As chair of the Cinema Department from 2015 to 2017, I became aware of deep-seated dissatisfaction among female students and colleagues with their experiences in the film production stream. In 2016, a student took the stage at the annual awards ceremony and challenged us, as a University department, to try harder to imagine women directing films and women behind the camera. She was passionate, and she was angry. I was very pleased to be able to follow up on the challenge presented by that memorable intervention when the opportunity to conduct research into the gendered landscape of filmmaking education arose. The inquiry was in fact initiated and co-sponsored by women in the industry, for whom gender inequities in production funding are equally troubling.
The problems facing women in film education are imprecise, ineffable, and pervasive, with no one in particular to blame. It is the culture itself that needs to be diagnosed on the level of the classroom, the film set, and the University, before we can learn how to change it. As a film studies scholar, I have written extensively about representations of women and about the work of women directors, but my research had never before gone beyond the historical analysis of moving image media to the conditions of production in the present environment. This has been a valuable opportunity to learn more about the difficulties facing my colleagues in film production.
From the photo stories collected from women attending film school, it is evident that their experience as budding filmmakers is deeply embedded in a host of other issues facing any young person attending University for the first time, and separated from their family. Many of them are additionally overwhelmed by the experience of being an immigrant, or by learning about their own sexual identities and how to be in the world alone. The hierarchies of film production methods, alongside the peer review process, and the competitive framework of the academic milieu, can make a stressful situation even more so.
I was surprised to learn that a great deal of anxiety for female students seems to be channeled into self-consciousness about their appearance and clothing choices. No doubt many male students have similar concerns about their appearance and style, but for women it seems particularly acute, perhaps because they have no reference image for what women look like behind the camera, on the film set. Young people go into filmmaking because it is a creative industry, but what they find at film school is that it is also a very social practice, and their success is deeply connected to how they can fit in and at the same time assume leadership roles and earn respect from their peers.
Within the anxieties and stresses revealed in this research are also important, glowing moments of satisfaction, pride, and empowerment. The challenge of earning respect is often also the challenge of overcoming shyness, and I am very grateful to the women who have shared their stories for the purpose of changing the composition of this gendered landscape. We still have much to learn before the image of the woman behind the camera or directing a large crew is normalized.