THE MISSING INGREDIENTS
The power structures limiting women behind the camera.
By Nickie Shobeiry
Like most writers, I grew up with a particular joy for stories—this meant I loved listening to my parents make up a tale, reading books, or listening to audiotapes. But the older I got, the more I fell in love with film as a medium in particular—and by the time I was thinking of making my own films, the more I recognized the importance of diversity both on camera and off.
Today, I sit on the board of Digi60 Filmmakers’ Festival—Ottawa’s leading filmmakers’ festival, supporting new and emerging creatives in the city. During our Spring 2019 festival, for the first time in its 16 years, over 50 percent of the festival’s registered filmmakers were women-identifying.
Needless to say, we were all excited by this; the Best Film award went to two young women in high school, Laurianna Cardiano-Dumas and Meghan Baines. As they came up to accept their prize for their short, ‘Aliya’—following one woman’s life span—the pride in the room was palpable. This pride celebrated the fact that these two were the creatives behind a film so masterfully done that it had left the audience—and some of us on the board—with tears in their eyes.
That celebration stretches beyond that one glorious moment at an independent theatre in Ottawa. By having more women interested in going into film, we’ll see not only more films being produced by women, but more women being hired for roles traditionally occupied by men (camera operators, directors, editors, etc).
As we saw so clearly during that festival, diversity and inclusion in all industries and workplaces is vital to a healthy environment. When a choice is being made about an issue that impacts multiple groups of people (across gender, race, age, and more), having decision-makers and stakeholders at the table with different lived experiences will lead to more sustainable solutions—because the solution will be tailored for more than one group.
This is also true for the entertainment we consume. While we see diversity and inclusion being discussed more frequently in the film industry (especially for on-screen talent) it’s sadly unsurprising to those of us in the industry when we see research like the report on diversity in Hollywood released by USC Annenberg in which they said: “exclusion is the norm rather than the exception in Hollywood.”
The report goes on to break down their numbers—for example, of all the speaking characters assessed in the report of the top 100 films in 2016, 68.6 percent were male and 31.4 percent were female. For viewers, this means, of those top films, we were seeing 2.18 males for every one female character on screen.
According to Nicole Martins of Indiana University, this lack of representation leads to feelings of ‘symbolic annihilation’. In one article, Martins explains: “[It’s] the idea that if you don’t see people like you in the media you consume, you must somehow be unimportant.”
As a content creator, this is something I often reflect on. Today, I see brilliant artists like German-Afghani Moshtari Hilal, or British-Iranian Sahar Ghorishi making art that celebrates the middle east. Growing up, this was not something I had access to—let alone having beautiful images like this in my back pocket (thanks, Instagram!).
For Zahra Faraji, Iranian-Canadian filmmaker and instructor at the Toronto Film School, the issue of ‘symbolic annihilation’ is real. “The true essence of filmmaking is the magical power of stories—stories with characters who can connect to the audience and ignite their feelings. The imaginary female model introduced to the public has never been a good example. It’s always incomplete, always dealing with weaknesses and always in need of a male unit to complete the picture.”
Faraji said there may have been excuses for the lack of representation both on screen and off in previous days, “but today, the excuses are lame, whatever they are. Women have conquered almost all areas of expertise, standing shoulder to shoulder with men, if not even higher. It will be a shame to see the film industry continue to insist on keeping its male domination, ignoring the lack of equality and diversity in voices.”
A surefire way to tackle this is to hire more women to work behind the camera. And if you live in Canada, there’s some good news: according to a May 2019 report by Women in View, in 2017, 28 percent of TV writing, directing and cinematography contracts went to women—and while still low, the statistic is up by 11 percent from 2014. The report specifically spotlights the commitment CBC made in 2016 to hire 50 percent women directors, resulting in a dramatic 15 percent increase of women’s directing work in just one year.
However, the report also points out that women of colour and Indigenous women continue to remain underrepresented within the industry, with just 1.81 percent of contracts going to women of colour, and 0.69 percent going to Indigenous women.
When it comes to the arts and creative fields, I often find myself in conversation with peers about resources. How did we get started in our careers? More often that not, the answer points back to connections. Arguably, there’s not as clear a pathway to success when it comes to creative fields; the arts are subjective, and at risk of affinity bias. If you’ve been marginalized by the creative industries for a long time (and so many people have), chances are you have less contacts to begin with, making it even harder to get your first break.
That’s why grassroots festivals such as Digi60 are so vital for new and emerging filmmakers to meet like-minded people in the community, and to gain access to established professionals.
At the other end of the scale, to work towards a solution, Women in View recommends that the industry and its leaders commit 50 percent of all creative leadership roles to women, and commit to the inclusion of Indigienous women and women of colour.
One such leader is the Canadian Film Institute (CFI), which involves Canada in the film production, study, and appreciation process of film/moving images for cultural and educational purposes. I asked Azarin Sohrabkhan—Industry Director for CFI and for the Ottawa International Animation Festival (OIAF)—what CFI is doing for diversity and inclusion of women, women of colour and Indigineous women filmmakers.
“The ultimate goal of the CFI and OIAF is to program the best of the best—meaning compelling, challenging and significant films, and speakers from around the world,” says Sohrabkhan. “As an inherent and not forced result of this approach, we see diverse voices, stories and perspectives.”
Sohrabkhani continued, “35 percent of our audience is made up of students at the OIAF—the next generation of influential creatives. If these diverse, emerging artists, half of them women, don't see themselves on stage and represented in screenings at our event, how do we expect them to understand that they have a space in this community and to continue in the field? Rich, authentic and fresh content can only come from diverse narratives, but most may never see mainstream expression if the gatekeepers keep these platforms and spaces restricted and one-sided.”
At the end of the day, a wider variety of perspectives in film will lead to higher quality content. We’re seeing the outstanding successes of series like ‘Insecure’, ‘Jane the Virgin’ and ‘Chewing Gum’. There’s a long, long list of truly exciting stories being told from a variety of lived experiences that have not historically been represented in popular media—and money to be made by the industry alongside it, too.
“It’s time to add the missing ingredients,” Faraji said. “A female point of view will bring new stories to the table, and more opportunity for other women to work. The deeper we go, the better the results. Maybe that’s the reason why we don’t have enough Indigenous and women of colour in film yet—maybe we know how drastically they will change the rules of the game. So, why are we hesitating?”
Nickie Shobeiry is a journalist and author, focusing on immigrant identities as expressed through art, culture and politics. Today, Nickie continues to develop pioneering film and TV projects, and collaborates with community initiatives across the UK and North America.