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'Merata Is Always With Us'

Sunday, October 18, 2015


Merata Mita
Aotearoa New Zealand (mostly 'Aotearoa' in this post) held its annual Big Screen Symposium in Auckland last weekend, focusing on 'strengthening our collaborative spirit'. It's run by Script to Screen, a trust whose mandate is to develop 'the craft and culture of storytelling for the screen in Aotearoa New Zealand'.

Many women participated on panels. Jane Campion took a masterclass and spoke with her Top of the Lake producer Philippa Campbell in the final session. I was catching up at home, so followed as well as I could via tweets and tumblr posts. (If I've missed something vital, please let me know?)

In his 'state of the nation' address, Dave Gibson, the chief executive of the New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) referred to the NZFC's gender policy.


Big sigh. According to the latest figures I've seen, women are already in Aotearoa's industry: 44% of those who work there. The 'female' issue is that we're not often enough the storytellers, the writers and directors of feature films and long-form television. But here at the symposium, yet again, the official NZFC response to our women directors' low participation in feature filmmaking (and maybe as short film makers it funds?) places the responsibility for this onto them (us), because we don't apply. And it's dispiriting that Dave Gibson's address also highlights the NZFC's inadequate and 'deficit'-oriented programmes that imply that women directors are not yet ready to make a feature. 

In Aotearoa, we may have been first with the vote, but we're now waaaaaay behind in gender equity in film; the NZFC's erroneous assumptions that it's women's fault our film projects are not funded and that women are 'not ready' or 'not interested' are now out of step with the rest of the world, where many countries have responded to a flood of data that records women's low participation by acknowledging that there are systemic issues to be addressed. 

In Australia, the Australian Directors Guild recently proposed that Screen Australia establish gender quotas like the Swedish gender equity policy, the global model for best practice; and has itself set gender and diversity goals. The United Kingdom (as discussed here) and Europe are also engaging strongly with gender equity. The British Film Institute (BFI) requires diversity 'ticks' for every project that it funds and has just added further guidelines that 'put diversity at the heart of decision making'. There's the Swedish model. And in August 47 European countries signed a Declaration  re policies to reduce gender imbalance in the audiovisual industries.

Things are shifting in Hollywood, too. There's a federal investigation into discrimination against women directors; this is encouraging women directors who've been silent to speak out and I'm hearing stories about small and specific decision-making that benefits women directors. There's even The Ms Factor Toolkit: The Power of Female-Driven Content, produced by the Producers Guild of America with Women & Hollywood's Melissa Silverstein, including statistics that show how profitable female-driven content is. There's a new diversity programme based on this and other  information. And producers are even looking for a woman director for Star Wars!

Dave Gibson's statements, as reported in the symposium's tumblr post, sent me back to the NZFC's own research into gender and writers, directors and producers in its feature development funding from 2009-2014. I wish I'd examined it more closely when it came out, late last year. But I didn't. I was just so relieved that the NZFC was being more transparent and admiring of how good the publication looked, compared to the simple charts that recorded my similar research for the period before 2009. 

And I sighed again as I struggled through the publication yesterday, because it has gaps and raises questions, which I hope someone else will address (it could be you!). For instance, in the total applications for feature development funding, the gender of directors attached to 58% of the applications is Not Specified. This gap in the data profoundly compromises the research's value and is huge compared with the gap during the years I researched the same information from NZFC documents. Then, there were just a couple of individuals identified by initials only and unknown either to me or to NZFC staff.

At first I thought that this gap was because a project in early script development may not have a director attached. But I now understand that data is missing throughout the research because applicants for funding are asked to provide information about gender and ethnicity. But they often don't do so. To be serious about gender and other elements of diversity, the NZFC needs to make the provision of diversity information mandatory. At present, any application is incomplete without essentials like a script or budget. If these elements are not present the application cannot be considered. Why not include diversity information in the requirements? It would be so easy to do. And where funds are devolved, to programmes like the one for short films, why not withhold a portion of funding until diversity data is supplied? This half-hearted effort is a long long way from what's now required in international best practice, like the BFI policies which 'obligate and support funding recipients to reflect diversity'. 

There are nevertheless two findings in the NZFC's gender research that are easy to understand and arguably wouldn't be any different if we had the full data–
1. Men directors are more likely than women to become attached to a project between early development and advanced development, where men directors are attached to 82% of applications. From this I infer that projects with a man attached as director are more likely to advance because of bias at the NZFC or because of bias among producers, both women and men; and
2. Women writers are 'trending up', but their (our) participation decreases between script development (42%) and advanced project development (32%) (and of course even further as features reach late development and production). The upwards trend is, I believe, due to the excellent and NZFC-funded script development programmes of Script to Screen and the New Zealand Writers Guild and because both organisations use blind reading in their assessments. Is the decrease as the scripts move through the NZFC process because biases creep in once a gendered name is attached, as writer or director, or when a woman or girl is the protagonist (my research last year showed that around 80% of features New Zealand women write have female protagonists)?  Is it because feature producers (about half women) are less interested in women's scripts than men's? Is it because men directors aren't interested in women's scripts? I'm sure it's not because there's a shortage of competent women directors. 
These findings alone provide good reasons for the NZFC to investigate its gender equity issues at a much more sophisticated level, and to invest much more strongly in policies that provide better gender balance. 

So imagine my delight when, from the Global Indigenous Network session at the Big Screen Symposium (moderated by Karin Williams, a development executive at the NZFC who herself is a producer, writer and director) came a call for the NZFC to commit to funding men and women equally.  Partly, I think, it came because through the panel's participants 'Merata [and her work, her clarity and her courage] is always with us'.
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