Belle director Amma Asante offered encouragement and advice to young women filmmakers at a BAFTA Film Question Time event in London on Monday. Asante was one of four panellists -- three of them women -- who came together to debate the most pressing issues facing the film industry. Asante, Kate Muir (chief film critic for The Times), and Isabel Davis (Head of International at the British Film Institute) were joined by producer Atif Ghani (Ill Manors, Anima State).
The Film Question Time seems set to become a regular feature of the Academy’s BAFTA Guru programming, which is designed to aid and inspire those hoping to break into the film and television industries. As Asante told one young hopeful struggling to make it as a woman director, the myth that being a woman "should be an advantage" in a male-dominated industry remains just that.
The neophyte remarked, "I read a post on social media recently which said, ‘Some women use [being a woman] to their favor: Amma Asante is a great example of this.’ And I thought, ‘Wow... two films in ten years, that’s a really great example.’"
Asante responded, "All I ever hear is, ‘You’re exactly the kind of person we want to work with.’ All of the five years that I was trying to get my second film off the ground, I was hearing that -- along with ‘... just not on this project.'"
For Asante, succeeding in the industry and opening doors for other female filmmakers require a combination of resolute self-belief and ruthless optimism:
"I work in two different ways. Sometimes I want to try and work out what the issues are so that I can negotiate them, because I realize that I can only really change things by example.... And other times I find I can’t even contemplate what the challenges are, because if I do, I won’t even get up out of bed.... I’m about to make my next film, and if I keep on telling myself that, eventually at some point, it will happen. For me, it was ten years between the first and the second film almost. I don’t have the answers; I just keep going."
Asked what advice she would give to a woman from an ethnic minority on breaking into film, Asante answered:
"I’ve been asked by financiers if I wear my high heels when I’m filming, and I’ve also been told to look more pretty when the six o’clock news were sent to do an interview with me on set during a rainstorm, when I was knee-high in mud. We’ve all got our stuff, in a way, to deal with: whether it’s color, or religion, or you’re a woman, or whatever. I just say, grow a thick skin and avoid those people who don’t seriously want to know what it is you need or want to do as a creative."
Critic Kate Muir agreed that, to achieve success, a filmmaker has to be “utterly ambitious” and push on doggedly no matter what. She cited Wadjda director Haifaa al-Mansour as an inspirational figure for all women wanting to get their films made: "The first film ever made in Saudi Arabia, made by a woman, and she just got out there and did it -- and it was illegal, impossible, improbable. And if she can do it, then we can all do it."
On the issue of creating opportunities for women directors, Muir pointed the finger not only at the major studios’ abysmal record on hiring women directors, but also at an identifiable reluctance to showcase women’s work on the festival circuit. In her words, "Cannes is the real stinker in this case.... it showcases the same old gents, marvelous as they are."
The evening wasn’t all doom and gloom, however. Muir was also very appreciative of Jane Campion’s dedication to shining a spotlight on these issues as this year’s Cannes Jury President. Meanwhile, Isabel Davis was rightly proud of the BFI Film Fund’s new diversity guidelines, reiterating that not only the studios, but "the industry as a whole needs to take responsibility." She was optimistic that, in Britain at least, "everyone in the public sector is probably aware [of the need to promote diversity], and of the need to be quite proactive about how we encourage women to get directing."
Amma Asante is set to direct Unforgettable for Warner Bros. next, and she is one role model whose success is undoubtedly already inspiring many young female filmmakers to push ahead with their careers in the industry.
"I wanted to do a studio film," she said, "to show that, as a woman, I can." Her final piece of advice to those hoping to follow in her footsteps?
"Don’t take 'no' as a full stop. Take it as a comma."