Natasha Walter: Feminist activism to overcome the under-representation of women in the film industry Print E-mail
 London --  Tuesday September 26, 2006

If we move fast, we can curb the film world's male bias

Going to movies directed by women as soon as they are released is a pragmatic and enjoyable form of feminist activism

Natasha Walter

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It's easy to think that women are now doing rather well in the film industry as a whole, because a few women are doing extremely well. Perhaps they shine all the brighter in our minds because there are so few of them. If you follow the fizzily unique visions of, say, Sofia Coppola or Samira Makhmalbaf, they can blind you to the reality that so many other women who might do something just as fine are still not getting behind the camera. Of all the statistics that show that the world is still weighted towards the boys, there are few quite as telling as the percentage of major feature films that are directed by women - we're still talking just 7%.

Looking at the paragraph I've just written, it intrigues me that the two women directors I picked out as those whose works I would always want to see - even if, as with Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, released in a few weeks, they don't get great press - are daughters of male film directors. Is the 21st-century film industry a teensy bit like the art world of the 18th century, when, as Germaine Greer said, "the most striking fact about the women who made names for themselves as painters" was that so many of them were related to better-known male painters?

If the film industry of the 21st century really is stuck anywhere near to where the art world was in the 18th century, it is urgent to talk not just about where it's at but also about how it might change. We desperately need to see more stories told from women's points of view - we need the richness and the strength and variation that a more balanced film industry would give to audiences. That's not because women make one particular kind of film, but because they make all sorts of films; I'm desperate to see how women directors would add to our private fantasies and our public culture if they were creating more freely and confidently.

One British woman director, Pratibha Parmar, has her very first feature film coming out this Friday. Nina's Heavenly Delights is a sugary-sweet fantasy about a lesbian woman who cooks up a storm in her father's Indian restaurant. The inspiration might have been My Beautiful Laundrette meets Babette's Feast, although it hits a more amateur note. In itself, this cute fairytale is certainly not going to break any boundaries, but I was very intrigued to hear from the director that she has been encouraging women to go and see it on its first weekend, using the tactics of the First Weekenders Group in the US.

The First Weekenders Group was started seven years ago, when women were getting more and more impatient about their under-representation in the film industry, and a number of them decided to take some positive steps towards change. By circulating an email of forthcoming women-directed films to a club of interested women, it aims to get more people to go and see these films on the all-important first weekend of release. What filmgoers often don't realise is that if a film does well on that first weekend, then it is set for a wider and longer release, which means better returns, more likelihood that the director will get funding for her next film, and so a better profile for women as a whole in the industry. On a film's first weekend, Parmar told me last week, "every single person's attendance could make a difference to how long the film will stay in the cinemas".

The First Weekenders Group tries to take the first small steps in a virtuous circle, instead of being stuck in the vicious one. Tara Veneruso, the spirited American director and editor who began the group, spoke to me last week about why it's effective in the US. "This is not about complaining, not about asking who is putting us down," she said. "It's about saying, 'How are we going to get to this grand goal, which is to get more women in technical roles in the film industry?' It's partly about getting bigger audiences, but it is also about raising awareness about the fact that there are so few women making films, and why this matters. We have to spark that conversation, because at the moment producers just say, 'Let's go with the guy,' and the question is: how do you change that attitude?"

The First Weekenders Group in the US also works with the Guerrilla Girls, the wonderfully witty group of artists who set up a billboard campaign at the last Academy Awards ceremony. "Unchain the women directors!" it called across Hollywood, with an image of a Queen Kong. It's unlikely that any British guerrilla girl will set up a similar billboard outside the Bafta film awards, but the First Weekenders Group is easily translatable into the UK. Rachel Millward, the director of the Birds Eye View Film Festival, who is currently thinking of putting a First Weekenders Group in the UK on a formal, long-term footing, can see how it would work in raising awareness as well as growing audiences.

"Even if it wouldn't make an enormous difference to audience size immediately, I can see that this wouldn't just be a gimmick," Millward told me. Indeed. I like the idea of this kind of feminist activism; it's pragmatic, it's enjoyable, and it could work. By going to see films made by women on their first weekend, women could eventually make a difference to the numbers of stories told by women that we are able to see any night of the week.