Saturday, December 31, 2016

What I Have Learned From #52FilmsByWomen

Chantal Akerman
I'm not one for making New Year's Resolutions. On the rare occasions that I do make them, they tend to be fairly vague like "lose weight" or "keep in touch with friends more", things that I already do, or would probably do at any time of the year, or which I can carry over from year to year, so notions of success and failure are pretty much negligible.

This year was different. After looking over the list of books I read in 2015 and realising that the majority of them were written by men (specifically straight, white men) I resolved to consume art made by more diverse voices in 2016. To that end, I decided to make two broad changes. First, I would try to read an equal number of books written by men and women, something which I more or less stuck to, though in the final count I read 22 books written by men vs. 19 books written by women. Secondly, inspired by Marya Gates' A Year With Women project, in which she only watched films directed by women for a year, I committed myself to watching more films directed or co-directed by women in 2016, using Women in Film's 52 Films By Women pledge to give myself a goal and structure.

With 2016 about to disappear into the rearview, I wanted to share what I learned from making this admittedly very small change to my viewing habits, what it has taught me about the film industry, myself, and how I'll try and carry these lessons into 2017 and beyond.

My main takeaway was nothing surprising or new, but something I had known before without fully appreciated. Namely, that institutional sexism makes it much harder for female directors to get movies made (specifically in America, but it's a global problem), and how the effect of that initial hurdle trickles all the way down. Since there are fewer opportunities for women to direct to begin with - as we are reminded every time that a middling, undistinguished male director (or middling, undistinguished male who has never directed a film before) is offered the chance to direct a big-budget movie - fewer movies directed by women get made. Because fewer movies directed by women get made, fewer get a wide release. Because fewer films get a wide release, they have fewer opportunities to make money. And because they have fewer opportunities to make money and demonstrate that female directors are as commercially viable as male ones, female directors get fewer opportunities to direct, and so the cycle goes on and on.

This was something I knew intellectually, but it was only when I set out to actually watch more movies directed by women that I became aware of how comparatively rare they are. It's incredibly easy to see movies by men passively: of the 347 movies I watched this year, 295 were directed by men. I did not have to look for movies directed by men, they found me almost every time that I walked into a theatre, turned on a TV, or booted up a streaming service. You have to work to find films directed by women, even in an age where streaming puts thousands of movies at our disposal every second of the day. While curated or specialist services like MUBI or FilmStruck are better at highlighting work by women - MUBI in particularly always seem to have at least a few available - it's still dispiriting to scroll through lists of titles and be reminded of the disparity.

Yet even with its problems, streaming proved to be a godsend for this (admittedly low-effort) task. If I had wanted to really make things tough and add extra rules, such as mandating that I had to see all 52 films in theatres (turning this into the film equivalent of a Nuzlocke challenge) it would have literally been impossible. While more than 52 films directed by women were released in theatres in the US in 2016, a grand total of 8 actually received wide releases. The rest received limited or platform releases, and while a few of them did end up playing near me, most of them did not, and certainly not enough did to reach the goal. Conversely, it would have required almost no extra effort for me to watch 52 films directed by men in theatres: I got more than halfway there just by sticking to my regular, not-especially-demanding viewing habits.

It wasn't all terrible, though. In contrast to the dearth of Hollywood films directed by women, I was pleasantly surprised by how many female documentary filmmakers there are, and not merely directors. Even in the case of documentaries directed by men, I saw more women listed as producers, editors, and cinematographers than in many narrative films. That's obviously a subjective observation based on a limited sample size, but it did reinforce observations I'd made from attending Sheffield Doc/Fest in the past, which always features a lot of films directed or produced by women, and as a somewhat major and specialised festival, offers a microcosm of what is happening with the industry more generally.

The same also seemed to be true of independent narrative features, but it was still harder (though by no means impossible) to find a low-budget indie directed by a woman than to find a documentary directed by a woman. So while plenty of films by women are being made, having to seek them out made it clearer to me that there is a hierarchy in place when it comes to what kinds of movies women are able to make, and how they are likely to be distributed.

There's probably a lot more that could be said about the film industry and how it undervalues or outright ignores talented female filmmakers (not to mention up-and-coming filmmakers looking for their first shot) but others can and have made those observations much more eloquently than I could. Needless to say, it's tough out there, and it isn't getting appreciably easier.

Personally, this experience taught me that I am lazy, and that I'm probably dealing with some latent sexism about female-driven films. The first point is borne out by the fact that I could have sought out the work of Agnès Varda or Chantal Akerman - the two directors whose work I most enjoyed discovering this year - in the past, but chose not to, instead putting them on the back burner in favour of rewatching The Thing for the twentieth time. Now, I love The Thing, and I sincerely believe that it's one of the greatest movies ever made, but I would probably be a better cinephile (if not a better person) if I had seen Cléo from 5 to 7 or News From Home years ago.

As to the second point, taking part in this challenge forced me to watch movies which I probably would not have seen otherwise because there's some adolescent part of my brain which thinks of them as less important or less valuable because they seem like "movies for girls". I try to be as open-minded about the kinds of movies I watch, and I will generally give anything a try, but if I hadn't known that The Dressmaker was directed by a woman, and that watching it would help me reach my goal, I probably wouldn't have seen it because it's a melodrama nominally about fashion. And I'd have been poorer for not seeing it, because that movie is a fucking blast. I would like to think that this isn't a major part of my personality, but it was humbling to realise the limits of my supposed open-mindedness, and to reconsider why I dismiss some movies out of hand but not others.

Enough of what I have learned, the important thing now is what I'll do with it. Firstly, I'm going to keep watching as many films directed by women as I can. 52 films in a year is a nice, achievable number, but it's too small. With the resources available, I should at the very least be able to make the imbalance between male and female-directed films much smaller in 2017 than it was in 2016.

I'm also going to pay to see as many movies directed by women in the theatre as possible. I'm genuinely proud that I paid money to see The Edge of Seventeen and Queen of Katwe, both because they are two of my favourite films of the year, and because in doing so I made a direct, quantifiable statement by contributing to their box office, even if neither film ended up making all that much money. Money talks, and while it's a small contribution to an ongoing conversation, it is a contribution.

Also, I'm going to try to shine a spotlight on films directed by women whenever I can. I don't have the biggest platform in the world, but if I can convince a handful of people to check out these movies, through talking about them on my podcast, through a review, or even a tweet, then that's something. I can't commission films or hire women to make them, but I can support and advocate for those that already exist. These are small promises, yes, but they are ones I can keep, and I hope they can do some good.

To that end, if you want some suggestions for movies directed by women to watch, here's a Letterboxd list of all the films I watched as part of this project. I'd recommend all of them, with the possible exception of Mira Nair's 2004 version of Vanity Fair, which is a bit of a drag. They can't all be winners, but they deserve the same chance to be losers.