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Noomi Spook

Why are there no female filmmakers?

There were more women in the director's chair in 1998 than there are now

With a recent report by Celluloid Ceiling finding that only 7% of Hollywood directors in 2014 were women, my personal experience as an aspiring filmmaker is this: even on a smaller scale, Dr. Martha Lauzen's statistics are alarmingly accurate.

After receiving my degree from U.C. Berkeley, I decided I would pursue filmmaking seriously. The first short film I wrote and directed, Hot Desert Night, premiered at the 2014 Oakland Underground Film Festival, alongside shorts that were shown at SXSW and other major festivals. Of the eight shorts in my category, myself and a co-director of another film were the only women filmmakers.

Singularities like this appear everywhere, from local festivals to the biggest awards ceremonies; ahead of this weekend’s BAFTAs, it’s interesting to note that female directors are missing from the Best Film, Best Direction, and Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director, or Producer categories (Laura Poitras' Citizenfour did, however, receive a nod for Best Documentary).

While taking a film class at a city college last year, I observed something surprising. As one of two females in a class of about 20, we composed just a sliver (10%) of the class population. Just like the numbers reflected in Celluloid Ceiling, our numbers were dismally small. If we consider classrooms our future, then the lack of women directors in these spaces says a lot about our inclusion in the industry. The problem here is gendered, but it is also artistic; if film, and by extension, Hollywood, is America’s prominent form of cultural dialogue, women have been left out of this conversation since its beginnings.

“If classrooms are considered our future, the lack of women directors in these spaces says a lot about our inclusion in the industry”

To understand how this disparity developed, let’s take a look at our history. Up till the 1960s, the majority of American women’s occupations probably fell into four categories: secretary, teacher, nurse, and (we’ll count this as an occupation) housewife. By both economic and social factors alike, women often found themselves diverted and pressured into these positions. In the 70s, a new era of Hollywood cinema occurred with Spielberg, Lucas, Millus, and Malick at the helm. Studios bloomed, titans were born. This was a profitable and creative period in Hollywood history, unlike anything it had experienced before as a nascent industry.

What this means is that since the film industry's formative years and later during its boom years, women missed out in the industry’s development due to little-to-no presence in film classrooms, restrictive gender attitudes in American society, and an evolving exclusion from "the boys club" of entertainment.

My experience in the film world combined with the numbers from Celluloid Ceiling show that around 10% of both beginning and successful filmmakers are women. Does this mean that potential female directors just aren’t taking the leap? Though not impossible, becoming a director or cinematographer often warrants some sort of schooling or experience as a first step. If women aren't present in classrooms, they're losing opportunities such as mentorship or technical training. The repercussions of this time loss are apparent when we see the current-day examples of men dominating the wealth, power, and creative influence of Hollywood.

A long-standing lack of women in this field is a major cause of the gender imbalance; however, it's not the only factor contributing to Dr. Lauzen’s idea of "gender inertia". Celluloid Ceiling shows us that conditions in the modern Hollywood landscape are getting worse, with the number of women directors back in 1998 actually higher, at 9%.

Women’s work diversity has supposedly improved, so what's with the decline? Are we in the midst of a crisis of female creativity, both in its ability to be expressed, as well as the limits of what many women see as possible? Jennifer Byrne, Video Commissioning Editor of Dazednotes, “Girls (often) lack confidence to pick up a camera because they think they need to be technical but a director is just someone who has a story to tell and can tell it clearly."

My first step when I graduated from university was to buy myself a video camera – next, I put myself in a position to launch a small media branch for a friend’s start-up company, thus prompting me to shoot in new situations, learn how to capture sound, test my limits, and to experiment. Later that year, I had the confidence to write and direct Hot Desert Night. As women, if we have stories to tell and some resources in doing so, it’s as simple as overcoming our own self-doubt.

“Conditions in the modern Hollywood landscape are getting worse, with the number of women directors back in 1998 actually higher, at 9%”

Like all grandiose institutions, Hollywood propagates the definition of social inequality (“unequal opportunities and rewards for different social positions or statuses within a group or society”). Unfortunately this has come at the expense of producing better films. Countless pieces within the Western canon and throughout other cultures explore the female psyche and fascinations, yet the film industry still boasts such a small sample of women directors who can tell that story authentically. As one of the most gender-imbalanced industries, Hollywood is inhibiting its own development as a culturally-relevant apparatus and supporter of high filmic art.

Awards season in the UK (with this weekend's BAFTAs) and in the United States (with the upcoming Oscars) have made this glaringly obvious: popularity sometimes overrides relevancy, innovation, and diversity, with Ava Duvernay's exclusion from the Oscars' Best Director category causing quite a stir. Should we also be upset that only one woman (Katheryn Bigelow) has ever won this award in the ceremony’s 87 years?

Ignorance means turning a blind eye when the problems are right in front of you. Women need to speak up against inequality, and envision themselves in director and cinematographer roles. As a culture currently shedding the cloak of Hollywood hegemony for more provocative and independent media, it’s time for women to see themselves as not a subsidiary, but instead an essential, part of this exciting and innovative period for filmmaking.  

Summer Dunsmore is a writer and filmmaker from California. She is the director of The Unthinkable Sleep, a documentary short about the People's Climate March in New York City (available after February 9th through Ecozoic Media)