Director's Gap - Why should we care if women are making films?

Calls for Scottish Documentary Institute's annual Bridging the Gap initiative are now open with a deadline of October 4th. As this year we are inviting filmmakers to respond to the theme of 'women', Noe Mendelle founder and director of SDI reflects on her own experiences as a female filmmaker.

I moved to Edinburgh in 2000 with such great expectations. After all I was stepping on the land of Grierson, “the father of documentary.”

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Image: Noe Mendelle filming in Edinburgh, 2014

Having spent several years as a filmmaker in Sheffield during the heyday of Channel 4’s workshop movement, I expected the same creative buzz in Scotland. Instead I found everyone busy chasing TV commissions and few really engaging with collaborations or better co-productions with the European documentary scene. So many great things were going on around the world; C4 going international, ARTE on the scene, Scandinavian broadcasters, but Scotland, buried under the UK flag, was somehow missing out. Borne out of this frustration, I felt the need to set up the Scottish Documentary Institute to develop a platform to promote creative documentary in and out of Scotland.

Grierson talked passionately about the purpose of documentary as being:

“a chance to say something, a chance to teach something, a chance to reveal something, a chance, possibly to inspire, certainly always an opportunity for influence of one kind or another.”

That philosophy, his tenacity and ability to get things done changed the way we filmmakers viewed the world, spearheading what one might think of as the founding movement of documentary form. It was in my search for the ‘Grierson spirit’ that I actually discovered something better: the work of his sisters, Ruby and Marion. Swept up in the camaraderie and the pioneering spirit of the time, they too became involved in the developments in film, daring to make new opportunities for themselves and other women. It’s this spirit we try to emulate at the Scottish Documentary Institute!

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Image: Ruby Grierson preparing to drive at Dornoch Golf Course, 1896, source

A particularly notable example of Ruby’s significance can be seen in her contribution to the seminal film 1935 film Housing Problems. By taking sound recordings into people’s homes, she gave voice to hitherto unheard ordinary people and encouraged a more human, less didactic interview style in which subjects were encouraged to speak freely as themselves. Despite being instrumental in developing this approach her involvement on Housing Problems was uncredited for many years. Today John Grierson’s artistic and pedagogical significance in documentary filmmaking continues, and yet who remembers the Grierson sisters?

Perhaps this omission has more to do with the fact that most histories of film focus on male contribution to filmmaking. Few women are given the chance to be contributors and the ones who do are forgotten.

Sadly this remains a fact still true today, despite being the twenty-first century. According to latest reports drawn from credits for UK commissioned television programmes, matched with the most comprehensive database of directors working on those programmes, the ratio stands at a dispiriting 26.9% female directors to 73.1% male.

The figures show a worrying decrease in employment for female directors in the most recent two years analysed (2011 and 2012), specifically in drama, entertainment and comedy. A recent study conducted by Dr. Stacy L. Smith at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism found that the gender gap widens with each step that female directors take up the distribution ladder, increasing from 4-to-1 for U.S. films shown in dramatic competitions at Sundance, to 6-to-1 for films distributed theatrically on more than 250 screens, to 23-to-1 for the top-grossing films.*

This is all happening at a time when women are participating in the many Media and Film production courses available. But between getting stuck in administrative and production jobs, long hours on shoots and the human urge of having children, you can be sure the cohort of female students rarely translates into directing.

What’s the legacy of the first-wave female filmmakers?

Despite the headway made by Ruby Grierson and her contemporaries, it was not until the early 1970s that feminism and women's consciousness began to influence the production, exhibition and distribution of film and television. In 1972, the Edinburgh Film Festival included a women's section for the first time. Women began to engage in debates about their position in society and the ways they were represented in film, television and advertising. Using film and television as a communication tool to meet and educate women, groups like the London Women's Film Group began working within communities in regional locations. The arrival of Channel 4 in 1982, with its remit to cater for 'minority audiences', brought some hope to female film and video directors.

I was part of that feminist wave and amongst the lucky few women to have been offered a place at NFTS. But having a young child and nurseries being unavailable, I was unable to take it up. Instead I went on developing my filmmaking skills thanks to grants given out by Channel 4, who allowed me to hire the best freelance technicians (male) and learnt from them.

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Image: The Gold Diggers, (1983, Sally Porter)

It should have been a doddle having my own private school but all too often I had to put up with a lot of male “digs” (they would have said jokes) and consequently being accused at lacking a sense of humour for failing to laugh at them. Back then we had few female technicians, leaving me with very little choice of who to employ. That’s when I started running workshops for women. I felt anything I learned had to be passed on. At the time a huge source of inspiration for me was The Gold Diggers, Sally Potter’s first feature and a key film for the 80s feminist cinema. It embraced a radical and experimental narrative structure never attempted by woman before. She made it with an all-woman crew, performed by a young Julie Christie, beautifully shot by Babette Magolte and Lindsay Cooper first score for screen.

Why should we care if women are making films and telling stories?

Media images contribute greatly to how we think about ourselves in relation to others. When marginalised groups in society are absent from the stories a nation tells about itself, or when the media images are rooted primarily in stereotype (gender, race or sexuality), inequality is normalised and is more likely to be reinforced over time through our prejudices and practices.

The good news is that women fare much better in documentary. This suggests that away from the constraints of the commercial film industry, greater opportunities exist to explore the representation of women's lives and their subjective experience. Filmmakers such as Kim Longinotto (Divorce Iranian style, The Day I will Never Forget) and Jennifer Fox (Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman) radically turned upside down the private into the political.

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Image: Divorce Iranian Style (Kim Longinotto, 1998)

Yes, forty years on, I, we, do have more choices but women are still a minority in this large industry. Women need to speak up against inequality, and envision themselves in director and cinematographer roles. We are not a subsidiary but an essential part of this industry. So to follow the words of Jane Campion to aspiring female filmmakers:

“put your coats of armour on and get going.”

* Statistics taken from Women Directors in British Television Production A Report by Directors UK / May 2014

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  • commented 2015-09-04 03:22:55 +0100
    I love this wonderful, important piece. Please read it and post it and tweet it! Thank you, Noe Mendelle.

    Read about what we’re doing on this side of the Atlantic— and across a continent— www.womendirectorsinhollywood.com

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