Mill Valley Film Festival and the Gender Gap

On the last weekend of the Mill Valley Film Festival, I attended two back-to-back Saturday workshops. The first, Variety Focus on Directors, included JC Chandor (All is Lost); Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station); Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace); Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave); and, John Wells (August: Osage County). The second, Scaling Up: Breaking Barriers and Advancing Opportunities for Women in the Industry, included Jenée Lemarque (The Pretty One); Pratibha Pramar (Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth); Osnat Shurer (a VP of Development at Walt Disney Animation Studios); and Davia Nelson (NPR’s Hidden Kitchens).

It was a glaring omission not to have any women on the directors’ panel, including Jenée Lemarque, Pratibha Pramar, Berry Minott, Chiemi Karasawa, Connie Field, and the many other female directors who were showing at the festival. There was a nice mix of emerging and experienced narrative and documentary directors who would have enriched the conversation. It was likewise a grave sin of commission to use the Directors’ Panel as a platform for discussing the creative process, and the Scaling Up panel as a platform to discuss the hardships women have to endure to get their films made.

This is not to suggest that MVFF is sexist: it typically has a wide diversity of filmmakers and is headed by Zoë Elton, a vocal advocate of gender equality in the industry. This is to suggest, however, that the gender divide in filmmaking is still so endemic and so pervasive that it shows up even when we try to address it in the form of a panel like Scaling Up. In this instance, the narrative for the male directors was “onward and upward,” whilst the narrative for the female directors and producers was “onward with struggle.” As the actress Tegan Ashton Cohen (Odd Brodsky) pointed out—why does the narrative about women still involve an element of rescuing? Her comment was heartily agreed to by other members of the audience. The panels were juxtaposed and framed such that it seemed that the men had the freedom to discuss the aesthetic dimension of their films and the women were forced to talk about being rescued from sexism. In reality, they all have the same difficulty in getting their films made. Thankfully, the women on the Scaling Up panel focused strongly on how difficult it is to get a film made, regardless of gender, and happily discussed their many and diverse accomplishments and projects.

It is clear that there is a bigger issue at hand, and this strange but telling episode at Mill Valley is but a tiny part. But, as the women on the panel said over and over again, the best solution is to “just do it”: just keep pushing, making movies, being creative, and being active.

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