This weekend, the Women's Film Initiative had the honor of attending Athena Film Festival held at Barnard College in NYC. This was a truly unique opportunity for us as Athena shares our message of celebrating women and leadership. The weekend consisted of screenings of feature films, documentaries and shorts that highlight women's leadership in real life and the fictional world. It also included panels with women who are experts in the industry, leading conversations about their experiences and how to spark change in the future of filmmaking.
Over the course of the weekend, we sat in on four panels and each one delivered a very important message to the audience. I could write a novel on what I learned there, but I'll try to keep it to some concepts that stuck with me that I'd like to share with you all.
The pipeline. Inspired by Lake Bell's film In A World, This panel discussed a concept I've been struggling with ever since I joined WFI, and I could never find an answer. There are so many talented women studying film right now, so where do they all go? Where do they keep falling off the grid between college and big budget feature films? And every year, we're regressing a little bit more! It certainly can't be lack of talent.
In order for anyone to get a job in this industry, they need to be on a list. A highly exclusive, diligently maintained list compiled by executives and agencies that tell you who are the best in the industry to hire for a certain kind of project. One of the panelists mentioned she had gone a full year without seeing ONE women on that list. When confronted, people often make up excuses and reasons that so-and-so didn't fit the bill, because excuses excuses excuses. There is no excuse.
USC Professor Stacy Smith mentioned she had conducted a study at Sundance that asked people in the industry what qualities make up a good director. Not surprisingly, most of the described traits were considered "masculine" traits. They have to be assertive, agressive, rally the troops, etc...so perhaps this means it has nothing to do with talent, rather a distorted vision of gender roles.
In the last panel on Sunday afternoon, we talked about something that's been big in the media lately - the Bechdel Test, which grades movies on a pass/fail scale based on whether that film contains at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. As you can imagine, many movies fail. One of the things that's important to mention is that this test is NOT meant to be a definitive measure of film quality, since there are many great films that protray women in a good light, which do not pass. Rather, it should be used as a lever and grounds for a serious discussion. The panelists response? "We have statistics, we have evidence, do we have a plan?"
Many suggestions were made by both the panelists and the audience members - approaching it from the makers side (directors, film students, newcomers, indie films...), or changing the critics expectations of "female movies", but the panelists all agreed that no matter what our approach is, we must remember that we have to get this to be a humanity issue, NOT a gender issue.
Lessons learned from the trip? Support women. A lot of them. Many women are a part of these organizations, go to events, but then go back to work and don't HIRE women. The panelists mentioned that female executives don't fight for them perhaps because they fear being known for it. In such a male-dominated industry, many just want to be assimilated into it. But we constantly have to remind ourselves, as Film Marketing Consultant Paula Silver reminded me, that "movies are a megaphone for changing the world" and if we want to start seeing differences, we have to start MAKING them in every small way we can.
Director Neema Barnette left us with a great message that I will leave you all with - "I don't judge myself by the standards other people set for me - I judge myself by the standards I set for myself."
Don't let other people pave YOUR way. It's time for us to get out there and start using our megaphones!