Throughout March, in celebration of Women’s History Month, Documentary Channel is presenting “Her Take,” a program of 10 nonfiction films directed by women filmmakers (see my earlier post for more details). Four of these titles — The Price of Sex (pictured above), The Heretics, Atomic Mom and Ferry Tales — come to us via the organization Women Make Movies, which is additionally celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.
I got a chance to talk with WMM’s Executive Director, Debra Zimmerman, this week, partly about the programming partnership with DOC Channel and partly about the organization’s birthday, as well as on such topics as women directors being so common in documentary, women filmmakers possibly being more trusted by subjects — especially women subjects — than men, and women filmmakers, even those working in nonfiction, still being underrepresented by awards, festivals, other broadcasters and the industry as a whole.
Fittingly in honor of today being International Women’s Day, I present you with our conversation in full:
First, can you tell us about Women Make Movies, its origins and what you guys do today?
Women Make Movies was founded in 1972 as a place to give women the skills to make films at a time when there were very, very few women who knew how to. It started as a production collective, giving women access to 16mm equipment, which they didn’t have access to. It was very expensive to make films back then. Ten years in, we shifted our focus to distribution because lots of women had opportunities to get films made but they weren’t really getting out.
So for the past 30 years we’ve been really focused on distributing films by and about women. We have about 550 films in the collection made by women filmmakers from all around the world. And we primarily distribute to North American audiences. We see it as part of our job to bring perspectives to Americans and Canadians, as well, that they don’t normally see, particularly on television.
We do also have a production assistance program where we still work with women filmmakers trying to get their films made, but rather than teaching skills, in terms of production, we work behind the scenes producing and helping them to raise the money. And we’re really proud that films from both programs have won awards, have been nominated for Academy Awards in five of the last six years, and have won major prizes at Sundance. So we’re really proud of the collection we’ve put together.
And do you mainly focus on films for and about women and their issues, or can the films be about any subject so long as they’re made by women?
Both. With the films that we distribute, we do really look at not just women’s perspectives but also women’s issues. We’re not interested in distributing only to women audiences. One of our lines is “by women, about women, for everyone.” We do want to get our films out as widely as possible, and in fact they do have a very diverse audience. In our production assistance program we expand that “by and about” to be more generally “by women,” on subjects that aren’t just what might be considered women’s issues.
But it’s always women’s perspectives, because all the films are directed by women. They can be produced by men, produced in collaboration with men, even have all men on the crew, but we’re looking to support women’s visions.
Can you tell us about your partnership with Documentary Channel and the films from your collection that will be airing this month?
We’re so thrilled to be collaborating with the DOC Channel on this, and we are really, really thrilled that they are devoting this kind of programming to women’s documentaries, because unfortunately although there are a lot more women working in documentary than narrative film, we still don’t get to see their films either in festivals or broadcast. I was just looking at the programs of some of the major festivals launching this fall and chagrin to see the paltry number of women directors represented in their selections. That’s a little distressing, and I think the DOC Channel focusing on women is a positive step toward rectifying that.
We are really pleased with the selection of films because it represents a good overview of the kinds of films that we’re interested in. The Price of Sex, by Mimi Chakarova, is one of the most important films we’ve released in the last two years. The subject of sexual trafficking is so essential, and we actually looked for a film on this subject for many, many years, and although there were lots of films made, there weren’t any that we thought approached the subject with the kind of analysis and breadth that Mimi does.
Oftentimes films almost re-exploited the women. In many the women were not able to speak on camera because they were afraid for their lives. They didn’t have the trust in the filmmaker. Mimi, being from Bulgaria, coming from that area and working for more than ten years on the film and going undercover herself, was able to present us a very important look at the subject, and one we haven’t seen before. It’s a great film to be part of the series.
The Heretics, by Joan Braderman, is a film that actually came out of our production assistance program, so it’s a film that we were involved with from the very beginning. Again, I think it’s a perfect Women Make Movies film. We call films “perfect Women Make Movies films” when they use a very inventive approach to presenting current events or history in a way we haven’t seen before. The Heretics takes a look at this really amazing almost underground magazine called Heretics, which was published out of the same building that Women Make Movies’ office was in for many years, so we have this fun connection to it. And a lot of the filmmakers that we worked with in our early years were a part of Heresies and are represented in the film.
Joan Braderman is a filmmaker who we’ve worked with for many, many years. She did a fabulous, kind of cult-y look at Dynasty, the old TV show, called Joan Does Dynasty. She’s been making films for a very long time, and this film really represents the culmination of many years of her work, as well.
Atomic Mom is by a filmmaker [M.T. Silvia] who is very new to us. We found her film last year at the Sarasota Film Festival, where we did a program. We just really liked the approach of a part of history that we had not seen from a woman’s perspective, and that’s the Cold War and the creation of the atomic bomb. It’s also a very personal story, and that’s kind of a hallmark of a lot of Women Make Movies films, where women are looking at their own lives or a particular time in history or an issue through their own personal perspective.
It’s interesting because in all three films the women filmmakers are in the film. Joan is in Heretics, Mimi is in The Price of Sex and M.T. is certainly in Atomic Mom, which is about her own mother.
The last film, Ferry Tales, is a film we’ve been distributing for quite a while. It was nominated for the Academy Award in 2004. It’s a really funny and lighthearted but also very serious look at race and class in America through the women who put on their makeup in the ladies room of the Staten Island Ferry. Katja [Esson] is a German filmmaker transplanted to New York and is able to give us a nice outsider’s perspective on American women. It’s a nice round-out to the program.
We’re really happy with “Her Take,” and we hope that it won’t just be a Women’s History Month program but that it will be ongoing. There’s a saying from the Guerrilla Girls, this group of women art activists, “If you’re not seeing art by women, you’re not seeing the whole picture.” And it’s the same for film as well, that if you’re not seeing films made by women directors you’re not seeing the world as it really is.
And it’s important that I point out that this block of programming is kicking off our 40th anniversary celebration. It will be celebrated from March 2012 to March 2013, and we’re going to be having 40 exhibitions of our films around the world, including at the Sierra Leone Film Festival in Africa, the Mumbai Film Festival in India and right now we’re launching in Prague at the One World Human Rights Film Festival. We’ll be in Bolivia for the Human Rights Film Festival there. We’re also going to be doing retrospectives of two of our filmmakers at the Museum of Modern Art here in New York and co-sponsoring a full-day symposium at Rutgers University this fall. So we’ve got a really great year-long celebration in the works.
As you mentioned already, there are a lot more women working in documentary than in narrative film. Why do you think that is?
When I was at the Sundance Film Festival this year there was a meeting of women in the industry, directors and producers. And this whole issue of how many more women there are in documentary than fiction came up, and there was a very loud chorus of, “there’s one reason, and it’s money.” Documentaries cost a lot less than narrative films, by far. A million dollar documentary is a big documentary.
By the way, if you look at those million dollar documentaries, which is how I frame them, the big documentaries that have taken the scene in the last five years or so, most of them are directed by men. If you look at the smaller documentaries, those are the ones mostly directed by women.
So I do think that part of the reason women have become more prevalent in documentary is that there’s less money at stake. You need less money to get the films made. You can make them with a very small crew. You don’t need a bank behind you. You don’t need a studio behind you.
Do you think there is any link to the similar prevalence of women editors? Documentary is very much a medium associated with editing. What about women as producers?
They have a long history of being editors, and I think there are two reasons. One is that it’s kind of like sewing, it’s something you do with your hands. Or, it used to be something you do with your hands. It’s very much behind the scenes. It’s in a dark room. It’s not out front. And it’s much safer. That makes it much easier. It’s not the most prestigious job or the one that gets the most attention. So it was a lot easier for women to get into filmmaking that way.
It’s also interesting that it’s generally not the way people become directors in Hollywood. You very rarely hear of an editor who then moves into directing, whereas cinematographers, which are primarily male, almost always. If you’re looking at what position on the crew leads into directing, it’s more likely the cinematographer.
It’s kind of similar, unfortunately, with producing. Part of it is women self-selecting, they gravitate towards it, but I think it’s also signals that they get about how difficult it is to actually get to direct. Women are not pushed in that direction, and they don’t push themselves. One of the things I noticed a couple years back at Sundance, which I found to be a very fascinating and positive development, is most of the documentaries that were made by women were made in partnership. It was two women that co-directed and/or co-produced, like the film on Joan Rivers [Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg’s Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work] and, for example, Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing. I think that women get support from other women and then are able to compete in the bigger league. That’s important.
Another thing that women need to start doing is… Women are often producing for men directors, whereas it’s much more rare that you find men producing for women directors. We want to work on changing that. We want to encourage women to work producing for other women. And we want to encourage men to start producing for women directors. Women try to do it themselves. All around the world there are pitching forums where projects get pitched to commissioning editors, to broadcasters, and it’s very rare you see a man sitting up there by himself. He almost always has a producer, whether it’s a woman or man. Oftentimes women are up there by themselves. So we want to encourage women to get support from the industry and help them get bigger budgets, make bigger projects and have films that are more visible.
I don’t know if this is all that true or not, but I’ve talked with documentary filmmakers and subjects, about how it’s easier or more common for people to trust women directors, particularly with intimate subject matter. What is your feeling on this claim?
That’s an interesting question and not one I’ve been asked before. So let me just throw out some ideas on that. I was just on the documentary jury of the Cartagena Film Festival and there was a film about women in prison in Colombia, and it was interesting because while it was very well made — and in fact it was executive produced by Bruce Sinofsky, so it was made by Americans about Colombia — I just felt that the directors never got beyond the superficial, and I think it’s partially because the subjects didn’t trust them. Maybe it was because they weren’t Colombian, maybe because they were men.
The film that Mimi made, Price of Sex, I do not think that a man could have made that film. And a lot of the films that we’ve seen about sex trafficking have been made by men and it’s very clear that they didn’t gain that trust. I’ve also heard from women directors that it is easier to get their subjects to open up. Or, they have an easier time in foreign places because they’re underestimated. They’re seen as just a couple of girls.
I just heard this story from Pam Yates, whose film Granito was also part of the competition I was jurying, that when she was in Guatemala years ago making When the Mountains Tremble, she was able to get interviews with these generals in the army because they thought, “Oh, well she’s just a girl.”
I think it’s interesting that women are able to use that to their advantage, and I think it adds something to the the films they make, whether the films are about women or not. So yeah, I tend to agree with that.
Another thing that’s important when you’re talking about women subjects: I think it’s easier for women to make films about men than it is for men to make films about women. Spike Lee was on a panel at NYU a while ago and said something about how Sydney Pollack wanted to make a film about Malcolm X, and he was really against that. So somebody from the audience asked him, “So as a black man does that mean you should only make films about black subjects?” And he said, “No, it’s not the same, because as a black man I have had to live in white America my entire life, and I have a better understanding of white American than a white person has about black America.”
I think it’s true for women and men. It’s still very much a man’s world. Look at the film industry, it’s a perfect example. Women Make Movies has been around for forty years and we’re still talking about the fact that there were no women nominated for Academy Awards. I’m still looking at festival programs and seeing one woman director, maybe, in competition at Tribeca. Maybe there’s two. I looked very quickly. I just looked at the San Francisco Film Festival. Again, maybe one, maybe two. I’m not calling those out particularly as being any different than a lot of other festivals. It is still very much a male-dominated world. But it does then make it easier for women to make films about men than it is for men to make very good films about women.
Bringing back the topic of the Academy Awards, though, I think it’s strange that when Kathryn Bigelow was being hyped as the first female director to win an Oscar, this wasn’t necessarily the case since Barbara Kopple was the first, and she’s won twice even, but for documentaries. So it’s partly the fault of the media not acknowledging many achievements women have made in cinema.
I’m guilty, too. Barbara Kopple did win the Academy Award, and many women have won for documentary. But it’s kind of like the fact that women have won for foreign films and we don’t really pay a lot of attention to that because the Academy Awards is all about best American picture. And look, the producer wins for Best Picture, so we can even say that Julia Phillips won for The Sting many, many years ago. It’s our obsession with directors and with fiction films.
It’s very distressing that even in documentary, where there are supposedly so many more women, the numbers are still not there in terms of representation. Interesting, too, if you look at the short documentary category, again I’m so convinced that money is a big part of this, there are more women nominated for short documentary than are nominated for long documentary. This year there were no women nominated for long documentary, but there were at least two nominated for short.
When we did a study a number of years ago, we looked at how much money women and men directors got for their documentaries, from the foundation world (MacArthur, Ford, National Endowment for the Arts…), and what we found was that men making films about men got the most money, and women making films about women got the least money, and what’s interesting is that men making films about women got less money than women making films about men. That’s one of the reasons that we’re still so focused on not just the gender of the filmmaker but of the subject of the film.
And I think that’s also connected to why women have had a harder time in Hollywood getting their second and third films made, because oftentimes they’re about women, and Hollywood doesn’t believe there’s an audience for those films, no matter how successful Bridesmaids is. They’re just always seen as a fluke.
Be sure to tune in this Saturday night for the television premiere of The Price of Sex on DOC Channel, and follow the rest of the “Her Take” program, including the Women Make Movies’ titles, throughout the month.
We wish Women Make Movies a happy birthday and a wonderful year of festivities!