Advice from Women Directors: ‘Don’t Listen to Naysayers…Just Do It.”

The indie film world is traditionally where women can find a place for themselves. A range of grants and funds specifically designed to encourage women to make films both narrative and documentary means more than ever they are making inroads into the indie scene.  The 22nd annual Raindance Film Festival was the perfect place to catch up with some female filmmakers from around the world at different places in their careers. Roughly 25% of the directors showing features at the festival were women although notably none of the 7 gala screenings were directed by a woman. I tracked down some of the women who had come to London to promote their projects, seek funding and make themselves available for Q&As.

Two veteran directors, with over 20 years’ experience apiece in the industry covering both film and TV, hail from Canada. Gail Harvey (Looking is the Original Sin) has made a name for herself with a focus on the narrative sphere; Maureen Judge (Living Dolls) found a niche in documentaries and loves finding new stories to tell. Both of these directors find themselves drawn to women’s’ stories time and again.

Gail says, “Looking back on my work I often have done mother/ daughter stories. That seems to be my theme in some way, mainly mothers going away”. Maureen’s first documentary was about women who had lived through WW1 “It took 4 years to convince people that this was a necessary project, all the women were dying, we had to push because no one cared about it”. Gail decided to branch out after her first feature, “The first film I did was very much considered a character driven female film and then I couldn’t get work so then I did a film that was completely macho and had lots of guns and it still didn’t matter”, realising in the end you have to tell the stories that matter to you.

The lower budgets in the indie scene allows Maureen to make the films she wants to, “Documentary has budgets I can raise myself so being my own producer I can have freedom I couldn’t have in narrative film. I can do things about women and nobody says ‘who wants to hear about women?’ She admits though that “I don’t feel compelled to tell women’s stories; it is internal, it is political but it is internal because that is who I am, it is it integrated into who I am”.

I was interested in speaking to first time filmmakers to see what their experiences were. Stephanie Joalland, Beatriz Sanchis, Esra Saydam and Nisan Dag all originate in continental Europe but have experience and training in countries other than their own.

Stephanie Joalland comes from France and has a screenwriting background; she has travelled with her craft to LA, Canada and made her first film (The Quiet Hour) in the UK. Esra and Nisan met whilst training in New York but felt a pull to their home country of Turkey to co-write and co-direct a very personal story (Across the Sea). Beatriz Sanchis is from Madrid and has worked her way around film sets in most of the departments, training on the ground she finally set out to make her own film and was lucky enough to attract big actors from Argentina and Mexico who wanted to join her on her first set (They are all Dead).

I asked them if they could go back to before they make their films what advice they might give themselves. Stephanie’s focus was on the nuts and bolts, “Visual effects, don’t try to wing them, I got lucky, I have a good team and we had a great designer who did a good job but I could have made more conceptual art and done more storyboarding for effects”. Esra Saydam was more philosophical, “Trust your guts and instincts but make sure you are surrounded by the right people; you cannot do everything by yourself”, Nisan, her partner in the big chair, found the schedule tiring, “save some of your energy for the production phase so that you can be more alert and active on set. Don’t kill yourself; give yourself a little bit of a break before you start filming so you can be your best”. Despite spending a lot of time prepping and rehearsing with her actors Beatriz Sanchis learned a lot about the process and what works best for her, “My advice is let it flow; see more of what’s around you and what’s happening there at that moment. Don’t focus so much on what you planned. The times when I did that on my movie it was perfect”

All 4 women loved the process and are already working on their next projects. Their first film experience has only made them hungry for more.

I wondered what sort of prejudices other filmmakers might have faced due to their gender in what is still very much a boys’ club; I spoke to 2 mid-career directors to find out about their experiences as women and around making films about women in traditional male roles/worlds.

Joanna Lipper came to London to promote her latest documentary (The Supreme Price) a film about women and politics in Nigeria, a film she feels can possibly teach the US a thing or two. Anna Kazejak has worked in her native Poland but found the freedoms and respect afforded her in Denmark was a dream; she showcased her latest narrative film (The Word) which focuses on revenge through the eyes of a young woman.

Joanna feels very lucky “I’ve been able to get support and funding from organisations who have made it part of their mission to support women directors as well as films about women subjects and subjects relating to the rights of women and girls.” Anna has had a great experience filing in Denmark but was not always so well treated in her home country “I once interviewed with some producers for a job and I was the only female director in that group; I was asked about how I could combine work with children. In Denmark no one asks these kinds of questions of female directors”.  Anna felt she needed to make a more macho film to overcome the prejudice she faced, “In the beginning I didn’t want to make every film with a female lead, so I wouldn’t be put into a box, so my second film was more male. It was about football fans, lots of tough guys, police, big fights; I had to show I could do this”.

With her latest project Joanna used an intimate story to reflect wider issues, “It was important to find the links both emotionally between mother and daughter and also the political events and ideals established then that these modern day women are carrying on” Her main focus was a Nigerian politician making her way in a man’s world “Hafsat is a complex modern woman making choices which are difficult and making them work for her.  I think showing women like that is very important because we all have difficult decisions to make”. Using her position as a filmmaker to give voice to these subjects is very important to Joanna “The “Take Away” from this film is the urgent immediate need for global solidarity when it comes to empowering women to be leaders in local communities and on the state and federal levels”

Anna has also come full circle and accepts who she is now as a filmmaker “I want to make films about women because that’s the time for me to make this kind of film, it just feels right, I feel ready”

It was apparent speaking to all of these directors that the sense of freedom that the indie world affords is just what women need to be able to tell the stories they want to tell. And those stories are inevitably going to be women’s stories even if they choose to make more traditionally “male” genre films; because it is who they are, and we need more women voices in the visual story telling world, we need to see more of their view on life and all its complexities.

The message I took away was that there’s nothing stopping you from making a film but yourself; Stephanie Joalland summed it up for me, “Don’t listen to the naysayers who say you’re a woman you can’t do it, I think there is a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy. I hear so many women saying ‘I couldn’t make it because I’m a woman’; there is no excuse, get a red camera, get a 5G, and make a movie, find actors. Just do it”

An abridged version of this article appeared on Indiewire.

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