Girls on Film: How the gender battle behind the camera hampers industry

CommonSpace film critic Scott Wilson was at the Glasgow Short Film Festival’s Girls on Film panel about the underrepresentation of female directors last month

FOR ALL of Hollywood’s progressive pandering, it’s impossible to say it’s a beacon of gender equality. At the Oscars, women are underrepresented in the Best Director category (with only one female recipient, Kathryn Bigelow, in 89 years), and ignored completely in Best Cinematography.

That’s not changing any time soon. Of the 149 films slated for release by the six major studios through until 2019, all but 12 of them are directed by a man.

This year’s Glasgow Short Film Festival put its money where its inclusive mouth is – of the 52 films in competition across Scottish and International strands, 26 were directed or co-directed by a woman.

At the Oscars, women are underrepresented in the Best Director category (with only one female recipient, Kathryn Bigelow, in 89 years), and ignored completely in Best Cinematography.

It’s a conversation that’s being had, but without direct implementation – such as the film festival’s gender balance – it’s merely a pandering acknowledgement.

The festival held a panel called Girls on Film featuring four of those directors. Sam Firth, Robin Haig, Kelly Holmes, and Stefanie Kolk all discussed their short submissions, while host Karen Kelly of Directors UK asked about their experiences of directing as women.

It was mentioned that women are expected to create a certain type of film, usually a drama, and yet each director present submitted something wildly different from one another.

Creeling, directed by Firth, is a frank and honest coming-of-age romance. Its young teenage protagonist, Lily, is feeling something awaken within her, potentially for the first time. The catch is Dougie’s a little older.

Firth loves her characters, especially Lily. It’s her story, and Firth acknowledges the unequal power dynamic created by Lily and Dougie’s age gap while saying it’s true that young women often develop feelings for someone who’s just that little bit too old for them. It’s a snippet of real life in the Highlands, and Firth ensures Lily is in complete control of her agency.

Of the 149 films slated for release by the six major studios through until 2019, all but 12 of them are directed by a man.

Holmes’ Family Portrait is cold, muted, and sinister. It’s about post-mortem photography in the late 1800s, and particularly how the women of the family react to the patriarch’s death and the appearance of his brother. There’s a sense of duty to protect and a duty to society, and it’s unforgiving in its acceptance of what ‘must’ be done.

Kolk’s short was the sole entrant into the International Competition from those at the panel, and it’s a provocatively quiet film about community life. Called Clan, it shows how a tight-knit bunch of people who live off the land react to an outsider showing up who simply wants to help. Everyone in the village seems affable, but in the current political landscape, you can imagine how they treat the new face.

Robin Haig’s Hula received the festival’s Scottish Audience Award. Blythe Duff is Clara, recently divorced and alone in the Highlands. She turns her roomy home into a B&B and watches as an arty student, a sexually liberal older couple and an adventurous hillwalker pay her a visit, while her local community encourage her to take part in hula hooping fitness events.

No two films are alike, yet all are fantastic and artistic portrayals of modern talking points, from agency to immigration to romance and a lack of it. These submissions all deal with femininity to varying degrees (the outsider in Clan is a woman), but Holmes says it’s not so much about that as it is providing equal opportunities.

One of her next projects is a war movie and will have an all-male cast. She’s not averse to this and says it’s what the story asks for. What she wants is for women to be allowed to make these movies, and not be restricted in any way whatsoever. She mentions the trailer for Atomic Blonde, an action film starring Charlize Theron directed by David Leitch, and says she wishes an action film like that could be directed by a woman, and without fanfare that a woman directed it.

Cinema is always enriched by a greater pool of voices, yes – but there is no reason why those voices can’t be gender-balanced.

Holmes thinks it’s more important that her characters are more identifiable than likeable, and Firth echoes this by alluding to the moral ambiguity in Creeling. Lily’s sexual feelings towards Dougie are worrisome on one hand, and her father berates her for going off alone with him, but there’s an innocence and realism that make Lily both identifiable and likeable.

The absence of women from the Best Cinematography category at the Oscars is an industry-wide problem, seen on the sets of short, independent films, too. Each director says they would love to see more female DPs (directors of photography), and some have worked exclusively with men. There’s a general agreement that while women’s underrepresentation in directing is a talking point, there are other areas of filmmaking in which the gender disparity is going unnoticed.

Each time we hope the film industry is on the verge of a leap forward, something sets it back – the Cannes film festival has come under scrutiny for seemingly airbrushing an image of a young Claudia Cardinale. Its line-up features 49 films, 12 of which are directed by women.

The Girls on Film panel never came close to pigeonholing what it means to be a female director. There were nods to what the current expectations are, what experiences can be like (men on set are more likely to listen to other men), and what the goal is – that all the films we see made by men can be made by women, too. Cinema is always enriched by a greater pool of voices, yes – but there is no reason why those voices can’t be gender balanced.

Talk can expose flaws, but only direct action, like the Glasgow Short Film Festival’s gender-balanced competition section, will begin to heal years of exclusion and ignorance. After all, the demand is there – the current top five highest grossing indie films of 2017 so far have been directed by either a woman or a person of colour. Time for the industry to catch up.

With thanks to Megan Mitchell for direction and tonal advice.

Picture courtesy of Facebook

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