'Ripe for disruption': female film-makers rally for industry overhaul

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From a toolkit inspired by Asia Argento to a feminist tattoo parlour, BFI’s Women With a Movie Camera summit offered inspiration – and a call to action

Actor and activist Asia Argento left with Ava DuVernay at the Cannes film festival, calling for change.
Inspirations ... actor and activist Asia Argento left with Ava DuVernay at the Cannes film festival. Photograph: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images
Inspirations ... actor and activist Asia Argento left with Ava DuVernay at the Cannes film festival. Photograph: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images

Last modified on Thu 16 Apr 2020 07.33 EDT

Ava DuVernay may not have been at the BFI Southbank in London this weekend, but her films and her words were. Not to mention the number of people walking around with her name emblazoned on their chests. The film-maker’s assertion that “activism is inherently a creative endeavour” was quoted more than once from the stage at the Woman With a Movie Camera summit. And it’s an idea that works just as well forwards and backwards. For many women in the film industry, simply creating can be an act of disruption or activism in itself.

The theme of the day, which included panels, presentations and performances, and took over all four screens of the BFI Southbank, was power – and how to change the unbalanced power dynamic in the creative industries. In that light, it was a disappointment that activist and model Munroe Bergdorf, booked as the event’s keynote speaker, was unable to attend. While signatories of an online petition had objected to a trans woman having a platform at the event, the speakers and organisers of the summit signalled their support of her invitation, standing on stage together when she was due to speak, in a gesture of solidarity, to applause from the audience. “Her words would have set the tone for reclaiming the BFI as an inclusive space with radical potential,” said Observer film critic Simran Hans in a statement. Holly Tarquini, executive director of FilmBath, also noted how Bergdorf’s name was mentioned admiringly in each panel, and said: “It’s essential that we celebrate when women like Munroe Bergdorf are given a platform by public organisations.”

The screening rooms still felt more inclusive than usual, with an audience mostly made up of women packing out spaces often filled with men. Journalist, activist and screenwriter Kate Muir spoke about her experiences as a critic, looking around press screenings to see “20 men and me – and they are all white”. Muir was part of a panel discussing the state of the film industry following the #MeToo and #TimesUp social media movements. While the panel applauded the opportunities online activism gave marginalised voices to speak out, and acknowledge that many positive changes had begun, they said there was still a long way to go. Cheering the fact that many public bodies have shown support by working towards a 50-50 gender balance by 2020, Mia Bays of the Birds Eye View film festival said the next steps were to “penetrate the studio system”, and to look at distribution and marketing.

BFI’s Woman with a Movie Camera summit.
BFI’s Woman with a Movie Camera summit. Photograph: Angus Steele

Both on stage and off, there was a buoyant tone to proceedings, helped no doubt by more lighthearted side events such as a feminist tattoo parlour and nail salon, a celebration of zine culture and even video games. Hair Nah is an addictive 8-bit game where the objective is to swat white hands away from a woman of colour’s hair. Alternatively, the Algorithmic Gaze teaches players how to fool the computers that censor images of female nipples online. Anna Bogutskaya, who programmes the BFI’s monthly Woman With a Movie Camera strand of films at Southbank and curated the summit, spoke to the Hlcarpenter.com about her aims for the event: “The main goal for me was to ignite conversation, and not just in the film and TV industry, but also in other creative industries.”

One of the most enjoyable events of the day was writer and producer Catherine Bray’s funny and sharp dissection of the strong female character trope. (Spoiler: it helps to be Angelina Jolie). This presentation, featuring montages of high-kicking, hair-flicking glamazons with guns, was all the more compelling for ending with the message that “we have to get complex in our pursuit of equality”. For Bray, that means unpredictable, diverse female characters on screen, but looking beyond the screen to ensure fair pay for women working in film in less visible roles, such as studio cleaners.

The most talked-about event of the day was possibly writer, curator and activist So Mayer’s incendiary presentation about dismantling the film canon. Mayer presented a provocative new approach to auteurs, classic films, festivals and even cinemas. A series of punchy slides (which you can view on Dropbox) revealed a set of tools, forming a kit with which to dismantle established ideas and industry practices – as well as the inequalities and abuses lurking within the system. Choose from the “Asia Argento finger”, which features a quote by the actor, who was among the first to publicly accused Harvey Weinstein of rape, empowering survivors of abuse to voice their accusations. Most compelling of all, Mayer offered the slide titled “Ruth Bader Ginsburg Scales”. The Supreme Court justice has said she is often asked when there will be enough women in her role and her reply is “when there are nine”, a 100% ratio that takes some people aback. “But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.” Mayer extrapolates that idea to the film industry: “We’re done with 50-50.” Where the Competition of the Cannes film festival has so far featured 95% male directors and 5% female directors, Mayer calls for a complete reversal: 95% of films should have been made by women, and soon.

It takes more than activism to get to that ratio, or even approach it. It requires money to back up gestures, and perhaps a reworking of the entire industry. The conversation about these topics may only be starting to get radical enough to see results. This summit felt like something of a stealth tactic – a day of entertaining events, vivid conversation and inclusive spaces that had the capacity to inspire profound change, triggering the “radical imagination” described by DuVernay. The momentum gathered by online activism, the leading virtue of which is visibility, needs to be pulled offline and turned into action, according to Simran Hans in a panel on film criticism. As Bogutskaya said at the opening of the summit, media industries are “ripe for disruption”.

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