Culture  Putting women behind the lens

Local director and activist demands equitable public funding in Canadian film

As this week is McGill’s annual FOKUS Film Festival, it is a perfect time to “fokus” in on some issues in contemporary film and television production. Réalisatrice Équitable (RÉ) is an organization fighting gender inequalities in the Canadian and Quebec film industries. RÉ conducted a study on this issue and came across some discouraging facts. Women and men make up an equal amount of the student body in film and communication programs. However, the numbers change when it comes to the professional world, as women only direct 23 per cent of films with 14 per cent of the public budget. The worst cases are in feature-length films, where women get 11 per cent of the funds from Quebec’s public financing institution, Société de développement des entreprises culturelles (SODEC), and 11 per cent from the French Canadian one, Telefilm.

Lucette Lupien, one of the leading members of RÉ, explained that the problem is not with SODEC and Telefilm refusing to fund women; it is producers and broadcasters who are not choosing female directors to work on their projects. The next step for RÉ will be to investigate the reasons for this discrepancy. One factor may be that television broadcasters target audience is 15-to-35-year-old men. While women and men might watch equal amounts of television, “broadcasters figure men hold the remote,” said Vanya Rose, a Montreal-based director, as well as an active member in RÉ.

Broadcasters may not hire female directors since they assume they will not direct for a male audience. However, film and television in Canada are publicly funded, and are not profit-making enterprises, so money should not be taking priority over diversity in artistic visions.

Rose hopes that RÉ will instigate dialogue between the various players in the film industry: SODEC, Telefilm, producers, broadcasters, directors, etc. Of course, talking is not enough – it must be met with action. The solution to this problem is still very murky.

Though RÉ never publicly proposed quotas, and it is not their official mandate, a few journalists focused on these quotas, complaining that soon all minority groups will be asking for them. Lupien believes that in addition, women directors are weary of quotas. In French, she explains their anxieties: “They are afraid of being devalued by quotas. [They are concerned] it’s as if a boring film directed by a woman would be selected over a good film directed by a man, which is not the case.” In her opinion, setting quotas has been a standard procedure throughout the history of Canadian and Quebec cinema. For instance, after the National Film Board (NFB) moved to Montreal in 1955, they made a quota for French films. Years later, when young filmmakers found themselves eclipsed by established auteurs such as Claude Jutra and Gille Carle, the NFB founded a program for young directors. Both Lupien and Rose wondered why, given this history, the idea of setting quotas for women has triggered such uproar. Women are, after all, 51 per cent of the population – this is not a minority issue.

Aside from including women in the work force, both Lupien and Rose stressed the importance of representing the vision and imagination of women on screen. It is not only about the topics women approach, but also “how they’re choosing to show a story,” said Rose. It is problematic if solely men are to represent human relationships. In a society where children learn from television and film just as much as they do from their parents, having female role models on screen is essential. Vanya Rose confessed that while she sometimes gets discouraged with filmmaking, “as soon as I remember that there are no films showing women, it gets me back on track. It makes me nervous. It makes me so, so nervous.” In addition, she has noticed that few films show men as sensual characters. Men on screen take on stereotypically callous, aggressive roles. In her opinion, “it has weakened the male cause. It is a disavowal of men being good people.”

These fixed gender roles on screen may have repercussions in our culture at large, which, according to Rose, has a problem with “this idea of the creative woman.” The director keeps the set under control, while simultaneously acting as a friend and collaborator amongst crew and actors. Rose believes that people get nervous when a woman takes on an egalitarian position relative to her co-workers: “do they flirt with her?” On the other hand, women sometimes feel watched: “They are often very conscious of how men perceive them.” The director is both a creator and leader on set – and for many, “that’s the worst combination,” says Rose, “a woman who’s creative and the head of a team.”