As far back as I can remember, I have always had a deep passion for movies, which probably derives from my fascination with the human character. The ability that film offers to travel with a character and learn in roughly two hours what might take a lifetime has always been intoxicating to me. It is this quest to dig into the fabric of humanity and share what I discover that has propelled me forward.
Growing up, there were a couple of reasons why I never dreamed I could work in this industry, not least of which was that all the directors I admired as a kid were men. I also perceived directing as an inherited position and believed that the only way in was to be born into filmmaking royalty. Filmmaking thus felt completely elusive, and it wasn't until I took time off from college (where I was studying biochemistry) to travel the world that I decided storytelling was something I had to pursue.
After finishing college at SUNY New Paltz, I moved back to New York City and made it my mission to watch as many films as I could get my hands on. I grew to revere a select group of female directors like Lena Wertmuller and Agniezka Holland. Their stories were very human and passionate and spoke to me. I don't believe I would have known that they were female filmmakers just from their films, and I found that encouraging. I never wanted to feel the need to live up to a certain type of expectation simply because of my gender. These two filmmakers were boldly telling the stories they wanted to tell and even pushing the envelope.
When I was starting out in the mid nineties, there were even fewer female line producers and technical crew than now, which often meant leading a mostly male crew. I can remember a few line-producer interviews when the inevitable question would come up: "Can you get the full crew to listen to you? Can you really take control?" What they were asking was, "As a woman, can you get men, especially men older than you, to do what you ask of them?" It was a valid question if for no other reason than the film had to come first. In these instances I never hesitated to respond with a resounding "yes," and quite honestly I never doubted it for even a moment.
As I continue to work in this field, I do feel an obligation to create content with strong female characters. And while it's true that the directors who most influenced me were men, it was the stories they told of powerful women -- and the actresses who brought these women to life -- that left an indelible mark on me. Katharine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter; Bette Davis in Dark Victory and Mr. Skeffington; Giulietta Masina in Nights of Cabiria and La Strada; Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under The Influence and Love Streams and Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice. These are the types of stories I want to tell -- stories unafraid of portraying real and intense emotion about things that matter.
It's no surprise, then, that my passion project (which has lived with me for ten years) is a narrative feature entitled The Exchange. It's an intense urban drama that tackles the question: Can one person really make a difference? The script, which I co-wrote with my friend and frequent collaborator John Gallagher, centers on a terribly flawed and complex female protagonist who is grappling with her faith. It's a role that, just a few short years ago, would have only been written for a man. Now, happily, strong women have become much more bankable, and the stories they carry are climbing in the box-office totals.
Like every director, to have the opportunity to direct my passion project would be a dream come true. To prepare for directing The Exchange, I am challenging myself to remember the films I loved as a child that were brought to life by all those strong, unapologetic women. There is a reason why I still remember these stories and performances. I'd like to add my creative voice to their chorus.
Sylvia Caminer is an Emmy Award-winning director and producer with extensive credits in theatre, film and television.
Chat with Caminer online on June 12 at 6:30pm EST via Wizeo.