We spoke to the female film directors who will dominate 2017 about gender inequality

Despite a spate of female-directed feature films in 2017 including Alice Lowe's 'Prevenge', Patty Jenkins' 'Wonder Woman' and Maren Ade's 'Toni Erdmann', can we expect a big change in gender balance in the film industry?

Sarah Bradbury
Wednesday 18 January 2017 16:00
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Alice Lowe wrote, starred in, and directed her debut feature, black comedy 'Prevenge', which is out next month
Alice Lowe wrote, starred in, and directed her debut feature, black comedy 'Prevenge', which is out next month

The white guy in a baseball cap. With glasses. And a beard. The maverick. The auteur. The one with authority, with creative vision. That can marshall the actors, the lighting guys, the cameramen. That can be trusted with the money. The film director.

It's a cliché. But despite progress made, how much do our preconceived stereotypes persist?

On the one hand, high-profile debates, diversity initiatives and increasing commercial recognition of an appetite for fresh stories have seen women break new ground. In 2010, Kathryn Bigelow became the first female to win the Academy Award for Best Director for The Hurt Locker; Alice Rohrwacher was awarded the Grand Prix for Le Meraviglie (The Wonders) at Cannes in 2014; last year, the BFI London Film Festival was opened by Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom.

‘Wonder Woman’, which is out in June, is directed by Patty Jenkins  

Yet stats show a negligible increase in women’s participation in filmmaking roles over the last decade, barely bubbling over 10 per cent. Recent success tends to be limited to low-budget indie dramas and films with niche appeal, while the big productions and franchises remain the preserve of a “golden circle” of white men. And further recognition for female directors is desperately lacking: no woman has since repeated Bigelow’s success at the Oscars, and recently announced BAFTA nominations see zero women in the running for Best Director (with a notable snub for critically-acclaimed American Honey director Andrea Arnold).

So what’s the outlook for 2017? A glut of female-directed films are on the UK release calendar. And not only on the indie end of the spectrum, with horror-thriller The Bye Bye Man, out now, from Stacy Title and the reins of blockbuster franchises Underworld: Blood Wars, out now, and Wonder Woman (out 2 June) being handed to Anna Foerster and Patty Jenkins. So can we hope for a step change in gender balance in the field? We caught up with some of the female directors blazing the trail in 2017 to gain the inside scoop on the state of the industry.

Title, director of The Bye Bye Man, speaks scathingly of the current gender balance as “atrocious and criminal”, referring to “a lost generation of women directors”. She concedes that sexism from both men and women feeds the problem: “When you and I imagine an astronaut, it’s a man.” She draws on recent political events as a barometer of this: “In the US, people were extra nervous and uncomfortable philosophically, emotionally and in their collective gut to have a female president. Directors fall into that category.” Wider societal issues of who holds the power are also at play: every big company from tech (Apple, Google, Facebook etc) to oil and finance is founded and run by men. Film is an art but also a $38.3bn (£31bn) industry: “It’s a lot of money and a lot of power and people don’t want to give it up.”

Director Maren Ade’s latest film is ‘Toni Erdmann’, which is out next month (Getty)

Other directors, such as Alex Helfrecht, co-director of The White King (out 27 January) alongside Jörg Tittel, confess a discomfort in the label of “female director” when gender should be irrelevant: “But in many ways, it is still a man’s world – increasingly so in some places. It would be wrong to deny it.” She also cites the recent US elections as prompting a shift in her mindset: “Under Trump and Pence, women’s rights will come under threat once more. I find that somewhat motivating.” But for Helfrecht, it’s not just about diversity behind the camera, it’s about increasing sophistication in the way female characters are written and portrayed: “In The White King, the female characters are impressive as much as they are flawed. It is just as important to create female antiheroes.”

Director of The Levelling (out 12 May), Hope Dickson Leach, equally wishes she could stop receiving the same feedback on her female characters, the almost inevitable recurring note: “Could you make her more likeable?”. She believes that only through having more women at the helm of the creative process will a more varied representation on screen be possible: “People have different lived experiences on this planet, and if we want those stories to be told, we need storytellers with different lived experiences.”

Alice Lowe, who wrote, starred in, and directed her debut feature, black comedy Prevenge (out 10 February), while over seven months pregnant, says that despite recent commitments to diversity having a knock-on effect for low-budget films, a glass ceiling remains for women being “trusted” with bigger budgets: “I felt I had to shoot Prevenge in that crazy way to prove I had a commitment to being a director. As a woman you are trusted to tell an emotional story, because ‘you like people’, while men get the latest Spider-Man. I should be able to make a film about whatever I want.” She also sees that trajectories for men’s careers, gaining crucial technical experience on music videos and TV adverts as a way into filmmaking, are rarely available to women.

Agyness Deyn in ‘The White King’, directed by female auteur Alex Helrecht alongside Jörg Tittel

A number of 2016 reports have made visible what Kate Kinninmont, CEO of Women in Film & Television, calls a “shocking lack of gender equality” in the industry: “Before then, people didn’t really notice.” Directors UK’s Cut Out of the Picture found that of 2,591 UK films released over 10 years (2005-2014), women made up just 13.6 per cent of working film directors, stats echoed by the US Celluloid Ceiling Report. This is despite the numbers leaving education in filmmaking showing a 50-50 split. The UK report suggests “unconscious bias caused by systemic issues” is partially responsible for the different outcomes, while Raising Films’ survey Making It Possible reveals a host of barriers, from direct discrimination to the impossibility of juggling the expected working hours once filmmakers become parents (disproportionately affecting women).

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Dr Shelley Cobb, Associate Professor of Film at the University of Southampton, leads project Calling the Shots, and has similarly identified systemic issues in the industry: “It’s about hiring people who are like you and the habitual nature of people going to those they know they can trust with the money. There’s an implicit bias against women’s credibility: that they can’t handle the big projects.”

Through interviewing female directors and analysing data, Cobb theorises about how different factors combine and intersect, in particular the strength of the idea we still have of the director, the auteur: “An old-fashioned term but still relevant when you think of our best loved directors – Scorsese, Coppola, Nolan, Tarantino.” Co-author of the report, Natalie Wreyford, who previously worked at the UK Film Council, further highlights the need to challenge the myth of the meritocratic process: “This idea of passion, talent and commitment, at the exclusion of everything else, as a symbol of whether you are any good – it ignores all the barriers. And that other models can and do exist.”

‘Prevenge’ director Alice Lowe says a glass ceiling remains for women being trusted with bigger budgets

Of course the perennial question is what should be done about it. The BFI’s diversity standards, which have now been taken up by the BAFTA awards for two of their categories – Outstanding British Film and Outstanding Debut – are seen as a promising step forward. But Wreyford worries there’s enough wiggle room to avoid meaningful change: “There’s a danger that diversity will be seen on screen but not behind it. So we’ll still be getting the white man’s view of the world, perpetuating all sorts of ideas of what women should and can be.” Directors UK are calling for 50 per cent of publicly funded films in the UK to be directed by women by 2020, but also for commercial incentives, such as a review of the tax relief system, to be looked at, acknowledging, as spokesperson Ali Bailey says, “more than targets and quotas – money talks”.

Despite increasing diversity on screen, and a developing consensus that a parity of representation in filmmaking is important, the data suggests structural inequalities still lurk in the cogs of the industry. Kinninmont optimistically believes there is a genuine interest from people in the business to bring about change: “What everyone can now recognise is filmmaking is not just a reflection of society, but it should also be an influence. I don’t actually think people are misogynistic or racist. But what we need is a more risk-free attitude.”

Ultimately by limiting those who create film we are limiting the creative diversity of voices, stories and characters we are exposed to as a society. There’s no silver bullet for redressing the balance but the key message of women committed to this fight is, as director Lowe says: “Get out there and do it. Don’t wait for permission.” Bring on the female antiheroes.

Your guide to some of the key 2017 UK film releases by female directors

Just out are Stacy Title’s horror-thriller The Bye Bye Man and Anna Foerster’s Underworld: Blood Wars. Later in January, Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson will explore the art of filmmaking through footage from her 25-year career as a documentary cinematography. Alex Helfrecht’s dystopian drama The White King will follow the story of 12-year-old Djata in a totalitarian state, based on the award-winning 2007 novel by György Dragomán.

In February we will see Maren Ade’s off-the-wall German comedy Toni Erdmann, and genre-bending LoveTrue about perceptions of love by Alma Harel. Alice Lowe’s black comedy Prevenge and youth dance drama The Fits by Anna Rose Holmer will also be out.

March brings Viceroy’s House, the true story of the final months of British rule in India, by Gurinder Chadha, The Love Witch about female fantasy and the “repercussions of pathological narcissism” by Anna Biller, plus Spanish drama The Olive Tree by Iciar Bollain

In April, period comedy-drama Their Finest by Lone Scherfig will be released. For May, it’s British-American war drama The Zookeeper’s Wife by Niki Caro and psychological thriller Berlin Syndrome by Cate Shortland, adapted from Melanie Joosten's novel.

June will see the much anticipated Wonder Woman by Patty Jenkins and female-driven comedy Rock That Body by Lucia Aniello as well as French WWII film, based on a novel by Milena Agus, From the Land of the Moon by Nicole Garcia.

Finishing up the year in December will be the third instalment of musical comedy Pitch Perfect by Trish Sie.

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