'Half the Picture': Co-Cinematographers on the Reality of Being a Lady Shooter
DPs Yamit Shimonovitz and Soraya Sélène don't mince words about the state of the industry.
Half the Picture is a documentary focused on women directors, why are there so few of them, and what forces limit those numbers. As the EEOC investigates discriminatory hiring practices of an industry with a long history of denying female voices, Half the Picture presents interviews with several successful women directors reflecting on their career struggles and inspirations. While the documentary touches on the [dismal] numbers of gender disparity in the film business, the movie is aimed at celebrating working women and their films. Directed by Amy Adrion, the movie features Lena Dunham, Rosanna Arquette, Miranda July, Ava DuVernay, Catherine Hardwicke, Gina Prince-Bythewood—and on and on and on and on. It’s a filmmaker’s film. The movie premiered at Sundance 2018 and continues its festival run at SXSW 2018.
Cinematography credit is shared by Yamit Shimonovitz and Soraya Sélène, and if you assumed Yamit is a male name, you’re incorrect (and not Israeli). Shimonovitz works as a narrative, commercial, and documentary cinematographer, and her documentary projects have played at film festivals such as Tribeca and SXSW. Sélène’s work also spans the gamut, from narrative to documentary to music video, commercial, and television, and in addition to her cinematography focus she also works as a director, and a film instructor at a university and high school level.
At a panel at Zeiss at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, the shooters sat down with moderator Zeiss Cine sales manager Snehal Patel to talk candidly about their film, the lessons they learned along the way, and the joys and challenges of being cinematographers without penises.
Taking a closer look at DP reels
Sélène referenced a part of Half the Picture where a director recalled looking at reels as she was considering cinematographers. Some of the reels of men looked better than some of the women’s, but the director was conflicted as she considered that male shooters traditionally have larger budgets to work with, and more tools at one’s disposal often results in better-looking work. As men are hired more often than women, the fellows have more opportunities to hone their craft. The hiring director learned one of the female DPs whose reel she was considering had lit a whole film with a bounce board: if you think about it, it doesn’t make sense to compare that work to the work of someone who had significant resources at their disposal.
“I personally have dealt with a lot of discrimination as a DP, so working on this film was so exciting.” — Yamit Shimonovitz
The discussion didn’t sound like a sob story, but a reflection on when we are in positions of power, what hits will we take to support our beliefs? If you are a [male or female] director who believes in creating more opportunity for women, will you choose to hire a woman cinematographer with less experience and a less impressive reel, in order to give her the opportunity to improve while on your project? So often indie films are pressed for funds—will you hire a female gaffer to give her the opportunity to work on a bigger project? Or would you hire a male gaffer who owns a truck full of lighting that he’ll bring along at a steep discount? Let’s presume you like both crew members. Was the fellow able to afford that gear because he got more jobs and more day rates than his female counterparts because we work in a biased industry in a biased culture? How deep in the weeds do we go when thinking out our choices and hiring practices?
“I personally have dealt with a lot of discrimination as a DP, so working on this film was so exciting,” Shimonovitz said. While in this industry it often feels hard to pinpoint discrimination in hiring practices, Shimonovitz shared a story of being hired on a project, doing pre-production remotely, and then in her first phone call with the director he expressed being flustered that he was just learning she was a woman. He ended up removing her from the project. She laughed it off and put a photograph of herself on her website to screen future discriminators.
“Our film isn’t about sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is a symptom of the disease, and our film is about the disease: gender parity.” — Soraya Sélène
Collaborating to create a truly shared vision
As co-cinematographers, the filmmakers had to figure out working together. It was a process that developed as shooting went along, and the women learned how each other liked to light, and frame, and where they could be out of one another’s shots. Also, on the shoot of Half the Picture, gear was limited. Most interviews were shot with two lights. The interviews look good, and they have to, as the film is based primarily on talking heads, depending on that content to carry the film.
“We’re so used to having men tell women’s stories,” Shimonovitz said, reflecting on how culture shapes the world we live in. “If we have browner, better female characters, the world will treat women better,” Sélène said. “Our film isn’t about sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is a symptom of the disease, and our film is about the disease: gender parity.”
Dealing with the question we need to stop asking
Both shooters are mothers. “Ugh, that question,” Sélène says. “‘How do you juggle family and career?’” Men don’t get asked this question. “It’s a problem in this country, especially in this industry.” Sélène paraphrases from the film: “If we make it difficult for mothers to work in storytelling, we are excluding a whole range of human and female experiences. We are missing empathy.”
“Being a mom made me a better cinematographer,” Sélène said. “I have to manage my time so I have a laser focus, and I’ve learned effective multi-tasking.” She grinned, “And I can recognize tantrums.”
For more, see our complete coverage of the 2018 SXSW Film Festival.