Difference Makers: Carolyn Combs creates access for women in the film and TV industry
This weekly column features community-minded Vancouverites that are making a difference at a grassroots level.
Through community engagement, creative initiatives, and a fearless approach, Carolyn Combs and her dedicated team work vigorously to promote gender equality in Canada’s film and television industry.
As the executive director of Women in Film and Television Vancouver (WIFTV), a not-for-profit society that aims to further the professional and artistic development of female Canadian filmmakers, Combs has spent the past five years advocating for more inclusivity within agencies like Telefilm and the National Film Board of Canada.
While her role with WIFTV focuses on the world of screen-based media, Combs says it wasn’t always the career she had pictured herself in.
At a café near her office in Vancouver, Combs tells the Straight that it took several years for her to realize she was interested in film.
“When I went to university, I studied theatre. I thought it was a medium of exploration, where you could learn about yourself and each other and social relations,” she says.
It wasn’t until she took an elective course that highlighted films produced in different countries that her eyes were opened to a new method of storytelling.
“I was seeing films that people were making in other countries about politics and issues of their time, and it really interested me. I began to see film as a way of exploring one’s world as well, like a form of research,” she says.
“In French, if you’re making a film, it can be called, ‘une recherche’. I like that.”
Combs set out to make films of her own, directing and producing both documentaries and fictional features, always committed to the truthful and respectful portrayal of her characters and their stories.
She may not always have been aware of its direct effect on whether her films were funded, but Combs says being a woman in the industry often made her job as a filmmaker very challenging.
“Like most people, when things are difficult, we blame ourselves,” she recalls.
Combs admits she did so often when her films weren’t being picked up, thinking that they weren’t mainstream enough or competitive enough to get noticed.
“I made real choices based on that, thinking that I wouldn’t be making a living as a filmmaker, and I’d always need to be doing something else. I’d have to integrate it into another job, because I did feel that it was me and my work,” she says.
After taking on the role at WIFTV in 2012, Combs began looking at the research and statistics collected by the organization since 1989, and realized that, overwhelmingly, she was not alone in feeling that way.
“There are real systemic barriers to women, and my gender certainly has made it more difficult,” she says.
“I think women need to know that, because we blame ourselves, and either quit, or back off. It’s important to know that women have been excluded.”
Combs says that since she’s become aware of the statistics, there has been little improvement in parity issues, but she doesn’t let it prevent her from moving forward with her goals to affect change.
“We might see it beginning to improve and that’s really exciting for us at WIFTV, and all woman filmmakers,” she says.
“We’ve been working on these issues for a long time, and this past year is the first year where some of the funding agencies are beginning to pay attention.”
In March of 2016, the National Film Board of Canada announced that, not only would it start working to ensure that at least 50 percent of its productions would be directed by women, but also that 50 percent of its production budget would go to fund films made by women. (Combs says that, oftentimes, when fims made by women are selected, they are given smaller budgets.)
She praises WIFTV’s advocacy committee, run by Sharon McGowan, for their efforts in meeting with agencies over the years to bring awareness to the issue. This past December, McGowan and Susan Brinton, another advocacy committee member, travelled to Ottawa to take on the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).
Although the Broadcasting Act stipulates that Canadian programming should “serve the needs and interests, and reflect the circumstances and aspirations of Canadian men, women, and children”, no policies have been created to ensure that those stipulations are met.
“That’s been really exciting, that kind of work, and as an organization, we try to support that,” Combs says.
In addition to working towards gender parity on a national scale, Combs and her colleagues’ local work involves running workshops, creating networking events and monthly member screenings, hosting the Spotlight Awards for the B.C. film community, and of course, planning the annual Women in Film Festival.
This year’s fest will take place from March 8 to 12, and Combs is looking forward to welcoming international filmmakers and connecting with those in the local industry.
WIFTV also works hard to engage Vancouverites with the festival, and even recruits members of the community to help with programming. In recent years, the organization has also increased the ways in which those who attend the festival can engage with films by hosting panel discussion and receptions.
For Combs, working in such a collaborative role has been incredibly rewarding.
“Seeing the positive change that has happened has been fantastic, and it certainly makes the job worthwhile when you’re seeing that your work is having an impact,” she says.
“It’s important to acknowledge the work of so many other woman that have made this possible, and there really is a lot of hard work and energy from women that have come before, and that work with me now.”
As for the future of WIFTV, Combs is keen to continue the important work of creating access for women in the film industry.
“It’s really been a challenge over the past 25 years, but I think our voice is finally being heard. As an organization, we’re growing and so finding the balance between what our capacity is, and what our dreams are—that’s really the biggest challenge.”