Warped Women: The Emergence of Female Horror Directors in the UK (Electric Sheep, 2011)
Pretty women meet un-pretty fates. It’s a uniting feature of many horror movies. The ice-cool glamour of Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane meets an ice-cold end on the bathroom floor. Shelley Duval’s Wendy narrowly escapes from Jack Nicholson’s axe and impending ‘REDRUM’. Marilyn Burns’s Sally finds herself on a never-ending flight from a Texan chainsaw. Acts of evil become heightened by an actress’s beauty; the more sublime their looks, the more sadistic the punishment.
Whereas a male protagonist provides a glimmer of hope (he might physically overpower the threat or use his intellect to detect or deter the danger), the woman is often left scrambling: running through corridors; trying to slam shut or rattle open doors.
She’s a passive victim caught up in the audience’s voyeuristic fantasies. Or, more immediately, those of her director. Take Hitchcock and his ice-cool blonde.
So, is this clichéd view why so few women direct horror films?
It is historically a man’s genre when it comes to filmmakers; a fact that Warp Films recognised when they set up their Darklight initiative back in 2006. The leader of this development programme, Caroline Cooper-Charles, saw how women were being ‘excluded as audience members as well as filmmakers’ and came up with a very specific target for the scheme: to get more women making horror films in the UK.
Chatting over the phone, Cooper-Charles recalls how picking female filmmakers proved quite a tricky task. The majority of women sending in submissions had never worked in horror; there was nothing on anyone’s showreel to make her jump. Instead, Cooper-Charles focused on reels with atmospheric, creepy shorts; films that made her ‘squirm or feel uncomfortable’. The chosen directors were then assisted in developing their ideas over a course of 12 months.
As Cooper-Charles said, ‘there are so few female filmmakers working in the genre that even if two films came out of the scheme, it would have been quite a massive achievement’.
A couple of years on and there are several films in pre- and post-production: a ‘quite bloody’ exploration of motherhood entitled Little Miss Piggy; an ultra-low-budget teen horror, Freefall; and a project still in early development set in the male-dominated world of banking and business. The latter has strong thriller elements, and another director on the scheme decided to move away from horror altogether to make a thriller. Throughout our conversation,
Cooper-Charles often mentions the ‘psychological’ aspect of the women’s work; perhaps an explanation as to why many of the projects boiled over into thriller territory. Even the ‘bloody’ Little Miss Piggy is described as ‘sophisticated with a gore element’. Despite the aims of the initiative, there’s a little reluctance to associate women with out-and-out horror.The Birds Eye View Festival will be showing a programme of horror shorts directed by women filmmakers on Saturday 12 March at the ICA (London) as part of their ‘Bloody Women’ strand.
After our call, Cooper-Charles writes to tell me that she is producing a film written by Lucy Moore, one of the writers who was part of Darklight, and puts me in touch with the film’s director, China Moo-Young. The following week, Moo-Young and I meet up for a coffee to discuss her film, ‘a monster movie set in Bristol’.
When I ask her why she thinks there are so few women working in horror, Moo-Young suggests that it is partly a question of role models – ‘you’ve probably got two examples of women genre directors, Catherine Hardwicke and Kathryn Bigelow… you’ve got your Jane Campions but in terms of genre, they’re your big two’ – and partly a matter of timing. Most filmmakers are making their most important films in their thirties and forties, a time when women may be engaged with childrearing and so unable to undertake the heavy commitments needed to make a feature.
But these two points are asides in a conversation that aims to avoid too much talk of gender, no matter how hard I try to steer the discussion: ‘I kind of think it’s a moot point,’ Moo-Young says, ‘ I’d like to get to a point where it isn’t an issue’.
She is not interested in taking part in schemes aimed exclusively at women directors and won’t be bestowed or lumbered with the female filmmaker tag: ‘Kathryn Bigelow’s strength is that you don’t know that she’s a woman… I wouldn’t be doing my job if you could tell which gender directed the film.’
Moo-Young also tells me that psychological horror is her favourite variety of the genre. She likes John Carpenter’s work because it is ‘restrained’; his films ‘use music and mood more than out-and-out violence’. Horror films she admires – The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, Don’t Look Now, Jaws – are full of ‘well-drawn characters that don’t fall apart for the sake of the third act’. Ultimately, she loves horror because ‘it taps into human insecurities and fears; it’s about the strange and forbidden side of life’.
Cooper-Charles and Moo-Young are both extremely keen to emphasise the more thoughtful, intelligent aspects of horror; this careful explanation of their interest in the genre can be seen as a reaction against the sexist tendencies of horror and, in particular, slasher films. Although reluctant to talk about herself in terms of gender, Moo-Young concedes: ‘I wouldn’t ever want to generalise about fellow film directors – male or female – in terms of taste, but if a woman is a filmmaker working in horror, she’s probably not going to be making slasher films because she’ll have a female skew on violence towards women.’
This emphasis on psychological horror could also be a defence against genre snobbery; films that follow certain conventions or codes can easily be dismissed as less intelligent than other, less categorisable films. It is refreshing to talk to Moo-Young, not only because she steadfastly refuses to discuss being a woman in a discussion on gender, but also because she is very passionate about the horror genre and genre films in general. ‘I can’t really talk about it,’ she whispers, ‘but there’s a master document called the â€œbrainstorm of killsâ€, with lots of different ways people could be killed off’. She talks about ‘mapping fear’ and ‘hitting genre beats’ and, in addition to her horror film, she is developing two thrillers and a romantic comedy. She sees horror as providing an opportunity to subvert the normal rules of life. She talks about the closing of Let the Right One In providing a hugely satisfying ending for the audience but also an uneasy one: on the one hand, we want Eli and Oskar to be together; on the other, we anticipate Oskar’s dark future as he takes the place of her previous protector. In horror, often the good have to commit ordinarily immoral acts in order to survive, which disorientates and challenges the audience’s normal moral framework in interesting ways.
The importance of subversion makes the idea of female directors influencing the horror genre both a natural and exciting progression. Women can question the portrayal of female victims on screen and also, viewing the genre from an outside perspective, they can shake up a rule and convention-led art form.
Those genre films that work most successfully and stand the test of time are generally those that offer something different from the tried-and-tested formula. It sounds as if Darklight has tried to champion work that fits this description. We’ll look forward to seeing the results.
Statistics (Londonfeministfilmfestival.com, 2012)
Women comprised 5% of all directors working on the top 250 US films of 2011.
Martha M. Lauzen (2011) The Celluloid Ceiling. Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film
In the USA women made up just 22% of all feature length film directors represented at 25 film festivals during the 2008–2009 season.
Martha M. Lauzen (2011) Independent Women. Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film
The percentage of women directors on broadcast television programs in the USA has declined from 16% in 2009–2010 to 11% in 2010–2011.
Martha M. Lauzen (2011) Boxed In. Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film
An analysis by the Directors Guild of America (DGA) found that minority ethnic women directed just 1% of 2600 TV episodes in the 2010–2011 television season. Minority ethnic men directed 11% of episodes (the same percentage as Caucasian women), whilst Caucasian men directed 77% of all episodes.
DGA (2011) DGA Report Assesses Director Diversity in Hiring Practices for Episodic Television
The percentage of women depicted on screen is significantly higher for films with at least one woman director (44.4%) than for those with only male directors (31.7%).
Stacy L. Smith and Marc Choueiti Gender Inequality in Cinematic Content? A look at females on screen & behind the camera in top grossing 2008 films
Julie Dash was the first black female director to have a nationally released film with Daughters of the Dust in 1991.
Lamonia Brown (2010) Hollywood’s most overlooked resource: black female directors. The Grio
Between 2007 and 2010 just 11.8% of UK films released were directed by women.
2011 BFI Statistical Yearbook
Not a single film directed by a woman has ever been in the Sight & Sound critics’ annual greatest film poll since it was started in 1952. When in 2012 a longer list containing the 50 greatest films of all time was revealed for the first time only one film by a woman was represented, at number 35 – Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles by Chantal Akerman.
BFI The Sight & Sound greatest film poll archive
In an extended list of the critics’ Top 250 Films of All Time only 7 were directed by women.
All are directed by white women from Europe, North America or Australia. Not a single woman director from South America, Afica or Asia made the list.
BFI Sight & Sounds 250 Greatest Films of all Time
In 2012, only five of the top 100 films at the Australian box office had a female director. Just one of these films was solely directed by a woman, the other four were co-directed by a man.
Angela Priestley (2013) Long wait before more films made from a woman’s perspective. Women’s Agenda
Of the 20 top grossing films of 2011 in Germany (accounting for more than 20 million sold tickets) only 1 was directed by a woman. A second film was co-directed by a woman.
Extracted by the London Feminist Film Festival Team from FFA-info 1/2012. German Federal Film Board
Around 20% of all the feature films made in Sweden are by women.
Only 29 percent of feature films granted funding by SFI (Swedish Film Institute) in 2009 were directed by women.
Torun Börtz (2010) Swedish women behind the camera. Official website of Sweden
During the first decade of the 21st century, 22 women and 21 men graduated from the School of Film Directing in Gothenburg, Sweden, while the numbers for the University College of Film, Radio, Television, and Theatre in Stockholm were 10 men and six women. However women release their first film on average 10 years after graduation, compared to the average four years for men.
Torun Börtz (2010) Swedish women behind the camera. Official website of Sweden
Between 2000 and 2009 women directors were responsible for 23 percent of feature film debuts in Sweden.
Torun Börtz (2010) Swedish women behind the camera. Official website of Sweden
Of the 20 most watched debut films of the last decade in Sweden, only 5 (25%) had women directors. Among the critics’ top 20 Swedish debut films, seven (35%) were directed by women.
Torun Börtz (2010) Swedish women behind the camera. Official website of Sweden
In over 80 years only one woman has ever won the Academy Award for Best Director – Kathryn Bigelow (2009 – The Hurt Locker). Only three other women have ever been nominated for the award: Lina Wertmüller (1976 – Seven Beauties), Jane Campion (1993 – The Piano), and Sofia Coppola (2003 – Lost in Translation). The Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, which goes to the director, has been won by three women: Marleen Gorris (1995 – Antonia’s Line), Caroline Link (2002 – Nowhere in Africa), and Susanne Bier (2010 – In a Better World). All these films were directed by white women from Europe, North America, or Australia.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
At the 2010 and 2012 Cannes Film Festivals there were no women directors shortlisted for the Palme d’Or. The highest number of women directors who have been shortlisted is four (20%), in 2011.
Charlotte Higgins (2011) Palme pioneers: women directors at Cannes. The Guardian
Cannes 2011 Festival Selection. Cannes Film Festival website
Vanessa Thorpe (2012) Cannes 2012: Why have no female film directors been nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes? The Guardian
Directors UK and BBC to pilot training for women directors (Directors.uk.com, 2014)
Directors UK and the BBC are piloting two new workshops aimed at women directors returning to work after a career break or repositioning their directing career. The training initiatives are being introduced as a result of Directors UK’s strategy to work with broadcasters and production houses to explore ways of increasing the numbers of women working as directors across film and television.
The workshops will offer advice and guidance to women directors returning to work or who are seeking a renewed impetus, with tips and techniques on how to re-launch, maintain and develop a successful freelance directing career following a break. At the end of each there will be a networking event giving the directors an opportunity to meet with key BBC Commissioners and Executives.
The pilot for this initiative is being delivered as part of the ongoing working partnership between Directors UK and the BBC and reflects the Broadcaster’s commitment to develop a sustainable action plan aimed at improving opportunities for women directors. The workshops will be run by Helen Matthews from Media Parents and Shiona Llewellyn – a well-known career development specialist – and will be held during March and April in London and Salford.
Directors UK Chief Executive Andrew Chowns: “We are pleased that the BBC is working with us to deliver practical training and networking opportunities for women directors. Empowering women returning to work is a positive step towards our goal of improving the employment prospects of women directors across film and television.”
Kate Harwood, BBC Head of Drama, England commented: “Ben Stephenson and I are keen to drive this initiative encouraging and supporting women directors either returning to work or developing their careers across the industry. We believe this is the first step towards growing a more representative talent pool and we look forward to making a difference.”
BFI Statistical Yearbook Shows Decline in UK Female Writers and Directors (Wftv.org.uk, 2013)
This morning, the BFI announced the key findings of it’s Statistical Yearbook, which annually presents the most comprehensive picture of film in the UK as well as the performance of British films abroad.
Since 2007, the tracking of statistics for the number of female writers and directors has been included as part of the Employment in the Film Industry section of the report (formerly compiled by the UK Film Council).
This year’s report, which draws on data from 2012, showed that UK women film writers declined from 18.9% of the total writers in 2011 to 13.4% (25 writers) in 2012, the second-lowest number in five years.
Even more worryingly, women accounted for just 7.8% of directors on UK films in 2012, a decrease of more than 7% year-on-year (15% in 2011). This translates into 165 male directors and 14 female directors, and puts women directors in film almost on a par with the 8% of female directors currently working in TV drama as revealed by Directors UK earier this year.
Read the full Statistical Yearbook online or download it as a PDF here.
In 2013, we published a report Succès de plume? Female Screenwriters and Directorsof UK Films, 2010-2012 which showed that although the numbers of female writers and directors of UK films released are consistently low, recently higher proportions of women have been associated with successful films (see link at end of chapter).Of the independent UK films released between 2010 and 2012, just 16% of the writers and 11% of the directors were women. However, for the top 20 UK independent films over the same period, women represented 37% of the writers and 18% of the directors. And for profitable UK independent films, 30% of the writers were women.Successful female writers and directors of independent UK films over this period include: Jane Goldman (The Woman in Black and Kick-Ass), Debbie Isitt (Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger), Phyllida Lloyd and Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady), Dania Pasquini and Jane English (StreetDance and StreetDance 2), and Lucinda Whiteley (Horrid Henry: The Movie).In addition to independent UK films, a number of female writers and directors had success over the same period working on UK-USA studio titles. Examples include: Jane Goldman (X-Men: First Class), Lone Scherfig (One Day), Sarah Smith (Arthur Christmas), Susanna White and Emma Thompson (Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang).In 2013, of the 155 identified writers of UK films released during the year, 22 (14%) were womenThe proportion of female directors in 2013 was higher than in 2012,
British film is booming but not for female directors (Vincent, 2013)
British Film continues to break records at the global box office, but just one of the UK’s highest grossing films since 2001 was directed by a woman.
Statistics released from the British Film Institute show that UK film is continuing to entertain around the world, taking $5.3 billion (£3.5 billion) at the global box office.
However, female filmmakers are seeing a mere fraction of this.
Of the British films that were included in the top 200 grossing films worldwide between 2001 and 2012, only one was directed by a woman: the 2008 musical Mamma Mia, which was directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Female-directed films took 4.5% of the $1.3 billion (£8.6 billion) earned by the top British films.
The BFI also charted the British stars who had made more than four appearances in the Top 200 films, either as lead or supporting roles. Of these 12, eight were men and three were women: Helena Bonham Carter, Julie Walters and Emma Watson.
Together, Bonham Carter, Walters and Watson made 24 appearances in the top 200 films, compared with the 55 made by the male stars. Of the total box office takings from the top films, those featuring Bonham Carter, Walters and Watson had a 30 per cent share.
Films inspired or based on novels or original screenplays by British writers took $17.7 billion (£11.5 billion) at the global box office since 2001. Earnings from films based on titles written by men are only marginally higher than those written by women: $9.4 billion to $8.3 billion, respectively. However, there were only two female UK authors on that list: JK Rowling and Catherine Johnson, who wrote the musical book and screenplay for Mamma Mia!
In contrast, books and screenplays by seven male authors had inspired successful films: Ian Fleming, HG Wells, CS Lewis, Christopher Nolan, JRR Tolkein and Lewis Carroll.
Beryl Richards, a director and chair of the Directors UK Women’s Working Group, said the lack of women involved in the British film industry was “appalling, but just not generally noticed”. She explained that there was a correlation between the unrepresentation of women in the top 200 films and the fact they are in the action, thriller and fantasy genres. “There’s significant gender stereotyping and misconceptions about who’s allowed to direct in which genre. Women just don’t get access to those areas of film.”
At the Empire Awards in March Dame Helen Mirren criticised director Sam Mendes, who directed the UK’s highest grossing film of all time, Skyfall, for not acknowledging women in the film industry.
Why are there so few female film-makers? (Cochrane, 2010)
For Vanity Fair’s annual Hollywood issue a few years back, photographer Annie Leibovitz created a classic image of a film director at work. Posing beneath a stormy sky, George Clooney stood with his shirt ripped open, trousers tucked rakishly into his boots, arms outstretched – a young Orson Welles meets Michelangelo’s vision of God. His crew were a crowd of female models in flesh-coloured lingerie; not the obvious costume for a camera operator, but there you are. This was the auteur as masculine genius, a warrior amid a sea of passive women.
This has long been the archetype of the film director, but over the last few months a host of women have been making waves: Sam Taylor-Wood with Nowhere Boy, Lone Scherfig with An Education, Andrea Arnold with Fish Tank. Then there are Kathryn Bigelow and Jane Campion, both trailing Oscar buzz for The Hurt Locker and Bright Star respectively.
So, is this a new era for female film-makers? Unfortunately, the numbers suggest otherwise.
In a study published last year, Professor Martha Lauzen of San Diego State University found that only 9% of Hollywood directors in 2008 were women – the same figure she had recorded in 1998. If Bigelow is nominated for the best directing Oscar in March, it will be only the fourth time a woman has been nominated, out of more than 400 director nominations altogether (the other three were Lina Wertmüller in 1976, Jane Campion in 1993, and Sofia Coppola in 2003). No woman has ever won.
No wonder, then, that last year Campion entreated aspiring female directors to “put on their coats of armour and get going”.
Once, the dearth of women directors could be traced to the small numbers entering film school. These days, that’s not the case.
Lauzen says women are now well represented in US film schools, while Neil Peplow, of the UK training organisation Skillset, says women make up around 34% of directing students in Britain. That translates into a large number of female graduates making short films, but few moving on to features.
Over the years, this failure to progress has often been blamed on a chauvinist culture; and certainly, talking to established directors, it’s easy to uncover tales of overt sexism – from the mildly disconcerting to the downright illegal. The British film director Antonia Bird (Priest, Mad Love) says dryly that on her first directing job, “I was the only woman there, and all the guys just assumed I was the producer’s PA. That was good.” Director Beeban Kidron (Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason) once sacked a male assistant director who called her “the little lady”. At the extreme end, US film director Penelope Spheeris, who made the $100m-grossing Wayne’s World, remembers meeting an executive at the Beverly Hills Hotel when she was at the start of her career. “And the guy was pretty drunk, and he ripped some of my clothes trying to take them off me, and when I got up and started screaming he said, ‘Did you want to make this music video or not?'” She pauses. “You say sexist, I say felony.”
When it comes to sexism, Martha Coolidge – director of Rambling Rose and Real Genius, as well as the first woman president of the Directors Guild of America – has heard it all. There was the story of the female president of a major studio who said “no woman over 40 could possibly have the stamina to direct a feature film. I’ve heard people say that the kind of films they want to make are too big, too tough for a female director. The worst was when my agent sent another woman director in for an interview, and afterwards the guy called up and said, ‘Never send anyone again who I wouldn’t want to fuck.'”
There are signs that this culture is changing. A 2009 report – carried out by the UK networking organisation Women in Film and Television (WFTV) and Skillset – found that, while “a number of older participants reported direct experience of overt sexism, none of the younger participants [did]”. But Coolidge insists that the film industry – and Hollywood specifically – remains a minefield,
because “there is such a sexual component for the men who go into it. If all they wanted to do is to make money, they could just go to Wall Street. If you’re a male executive, a producer – and I’m not talking about everybody, but the vast majority – you’re there partly because you’re surrounded by gorgeous girls. And that means that the older a woman is, the less they want them around. A woman would disrupt the flow of their lives.” Coolidge and others point out that this is as true for black, working-class, and gay film-makers – in fact, anyone outside a small circle of privilege.
More subtle reasons have been mooted for the dearth of women at the top. One suggestion I heard is that women are brought up to negotiate in very different ways from men, which is problematic in a male-dominated environment. Coolidge doesn’t agree with this – “there are plenty of women who are good negotiators” – but Kate Kinninmont of WFTV says she has noticed that, while “women are brilliant at pitching somebody else, they’re not often good at pitching themselves”. Lauzen says reporters have told her that “when they talk to the guys, they can’t shut ’em up. But when they talk to the women, it’s like pulling teeth . . . Women have to promote themselves, but when they do, it’s seen as being unfeminine.”
There is also the simple fact that the fewer women there are at the top, the fewer role models and mentors there are; those women who do forge ahead often talk of having to actively ignore the figures.
Kidron says that when she was making her first film, she had “a phone call from a journalist who said, ‘Do you know you’re only the third woman ever to make a feature film in Britain?’ And I said, ‘Oh, please don’t tell me,’ and put the phone down, because I didn’t want the pressure.”
A lack of female film-makers also seems to have made it difficult for studios to imagine women in charge. Film is big business, filled with financial risk, and so “the whole industry is based on demonstrable success,” says Peplow. “Unless something has worked in the past, it’s very rare that people will take a risk. There’s this perception that, well, traditionally it’s a man’s role, so we won’t buck that.”
It’s true that men have directed the great majority of high-grossing films over the last decade. The website indiewire.com recently reported that, of the 241 films that had grossed $100m or more in the US over the last 10 years, only seven were directed by women (Shrek, Shark Tale, Twilight, What Women Want, The Proposal, Mamma Mia!, and Something’s Gotta Give).
But a closer look at the figures reveals that women film-makers aren’t a bigger financial risk. In 2008, Lauzen conducted a study called Women@the Box Office, which found that the key to big grosses wasn’t the gender of the film-maker, but the budget. Big budgets equalled big grosses. “When women and men have similar budgets,” she wrote, “the resulting box office grosses are also similar.”
The problem is that the biggest budgets tend to be given to films that appeal to teenage boys – still considered the most frequent, most enthusiastic moviegoers (this may be because so many films are aimed at them, but that’s another argument). There’s no reason why women can’t make films for this audience – as Spheeris did with Wayne’s World. But female directors say that it is difficult to get assigned to the kind of comedy, horror or action movie that would establish their box office chops.
Despite the enormous success of films such as Mamma Mia! and Twilight, executives often seem perplexed by films with female themes. “I’ve been there when a film with a female protagonist has been screened,” says Lauzen, “and the guys at the top go, ‘Well, I don’t get it.’ When the majority of people in power are male, who are they going to relate to most on screen, and who do they think other people are going to relate to? Males. That’s no big conspiracy. I don’t even think it’s conscious, honestly.” Bird agrees. “One of the big problems is that, 90% of the time, the people who you pitch your idea to are male, and even though they might be very sympathetic, they do look at the world from a different perspective.”
I ask Lauzen whether she thinks female film careers are interrupted by motherhood, and she says no, as do Kinninmont and Coolidge (the latter has extensive experience of juggling the two). They point out that directors tend to be highly driven; there are many cases of heavily pregnant women and young mothers making films. “A lot of them will say, ‘Look, I wouldn’t let that get in my way,'” says Lauzen.
Kidron, however, says that motherhood has affected her career “more than gender . . . At a certain point I had to stop making films in America, and make them here, which made a huge difference. Obviously men also give up an enormous amount for their families, but there are many male directors who have partners who take primary care of the family, or who are free to travel with them. That is rarely true the other way around. I absolutely don’t want to suggest that women are unreliable because we’re mothers – on the contrary. But the question of who brings up the kids has a material effect on all women’s careers.”
Bird agrees. “Film directing is more than a full-time job. When you’re making a film, it takes up every day of your life, 16 to 18 hours a day, for a year. Trying to have children and being a film director is virtually impossible unless you’re rich.” Bird doesn’t have children: “If I look deep down inside myself,” she says, “I’m quite sure that I never did it because I never really had time.”
The problems facing female directors are structural and systemic, a tangled mix of sexism, cultural differences between men and women, and maternity issues; in this, they mirror the problems affecting many women in male-dominated workplaces. But the film industry magnifies all this. As Spheeris says: “When the stakes are high, when fame and extreme amounts of money and power are involved, it’s a jungle out there. It’s brutal. How hard do you want to fight?”
Thankfully, many women are prepared to fight. British director Lindy Heymann, for instance, whose second feature, Kicks, is released this year, says that one of the great lessons from shooting that film was the realisation that she “didn’t have to be liked, that that’s the last thing you should be thinking about”. She’s just one of the film-makers heeding Campion’s rally cry, getting her armour on; given the high visibility of female film-makers now – Drew Barrymore makes her directorial debut this year, and there are films in the pipeline from Claire Denis, Gurinder Chadha, Nicole Holofcener, Julie Taymor and Sofia Coppola – perhaps others will be inspired, too. If Bigelow raises that gold statuette in March, many more women might breach the boys’ club.
10 great British films directed by women (British Film Institute, 2014)
It was decades before more than a handful of women had the opportunity to direct feature films in the UK. With Joanna Hogg’s third film, Exhibition, confirming her as among our best new filmmakers, we look back at some of the greatest British films by female directors.
|Exhibition, backed by the BFI Film Fund, is in cinemas nationwide and on the BFI Player from 25 April.|
Exhibition, the third feature by Joanna Hogg (Unrelated, 2008; Archipelago, 2011), fits flush alongside Chantal Akerman’s Toute une nuit (1982), recently screened by Hogg as part of her film club A Nos Amours’ rare retrospective of Akerman’s films at London’s ICA. Both films are set in urban environments (Exhibition’s location is west London). Both feature often unexplained psychosexual encounters between couples (The Slits guitarist Viv Albertine and YBA conceptual artist Liam Gillick play Hogg’s married couple D and H). Both use homes, windows and doorways to structure choreographed interactions that physically explore urban anxiety and tender love. Confirming Hogg as one of the foremost directors working in Britain today, Exhibition unfolds like a Pina Bausch dance piece.
Information and materials about the history of female directors in the UK is as ambiguous and evasive as the meanings offered by Exhibition, but some probing proves equally rewarding. Looking back to the 1920s, Dinah Shurey was probably Britain’s only female feature film director of the decade, with her lost 1929 film The Last Post currently in the top 10 of our Most Wanted list.
Jump forward to the 1930s and novelist Elinor Glyn is credited in directing two films, Knowing Men and The Price of Things (both 1930). Although a number of female directors flourished making non-fiction films in the 30s and 40s (Mary Field, Marion Grierson, Kay Mander, Ruby Grierson), moving into fiction feature films was even more difficult. Only in the 1950s did the trickle start to become a stream, with films by Wendy Toye, Muriel Box and Lorenza Mazzetti.
Alarmingly, the 1960s, that decade of social upheaval and early women’s liberation, brought few opportunities for British women behind the camera (Joan Littlewood with the 1962 Sparrows Can’t Sing is a rare exception).
The radical experimentalist Jane Arden held the reins in the 1970s (with Laura Mulvey co-directing Riddles of the Sphinx with Peter Woollen in 1976), while in the 1980s bravely experimental (but now hard to see) work was produced by filmmakers such as Sarah Turner, Pratibha Parmar, Margaret Tait and Ngozi Onwurah that would lay the groundwork for later features.
Onwurah went on to be the first black British female director of a feature film with Welcome II the Terrordome in 1995 (also sadly unavailable). Then, in the 1980s and 90s, the floodgates finally began to open, with funding from the BFI and Film Four increasing the visibility of a new generation of female auteurs, including Sally Potter, Penny Woolcock, Kim Longinotto and Lynne Ramsay.
Focusing on titles that are readily available in the UK, here are some of Britain’s finest films directed by women.
Selina Robertson and Jemma Desai
Blue Scar (1949)
Director Jill Craigie
|Blue Scar is available to view in BFI Mediatheques.|
Jill Craigie made her name with a string of excellent documentaries. She made only one fiction feature, the coalmining drama Blue Scar, set in south-west Wales. Olwen (Gwyneth Vaughan) leaves her sweetheart to pursue a singing career in London, while Tom (Emrys Jones) sticks to his roots and eventually becomes manager of the village colliery. But will he try and win Olwen back?
A socialist, Craigie laces her film with sharp political comment. The coalmining industry had been nationalised two years previously, yet she is careful to show the flaws in the new system, while her expert location shooting in Abergwynfi adds great authenticity, and a scene in which an accident occurs down the pit is particularly chilling. Craigie followed Blue Scar with her very best film, the documentary To Be a Woman (1951), arguing for equal pay.
Simon and Laura (1955)
Director Muriel Box
Long before the comedy series W1A, the BBC was mercilessly satirised on the big screen in Muriel Box’s Technicolor extravaganza Simon and Laura. From the corporation’s addiction to acronyms to the slavish pursuit of the inane, the film dissects the world of 1950s television. Adapted from a popular stage play, it also manages to mock the bane of 21st century home-viewing – the reality TV show. Simon and Laura Foster are a theatrical couple whose relationship and careers are on the rocks. When they’re offered a TV series depicting their idyllic home life they can’t refuse the work, but the programme lays bare the fault lines in their marriage.
The film is a riot of repartee between the Fosters (Peter Finch and Kay Kendall), and Box keeps the action moving at a slick pace. Simon and Laura combines a script worthy of the best 1930s screwball comedies with the pleasures of widescreen colour, ably assisted in this by art director Carmen Dillon and costume designer Julie Harris.
Director Joy Batchelor
Based on the comic opera by Gilbert & Sullivan, Ruddigore was originally commissioned for American television but released theatrically in the UK, making it only the second animated feature to be made in Britain. The first was 1954’s Animal Farm, which was co-directed by the same remarkable lady, Joy Batchelor.
To emphasise how exceptional this is, there would not be another British animated feature directed by a woman until Sarah Smith’s Arthur Christmas in 2011.
Personally, I consider it an even bigger achievement of Joy’s that Ruddigore has enough to engage and often delight me despite the unpleasant shudder that goes down my spine at the first notes of a Gilbert & Sullivan work.
The BFI National Archive holds the notepads in which Batchelor stripped the libretto down to around half its original length, while sketching out a storyboard shot-by-shot and designing the characters. The women in the film are particularly strong, especially the bridesmaid chorus who move and dance as one in a curtain of pink chiffon with delightful comic touches.
The Other Side of the Underneath (1972)
Director Jane Arden
One of the most uncompromisingly radical feminist films ever made in Britain (and, almost unbelievably, the only 1970s British feature film solo-directed by a woman), Jane Arden’s The Other Side of the Underneath is a fractured study of highly disturbed young women undergoing therapy in a run-down Victorian-era asylum in the deceptively idyllic Welsh countryside. It remains that rarest of beasts: a film that takes female mental illness and its various manifestations and ramifications wholly seriously.
Very loosely adapted from Arden’s 1971 multimedia stage piece A New Communion for Freaks, Prophets and Witches, the film blends conventional dramatic performance (Arden herself plays a psychiatrist), nightmarishly symbolic hallucinations, actual group therapy sessions and a grotesque pagan ‘festival’ in which the use of real ‘outcasts’ (people genuinely ostracised by conventional society, often for mental-health reasons) arguably tips the film over into outright exploitation, only defensible as part of Arden’s desire to shake her audience out of any lingering complacency at every possible opportunity.
Director Sally Potter
|Watch Orlando now on the BFI Player.|
Sally Potter’s witty and ravishing Orlando bursts onto the screen full of sly jokes, visual delights and startling insights. This intrepid adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s ‘unfilmable’ novel of the same title stars Tilda Swinton in dazzling form as the title character, travelling through 400 years of English history and changing sex in the process. Quentin Crisp also glitters as a stunning Queen Elizabeth I.
Swinton’s glances and words to the camera are an inventive interpretation of Virginia Woolf’s direct addresses to her readers. Orlando typifies Potter’s multifarious approach to filmmaking ever since her teenage experimental work and her ongoing involvement in other branches of the arts – including choreography and music.
Bhaji on the Beach (1993)
Director Gurinder Chadha
It’s been 20 years since Gurinder Chadha’s debut feature arrived on screens, raising eyebrows with its brash comedic portrait of British Asian women dealing with life’s disappointments while enjoying a day at the seaside. The script by Chadha and Meera Syal tackles an impressive array of issues – domestic abuse, interracial tensions and unplanned pregnancy all feature and are deftly managed by the ensemble cast. While several of the women are seeking escape on their day out, others are just hoping to meet boys and it all reaches a surprising climax as the group attends a male strip show.
The culture clash between older and younger generations, a hallmark of Chadha’s work, provides much of the comedy as well as some tender moments. Bhaji on the Beach remains lively and poignant with some charming flourishes, including one character’s Bollywood-inspired daydreams and lovingly shot scenes of Blackpool’s Golden Mile. Chadha went on to direct the hugely popular Bend It like Beckham (2002).
Under the Skin (1997)
Director Carine Adler
No relation to Jonathan Glazer’s recent film, Brazilian-born writer/director Carine Adler’s Under the Skin is a phenomenally intense drama that charts the psychological breakdown of 19-year-old Iris (played by Samantha Morton in her first starring role), who, prompted by the untimely death of her mother, tries to find meaning for herself through relentless and increasingly masochistic casual sex with strangers.
Shot by Ken Loach’s regular cinematographer, Barry Ackroyd, the film’s hand-held angles and obscured shots succinctly mirror Iris’s inner chaos. Significantly, Rita Tushingham plays Iris’s mother, creating a link between Under the Skin and A Taste of Honey, an earlier British feminist film from 1961 that explored a mother-daughter relationship and a young woman’s emancipation. The film won the Michael Powell Award at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1997 and was a landmark moment for British and feminist cinema in its fresh and uncompromising exploration of female sexuality, the body and familial relationships from a female perspective. Sadly, Adler stepped away from filmmaking in 2002.
The Arbor (2010)
Director Clio Barnard
I don’t really believe in documentary’s ability to tell the truth and I don’t really believe in any idea of authenticity in terms of a style of filmmaking, no matter what the subject matter is. – Clio Barnard
Clio Barnard’s experimental debut feature, The Arbor, is as much a critique of the documentary form as it is a riveting portrait of a housing estate and its inhabitants, in particular the working-class playwright Andrea Dunbar, best known for writing Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1987).
The film’s title derives from the street in Bradford’s Buttershaw estate, Brafferton Arbor, where Dunbar was brought up and drew inspiration for her gritty realist plays. Eschewing convention, Barnard, who shares her protagonist’s Yorkshire roots, revisited a method of storytelling that she had experimented with in one of her earlier shorts, Random Acts of Intimacy (2002), in which actors lip-synch to audio recordings of real people talking about having sex with strangers. Deployed in The Arbor, the technique gives nuance to the realist elements and results in a subtly unsettling film that hailed the arrival of a fresh voice in British cinema. Her second film is the highly acclaimed social-realist fable The Selfish Giant (2013).
Dreams of a Life (2011)
Director Carol Morley
In January 2006, the body of Joyce Carol Vincent was discovered in a North London bedsit. Her death, from unknown causes, remained undetected for over two years. In Dreams of a Life, filmmaker Carol Morley attempts to piece together the fragments of Vincent’s life in order to understand how this popular woman’s death could remain undiscovered for so long. A number of Vincent’s friends and former colleagues contribute to the film, sharing their memories and anecdotes about her; a moving eulogy to someone who clearly touched many lives.
Morley and her producer Cairo Cannon have a proud filmography of work that finds universal resonance in deeply personal stories. Here their investigations lead to a film that not only gives testament to Vincent’s life but also evokes the unique bond between friends and the particular grief felt when they are gone.
Wuthering Heights (2011)
Director Andrea Arnold
|Watch Wuthering Heights now on the BFI Player.|
Andrea Arnold’s first two features, Red Road (2006) and Fish Tank (2009), feature complex and flawed female leads in urban settings, establishing her as a writer/director firmly rooted in the social-realist British tradition. For her third feature, she turned her hand to another thoroughly British genre – the literary adaptation – with startling results. Notably, the casting of the unknown James Howson as her adult Heathcliff threatened to overshadow the film’s reception, with stories emerging that his voice had been dubbed by another actor’s voice in the edit.
Whatever the imperfection of the film’s second half, Wuthering Heights is a visionary piece of filmmaking, and a thoroughly modern adaptation. Redrawing Heathcliff from a vaguely exotic mysterious stranger to a most definitely black and fiercely resented outsider, Arnold strips back the trappings and distance of traditional costume drama. It is her work with director of photography Robbie Ryan that’s the real revelation though: together they create a natural landscape that brutally evokes the passionate cruelty at the gothic heart of the source material.
Women and Film (Hedditch, 2014)
Women on both sides of the Camera
To look separately at the role of women in the fields of film, video and television in Britain is to recognise that the experiences of women in these areas are somehow different to those of men. The work by women in moving image production both reflects and informs the position of women within British society since the 1920s.
In the silent period, Mary Field and sisters Marion and Ruby Grierson took advantage of the camaraderie and pioneering spirit of the time by joining the British documentary movement, where they made opportunities for themselves and other women to enter the system of film production.
Their influence and impact on the movement was significant: Field is noted for her work on the Secrets of Nature series (1922-33) and for her inauguration, in 1944, of the children’s entertainment division of British Instructional Films.
During the Second World War, women were among many filmmakers employed to make films for the Ministry of Information. Muriel Box, once a continuity girl, began directing short documentaries. In the postwar period, there were great changes for women in society; women demanded more autonomy and the opportunity to fulfil their potential.
In contrast, the film industry, unions and work conditions retained a rigid structure, and many women directors were rejected or moved to less influential roles.
By the 1950s, women already played a key role as audience members and consumers of film culture. Understanding female audiences became an important factor in the success or failure of a film. The melodrama genre is designed to appeal to a specifically female audience because of its emotional and sentimental content, and its depiction of femininity.
Although great consumers of the film, few women directed during this period, although one notable exception is Wendy Toye.
The British new wave saw a new depiction of women and sexuality, in films like Poor Cow (d. Ken Loach, 1967) and A Taste of Honey (d. Tony Richardson, 1961), which departed from the romantic vision of melodrama. Female characters were seen to break moral codes and defy expectations of how they should behave. But in the hands of male directors, the representation of women in these films tells us more about the position of men and their feelings about women than about the way women feel about themselves.
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, as well as education and the emerging film theory. 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 women 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 in 1982 of Channel 4, with its remit to cater for ‘minority audiences’, brought some hope to women film and video directors. Although there was no specific remit to support women’s work, a number of documentary series by women were commissioned, including the weekly current affairs programmes 20/20 Vision and Broadside, and the magazine show Watch the Woman. The ACTT Workshop Declaration of 1984 offered further opportunities for groups of women filmmakers to break through the barriers that had previously prevented them entering the industry, and became the basis for Channel 4 commisions.
The 1980s brought increased awareness of discrimination against women technicians and pressure on institutions such as the British Film Institute to support women’s work. Through the BFI’s education department and production fund there was some temporary support for British feminist films and funding for feminist distributors.
During the 1990s, shifts in politics and a transformation of production and exhibition technologies allowed greater accessibility to the media, but the new market economy and a backlash against feminism contributed to a move away from overtly feminist practice.
Today, despite the successes of Sally Potter, Antonia Bird and Lynne Ramsay, there are still relatively few women directing, particularly in feature films; they are more commonly found in production roles. In the areas of documentary and experimental film, however, women have directed a substantial body of work. 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.
Where the girls are: female filmmakers at the 10th London Short Film Festival (Coatman, 2014)
Boys got to make nearly all the big films in 2012 – yet further down the film chain women directors are flourishing. Is this ghettoisation, or headway?
Credit: Luke Varley
“Everything seems to be about being successful,” laments Philip Ilson, the co-founder and director of the London Short Film Festival. “A lot of filmmakers, though, are getting out there and making stuff because they’re passionate about it; they don’t know if it’s going to be successful or not. And it’s the same with us…”
We’re talking outside Screen 2 at the ICA, after back-to-back programmes of short films entitled ‘Femmes Fantastique’ and ‘Teenage Girls Go Crazy!’ Images as vivid and varied as a grieving mother smoking her way through her son’s weed stash, a swirling murder of crows in a cloudless sky and a plump white tampon soaked in vodka are freshly imprinted in my head. LSFF10 is in full swing.
Still going strong after a decade, while a number of similar operations have recently either wobbled or called it quits, the LSFF has, actually, been rather successful. But Ilson is determined to ensure it retains a DIY ethos nonetheless. This “slightly sort of punk aesthetic” is signalled by the tagline to this year’s proceedings, ‘Dare to Fail’, which is taken from a John Cassavetes quote (discovered via its adoption by 1980s hardcore band Minor Threat): “As an artist, I feel that we must try many things, but above all we must dare to fail.”
The day after I spoke to Ilson, the nominations for the BAFTAs were announced – and then promptly elbowed out of the limelight by the nominations for the Oscars. The awards, arguably, epitomise the celebration of ‘success’ to which the LSFF aims to provide an antidote. While their field of vision seems bounded to the mainstream, the festival is on the lookout for the leftfield, scheduling animations, installations, live music and midnight ‘happenings’ into its programme. The ‘failure’ of the films Sightseers and Berberian Sound Studio to garner much attention in the shortlists only compounded this impression – particularly as Alice Lowe (co-writer/star of the former film) and Peter Strickland (writer-director of the latter) both gave talks about their formative forays in short films at the LSFF.
But this wasn’t the only contrast.
With the exception of Kathryn Bigelow, who has been nominated for BAFTA for Zero Dark Thirty, both lists of best-director nominations are made up exclusively of men. This would seem to suggest there are very few women out there directing films. Yet the demographics of the LSFF programme showed this was not at all the case; women directed almost 40 per cent of the new shorts in the festival.
That percentage included the actress Romola Garai, whose behind-the-camera debut Scrubber (above) won the Underwire Award, and Ivana Bobic [homepage], who both directed the LSFF10 trailer and launched her collaborative installation Signals (see the first video section embedded below). It included Alice Lowe and Jacqueline Wright ‘in conversation’ about their collaborative work, as well as Jemma Desai, presenting her project I am Dora, which explores women’s identification with each other through film, and Ruth Paxton [homepage], whose films were shown as an installation at the ICA throughout the week.
The BAFTAs and the Oscars do reflect one truth, however: in the world of major Hollywood feature films, women account for just five per cent of directors. (That rises to 22 per cent of Sundance feature films, and nearly half of Sundance documentaries.)
The question this throws up – ‘Why Can’t Women Make Feature Films?’ – was asked in a panel discussion chaired by Kate Taylor (Ilson’s LSFF co-founder) at the Underwire Film Festival (a festival for shorts by women) last November, prompted by the comparatively large number of female filmmakers who submitted shorts to the LSFF a year ago. When I spoke to female filmmakers at this year’s festival, it was clear many of them are finding themselves forced to ask it too.
Fran Broadhurst is one half of the writing and directing duo Mathy & Fran [homepage], who made The Lights and then the Noise (above), a fiercely energetic, black and white film set at a No Age gig. She explained that she had experienced a lot of encouragement when making shorts: “There’s a lot of support currently available for female directors at the shorts, or ‘entry’, level, which is great – I work in a male/female directing partnership, so have been able to see it from both sides – and there are far more opportunities that present themselves to me than to my male co-director.”
The kind of help she described was in evidence in the industry element of the LSFF, as Cassandra Neal, the producer of this year’s festival, outlined: “We have an event with Underwire festival – a dinner specifically for women filmmakers. We’ve also got WFTV hosting a mentoring event. So there is slightly more emphasis on this kind of support than there has been in previous years.”
On the other hand, “the world of features seems a different beast altogether,” Broadhurst noted. “There’s a notable gap between the amount of women making shorts and those established in features, and at the top of the industry I think there’s still a resistance towards new female talent. There’s a dominance of male directors and producers, and has been for some time.”
A similar picture was painted by Muriel D’Ansembourg [homepage]. Her film Good Night [homepage; pictured at top] is about girls growing up in a culture that seems to value ‘sexiness’ above all else. It was screened alongside Mathy & Fran’s, and has just been nominated for the Best Short Film BAFTA. D’Ansembourg is currently planning on making a feature film with a similar subject, and is aware that she’ll be confronting a much more male-dominated world: “The [female] talent that I’ve seen come out of film school makes me really surprised how few female filmmakers there are out there eventually – making feature films. And I’d like to know why – because I definitely think there’s something going on.”
The suggestions as to what this something could be ranged from a lack of confidence in women – both on their own account and on the part of investors – to a business culture where taking time out to have a family spells disaster, to the possibility that stories told by women aren’t considered as interesting, or commercial, by the film industry. Each possibility has a bigger story behind it, and deserves much more space than I can give it here.
Little wonder then that some female filmmakers choose to stay well clear from the industry altogether. Rachel Garfield [homepage], whose experimental but very personal The Straggle featured in the festival’s fascinating ‘Artist’s Documentary Elegies for Ideologies’ programme, makes her films within the art world instead. Chiming with Ilson’s ‘slightly sort of punk’ ambitions, she pondered: “There seems a big rush for people to make feature films. For some, it’s fantastic, but I also ask, Why? Is it that you think that’s the real deal, and you really wanted to make feature films before but couldn’t? I love feature films but they don’t interest me as a form at all, so I don’t even try to make them. And I don’t try to get funding either.”
Of course there are – and always have been – women who have tried, and succeeded, in making feature films. Andrea Arnold was championed in previous years by the LSFF, and went on to make the features Red Road, Fish Tank and Wuthering Heights, each of which met with enormous critical acclaim.
Likewise Carol Morley began by making shorts – including My Neighbour Stalin, shown as part of a Pussy Riot fundraiser in the festival – and released her first feature, Dreams of a Life, in 2011. She told me, “I have no idea how I got here – other than going through a process of just knowing there were stories I wanted to tell, then grappling with how to tell them. It’s difficult but I consider it really ideologically and politically important to make films. When you see something made by somebody with a different perspective, it has a power.”
The importance of seeing different perspectives on screen – and of having different female role models to look up to – was echoed by many of the filmmakers I spoke to, including Alice Lowe, who’s now working on a new feature which she will this time direct. “You need someone who’s a bit like you, but further along in their career. And it is very hard to find those kind of mentors, because there aren’t so many female directors out there.”
She was optimistic, however, that this is something that will change. “Enjoy being a woman” was her advice for other female filmmakers. “Enjoy the fact that you’re still edgy, in terms of the [perceptions of the] film industry. It’s new, exciting and kind of taboo. I think that soon, finally, people in the industry will start to think ‘Ah!’ and [wake up to] that.”
So perhaps for the new generation of female filmmakers – the ones now showing shorts at festivals – daring to fail might be the key to success.
25 January 2013: The original version of this article misattributed Ian Pons Jewell’s video Helioscope to Ivana Bobic; her installation work has now been correctly labelled as Signals.
On Tuesday 11 November, the fifth UnderWire Festival will open at The Yard in Hackney Wick. Founded by Gemma Mitchell and myself in 2010 with the aim to foreground female filmmaking talent, the opening night’s screenings are always of the XX Award Category. Unique to UnderWire, films selected for this award are of women’s stories and feature female characters at their core.
Remembering the mixture of despair and cynical amusement at the hoard of PVC-clad, gun-wielding dominatrix characters vying (unsuccessfully) for selection on the shortlist in the first year, submissions are now filled with the golden roles we need more of from the mainstream!
Opening Night always creates a joyous atmosphere on which to begin this celebration of vital and original female voices making themselves heard in the UK film industry. Film after film presents women who are rarely shown, stories barely told, and views scarcely known: the night energises everyone present, and sets the tone for the week ahead perfectly!
Image courtesy of UnderWire Festival (Still from He Took His Skin Off For Me – Producer shortlist)
Throughout the programme are stunningly diverse fiction, documentary and animation films. The festival has grown from six categories in the first year, to 10, recognising female talent in editing, cinematography, sound design, composing, writing, directing, producing, and acting, together with a special BFI Future Film Award for Under 25s.
Cast your eye over the recently announced nominations for the British Independent Film Awards, or for any major award ceremony over the past few years in fact, and you will see that women are rarely recognised for their contribution to film.
The excellent Melissa Silverstein on her blog Women and Hollywood does regular round-ups of the statistics, and they are far from pretty.
Of course it’s easy to get bogged down in all that’s wrong with the state of things, but that’s also a little boring too, so UnderWire has always ensured that it celebrates what’s brilliant, and from 11-15 November will be doing just that!
Image courtesy of UnderWire Festival (Still from On Loop – Editing shortlist)
The full programme is online, and screenings will take place every night, but there’s more: other highlights include the sensational DVD Bang which made a – well – BANG at Flatpack Festivals and has an exclusive selection of short films by East Asian women for rental in their micro cinema being set up especially for UnderWire: this truly has to be experienced to be believed! Euroscript and LOCO have partnered to produce a full training day for comedy writers, and will throw the doors open at the end of the day for a masterclass with a major comedy writing talent that I am not allowed to announce at the time of writing, but you’ll find out if you keep an eye on Euroscript, LOCO or UnderWire’s feeds. That evening LOCO’s LiveWire comedy event is an almost guaranteed sell-out so book ahead!
A personal highlight that is guaranteed to leave me even more evangelical about the power of film will be the Alumnae reunion on Saturday 15, where UnderWire will be welcoming back winners from previous years. A chance to get teary and emotional about the astonishing achievements of those who have become friends of UnderWire’s over the past five years. Several filmmakers have moved on to much larger projects, with one feature even being considered by the Oscars for next year’s short list, as I write.
Image courtesy of UnderWire Festival (Still from Caravan 9 – Screenwriting shortlist)
Having shirked my responsibilities in favour of screenwriting almost immediately after the first year’s awards were over, I have little, if any claim to this amazing celebration of women’s filmmaking talent. That honour now resides with Chloe Trayner, who co-founder Gemma Mitchell entrusted with the task almost two years ago. Humble, passionate, skilled and incisive, Chloe has produced a festival that identifies some of the UK’s most exciting filmmaking talent, and you are all invited!
BIRDS EYE VIEW HISTORY (Birds-eye-view.co.uk, 2014)
Birds Eye View Film Festival was the vision of Rachel Millward and Pinny Grylls as a response to the industry numbers indicating that men directed 92% of films on general release. They set out to create a festival that celebrated female filmmakers.
Starting out as a short film festival BEV has grown to become one of the most respected platforms for showcasing female film talent.
Talking at the time of the first event Rachel said ‘we decided to curate an event, and fill an hour with short films from emerging women filmmakers. The lack of female role models in film seemed to us to mean that we had to do something for ourselves.
We wanted to create a new platform for our peers. After a brainstorm in the café at Euston station, we came up with the name Bird’s Eye View (geddit) and got to work spreading the word. We posted on the then very primitive email list, Shooting People (thanks to Jess and Cath!) and put out a call for submissions, £5 per film to help us fund it all. I called up a gazillion companies asking them to advertise in the programme, and got Innocent Smoothies to give us product. Pin did the design. Here’s our very first flyer (featuring an old pic of Pin’s Mum dressing up Victorian style):
It was a sell out success! Queues around the block! And sure, there were plenty of our friends there, but there were also people from the UK Film Council, other filmmakers, producers, and even a couple of press. We were sky high with surprise, and shaking like leaves as we did our intro. Everyone seemed to love it. The films were great – we’d curated a fantastic mix of beautiful work – including Andrea Arnold‘s Dog, no less (little did we realise then how far she’d go!) and The Girl With the Red Dress starring Shirley Henderson, alongside a couple more arty turns including ours, of course!
The most exciting thing of all was that there was this immediate sense that there should be more of this. There was a need for it. No one else was specifically showcasing the work of women filmmakers at that time, and so I think at that point it was already clear that we might just have begun an Actual Thing. That might continue. And grow. And work.’
Three years later, Birds Eye View launched its international film festival in 2005, and over the next several years showcased some of the world’s best female filmmaking talent.
Premiere highlights have included Kim Longinotto’s Sisters in Law, Drew Barrymore’s Whip It, Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture, Lucy Walker’s Countdown to Zero and Wanuri Kahiu’s From A Whisper. Over 30 female musicians have been commissioned to create new live scores to classic silent films, including Imogen Heap, Bishi, Mira Calix and Natalie Clein.
Over the last 12 years BEV has developed a number of partnerships including events with Oxfam, Whistles, Southbank Centre and WOW Festival and media partnerships including Marie Claire and Moviescope. Guest speakers at the festivals have included Juliet Stevenson, Gillian Anderson, Zoe Wanamaker, Rosamund Pike, Hayley Atwell and in 2013, Jodie Whittaker who declared that ‘women are not a genre.’
BEV consistently champions female filmmakers and the need for equal representation behind and in front of the camera. In 2013 the festival had a specialist programme celebrating Arab female filmmakers including an International Woman’s Day preview of Wadjda by Haaifa Al-Mansour and the UK premiere of When I Saw You by Palestinian filmmaker Annemarie Jacir. The festival drew large audiences proving that international cinema of the highest quality has a place in the heart of film-goers.
2013 was the year that a new Creative Director, Kate Gerova, was appointed. She launched Filmonomics, a new film training programme for emerging filmmaking teams and co-developed Girls on Film Club, a film club in association with Shoreditch Sisters W.I group.
The information I have found out from all of this research is the opportunities available to female filmmakers in the UK. It has become apparent through statistical findings that there are not currently an equal number of male and female filmmakers getting their films made. This proves that there is a need for the organisations and schemes that have been set up in the UK, which are perhaps underexposed as many female filmmakers still struggle to make and distribute their films, which could perhaps be less of a problem if they took advantage of the schemes. I also learnt that there is a lot of emphasis on specifically female filmmakers while there aren’t any for men, which would appear on the surface to not be equal. However, men statistically do not have as much of a problem with getting their films made in the UK, and so these organisations and schemes are necessary. A lot of the statistics are to do with feature films in Hollywood, although the Independent film statistics show that there is still a problem with the smaller amount of women than men directing or producing films in the UK. There are theories on this ranging from pregnancy being a factor, to the sexist workplace, although it cannot completely be determined why women in the UK have not had as much success as they ideally would.
Apicella, G. (2014). UnderWire: Supporting Women Filmmakers. [online] The Huffington Post UK. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/gabriella-apicella/women-in-film_b_6117762.html [Accessed 30 Nov. 2014].
BFI, (2014). BFI Statistical Yearbook 2014. [online] Available at: http://www.bfi.org.uk/sites/bfi.org.uk/files/downloads/bfi-statistical-yearbook-2014.pdf [Accessed 30 Nov. 2014].
Birds-eye-view.co.uk, (2014). History & People | Birds Eye View. [online] Available at: http://birds-eye-view.co.uk/about-us/history-people/ [Accessed 30 Nov. 2014].
British Film Institute, (2014). 10 great British films directed by women. [online] Available at: http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/lists/10-great-british-films-directed-women [Accessed 30 Nov. 2014].
Coatman, A. (2014). Where the girls are: female filmmakers at the 10th London Short Film Festival. [online] British Film Institute. Available at: http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/comment/festivals/where-girls-are-female-filmmakers-london-short-film-festival-2013 [Accessed 30 Nov. 2014].
Cochrane, K. (2010). Why are there so few female film-makers?. [online] the Guardian. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2010/jan/31/female-film-makers [Accessed 30 Nov. 2014].
Directors.uk.com, (2014). Directors UK and BBC to pilot training for women directors. [online] Available at: http://www.directors.uk.com/about-us/news/directors-uk-and-bbc-pilot-training-women-directors [Accessed 30 Nov. 2014].
Electric Sheep, (2011). Warped Women: The Emergence of Female Horror Directors in the UK. [online] Available at: http://www.electricsheepmagazine.co.uk/features/2011/03/07/warped-women-the-emergence-of-female-horror-directors-in-the-uk/ [Accessed 30 Nov. 2014].
Hedditch, E. (2014). BFI Screenonline: Women and Film. [online] Screenonline.org.uk. Available at: http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/824060/ [Accessed 30 Nov. 2014].
Londonfeministfilmfestival.com, (2012). Statistics. [online] Available at: http://londonfeministfilmfestival.com/women-film/women-behind-the-camera/stats-to-go-under-wbtc/ [Accessed 30 Nov. 2014].
Vincent, A. (2013). British film is booming but not for female directors – Telegraph. [online] Telegraph.co.uk. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/film-news/10197761/British-film-is-booming-but-not-for-female-directors.html [Accessed 30 Nov. 2014].
Wftv.org.uk, (2013). BFI Statistical Yearbook Shows Decline in UK Female Writers and Directors. [online] Available at: http://www.wftv.org.uk/news/bfi-statistical-yearbook-shows-decline-uk-female-writers-and-directors-16203 [Accessed 30 Nov. 2014].