Thursday, June 16, 2011

V48 Hours: Women filmmakers working together?

I’m a convert: V48 Hours is FUN. This year, I was marginally involved with two teams that had women directors and producers: Loaded Gunn (Francesca Jago) and Squidwig (Rebecca Barnes). And loved watching Francesca and Rebecca at work, each very different in style but each quite similar in their focus on doing the best work possible and their care for their casts and crews, all with boundless enthusiasm.

And the heats were fun too, in a crowded Readings cinema. And the discussion boards and Facebook page. And then the Wellington final. The Embassy Theatre almost full with excited people, there for screening of the twelve finalists plus The Best Incredibly Strange Film (formerly known as The Best Worst Film, won this year by Crane Style for Daemon, a Horror). Lots of applause and celebration, hugs from every prizewinner for Dan Slevin, the amazing Wellington co-ordinator and emcee for the night. Laurie Wright from the gin joints team that made Intervention, a Horror written by Gavin McGibbon—won the Wellington WIFT/Gaylene Preston Best Film by a Woman award, which she also won in 2008. Many congratulations to her!

But, as last year, I wondered “Where are the women”? This is so much a team-oriented event that it’s impossible to be certain about any demographic details. But far fewer women than men participate on the V48 discussion boards and in the V48 Facebook comments. And during the finals I took notes as we went, and a woman was a co-writer in just one of the finalist films, and Laurie Wright was the only woman director. When various teams went to collect their awards and their hugs, the proportion of women in the groups onstage was very low. Even the audience seemed over two-thirds men. I’m thrilled that there’s such a stunning creative sport available for them and loved witnessing and sharing their enjoyment. But.

The evening started late, because of a special Bridesmaids preview, one of the Embassy’s Chick at the Flicks showings. My mate and I watched the women leaving that screening, goodie carrier bags in hand, lots and lots of them. Do most of us really just prefer to watch movies, rather than to make them? Even though that means we miss a whole lot of fun?

I have a feeling that women who do participate in V48 do so mostly as producers, in wardrobe and makeup, and as actors, the same areas where they participate most strongly in the film community as a whole. If the V48 does reflect the film industry, at a micro-level, could an increase in women’s V48 participation as writers and directors—the storytellers—help increase our participation in the industry as a whole? What would help more of us become involved in this risk-free and fun event? Do we need something more than fun and possible awards—for the WIFT/Gaylene Preston Best Film by a Woman and the New Zealand Film Commission’s National Best All Female Team? What would make participation attractive to us? Do we need a goodie bag or two for every woman who participates?

I’ve thought a lot about women working together lately and the environments where we do and don't support one another. And a few weeks back, Francesca, who won the 2010 WIFT/Gaylene Preston Best Film by a Woman, agreed to talk with me about one aspect of V48, the All Female Team award. At the moment, to qualify for an All Female Team, only the writer, producer and director must be women, so a team can qualify even if the everyone in the crew is male, except the writer, producer and director.

Here’s the interview. A big big thank you to Francesca for agreeing to be interviewed and for doing the editing and uploading. I’d love this to start more conversations about V48 and women, especially women working together in key roles.

(This year, sadly, Team Loaded Gunn missed the V48 hand-in deadline by half an hour. But they’ll be back! Squidwig won the Audience Vote for its heat, and was a finalist for the Best Makeup award. They'll be back, too!)

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Page Left: women playwrights working together

The International Institute of Modern Letters’ (IIML) MA scriptwriting programme is now in its tenth year. Taught by Ken Duncum from the beginning—except for last year, when David Geary took over while Ken was the New Zealand Post Mansfield Fellow in Menton—the programme takes ten students through an intensive eight-month writing experience. There have been equal numbers of women and men on the course, and the prizes awarded have been shared among women and men, too.

Until now, because I was an IIML scriptwriting student who wanted to write screenplays, I’ve focused on the MA students who write for primarily for film. I was intrigued that although the women who take the course are strong writers, once they graduate they are underrepresented in projects that the New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) funds, in comparison with the male graduates. But after years of observation and inquiry, I am sure that this happens for the same primary reason that women who write screenplays, wherever they are in the world, have more difficulties than men. Getting a screenplay produced is challenging for every screenwriter, because film production is expensive and risky. But people with resources to fund films are always more likely to fund a golden boy than a golden girl.

In contrast, far fewer resources are necessary to publish works written for the page, and most women graduates of IIML’s parallel MA programme for writers for the page have their work published. I’ve speculated before that this programme's influence explains why there are few gender issues in New Zealand's literary community, including its prize lists. For example, this year three women graduates of the MA (page) programme, now on IIML’s PhD programme, feature in the most recently announced awards. Pip Adam won the New Zealand Society of Authors (NZSA) Best First Book of Fiction. Lynn Jenner won the NZSA Best First Book of Poetry. And Laurence Fearnley is one of three finalists in the New Zealand Post Book Awards Best Fiction Award.

To date, because I don't write plays, I haven’t thought much about the scriptwriting students who write for the stage, usually only one or two out of the ten Ken teaches each year, though a couple of years ago an article by playwright and MA scriptwriting graduate Branwen Millar added to my understanding of the conditions for women playwrights in New Zealand. It had "some grim statistics about women playwrights' representation in productions and awards". And I learned a lot from some American research into playscripts and gender. But this week Page Left's first production opens at Bats Theatre in Wellington, Hannah McKie's McKenzie Country. And I think that the highly strategised organisation behind this production may change things for women playwrights in New Zealand for ever.

When I saw Page Left's website and its promo clip for McKenzie Country, naturally I wanted to interview the women involved, especially as I'm in the middle of writing about women working together. And I was also interested that multi-award-winnning actor and poet Michele Amas, who was part of Development-the-movie, is in the play.

And now I know more I'm going O WOW. Page Left's framework and philosophy comes through well in the interview that follows, I think, and is an inspiring model for women playwrights working in twenty-first century New Zealand. And Michele's association with this first production enhances their project enormously through her implicit advocacy of Page Left's strategies, her capacity to mentor the group, and her presence as an actor.

Page Left is a group of four women graduates of Ken's course: core members Hannah McKie, Kate Morris and Rachel Callinan, and associate Whiti Hereaka. All with impressive credentials.

According to their mission statement:
Page Left is an all-female New Zealand playwright-producers group that bridges the gap between script and stage. We believe there are two key elements to producing great theatre a) a solid script and b) the right creative team. We will deliver both.
This isn't the first women's theatre group in Wellington of course. There was Hen's Teeth, for many years. The Magdalena Aotearoa Trust is based here. But I think it is the first group initiated and run by writers, and Page Left differs from these groups in other ways, too. Kate Morris kindly answered my questions, except for one that Hannah McKie has answered.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Help an 'activist' today-- Questions please! (EP 4)

lisa gornick where are the women?

Market validation, I've learned at Activate, identifies where people feel pain, in order to provide a product that relieves the pain. Help An ‘Activist’ Today: Questions Please (EP 3) explored some questions about niches that aren’t well served, where people might feel pain and go in large numbers to films that were made with them in mind. But women are not a niche; we’re half the population. Within all those niches, are there any common kinds of pain that will be relieved by films about women? And if so, what kinds of films? As I research questions to ask in my survey about films for women, am I faced with an impossible task, just as I was when trying to create questions about films that women write and direct? I hope not. While I know that it’s possible for women to DIWO (Do It With Others), to make and distribute a film with mates, I still dream of finding a sustainable way to do this, where the team gets paid and there are audiences who will pay to watch, and there’s money generated to fund the next film. So I have to give these questions my best effort. Because that best effort is part of working, as Andrea Bosshard (Taking the Waewae Express; Hook, Line & Sinker) put it in her comment the other day change the culture of film-making, financing and distribution…to work towards a sustainable way of making and distributing films SO THAT MORE INDEPENDENT FILMS CAN BE MADE with a little more grace and ease than has been our own personal experience in making two feature enormous challenge in such a money-hungry industry where notions of sustainability are not part of the language, (in fact there is a positive resistance to it) because, I believe, it challenges the entire dominant filmmaking culture.
More grace and ease. I like that. Inspires me to identify—tentatively—some possible pain categories among audiences for films about and for women.

1. Relationship movies

When Anne Thompson of Indiewire interviewed Massy Tadjedin about her new film Last Night (starring Keira Knightley) recently, Anne talked about needing ‘product for women’, stated that Last Night is a ‘real relationship movie’, and that ‘we’re starving’ [for films like Last Night], implying that for her relationship movies are ‘women’s’ movies. Merlene’s and Desiree’s comments after my original post support this.

These relationship movies are often about women in groups, and tend to be comedies. Think Sex & the City, Mamma Mia, and now, Bridesmaids. According to a box office analyst for
Women like going out in groups to watch women interacting in groups. And they are very loyal. If they discover something they like, they tell their friends about it. Women were social networking way before Facebook.
I enjoy many films in this category, and like Anne Thompson would like to see more. And in greater diversity, because they sometimes fall into another category of entertainment about women, where Linda Lowen identifies another kind of pain, from constant exposure to formulaic relationship movies. Writing to acknowledge that it’s twenty years since Thelma and Louise was released, “so bold, so different, so exhilarating and frustrating and heartbreaking and unexpected” she claims that
There’s an audience and an appetite for the kinds of movies about women’s lives that [like Thelma and Louise] almost hurt to watch; and what endless Sex & The City sequels and meet-cute romantic comedies offer us is the exact opposite. Most movies aimed towards a female audience lull us into a stupor of temporary satiation, but they’re ultimately not satisfying…are like bingeing on heavily processed high fructose corn syrup snacks. After the initial rush, you crash because there’s nothing there to digest. As Thelma says at a key point in the film, “I don’t ever remember feeling this awake”. When was the last time you exited a movie theatre feeling that way?
So here's an additional relationship movie pain for some viewers. It stimulates a longing for stories that jolt us awake in different ways than a sugar rush. This kind of awakening may lead to reflection and action.

2. Movies that represent women in ‘real’ ways

Very often, filmmakers follow a variation on the Jean Luc Godard recipe, which defines a woman both as a ‘girl’ and an object: "All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl." Note, he places the gun first. (Tx again, to the friend who told me about this!) Here’s Manohla Dargis in the New York Times, on the pain that Godard-recipe representations can cause:
I complain about the representations of women, but I’m more offended when in movie after movie there are no real representations to eviscerate, when all or most of the big roles are taken by men, and the only women around are those whose sole function is, essentially, to reassure the audience that the hero isn’t gay.
Here’s another take on women as ‘real people’, courtesy Feminist Frequency:

3. Movies with complex, diverse, women and girls as role models

This is an extension of the last category, I think. Emma Farley wrote about these the other day. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media works hard to encourage awareness and action around this category, as well as the previous one, a nice continuity from Thelma and Louise because ‘aware’ is a synonym for being ‘awake’. Feminist Frequency has a related vid on how toy ads teach gender: