Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: 'Hollywood still remains a sexualised and sexist ecosystem'

Gurinder Chadha and Kathryn Bigelow are the lucky ones. Most female film directors still never get a shot at the big time

Iwould gladly wring her long neck, but that would be to punish idiocy. Sigourney Weaver reckons that James Cameron didn't get his richly deserved Oscar for Avatar because he doesn't have breasts. Obvious innit? It's boob discrimination, the only explanation for why this year, unlike every other since 1929, a man had to concede the big prize to his female better and piquantly, his ex-wife. Maybe Aliens shrivelled Weaver's brain. The spoiler really doesn't get it. Or maybe she still feels she has to flatter men to get coveted roles. Shame.

Our feminist hearts soared like blithe starlings when the awesome Kathryn Bigelow went up to collect her Oscars for The Hurt Locker. Lay aside the silly burble about her frock and hair and the interminable speculation about her divorce. She scaled the most treacherous mountains and made history. What's more, the winning movie, like her other work, is tough and uncompromisingly male. She is a woman making it in a man's world, hacking down assumptions every inch of the way. Her win mattered, but as the euphoria subsides, so too the optimism that cinema has entered a new era of gender equality.

Female film-makers carry on fighting for parity. Professor Martha Lauzen of San Diego State University found in 1998 that only 9% of directors in Hollywood were female. In 2008 the figure was unchanged. Why should that matter? Because it does and because as Jane Campion, who made The Piano and Bright Star, said in Cannes last year: "We represent half the population and give birth to the whole world. Without [female directors] the world is not getting to know the whole story. They must put on their coats of armour and get going." Men are not born to rule. They just believe they are. The unshakeable order is, to them, an evolutionary imperative or the result of intelligent design.

Hollywood, aromatic with the scent of gorgeous and available young women still remains a sexualised and sexist ecosystem. Hierarchies and fear silence complaints, but evidence of animal behaviour leaks out from time to time. Last year a studio Big Beast said to an agent of a (not nubile, but talented) female director he was persuaded to interview: "Never again send me anyone I wouldn't want to fuck".

But what of Britain? Note the significant victory in a related field – smart, witty Claudia Winkleman is to replace Jonathan Ross on the BBC's Film 2010. Hurray! Macho punters are furious, which is even more pleasing. Beeban Kidron, who in the 80s shot to fame with Oranges are Not the Only Fruit has gone on to the internationally popular Bridget Jones: the Edge of Reason. Phyllida Lloyd got the world singing and dancing with the film version of Mamma Mia!, the biggest-grossing British film of all time; Sam Taylor-Wood appeared on the scene and blew away sceptics with Nowhere Boy (and bagged the star, until now a perk for male directors); and Gurinder Chadha, whose new film It's a Wonderful Afterlife is released this week, is another director with huge box-office appeal. The successful films also changed the absurd presumption that audiences were largely made up of young men with disposable incomes. It still hasn't made the going any easier.

Award-winning Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar) was going to and then didn't direct The Lovely Bones, based on the bestselling novel by Alice Sebold. Peter Jackson got the job and made a tepid, some say, vapid movie. Ramsay's work-in-progress is a film version of Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin. In 2007, a list of all the British female directors we have ever had amounted to 12, that is a dozen. They include the names above, the pioneer Jill Craigie, who made her first film in 1948, Antonia Bird and Andrea Arnold – more on her anon.

Chadha has now got herself to a position where she can virtually make any movie she fancies. Thankfully though, she has not succumbed to the myth that her own triumphs have seen off sexism for others. Counterintuitively, her eyes are now more wide open: "It's very hard to make films for everybody. But undeniably the industry is run by men. They respect box office and awards. If a woman makes money, that gives us power. But too few of us get there. I now think there is such a thing as female aesthetic and understanding. The way we look at the world, what we find funny, moving, touching is different. My female characters are always three dimensional. We multitask – incredibly important for directors. Of course some men can do that too, but there is a difference." I heard these same views from other interviewees.

Bird has made several unforgettable, gritty films, among them Priest (1994) about a gay Catholic priest and a paedophile confessor and The Hamburg Cell (2004), a docudrama about the 9/11 terrorists. By now her work should have become a resounding brand as evocative as that of Mike Leigh or Ken Loach. Not yet it seems. If ever.

Talking to the journalist Kate Kellaway in 2007, Bird cut to the chase: "We are still living in a very sexist society ... there are so few of us for the same reason there are so few women in parliament and the City of London. [The guys] want to keep power for themselves. The business side of directing – raising money – is hindered by being female." Never discount that reason for why white men still control the economy, public life, the entertainment business and all that matters. Give it time, they always say. Or it's too challenging, too tough. (What, more than shooting down the enemy or going to the moon?) Or women (and black and Asian people too) need training on how to enter these professions, rise to the top. Fudge, fudge and duplicity.

Three years on, I ask Bird if it is getting easier. "No, I really wish it was. What exactly is causing the logjam? The problem goes in so many different directions. For women it is still hard to get an idea through. Those who have broken through are tough, have strong personalities and feelings – in a good way. Women with these qualities are seen differently by men." Bird confesses she has learnt to hold back her real self and tame her high passion – "passion is not attractive" – after being described in the industry as a "female Mike Tyson". Both Bird and Chadha think – though they still have to fight sexism – that women have more of a chance in Hollywood than they do in the UK.

When access and success are so long denied, it must follow that women still don't quite know how to play the game. Some, for sure, must come across as desperate, others timid. Selling oneself doesn't come easy to my gender. When taking proposals to studios and backers, many a talented woman finds it impossible to sound off in that blokey way. Nice girls don't pitch. As a result, the bosses, maybe unconsciously, reject the director and her ideas more readily.

The young seem to believe that all you need is spunk. Blogs are full of upbeat youth-views: "I truly think that things are a-changin'. It's about attitude. There's a whole new generation of strong women out there who have grown up knowing and demanding their rights" or "...if an individual wants to make it in pictures, then make it." Vicky Jewson, the young director who made Lady Godiva, sincerely believes that: "When you are raising finance you get more success with the men because you can appeal to them with female charm." Is she savvy or naïve? We shall see.

Women now make up 34 per cent of those admitted to British film schools and academies. So I found two of them – one who finished in 2008 and another who is mid-course. They were both smart and personable, wore short skirts and haircuts. You meet them and think, yes they can, this generation will do what Campion called out for. Only, five minutes into the spritzers, I realised that they were really scared of doing anything that could stop them going places. Don't use our name, don't describe what we look like, or where we met. "A" said: "It is whimsical, the business. The people have your life in their hands. I would never sleep with them and have never been pressured, but they tell you all the time that they can make or break you." "B" did unpaid work experience with a director who said that young women film-makers were "like here today, gone tomorrow, hopefully. Where are the great women painters? Where are the composers? They can't hack it. You'll go off and have babies before you have learnt the graft."

Ah, women and babies, can't pull them apart, not even when it comes to metaphors. Bigelow describes her films as her babies, babies she nurtures like a mother. The great Kurosawa thought directing was like leading an army. There's the difference – and it might explain why so many female directors nurture new talent. Chadha brought on Parminder Nagra, Aaron Johnson and in her new film gives Goldy Notay her big moment. Bird mentors young people and fought to use Arab actors for The Hamburg Cell.

There is the real business of making and rearing children, too. All the directors I talked to agreed that the demands of the job make it hellishly difficult for mums. Men never feel the same guilt or pressures. Kidron has admitted motherhood made her change her priorities. The two young women above said they would not have children because that would sap their creativity. Bird told me wistfully: "I have never managed to have time to have children. The job is 18 hours a day, it would have been impossibly difficult." Chadha does have young twins and a wonderfully supportive husband who is the primary carer. That has only made her more aware of the cost of motherhood for her peers.

Maybe this complicated inner life draws women directors to sensitive and quirky art films – rather than blockbusters. Chadha and other established directors admire that alternative choice. Oscar- winning Andrea Arnold is the queen of the brave and pioneering. In 2009 her film Fish Tank won prestigious awards at Cannes and in Britain. But this year there are barely any female names among the Cannes nominations. Success, even when it comes, is fleeting – here today and gone tomorrow, hopefully, as the tutor said to his ardent trainee.

'Breaking In: How 20 Film Directors Got Their Start', by Nicholas Jarecki (Random House)

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