Women Duking it Out in a Gender Biased World or Artists Struggling to Survive?

Katherine Monk Moderates Director’s Panel Discussion 

Katherine MonkSunday evening, just one feature film short of the conclusion of Vancouver Women in Film Festival 2012, film critic Katherine Monk moderated a stimulating panel discussion consisting of three directors featured during this year’s event: Desiree Lim, director of THE HOUSE, Tracy D. Smith, director of EVERYTHING AND EVERYWHERE, and Jill Sharpe, director of BONE, WIND, FIRE, which had screened earlier in the day.

Jill Sharpe

Katherine triggered the discussion by asking the panelists about the role of ego in the women’s craft. Jill Sharpe replied by saying that “getting past the fear means forgetting what they will think of me, it’s about the scene, the art, the director telling the story.” Tracy D Smith replied that “ego [had] to be set aside in order to get past the fear.” They were both talking about the fear of judgement. Fear of criticism either from the outside world or from the artist’s internal critic.


WVIFF 2012 Director's Panel Discussion moderated by Katherine Monk

Desiree Lim

Interestingly, the interpretation of the role of ego would likely have been very different amongst a panel of male directors. Soon enough, the discussion found its way to a comparison of female and male directors, and the role of mentorship in the growth of a director’s career. Some felt that having a male mentor didn’t work for a female director, because adopting a male model meant copying wrong behavioral patterns. Desiree Lim, evolving out of a career in journalism, worked with predominantly male mentors as was the norm and not something that she questioned.

Jill Sharpe often works with women, but usually looks for the best person for the job. Decisions have to serve the creative piece. Is it possible to break the delineation between genders? Tracy D Smith said, if you have a choice, and it won’t hurt your film, choose a woman for a role.

For Tracy D Smith, there was a lack of connection with male mentors. Connection with women in film is more transformative, with more influence. She felt that you don’t have to be nice – not an unnecessary asshole, just a necessary asshole – to get the job done. On the other hand, she was the most outspoken in terms of feeling that her empowerment as a director gave her both moral obligation and opportunity to provide women in the industry opportunities to work in roles that might otherwise be more difficult to obtain. She also prefers to work with many women around her in every capacity. Unless the film would suffer, she said, she would always choose a woman over a man for the same job, just because she can.

Tracy D Smith directorThat is, after all, what men do. What they have always done, intentionally or unintentionally shutting women out of the business.

There have been, and are, few women in power positions at large studios and they are not nurturing to women particularly. It was agreed generally that making budget and market-driven films provided directors with less freedom to make the kinds of choices that Tracy D Smith talked about.

Katherine Monk, who has interviewed many influential women in film, mentioned Catherine Bigelow, the first female director to win an academy award for her film The Hurt Locker last year. Is it a different exercise being female? Bigelow reportedly shies away from gender questions. In some ways it is understandable that successful women directors not want to be classified as female filmmakers if, or as if, this diminished their accomplishment, and yet Bigelow will be remembered as a female director because she stands alone. Understandably successful women in film don’t want their gender to define their success or their work. While there is nothing wrong with wanting to be valued for your contribution alone, there was some heated discussion about whether the question: What is it like being a female director? is appropriate at all, or in fact inherently sexist.

The consensus seemed to be, as long as women are in the minority, it will always be noticed when they are successful. For example, Ang Lee, when making Sense and Sensibility, was questioned about his culture and his gender. Desiree Lim says she has always been questioned about her differences, whether sexual orientation, race or gender. However, she had never been asked about gender as much as at this festival. It was observed that those in the spotlight of success will always be questioned because we simply want to know: How did you do that? I want to do that, too.

While this may be true enough, personally, I have to argue that being a woman should not be seen as an excuse and certainly not an embarrassment. If we need to have an ego at any time, this is when it is most appropriate. When a woman has achieved a certain level of acceptance and success, that is when she needs to say, yes, I am a woman. That’s why I am as good as I am. I am who I am and part of that is being female. This is not the time to be modest or invisible, or to deny who you are. You will rarely find a man worried about being modest or subtle while his name is up in lights. Men approach every endeavour with ego supreme, not suppressed. This is how they define themselves. There is no separation between a man’s ego and his creations, his accomplishments. That same attitude in women is often perceived in a negative way. Women need to learn to brag a little, even though it can be dangerous. There is FEAR that you’ll be kicked off the stage.

The film industry being what it is, Katherine Monk pointed out that commercialization of our culture, and what happens to both men and women in that context, affects those values, and how are women portrayed in film. Women in power, such as Hillary Clinton, are demonized. It is a product of our position in global society, and the still predominant societal control over gender roles. Tracy D Smith, who is involved in teaching film, notes that although younger girls have no self imposed constraints on their relationship to filmmaking, older girls are conditioned to believe that they can’t make films as they grow up.

Women who do get an opportunity but don’t have immediate success may not be motivated or encouraged to stick around. Katherine Monk observed that women take rejection too personally. Men just keep trying.

Fame follows the money. That’s how society assigns value. However, it was noted that Hollywood can’t survive on this model; it will run dry of creativity. Eventually women will have the opportunities they have lacked in the past. Changing technology helps: you no longer have to be a rich white guy to make films today.

Katherine Monk expressed the opinion that guys are good at backing each other up, and women have yet to learn to do this. Women still betray each other, slam each other, which is a bad thing, sending the wrong message. It was her opinion that women have to start supporting each other.

Some strong audience disagreement ensued. Some felt that women were very supportive of each other. It was felt that mutual building, career help and support was happening.

Jill Sharpe sees mentorship differently. Mentorship happens when there’s a true connection between two people. When you achieve success, it’s important to help others come up in the ranks. Women can and do do this with increased achievement and power.

How can we continue to grow? What can we do better?

Desiree Lim continues to search for more female driven stories, but it’s hard when the market drives industry. Some advice: Buy a camera, shoot, make films, submit. The more you become master of your own art, the more control, freedom, opportunity you will have. Start with indie films.

Georgia O'Keefe portraitFreda Kahlo self portraitEmily Carr self portrait

Female storytellers need to look at the world context. Jill Sharpe said to ride out the storm, nurture your own stories, make the work, keep your enthusiasm alive, keep creative

aspects alive. Interestingly, she advised looking to history. The political situation often interferes with creative process. Are the arts supported or not? It feels tough now, but it’s always been that way for the arts. This drew comparisons with the artists examined in BONE, WIND, FIRE. Freda Khalo, Georgia O’Keefe and Emily Carr had neither role models, support, mentorship nor acceptance. Neither did they have a forum for debate the way we do today. They had only the creative impulse, and the courage and determination, and perhaps the ego to carry on.


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