WIFT Victoria and the nitty-gritty on gender and diversity

by Mark Poole (first published in Screen Hub pm  Friday 9 September, 2016 )

This week Women in Film and Television Victoria took stock of diversity and gender matters with a panel which made the barriers and frustrations all too real.
WIFT Victoria and the nitty-gritty on gender and diversity

On the panel was Emma Freeman, a familiar name but not such a familiar face. Freeman has gone from being the first woman to win Tropfest with a short film to directing more than 60 hours of television drama including Love My Way, Offspring, all episodes of Glitch and the recent Secret City.

She is currently in preproduction on a feature film, The Circus, to be produced by Leanne Tonkes, the second member of the panel, whose first feature was My Mistress in 2014. The third member of the panel, chaired by Lisa French of RMIT University, was researcher Amanda Coles who provided an overview of the ecology of gender and diversity issues in film and television with research she has conducted in Canada.

Freeman has been working consistently as a director since 2002. However she recently realised she’d had an idea for a feature film in development for that entire time but failed to gain traction on the project. Meanwhile she has seen her male colleagues manage to make two or three features.

One problem for Emma Freeman, as a working director, is to have a life outside her work. She works 15 hour days, 6 days a week when employed on a show, and on her day off she wants to do ‘normal things’ like anyone else.

She first met Leanne Tonkes by accident.  Tonkes had just lost a director to the UK, and had been told about Freeman’s talent by the Victorian College of the Arts. Then she heard Freeman interviewed on the radio after winning Tropfest. ‘So I called the radio station and asked them to pass on a message for Emma to call me,’ Leanne recalled. They began to work together on television commercials, and discovered a shared liking for certain types of stories.

Although Tonkes acknowledged that financing first time feature directors is tough in the current climate, she expected that Freeman’s credits on series and the telemovie Hawke would ease the way. ‘She’s won heaps of awards and clearly knows what she is doing as a director,’  said Leanne. With an all female team, including writer Alice Bell, the increasing sensitivity to gender equality seems to be helping.

The duo are seeking support for their feature project The Circus. It grew out of stories told by Emma’s mother about growing up in a remote part of South Australia and sneaking off at night to visit the circus when it was in town. It’s a period piece which makes the piece financially challenging, but Tonkes commented that bigger budget films should not be viable for male directors only.

According to researcher Amanda Coles, the film and television industries are risk averse since the chances of any project failing are high, so the traditionally white male gatekeepers attempt to minimise the risk by hiring men to key positions of director, producer, writer and cinematographer. Yet Coles pointed out that this risk management strategy is deeply flawed, since films created by women are more successful than those by men, despite being low budget. ‘There is absolutely no business case in support of minimizing risk by employing men,’ said Coles. ‘Despite smaller budgets, films made by women have higher returns.’

Tonkes added that at the end of the day a producer should be able to present a package that can include women in all areas, not just a token one or two women. Women should be able to be cinematographers, composers and directors as well as makeup artists and costume designers. ‘There are so many areas where women are overlooked,’ she said.  ‘You are not getting the best out of the industry because  we’re not finding the people whose light would shine, given the opportunities.’

Chair Lisa French asked if the panel felt that women have a different perspective on storytelling, and Emma agreed. ‘Yeah, I think there is a female gaze,’ she stated. ‘A male director would direct a project differently to a female, and what you want is a balance of the male and female gaze.’ As an audience member she wants to see women on screen that reflect her point of view, and she rarely sees them on the big screen, but it is better in television. ‘I directed all the episodes of Glitch and Secret City. With both of those projects I know that if a male director had made them they would be different.’

Freeman said she’s been extremely fortunate to be able to work with some stellar women producers such as Louise Fox, Penny Chapman, Joanne Werner and Imogen Banks, who understand the need to create opportunities for strong female characters. On the recently aired Secret City, the books upon which the series was based featured a 60 year old male protagonist named Harry, and producer Penny Chapman urged the writers (Matt Campbell and Belinda Chayko) to change Harry to Harriet (a role played brilliantly by Anna Torv). Emma said that it made a huge difference to the sensibility of the series.

‘Women definitely need more opportunities,’ Freeman added. ‘When I go on set I’m often in a sea of men. They are beautiful people, and extraordinarily talented at what they do, but it’s an odd feeling to discover I’m one of the few women there.’

Asked if she forms networks of other female directors to share experiences, Freeman said that she has a friendship with Daina Reid and Kate Dennis. ‘There’s a lot of chattering amongst ourselves,’ she said. However they are all incredibly busy working, and Kate is presently based in LA.

Freeman checked out the LA scene a while ago but was put off by a meeting with a powerful female agent, whose first question was ‘So, what do you want to do, have a baby?’ Emma recalled that she’d been mortified at the assumptions underlying the query. ‘So I didn’t go with that agent,’ she said with a laugh.

Leanne Tonkes noted that the recent Screen Australia initiatives Brilliant Stories and Brilliant Careers have created opportunities for female creatives, although Screen NSW has gone even further, aiming to distribute funds 50:50 to men and women by 2020. Furthermore, Amanda Coles reminded us that Screen NSW has stated that they won’t fund television projects where the key creatives are all male, nor film festivals where judging panels are all male. Leanne added that Film Victoria has a Women in Leadership Development Initiative, of which she is a recipient, and Film Victoria have also introduced a Women in Games Fellowship to help address the gender imbalances within this industry as well.

‘Screen Australia will match fund up to $300,000 for distributors investing in projects which have women in key creative roles,’ said Tonkes. ‘So for bigger budget productions a distributor may take a risk where they know the project meets the Screen Australia gender guidelines, where previously they wouldn’t.’ Lisa added that producer Sue Maslin has been reported as saying that the distributor Universal were the only ones that understood The Dressmaker project and its potential for attracting female audiences – and the film went on to gross $20 million at the Australian box office last year.

Debra Allanson, producer on the Board of Film Victoria was in the audience, and she suggested that the old distribution models were no longer sustainable, and if the current crop of gatekeepers are white and male, that will change as models are shifting massively. ‘There will be new gates and the old gatekeepers will go,’ she said. ‘It will provide a more equitable landscape.’

As Amanda Coles reminded us, diversity and recognition of talent regardless of gender and race benefit us all.

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