I measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress which women have achieved.”
~ B.R. Ambedkar
It was both heartbreaking and overwhelming to see Rachel Morrison being nominated for the Academy Award for best cinematography this year. Heartbreaking, because she is the first woman in 90 long years to be even nominated for that category, and overwhelming because it made me feel that maybe this is the era when it all finally changes.
It’s no different when it comes to directors – Greta Gerwig is only the fifth woman to be nominated for best director in the history of the awards. An unsurprising fact, once you realise that there are 22 male directors in Hollywood for every woman. This made me realise, film industries are not different from the societies they’re a part of. In this case, they’re equally deficient when it comes to representation, not just on-screen but off it as well.
The ‘celluloid ceiling’ study, released annually by San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, found that only 1% of 2017’s top films employed ten or more women — whereas 70% employed ten or more men.
Despite meagre representation, women filmmakers have managed to inspire generations of female artists with the pathbreaking cinema they have produced over the years. Alice Guy Blache’s The Cabbage Fairy, Falling Leaves and The Consequences of Feminism are all notable works of narrative fiction. However, despite being a pioneer in her field between the 1890s and 1920s, Blache still did not get her due in the public eye. But this did not stop her. “There is nothing connected with the staging of a motion picture that a woman cannot do as easily as a man, and there is no reason why she cannot completely master every technicality of the art,” she once said.
Then came Lois Weber, the mother of intriguing silent cinema who made provocative movies like Hypocrites, which featured full frontal nudity and Where are my Children? – which was about abortion and birth control.
German director Lotte Reiniger was the pioneer of silhouette animation, making the use of fluidity in her films in her style of expressionism, very evident in The Adventures of Prince Achmed. Germaine Dulac, the woman who steered the art of filmmaking into the unchartered territories of surrealism and impressionism by making “The Seashell and the Clergymen” and “The Smiling Madame Beudet” had preceded the rise of Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali.
There are countless others who have flown under history’s radar. Mary Ellen Brute made amazing abstract musical films, Maya Deren rose to fame with Meshes of an Afternoon and At Land which combined her love for dance, Haitian voodoo and subjective psychology. Then there were Chantal Akerman, Vera Chytilova, Doroth Arzner, Leni Reifanstahl, Ida Lupino, Agnes Varda and so many others we’ve never heard of.
It’s not just a historical problem, contemporary filmmakers aren’t watched, discussed or valued as much as they deserve either. Iranian Cinema has made its mark in the eyes of the world lately by winning Academy Awards and we’ve all heard of Jafar Panahi and Asghar Farhadi. But what about women directors such as Marjane Satrapi, Shirin Neshat, Forough Farrokhzad and Tahmineh Milani?
In India, where the Kapoors and Chopras reign over the silver screen, Aparna Sen, Manju Borah, Mira Nair, Deepa Mehta, Konkana Sen Sharma and Bornila Chatterjee have carved out a distinct identity for female filmmakers. At Cannes last year, the only Indian entry was from a female director, Payal Kapadia, whose 13-minute short is the first Indian film to ever be selected for the Cinefondation section.
Women have been demonstrating their filmmaking skills for some time now, but the lack of attention makes us think otherwise. It’s time feminism conquered the reserved spaces of art so women can be represented, appreciated and criticised along with their male peers. And next time someone asks you where the women filmmakers are, tell them they are right here, ignored but always growing despite the biases that limit their reach.
Bijaya Biswal is a 23-year-old MBBS student from Odisha.