Five filmmakers gathered at the Mary D. Fisher Theatre Thursday, Feb. 23 to discuss the challenges of being a woman while working in a male-dominated industry. The panel was part of the Sedona International Film Festival’s Filmmaker Conversations series and was moderated by Susie Singer Carter, writer and director of the narrative short “My Mom and The Girl.”
She was joined by Jennifer Kramer, creator of the feature film “The Sand Box,” Deborah LaVine, director of the narrative feature “Wild Prairie Rose,” Monika Wilczynska, creator of the short film “Who I Am,” and Katie Stjernholm, writer, director and producer of the documentary short “Edges.”
During the discussion, the filmmakers said most obstacles and challenges faced by women in the film industry are closely linked to traditional notions of femininity and a woman’s place in society.
Kramer recounted how creative work still tends to be viewed as a man’s job, while women are rather encouraged to engage in organizational work as producers.
She expressed frustration over how producers are then easily dismissed, while all the credit goes to the men in the creative fields.
Wilczynska told a story of how a lecturer at her film school would remind the women to “not paint their nails,” and assigned them for production tasks, while letting the guys take charge of the cameras. However, the women ended up getting better grades for camera than the men did.
She said she was disappointed with the fact that women have to work extra hard to be recognized in the film industry and yet are discredited at every opportunity.
She added that generally one of her biggest challenges was to not step on the male ego. “You’re immediately labeled as a bitch,” she said.
Stjernholm talked about working with a male production partner and that people would mostly turn to him for high-level decisions or creative questions, while directing organizational concerns to her. She said that women should allow themselves to inhabit certain spaces, such as tech or camera.
Carter also concluded from her experience that, “If you were too creative or motivated, it was perceived as threatening.”
Another stereotype that the panelists struggled with was the notion that women are too emotional. Kramer said that men had previously told her she was escalating, and should control her emotions.
Wilczynska added that there is a pressure to downplay femininity, and that looks can become a problem. She recounted being told that she is too pretty to be a director and should try acting instead. However, she stressed that no one should feel compelled to hide any part of identity, and that she does not understand why emotions are viewed so negatively.
“Emotions bring connection. You should be proud of being emotional. Through emotions we can create so much more love and compassion in the world,” she said.
LaVine talked about more practical obstacles that she has faced, such as sexual harassment in her earlier years of working in Hollywood. She told the story of how a potential boss had once prompted her to choose “if she was a girl or a woman,” and made it clear that sleeping with him would be a requirement to get the job. LaVine said she was terrified, but asserted that she indeed was a woman and then walked out.
Nowadays, she often experiences ageism in the industry, but said that she sees her age as a blessing because the older she gets, the more experience she has, the more people she can relate to and the more stories she has to tell.
One of the most important points made during the discussion was that women not only experience limitations from men, but also from other women. Kramer said that women usually do not have the mentality of restricting and closing doors on other people, as opposed to men. Yet, women are still taught compete with each other, rather than collaborators.
Wilczynska added that, “We could achieve so much more if we just helped each other.”
Stjernholm stressed that creating collaboration between women included the filmmaker’s responsibility of putting the camera in front of marginalized groups and enabling their voices to be heard. LaVine tied on to that and said that viewers also have the responsibility of supporting films made by women.
Representation was a point of discussion as well. The panelists agreed with Wilczynska, who said that she wishes she would have seen more strong female role models in films when she was a young girl. In order to identify with the hero, she usually had to identify with a male lead, which is why she sees a great need for creating more strong female characters in leading roles.
“I think I was a man in a past life, and this is my punishment for it,” Kramer joked.
The panelists had some advice for young women working in male-dominated industries. LaVine stressed the importance of failing and learning from one’s mistakes as well as using one’s imagination as an asset. Kramer recommended leaving one’s comfort zone and gathering as many experiences as possible. Stjernholm advised to be open to possibilities, and Wilczynska said to be honest with oneself: “Never let anyone tell you what you can or cannot do.”
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