Back in October, just before the #directedbywomen screenings in Auckland, I tumbled down a steep flight of wooden steps in Auckland’s Ayr Street Reserve. Cracked one ankle and broke the fibula in my other leg. Missed spring gardening. Missed all of Wanuri Kahiu’s visit (but not some beautiful responses from the many people she inspired and revitalised).
Couldn’t transcribe or edit my #directedbywomen Skype interview with Isabel Coixet. Couldn’t edit and publish other almost-ready interviews I cherished. Couldn’t organise more screenings that filmmakers had requested, with the films’ directors beamed in to Te Auaha’s small treasure of a cinema for Q & As, also via Skype.
After two months almost entirely at home, half-way down a pedestrian-access steep zigzag, I’m fully mobile again. With thanks to the Accident Compensation Corporation’s (ACC, our universal no-fault accidental injury scheme) fine services; to a traditional Chinese orthopedics specialist; to Wellington City Libraries’ home delivery service; and to the kindness of family and friends. With deep-and-forever gratitude that I didn’t break my neck. With similar gratitude towards those who stepped up at very short notice, to ensure that Wanuri was looked after; and towards those who’ve been patient with my delays and errors.
My highly privileged experience of seamless service from ACC and then a positive outcome was completely dissimilar to the ACC experiences of Jacqui Scott which I wrote about four years ago in Safety in Paradise?; and of the many other women who still haven’t healed from the after-effects of medical mesh. And while I was so safely cared for, limping about on my crutches and very very tired, unable to concentrate for long, with fresh appreciation of the daily life challenges of all who are physically disabled — often more severely and for much longer — there was lots in the news about others feeling and being unsafe here.
2018 was our #MeToo year as much as the rest of the world’s. We have very high rates of domestic violence including rape and sexual abuse; and in a tight housing market, some men advertise accommodation ‘at reduced rates — or for free — in exchange for sex acts’. Rape and sexual abuse are also endemic outside our homes and there’s bullying at work, too: just this week, a story appeared about harassment and bullying among staff at Fire and Emergency New Zealand, charged with keeping us all safe. Late last year, the nation-wide expression of grief and shame after a man murdered a woman tourist in Auckland triggered a difficult conversation about far less intense responses to other murders, of local women and children, by local men.
Alongside this, we had complex and painful debates about the safety of transpeople and others who are ‘different’. The effects of colonisation and its associated racism continue to compromise safety and have long-term ill-effects too, as evidenced in the concerns identified in a recent survey among Māori, released by Māori TV –
Mounting debt and financial insecurity (26%)
Housing affordability, homelessness (21%)
State of rivers and lakes / concern for the land (19%)
Number of Māori children in State care (16%)
Number of Māori in prison & The rising suicide rate and the mental health system (equal at 9%)
All risks are further amplified for women because the gender pay gap is currently 9.2% and larger for Māori, Pasifika and Asian women; and our economic security — resources of time and money — is further diminished because we spend far more time on unpaid and caring work than men do.
But in Public Address’s annual survey of the word of the year, ‘kindness’ won: seeped through perhaps from our Prime Minister’s United Nations endorsement of ‘kindness and collectivism’; and from the hard-working people who work to advance safety-for-all. So that felt good.
But then, filmmaker Casey Zilbert sent an email to someone at the New Zealand Film Commission/Te Tumu Whakaata Taonga (NZFC, our taxpayer-funded film agency) about ‘the years of emotional, financial and sexual abuse [she] has suffered in the screen industry’. And when she received neither acknowledgement nor a response to her email (she later learned her email had been filtered out in some way and hadn’t reached the intended recipient) she posted on Facebook — ‘Two weeks ago I wrote the bravest email of my life and officially broke my silence about the years of emotional, financial and sexual abuse I have suffered in the screen industry. That email has been neither acknowledged or answered. People wonder why women don’t come forward… this is why’.
I was as shocked as I had been when I read how a crew member sexually harassed writer/director/producer Chelsea Winstanley on set, when she was directing. (Chelsea is also known as Chelsea Cohen, and celebrated as New Zealand’s first filmmaker to advocate publicly for gender equity in taxpayer funding.) Over the last dozen years, I’d heard many other not-for-publication stories about women being abused in the screen industry. But I’d thought conditions had improved.
Casey’s report of her experiences — about which I know nothing more than what I read on Facebook — inspired me to explore how those experiences might fit within wider contexts, among women artists within a national culture that is already unsafe for women and children; and in relation to recent advances that she and her peers have made and that the NZFC has made.
Before I fell, before Casey’s post, by the end of 2018 I’d spent almost two years feeling optimistic about #womeninfilm in Aotearoa New Zealand. Because I could identify ongoing and satisfying change for the better, led by The Women Who Do It, a new generation of women who create long-form narratives for the screen, including webseries.
For years, because New Zealand had some ‘exceptional’ — because they were rare, as well as highly skilled — women feature filmmakers, it was believed we didn’t have a gender problem: Dame Jane Campion of course (though based in Australia); Niki Caro, starting with Whale Rider, often working overseas and now in post-production on Disney’s Mulan; prolific veteran Gaylene Preston, who will soon be invested as ‘Dame Gaylene Preston’. But we have a gender problem going way back, as I formally identified, to the surprise of many people (but not most women filmmakers!) in 2007–8.
Some of these exceptions were and are writers and producers who tend to work with male directors. Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens work with Sir Peter Jackson (an unusual number of honorifics in this post!). And, more recently, less publicised but prolific multi-award winners Donna Malane and Paula Boock of Lippy Pictures, who’ve made five telemovies and are now in the middle of a six-part thriller, The Gulf, a co-production with Germany. (It follows the moral disintegration of a female detective as she investigates crimes on her home patch of Waiheke Island.)
The new generation of women filmmakers can be distinguished from the ‘exceptional’ group because although they are sometimes perceived as the ‘new’ exceptions, they often refuse exceptionality. Notable for their focus on self-determination and inclusive self-representation for diverse women and their communities, they are visionary, hard-working, versatile and courageous screen industry change-makers. They work on films, on television series, on webseries and in theatre. They’re often multi-hyphenates — directors-writers and actors for screen and theatre/ producers/ assessors-coaches-teachers. They often work both outside and within Aotearoa and within and outside taxpayer-funded systems.
Roseanne Liang is a great example. Her first feature, My Wedding and Other Secrets, was released in 2011, funded by the NZFC. Not long afterwards she teamed up with actors and storytellers JJ Fong, Perlina Lau and Ally Xue as ‘a bunch of women with a dream’, to create three seasons of the issues- and ideas-full comedic webseries Flat3; twenty-eight episodes of Friday Night Bites; six episodes of Unboxed; and eighteen episodes of Feng Shui. She also contributed to K’Road Stories and made shorts. One of only twenty women worldwide selected for the 2018 Alice Initiative, alongside Reed Morano, Tina Mabry, Regina King and others, she’s now in pre-production on Shadow in the Cloud (a thriller formerly known as Fuse, and starring Chloë Grace Moretz); and will also direct a feature based on her short Do No Harm, which premiered at Sundance.
Others in this ‘new’ group might seem to fit within the old ‘exceptional’ tradition, because they’ve progressed to NZFC-funded features through the old-time pathway, via a successful short or two. For instance, in cinemas in 2018, among the NZFC-funded features and from the new generation of filmmakers we had The Breaker Upperers, written and directed by Madeleine Sami and Jackie van Beek and produced by Ainsley Gardiner and Georgina Allison Conder’s Miss Conception; it shot to 15th place in the all-time box office for local features; it is now available on Netflix, I think the first New Zealand feature there.
Dorthe Scheffmann’s Vermilion was released too, informed by her sophisticated Feminist Filmmaking Manifesto and building on her work as a commercials director and maker of beautiful short films, including the classic The Beach, accepted into competition at Cannes in 1995. Vermilion had a 97% female crew and structured its shoot with alternate weeks of rehearsal and shooting. Distinguished actor — and president of Equity New Zealand — Jennifer Ward-Lealand (she’s always ‘Dame Jennifer’ to me!) playing Vermilion’s central character, has said — ‘I think I’m spoiled now for filmmaking. It was such a wonderful experience’. Among the documentaries, Katie Wolfe directed He Māngai Wāhine for television, a powerful story about Māori women and Suffrage. (This ‘new’ generation’s practices — now forming a critical mass — also appear to some extent to overlap with some men’s practices, like those of M2S1, whose three independent features started with the hugely popular Three Wise Cousins.)
So what’s different about these women’s practices?
When I wrote with optimism about The WomenWho Do It eighteen months ago, I described some of the practices that I thought these creative visionaries had in common. I may be mistaken about some of them, or about including some of the filmmakers I listed then and refer to here, but here are the factors that continue to support my optimism. There’s some repetition for those of you who read that earlier piece, but also some evolution of the ideas behind it. (Back then I speculated that the filmmakers were motivated — like outstanding multi-hyphenate Ava DuVernay — by the desire to ‘build their own house’ and by the social elements of creating an audience, affecting it and building a relationship with it, as identified by Louise Hutt during her Online Heroines webseries research. I still believe that’s part of it. But there’s more.)
While the taxpayer agencies: the NZFC and New Zealand on Air (NZOA, the broadcasting funding agency) — like similar agencies around the world — have been fumbling towards inclusionary best practices, the ‘new’ women filmmakers have been living those best practices, because their work almost always fulfils the criteria used by global best practice leader the Swedish Film Institute when it evaluates projects submitted for funding: ‘gender equality’; ‘diversity’; and ‘quality’, which has its own subset of criteria: relevance, originality, craft. And for me, the new generation’s outstanding ‘relevance’ in its work reaches beyond their onscreen stories, because its makers appear also to be building what Tina Makereti has described in her Poutokomanawa — The Heartpost — in relation to Aotearoa New Zealand’s literature — as ‘a kaupapa whare’, a national house, ‘a whare for all of us…that must welcome and absorb and connect’ all the screen stories and filmmakers and audiences of Aotearoa.
The Women Who Do It appear to work with urgency and to be fuelled by a philosophy encapsulated in Sue Monk Kidd’s sentence in The Secret Life of Bees: ‘Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here’. And they know that story-telling can heal: like Tina Makereti, they know that ‘stories can save your life’. So they’re not in it for the money (though some money is always good). Although the taxpayer supports some of their projects some of the time, they often support their original work from their own resources, earned elsewhere; and/or by crowdfunding; via other support from family and friends; through skill exchanges; and through other donations of time and materials. (More about the economics later.)
From their actions, I think that — also like Ava DuVernay — these women believe ‘If your dream is only about you, it’s too small’. Kindness and collectivism, a generosity of spirit, are vital to their dreams and their processes. According to Chelsea Winstanley, one of the writer/directors on Waru, a chapter film by nine Māori women writers and directors, released in 2017, ‘We don’t have to do it the old-school way. Women can be better in numbers. While making Waru, we shared our ideas and our scripts with each other. That’s what we, as women, can bring to this male-dominated profession’. Similarly, Katie Wolfe, another of the Waru women, has stated, ‘I myself need to make sure the women in the industry beside me are getting a chance to tell their stories’. And I suspect that many of these women would agree with Sir Kim Workman’s idea too, that personal ambition can be problematic (perhaps especially for an artist of any kind?) because — ‘if you’re ambitious you don’t speak the truth’.
Also part of the generosity of spirit is acknowledgement of the benefits received from the work of/support of others, both women and men, *and* how that gives you responsibilities and obligations.
Writer/director/producer Ainsley Gardiner has been explicit about her own experience and obligations — ‘…my mentor Larry Parr [a writer and producer whose credits include Kiwi classics like Sleeping Dogs, Smash Palace and Came a Hot Friday]… proactively promoted women and Māori. I’ve gotten to where I’ve gotten to because other Māori and women have actively fought so I don’t have to experience prejudice and struggle, so I know there’s an obligation on me to do exactly the same thing’.
Roseanne Liang benefitted from producer John Barnett’s support for My Wedding and Other Secrets– ‘Most film graduates want the opportunity to make a feature film and it’s a really hard road. But to have someone stride up to you and offer it to you is an incredibly lucky happenstance’. She too gives back; and last year was one of the founding members of the Pan-Asian Screen Collective (PASC), established to support ‘emerging and experienced screen practitioners of pan-Asian heritage in Aotearoa/New Zealand’. PASC’s goal ‘is for New Zealand’s cultural landscape to honestly and equitably reflect pan-Asian faces, creativity, expertise, experience and history on screen and behind the camera’ as it advocates for ‘fairness, representation and equity in funding, and support the development of career pathways in the screen industries’. It will ‘work with New Zealand’s screen sector to understand and value the diversity of experience and stories pan-Asian New Zealanders offer so that ‘we see and hear more of our many communities’ stories and storytellers in the broader and evolving narratives of Aotearoa/ New Zealand’. This kind of commitment is hard work; and generally unpaid.
The late Merata Mita (1942–2010) is always there for Māori women and Chelsea Winstanley produced the beautiful doco Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen, directed by Merata’s son Heperi. It’s just screened at Sundance and was acquired by Array, founded by Ava DuVernay. Chelsea Winstanley said — ‘I just feel like Ava Duvernay and her philosophy, everything she’s championing right now: representation, women, is completely in line with what Merata was trying to do in her lifetime. So it just seemed like the perfect fit…She loved the film and she loved the messages in it’. Merata will have its European premiere at the Berlinale.
Jackie van Beek and Madeleine Sami acknowledge ongoing collegial relationships with Taika Waititi (who executive produced The Breaker Upperers) and Jemaine Clement; and themselves employed a 60% women crew.
(As I understand them, I don’t think these relationships are about mentoring, or mentoring only. They are or have been relationships with people who may themselves be mentors and role models but have also provided and referred to other mentors and role models, who advocate for the filmmakers they support, who authenticate them, who make them laugh, who provide a measure of protection.)
The work itself has some other distinguishing characteristics. The Women Who Do It often make work with multiple protagonists and they’re not fussy about form: whatever works. Chapter features and some webseries serve long-form narratives as well as ‘conventional’ features. Waru started out as a webseries idea, was taken on by the NZFC as ‘eight short films’, and as a chapter feature became the first feature written and directed by Māori women for 30 years; it continued to delight audiences round the world throughout 2018 and into 2019. It’s been followed by another chapter work, Vai, from the same producers, to premiere soon at the Berlinale and SXSW.
Among other exciting recent webseries work in the long-form narrative category is a new season of Baby Mama’s Club directed by Hanelle Harris, with a transgender wahine as a central character, Kat; Tragicomic from the Candle Wasters, directed by Elsie and Sally Bollinger; and a doco, the Minimum series about low-wage workers, directed by Kathleen Winter.
And a new season of Aroha Bridge written and co-directed by Jessica Hansell is due soon (my favourite episode of Aroha Bridge so far is this one, which is all about kindness to an artist).
Jennifer Ward-Lealand, who finds acting in webseries ‘delightful experiences’ suggested recently that fewer constraints mean that everyone involved in webseries could be more creative, perhaps because of ‘a freedom to do what we wanted’.
This greater freedom and opportunity for experimentation, some of it probably due to enhanced creativity because of flexible hours, may be one reason so many of the new generation persist in making webseries. Even though the projects are woefully under-resourced, whether funded by NZOA or others and the makers themselves, or by the makers alone. And even though broadcasters don’t seem to take webseries seriously as a screen art form: TVNZ flooded season two of Baby Mama’s Club with irritating ads when it launched, at a rate that I don’t think happens in their other programmes, demonstrating a lack of respect towards the work and a lack of understanding of its achievements. The length of a webseries episode is about the same as a short film and it’s inconceivable that a short film screening would be twice interrupted by an ad; and a third time if a viewer wanted to see the credits.
But nothing stops these women: there’s always a new project that moves things along. Writer/director/producer/actor Nikki Si’ulepa has made short films and has been in among the webseries as a contributor to K’Road Stories and star of the much-loved webseries Pot Luck. And she’s just released the trailer for Same But Different, her first feature and the first local narrative feature with lesbian protagonists since Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures though Leanne Pooley’s doco Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls sits in 14th place on our all-time top 20 NZ films.
Kindness and collectivism also bring new and life-enhancing ways of working. Here’s how Ainsley Gardiner describes the heart of these ways, as one of the Waru women and winner of WIFT’s 2018 Mana Wahine Award, and now, with Briar Grace Smith, the 2019 Merata Mita Fellow.
During a Women & Hollywood interview back in 2017 she said –
‘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, she said —
‘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!
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 are also the greatest consumers of our own stories. The status quo is fearful. It should be.’
The variants of the new kindness and collectivism in film inevitably include practices around care for children. From memory, the first local production to pay for an actor’s child care costs was The Great Maiden’s Blush (2016, director Andrea Bosshard, the prolific and conceptually sophisticated independent filmmaker who has written and co-directed, with Shane Loader, three features within a substantial body of work), which did so for Miriama McDowell, playing the film’s protagonist. And on Waru, according to Katie Wolfe ‘ … the nine of us, we have 17 children between us. We never had any limitations on bringing those children onto set’. And on another occasion she said — ‘It was very freeing to be able to work that way. All the stress and guilt goes away’.
Māoriland’s seamless integration of women, children and young people into every aspect of its annual programmes, including its film festival, provides another model and another layer to filmmaking practice that reinforces what is happening on some screen projects; its sixth festival will open in March with a screening of Vai; and it consistently shows a selection — around around 60% directed by women — that draws on its deep global connections with other indigenous filmmakers. This year, Māoriland will launch New Zealand’s first filmmakers residency. (If you’re reading this from outside Aotearoa and want to visit, March is a great time to come and experience the festival, but check out Maoriland’s year-round programme here, too.)
There are also variants of the ‘joint director’ idea, which fits nicely within collectivism and allows for two or more people with complementary skills and experience to share the directing tasks and enrich the project. I’ve already referenced Andrea Bosshard’s practice, which was for years unique. And now the joint writer/directors of The Breaker Upperers, Jackie van Beek and Madeline Sami have reinforced the value of Waru’s joint writer/director practice (as did Stuart McKenzie and Miranda Harcourt on The Changeover; kudos to the NZFC for supporting all these choices).
Casey Zilbert belongs comfortably within this new generation, as someone who consistently experiments with new ways to thrive as a writer/director/producer, moving between New Zealand and the rest of the world. She consistently supports other women to thrive too, by sharing her opportunities with them.
Co-writer on one produced feature, Born To Dance (2015, Toronto and Berlin), in an attempt to establish a sustainable model of local filmmaking Casey’ll release Hang Time in February, a low-budget feature that she’s written, directed and co-produced and will distribute. In 2018, Casey won WIFTNZ’s Fulcrum Media Finance Woman to Watch Award.
Graeme Tuckett’s review of Hang Time calls it ‘confident, competent and easy-to-like’, so it’s no surprise that a persistent and hugely likeable social media campaign accompanies the conventional media exposure for the movie.
And it’s no surprise that two webseries are part of the Hang Time experience too; and include this ep about feminist filmmaking.
Casey’s alert and generous interview of Rouzie Hassanova after Rouzie’s Radiogram screened during 2018’s #directedbywomen was beautiful too, one of the finest Q & As I’ve ever attended. For me it typified the quality of her engagements with the diverse women writers and directors she supports and inspires and builds relationships with; and my understanding of that quality was confirmed when I watched the excellent ‘Epilogue’ to the Ernest Steve webseries that accompanies Hang Time, written and directed by Rouzie.
Finally, I really liked Casey’s recent Facebook post in support of some fund-raising young filmmakers, because after succinctly describing the problems for emerging women filmmakers, she so explicitly incorporates characteristics of kindness and collectivism —
‘Many young female filmmakers get stuck at the emerging level due to a lack of consistent funding. Lower budgets mean lower production value. Unfortunately many producers/financiers/audiences associate low production value with a lack of talent… and the cycle of funding imbalance continues to keep incredible talent from reaching their true potential. The best way for Wellington to change this global funding imbalance is to directly support the female filmmaking community through events like this. These baby filmmakers aren’t our competition, they are in our care’.
Beyond the inspiring practices and practitioners and their work, last year I was further encouraged when the Screen Women’s Action Group (SWAG) came into being, took a survey, held meetings nationwide and decided to focus on sexual violence, with support from organisations like the ACC, which has a long history of providing some support for those who’ve been sexually abused. And in Wellington, two women founded the Emerging Women Filmmakers Network for a large group of enthusiastic women.
And the BBC’s six-parter The Luminaries was a classicly ‘exceptional’ local shoot, adapted and executive produced by Eleanor Catton, from her Booker-Prize-winning novel.
So much excitement and pleasure. And then, towards the end of the year, a post from Story Camp Advanced Aotearoa showed Briar Grace Smith, who is working on the long-awaited adaptation of Patricia Grace’s classic, Cousins, standing right next to Jane Campion (and alongside lots of other women) and I thought O! O! Maybe Cousins will be a series, like Top of the Lake!
There were reasons to feel optimistic about the NZFC, too, even though it’s persisted in its belief that women are somehow responsible for our low participation in feature-filmmaking that the agency funds — ‘They/you need to build confidence. They/you need to build skills.’ That undercurrent of blame that’s very familiar to women, from other contexts.
I don’t believe that having women as policy- and decision-makers guarantees improved conditions for women in the screen industries. I’ve heard many stories about men advocating for women filmmakers when women did not and an individual’s gender is not the key characteristic required for them to have the capacity and will to transform a system that has never been inclusive. (For over a decade I believed that only court action would force the necessary changes, partly because I identified many women producers who preferred to engage with projects written and directed by men. Then, by chance I met someone working at Treasury who explained that gender equity could be achieved almost immediately if Treasury tagged NZFC funding so that half of the investment in development and production of features had to be for projects written and directed by women. And that seemed much more straightforward, so I changed my mind.)
But then Jacinda Ardern became Prime Minister and Minister for Culture and Heritage. So I felt confident that her philosophy of ‘kindness and collectivism’ would prioritise policies to ensure inclusive systems of taxpayer-funded storytelling — in every medium.
And I did think it might help women in the screen industries when in early 2018 the NZFC once again appointed a woman as CEO: Annabelle Sheehan.
As well, the eight-member NZFC board is now half women, of whom two are Māori — a Māori man is also a board member — and is chaired by a woman, Kerry Prendergast, who has just become Dame Kerry. Two of the four-member NZOA board are also women; and it is chaired by Ruth Harley, who used to be CEO of the NZFC and then of Screen Australia. (The agencies recently announced Raupapa Whakaari, a joint venture to co-fund the development of high-end adult drama series that will appeal to the international market as well as New Zealand audiences and it’s not hard to imagine that in due course they will amalgamate, though there are always risks in amalgamating into a single large taxpayer funding body, as demonstrated after the absorption of our National Library and National Archives into the Ministry of Internal Affairs.)
Then, early in 2018, at a National Library-based event tucked between exhibitions about the Treaty of Waitangi/Te Tiriti o Waitangi (1840, The Treaty) which guarantees Māori control of Māori treasures, including its language and its stories, and Women’s Suffrage in New Zealand (in 1893), the NZFC made a wonderful group of announcements.
I loved hearing about the new Te Rautaki policy based in the Treaty; and especially loved that part of its action plan is to ‘Develop frameworks and guidelines to assist with decision-making about Māori content and funding, including the creation of “cultural safety guidelines” for the industry and stakeholders’. This is a huge commitment.
‘Cultural safety’, also Kawa Whakaruruhau, if you’re not familiar with it, is a system developed by scholar, artist, nurse and visionary Irihapeti Ramsden, as described very fully in her PhD thesis and most strongly adopted and further developed in nursing practice here and around the world.
According to Irihapeti, cultural safety ‘allows the consumer to say whether or not our service is safe for them to approach and use … Designed as an educational process by Māori, it is given as a koha to all people who are different from the service providers whether by gender, sexual orientation, economic and educational status, age or ethnicity. It is about the analysis of power and not the customs and habits of anybody’ [i.e. not ‘cultural awareness’ or ‘cultural sensitivity’].
Cultural safety education focuses on the understanding of self as a bearer of culture and a process where an individual service provider reflects on their own cultural identity and the impact that their personal culture has on their professional practice. A little like an individual’s examination of their conscious and unconscious biases as well as their privilege, it develops an understanding of the historical, social and political influences on professional practice. It focuses on developing relationships that engender trust and respect. And it continues to evolve, with some highly experienced practitioners available to provide guidance. (According to the NZFC latest Annual Report, for 2017–2018, it has recently ‘reviewed and updated [its] Anti-Bullying and Sexual Harassment Policy and run Sexual Harassment Awareness training for all staff and the Board’, so cultural safety training could be an extension of a training programme already in place.)
It’s not hard to see how the development and adoption of the NZFC’s cultural safety guidelines for Te Rautaki could also benefit all people who are different from the public servants who are service providers at the NZFC. As I remember it, from when I filmed Irihapeti’s thesis interviews around the turn of the century, with the Spiral Collective’s new digital camera (*broadcast quality images*!!), cultural safety requires service providers to develop the capacity to ask ‘Who benefits?’ and ‘How?’ and ‘Why?’ from a service, and then the flexibility and the skills to ask someone who presents themselves at the service ‘How can I help?’, to listen carefully to the response(s) and then to do everything possible to provide what’s asked for. (Jackie Clark’s approach with the legendary Aunties charity is a fine example of a contemporary organisation that provides a culturally safe service for people affected by domestic violence.)
The same evening that the NZFC announced Te Rautaki, the agency also awarded the nine women of Waru the first Te Tumu Whakaata Taonga Māori Screen Excellence Award, for Māori filmmakers whose work makes an impact locally and/or internationally. Each woman received $50k to assist with her work; for the taxpayer to invest $450k in nine Māori women artists on a single day, in any medium, was unprecedented.
In addition, the NZFC announced that it had started research and policy development of programmes and funding to support and encourage a range of under-represented voices in the film industry; and the 125 Fund to celebrate the anniversary of women’s suffrage, offering up to $1.25 million to each of two feature projects. The 125 Fund has since offered production funding to three women-written and -directed features that it had already supported for development: Hawk Mountain by writer/director Loren Taylor (Eagle vs Shark); The Justice of Bunny King, written by Sophie Henderson (Fantail and Baby, Done) and directed by Gaysorn Thavat (Brave Donkey and The Gulf); and Poppy, written and directed by Linda Niccol (Second Hand Wedding). I got to know each of the writers a little when I interviewed them a while ago and am excited about their projects and delighted that they are funded.
As well, a significant cohort of women producers received ‘Boost’ funding: multihyphenate Kate Prior; Alix Whittaker; Reikura Kahi, Selina Joe and Whetu Fala within the Wheke Group; Alex Reed; Nadia Maxwell.
Then, late in the year, the Swedish Film Institute’s legendary Anna Serner made an official visit, funded by the NZFC-funded WIFTNZ, as a speaker at the annual Big Screen Symposium and then as an adviser to the NZFC. That can only be good!
And a gender working group has been established within the NZFC to look at ways of increasing the number of women entering and remaining in the industry.
But then came Casey’s post.
Casey’s first post was followed by another one: ‘The number of women who have come forward to talk with me following my post has proven how common my experiences have been, and how important it is that we start having a more open discussion about the real challenges facing women in the film industry. Many of these women have shared a fear of not being funded should they come forward, and others share my concerns that many who have turned a blind eye over the years are now involved with screen safe organisations and it has created a real sense of mistrust between women and the organisations put in place to protect them’.
When I asked which ‘screen safe organisations’ Casey meant, she named NZWG (New Zealand Writers Guild), SWAG and WIFTNZ (‘ScreenSafe’ also refers to an organisation that supports and promotes health and safety in our screen sector). She also stated that ‘If people continue to think sexual abuse is the only form of abuse women experience in this industry then we are barely scratching the surface of the challenges we are facing. Many established women are nervous about extending outside sexual harassment as it would mean looking at their own behaviour. Needless to say, many women have been foot soldiers for bigger bullies in this industry’.
While I absorbed that, I turned to her reference to economic abuse which reminded me (yet again) that the necessary resources — time and money — required for sustained filmmaking are particularly problematic for women. A commitment to screen storytelling amplifies the limited access to resources that we share with all New Zealand women and with women artists working in other mediums. I believe it also amplifies our exposure to violence and the effects of violence.
An arts career is always a risky undertaking, for anyone. For instance, financial risks include those recently identified in the fashion industry and local exploitation like Creative New Zealand’s (CNZ) unpaid internships at the Venice Biennale, now being reconsidered, thanks to Francis McWhannell, practices which privilege those who have access to financial and other support from elsewhere, as also documented in a recent report from the UK Writers Guild re social mobility.
But it’s tougher for women. CNZ’s Portrait of the Artist, now almost twenty years old, is I think the last major research about access to time and money for artists. Its participants included filmmakers and it showed that, although the national gender pay gap was 15.2% that year, the gender gap for artists was much wider: women artists’ gross income a little less than half men’s.
(As you can see, only two genders were included and intersectional information, for example about Māori women, wasn’t sought or provided. There’s also no specific information about Asian and Pacific women artists, whose ethnicity means that it’s more likely they earn less than Pākehā and Māori women, though that kind of information is also complicated by the many people with multiple ethnic identities.)
Women artists were also out of paid work because of domestic responsiblities about twice as often as men; and out of paid work because of illness or accident much more often than men. Was that sometimes or often because of recovery from sexual abuse or domestic violence or bullying at work, all of which cause immediate physical effects and immediate and long-term psychological effects and can also compromise the immune system?
I doubt whether these gendered imbalances have much changed. And in every case they are exacerbated by experiences like the one articulated by a Portrait of the Artist’s filmmaker participant, common experiences among artists — ‘Constant rejection takes up a large portion of your life and you don’t earn a thing. You lose faith in yourself and you have to live virtually on no income’. That filmmaker was fortunate — ‘Support from my partner keeps me going financially’.
More recently, screen women have talked very openly about the challenges of ‘income’. The night the Waru women were awarded the Te Tumu Whakaata Taonga Māori Screen Excellence Award Katie Wolfe, in an elegant speech in te reo and in English, noted that they’re ‘poor’ and the award would make a huge difference. Now, with the award, Katie said, ‘Ka rere mātou’, ‘We’re going to fly’. For a little while at least.
At a #directedbywomen event in 2018, those who work on webseries, some of them funded by NZOA, discussed how the revolution in representation that they’d effected relied heavily on favours from other creative professionals and on their own income from other sources; in their Online Heroines episode (around 9 minutes 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. They needed to figure out how to pay people properly, otherwise it wasn’t sustainable and still needed to work towards making it more sustainable for them as the creators.
Others are in the same position. Another webseries maker told me– ‘[The webseries] has occupied my life for over two years now and I have not had any income from it despite the NZOA funding.’
That’s true for women making feature films, too. Jackie van Beek has acknowledged that she was ‘effectively paying’ to complete post-production on her first feature and late in 2018, this is what she and Madeleine Sami said about the economic realities of filmmaking, the financial strain that comes with making a film in New Zealand –
‘I remember at the time when we had The Breaker Upperers all over the back of the buses in Auckland, and we were on billboards and stuff, and a lot of people were saying to me, “Oh man, Jacks, you’re killing it! You must be like, so rich,”’ says van Beek.
‘We’re very lucky because we sold to Netflix US, and we’re very lucky that we are getting paid for that — our back-end deals are coming through. But at the time we were on the buses, none of that money had started coming through, so people were saying I should be buying them drinks — I’m like, “I don’t have any money! What are you talking about?”’ ‘It’s always the way in New Zealand — people think if you’re on TV, that you’re rich,’ says Sami. ‘Most of the time in New Zealand if you make a movie, it puts you in debt.’
Patricia Watson, Executive Director of WIFTNZ, with a membership weighted towards women working in production, speaks mostly with women and with ‘a tiny handful’ of non-binary WIFTNZ members. She recently emailed to say — ‘You would be horrified at the number of people in the screen industry who earn no, or next to no income in any given year, and many of them are mid-career. This includes some established producers’.
And yes, the situation is probably similar for some men. But far fewer men have those additional burdens within the general community, of lower earning power and more unpaid work and reduced personal security; and further burdens within the screen industries, of greater exposure to abuse, often compounded by intersectional issues.
Portrait of the Artist didn’t address working conditions that can affect mental health for artists. But as noted at the very beginning of this post, mental health is another major contemporary issue among all New Zealanders. I know of only one piece of research that studies safety and mental health among New Zealand artists, Lorraine Rowland’s thesis (and two associated articles, here and here) based on interviews with twenty-one freelance production workers in the film industry, ten of them women. It argues that freelance production workers’ complex psychological relationship with their work is a product of their work environment that helps to perpetuate industry conditions which disadvantage the workforce.
Lorraine interpreted the stories she heard in relation to current structural conditions, working practices, and power imbalances within the New Zealand film industry and reported although that her respondents ‘enjoyed the creative challenges, camaraderie, excitement, and intensity of their working lives and identified strongly with their work…they also experienced continual financial insecurity, unpredictable and demoralising periods of unemployment, and recurrent [often mental health related] problems maintaining a reasonable work-life balance’. The women appeared to pay a particularly high price for their involvement in the industry and often sacrificed other areas of their lives for their careers. Often they compensated for this imbalance by becoming even more career focused, thus compounding the problems in non-work areas of their lives.
Wider-ranging Australian research has also demonstrated how societal risks to personal safety are amplified in the entertainment industry. I think Australia is close enough to New Zealand — although entirely different (think France and Belgium, Vietnam and its neighbours, or Hawa’ii and California) — for New Zealanders to find it useful.
Published in 2014 and 2016, by Entertainment Assist, working with the College of Arts at Victoria University in Melbourne, the research includes people from the film industry among the roughly 2000 respondents and the researchers found that that the majority of Australian entertainment industry workers express an overwhelming passion for their creative work. But they also found that work is characterised by long and unrewarding working hours and a lack of appreciation for years of commitment and a powerful, negative culture within the industry that includes a toxic, bruising work environment; extreme competition; bullying; sexual assault; sexism and racism, all ignored or dealt with inadequately.
Not surprisingly, the researchers also measured very high levels of mental health problems (moderate to severe anxiety symptoms ten times higher than in the general population, depression symptoms five times higher) and extremely high rates of suicide ideation, planning and attempts. Gender differences weren’t marked in most categories, a little surprisingly, given the pervasiveness of sexual assault and sexism, compounded for those also affected by racism.
So. The possible outcomes of unsafe practices in the screen industries are more serious than I ever imagined. Gosh.
As I considered women filmmaker safety and the roles of economic and mental health issues, I was also reading a book recommended by director Lexi Alexander, from one of my ‘home delivery’ parcels via Wellington City Libraries. It’s called The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence, by Gavin De Becker.
This book is, according to Meryl Streep, ‘A thorough and compassionate primer for people concerned about their safety and the safety of their families’. Carrie Fisher described it as a book ‘for anyone who wants to discover their intuition and use it to enhance their safety’. In a truly riveting read, De Becker, a security expert, unpicks the elements of ‘intuition’ and affirms how important it is not to deny intution’s information but to trust it to help keep ourselves safe.
If people aren’t safe, and many women aren’t safe in New Zealand, we’re less likely to contribute strongly, in any of our roles. And if we don’t feel safe in a particular system, we are also less likely to participate at all, whether in an governmental immunisation programme, or an NZFC programme.
So I thought some more about Casey’s story and the NZFC’s position within our culture’s lack of safety for all women, and within the screen industries’ amplification of this. I believe that intuitively and for good reason many women do not trust the taxpayer agencies, regardless of who is currently in charge and this, along with the economic insecurity many women face, probably affects our level of participation in various programmes, especially feature film development and production.
Factors that affirm our intuitive lack of trust include the organisation’s demonstrable four-decades-long entrenched preference for golden boys’ projects (and a small number of ‘exceptional’ women’s, now including some from some women who are part of the new generation that refuses or resists ‘exceptionality’) and persistent rumours of a ‘closed shop’ because the organisation has a very limited ‘list’ of filmmakers it will take seriously (again sometimes including women from the new generation).
Historically there’s also a problem with the agency’s reputation for inadequate assessments of some women’s work, perhaps particularly those who do not have a strong advocate for their work. Katie Wolfe’s statement, on Radio New Zealand, back in 2017, may not be about the NZFC but echoes others from many women I’ve spoken with, about what happens when women present work that reflects our realities, to the NZFC as well as to producers and to television commissioners — ‘… 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’.
(This isn’t unique to New Zealand, though it’s likely to be more marked for Māori, Pasifika and Asian women and for other ‘different’ women; Patty Jenkins encounters similar problems at the big American studios.)
In the same interview, Katie’s comments about bias against Māori women also aren’t necessarily about the NZFC, but mirror comments I’ve heard made about its sometimes under-informed responses to women filmmakers. ‘Before Waru was made’, she said, ‘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’.
In the last few years, after the NZFC established a gender policy that required it to ‘engage’ with more women filmmakers, I’ve heard stories about ‘empty’ meetings that seem concerned only to tick a box. For me, it’s always pleasant and interesting to visit the NZFC HQ but I think I’ve experienced a few ‘empty’ meetings myself, when I’ve been invited to a meeting by one person — once with a ‘How can we help?’ kind of overlay — then found myself among four or five staff members whose interests and agenda(s) remained opaque. Each time I arrived home thinking ‘Whatever was that all about?’ (I remain grateful that the NZFC provided access to its cinema for #directedbywomen and a staff member to run it, for test screenings.)
So with all this in mind I went back to the 125 Fund for a closer look. When announcing the fund in March 2018, as part of the NZFC’s wider diversity policy, which includes the issue of gender imbalance, Annabelle Sheehan said — ‘Women are significantly underrepresented in the New Zealand screen industry — as they are globally. With this unique initiative, we want to encourage ambitious women’s voices and diverse scripts which depict meaningful representations of women in both character and story and provide new opportunities for New Zealand women filmmakers.’
Did the programme adequately reflect the NZFC’s new and inclusive directions?, I wondered. Did it encourage women who don’t trust the agency? Are things already differently managed there, so a wide range of women could confidently respond to the call-out? Or, because of the ‘unsafe’ NZFC history as described, did some women with scripts feel that the huge investment of unpaid time required for a complex application would probably be a waste of time? (I was especially interested in proposals from those who make webseries, because of their established reputations for inclusive and diverse female representation; their generosity of spirit; their capacity for making relevant, entertaining and extended narratives. But I have no idea about whether any of them participated.)
The fund was open to dramatic features only — not documentaries. Applications to the fund opened in June.
Only ten applications were submitted. But they were all of ‘high quality’, I was told; the panel was so impressed with the calibre of the projects that instead of two projects, as originally planned, it decided to fund the three that I celebrated above.
In the applications, women were in all three key roles of writer, director, producer except in one team that included a male writer. Two of the writers were Māori as well as two of the producers, implying that the other eight of each were Pākehā. Of the directors, two were Asian, two Māori and one Middle Eastern, implying that the other five were Pākehā. Most (producers-only) applicants were from Auckland, with one from Dunedin and two from Whakatane.
I haven’t spoken with anyone about their application or possible application; and know the names only of those who were funded. But I did ask the NZFC about the selection panel and whether consideration was given to ensuring its members were diverse.
I learned that there were four women involved: Leanne Saunders and Annabelle Sheehan for the NZFC, and Philippa Campbell and Rachel Larsen for the industry; that they were chosen because of their experience, level of expertise and international market knowledge, and that there was ‘limited availability of qualified assessors at the time they were required’.
For me, because this assessment panel — half NZFC employees and apparently all-Pākehā — reverted to a default position of funding three — apparently all Pākehā — women’s scripts that were already in development with the NZFC, the intuition of those women who didn’t feel safe enough to submit an application was probably justified. (And, yes, two of the projects are produced by Māori. And yes, Gaysorn Thavat will direct one of the projects. But the callout was about *scripts* and ‘encouragement’ and ‘new opportunities’.)
A cynic whispered to me that maybe the programme was an imaginative marketing ploy for features the NZFC was already going to fund for production, given that so many NZFC features don’t recoup the taxpayer’s investment. Or a strategy to lessen pressure on the production pipeline of projects already in development. Either reason could explain why the panel was weighted with NZFC personnel. Hearing this, for a moment I returned to my old speculations about the possible effectiveness of legal challenges to the agency’s decision-making processes.
And a visitor-bearing-easy-to-prepare-foods hissed ‘What about us brown girls? They should be shoulder-tapping us for everything. There’s Two Little Boys and Boy and Pā Boys and now Brown Boys and all these white girls making their movies. Just one for us wāhine Māori, over 30 years. Makes me hōhā. Glad I didn’t apply.’ I explained why I was looking forward to the three films selected for the 125 Fund. ‘Don’t care,’ she said. ‘Gotta rush, helping Jay on her Christmas runs. Take her some of these cherries?’ ‘And couple of scones?’ I offered. ‘Nah. She’s a scone queen and no offence but even your date scones aren’t great. It’s your oven I reckon. But I’ll grab some of that parsley by your front path.’
The 125 Fund was linked to Suffrage for all women, so the choice of selection panel, like the rest of the process, needed to be culturally safe. And because of Te Rautaki it’s particularly disappointing that there was no Māori — woman or man — on the panel, for a project that was announced right next to the bicultural Treaty and Suffrage documents and right next to the Te Rautaki announcement. Because all the projects were of ‘high quality’, if there had been a Māori on the panel, or even better, two Māori, perhaps at least one of those Māori-written projects would have got through. (Maybe they received a ‘consolation prize’ of (more?) development funding or fast tracking through another programme?)
I’m glad that change may (again!) be on its way, because I’m told that ‘The NZFC is … looking at how we could have better encouraged more applicants to the 125 Fund, and what other areas of investment could perhaps better support women to make dramatic feature films’. So here’s my ten cents worth about how the NZFC could have better managed the 125 Fund process, to include more women; and to invest in us more effectively.
In my view, for this once-in-a-lifetime project it was essential that the NZFC didn’t do the same as it’s always done and expect to get different results; and essential that it made the process transparent and safe. For instance, the NZFC could have chosen to invest the equivalent of the cost of that extra third production in actions start to build trust between itself and a more inclusive group of screen storytellers; and to welcome and support women who didn’t already have projects in development with the NZFC and/or had reason not to trust the organisation.
This could have started with energetic outreach to the many women who have the experience and capacity to introduce something exciting to the big screen, particularly scriptwriters. It wouldn’t have been hard to create a list of a hundred or so to invite individually — I would have started with women who have regular work as scriptwriters and every woman scriptwriter attached to an NZFC feature application (development or production) over the last decade; with those whose short films have been successful (like Zia Mandviwalla whose short, Night Shift, was selected at Cannes in 2012: will we have to wait 23 years for her feature, as we did for Dorthe’s?); with those who make webseries; and because my own list is from 2015, I’d have checked around the industry/educational institutions for women I may not yet have heard of. Some might be working in local television: NZOA’s latest Diversity Report stated that 53% of the writers on projects they funded were women, many of whom will have developed scripts for features, too. It might have been fun to ask Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens if they had a project they’d like to try.
Because the NZFC must know that some (many?) women filmmakers would not have had the resources to make an application because of their domestic responsibilities, or would be unable to fund the necessary time to complete an application, and that others would have had difficulty finding a producer, the next step — working within a cultural safety framework — could have been, when inviting women on the list to apply, to ask each of them ‘How can we help you get an application in? Do you need to take a month off work to do another draft of the script? If you don’t plan to direct yourself, do you have a director in mind or can we help with some suggestions? Do you need a producer? Do you have a producer, but she can’t afford to get the application together for you and needs to have some funded time? Does anyone in your team need support with an aspect of family care that she’s responsible for? Do you need help with a table read? Do you want help to pay for an assessment from a reader of your choice (outside the NZFC, outside Aotearoa)?’ And then spent that $1.25 million to meet those expressed needs, on a first-come-first-served basis. (This exercise would have generated useful data about what women filmmakers want, too; and I’d have had a list of resource people at the ready, for women who might express a need for particular project support but did not have anyone they could ask for that help.)
It was also necessary to address intersectionality explicitly, especially given the inclusionary initiatives announced at the same time as Fund 125. I’d have trusted the callout if I knew that the NZFC had considered what it needed to do to ensure that it complied with its Te Rautaki commitment — which surely can’t be limited to Māori-only programmes — and to support as many Māori women as possible to apply; and that it had strategies to reach women whose voices are under-represented: Pasifika, Asian, Middle Eastern, African, women on the LGBTQIA spectrum, disabled women.
And what about the lack of diversity among the assessors? I think many women would have felt more confident in the applying if they perceived that genuine efforts were being made to broaden the NZFC’s base of decision-makers. Could part of the strategic planning have been to engage with diverse assessors before the project was announced and to announce this at the outset? I was a little shocked to read about the ‘limited availability of qualified assessors at the time they were required’ because — again, to build trust — appropriate assessors should have been engaged and announced very early, not when the applications started to come in, or at final decision-making time. (The announcement of juries is a common practice which supports transparency, whether at Cannes or the Berlinale or with this randomly selected call for proposals, seen on Facebook today; or the call for applications for the prestigious Sarah Broome Poetry Prize.) And with Skype and Facetime available assessors don’t have to be in New Zealand.
There are lots and lots of people internationally with appropriate ‘experience, level of expertise and international market knowledge’ who could help with support and assessment, some of whom would be available, for a fee, over the entire selection period or for part of it. There are many ways to manage this effectively and it’s always tricky to work around individual availability, but off the top of my head, I’d have started with Māori, women or men, including people like Nikolasa Biasiny-Tule. I’d have consulted with the recipients of the Merata Mita Fellowship — Ciara Leina’ala Lacy, Amie Batalibasi, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers. I’d have approached local Asian and Pasifika filmmakers to get their suggestions. I’d have asked around about women who work successfully to advocate for and educate about women in genre, like Heidi Honeycutt in the States and Briony Kidd in Aussie. And other experts like Thuc Nguyen of the steadily more influential The Bitch List, film writer and activist So Mayer, the astute Kay Armatage, a former legendary programmer at Toronto, before becoming an academic and film activist at Canada’s Women in View. Someone from Ireland — with about the same population — where their films have been consistently successful internationally and their gender and film policies are more developed. Or someone from Array or ImagineNATIVE or Amazon or Netflix.
It’s not hard, could have been done in a few full days and would have provided some fresh perspectives that are sorely needed in a system that is perceived as closed and not safe.
Alternatively, why not a few local panels made up of specialist audience members, each with a chair who would bring their panel’s responses to and take part in the final selection? Why leave audience participation to test screenings, at the other end of the process? There are many people who would recognise stories that would enhance our lives and the lives of our children and grandchildren and illuminate our diverse communities; and identify which filmmakers would be capable of completing their projects to a high standard.
For instance, the panels could include one of academics who study women’s filmmaking and/or practise as filmmakers, who can read scripts and budgets and are familiar with the interests of diverse audiences. Again off the top of my head I can think of lots in this group — and I imagine there are many more — some of whom might have been ineligible if they themselves decided to apply to the 125 Fund: Anita Brady; Cushla Parekowhai; Ella Henry; Ghazaleh Golbakhsh; Jessica Hansell; Jo Smith; Keri Kaa; Leonie Pihama; Misha Kavka; Ness Simons; Ngahuia Te Awekotuku; Raqi Syed; Shuchi Kotari; Sima Urale; Tina Ngata. (I’ve come to a new appreciation of relationships between academia and film after interviewing European women directors for Eurimages: their sophisticated conceptual frameworks have really challenged my thinking about the medium and its audiences.) And what about some of those who work in exhibition and distribution, who know what they’ll be able to sell? Or novelists and poets and painters? Anything to bring in fresh and informed opinion, to stimulate more debate and transparency, more safety and more accountability to the public that the NZFC serves.
Now back to Casey and the women who told her their stories.
Within the comments on Casey’s original post, I asked SWAG for advice about what women could do when they were abused in the screen industries. Its response, about sexual abuse only, came from a sexual violence prevention specialist and (in summary) encouraged survivors to keep a record, to talk directly with the perpetrator, get specialist support (e.g. through the confidential Safe To Talk helpline (0800 044 334), to report it through either Human Rights Commission or Employment NZ, can’t be both); or report a sexual crime to the Police.
This was an informative, helpful, response about resources available to address one kind of abuse. But it doesn’t help with the other kinds of abusive behaviour experienced by Casey and others and — as reported by Entertainment Assist — that come from within a ‘powerful, negative culture within the industry that includes a toxic, bruising work environment; extreme competition; bullying; sexual assault; sexism and racism, all ignored or dealt with inadequately’, where workers are often poorly rewarded (unlike workers in other occupations like law, or the military, that have similarly negative cultures but where the workers are regularly and well paid).
So I asked — ‘Do you know if there is any anecdotal (or other) evidence/advice about whether the Employment Relations Act or the Human Rights Act is a better pathway for people who are self-employed and who have to take into account that if the complain they may find themselves blacklisted by employers/funding organisations? Making complaints through either pathway could be risky career-wise? I think this is one reason why women here haven’t made complaints in the past and I know that women directors associated with the EEOC action in the States don’t find it easy to get work.’
There was no further response. Because, I think there wasn’t then and isn’t now an effective response that’s available for those whose well-being is affected by this ‘toxic, bruising work environment’.
Overall in our violent country women can’t be confident of any supportive systemic response if they report incidents where their safety is violated. Only a small proportion of those who rape are investigated and prosecuted and when they are, over sixty per cent of the cases are not proven. As just one example, a few years ago a group of young men victimised and humiliated underage girls by having group sex with them, filming it, putting it online to boast about it. They were never prosecuted, and last week, a few years later, one of the young men tried to portray himself as a victim as he attempted to advance his career. The ongoing effects on one of the victims was detailed in a powerful and heartbreaking essay.
And a couple of weeks ago, there was this assault, followed by a central Auckland protest by the courageous women who were harmed.
Only after that protest — where the women were supported by their friends — and then the publicity that followed @Becs’ tweet with these photos, did the Police follow up ‘urgently’.
And when sexual assault is proven, the consequences for the perpetrator can be minimal. Just last week, a middleaged professor who had sexually violated a woman in her eighties living in a rest home, with profound effects on her well being, was convicted but sentenced only to home detention, some community work; and ordered to pay the woman a risible amount of reparation for emotional harm. This reminded me of another recent story, of a man who sexually assaulted a woman with a degenerative brain condition when she invited him into her home, but was sentenced only to community detention.
Sometimes schools fail, as they appear to have at Nelson Girls College, where there are multiple claims of physical abuse and bullying, and parents claim that the school fails to protect students.
Even Parliament fails, according to a recent report. Responses from 16 of the 46 women MPs showed that more than half of them had been the targets of ‘psychological violence’ — sexism and harassment while doing their jobs — much of it from other MPs; and 86 per cent of them either did not know who to go to for help or decided to simply put up with the abuse (Threats of physical violence, including death and rape threats, were more likely to come from constituents or members of the public.)
Alison Mau, who’s written a series of articles about her investigations of #metoo issues in New Zealand has reported (not yet online) that some women didn’t participate because they feared the consequences, even though their stories would be anonymised. There is no code of conduct that would provide boundaries for acceptable behaviour for Parliamentarians but the Speaker and Deputy Speaker are discussing introducing a code and the potential consequences if someone breaks the code: whether it is safe and easy to complain, what the support systems and processes might be.
Not surprisingly, within this larger picture, when women complain of violation at work the outcomes are often unfair and tend to show more concern for the perpetrators than the victims. In the news on one day last week were two stories of women abused at their work, law and in defence.
The first, by legal researcher Zoë Lawton and also not yet online, relates to the local Law Society Standards Committee’s response to two sexual harassment complaints from a law firm’s employees. The committee had to decide whether the perpetrator’s ‘blatant verbal and phsyical sexual harassment’ as a law firm partner met the statutory definition of unsatisfactory conduct or, more seriously, misconduct. It decided the behaviour didn’t meet the misconduct threshold, imposed a small — for a law partner — fine to be paid to the Law Society, not as reparation to the complainants; did not suspend the perpetrator from practising; and suppressed his name.
The second story details the latest in Mariya Taylor’s story. After Mariya joined the Air Force in the 1980s as a young woman, former Air Force Sergeant Robert Roper repeatedly sexually abused her. The Air Force covered up the abuse and when she finally sued him for mental harm, years later, and failed because of the delay in her action, both the Air Force and Robert Roper attempted to recover their costs; she now has to pay nearly $28,000 in court costs to Robert Roper as well as her own legal costs.
For women who aren’t paid much and can’t afford lawyers if they want them, trauma at work has particularly harsh consequences. Just this morning–
As for bullying, WorkSafe — the national agency responsible for everyone’s safety at work — has never prosecuted a workplace bullying case. It claims bullying and harassment are ‘often hard to prove’ and typically investigates bullying and harassment claims only where there’s a diagnosis of serious mental harm and a link to workplace bullying as the cause; WorkSafe recently conceded that it was applying resources in other areas, where it would get ‘bang for the buck’; it uses a triage system and puts its resources into areas where it perceives ‘much higher levels of harm’ such as health-related exposures, like carcinogens, which makes up 50% of the biggest risks (in their view).
Because of this continuing evidence that we live in a national culture where abusers continue to be protected in work situations as well as elsewhere, it’s unfair and inappropriate to place responsibility for making complaints on individuals unless there is a formal and effective umbella system where these complaints can safely be made. And it’s certainly unrealistic to suggest that abusive behaviour within the ‘toxic, bruising work environment’ of the screen industries can always be resolved by having a quiet word with the perpetrator.
This brings me back to safety within the whare for all of us, a whare that welcomes and absorbs and connects all the screen stories and filmmakers and audiences of Aotearoa. And the two agencies that the taxpayer supports to build this whare.The NZFC and NZOA have to step up. Perhaps in association with CNZ; NZOA is working on a new artists survey that’s the subject of the next episode in this series.
What can these agencies do?
I think the most important thing they can do appreciate the value of new the ‘kindness and collectivism’ practices,and examine what they can bring to them, to ensure that the whare for all of us is a safe work space for all of us, informed by the Treaty and free of the extreme competition, bullying, sexual assault, sexism and racism that Entertainment Assist identified. If they want justification beyond ‘doing the right thing’, the new generation of women filmmakers has demonstrated that the kindness and collectivism in their practices consistently generates innovative and high quality work that speaks to global audiences. Because of this it makes creative and economic sense to use the agencies’ power to establish high levels of safety wherever in the industry they have influence.
The experiences of Casey and other women show that safety includes — beyond what is already regulated for— economic, physical and psychological/emotional safety.
Economic safety, to start with. What does it mean in this context? Culturally safe nurses who ask ‘How can I help?’ can only help with those services they provide, including access to a highly developed and safe network that will connect individuals to other services they ask for; they can’t guarantee any patient’s economic security; or access to an unsubsidised drug or service. And taxpayer agencies have similar limits. They cannot guarantee economic security in the making-a-living, making-a-profit sense, except to their own employees. As happens in the screen industries globally, the overwhelming majority of the people and organisations that approach the NZFC and NZOA for funding are rejected.
But the agencies can encourage economic safety by being fair with its own allocations. The NZFC — the one I’m most familiar with and will focus on here — has been working towards this for a while, as already noted. But I hope that before too long, as part of a kaupapa whare commitment to safety-for-all it will fully meet its Treaty obligations and ensure that intersectional gender equity is present throughout its funding allocations. I dream too that Treasury will start to tag the NZFC funding at its source, to help make all this happen.
There are other things the NZFC can do to support economic safety, especially for women but also for others, especially if it works from a kindness-and- collectivism base informed by the new generation practices and abandons practices that worked for its historic golden-boys-and-exceptional girl belief system and its associated ‘list’ (if it still exists).
Take guild membership. They’re our unions and they’re funded by the NZFC and they’re influential. And there are programmes, including some that the NZFC supports, that require applicants to hold specific guild memberships, like this year’s Table Reads, just announced by the NZWG.
But, especially for women, guild membership costs can be problematic. If you can afford only one, and especially if you’re a multihyphenate with a multidimensional identity, which one(s) do you choose and why? There are many who are eligible for membership of most of or all the following — in alphabetical order — Actors Equity, Directors & Editors Guild, Ngā Aho Whakaari, Pacific Islanders in Film & TV, Pan Asian Screen Collective, Screen Production & Development Association, WIFTNZ, Writers Guild. But often women can afford only one membership each year, if that. If the NZFC increased its subsidies to the various guilds, would it be possible for a woman who qualifies for one professional guild to qualify for free membership of the rest she’s qualified for? That would reduce the economic cost of participation in the industry for women which is larger than for men. Perhaps this investment would also result in a much more diverse membership, both professionally and demographically, of WIFTNZ, for instance; and more inclusive participation in discussions that result in advice that the NZFC acts upon.
There’s an opportunity to develop fiscal sponsorship too. Many filmmakers and other artists are now familiar with Boosted, the Arts Foundation’s crowd-funding site which offers donors a tax credit. If the NZFC established — or helped an organisation like the Arts Foundation to establish — a charitable umbrella that filmmakers could use when approaching sponsors or charitable organisations for funding, that could help too. Women Make Movies has made a huge difference by its fiscal sponsorship of women’s projects.
The NZFC could also provide more economic safety for women by investing more in marketing and distribution for their work. (Organisational under-investment in marketing and distribution is a global problem for women filmmakers). It does some of this, but it doesn’t educate and build audiences for women’s work specifically. It doesn’t link local women’s work to international women’s work thematically. It doesn’t ask distributors and exhibitors to highlight any film that’s directed by a woman, so those who want to watch films made by women are aware of their release. It doesn’t subsidise cinema ticket costs — as its French counterpart does — so I’ve heard of many young women practitioners who at the most can afford one or two tickets to the New Zealand International Film Festival or Show Me Shorts: $6 is about the maximum they can afford. It doesn’t tag funding to festivals it supports with a requirement that the festival register as part of the 50:50 by 2020 movement and in addition identify Bechdel Test or A-Rated or F-Rated films.
As well, the NZFC doesn’t consistently provide the women whose work it invests in with support around reaching audiences (subsidising tickets and screenings are just two options). As far as I know, it doesn’t consult and learn from the webseries women who have so effectively developed local and international relationships with diverse audiences. Why not someone jointly funded by the NZFC and NZOA who focuses solely on promoting women who tell stories for screens of all sizes, whether or not the taxpayer has funded those women? Another agency, Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision, regularly tours the country with historical work. Where are comparable tours of contemporary work, which can struggle to flourish in cinemas that prefer blockbusters? Who’s taking women’s films and their makers into schools, accompanied by discussion? Even if audiences are small, they’re getting to know the stories women tell and thinking about stories they’d like to tell, too.
The NZFC could also contribute to economic safety through investment in programmes like some excellent new intiatives in other parts of the world, to encourage producers. Just a few examples here. In France, CNC (roughly the NZFC equivalent) now offers a bonus of 15% of support for films that include as many women as men in the management positions of their film crew. Screen Ireland’s Enhanced Production Funding for Female Talent provides extra funds for projects with women writers or directors. (Ireland has about the same population as New Zealand and well developed gender equity policies thta seem to be working: four of their six features at Sundance right now are directed by women.)
And just the other day, Moms-in-Film published 10 Ways to Create A Parent Friendly Set , with Hire Parents and Inspire Safety as first and second on the list: both ways to support economic safety for women. And further down, Health Protection. This is an economic safety issue because without that protection skilled workers will be lost and skilled people with caring responsibilities will be lost. And many of them will be women. Shoot Like Marvel, says the Moms-in-Film list–– ‘ Plan to shoot 10 hr days. And when possible 5 days on, 2 days off. Marvel does it. NBCUniversal does it’; and Provide Childcare, which could be mandatory for all projects and all budgets submitted to the NZFC, including international projects seeking subsidies. And then there’s the recent Raising Films Writers Residencies initiative, something easy to repeat here because there are many generous people who would offer their baches, I think.
Physical and psychological/emotional safety mechanisms. Because our violent society tends to respond inadequately to violence against women and because that violence is amplified in the arts, globally, and because violence against artists including filmmakers tends to be accompanied by intersectional violations like racism, the effects of colonisation and economic hardship and mental health issues, anything less than a pan-industry commitment to zero tolerance of physical and psychological abuse is inadequate. And that commitment needs to be led by taxpayer-funded agencies working together to create something that covers the entire sector, including international projects, where anecdotally personal safety risks for women are said to be high. (If I’ve read the NZFC Annual Report properly, the taxpayer investment in the NZFC in 2017–2018 was $32.3m; and the Screen Production Grant, formerly the Large Budget Screen Production Grant cost $149.2m in the same period). This is not a moment for fragmented efforts. The NZFC, NZOA, CNZ and the ACC need to work together, in consultation with the Police and specialist violence-against-women agencies. It’s too large a responsibility for WIFTNZ and the other guilds and SWAG, even with help from ACC.
Primary prevention is vital. A compulsory safety certification process for every project that receives public money would be a good start, as part of the contractual requirements that accompany every offer of taxpayer support, with riders that require provision for safety specialists, like on set intimacy co-ordinators; and for family-friendly hours and child-care. A certified project would have to identify designated people whose job it is to listen to and respond to concerns as soon as they arise and appropriate pathways for dealing with those concerns and where necessary forwarding them on to appropriate agencies and/or a cross-arts structure for processing complaints safely, where there are real penalties for those who harm filmmakers and other artists at work (unlike the Wellington Law Society’s Standards Committee), as well as ongoing support for those who are harmed.
But I’m not an expert. I just know that it’s time to prioritise safety and that thanks to #metoo and #timesup there are models now.
And lots of research, to be added to last year’s SWAG survey and discussion groups about sexual violence in the screen industries.
And the will to work for positive change.
(to be continued, in 17.2, with an assessment of the latest NZOA/CNZ research)
On 2 February, this news from SWAG–
‘Kia ora koutou,
It’s been a long time since you heard from us but we finally have some news we can share…Many of you attended the SWAG forums last year in Auckland and Wellington and contributed to discussions about how to begin a culture change to make our industry safer. From your korero SWAG was able to draft a list of recommendations.
Last year SWAG presented these recommendations to the Sexual Violence Prevention Advisory Board. The Advisory Board supported our application to ACC for funding so we can begin a process of culture change for sexual safety in the NZ film industry.
Today we are super thrilled to let you know that ACC have agreed to fund SWAG to begin this initial process in partnership with Screensafe NZ.
Over the next few months we will begin to build the foundations that we need to take this process into the future and begin to implement some of the recommendations.
Thank you all so much, we couldn’t have come this far this without your mahi and support. We will keep you updated with our progress as we go.
And just below that on their Facebook page , this–
Originally published at wellywoodwoman.blogspot.com.