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‘The time to change is now’: Women behind the camera

The #MeToo movement sparked international outrage about sexual harassment and empowered women to stand in solidarity to oppose sexual misconduct in the workplace. The hashtag went viral in 2017 when the focus was drawn to the film industry with the sexual allegations against Harvey Weinstein. In response, Hollywood celebrities founded ‘Time’s Up’, providing a legal defence fund to support those who experienced sexual harassment and pay discrimination. Above all, it was, and still is, part of an ongoing battle to achieve gender parity in the film industry.

Meryl Streep, who attended the 75th Golden Globes wearing black in support of the movement, stated: “People are aware now of a power imbalance”. A spotlight was put on the film industry to answer for its serious gender disparity. The focus was on the visual representation of women on screen by calling for more female roles and fewer stereotypes, such as the seductress, wife or mother. Whilst there is still a long way to go, recognition of the changing role of women in film is starting to have an impact.

But what about behind the screen?

The attention has been on female actors, but statistics for women in roles behind the camera are dire. More pressure is needed to bring about equality throughout the whole industry, not only on the screen. Women are vastly underrepresented as directors, writers, cinematographers, editors, and producers. If more awareness is brought to the need to increase representation in these areas, then change is more likely to occur.

Out of the top 100 films of 2019, women made up around 12% of directors, 20% of writers, and only 2% of cinematographers. The films are mostly male dominated productions, often with male-led casts and crews, such as films directed by Stephen Spielberg and Christopher Nolan. Spielberg’s 1998 film Saving Private Ryan, which won him Best Director at the Academy Awards, consisted of an overwhelmingly male cast and crew.

Gender parity on-screen is vital. But the same equality needs to be promoted more off-screen too, which will enable films to resonate with a wide audience. Women make up around 51% of moviegoers, yet women’s stories are marginalised. A man can write and direct a film about a woman, but it is often said that the best stories draw upon personal experience. Jessica Chastain criticised the “disturbing” portrayal of female characters in the films at Cannes Film Festival in 2017, and hoped that “when we include more female storytellers we will have more of the women that I recognise in my day-to-day life.” With women in behind-the-scenes leadership roles, such as writing, naturally there will be more films centring women’s narratives.

Lucy Percival, an emerging young filmmaker from Sheffield, has personal experience of being a female trying to break into the industry. The inequalities prevalent in filmmaking are undeniable. She has been involved with many programs, making connections within the industry, such as producing a short film with the National Film and Television School (NFTS), and says: “out of the six directors there was only one woman.”

Why are there so few women in film? To be able to promote change, the core of the problem must be analysed. Women need to be shown that this is a viable career for them. Sarah Gavron, director of the 2015 film Suffragette, recalls she “started to have these ideas for films. They were like running images in my head. But I didn’t think I could be a director. I just literally didn’t think it was a possibility. Then I started to suddenly see films of women.” She articulates a key issue for aspiring female filmmakers: there are not enough role models in the industry. In the 92 years that the Academy Awards has taken place, only five women have ever been nominated for Best Director.

More women need to receive international acclaim and credit for their writing and directing to allow others to believe that it is possible. Change is on the horizon. It may be slow, but gradually more women are gaining recognition. Greta Gerwig and Olivia Wilde have made it into mainstream film circles with Little Women (2020), Ladybird (2017) and Booksmart (2019). Noticeably, all are films that centralise female stories.

The problem is that not enough women have mainstream film careers. There are more women in roles behind the camera in independent filmmaking, with indie film festivals such as Sundance having higher female representation than those like the Oscars and the Golden Globes. Hollywood blockbusters are notorious for their poor diversity record, and huge studios, like Universal, Paramount, and Warner Bros need to face more pressure to include women in the filmmaking process. Hardly any of the large-budget blockbusters are directed or written by women, and often this is down to executives having a lack of trust in female directors.

Lucy Percival wants to follow the independent route, for she says: “I don’t see myself directing [what the American director, producer and screenwriter Martin Scorsese calls] ‘theme park’ movies of the big studios. I prefer character-driven narratives rather than big budget action movies.” However, independent films receive less exposure to the public, and therefore are less lucrative. There must be a conscious effort to diversify the industry to allow women to break into the male-dominated world of the big studios.

Change is happening now. The number of female directors in mainstream cinema rose from 4% to 12% in 2019. But 12% is clearly nowhere near equality. Pressure needs to be applied from below: both from smaller companies employing female directors and writers, as well as from the public. The more we watch female-directed films, the more that big studios will recognise their value and increase their representation.

Certain institutions and individuals are working for greater inclusivity in the film industry. The British Film Institute (BFI) and British Academy Film and Television Awards (BAFTA) have many courses and programs, some of which Lucy has taken part in, to encourage young women to become involved in roles behind the camera. With more movie stars speaking out about the issue and taking action, such as Reese Witherspoon starting her own company with the aim to produce quality films and TV for young women, public awareness is rising. Individual female directors are also taking on what Sarah Gavron considers to be her “responsibility as a female director”. She aims to create a more inclusive working environment on set by employing many women in the crew to create a space for them to gain industry experience. The main producers, editors, cinematographer, and writers in her latest film Rocks are all women.

The arts are a huge contributor to the economy, but access to the film industry is limited. More support of careers in film is needed in schools, and to avoid discouraging women from aspiring to work in film due to lack of stability. Throughout my own school years, a career in film was seen as unrealistic and was almost scoffed at: “so what is your back-up plan?” Instead, we need to make a career as a female filmmaker seem possible, and to put pressure on the industry to give more women a chance, to make a career as a female filmmaker achievable.

Then a possibility can become a reality, and the film industry can move closer to gender equality.

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