Byline Update: Herizons

Hey everybody. Been awhile since I’ve updated this. Apologies. Here is an article I wrote about women in Canadian film. It was published in the fall 2014 issue of Herizons, a Canadian feminist magazine. I made a few alterations to fit the blog. You can visit them at Or, maybe, I dunno, buy a a magazine!

Freeze Frame
What Will it Take to Reach Equality on the Big Screen?

Debra Zimmerman remembers the first film she saw that had been directed by a woman. It was Ida Lupino’s The Trouble with Angels. Adapted by Blanche Hanalis from Jane Trahey’s novel of the same name, the film depicts the exploits of rebellious teenage girls in an all-girls Catholic school. Zimmerman was struck by how the film reflected her experience.

“The girls had agency,” explains Zimmerman. “It was about the girls.”

Zimmerman is the executive director of Women Make Movies, a non-profit New York-based organization that supports women filmmakers, a position she has held since 1983. Women Make Movies is the largest distributor of films by and about women.

At the 2013 St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival, Zimmerman joined a discussion on women filmmakers that focused on research presented by Women in View, a Canadian organization that tracks the progress being made on gender and cultural diversity in Canadian film and TV. Founded in 2011, Women in View conducts research and supports programs and policies that support the improved participation of women and visible minorities in creative and technical positions across various platforms and media.


[Zimmerman source]

Rina Fraticelli, executive director of Women in View, presented the findings in the “Women in View On Screen” report. The 2010-11 report documents the number of women in content-creating roles–director, writer, and cinematographer. Of the 130 Telefilm-funded films made in the period studied, just 17 percent were directed by women; two directors were visible-minority women. Twenty-one percent of the 175 screenwriters of feature-length films were women. Women fared slightly better in the documentary subcategory, where 24 percent of directors and 30 percent of writers were women. Among cinematographers, women represented a mere 10 percent in fiction and six percent in documentaries. Interestingly, not a single woman directed a film written by a man in the period studied; in every case, female directors directed screenplays written by women.

Fraticelli, who has 35 years of filmmaking experience, believes women’s low representation reflects a conservative agenda that is hostile to the arts.

“In the early 70s, there were a lot more structured, public institutions that had this kind of overview,” she says.

She points to Studio D of the National Film Board as an example. “A lot of those institutions that made sure equity continued to grow have been dismantled under this government.”

Founded in 1974 and headed by Kathleen Shannon to coincide with International Women’s Year, Studio D was the first government-funded film studio in the world dedicated to women filmmakers. Unfortunately, it was shut down in 1996 as a result of federal funding cuts. Fraticelli is a past executive producer of Studio D, where she oversaw the production of landmark films including Forbidden Love and The Company of Strangers.


[Fraticelli source]

One of Studio D’s bright stars was Bonnie Sherr Klein, who in 1981 directed Not a Love Story, a documentary about the pornography industry that went on to become one of the most successful NFB films ever produced. Klein first joined NFB in the late ’60s after immigrating to Canada from the U.S. She became part of Studio D soon after its founding and directed several of its films.

“There were virtually no women filmmakers in the beginning,” recalls Klein. “Many women in the industry were working as clerks and secretaries at studios. Studio D was about training and mentorship.”

Yet, despite a few highly visible examples, Klein doesn’t think there was enough significant praise during Studio D’s time.

“There were bursts, but Studio Do was always low on the totem pole,” she says. “It always received the lowest funding of the studios at NFB. It was even located in the basement.”

Sharon McGowan, one of Klein’s peers from Studio D and currently a professor at the University of British Colombia’s department of theatre and film, saw the number of women filmmakers grow during Studio D’s time in the areas of documentary and smaller arts projects. The major fiction features were dominated by men.

“Gains were being made, but we strayed from a commitment to equity,” says McGowan. “CRTC began enforcing equity standards in public broadcasting around 1978, and things almost changed overnight. But then, in the mid-’80s, studios moved production from in-house and began outsourcing to private companies. The money was handed out without the same equity requirements.”

The neo-liberal trend of outsourcing to private industry in the last decade coincided with a time when the progress of women in film stalled.

“There’s been progress,” says Zimmerman. “When I was young, I could count the number of films by women. Now there are thousands. At the last Toronto International Film Festival, I couldn’t even see all the films by women. But things have plateaued over the last 10 years.”

In the U.S., a 2013 “Celluloid Ceiling” report by the Center for Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University collected statistics on 2,813 people employed in behind-the-scenes roles–directors, writers, cinematographers, producers, executive producers and editors–for the 250 top-grossing domestic films of 2012. Of these positions, women represented 16 percent, a number that has barely fluctuated since 1998.

Invariably, federal funding policies are part of the problem. Canadian films depend largely on government funding from Telefilm. However, Telefilm’s funding has been dramatically reduced. In 2012, it was cut by 10 percent. These economic pressures mean less risk taking, experts say, and film funding is much more focused on economic gain. In fact, 2012 was a banner year for Canadian film and television production commercially. According to the Canadian Media Producers Association, revenue reached $2.96 billion and the industry involved the equivalent of 66,400 full-time positions.

Fraticelli sees value in these figures but finds the lack of women unacceptable. “When we’re talking about how diverse Canada is, where’s that diversity onscreen?” she asks “It’s culture as well as economy.”


Martine Blue, a filmmaker based out of the Burin Peninsula in Newfoundland and Labrador, agrees that not enough women have a voice. “More female directors need to get involved so our stories can be told,” she says. “It’s so scary what can happen when a certain section of society isn’t represented.”

Originally from Toronto, Blue got her start in filmmaking with a very DIY approach. “For about eight years, I was in a DIY filmmaker mode,” she says. “I would write a script – no thought about editors; didn’t want to wait for funding; would just run out and self-fund them, and do most of the crew jobs myself.”

Blue is waiting to hear whether she will receive production funding from Telefilm for a feature-length script she recently developed. The script received development funding, but that doesn’t guarantee production funding. Blue would like to see more women on the judging panels.

“I’d like it to still be based on merit instead of tokenism,” she says. The she adds, joking, “but I’d be happy to be the token woman if that means my project gets made.”

[A trailer for Blue’s short film Me2]

Karen Lam, a Vancouver filmmaker, has received Telefilm support for some projects. For her second feature film, Evangeline, she also raised money through a pre-licence from Superchannel, investments tied to tax credits, and a line of credit. She has her own production company, Opiate Pictures. Lam, who has a law degree, once worked as in-house council at Creative BC. She started out in production and then eventually became a writer and director.

“What’s interesting,” she says “is that I never really experienced the glass ceiling as a producer. It wasn’t until I started writing and directing.”

Lam also works in a film genre traditionally thought of as distinctly masculine. Evangeline is a supernatural thriller about a woman who is left for dead in the B.C. wilderness. She becomes possessed by a spirit in order to exact vengeance on the men who attacked her–a vengeance that comes with a price.

Lam wanted to write and direct because she wanted to make the movies she wished she could see. She was convinced there was a market to be had in an unappreciated audience: female horror fans.

“But, even if you prove there’s a market, the industry moves much slower,” she explains, pointing to the success of Disney’s Frozen (the screenplay of the highest-grossing animation film of all time is by Jennifer Lee) and how long it’s taken for studios to start giving women the reigns. “If you don’t give us a chance, we can’t disprove the numbers.”

Lam has also experienced her share of frustrations.

“It’s easy sometimes to get those initial meetings as a woman, because you’re a novelty,” she explains. “But it’s landing the deal that’s a whole different matter. You get the meetings, but you don’t get the money. It feels like a carrot they hold out to you.”

Lam’s “novelty” has come up many times when meeting with executives.

“I had distributers say to me, while I was in the room, ‘I think she has a future in this because she doesn’t direct like a woman.’ And that really sat with me, because I couldn’t figure out what he meant by that. And actually I made a big point in Evangeline to direct like a woman.”

For example, Lam depicted Evangeline’s rape scene from a woman’s perspective.

“My problem with rape scenes in so many movies is that they’re sexualized,” explains Lam. “That’s problematic. I wanted to show violence as ugly as violence is.”

The effect was so destabilizing that it caused one male crew member to quit, but not before sending an angry email to Lam disparaging the script.

Lam was undeterred.

“I actually revel in these extreme reactions. That’s why I’m in horror. If I wanted to please everyone, I would’ve made romantic comedies.”

Lam’s alternative take on a rape scene highlights the different perspective a feminine gaze can lend to a film and subverts the genre’s conventions.

“If you’re only looking at films by men, you’re not getting the full picture,” explains Fraticelli. “Isn’t art about showing people on the margins?”

Evangeline went on to win Lam awards for best director and best cinematography at Toronto’s Blood in the Snow Film Festival. It was also the opening gala feature film at the 2014 Vancouver Women in Film Festival.

[A trailer for Evangeline]

According to Douglas Chow, manager of external communication at Telefilm, federal privacy regulations prevents the agency from surveying clients about the gender of their filmmaking teams, He says that, while Telefilm supports film festivals like the St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival, it cannot set gender targets or quotas.

Fraticelli isn’t buying She thinks Telefilm can do better.

“We’re all paying taxes,” she observes, “so why are we accepting that half the population isn’t being represented? At least with public money, I want my tax dollars spent more broadly on the female population.”

“It’s not about women taking a piece of the pie,” adds McGowan. “It’s about adding to the pie. By embracing women filmmakers, we can expand our audiences.”

Ravida Din worked at the NFB from 2000 to 2014, where she held the position of director general of English programming. Din believes the price of excluding women from funded filmmaking is enormous.

“The stories we tell, whatever medium, make the experience we live coherent to us. It gives us reference points we can weave ourselves into. We see a story and say, ‘That validates my experience.’ When we lose stories from a certain section of society, it skews our sense of reality.”

Din also favours measures that would support greater equity in Telefilm’s funding policies.

Fraticelli cites a Scandinavian filmmaking tool kit used to increase diversification. The country’s International Federation of Actors put together a Handbook of Good Practices to encourage producers and distributors to more equitably populate film sets. The handbook cites statistics on women in film and describes how a lack of representation of women as directors, screenwriters, and cinematographers affects society. Sweden now has an initiative underway to request a minimum of 40 percent male and female filmmakers in order for a project to qualify for public film funding.

For her part, Fraticelli sees the low representation of women’s films by funders as a continuation of old habits, which, she believes, can be broken by paying attention to the numbers.

“It’s not malice or some big corporate plot, but we have to intervene, and we intervene by counting,” she says. “Let’s get Telefilm to count. I think we’d see a flourishing.”

~ by braddunne on October 24, 2014.

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