Gender Disparity In Filmmaking In The USA & A Nod To The Invisibility Of Women Filmmakers In Africa

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by Tambay A. Obenson
January 22, 2013 11:37 AM
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Wanuri Kahiu

In what should be absolutely no surprise to anyone who's actually been paying attention, a new study commissioned by The Sundance Institute and Women in Film, released over the weekend, shows that there's been little change in the number of women working as directors and producers of films that screen at the indie-centered Sundance Film Festival, in the last 11 years.

Researchers at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism looked at the gender disparity in narrative and documentary films screened at Sundance from 2002 to 2012, concluding that women working in key creative positions - writers, directors and producers - represent less than 30 percent of the filmmakers with films selected by Sundance over those 11 years.

I'd actually like to see an even further breakdown by race. 

However, the *good* news, if you can call it that, is that women filmmakers still fare better in those key behind the camera positions in indie film world, than they do in the Hollywood studio universe.

Meanwhile... across the Atlantic, in continental Africa, via a conference on Francophone women in African cinema that took place in France, you'll find a similar conversation being had. Specifically, in an interview with Stéphanie Dongmo (translated from French to English by Beti Ellerson of the African Women In Cinema blog that I reference from time to time on this blog), Brigitte Rollet, the organizer of the conference (which was titled "Francophone African Women Filmmakers: 40 years of cinema (1972-2012)"), discusses the key issues that were raised during the conference, as well as the challenges that African women filmmakers face in Africa today.

Here's a key snip from Ms Rollet:

Cinema continues to be thought of as a male activity. The fact that there are many women filmmakers does not negate this perception, and African women filmmakers are not visible. There are individual trajectories, and there are developments, but not national cinema policies. In countries where there is a genuine political will to develop a cinema culture, there are more women than in those where this interest does not exist. It is a question of economics. Cinema is a costly art, and producers are even more hesitant to finance a high-budget film directed by a woman. They are only willing to help those who have proven themselves. If one is not able to prove one's ability, it is difficult to justify receiving this kind of funding. This is a situation that African women filmmakers share with numerous women filmmakers in the West.

You should read the rest of that interview HERE.

And in a different recent piece also from the African Women In Cinema blog, a conversation is being had about recognizing women's cinema in Africa as something that's different, unique and separate from the dominant cinema (what we'd call niche cinema I suppose), with an argument against that idea, stating that the plight of women filmmakers in Africa reflects that of African cinema in general, and isn't something that should be regarded as an *other.*

It's further discussed that there are less barriers to entry in documentary filmmaking for women than there are in fiction.

Here's another snip:

Jean-Marie Barbe, director of training at Africadoc, noted that there are as many women as men who enter into documentary filmmaking in Africa: "it is specific to this genre perhaps because men dominate fiction and the documentary is more open with more user-friendly tools." Even though there are many women who enter documentary filmmaking, they are not very visible.

And still further, with regards to a "women's cinema:"

Tunisian Nadia El Fani claims that there is: “one most not close one’s eyes to the fact, it is not true that there is no difference between a film by a woman and a film by a man. Especially with a documentary,men that I film do not react on camera in the same manner when filmed by a man. As a woman filmmaker the difficulty comes from the fact that we live in an unequal patriarchal society as it relates to gender.

And challenging the notion of a "women's cinema" in Africa... somewhat...:

Sarah Maldoror transcends this debate asserting that problems of women filmmakers are those of African cinema in general, that of training, funding and distribution: “We must stop begging for funding and finance our own films. When there is an African film in the cinema houses, we should be the first ones there, to learn about our culture. If we don’t do so we are at fault. For Isabelle Boni-Claverie, films with black actors and by black filmmakers should have access to general distribution, and if this were the case, there would no longer be a question of a man’s cinema or a woman’s cinema.

By the way, it should be noted that a woman has never won the Yennenga Stallion, which is the Grand Prize for filmmaking at the most prominent film festival in Africa, FESPACO, since it was launched in 1969.

Wow.

For more on discussion of a "women's cinema" in Africa, click HERE.

I suppose the point of this piece is to recognize that the struggles of women filmmakers here in the USA are universal. But also to introduce African women filmmakers living and working in Africa (who really are invisible locally and internationally) into this conversation.

Still much work to be done...

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2 Comments

  • Lenore Norrgard | February 4, 2013 12:46 AMReply

    Thank you so much for writing this article. Sharing.

  • Beti Ellerson | January 23, 2013 10:45 AMReply

    Tambay, I agree with you. When I read about the Sundance Institute study on women in film I thought about the many conversations I have with African women in cinema and the discussions at the various forums. I definitely see the parallels! Thanks for bringing this out at Shadow and Act.

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