Local female filmmakers pave path toward on-screen gender representation

Female Filmmakers
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The impact of the #MeToo movement on modern cinema is undeniable. In this year’s awards season, Hollywood rightfully, though belatedly, recognized sexual misconduct in the industry, the lack of support for female filmmakers and the absence of female narratives.

This year, the #MeToo movement was epitomized by the success of Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” on the awards circuit. The film and Gerwig’s industry recognition were symbolic — not just of the ability of independent films to make their mark on audiences nationwide, but of the potential of personal, female-driven narratives to make a cultural impression. While the film signified progress for female filmmakers in Hollywood, the reality of a male-dominated field became even more apparent. This, of course, raises the question — to what extent do female filmmakers feel the burden of on-screen gender representation in their work?

According to Ellen Spiro, a professor of film at the University of Texas at Austin, the answer tends to involve a multitude of factors. “The (gender gap) came out with technology, and the way that men in charge of technology would speak to young women,” Spiro explained. Spiro — a visiting professor at UC Berkeley who is teaching a course on documentary production — has made numerous feature-length and short documentaries on various sociopolitical topics, including PBS’ “Fixing the Future.”

While Spiro initially gained experience with filmmaking technology as a political expression, she soon recognized that documentary filmmaking was an essential space for women in film. “For me, as a young feminist in college, learning the technology became my personal mission. I started my career in film knowing how to operate a camera, how to edit, how to record sound,” she said.

The documentary realm — which remained underfunded and economically unfavorable for decades — primarily drew female filmmakers, who struggled to find funding for work elsewhere. For this reason, Spiro believes that technology functions as an equalizer, providing an opportunity for female filmmakers to highlight narratives that can’t find funding in traditional production companies.

Thus, it’s refreshing to witness the growing, contemporary presence of mainstream female narratives coming primarily from the realm of fictional cinema.

Filmmakers such as Dee Rees (“Mudbound”), Sofia Coppola (“Lost in Translation,” “The Beguiled”) and Patty Jenkins (“Monster,” “Wonder Woman”) have, like Gerwig, demonstrated the ability of women behind the camera to bring forth complex narrative representations of women on-screen.

But ultimately, the most powerful female narratives don’t just come from a focus on gender — rather, they stem from the personal experiences of the female screenwriters and directors themselves.

Female Filmmakers

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According to Olivia Song, UC Berkeley senior and showrunner for Delta Kappa Alpha, the university’s premier film fraternity, the most interesting scripts are those that provide a fully fledged identity for characters on-screen — not just through gender, but through an intersectional approach to feminism that addresses race, class and sexuality.

“I like coming-of-age stories. What I’m slowly starting to realize as a writer is that my writing is very particular to my experience, which is the Asian-American experience,” said Song, who plans on attending USC in the fall to pursue a Master of Fine Arts degree in writing for screen and television.

In her own work, Song focuses less on issues of gender than she does on her ethnic identity, but finds that honest stories come from the individual experiences of female filmmakers.

“There aren’t any female screenwriters that I truly identify with,” she noted. “I’m not looking for somebody to look up to. I’m creating myself to be the person that I would look up to,” Song added.

Yet Song recognizes the institutional gender barriers that prohibit aspiring female filmmakers from succeeding in the industry as do their male colleagues. “It is still a boys’ club,” she said. “I don’t see myself being the changemaker, in that I don’t think I can change the way people see me — except for writing the best I can.”

While Hollywood witnesses the increasing success of female filmmakers and their fictional and nonfictional representations of women on-screen, organizations and advocates are taking active, practical steps toward recognizing and advancing women in film.

For example, the Female Filmmakers Initiative, started by the Sundance Institute and Women in Film, Los Angeles, has operated as an essential establishment, advocating for project financing and media support for female directors and screenwriters.

Moreover, film festivals such as Sundance and Cannes have increased the number of films by female filmmakers in their respective competition slates, bringing in greater publicity and audiences to films that potentially could have gone unrecognized upon release.

While encouraging female filmmakers to share personal and politically conscious narratives on-screen may be an empowering social action, taking active institutional steps toward leveling the playing field is the best way to ensure that aspiring female filmmakers have the means to pursue their projects and careers in the first place.

When asked about growing necessity for female representation and narratives — fictional and nonfictional — at the height of the #MeToo movement, Spiro advocated for the urgency of this issue to enter public consciousness.

“It’s one of the things that I think about when I think about the silver lining of the political climate that we’re in right now, and this great young, fiery, creative movement has been born,” she said.

Audiences can only hope that this silver lining will continue to push female filmmakers to the forefront and provide a platform for the compelling stories of women to thrive.

Anagha Komaragiri covers film. Contact her at [email protected].