Six grassroots film organisations weigh in on representation in the film industry, tools for change and whether we should disregard the importance of award ceremonies altogether
It’s been a controversy-riddled run up to the 2016 Academy Awards ceremony. What started with the second round of #OscarsSoWhite, turned into a whole host of celebrities such as Meryl Streep, Charlotte Rampling, Michael Caine and more aligning on the more problematic side of the fence. Comments such as Rampling’s (who suggested boycott of the ceremony was “racist to white people”), provided tabloids with days worth of clickbait fodder and exposed how evident racism, sexism, and ableism really is in the entertainment industry.
And it doesn’t end with old-school actors exposing their political incorrectness to the world. With a recent damning study finding that only 3 per cent of directors pooled from a sample of film and tv projects in 2014-15 were female, it seems our cultural fascination with assigning actresses to a feminist label is getting us nowhere. Combine that with findings that 2 per cent of all speaking roles go to LGBT parts and the fact only two black female directors could be identified, it’s evident that Hollywood is still dominated by the pale, stale and male.
But can the same be said for an emerging undercurrent of film clubs, initiatives and production companies taking the inclusion issue in Hollywood into their own hands? While the current climate may seem bleak for anyone that falls out of the parameter of a straight, white male, there are those with their eyes open to the film industry’s faults. Unrestricted by studio hierarchy and armed with internet access, we spoke to six individuals and institutions shaping which path the future of film will follow.
Sophie Mayer: Sophie is the author of POLITICAL ANIMALS: THE NEW FEMINIST CINEMA (IB Tauris, 2015) and THE CINEMA OF SALLY POTTER: A POLITICS OF LOVE (Wallflower, 2009), and a regular contributor to Sight & Sound, The F-Word and Literal, and member of Club des Femmes and Raising Film. Raising Films is a campaign for, and community of, parents and carers working (or wanting to work) in the film industry, working to achieve inclusion, access and sustainability.
Chloe Feller: Chloe is an actress, intersectional feminist, filmmaker, and founder of production company Red Lighter Films. She manages Red Lighter with girlfriend and long-time collaborator, Hobbes Ginsberg. Marrying intersectional feminism with film, Red Lighter Films is a production company seeking to create and produce works with dynamic, complex media representation for the marginalised groups who don’t get it often enough.
Maria Cabrera: Co-founder of Reel Good Film Club, co-coordinator of Scalarama film festival and a volunteer at Deptford Cinema. Reel Good Film Club is devoted to celebrating people of colour in all aspects of cinema. With the aim of putting on screenings and discussions that do not conform to the rigid and elitist canon of film, the organisation seeks to create affordable and inclusive spaces for people to discover and enjoy films.
Corrina Antrobus: Founder of The Bechdel Test Fest and writer. The Bechdel Test Fest is a feminist film festival and ongoing celebration of films that pass the Bechdel Test and portray women in a positive and progressive light.
Selina Robertson: Selina is a film curator, writer and super 8 filmmaker. Selina and Sarah Wood co-founded Club des Femmes in 2007, with Sophie Mayer joining in 2012. Club des Femmes is a queer feminist collective that curates film screenings and related events, with an emphasis on alternative, experimental, and underrepresented films and filmmakers.
You all run grassroots film organisations or clubs. Do you feel the work of yourselves (and your peers) is affecting Hollywood on a higher up level? Or is that not the aim?
Selina Robertson (Club des Femmes): When we talk about ‘change in the industry’, we are not interested taking part in board meetings; rather storming, disrupting or protesting them instead. Our change and intention is to offer audiences a radical feminist difference, an alternative way of exploring ideas through art or cinema. The change we want to make is through curating cinema, engaging audiences, making friendships and creating conversations.
Chloe Feller (Red Lighter): Definitely our goal is to transform the industry on a higher level, or, dismantle the current system entirely, given its exclusionary nature. Much like what Selina is talking about above me, too. As for if I think the mainstream industry is currently being affected by these grassroots efforts: eh, it’s a hard sell for me. I recognise some micro efforts being made with the inclusion/representation of women in the film industry. However, these efforts seem to centre on white, cis, heterosexual women which, quite frankly, isn’t good or radical enough.
“It feels as though every week a new rich and successful white woman starts an initiative to make other young white women rich and successful within a broken system, but that’s not enough” – Hobbes Ginsberg
Hobbes Ginsberg (Red Lighter): Being in LA and having Hollywood so close but so far it can sometimes feel like you’re always preaching to the choir. We’re starting to see the inklings of that with how feminism is a buzz topic in Hollywood but the implementation of those ideas in terms of mainstream power structures leaves a lot to be desired. It feels as though every week a new rich and successful white woman starts an initiative to make other young white women rich and successful within a broken system, but that’s not enough. I hope we will really start seeing and feeling some of the changes when our peer group is able to be in more established positions of power.
How important is it for you all to reach mainstream audiences or is it preferable to remain small and continue to provides spaces for marginalised communities?
Sophie Mayer (Raising Films/Club des Femmes): As someone who studies film and culture, this is a debate that obsesses me. I think that the range is crucial: when Club des Femmes started in 2007, there were few other feminist or queer film curation projects in the UK - but now there is a range across the spectrum of audiences and content and venue size. Traditional economics would encourage us to view that as competition, but I think it’s the opposite: as the range of possible events grows, the audience that might cross over between them grows, too. If we keep supporting each other, we won’t be addressing small audiences anymore, even if they are predominantly made up of (previously) marginalised communities. We’ll have stolen a march on and subverted the contentless mainstream.
Corrina Antrobus (Bechdel Test Fest): Both are important. As much as catering to an underground audience is great, ultimately if we want more female filmmakers they’ve got to make it to the big time and break free from being seen as ‘niche’. Our programming is very careful to be a mix of ‘underground’ heroes as well as looking for the feminist context that may otherwise be overlooked in mainstream movies. By picking out the genuine feminist strengths in particular films, we hope it will enlighten people to know the difference between faux feminist marketing ploys to those works that truly put women front, centre and back.
Chloe Feller (Red Lighter): My biggest issue with this notion is that I don’t believe those ideas are mutually exclusive in the first place. If anything, being mainstream is more of a reason to be diverse and inclusive of marginalised communities in your work. If you have a platform big enough to reach more people, you should represent more people. The idea that diverse representation is an ‘underground thing’ and ‘won’t sell’ is a copout for white filmmaker bros in baseball hats to keep hiring other white dudes in baseball hats that remind them of themselves instead of actually caring about representation.
Maria Cabrera (Reel Good Film Club): However there’s always a risk of things becoming palatable and commodified and the challenge is to continue your debate regardless. The unconscious assumption that films by marginalised filmmakers are niche leads to them being constructed as such over and over by distributors and media. Then, when/if their box office takings are disappointing, it’s used as evidence against the film.
Should we care about Academy Award nominations, or are they out of touch and unindicative of the industry?
Sophie Mayer (Club des Femmes/Raising Films): I think we’re capable of holding both ideas in mind at once – and even a spectrum. We can care about the continued dominance of the Academy and the film industry by cisgendered, straight, wealthy, able-bodied white men, but not care about their narcissistic defensive pronouncements. We can care that women who walk the red carpet are still viewed solely as objects of the male gaze rather than thinking beings – but also critique them when they make racist, transphobic, sizeist, ageist, classist remarks under the guise of (white liberal) feminism.
Selina (Club des Femmes): I remember watching the Oscars avidly when I was a teenage New Yorker, I couldn’t get enough of it. I loved watching the actresses, the speeches, the costumes, the pomp and ceremony, it was the film awards event of the year and it made a big impression on me. It matters hugely who gets nominated and who gets excluded.
Corrina Antrobus (Bechdel Test Fest): Selena is right – there are so many eyes on this event. Unfortunately or not - this is the highest prize for film one can get and we should care about the bigger picture these nominations are revealing. It’ll be a slow change but I’m kind of hopeful. Media is changing and organic commentary is filtering through – we are now able to make things like #OscarsSoWhite trend on a global scale. The Oscars shape the landscape of cinema. We should keep caring, keep speaking out and keep demanding change.
What do you make of the fairly recent popularity of asking celebrities if they identify as a feminist, do these often controversial statements help push the conversation forward any?
Chloe Feller (Red Lighter): While the media’s intentions with these kinds of question are probably unsavoury and most likely in search of some kind of controversy, I don’t believe these questions are unimportant. Your political ideations, in this case, whether someone is a feminist or not, is a lens to view artist’s work through. It's a way to put the content celebrities participate in perspective and make sense of their motivations.
Sophie Mayer (Club des Femmes/Raising Films): Isn’t this really about class and entitlement? Asking wealthy people about social justice issues rarely produces thoughtful, grounded, intersectional responses. There’s a faint hope that because a wealthy white able-bodied actress has suddenly noticed that she is not paid as much as her male co-stars, that she might have been led to think more critically about her own axes of privilege. But that’s a faint hope, and press conferences and soundbites rarely allow for it.
The media use the soundbite situation in two ways: one, as a figleaf for their own lack of equality or inclusion – just stick a picture of Meryl Streep on page one with a splash quote about how sexist Hollywood is, and you’ve done your duty by the complexities of global gender inequality; two, when a (female/feminist) celebrity does say something racist, transphobic, ableist, etc., they can use that to discredit feminism in a similar way. Both soundbites are equally pointless and equally amplified, and both are equally reductive of the complexities of feminism.
“It doesn't matter how sympathetic you are to black, brown, queer or female stories – if you’re not one, recognise that you can’t truly know”– Corrina Antrobus
Do you think diversity quotas are important and necessary, or box checking that leads to tokenism?
Selina Robertson (Club des Femmes): I am very much for quotas, how is anything ever going to change otherwise? The market is not going to correct itself. I believe that we should follow Sweden’s lead and award 50/50 public funding for film production that will, in turn, affect the whole ecosystem of the film industry - production, distribution, programming, criticism and audiences. It’s a win win situation.
Corrina Antrobus (Bechdel Test Fest): I don’t really buy the argument that it people say ‘it should be the best person for the job’ yes – obviously it should – but that doesn’t have to mean there’s always going to be a white guy sadly missing out on an employment opportunity. A woman or person of colour will have credentials that go deeply beyond that of their academic or professional experience and can be an asset to the overall output. It doesn't matter how sympathetic you are too black, brown, queer or female stories – if you’re not one, recognise that you can’t truly know.
Hobbes Ginsberg (Red Lighter Film): As media makers it’s imperative we are always considering our privilege and having quotas always in the back of your mind is a concrete way to help you stay in your lane. More importantly, like I think some of you were also getting at, given the current system it’s obvious that nobody currently cares or is putting effort into truly diversifying their workforce and the opportunities available. Until we’re living in a more post-racial post-gender society, having concrete initiatives that force everyone to be aware of systematic oppressions are important towards moving us forward.
“Being mainstream is more of a reason to be diverse and inclusive of marginalised communities in your work. If you have a platform big enough to reach more people, you should represent more people” – Chloe Feller
Whose work is giving you hope at the moment?
Sophie Mayer (Club des Femmes/Raising Films): I’m always inspired by projects that are grounded in community but reach out globally, from Maria Binder’s Trans X Istanbul documentary and collective to Sydney Freeland’s Drunktown’s Finest. I love the way that Jennifer Reeder navigates experimental and pop culture, producing joyous, inclusive shorts that appear online and at festivals. I’m looking forward to seeing what Haifaa al-Mansour does in Hollywood. The entwined and mutually supportive ascent of Ava DuVernay, Amma Asante, Shonda Rhimes has been dazzling and so thrilling. Seeing a sea of hands go up at a schools event when I asked who’d seen Selma felt like a demonstration of continuing change and awareness and excitement.
Audiences, above all, give me hope. The fact that people are curious and generous enough to come and watch films that aren’t on the side of buses (and in some cases, don’t even have Wikipedia pages) means a huge amount. So curators and programmers who are intermediaries between thrilling filmmakers and energised audiences inspire me too.
Chloe Feller (Red Lighter Films): I’m in love with what you’re saying about audiences being your greatest source of hope – can’t cosign that enough. Especially considering I don’t feel like there are a lot of recognisable creators whose work is influencing me much right now? I feel like that’s not what I should be saying, but truthfully I think I’m most propelled by the fact that I am so displeased with what’s available to me as a film lover.
Maria Cabrera (Reel Good Film Club): I’m so glad Gal-dem, an online space for UK-based women and girls of colour, exist. Not just online, their recent film festival was honestly one of the best screenings I’ve ever been to. Felt so great to be in a space dedicated for WOC to watch films together and to discuss films outside industry jargon – the film’s screened became a platform to discuss so many important issues.
Hobbes Ginsberg (Red Lighter Films): What continues to give me the most hope is the unending passion, drive and support of my peers and community. working with Red Lighter Films and with other young women – WOC especially – within the LA film scene has been a great experience and proves that there’s something here that can’t be ignored. What Chloe said holds true for me as well, a lot of the reason we’ve been so passionate about what we’re able to make with Red Lighter Films and with our friends is because there isn’t a lot out there in theaters right now that really inspires me as a film lover and someone with intersectional values.