I’m a director – who happens to be a woman – and last month I attended a panel discussion on the subject of production finance, sales and distribution. The panel was made up of three intelligent women: all heads of their respective department at a British broadcaster. I expected the discussion to be informative: for me to be able to put faces to job titles and to hear what the broadcaster intended to do with its newly-increased budget. While these expectations were met, the panel also inadvertently betrayed the industry’s wilful blindness to gender inequality.
The discussion was uneventful for the most part, until the panel was asked to respond to calls for greater gender diversity. The panellists said that they always look for the ‘best fit’ for a project, then went on to cite a white male director. The questioned appeared to have been misunderstood and therefore was asked again – what is the broadcaster doing to address the gender diversity problem?  The panellists pointed out that, although there is more work to be done, they believe that 17% of their broadcaster’s budget is allocated to female film directors, and that they are doing their best – scouring theatre, trawling the world of literature, battling to unearth female film directors – but that it isn’t easy because there just aren’t that many out there. It was a jaw-dropping moment. While I knew that this attitude exists, it is rarely heard from a broadcaster with a public service remit.
When the floor was opened to questions, a director raised her hand. She said it wasn’t fair to say that there aren’t many female film directors out there and wanted to ask what the panel thought of quota systems and the gender equality initiative pioneered by Anna Serner, CEO of the Swedish Film Institute. Another director immediately corrected her – that is not true, he said, Sweden did not impose quotas. He was right: no quotas were used, but the point remains: The Swedish Film Institute’s 2013 Film Agreement states that “production funding is to be divided equally between women and men. By the end of 2015, the total amount of funding awarded during the agreement period shall be allocated 50% to women and 50% to men in each of the three professional categories: director, screenwriter and producer.” Yet the panel only reiterated that it wasn’t a question of quotas: their development department had found it hard to find enough female directors and they always aimed to find the ‘right fit’ for the project. One of the panellists suggested that it was a matter of female directors not wanting to cater for an audience of young men, which she claimed is the broadcaster’s largest demographic.
A director in the audience spoke up to say that she felt shut out of the market. One of the panellists replied that this feeling might be the problem: that a perception of exclusion manifests itself as inhibition, preventing female directors from stepping forward and simultaneously making them difficult to find – no matter how hard this particular broadcaster scours and trawls and battles. The panel’s logic was that if they can’t find us then it might be our fault.
The meeting was called to an end. Lots of men and a few women moved forward to speak to the panellists. Eventually my turn came to speak with the woman who had suggested that the problem lay with a lack of female directors. I handed her my business card and said, ‘Trawl no more; I’m a member of Film Fatales, a collective of female film directors. There are 60 of us. Please email me and I will send you a list.’ She never did.
A few days later, after discussing this event with some of my Film Fatales colleagues, we decided to do something positive to promote visibility: we would set up a database of British female film and TV directors and make it available online. One of my fellow directors contacted the creative department of the broadcaster who were very receptive to the idea. With the correct department alerted to the presence of a large number of female directors, I decided to look back on the original panel discussion before writing this piece. I wanted to check facts and use exact quotations. Luckily, the host organisation had posted a video of the event in the members’ area of their website, allowing me to review the full session.
But to my surprise, I found that the video had been edited. After the first question about gender, the panellists’ replies had been cut down to short, innocuous comments. The second question about gender inequality and the ensuing discussion had been cut. All the questions regarding gender inequality in film directing were gone, along with the panel’s uncomfortable answers. The audience’s retorts, murmurings and outspoken disagreements had all been removed.
These vocal female directors hadn’t been hiding. They had stepped up, uninhibited and protested loudly when they were told that they didn’t exist or that it might be their fault that they weren’t visible. Yet, they had all been cut quite literally from the story. By choosing to present this version of the event, the host organisation concealed evidence of the broadcaster’s ‘wilful blindness’. Coupled with the revelations from the panel that evening, the hosts had neatly illuminated the obvious problem: a whole heap of denial is being given credence by acts of collusion.
Female directors have historically been advised to keep your head down, work hard, do not complain, do not be difficult, do not rock the boat – and if you are good enough you’ll squeeze through a tiny crack in the glass ceiling. A handful make it. The majority don’t. Their male colleagues fare much better. This reality is hard to stomach and it has nothing to do with talent or the ability to direct film. In over a decade very little has changed – in fact according to an industry report made public on May 4th, titled ‘Cut out of the Picture’, the number of female film directors helming publicly funded feature films dropped dramatically – from 32% in 2007 to 17% in 2014.  The ‘work harder and keep your mouth shut’ story was just that: a story.
Suggesting that it is the fault of female film directors is a lazy response to a widespread, deeply entrenched cultural problem. Everyone has a responsibility to solve it: me, you, broadcasters, distributors, film companies and all those working in the UK film industry. The good news is that the problem of gender inequality in film directing can be solved without quotas, as it has been elsewhere: Ireland and Australia have recently followed Sweden’s example and committed to change. The UK film industry must decide collectively to follow suit and take positive action. The Swedish approach will help us produce better and more diverse films and to win more awards. It will make for a stronger UK film industry. But to achieve this we must slice away the denial and cut the blame. We must work on our collective bias, stop colluding in a false narrative and commit to reaching gender equality in film directing.
Our database will be a small step towards visibility and the industry report will, I hope, cause uproar and affect change. But for the moment, if you need a director you can find some here.
Nicola Mills an award winning Writer/Director and a founding member of Film Fatales London