to work for Miu Miu (this year at the Venice Film Festival, they launch one from Agnès Varda!). My experience has been that many professional women — including those who work with brands — love films and would like to see more by and about women. Why not involve people like Audette Exel and Victoria Ransom in exploring these possibilities?
Last week, the NZFC announced the winner of the first JC CineFem Scholarship, initiated by Jane Campion as part of its gender programme. Cinematographer Maria-Ines Manchego, selected from twenty-five applicants, will use the scholarship for her second year’s study at the the prestigious two-year Masters in Cinematography programme at the American Film Institute. As well, Jane Campion has offered Maria-Ines an intern role on an upcoming production. When I thought about this and some screenplays I’ve read recently, I returned to that list of goals based on the Te Ara framework–
- increased development of culturally diverse, outstanding New Zealand projects and talent;
- utilising [women’s] story models based on a traditional [women’s] knowledge base; and
- [women] screen professionals forging stronger ties with the international marketplace.
Would it be possible to provide a bridge to feature films for women who are ‘differently’ masters graduates in directing and/or screenwriting, through a prestigious two-year programme? One that’s modelled on Film.Factory but based somewhere where infrastructure is well-established — like the Australian Film, Television & Radio School (which seems particularly appropriate because of its history)? At the moment, these women are less likely to find somewhere to go with their thesis projects than women who write and direct like men.
Could this programme’s participants spend those two years further developing and making and marketing and distributing a feature film each, helping each other as well as doing their own work, as the women did in the feminist film groups? Working together within an institution, on scholarships, would provide them with a (diverse) community of mutual support and stimulation and an income, as well as the benefits of being able to draw on institutional resources, including advocates. The programme would create a significant body of explicitly different work by women, which is much needed. And if it included students from places like Africa, Asia and Canada, it would also help everyone involved to build stronger international ties.
Whew. I’m glad to be finished. And if you got this far, you’re probably going Whew, too. Thank you for persisting.
Please, do let me know what you don’t get, what isn’t clear to you.What you disagree with. What you wonder about. If you think I’ve been mean-spirited. If I’ve got my facts wrong (or I’ve misspelled something because of the predictive text on this computer: I can’t find how to turn it off). And best of all, I’d love to know of your ideas for getting it right this time. For making sure that when it comes to public funding, it is equal. I’m resigned to getting most of my feedback via conversations direct messages and email. But it would be fabulous if some of you commented publicly.
And especially fabulous if lots of Australasian women responded with vigour to the suggestions of producer Monica Davidson. Here they are again–
Australian women haven’t been expected to be ladylike which has given us a great deal of freedom. Ladylike is boring and if there’s any expectation of being ladylike then at least Australian women are, from a broad society point of view, allowed to be loud, robust, energetic, powerful people. We don’t have to sit around and drink tea and wait for someone to ask us to dance…
If fifty percent of Australian features were written, directed and produced by women, can you imagine what that landscape would look like? I think there are some dinosaurs in the works who would probably be very, very frightened of what that world would look like. I can’t wait to see it. I want to be in that world. I want to do some dinosaur frightening.
If dinosaur-frightening is necessary, let’s do it, as a strand of the Activist Complex Female Protagonist. But most of all let’s work out how best to tell our diverse stories as feature films that are supported with public money, as often as those made by men are.
DVD cover, Jeni Thornley’s Maidens 1978
NOTE I have amended this since publication and may continue to make changes. My warm thanks to all those who’ve sent me responses, some of it new information. Peer review is a beautiful thing.
A Women’s Picture Book: 25 Women Artists of Aotearoa New Zealand (1988) edited by Marian Evans, Bridie Lonie and Tilly Lloyd
Don’t Shoot Darling! Women’s Independent Filmmaking in Australia (1987) edited by Annette Blonski, Barbara Creed & Freda Freiberg (especially the Introductory Notes, the chapters by Anna Grieve, Annette Blonski and Margot Lethlean, Jeni Thornley, Nicolette Freeman)
Judy McGregor, Sylvia Bell, Margaret Wilson (2015) Fault Lines: Human Rights in New Zealand
Furies: A Poetry Anthology of Women Warriors (2014) edited by Eve Lacey
Gendering the Nation: Canadian Women’s Cinema (1999) edited by Kay Armatage, Kass Banning, Brenda Longfellow, Janine Marchessault (especially the introduction and Elizabeth Anderson’s chapter on Studio D)
Jan Chapman (2002) ‘Some Significant Women in Australian Film — A Celebration and a Cautionary Tale’ Longford Lyell Lecture
Joanna Russ (1983) How to Suppress Women’s Writing
Linda Seger (1996) When Women Call the Shots: The Developing Power and Influence of Women in Television and Film.
Loma Scarles (1975) ‘Women’s Workshop films’ Refractory Girl 8 33–37 (I haven’t read this, only seen it quoted in Mary Tomsic’s article. But I want to. Why isn’t it online?)
Marian Evans (2009) Development: Opening Space for New Zealand Women’s Writing in Feature Films? (with a bibliography that includes publications on New Zealand women’s filmmaking)
Mary Tomsic (2007) ‘We will invent ourselves, the age of the new image is at hand’ Australian Feminist Studies DOI 10.1080/08164640701364679
Tillie Olsen. (1962) Silences
Women Filmmakers: Refocusing (2003) edited by Jacqueline Levitin, Judith Plessis & Valerie Raoul. Routledge (especially the chapters by Diane Bergess on Studio D and Nicole Giguère on Vidéo Femmes)
Womenvision: Women and the Moving Image in Australia (2003) edited by Lisa French
kkJuly 26, 2015 at 5:26 AM
Brava, Marian! I feel inspired to start a feminist film group of writers, directors and actors here in Maine. I’ve contemplated it in the past … considered starting a chapter of Film Fatales but sadly, I fear it would only consist of Betsy and me. Even tho there are a few women other than us working here, they don’t seem at all willing to frighten the dinosaurs.
wellywood womanJuly 26, 2015 at 2:59 PM
Thank you, Kate. I don’t know U.S. distances very well, but I wonder if a mostly online group that includes women in neighbouring states might be an option? Even having regular online chats and getting to know each other and then meeting up say a couple of times a year might be good? It might even be possible to plan a short-film-for-fun where you met up for a weekend for a shoot and some time eating (and singing!?) together. I find I’m thoroughly nourished by an annual visit with friends, where there’s a project *and* an opportunity for us to engage with satisfying in-the-flesh convos that aren’t possible in the same way online or on the phone.