National Canadian Film Day 150: Industry belief that female filmmakers can't cut it is "bullshit"

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      Seriously, where would Canadian cinema be without Sandy Wilson's My American Cousin? Or Sarah Polley's Away From Her? How about Patricia Rozema's I've Heard the Mermaids Singing? Julia Kwan's Eve and the Fire Horse?

      There's also the work of Kari Skogland, Deepa Mehta, Alanis Obomsawin, Marie Hélène-Cousineau, Ruba Nadda, Karen Cho, Chloé Robichaud, Nettie Wild, Nimisha Mukerji, Anne Wheeler, and Sook-Yin Lee—just to name a few.

      Despite such celebrated names, women still remain sorely underrepresented and limited in Canadian screen industries.

      It's a longstanding problem that's not exclusive to Canada. Yet while we turn our attention towards celebrating our domestic cinema industry for National Canadian Film Day (April 19), it's also an opportunity to celebrate how our country is building upon the previous critically acclaimed contributions of women in screen industries and—most importantly—what can be done to ensure that continues to grow in the future.

      For International Women's Day on March 8, Women in Film and Television Vancouver held a panel discussion at Vancity Theatre to address these issues. Since it's not just on International Women's Day that such issues need to be discussed and then forgotten about, here's a look at what some panel members reported is being done and what solutions they have come up with.

      Marie Hélène-Cousineau

      UBC film professor and Women in Film and Television Vancouver founding board member Sharon McGowan opened the session by stating that unfortunately, we are still far from gender equity in screen industries, according to Women in View's annual report.

      "Despite graduating at almost equal levels for public-training programs, women are vastly underrepresented in key leadership positions in Canadian media productions," McGowan said.

      Although the Canada Media Fund invested almost $97 million in 29 English drama TV series, McGowan said that there were only 14 women out of 84 directors, and not one of 293 TV episodes employed a female cinematographer. This is merely one sample of the wildly disproportionate statistics on gender representation in screen industries.

      Deepa Mehta

      Canada Media Fund (CMF) CEO and president Valerie Creighton explained that the challenge involves overhauling some deeply ingrained but erroneous convictions.

      "For us, it really is about an institutional, long-held belief that the talent isn't out there, that the women aren't experienced, and they just can't cut it," Creighton said via Skype. "And frankly, we think that's bullshit."

      On March 8, Creighton said that the CMF announced a number of measures it will implement to boost female representation in key roles. These initiatives will include requiring broadcasters to commit to spending minimum percentages on projects with women in key positions (producer, writer, director, showrunner), rewarding female-led projects, striving for gender parity on juries, changing application process to include gender self-identification, monitoring results and making adjustments to achieve gender balance by 2020, and more.

      Telefilm Canada executive director Carolle Brabant said, also via Skype, that Telefilm has held meetings with industry associations and unions to address gender inequality.

      She said that they felt it was important to come up with solutions that are sustainable, inclusive, flexible, and transparent.

      "We want a solution that will not just be a patch but will be something that will change the way people are thinking," she said.

      By 2020, Telefilm Canada is committed to having gender equity in all key positions (director, screenwriter, producer).

      Sarah Polley

      While she said that they are starting to see more projects coming with female director or screenwriter (whereas in the past, oftentimes there were none), they still need more.

      Last year, National Film Board of Canada head and government film commissioner Claude Joli-Coeur made a commitment to achieve gender equity in directing and funding of NFB projects by 2019.

      This year, Joli-Coeur happily reported the good news that already almost 50 percent of NFB films are directed by women and 50 percent of funding has been allocated to female filmmakers.

      On March 7, the NFB announced a new commitment: that by 2020, all productions 50 percent of all key creative positions will be gender equal.

      Joli-Coeur also stated that at the NFB, over 50 percent of their producers are women, 58 percent of upper management are women, and 50 percent of their board of directors are women.

      He added: "I'd like more men to commit to gender parity."

      Alanis Obomsawin

      Local horror film director Karen Lam said she has attended numerous programs but that there is a surplus of opportunities for women to be mentored.

      "As a woman in this industry, you're expected to apply and…to shadow for free often, to hover behind a director to do the job that you know you can do," she said. "The biggest challenge we have is not actually more mentorship—what we need to do is just to get hired."

      She pointed out that she has seen male filmmakers with less experience than she does who receive invitations for projects.

      She added that female filmmakers may feel discouraged if they feel that the odds are already stacked against them.

      "As for a lot of women in my position, if you feel like the system's rigged, you don't participate so the numbers that we're seeing where we're not applying or they're saying women aren't coming to the table, it's because you feel like it's rigged and that you're not going to get it anyway."

      Kari Skogland

      As an example of something that helped her get her start in TV, Lam said a producer flipped the traditional shadowing roles for her, by hiring Lam for the job but with support from an experienced industry consultant. 

      As short films are the way most filmmakers get their start in the industry, one way to do that is through Telus' Storyhive.

      Telus local content and original programming director Kim Guise talked about Storyhive, Telus' community-based funding platform in which British Columbian and Albertan filmmakers can upload project pitches, viewers vote on the projects, and Telus juries decide which content receives grants.

      Guise said they launched one Storyhive edition which required every project to have a female director. She said it was their most successful Storyhive edition to date, due to high social-media interaction and an outpouring of support from female filmmakers and organizations.

      "We are so proud of that edition because not only were the films some of the highest quality we've ever had but 30 female directors have now taken one more step," she said.

      Sook-Yin Lee

      Guise also said that Telus has partnered with Vancouver International Film Festival to give award to female key creative, which was given out for the first time at last year's B.C. Spotlight at VIFF.

      As Canadians celebrate the accomplishments of our country's cinema on National Canadian Film Day, something to keep in mind is how we all can help to rectify systemic imbalances so that we will continue to have critically acclaimed work like Lynne Stopkewich's Kissed or Louise Archambault's Gabrielle that help to give voice to the true range of what it means to be Canadian.

      As audience members, one way to support female filmmakers is to simply view their work. One easy way to do that is to check out the female filmmaker channel at the Canada Screens video-on-demand website.

      So on National Canadian Film Day and thereafter, which Canadian films will you be watching?

      You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at @cinecraig or on Facebook