Alison Reid is something of an anomaly. A former stunt coordinator who recently turned her hand to directing, she's been experiencing the kind of success most first-time filmmakers can only dream of. Her feature-film debut, The Baby Formula, will open the 20th anniversary of Vancouver's three-day Women in Film Festival on March 4 after winning over critics at the prestigious International Film Festival Rotterdam, the Montreal World Film Festival, and the Mannheim-Heidelberg International Film Festival.
By all accounts, Reid has bucked the system, because the prospects for women in the industry are anything but rosy. A 2007 study by the B.C. Institute of Film Professionals found that out of 27 independent feature films produced in B.C. between 2002 and 2006, women accounted for only 11 percent of directors, 11 percent of editors, seven percent of writers, and a big fat zero percent of DOPs (directors of photography). Hardly inspiring numbers for aspiring young filmmakers who happen to sport X chromosomes.
“Really, the only reason I got The Baby Formula made is because I started funding it out of my own pocket,” Reid admits on the line from her Toronto home. Reid had two marks against her: she was a woman, and she was a newbie. “It was clear no one was going to take a chance on me directing my first film, so I had to create the opportunity myself,” she says. With the help of a line of credit, a cast and crew who worked for honorariums, and sheer determination, Reid wrapped up her film for under $275,000. “I was very, very lucky in that I was in a position that I could do that,” she adds. “I took a huge leap of faith.”
Reid's film is hardly your classic Katherine Heigl–type chick flick. A mock documentary, it follows a lesbian couple, Athena (Angela Vint) and Lilith (Megan Fahlenbock), who, via not-so-futuristic stem-cell science, become pregnant with one another's biological children. Although it is, on the surface, a comedy, it also deftly weaves in serious issues of biological ethics, family conflict, and aging without losing its levity. For Roslyn Muir, chair of the Women in Film Festival, it was a natural choice for opening night.
“I just found that it was so funny, and it made me laugh out loud,” she says. The fact that it featured women going against the grain of society (a little bit like female directors) also added to its appeal. “It's a couple who are definitely a bit out of the mainstream, in terms of what they're trying to do,” Muir acknowledges. “I thought that it was nice to have something that was really inclusive.”
In addition to Reid's film, WIFF will be screening three other features, four mid-length films, and 37 shorts by women filmmakers. As Muir notes, the festival provides an important platform for work that often struggles for screen time. “We [Women in Film & Television Vancouver] have just completed a study of all the major film festivals across Canada, and right now the percentage of directors that are getting screened at VIFF [Vancouver International Film Festival], and TIFF [Toronto International Film Festival] and Montreal [World Film Festival] is only 20 percent women directors,” she says. “I actually had a hard time finding features that are directed by women.”¦So we're trying to support women directors as much as we can, because we know it's a battle.”
To help female screenwriters, producers, directors, and DOPs make it to the frontlines, WIFF will also include five free filmmaker panels, including the first CTV “women in the director's chair career advancement module” and its first new-media forum. The event will close March 7 with the 2009 Spotlight Awards—hosted by Canadian actor Molly Parker—where veteran actor Babz Chula, who is battling cancer, will be presented with the woman of the year award.
For Reid, a member of Women in Film & Television Toronto, the organization has provided invaluable training and networking opportunities. “One of the women who's a board member [in Toronto], Michelle Marion, works for TMN [The Movie Network],” she recalls. “I called her out of the blue because I was trying to sell my short film, and she spent a long time on the phone with me.” Marion recommended a boutique distribution company, an act of kindness Reid says she'll never forget. “She took the time to talk to me, and it made a huge difference. So the more women that do that, that are in key positions, the more this situation will change,” she says.
After two decades of empowering women in the industry, Muir admits there's a bittersweet quality to the society's achievement of a milestone anniversary. When Women in Film & Television Vancouver was launched, its founders “were probably hoping it was only going to be around for a few years and it wouldn't be needed,” she muses. “It would be nice to say that we no longer need a Women in Film, that there's no need for us to still be out there pushing our mandate, but, yeah, it looks like we're going to be around for quite a bit longer.”
Reid concurs. “I long for the day when it will become irrelevant,” she says with a laugh, “but it's so far from being not necessary right now.”