In 1920, a book called ‘Careers for Women’ by women’s rights activist Catherine Filene predicted that once the film industry had ‘emerged from its embryonic state’, women would ‘find no finer calling than directing’.
What most people don’t know, is that in the early days of Hollywood when film was a burgeoning, experimental art form, women worked in all aspects of film-making including directing, screenwriting, producing and camera operating. In the cutting room, it was assumed women were much more suited to the process of ‘sewing’ film reels together. Film editors were often referred to as ‘the sew-ers’.
So what changed? Once the film industry started to be taken seriously as a big bucks, profit driven, investor backed business, the guys moved in. They wanted the jobs, the cash, and the cache. Movies became big business and women were cut out of the pictures.
One hundred years later and the statistics for female film and TV directors are depressing. Catherine Filene’s predictions have not come true. According to the BFI, only 4.5% of all British feature films ever made were directed by women. Currently only about 25% of TV shows in the UK are currently directed by women, and apparently about 90% of commercials are directed by men. In the US, 92% of the top 250 grossing films had no female directors in 2018.
It’s not entirely clear what the reasons for this are. Are we just not getting the same opportunities as men? Is it because it’s a rough and tumble job that often requires long periods away from home, and possibly not compatible with raising children? Many men with children do this job so this shouldn’t be an issue. Can we not be trusted with the big budgets, the big talent, the big idea and the big set pieces? Are we just not talented enough, confident enough, or are there just not enough of us? Or, is it an industry riddled with unconscious bias?
Whatever the reasons might be, what it means is that our viewpoints and stories aren’t being told, and that’s a great loss to the industry and to storytelling in general. The whole point of film is that it reflects who we are, so we need to see the world through the eyes of a much more diverse group of people, that includes men and women from all backgrounds and ethnicities.
We also need to change our perceptions of what a director looks like. I suspect that if you asked a child to draw a picture of a film-maker, they wouldn’t draw someone who looks like me.
In fact, I’ve been at film awards where people have just assumed it’s my male colleagues who have won the award, even when it has my name on it, so we need to keep questioning our assumptions about gender.
I certainly didn’t know this was a job available to me when I was a young girl or teenager.
I started my career in a typically female role, that of the Production Secretary, I was quiet and shy and had no idea where my career might take me, but 20 years later, I’ve won 32 film awards and I’m the first British film-maker to win the grand prix at Cannes and the Grand Award at the New York film festivals in the same year. I don’t think I’m any more or less talented than the next director. I think it just shows that if you nurture your female talent, if you trust that our vision, our instincts and our ideas matter, and if you’re willing to see us as a potential rather than a risk, then we can and will win awards.
I do think we’re at a turning point in the industry as a whole, but the question is how do we encourage more young women to direct, how do we support and mentor them throughout their careers? How do we support those women returning to work? And how do we convince men and women from all backgrounds, who might feel this job is beyond their reach, that there is ‘no finer calling than directing’.
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