The Review/Feature/

What Can Straight White Guys Do to Help Women in Film?

The female filmmakers of the Canadian Screen Awards share some constructive advice

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Mar 14, 2017 @ 6:00am

“Films are all about decisions, and that’s what I love.” — Andrea Arnold

The Review this week was curated by Canadian female-identified filmmakers, many of whom were nominated for Canadian Screen Awards at this year's ceremony. In an idea originally proposed by Canadian director Kevan Funk, we went to them with this question: "What can straight, white, cisgendered men do to help marginalized voices in the Canadian film industry and how can they be better allies?" Here are a few selected responses.

Ally Pankiw is a writer and director of music videos, films, TV, and commercials, including the BravoFACT short, Stake, and the upcoming CBC comedy web series Terrific Women. She recently received the Inside Out and Harold Greenberg Short to Feature Grant for her film, The Inherent Traits of Connor James.

So what can straight, white, cis men do to help marginalized voices in film? The obvious answer would be taking a cue from Jill Soloway’s “Female Gaze” lecture (start by listening to it) and not making anything at all for the next 100 years to level the cinematic playing field! But since that does feel a little extreme, and you are asking nicely, here is an easy list of DOs and DON’Ts for promoting progress:

DO: Your research. So many times I’ve heard male producers and creators say that they just don’t know any queer, or female, or non-white, or trans writers, directors, cinematographers, or actors with experience. But if you took the time to research the amazing othered artists in those fields, you could fix that the next time you refer someone for a job. Have a list of female directors, queer writers, trans actors, and cinematographers who aren’t white on hand. Refer to it often. If you’re prepared when employers are complaining about their lack of options, you’ll make it a lot harder for them to find excuses for a lack of diversity. Plus, you’ll get bonus points for offering a solution. Lucky you.

DO: Put your money where your mouth is. Seek out employees, crew members, and collaborators who are different from you when you find yourself in a position of power. Make it your secondary calling in life to surround yourself with people who have a different perspective. Hire someone from that list to be your cinematographer, story editor, or lead in a film and ask them for input when you’re framing your story. They’ll make it more interesting, and you’ll probably get some bonus points for that too.

DON’T: Create an atmosphere where people can’t call you on your privilege or tell you you’re wrong – which you might be. That’s not your fault; it's only because you haven’t experienced what it’s like to be marginalized. Listen to firsthand experience and be willing to pivot if you got it wrong the first time.

DON’T: Take on a job telling a marginalized person’s story when you know that someone else is up for the gig who can tell the story more honestly. It’s always better to not be the guy who took on, say, directing a lesbian love scene without ever having had lesbian sex himself. It’s not that people can’t tell stories from a perspective other than their own, but if there is someone marginalized who has the opportunity to tell their own story, don’t take that away from them. Also, if they’re coming at it from personal experience, they will make a better version one day.

Finally, DO: Listen for and call out privilege. Whether it’s from a studio head, a network exec, or one of your own crew members, call out interrupting, mansplaining, credit-stealing, tokenism, and stereotyping. Because don’t forget: as a straight, white, cis male, you have the floor. At least for the time being. ;)

Victoria Lean is the director of the documentary After The Last River, which chronicles the impact of a De Beers mine on the remote indigenous community of Attawapiskat. It is nominated for the Donald Brittain Award for "Best Social/Political Documentary Program" at the Canadian Screen Awards. She is also a producer, working on VICE’s scripted series, including Nirvanna the Band the Show.

The first step is becoming aware of unconscious bias. It’s a lifelong process of listening and observing. I work with maybe 80 per cent white men these days, and I'd like to see more active engagement. I keep a reading list of articles on the double standards and obstacles women face in leadership positions, in business, in film – and send them to interested male colleagues. Research shows that in male-dominated environments, women are interrupted and our ideas are more severely criticized, so we speak less, and turn into ourselves. Honestly, sometimes I just shut down and step back. In a creative field, that’s death.

Pervasive, internalized, institutional sexism seems to get worse as women gain a larger profile and more resources in their filmmaking careers, so I probably don’t understand the full extent of the barriers yet. After the Last River was made with a small, mostly female team, and was picked up after it was finished. I know enough now that on larger productions like Nirvanna the Band the Show that it’s really hard to be the one to say, “Yo, I’m still talking,” out of fear of being called whiny, or bitchy. It’s important when a male ally can intervene and call people out. That’s what being an ally is about – calling out the BS that doesn’t necessarily affect you. I’ve been in pitch meetings for other projects where, as the only woman in the room, I’ve mentioned an idea that later gets attributed to a guy. Even if allies don’t address this in the moment (frankly, sometimes it’s not worth it!), sympathizing later on helps. On a basic level, take steps to make sure there isn’t one token women in the room and crew up your projects with a balance, so it’s not just women in supporting positions all the time. Thank you for doing this!

Ashley McKenzie is a Cape Breton-based filmmaker who wrote, edited, and directed her first feature Werewolf, which premiered at TIFF '16. Her micro budget film is nominated for four Canadian Screen Awards, including “Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role,” “Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role,” “Achievement in Cinematography,” and “Achievement in Editing.”

"The reality comes first, and the symbol comes after. I see these things, and suddenly they become symbolic of life." – Mary Pratt, 1985

I find articulating the changes I want to see on a systemic level to be intimidating, to say the least. Can we start with the basics? Can creating space for new voices begin with a genuine curiosity in other people? Jesse Wente talks about really trying to know each other when discussing the need to unlock the vast amount of untold Indigenous stories in Canada. Why not start there, by being genuinely curious to seek out the new voices in the room, asking questions, and listening?

I’ve had moments at film festivals this year where I was the sole woman on an industry panel, or at a director's dinner. I had to resist the urge to stand up and slip away out of a mere exhaustion of trying to project my voice. I craved somebody new sitting next to me that I knew nothing about. Somebody whose narrative was entirely different than my own and everyone else’s at the table. I wanted to lean in, whisper a million questions to them, and listen to everything they had to say.

With Canadian film, I want to get to know the vast spectrum of storytellers and stories. I want to hear about Sofia Bohdanowicz’s focus on elderly matriarchs and domestic spaces. I want to talk to Kevan Funk about his preference for cultural introspection over personal inquiry. I’m interested in Cameron Bailey wanting to see filmmakers looking outward more than in. But most of all, I want a plurality of voices and modes of narration, and I want them all to be regarded as valuable. I'm curious about what I haven't even heard or seen yet.

Caroline Monnet is a multidisciplinary artist from Outaouais, Quebec. Her short films have screened at TIFF, Les Rencontres Internationales, and Sundance. She is an alumnus of TIFF Talent Lab '16 and the Berlinale Talent Campus.

Mobilize from NFB/marketing on Vimeo.

As a filmmaker who happens to be both a woman and Indigenous, I have questioned, explored, and intended to destroy stereotypes regarding what it means to make "women’s," or "Indigenous” work. The first step in breaking away from these self-imposed boxes is to stop defining women and Indigenous work as such. Why are we constantly developing “female filmmaking” programs? Is there such a thing as "male programs?" I realize how these initiatives assure parity and can be the first step in development to ensure new voices are heard. But I hope my work can speak beyond the Indigenous and female identity that is attached to it. The first step is to celebrate these voices as part of a larger spectrum of Canadian filmmaking, including white males.

What can be done, concretely, is to include women in the creative aspects of making films. This means hiring them as your camera operator, editor, producer, etc. Female filmmakers need to be able to access the funding and the resources available to white men. Maybe it starts with male filmmakers giving a shout out to the filmmakers they respect. If white male filmmakers start supporting their female peers in the media and in the industry, women can start taking up as much space as their male counterparts.

Now, more than ever, female filmmakers are making their mark through independent means of production. In principle, this has enabled new artists to find an audience without having to be approved by their patriarchal industry gatekeepers. I think the NFB is onto a good thing when it comes to gender parity and their decision to produce an equal amount of projects from men and women. This is where it starts if we want to train, educate, and assure equal visibility.

Emily Kai Bock is an award-winning music video director and filmmaker, known for her work with Grimes, Arcade Fire, Lorde, and Solange. Her first short film, A Funeral for Lightning, premiered at TIFF '16, was selected for Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival, and was nominated for "Best Live Action Short Drama" at the Canadian Screen Awards.

I feel like I was shielded from the gender bias in the film world until I became a commercial director for hire. While working on music videos and documentaries, I felt free to realize my vision with respectful and supportive collaborators. As soon as I began pitching on commercials or larger-budgeted content, I felt the winds change and suddenly was met with suspicion and ridicule. It became known to me during that time that I was no longer a just a director, but a "woman director," as most of the jobs that came in directly for me were about motherhood, feminine products, or "girl power" campaigns. On calls with advertising creatives, I would sometimes be asked very patronizing technical questions on how I would use equipment like a Technocrane or The Ultimate Arm. On set, the mainly all-male crew would either shy away or talk over me. I assume this is how some women feel in the military, being the one of the few, if any, females in an all-male platoon. It's even worse being the one in charge of the platoon.

I think the similarities between the bro-y culture of film production and the military are closely tied than we realize. The role of the director is similar to a commander. You are responsible for leading a group of people through the battle of production. It is a role that requires a lot of trust. And some men (and women) look at you and assume you are not worthy of their trust, simply because you don't look the part. I think that is where men and women need to look deep within themselves and ask themselves the tough question: do they feel safer under white male leadership and why?

If you are a white male in power, hire diverse crew and treat them equally. If you see someone not being listened to, defend them. I wish I had more males who had my back on set, who stood up for me when other men were clearly disinterested in what I had to say. During the first commercial that I shot in Toronto, my first AD referred to me as "boss lady" the entire time. I don't think he was at fault – he simply had to make the power dynamic cute in order to survive it.

I would love for the aura of white male leadership to dissipate. We're here in 2017 and commercials and studio films are still over 90 per cent dominated by white male filmmakers. I really believe that the only way it will change is if studios and ad agencies are forced to hire outside the white male pool. The more non-white, non-male directors and cinematographers are hired on big jobs, the more their work will be recognized, validated, and the more likely they will be hired again. This is why there is more race and gender equality in indie films and music videos. Those filmmakers don't need to wait to be hired, they often work without permission, and the merit of the work has surpassed the label of them being a particular race or sex. At the end of the day, all that matters is the quality of the work. It poses the question: is the assurance of having a white male in charge of a set costing us newer, stronger, better, and more diverse films? If so, is it worth missing out on all the work that could contribute to film history?

Molly McGlynn is a writer and director, whose short film 3-Way (Not Calling) premiered at TIFF '16. She is in post-production on her first feature film, Mary Goes Round, starring Aya Cash.

I want to preface everything I have to say with the fact that I often question my own privilege as a white woman with financial and professional support, amongst others. My thoughts on white men being allies and creating space is also limited when I am also trying to find ways to be better at understanding and inclusivity for others who are not white women. I am also very lucky to collaborate with some amazing men, like my producer Matt Code and cinematographer Nick Haight, amongst others, who really inspire me and make me feel heard. But it’s not always that way. Sometimes, I feel invisible. Here are some tips for making women not feel invisible in work and...life?

  1. If you’re on set and have an idea, are you sure that your female colleague didn’t just say the SAME THING? Sets are frantic and exciting, so these things happen, but it would be great it you could acknowledge your mistake, apologize, and give her credit. She will likely say thank you and move on!

  2. Ask yourself if you’ve heard enough opinions from the women and/or people of colour in the space. Are men and women being equally heard? Did the Woman On Set say something six hours ago and that’s that? Participation is not a check mark. It has to be ongoing.

  3. If you’re confused that the word direct involves “controlling the operations of; managing or governing”, which may result in a woman executing that function in a way that doesn’t sound like a question, don’t tell her she is “bossy” or “rude.” If you genuinely think she is being rude and/or unprofessional, by all means please start a conversation where that’s appropriate, but not a flippant remark in the middle of work.

  4. If you’ve written a script about a group of women, or you have a female character in your movie and you’re not sure how you’ve represented her, ask a female writer friend what she thinks! Not because you want to increase your chances of funding by creepily latching on to the trend of Strong Female Roles, but because you want to make multi-dimensional female characters, like the ones you know in real life. You wouldn’t describe those women as “beautiful and lithe, but not threatening,” right?

  5. Standing at the monitor trying to work is not the context where I want to overhear a list of the top five actresses you want to sleep with. Though, I was surprised by a couple of your choices.

Kathleen Hepburn is a writer/director in British Columbia. Her short film Never Steady, Never Still premiered at TIFF '15 and was selected for Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival. She has just completed the film’s feature adaptation.

I want to start by saying that, while I appreciate the intention of trying to find a way to do better, I find the initial question of “what can straight white men do to be supportive allies and create space for other voices?” to be inherently problematic. It once again passes the burden of finding a solution onto the backs of those you are attempting to uplift. I would say to straight white men, (and women for that matter): we need to stop asking other people how to be better and just figure it out for our goddamn selves. I don’t mean ignoring those voices outside of our own who have exhausted their own energy trying to help us figure this thing out. But we need to stop shrugging our shoulders and saying: “I want to help, but I don’t know how.”

Lucky for us, there exits a plethora of meticulously researched, beautifully written material on this very topic, which we have easy access to via the Google or even the library. If you’ve read a mountain of books and you still can’t figure out a way to start doing better, perhaps it’s best just to be quiet and think for a time. I don’t mean to be reductive, but undoing generations of colonial thought takes a lot of work, and is a slow process. The first step towards change is to educate ourselves on a deep and meaningful level.

As filmmakers, I think the priority should be to see a substantial increase in people of colour in positions of power across the board. I would also like to see changes made to the language requirements for Telefilm. The idea that projects must be produced in English, French, or an Aboriginal language to be funded is absurd and incredibly restrictive.

On the question of being useful: uplift those around you who are making great work and support organizations who provide exposure to underrepresented voices (such as: ImagineNative, InsideOut, the WIDC, or the Regent Park Film Festival).

As artists, we may not feel like we have a lot of power but the way we represent people within our stories either reinforces, or subverts the perception our audience has of the world. We have the opportunity to ask ourselves, with every word we write and with every camera angle we choose – are we feeding into a culture of systematic racism, misogyny, and discrimination, or are we subverting it?

Jennifer Shin is a VP of Feature Film at First Generation Films, working with producer Christina Piovesan. Recent projects include Chloë Sevingy’s directorial debut Kitty and Paper Year, the first feature film by Canadian writer/director Rebecca Addelman.

The Canadian film industry at large is primarily white and primarily male. In a country that prides itself on its liberalness, why are we still so exclusive? The solutions I bring up don’t reinvent the wheel, but will hopefully push the Canadian industry to become a little a more woke. To create a space for change, the immediate solution is advocating for representation in every influential position. Change happens from the top.

1. ACKNOWLEDGE THE PROBLEM We need to look in the mirror and acknowledge the reality of OUR industry in Canada. We cast judgements on our neighbours stateside and pride ourselves on being a "multicultural" nation, but are afraid to confront our own issues of inclusivity. Who are the decision makers in our industry and how do they reflect our multicultural nation? How does that trickle down?

2. TOKENISM ISN’T ENOUGH… REPRESENTATION IS POWER If the primary creators, programmers, and decision makers are white men and women, that’s all we'll see on camera. We have to find ways to remove the unconscious bias from the process. Stop patting yourself on the back for hiring one minority in a lead actor role, or having one female director out of 12 episodes on a series. Make diversity and gender parity a conscious decision every day, not to fill a quota per project.

If people aren't showing you enough diverse actors for a colour blind casting call, demand more. If you aren't seeing enough diverse female directors on a director’s list, ask why not? If your writer's room lacks diverse points of views, find those voices. Don't settle for less. You have to put the work in to see change, and are responsible for amplifying voices from varied experiences of race, religion, sexuality, and gender.

Power and leadership is crucial to seeing change happen. We can't make change unless we can become the decision makers. We need more representation at the top level from the executives greenlighting projects, to the show runners, to the directors being hired. We need to be more visible and influential in making executive decisions.

Moonlight's win for Best Picture at the Oscars was EVERYTHING because the unthinkable, the unfathomable, the impossible happened. But the impossible shouldn't be a dream, it should be a reality every day.

See: Shonda Rhimes, Kathleen Kennedy, Aziz Ansari, Donna Langley, Issa Rae, Kathryn Bigelow, Oprah Winfrey, Ava DuVernay, Alan Yang, Jenji Kohan, Amy Pascal, Donald Glover, Mindy Kaling, Jordan Peele.

3. ADVOCACY NOT MERITOCRACY Hire! Hire! Hire! It's not about creating new jobs, it's about finding opportunities from what's already established in the system. We need to change the way we see diversity and gender parity. While there are great steps being made, we need to remind ourselves that this MUST include women and men of colour.

We need to stop marginalizing the marginalized. It devalues their work and discredits our experiences. We are all equals that bring different points of view, which deserve to be heard. On this topic, my friend and industry digital savant Abby Ho made an excellent point: “It's not about a ‘diversity writers group,’ it's not about ‘shadowing,’ it’s about giving them the job.”

Let's be real – many people of diverse backgrounds are either over-experienced, or are still referred to as "emerging." Opportunity is a primary cause of this. When you are in the minority, you have to work twice as hard to be considered equal. We can’t hire to fulfill a diversity and gender mandate. We need to make space for more non-white, non-male stories by making conscious hiring decisions every step of the way.

Ryan Murphy recently told The Hollywood Reporter that he demands from his department heads that all teams are at least 50 per cent female. He told his crew: "If you don't have them, train them." It’s that simple.

4. LISTEN Just listen. Listening is vital to change. I'm going to quote my friend and television writer Marsha Greene:

"People need to listen when racialized people talk about the challenges they face. Our experiences are not theories to debated and argued, or opinions that we must defend – they are the reality that we have lived every day of our lives. The desire to change the industry needs to go hand in hand in understanding what the obstacles are. WE are the historians, the experts, the P-H-motherfucking-D's on that subject."

Jade Blair is a filmmaker and a writer in Toronto. She is the producer on After the Last River, working with Victoria Lean.

Sometimes in film or in creative industries, I feel like I’m looking into this bubble where everyone seems like they know things that I just don’t. Like how to pitch, or who to pitch to, how to write a grant application without dying three times in the process, or hell, even setting up a C-stand quickly. Probably, no baby is born with an affinity for lighting rigs. They were given chances to learn, to fail, and to get experience.

So to start, give people that chance to learn. Hire LGBTQ people, women, and people of colour. Hire not just one, but multiple people who aren’t part of the white man monolith. Hire them for creative roles, not just production assistants (though hey, it’s a start). Once you hire them, listen to what they have to say, even if you don’t immediately connect with them. You might prefer the person who walked in that reminds you of your younger cousin. Hire and listen to them anyway.

When you do hire someone from a different background, help them get acclimatized. With film, there can be an “I expect you to hit the ground running” mentality. If you’re historically barred, or discouraged from participating in an industry – forgive me if this is obvious, but I think people forget this – you’ve had less chances to participate, which means less experience. If you insist on hiring, working with, or supporting work only by people that match some strict level of qualifications, you’re still playing the white-hetero-patriarchy’s game.

If you can't hire these people, for whatever reason, help or mentor them instead. Afford them the same tips you’d give if your BFF from camp told you they wanted to make a movie, or become a cinematographer. Encourage them, volunteer on their set, offer to read their script, connect them with a contact or two. Even a chance for them to look at an old production budget, or an “in” on a camera rental deal can be the difference between an idea, or a finished film and a career.

If you want a giant gold star and your name has weight in the industry, offer to be a producer for their next grant application. Basically use the thing you have, whether it’s jobs, privilege, status, knowledge, or a sterling critical reputation, to help people who traditionally don’t get as much access to those things. Then, when the film is done, pay to go and see it.

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