by Kate Daniels, The WIP Director
Last July, The WIP published #WomenCallAction: Illuminating the Relevance of Women Directing U.S. Media followed by a Twitter Chat with Rachel Feldman, author of the article, and Melissa Silverstein, founder and editor of the blog Women and Hollywood.
When I traveled to the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, several questions on my mind were triggered by this coverage. Will the world portrayed on screen look different when there is gender parity in filmmaking? Does the disproportionate number of films directed by men impact the art form as a whole? Will the addition of more women directors lead to cultural change off screen?
Recently, the American Civil Liberties Union announced that they will ask state and federal agencies to investigate Hollywood's hiring practices. In response, Nikole Beckwith, director of the 2015 narrative drama Stockholm, Pennsylvania, said “Hollywood's exports are such a huge part of our cultural and international identities, I look forward to what shape that identity might take once it's actually representative of its population.” According to a 2015 report, 93 percent of the 250 top grossing films produced in 2014 in the U.S.A. were directed by men. At this level of imbalance, it seems anything short of a federal intervention will leave us in the dark for a good long time.
At the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, I viewed twelve films over five days – 10 directed by women and two directed by men. All were feature length and either narrative or documentary. Of the films, Bridgend (Denmark) directed by Jeppe Rønde won three awards – Best Actress in a Narrative Feature Film (Hannah Murray), Best Cinematography (Magnus Jønck), and Best Narrative Editing (Oliver Bugge Coutté); Democrats, directed by Camilla Nielsson (Denmark) won Best Documentary Feature; and Sworn Virgin, directed by Laura Bispuri (Italy) won The Nora Ephron Prize.
Recently I came across a 1993 study by linguist Barbara Johnstone that analyzed Midwestern men’s and women’s storytelling patterns and found “men’s stories tend to be about contests in which the protagonist acts alone and is successful ... The women, on the other hand tell stories which stress the importance of community.” While Johnstone’s research is limited to conversational storytelling, the “world of community” created by the women storytellers as compared to the “world of contest” created by men certainly resonates with what I saw on screen.
I reached out to Dr. Johnstone to find out if she believes the gender-based storytelling trends in her research could also be found in the films women and men make. She responded: “A great deal of the linguistic research on gender differences has been based on white, middle-class women from the US and the UK. In those settings, we have found that women’s stories and women’s behavior in conversation overall tend to be more oriented to cooperation and consensus while men’s are more oriented to competition.”
While at the festival I asked three women directors if they believe there is a feminine vision they bring to their work. Laura Bispuri, director of the prize winning Sworn Virgin, tells me she is convinced that her “feminine point of view has a firm impact on the choices of the stories, the characters, and the narration of their existences.”
Claudia Llosa (Peru) – director of Aloft starring Jennifer Connelly, Cillian Murphy, and Melanie Laurent – believes that “the feminine vision is indeed inseparable to my work.” She adds, “A ‘really female’ vision is an earthquake to the hegemonic discourse, and that is why it is so important to defend it, to support it, rather than continue alienating ourselves with portraits of women who do not represent us.”
Paz Fábrega, Costa Rican filmmaker and director of the narrative film Viaje, tells me “there is a value in women telling their stories … in the way characters are portrayed, whether weak or strong, with the way the story is told, with structure, with framing and sound … I always try to understand each of my characters and spend time showing their side of things. I love and understand all the characters in my films.” Fábrega employs a “sensual” approach to her work, which is clearly present in Viaje. “I often try to shoot things in a way that conveys how they feel to the touch,” says Fábrega.
In our correspondence, Johnstone shared with me a study by Amy Sheldon from the 1980’s depicting the social origins of gender differentiation in pre-school boys and girls as an illustrative anecdote. “[Sheldon] was lucky to record a group of boys and girls each playing with a toy pickle. The boys argued about who the pickle belonged to. The girls pretended to cut it up so they could share it. Differences like these are clearly related to differences in how we socialize girls and boys, which are related to power differences in society.”
Of the two male-directed films I saw, it is interesting to note that the French film Far From Men (David Oelhoffen) had no women characters in the film other than a handful of school children early on and the two sex workers actors Viggo Mortensen and Reda Kateb hire mid-film. Although artistic, compelling, and beautifully shot, the award-winning Bridgend included gratuitous sexual violence that was unlikely part of the original story the film is based upon. In contrast, the films directed by women were well-balanced in their ratios of female and male actors, none relied on sex or violence not associated with the plotline, and the documentaries were extraordinarily well-balance in the perspectives they offered and likely to provoke a multitude of responses from viewers. The narratives and documentaries not mentioned above included: The Wolfpack (Crystal Moselle), In My Father’s House (Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg), Indian Point (Ivy Meeropol), Thought Crimes (Erin Lee Carr), Bleeding Heart (Diane Bell) and Meadowland (Reed Morano).
Although it would be impossible to assume “women do this” and “men do that” when making films, it is clear that vital perspectives are absent on the screen when women are underrepresented as directors in Hollywood and throughout the international festival circuit. With this absence is lost an opportunity, as viewers of films, to expand our understanding of the world and its people. We narrow our understanding of critical issues, and opportunities and avenues to create change. The addition of women’s perspectives may allow us to find acceptance, tolerance, and understanding where perhaps we saw none before. I believe more women directors do offer something different from what we generally see; and that difference, as Nikole Beckwith recently noted, “is not just good for women, it’s good for everyone.”
About the Author: Kate Daniels is the founder and director of The WIP. Her vision is of a world where women and men value and embrace the feminine perspective for global problem solving. She earned her Bachelor of Arts Degree in Liberal Studies from Sarah Lawrence College and her Masters Degree in Applied Linguistics from Columbia University. Kate is a Certified Caring Economy Conversation Leader by the Center for Partnership Studies and a graduate of The Global Women's Leadership Network's Women Leaders For The World program at Santa Clara University's Leavey School of Business.