06/06/2014 09:07 am ET Updated Aug 06, 2014

Why Women in Film Matter


For anyone who has spent any time in and around Hollywood, it is impossible to ignore the male-dominated industry and its sexist standards. I recently saw a great Swedish documentary on the life of actress Ann Margret, in which she says how hard Hollywood on women. Her face betrayed the reality of what are both expected and what many women must do to survive and thrive within the difficult world of female objectification. And this from an actress who is considered to be a "success," but whom also suffered from her time in Hollywood.

Many of us know women who have encountered extreme difficulties even shamefully horrific realities of what it means to try to get one's foot in the door based on talent alone. And when it comes to women directors, the doors have not only remain closed for the most part, they have been cruelly pushing aside even those women who should be given the chance to direct large budget features as they have proven themselves time and again that they can draw in audiences with their work.

Take Phyllida Lloyd for example, who directed both the play and film versions of Mamma Mia! Her plays have won critical acclaim and anyone who has seen Mamma Mia can attest that it appealed to old and young, male and female and was one of the biggest hits in the last decade. The play and film versions of Mamma Mia are the top grossing female directed works ever produced in the history of theatre and cinema, yet how much control do studios hand over to projects women such as Lloyd wish to make? I would argue that a Scorsese or even a more indie filmmaker such as Gus van Sant, whose work I greatly respect, are given much more freedom and control (not to mention healthy budgets).

Without women's stories, we see only half of our world. Without women filmmakers, showing us what it really means to be a woman, a girl within what has long been a patriarchal society (or societies), we cannot appreciate the many struggles women have experienced, nor how sweet the victories won. But not all women filmmakers tell stories which focus solely on women's experiences, in fact some of the most successful ones in Hollywood, tell stories which could even be considered to be "male" stories yet told in a unique way. Look at the many recent films by Kathryn Bigelow, in some of them there are next to no female characters, yet this director won the first and only Oscar for Best Director ever won by a woman. Her characters often exist in entirely male dominated worlds.

I remember seeing Jane Campion's An Angel at My Table and how I had never seen on the screen what it is like for a girl to experience coming of age in that way, with the details making sense for the first time. Later, when I co-founded, with Kathleen McInnis, the Women In Cinema Festival as part of the Seattle International Film Festival, we included a wonderful film by Tunisian director, Moufida Tlatli, The Silences of the Palace. As I stood next top her watching the film from the back of the sold-out cinema, she almost screamed out when she realized that a scene had been cut out of her film by her producer without her approval. It was the scene when the young girl has her period for the first time. The male producer obviously found this either objectionable or simply uninteresting. This then became the beginning point of our question and answer session-how to portray the reality of what women experience if those in control and the gatekeepers are all men?

I too have had problems deciding whether or not films made by women should have their own festivals, as it seems to "ghettoize" women's films, but the reality that we noticed and the reasons why we decided to create a festival which focused on women filmmakers, was that when we worked with larger festivals, we both noticed that there were always fewer films by female directors selected, and those which were received much less press. Yet people want to see these films, but they simply do not always have the chance to see them in the cinema. Often they do not even know they exist.

I recently had a wonderful experience at the Seattle International Film festival, when an elderly feminist came up to me and took my hands and looked me on the eyes and thanked me for making my documentary on the life of an amazing woman, Ann Dunham. The mother of President Obama. I had chosen to make this film; my response was that sadly, we do not see enough films about women such as Ann Dunham. These are the women who opened the doors for so many of us to become the women and men we are today. They set the hard-won examples and pushed the boundaries so that we might enjoy greater freedoms and lives full of authentic choices, not predetermined ones that suffocate our true selves.

But there is a strong movement taking place right now, which is not going to be ignored. The hard work or organizations such as Women in Film, Women Make Movies, Chicken and Egg, and all of the festivals, filmmakers, producers, and now, young enthusiastic female financial backers such as Megan Ellison, Gigi Pritzker, Sarah Johnson Redlich and others are shaking up the film industry. Add to that some amazing actresses turned directors/producers who are using their clout to get great projects made. This is an exciting time to be a woman in film. Younger audiences around the world will grow up seeing these films and understanding the way women experience the world. While some foreign film industries have always supported women directors, the reality is that even in more openly subsidized industries, women have never played as strong a role in terms of directing. But this too is changing. And it is becoming a more important topic of discussion at Cannes, Sundance, with new standards such as Sweden's decision to include the Bechdel Test which rates gender bias.

We may have come a long way baby, but the very culture which has objectified women, and kept their stories off the silver screen, will not give up control easily. We must fight for it, empower our female filmmakers and make sure that the other half of the world has the chance to both see and tell stories which resonate with them. Films can change the world, but not if half the world is silenced.

Filmmaker/Journalist Vivian Norris wrote her PhD on Globalization and Anarchy in Cinema: Who Wins and Who Loses in the Entertainment War? She is proud to have co-founded the Women In Cinema Festival and premiered her first feature doc, Obama Mama at SIFF May