In what should be absolutely no surprise to anyone who’s actually been paying attention, ongoing studies continue to show that there’s been little change in the number of women hired to direct Hollywood studio projects. In 2016, women made up just 7 percent of all directors on the top 250 films, a 2 percent decline from 2015, according to San Diego State’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film; and this is despite growing industry-wide recognition of the need to provide more opportunities for women in the film business.
I’d actually like to see an even further breakdown of those figures by race (how many black women directors can you name who are directing studio films today? Of course, we all know Ava DuVernay; but who else? Stella Meghie is another).
Even the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) got involved and investigated allegations of Hollywood’s discriminatory hiring practices against women directors – an investigation that began in 2015, and is now over, moving into the settlement phase as of just last month (February).
However, the *good* news, if we can call it that, is that women filmmakers still fare better in those key behind the camera positions in independent film world, than they do at the Hollywood studio level. For example, researchers at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism looked at the gender disparity in narrative and documentary films screened at the Sundance Film Festival from 2002 to 2012, concluding that women working in key creative positions – writers, directors and producers – represent less than 30 percent of the filmmakers with films selected by Sundance over those 11 years.
Meanwhile… across the Atlantic, across continental Africa, you’ll find a similar conversation being had. Specifically, in an interview with Stéphanie Dongmo (translated from French to English by Beti Ellerson who runs the African Women in Cinema blog), Brigitte Rollet – the organizer of a Francophone women in African cinema conference in France (titled “Francophone African Women Filmmakers: 40 years of cinema, 1972-2012”) – discusses the key issues that were raised during the conference, as well as the challenges that African women filmmakers face in Africa today.
Here’s a key snip from Ms. Rollet:
“Cinema continues to be thought of as a male activity. The fact that there are many women filmmakers does not negate this perception, and African women filmmakers are not visible. There are individual trajectories, and there are developments, but not national cinema policies. In countries where there is a genuine political will to develop a cinema culture, there are more women than in those where this interest does not exist. It is a question of economics. Cinema is a costly art, and producers are even more hesitant to finance a high-budget film directed by a woman. They are only willing to help those who have proven themselves. If one is not able to prove one’s ability, it is difficult to justify receiving this kind of funding. This is a situation that African women filmmakers share with numerous women filmmakers in the West.”
And in a different piece also from the African Women In Cinema blog, a conversation is being had about recognizing women’s cinema in Africa as something that’s different, unique and separate from the dominant cinema (what we’d call niche cinema I suppose), with an argument against that idea, stating that the plight of women filmmakers in Africa reflects that of African cinema in general, and isn’t something that should be regarded as an *other.*
It’s further argued that there are less barriers to entry in documentary filmmaking for women than there are in fiction.
Here’s another snip:
Jean-Marie Barbe, director of training at Africadoc, noted that there are as many women as men who enter into documentary filmmaking in Africa: “It is specific to this genre perhaps because men dominate fiction and the documentary is more open with more user-friendly tools.” Even though there are many women who enter documentary filmmaking, they are not very visible.”
And still further, with regards to the idea of a “women’s cinema” in Africa, Tunisian Nadia El Fani argues that there is such a thing: “One must not close one’s eyes to the fact; it is not true that there is no difference between a film by a woman and a film by a man. Especially with a documentary. Men that I film do not react on camera in the same manner when filmed by a man. As a woman filmmaker the difficulty comes from the fact that we live in an unequal patriarchal society as it relates to gender.”
But challenging the notion of a “women’s cinema” in Africa, somewhat, Sarah Maldoror transcends the debate by asserting that the problems women filmmakers face across the continent, are those of African cinema in general – training, funding and distribution: “We must stop begging for funding and finance our own films. When there is an African film in the cinema houses, we should be the first ones there, to learn about our culture. If we don’t do so we are at fault. For Isabelle Boni-Claverie, films with black actors and by black filmmakers should have access to general distribution, and if this were the case, there would no longer be a question of a man’s cinema or a woman’s cinema.”
By the way, it should be noted that a woman has never won the Yennenga Stallion, which is the Grand Prize for filmmaking at the oldest film festival in Africa, FESPACO, since it was launched in 1969.
Ultimately, the point of this piece is to recognize that the struggles of women filmmakers here in the USA are universal. But also to introduce African women filmmakers living and working in Africa (who really are invisible locally and internationally) into this ongoing conversation.
Still much work to be done in the USA, across the African continent, and around the world… but there’s certainly hope and progress…
One example: I previously shared an interview with Agatha Ukata, a professor at the American University of Nigeria, who has written significantly on the topic of gender and Nollywood specifically (Nigeria’s film industry), and who completed her PhD thesis titled “The Images(s) of Women in Nigerian (Nollywood) Videos.” Ukata’s dissertation examines female representation in Nigerian cinema.
In her own words: “What informed my interest in the study was borne on the fact that the depiction of women in one of the first Nollywood videos that I watched which was ‘Glamour Girls,’ typified women in very outrageous ways that tried to feed on the stereotypes of women in Nigeria and by extension African societies. It seemed as though women have nothing good to contribute to the society other than destroying moral values, which I strongly have a problem with. With such a portrayal I began to interrogate the rationale behind such representations of women […] The study among other issues, interrogated the following: How women are represented in Nigerian home videos; What the implication of such representations are; How representations affect the larger society of Nigeria and beyond; The extents to which visual aesthetics and cultural codes are used in the films of study to either portray women in negative or positive angles.”
Now, just to be clear, when she talks about Nollywood “videos,” she’s talking about the films themselves, not music videos.
A new documentary film will address the matters Ukata is studying, although looking at the problem from behind the camera specifically, chronicling the journeys of women directors in Nigeria.
From director Tope Oshin, the documentary, titled “Amaka’s Kin – The Women Of Nollywood” seeks to examine the careers of the very few women directors working in the very male-dominated Nigerian film industry – their struggles and their triumph, and the hurdles they had to jump to actually become directors of film. The film also celebrates the successful career of the most prominent Nigerian woman director of film, the late Amaka Igwe (hence the title of the film “Amaka’s Kin”), who was pivotal to the growth and development of Nollywood and indeed an inspiration to “The Women of Nollywood.”
The film features the contributions of women Nollywood directors like Mildred Okwo, Omoni Oboli, Stephanie Linus, Michelle Bello, Pat Oghre, Imhobio Adeola, Osunkojo Jadesola, Osiberu Ema, Edosio Lowladee, Dolapo Adeleke, Belinda Yanga, Agedah Blessing, Effiom Egbe, and the director of the documentary, Tope Oshin, who is also its producer via her Tope Oshin Productions in partnership with Sunbow Productions Ltd.
I think this is a wonderful and timely idea for a documentary exposé; very necessary, and I’m looking forward to checking it out whenever it’s available Stateside. It’s screened in Nigeria, with plans to travel internationally. You can follow the film’s progress via its Facebook page here: www.facebook.com/AmakasKin.
Check out a trailer below.