NZ Update #11.1– The Women Who Do It
This is the first of two posts about gender equity in the allocation of Aotearoa New Zealand (AotearoaNZ)’s taxpayer funds to screen-based fictions. After eleven years of learning from many others engaged with this issue, here and around the world, I argue that the agencies responsible for investing taxpayer funds must acknowledge that women writers’ and directors’ low participation in feature filmmaking and television drama is due to systemic and enduring advantages for men who write and direct; and that it is not women’s ‘fault’. Because of their systemic flaws, the agencies concerned should complement their collection and use of ‘diversity’ data with comprehensive gender equity policies and best practices, instead of urging women to enter their ‘pipelines’ in larger numbers and providing piecemeal programmes designed to ‘upskill’ women.
I propose that new gender equity policies and practices formally recognise that many diverse and skilled AotearoaNZ women writers and directors already produce accomplished and intersectional work that often reaches a global audience; embed explicit gender equity principles throughout the pipelines to taxpayer-funded feature filmmaking and television drama, including any decision-making devolved to organisations (e.g. guilds, production houses) and individuals (e.g. assessors); and acknowledge (as has, for instance, Telefilm Canada) that it’s essential to prioritise gender parity in director and screenwriter roles.
I focus primarily on the the New Zealand Film Commission’s (NZFC) gender policies and practices but also refer to New Zealand on Air (NZOA) which funds television and digital programmes, and the state-owned TVNZ which commissions television programmes, because it’s now problematic to isolate ‘cinema’ from other forms of creation and distribution. (If you doubt this reality, consider how in Wellington we’ve been able to binge-watch all of Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake: China Girl on screens that range in size from the huge Embassy Theatre screen to the screens on our phones. I marvel that my opportunities to consume screen stories has been revolutionised, and that before I sleep, I can hold a book and read text or hold a tablet and read/watch YouTube or VOD, *and* can re-play bits of what I’ve watched, just as I often re-read pages in books.)
This first part provides the background and highlights Women Who Do It, some writers and directors who work in short-form series.
#11.2 will explore some ‘pipeline’ decision-making issues and provide some concrete suggestions for addressing them, with particular reference to the Swedish Film Institute’s policies and practices.
The Grim Reality
In February, I read the NZFC Annual Report for the year ending 30 June 2016. The report showed that for the first time in seven years the NZFC offered, on behalf of the taxpayer, well over 50% of its conditional production funding for narrative (fictional) features to projects that women wrote/co-wrote and/or directed/co-directed. Women writers’ and directors’ participation in applications for development funding were up too. Best of all, the new chair of the NZFC Board had made a statement that acknowledged our gender issues and was proud that the NZFC had taken the first steps to address them. I concluded that the NZFC’s gender policy, established in 2015, was getting results, with its commitment to gathering and providing gender-based statistics, to investment in ‘talent development’ to identifying and engaging with women filmmakers; and to an annual scholarship.
But my optimism was misplaced. In the year ending this June, all eight of the NZFC’s offers of conditional production funding went to narrative features that had men as directors. Of the thirteen writers attached to the eight projects, ten were men and three were women. Just one project was written by a woman without a man as a co-writer: Rochelle Bright wrote Daffodils, an adaptation of her highly successful stage play. (Women documentarians as usual fared better: they directed two of the six the documentaries offered production funding; and co-directed a third one.)
So, are we back at the beginning, facing another seven years without writer/director gender equity in NZFC investment in narrative feature films?
Maybe not, because the NZFC is consulting with the guilds — in AotearoaNZ they’re all funded by the NZFC — and considering its options for gender-based initiatives so that more women writers and directors travel that magic pipeline to feature films.
But this consultation seems to reanimate the untenable idea that it’s women’s fault their/our work isn’t funded because they/we don’t participate. (It’s a bit clumsy, but where necessary I use ‘their/our’ to acknowledge my own interests as a woman consumer who occasionally makes films; this isn’t an academic’s post.)
Ever since the NZFC’s gender policy was established, I’ve heard slogans like ‘Do It’, used in attempts to persuade women writers and directors to participate in various NZFC initiatives, and more recently I’ve heard institutional endorsement of ‘rattling women’s cages’ so that they/we will participate more enthusiastically in NZFC-funded programmes. Nothing wrong with ‘Do It’ in general, it can be encouraging to hear. But, with respect, it often isn’t helpful to encourage women to engage with a system where, to quote Amanda Cole’s excellent What’s Wrong With This Picture?; Directors and Gender Inequality in the Canadian Screen-Based Production Industry, prepared for the Canadian Unions for Equality on Screen, ‘bias is filtered through the decision-making capacities of a complex terrain of industry gatekeepers’, where there is no formal commitment to investing equally in projects with women and men attached as writers and directors, where the established gender equity policy is patchy and the culture is aligned to men’s ways of working. As Amanda states (her emphases)–
‘Key to understanding the issue of gender inequality is an analysis not just of discrimination against women, but of systemic advantage for men. Gender inequality in the film and television production industry is a systemic problem that affects women. Nonetheless, as [her] body of research clearly shows, the issue is not one created by women. Consequently, solutions to an issue of considerable economic and social significance require an industry-wide effort.’
The idea that women’s low participation in a system that advantages men is women’s fault and women are in some way deficient often generates an emphasis, as at the NZFC, on ‘talent development’ for women. I’m whole-heartedly in support of the view an American woman tweeted not long ago–
(The thread of replies is well worth a look.)
But… But… I can hear you say. If women upskill, if they/we get more experience, their/our work will be stronger, they’ll/we’ll be less affected by the systemic advantage for men and they’ll/we’ll apply more often, succeed more often and travel the magic pipeline. I disagree, and not just because of the systemic discrimination. I disagree because there’s also robust evidence — see below — that there are already many Women Who Do It here in AotearoaNZ, screenwriters and directors who do it very well, often outside the taxpayer-funded systems and sometimes in spite of them.
NZOA’s latest Diversity Report illuminates gender equity problems in its investments, too. At first reading, there are some hopeful signs. But although the report records that the proportion of women writers and researchers attached to projects that NZOA invested in grew by 13%, to 51%, I later learned that even though 62% of the producers of ‘scripted’ projects — drama and comedy — were women (down from 68% in 2016), the proportion of women writers attached to these projects decreased 7% from 2016, to only 37% (43% in the few drama projects funded for development). The proportion of women directors of drama decreased by 1% to 10%; the far higher proportion of writers perhaps reflects the presence of women showrunners, who write and produce.
Given these realities, is it time for the NZFC and NZOA to Do It themselves? To rattle their own cages, emulate other taxpayer-funded screen agencies around the world and replace their pipelines with new ones that embody gender equity and other kinds of inclusion throughout their fabric?
I reckon it is. Otherwise we’re stuck with beliefs and practices that rely on misrepresentation of facts and misattribution of fault. To state that it’s women’s fault and they/we must change what they/we do, when it’s actually the system’s fault, uncomfortably echoes other common and inaccurate statements within the continuum of violence against women, like ‘If women don’t want to get raped/beaten/killed/silenced they should … [e.g. dress modestly; be careful what they say and how they say it]’. I’m not exaggerating here, basing this assertion on ideas from Joanna Russ’s classic How To Suppress Women’s Writing; and familiarity with patterns of damaging behaviour that don’t include physical violence, as acknowledged for instance in our human rights legislation and our family violence legislation.
The conditions in AotearoaNZ for women who write and direct for the screen are not unique. Slated has just published one of its Filmonomics pieces, where it debunks the myth that ‘there’s not enough of a pipeline of qualified female directors’ in the States. These are Slated’s findings–
‘For every female studio director hired, there were 7 female candidates not hired, compared to 1 in 3 for male directors. Men are hired 2.75 times as often as women, taking relative talent pool sizes into account.’
These are Slated’s conclusions–
‘The industry needs to do a far better job of cultivating new and existing female directing talent. It can easily be argued that 2017’s lackluster box office performance [also true in AotearoaNZ, especially for most of our taxpayer-funded features] is in part a result of the industry’s collective cognitive biases coming home to roost. Betting on more female directors isn’t increased risk but smart financial and creative diversification that will increase the industry’s resilience. It’s time for the studios [and the taxpayer funds] to put their money where their mouths are.’
Often I hear that women filmmakers should be more resilient so it’s great to see Slated’s reference to the need to increase resilience in the industry, instead.
The Women Who Do It
There are (of course) some Women Who Do It who write and direct entirely within taxpayer-funded agencies, many of them included in NZ Update #4: Writers & Directors A-Z. Others who make features, often with female protagonists, have little or no involvement with those agencies. Andrea Bosshard for instance. Rose Goldthorp. Bea Joblin. But Women Who Do It are most likely to create fictional short-form series and these are mostly web-series for online distribution. (Documentary web-series are not considered here.) Collectively, over the last couple of years, the combined screentime of women’s web-series has probably matched the combined screentime of all the features that the NZFC has funded. Easily. NZOA, unlike the NZFC, has a digital fund and has supported some of these for production — typically $100,000 per series. But NZOA says it ‘cannot easily extract fictional web-series as a digital data category [and] even if we could, the data sets each year would be very small’, so it’s reasonable to infer that in the overall scheme of its funding allocations NZOA’s investment in web-series is small.
The achievement of Women Who Do It in web-series could be understood as secondary to ‘serious’ film and television drama. But I believe that these series are central to the development of women’s storytelling within AotearoaNZ and for the world. I’m inspired by the ideas they explore, the worlds they create and the stories they tell; and impressed that from this small country their creators develop global audiences, both online and at festivals, where they regularly win awards. In general, the web-series experiment with female protagonism and with intersectional representation. They are almost always entertaining, often very funny and usually have high production values (just once I’ve been unable to catch a key punchline). The Women Who Do It’s commitment to these short-form series, and their achievement, is especially remarkable because as women they are typically time poor and have limited financial resources.
Some women make web-series and develop short and feature films with the NZFC. Others make web-series as a step towards participating in the international trend of highly successful long-form series by and about women and because, as one of the Women Who Do It told me, ‘it is satisfying — the characters and story arcs can be more creative with time to play with them, and TV stations [and other commercial platforms] do your marketing for you. And you are employed over a longer period of time’.
And the Women Who Do It develop and often produce their own web-series as multi-hyphenates; their individual roles shift to and from producer, writer, director, actor, publicist, though there are also some outstanding web-series producers-only like Robin Murphy (Pot Luck) and Kerry Warkia (who executive produces for Flat3 Productions, though she started as an actor and — as Brown Sugar Apple Grunt with her husband Kiel McNaughton — was a writer as well as producer on the web-series Nia’s Extraordinary Life; and producer of Waru, just screened at the Toronto International Film Festival).
The women who write and direct short-form series don’t come from nowhere: the women of AotearoaNZ have always shone in short-form artistic expression, starting — it seems to me from my limited perspective as a Pākehā, a tauiwi — with indigenous short-forms, honed over centuries and forever evolving. For example, Māori women excel at the various forms of waiata and I believe that the karanga — the opening, formal call and response that Māori women give when groups meet, usually on a marae though also in many other places (I’ve never forgotten Irihapeti Ramsden’s and Miriama Evans’s at London’s Guildhall, when we accepted Keri Hulme’s Booker Prize on her behalf) — is among its many qualities also an art form. Like a fine poem or painting a karanga evokes a visceral response: it opens my heart, connects me to people who are with us and not with us, with time and with place and with purpose; and reminds me to pay attention, to think and act as well as I can.
Post-colonisation we also have the ephemeral short-form arts of letter-, journal-, and diary-writing (loving the just-published He Reo Wāhine: Māori Women’s Voices in Colonial New Zealand by Lachy Patterson and Angela Wanhalla) and the short story brilliance of Katherine Mansfield, Janet Frame, Patricia Grace and many others. We have extraordinary practitioners of short-form storytelling in children’s picture books: Katarina Mataira, Margaret Mahy, Joy Cowley, Patricia Grace again, Robyn Kahukiwa and others. We have poets: five of our eleven poets laureate have been women. Women have always done well in taxpayer-funded short filmmaking and our participation in the last decade or so has been quite high; the NZFC’s own research — a little while ago — records that when women directors make taxpayer-funded short films our work is more likely than men’s to be screened at A-list international film festivals. Women wrote and directed four of the six finalists in New Zealand’s Best Shorts competition at the New Zealand International Film Festival this year and three last year; this year two finalists, one of them the overall winner, made their films as students, highlighting — for me anyway — how digital natives’ participation in screen storytelling is democratising filmmaking at every level.
And serial short films aren’t new here. For instance, Joanna Margaret Paul’s short films from the 70s are a serial exploration of ideas that she also examined in series of paintings and poems; they regularly screen internationally. Today, women’s engagement with short film series appears to be growing. Over the last few weeks I’ve heard of a sequel to one successful short film from a few years back; and at the end of the latest 48Hours competition, Becca Barnes — lead writer at Power Rangers — reported that Squidwig, her long-standing and mixed-gender group, where she co-writes and directs, had made two entries that relate to their entry from last year: ‘Squidwig and Squidwig 2: Electric Boogaloo got both our films in on time — and they’re BOTH sequels to last year’s film. It’s a trilogy!’
Then there are two unique series, Waru and Melodrama. They fit within other conceptual frameworks, but I think they’re also an important part of any consideration of short-form series.
Waru is a new feature film that debuted at the New Zealand International Film Festival, just screened at Toronto, will open imagineNATIVE and will be released in AotearoaNZ cinemas soon. It’s structured as an inter-related series of eight single-shot and self-contained short films with Māori women at the centre, made by nine Māori women writers and directors, two of them responsible for each ‘episode’, each one shot in a single day. Waru explores interventions associated with the violent death of a child and, through this, the nexus between the effects of colonisation on a single community and the community’s diverse and complex female protagonists. It’s breathtaking.
The screening I went to opened with karanga and I experienced the film itself as karanga too, eight powerful and uninterrupted calls and responses that left me fully open and committed to a national conversation about violence towards children; and wondering if Waru is a response to Merata Mita’s call in her last film, Saving Grace, also about child abuse. Nearly 30 years after the most recent Māori woman-written- and -directed feature, Merata Mita’s Mauri, Waru marks a turning point, the very best kind of turning point because it shows, instead of a solitary, exceptional Māori-woman-writer-and-director for today, a representative cohort of the many contemporary Māori women qualified to write and direct episodic television and long cinematic fictions. As one of Waru’s writer-directors, Katie Wolfe, said in a Radio New Zealand interview the other day–
‘Before Waru was made, when it was pitched as an idea, someone quipped “there wouldn’t be eight Māori women in this country that could helm a feature film”, which was just crazy because the women who helmed this feature film were incredibly experienced.’
I think that Waru, funded by the NZFC — among others — also authoritatively signals that it’s time for the NZFC to take short-form series seriously, to make strenuous efforts to find ways of supporting them as well as single short films; and to work with NZOA to incentivise the women who write and direct them to make features and to crossover to making television series.
For me, Ella Yelich-O’Connor’s — Lorde’s — Melodrama performances and music videos are also collectively a short-form series, a multi-layered narrative about being a woman and being an artist, where she plays with both meanings of melodrama, as ‘a sensational dramatic piece with exaggerated characters and exciting events intended to appeal to the emotions and a play with songs and orchestral music accompanying the action’. The series, as I view it, includes all her available-online live performances as Lorde, in studios and in concert; and formal videos-made-as-music-videos. And although Ella isn’t formally credited as writer-director I have no doubt that she is the primary creator and co-ordinator and collaborator behind every Melodrama episode.
This ongoing series gives me a ‘media convergence’ delight very like my delight when I watched National Theatre Live films for the first time, down the road at the Lighthouse Cinema. But I watch Ella’s work on my iPad, in bed. As a woman from another generation, with a third generation between us, the delight began when I saw her karaoke Green Light performance at the Billboard Music Awards — now gone from the internet as a complete performance — and enjoyed its lovely touches, like the gum-chewing bar patron watching with detached amusement. I hear Liability as an anthem for women artists of all kinds, and when Lorde performed it on Saturday Night Live in a flowing white dress and head dress I recalled Jane Zusters’ classic image, Portrait of a Woman Marrying Herself. (And, weeks after I finished this I found a clip of Marianne Faithfull singing I Got You Babe with David Bowie and thought Oh! maybe that was a visual influence, too.)
Melodrama’s formal music videos don’t always appeal to me, but I wouldn’t miss one of them, because there’s always something fresh that extends the work as a whole, like the play with the lightbulb in Perfect Places and Lorde’s delicate keyboard intervention as she sits alongside Jack Antonoff on Writer in the Dark, accompanied by a four-woman string quartet.
Now to the web-series. It’s impossible to keep up with them all but here are some. The first three involve writers and directors whose other work is part of the NZFC’s feature pipeline.
Some Web-Series Examples
Flat3 Productions’ three series are Flat3 and Friday Night Bites and Fong Shui Advice & Insight, made with some funding from NZOA: watch them all here. The whole team — Roseanne Liang, Ally Xue, JJ Fong and Perlina Lau — storyboards together, with Roseanne as primary writer-director, although sometimes guest writers or directors contribute. Roseanne also co-wrote and directed the NZFC-funded rom-com My Wedding & Other Secrets, won this year’s Best Short Film Audience Award for her NZFC-funded Do No Harm which tells the backstory of one of the characters in her feature in development, Black Lotus; and recently qualified for consideration for an Academy Award. The group describes the Flat3 productions as ‘packed full of pop culture, cussing and awks-as situations. All smothered in a rich New Zealand accent and garnished with a light grating of intersectional f-word. You know you want it’. (Yes, we do!)
Jessica Hansell, Coco Solid, ‘musician, writer, artist and philosoflygirl’, writes and appears in the amazing Only in Aotearoa.
She wrote and co-directed the Aroha Bridge web-series, an ‘animated snapshot of the multicultural melting pot that is Aotearoa’ that evolved from her comic strip turned animated short, Hook Ups, and was funded by NZOA. Women & Hollywood described Aroha Bridge like this–
‘Let’s say you combined the family dynamics of Transparent, the way Key & Peele dissects the myriad expressions of race, and the world-building of Orange is the New Black. The result still wouldn’t be as interesting and multi-faceted as Aroha Bridge … Aroha Bridge is that rare series that has a defined point-of-view, a balance of specific and universal humor, and the advantage of just being entertaining’. Jessica also has an NZFC-funded feature in development.
Actor and writer Shoshana McCallum and actor-writer-director Aidee Walker have created Stand Up Girl, about a sex worker and comedian, written and played by Shoshana, directed by Aidee and inspired by Lucy Roche, a stand-up comic and sex worker Shoshana saw perform.
According to one report, Lucy’s set sparked ‘a really interesting discussion’ among Shoshana’s friends after the show– ‘As feminists, we were on board, but as people … where do you stand? It was confronting, and weird, and when I found out she was a sex worker, I was surprised … it came from that really.’
Shoshana wrote the series with Lucy’s ‘blessing’ and after some further research. I watched all the Stand Up Girl episodes in one go and found it a more nuanced inquiry into the world of sex work than China Girl: Top of the Lake.
Aidee Walker has written and directed four short films and she too is engaged with the NZFC system. Her Friday Tigers won Best Short Film at the New Zealand International Film Festival in 2013. In 2015, she was the Directors & Editors Guild of NZ (DEGNZ)’s TV drama director attachment to SPP’s Westside 2 television series and last year she was one of ten women selected for the DEGNZ’s inaugural Women Filmmakers Incubator.
There’s The Candle Wasters, too, who made their first series while in high school–
‘…four young women (and a token dude) from New Zealand, who create fierce, funny, feminist web-series. We started in 2014 with Nothing Much To Do, inspired by Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, and have gone on to create Lovely Little Losers and Bright Summer Night.’
Their series have had over 5 million views on YouTube, NZOA has funded them several times and they now also have funding through YouTube’s Skip Ahead initiative. Their Happy Playland is just out, set in a children’s playground where one of the characters, an aspiring actress works before it is closed down. Like all great stories, she also falls in love. In a recent feature, the collective said of Happy Playland– ‘We wanted women, we wanted a lesbian love story. All our other series had background lesbians…We had all these elements, like a character with anxiety, which we wanted to include’.
NZOA has also funded their Tragicomic, on its way.
And there’s the brilliant lesbian series Pot Luck, written and directed by Ness Simons, with its worldwide audience of more than 2 million, such a pleasure to watch. Its much-anticipated second, NZOA-funded, season is in post-production.
Baby Mama’s Club, a comedy drama written and directed by Hanelle Harris, was ‘born out of a desire to see authentic representation of Māori and Polynesian women on screen … just being themselves … sassy and fun, sexy and fierce’ and was funded by NZOA at the end of 2016.
It began with a fictional Facebook post where a woman appealed for help in finding ‘Johnny’ the father of her unborn child; the post received a huge response. Hanelle says, in a video about the experiment, that she and her collaborators– ‘… wanted to explore the very real themes that we’re looking at in our project which includes what it is to be a woman, to be brown, to be young, to be a mother in New Zealand today. We really wanted to challenge and expose some of the judgement and the misconceptions we feel exist around these issues’.
And there’s Maha Albadrawi and Lucy Zee’s superb So This Happened, real stories of harassment, as told by those who have experienced them, fictionalised through being told through animation and available on demand at TVNZ.
Bea Joblin is a fine example of a witty, thoughtful, digital native, beginning with The Hutt Valley Dream Project, moving on to CNT Live, ‘the show that talks about what matters to women, where the only thing missing is yoU!’. I love it, for example this episode.
Bea also has a feature in post-production, Births, Deaths & Marriages, already with lots of behind-the-scenes episodes here.
Most recently there’s the charming Oddly Even, the pilot written and directed by Ashleigh Reid and Isla Macleod, that won TVNZ’s New Blood competition.
Prolific screenwriter Tanya Wheeler wrote and produced RESET, (directed by Darren Simmonds), the award-winning children’s scifi web-series, about ‘kids trying to do the right things against the odds’.
It won both MipTV’s Digital Short Form Content for Children 2017 competition and the Best Web-series at the Los Angeles Web-series Festival Global.
Tanya’s now made a teaser/trailer for a new television series, called Realm, aimed primarily at the teen girls/women demographic, which is ‘getting great feedback from test readers…has Australian and New Zealand investors and sponsors putting money in to take it to Netflix and the Australian networks and TV studios’. Because of its target audience, Tanya would love to have women directors for Realm.
Look beyond all these for more, like Auckward Love, just about to start its third season, ‘a funny, sexy and almost romantic web-series’ created by actor Holly Shervey, and co-written and produced with actor/writer Jess Sayer and actor/director Emmett Skilton.
Why & How They Do It
Filmmaker Louise Hutt’s remarkable Online Heroines is an absorbing in-depth web-series about women who make web-series in AotearoaNZ, part of her ground-breaking Masters thesis.
She found that the Online Heroines’ definition of success ‘is not about making money or being famous’. And the Women Who Do It seem to do the work because they can — thanks again, digital revolution — and because they’re compelled to keep going. Sometimes they tell me that they wish they felt compelled to do something else that does provide a living. They do it for love. But let’s not call them ‘amateurs’. They’re not.
It’s just as well that the Women Who Do It don’t do it for the money because even when NZOA funds web-series it’s a financial struggle. In a world where women anyway work an extra unpaid hour a day compared with men (that’s the equivalent of 36.5 ten-hour days a year!) and on average earn 9% less than men, it matters that even writers and directors of taxpayer-funded features sometimes work without payment. (When finishing her recent NZFC-funded feature The Inland Road, Jackie van Beek reported that she’d reached the stage where she was effectively ‘paying for the privilege of making the film’.)
The financial struggle continues right through the process, from development, which often includes a crowdfunding element, to production and post-production, to distribution and audience engagement.
Tanya Wheeler’s work on her award-winning RESET’s development and pilot was typical, completely unfunded –
‘After a ton of [unpaid] hard work over many months the RESET Children’s Sci Fi Web Series has been accepted by Māori Television On Demand and received funding from NZOA’.
And even with NZOA assistance, the second season of Pot Luck needed more money for production and post-production, as the makers explained in their Boosted crowdfunding pitch–
‘Thanks to funding from the good people at NZ on Air, Wellington City Council Arts & Culture Fund, and Hell Pizza, we’ve managed to raise the majority of our budget already. This will cover modest fees for our cast and crew, equipment hire and art department, but we still need help for production office costs, location expenses, transporting all that gear around and of course we have to feed people! Plus there’s the editing and all the magic that happens in post production, and finally distribution.’
Repeated funding success seems to make little difference. In their Online Heroines episode (around 9' in), The Candle Wasters are particularly open about their financial struggles. They pay their costs, including the costs of employing others. But even with NZOA funding, each of them receives a limited fee, not a wage, and it’s not enough to live on, so they all work part time or flexible jobs to make ends meet. In a recent interview, one of the collective says ‘We needed to figure out how to pay people properly, otherwise it isn’t sustainable’. But they still need to work towards making it more sustainable for them as the creators. Others are in the same position. Another web-series maker told me–
‘[The web-series] has occupied my life for over two years now and I have not had any income from it despite the NZOA funding.’
So what compels the Women Who Do It do it? I think it has a lot to do with Building Our Own House(s) and the social elements that are inherent in doing that.
Building Our Own House(s)
Some of the Women Who Do It may have followed the trajectory of Ava DuVernay’s success as a screen storyteller for varied platforms (Selma, 13th, Queen Sugar, A Wrinkle in Time). They may be familiar with her mantra as an African-American filmmaker, articulated most recently in TIME– ‘It’s not about knocking on closed doors. It’s about building our own house and having our own door.’
Ava’s consistently urged people to ‘Create work … Look at what you have and work with that’. And for her, building her own house has led to many opportunities through other doors, with Netflix as distributors for 13th, with Harpo Productions and Warner Horizon TV for Queen Sugar, with Disney for A Wrinkle in Time; Building Our Own House doesn’t preclude walking through other doors when they open and someone beckons from within.
Here in AotearoaNZ there’s also movement between a now-established settlement of Own Houses. For instance, Nikki Si’ulepa who stars in Pot Luck is — like Roseanne Liang — one of the five women writer-directors in the ten-part short-form series K’ Road Stories, produced by Hazel Gibson and Morgan Leigh Stewart, who are participants in Online Heroines. Hanelle Harris of Baby Mama’s Club co-wrote GirlFight with its director Roseanne Liang, an episode in Flat3’s Friday Night Bites, where Malia Albadrawi of So This Happened is listed as a producer.
And here in AotearoaNZ staunch Māori women provide gender equity leadership of Ava DuVernay quality, but in the tradition of Merata Mita, who died in 2010 and ‘is always with us’. Merata once said–
‘Swimming against the tide becomes an exhilarating experience. It makes you strong. I am completely without fear now.’
One of the Waru writer-directors, Chelsea Cohen (Winstanley), was our first woman filmmaker to publicly challenge the NZFC to support gender equality in the industry and commit to equal funding of women and men.
And during a Women & Hollywood interview last week Ainsley Gardiner, another Waru writer-director, advocated for a change of paradigm; this too is a first, the first time a woman filmmaker from AotearoaNZ has spoken publicly in such strong terms. First, she identifies many of the problems that web-series makers are resolving–
‘The issue is not a statistical one for me. We can see a rise in the numbers of women in various roles without seeing a shift in the processes that underpin the industry, script development, production approaches, marketing, and distribution.’
And when she was asked for her advice to other women directors, her response fitted with the idea of Building Our Own House (and doesn’t preclude institutional change)–
‘Work together. Strive together. Fight together. This industry is not geared towards the way that women work naturally, which is collaboratively, as a tribe. Share your work without fear. And support each other. Hire other women. Make it a priority.
We can’t be successful as women by making it in a male-driven paradigm, we win when we change the paradigm. Looking forward to it!’
Lots of marginalised groups have run with the Building Our Own House concept in the past. For good reasons. Decades ago, feminist poet Adrienne Rich wrote about the benefits of working in ‘the realm where women are developing our own descriptions of the world’, so what she has to say is particularly apposite for women who tell onscreen stories–
‘In [working together, women] come to understand … not only our unmet needs but the resources we can draw on for meeting them even in the face of female poverty, the hostility of institutions, the lack of documentation of our shared past … Any woman who has moved from the playing fields of male discourse into the realm where women are developing our own descriptions of the world knows the extraordinary sense of shedding, as it were, the encumbrance of someone else’s baggage, of ceasing to translate. It is not that the thinking becomes easy, but that the difficulties are instrinsic to the work itself rather than to the environment.’ (On Lies, Secrets and Silence)
And in AotearoaNZ Building Our Own House(s) through women-led projects in general and web-series in particular is a practical response to the realities of the ‘pipeline’. Bea Joblin (like Rose Goldthorp who, aged 19, is onto her fourth independent feature) is an excellent example of a web-series and feature film maker who has insisted on building her own house, The Royal Combined Broadcasting Company of Aotearoa, because–
‘You don’t have to deal with broadcasters, distributors and the kind of middle men who say “no, you can’t make that kind of show”… It’s basically taking the piss out of the notion that you have to be “official” or “legitimate” and get permission from these national organisations. Nobody gives me money and nobody gives me a slot, so I can do what I like.’
Women Who Do It who, like Bea, prioritise their own agency don’t — or rarely — participate in NZFC-funded programmes. So they’re free from the battering claims that it’s women’s ‘fault’ when we don’t participate. From enduring endless upskilling programmes. From the limited success of the NZFC’s policy ‘to identify and engage with women filmmakers’.
Here’s a typical recent comment, from one gifted filmmaker; her experience probably reflects continuing unconscious bias in a system where an inadequate gender policy sustains the traditional advantage for men. It begs the question of whether ‘identifying and engaging with women filmmakers’ leads to the advocacy that women filmmakers of AotearoaNZ need–
‘The NZFC have had me front up to them time and time again for career guidance. They meet with me, they say nice things, then they never call again. The young men … get lots [more] attention.’
Script assessment of screenplays that explore the female gaze and/or female protagonists is also an issue for women I’ve spoken with, a systemic demand that women ‘translate’ their screenplays into work that’s systemically acceptable.
Script expert Linda Seger, in her classic When Women Call the Shots, describes what happens when a writer has to ‘translate’ to meet investors’ demands, whether the investor is a state funder (in AotearoaNZ) or a purely commercial entity. The requirement to adapt her voice–
‘…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.’
As Katie Wolfe put it on Radio New Zealand, yet another forthright statement from among the Waru women–
‘Often when you’re submitting work which is very female-focused, sometimes the reaction to it is “that doesn’t feel quite right” or “I don’t recognise that”. Of course you don’t understand it, you’ve never heard it before. We’re making the world care differently and see differently, because we haven’t had the chance to hear these stories before.’
In addition to all these problems, men co-opt women’s stories and the system supports them to do this. In a recent article, American director Maggie Greenwald urges everyone to acknowledge that women are probably the best tellers of our own stories. And yes, co-option of our stories happens right here in AotearoaNZ! Between 2003–2017 there were ten features or telemovies about historical women and only two were written and directed by women.
As we undertake the essential task of developing ‘our own descriptions of the world’, Merata Mita’s ideas about story sovereignty and representations of Māori, and Ava DuVernay’s about representations of black people in film and TV, can easily be transposed to help understand what women bring to authentic portrayals of women and girls, of every race.
Merata often spoke out about issues of representation, although I haven’t seen anything she wrote about representing women. For instance, she said this in conversation with Cushla Parekowhai–
‘Merata plucked at a wayward strand of late spring grass.
You know I find it tragic that Māori aren’t left to make our own stories, ourselves. We just don’t get a chance to address our own problems, our own personalities and our own ways of looking at life.
She rolled the long, lanky stalk between the palms of her hands.
Somehow Pākehā film makers feel free simply to take Māori characters and take Māori stories —
Merata bit into the stem and spat out the end.
Because Pākehā film makers take Māori character and stories out of a Māori context what they present is an interpretive or derivative view of our people rather than an authentic one. There is so much about the Pākehā Māori need to know but firstly Pākehā have to explain what this might be for themselves.’
Ava DuVernay’s language is slightly different but I think the meaning is the same. In one interview, she said–
‘When you have 50 to 60 years of representation that’s prejudiced and very unnuanced in its view of race, it’s refreshing to finally see a reflection instead of an interpretation … I believe there’s a special value in work that is a reflection of oneself as opposed to interpretation. When I see a film or a TV show about black people not written by someone who’s black, it’s an interpretation of that life. Historically, black artists have not been able to interpret black life as robustly as we should, in terms of having it distributed, financed and shared. That’s why it’s a beautiful moment when you have black artists who are able to articulate and express their reflection as opposed to black folk only being able to watch an interpretation of our life.’
Web-series too offer women the opportunity to interpret our lives ‘robustly’ and with authenticity: Louise Hutt found that regardless of other reasons for making web-series, the women she interviewed did so because it offers them equal opportunities to make and share their work and to change perceptions of stories by and about women–
‘Several participants had turned to making their own web-series after dealing with sexism and harassment on set [which I haven’t heard much about recently, but imagine they’re much the same in AotearoaNZ as in Canada, as just reported by Sarah Polley]. Some also talked about the struggle to find mentors and models to base their own careers off; with the invisibility of women filmmakers brought up time and time again. Each participant talked about the importance of telling authentic stories — sharing their experiences and making and changing the way people think about what stories by, and about, women can be like.’
The Social Elements
Because ‘having an effect on their audience or creating an audience’ is vital for the participants in Louise’s Online Heroines she identifies a ‘social element’ as integral to the work of web-series makers. This is multifaceted.
The social element includes interaction online, where fans provide valuable peer review and are a source of professional development. This helps change ‘the way people think about what stories by, and about, women can be like’ and makes complete sense to me, because I ‘read’ web-series in the same way as I read books, with viewing and re-viewing. Web-series engage me and I love being able to participate in the conversations if I want to, below the episode, or on Twitter or Facebook. And I love the prolific behind-the-scenes clips and blogs that often allow me to share the process in depth. The social element can also help generate financial support. And it goes further. For instance, a couple of The Candle Wasters recently travelled across the world to meet with fans in Europe and the States.
This is so different than the practice of feature filmmakers: they usually have dedicated producers, who often employ public relations specialists to promote the work; and their interactions tend to focus on media interviews and Q&As at film festivals or other key screenings, although most films also have some presence on social media. When Building Our Own House(s) through short-form series, other social elements are also significant, especially Women Who Do It’s collaborations with one another and their responses to their other commitments.
Building Our Own House(s) means creating our own communities. Creating women-led filmmaker groups isn’t unique to AotearoaNZ, nor to the 21st century (have just been tracking down the films of the Auckland Community Women’s Video Inc, from the late 70s and early 80s); and it’s blossomed with access to digital filmmaking as well as online distribution, so there are now many groups like the worldwide Film Fatales. But historically this hasn’t happened often or consistently among women filmmakers.
In a moving conversation with her actor daughter Chelsie Preston Crayford, veteran filmmaker Gaylene Preston recently reflected on what the the lack of a gang meant for her–
‘It’d be nicer for me if I had a gang. And often women don’t have gangs, because there’s not enough of them to form a gang. So you join the other gangs. And the gangs in my case in film are men, who I seriously love. I’ve been lucky to have a working life where I’ve worked with some of the most talented, creative men in New Zealand, but when it comes down to it, they’re not really my gang. So it’s not the same.’
Now, largely thanks to Women Who Do It’s engagement with web-series, we have gangs, collectives, teams and tribes. Men may be involved in some capacity but the projects are women-driven and usually have a high proportion of women in their crews.
I suspect that the group cultures vary depending on how they name themselves. For instance, I was intrigued by Ainsley Gardiner’s comment in that Women & Hollywood interview, when she was asked about her favourite film. She referred to Allison Anders’ Gas, Food & Lodging as a film that was significant for her but added — ‘I don’t have favorites though, that’s not how my tribe rolls’.
That reminded me of another statement from Katie Wolfe, ‘I myself need to make sure the women in the industry beside me are getting a chance to tell their stories’; and of Tina Makereti’s beautiful essay, Poutokomanawa — The Heartpost, where she outlines her vision for a kaupapa whare, a national house for literature. It’s ‘a whare that must welcome and absorb and connect all the literatures and writers and readers of Aotearoa. It is a whare for all of us’, she wrote. And it seems to me that all three of these Māori women start not from the place of competition that characterises the film industry, but from a place of inclusivity, so even when building their own houses, for any art form, they’ll hold a vision for a larger, national, house that embraces everyone. And that is a very beautiful starting place.
Five years ago, Anne Thompson of Indiewire noticed that in America filmmakers like Lynn Shelton were thriving in a new collaborative, barter indie economy where actor/writer/director/producers share roles–
‘All these filmmakers are sort of roaming the country helping each other make films in all these different locations and all these different ranges of experiences and it works. Women are really good at that kind of thing.’ Lynn Shelton had explained that she could just– ‘…pick up a camera, and call [my] friends and say, “let’s go make a movie!” And if we fail, like, we’ll just shove it under the rug.’
That ‘let’s go make a movie…and if we fail, like, we’ll just shove it under the rug’ is, I think, a starting point for many women who make web-series. And the presence of so many Women Who Do It here who produce excellent work highlights the reality that ‘Women are really good at that kind of thing’.
The most recent and public manifestation of ‘being really good at that kind of thing’ is Waru’s absolutely consistent solidarity in every appearance they’ve made, from their powerful session at the Big Screen Symposium a year ago to their recent appearance at the Toronto International Film Festival and their repeated references to their mutual support throughout the process, building on the strengths of individuals in the group for the benefit of all.
It isn’t always easy though, as Adrienne Rich understood. Ainsley Gardiner again–
‘The biggest challenge was the process. While each of us told our own story we worked more strongly when we came together to make decisions for the good of the whole film. When, because of time or budget or something else, we weren’t able to make decisions together, it felt very isolating. Being a director can open you up to vulnerability, dealing with such personal stories, and such a huge theme as child abuse in our community. It worked best when we honored the collaboration and celebrated the collective nature of the filmmaking.’
I’ve often heard that, within these collective frameworks, care for each individual is prioritised, regardless of her role in the production. For instance, The Candlewasters believe that it’s really important to have a good work environment and want to hear when issues arise for cast and crew. They’ve learned that people find it easier to tell them about other people’s problems than about their own, so there’s now someone available for people to talk to even when the collective is ‘incredibly busy’, without feeling they’re ‘bothering’ anyone. The nominated person will ensure that the message gets through and will be responded to (see below from about 5:50).
Another aspect of the social element is flexibility for typically time-poor women. Production of short-form series doesn’t have to be in 6-day-a-week blocks with 12–16 hour days. Without sacrificing quality it can happen bit-by-bit at times that fit around other commitments, in particular commitments associated with making a living and caring for others. As one web-series maker said to me– ‘I would be horrified if my sets were not family-friendly for cast and crew.’ I believe that this ‘family-friendly’ factor is a key motivation for many Women Who Do It.
In the past and probably still, women directors of feature films often didn’t and don’t have the family-friendly choice and that left and leaves them with difficult choices and painful consequences. In her conversation with Chelsie, Gaylene Preston reflected on her experience–
‘… when we talk about childcare, you immediately think about young children. But actually, when it came to Perfect Strangers, you were 15. Tui [Gaylene’s mother] was living with us. She was 85. So you were 15 and Tui was 85 and I — the person who was really managing the welfare of both of you — I went to the South Island, and I couldn’t leave the South Island for insurance reasons. So once I went there, I had to stay there. And that meant I was there for three-and-a-half months … And that meant, like, who was looking after who? With a 15-year-old and an 85-year-old. Who was looking after who? That was the hard thing for me. How to be your mum, and how to be a good daughter during Perfect Strangers. And that was a really hard choice … But I had to make a decision, and I thought, right: For those 8–10 weeks while we were shooting, the film has to come first. And Chelsie comes a very close second. Which means I can’t be a good daughter. I can’t do the three. I can do two. I can’t do three. And during that time, things went really quite bad for Tui. That was really hard.’
This is so different from the choices of the women who made Waru, and, I suspect, of women who make web-series and have children. Katie Wolfe again, on including children–
‘The women of Waru, the nine of us, we have 17 children between us. We never had any limitations on bringing those children onto set… There’s a lot of attitude changes that have to go into the industry.’
The Māoriland Film Festival — where this year women directed 62% of its films — is unequivocal about the centrality of the well-being of families, too.
Finally, Ainsley Gardiner’s statement that women will win when ‘we change the paradigm’ gives me hope, because her ‘we’ seems to include all of us, women, men, consumers of screen stories, the agencies that distribute funding from the taxpayer, the wider screen industry. It gives me hope because, as I hope I’ve shown, the Women Who Do It, on Waru and in Melodrama and in the web-series have already changed the paradigm. The rest of us just need to catch up.
So I’ll end with Ainsley’s wisdom from the front line–
‘Best advice bar none: feed them well. Merata Mita … told me that filmmaking is a privilege afforded to very few. That privilege is a huge responsibility. Don’t be an asshole.
Take care of each other and for God’s sake feed people properly. We have to embrace what comes naturally to us. We are fierce nurturers and protectors of what is right. We can handle incredible pressure and pain. We can fight among ourselves, recover, make decisions that serve the community, and we can do so without losing anything for ourselves.
We would be well served to fund the experimentation of alternative ways of making films that are driven by women. It’s pointless just bringing women in to sit at the king’s table. We have far more to offer, and, of course, we’re also the greatest consumers of our own stories.
The status quo is fearful.
It should be.’
Let’s hope that the status quo agencies face down their fear and emulate the courage and imagination of all the Women Who Do It, through whole-heartedly appreciating them, through learning from them and through suffusing their pipelines with gender equity principles. And let’s hope that inspires the wider industry to support gender equality too.
In part 2 of this post, I discuss some specific gender equity weaknesses in the NZFC and NZOA pipelines, and offer some suggestions about how they might be addressed, with particular reference to Anna Serner’s work at the Swedish Film Institute.
Originally published at wellywoodwoman.blogspot.com.