A frequent topic of discussion and panels in the film world centers around female filmmakers. The numbers are discouraging to say the least—even worse than the percentage of female directors is the number of below-the-line crew members. According to the Celluloid Ceiling Report 2016 from the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film, here are the latest numbers:
In 2016, women comprised 17% of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 domestic grossing films. This represents a decline of 2 percentage points from last year and is even with the percentage achieved in 1998.
Women accounted for 7% of directors, down 2 percentage points from 9% in 2015 and 1998. Last year, 92% of films had no female directors. In other roles, women comprised 13% of writers, 17% of executive producers, 24% of producers, 17% of editors, and 5% of cinematographers.
This year’s study also found that only 3% of composers working on the top 250 films were women.
At the Sundance Film Festival, Canon hosted "Girl Talk Live: Female Cinematographers on How They Made Their Sundance Films," a panel of female DPs who have films in the festival. They discussed their work from a non-gender specific, craft perspective, and also from a female angle, with an eye towards inspiring upcoming female cinematographers. Kate Erbland of Indiewire moderated the panel, which featured:
- Nadia Hallgren, DP, Motherland
- Quyen Tran, DP, Deidra & Laney Rob a Train and The Little Hours
- Catherine Goldschmidt, DP, White Riot: London and Abstract: The Art of Design
You can watch the full panel here.
These three shooters lensed five films screening at Sundance 2017
Hallgren shot Motherland, a verité documentary in the world's busiest maternity ward in the Philippines. The ward only allowed a crew of two, so Hallgren and the director were on their own for this handheld, physically demanding shoot. Hallgren explained it was one of the most difficult shoots she has done, both due to the extreme physicality as well as the emotional toll, surrounded as they were by unhygienic medical conditions.
A film still from 'Motherland' by Ramona Díaz, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. DP Nadia Hallgren.Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
Goldschmidt acted as DP on two projects at the festival. Goldschmidt shot four episodes of Abstract: The Art of Design, an eight-part series focused on different designers, from architects to illustrators. Each episode is stylistically influenced by the designer under consideration. Goldschmidt also lensed White Riot: London, a short doc dealing with race relations in London in the 1970s and the rise of the punk movement as a leftist response to increased fascism.
Tran was DP on Deidra & Laney Rob a Train, shot in large part on a moving train. To pull off the shoot, the filmmakers had to find a way to film girls safely on a moving train at night. Tran's other project at the festival, The Little Hours, took her outside of her comfort zone with a new aesthetic (zooming!) and a small crew of five faced with big missions: seeing 360 degrees; night-time bonfire scenes requiring 25 par cans lights to illuminate a forest; a dolly tracking shot that combined zooming with seeing 270 degrees; and exposures ranging from day exteriors to day interiors within the same shot.
Though these women have begun to see success, there's a long way to go and they discussed how we can all make that change happen. Here's what we learned.
Women who are in leadership roles have a responsibility to help other women
Hallgren stated that she makes a point of recommending other women DPs for projects. She has a list of women shooters, often women of color, that she first turns to when looking to pass on a name for a project. "If it wasn't for women directors and producers, I wouldn’t be working as a cinematographer," Hallgren reflected. "I have been working at a high level for a long time, and it is still 90% plus only women who seek me out. It is our responsibility to invite each other into our spaces and teach each other and vouch for each other. It is our responsibility to introduce each other to people that we know."
"If it wasn’t for women directors and producers, I wouldn’t be working as a cinematographer."
Hallgren has been working in documentary for thirteen years, and over a decade ago she was a PA on Fahrenheit 911 with cinematographer Kirsten Johnson. "I drove Johnson around, carried her stuff, made sure she ate," shared Hallgren. "She's a wonderful human. After the film, I asked if she would teach me how to shoot and she did." Hallgren carries on that tradition of mentorship that has been so helpful in her career, and she makes a point of advising up-and-coming female DPs, especially those of color.
Goldschmidt's shooting history was also strongly affected by mentors. After she graduated from undergraduate studies and began working as an AC in LA, it was her female cinematographers who suggested she go to a grad program at AFI. Goldschmidt followed that advice, and she’s been shooting ever since.
Collectives for female DPs offer members community support, industry advocacy, and increased recognition
Tran talked about the importance of encouraging and supporting female DPs. "With Cinematographers XX (CXX) and International Collective of Female Cinematographers (ICFC)," Tran shared, "it’s good to actually get to know each other. People ask me to recommend someone and I don’t always know female DPs to recommend because DPs don't really hang out. Now I have a list on my computer of my go-to folks to recommend and they are all women, mostly women of color. These are women I love and they are amazing."
The International Collective of Female Cinematographers is an organization of professional female shooters the world over dedicated to providing each other with community and industry advocacy, and the group exists as a place where filmmakers can find female DPs. Cinematographers XX also aims to be a resource for filmmakers to find and hire professional female cinematographers.
Alison Brie, Kate Micucci and Aubrey Plaza appear in The Little Hours by Jeff Baena, an official selection of the Midnight program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. DP Quyen Tran.Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
Goldschmidt added that these groups, in addition to a similar type of organization in London called Illuminatrix, also provide a public face so that people know there are women DPs out there doing this kind of work. This inspires more women to do the same work.
Goldschmidt pointed out that organizing together enables collective bargaining, and that she believes her involvement in these groups is part of the reason she has found rental houses to be so supportive. On social media, members of these groups frequently post when they are looking for gear at a reduced rate in hopes others will offer up ideas, or perhaps a member will post that they have just purchased a camera and are willing to offer friendly rates.
"The goal is gender parity"
In a room filled mostly with aspiring female DPs, a white male audience member asked how the panelists would respond if they were asked to mentor men.
Part of the disparity in jobs seems to stem from confidence: a white man may feel more comfortable taking the space to ask a question than a woman may. A white man may also feel more comfortable taking a job with a camera he has never worked with before, while a female cinematographer may choose to recommend someone else instead of taking the work and then teaching herself the camera before the shoot, learning on the job, or hiring an experienced AC to fill in the blanks.
"I work with amazing men, but I only have a limited amount of time to contribute to nurturing and mentoring people."
In response to the mentorship question, Tran mentors females and males, but Hallgren had a different perspective. "I work with amazing men, but I only have a limited amount of time to contribute to nurturing and mentoring people."
"The goal is gender parity," Goldschmidt weighed in, "which means eventually everyone is equal and it’s one big happy family."
Panelists and female cinematographers at "Girl Talk Live: Female Cinematographers on How They Made Their Sundance Films," Sundance 2017Credit: Lauretta Prevost
Here's what you can do. Yes, you.
Inspired by the panelists? Here are some things you can do to make our industry more equitable:
- If you are in a position to hire or recommend folks for positions on film crews, make a conscious effort to consider female crew at least as much as male crew. Also, consider women of color and LGBTQIA folks.
- If you don’t know female crew to recommend, educate yourself. Skilled ladies are out there. Check out CXX, ICFC and Illuminatrix specifically for female DPs. Take on the responsibility of getting to know some skilled women so their names can be put in the metaphorical hat at least as often as their male counterparts.
- If you are a white male with mostly white male crew members on your radar who you commonly recommend, be aware of this. Recognize that you are not surrounded by white men in the film industry by chance, but because of multi-layered societal norms influenced by how young girls are raised, unintentional bias, and self-perpetuating hiring practices. You have the power to break that cycle by reaching out and getting to know female crew members.
- If you aren’t in a position to hire or recommend women, vote with your dollars. Support films made by women at your local box office. Wonder Woman is the first film with a budget of over $100 million dollars that is a directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins. How this movie plays at the box office will affect the future for female directors, and hopefully by extension female below the line crew. Even if you do not care about Wonder Woman, go buy a ticket for opening weekend.
Lauretta Prevost is a freelance writer and freelance cinematographer based in NYC.
For more, see our complete coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
No Film School's video and editorial coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by RODE Microphones.
Featured image: Ashleigh Murray appears in 'Deidra & Laney Rob a Train' by Sydney Freeland, an official selection of the NEXT program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. DP Quyen Tran. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Fred Hayes.