Underwire Festival has taken on the mantle of championing female talent. As a festival it’s young, self-assured and more renegade than those who have come before it. It gives firm support: sharing careers advice in forums across the country, keeping the community updated about the careers of previous festival winners on the website, and running an annual festival in London.
I was glad to have been invited to present a panel on animation for the Underwire audience. The panel brought together a great mix of experience and expertise, with speakers representing animation and to broadly put it: the digital – Birgitta Hosea; documentary – Ellie Land; music videos – Kate Anderson; illustration – Lizzy Hobbs; and writing for children’s TV – Matilda Tristram. Though as all concurred, a successful lady animator has a ‘patchwork’ career; it transpired that all taught, made their own artwork, and in their commercial work produced videos for the corporate, charity, and museum sectors, and for academia.
I also attended the provocatively titled panel ‘Why Can’t Women Make Features?’ hosted by Kate Taylor. This panel was inspiring, not only as we heard from several fabulous speakers – filmmaker Carol Morley, the BFI Film Fund’s Lizzie Francke and writer Hannah McGill – but that there was a break out session for the audience to discuss the issues raised, starting some interesting conversations.
No woman is an island
All the animators on my panel felt strongly that working with contributors helped to improve their practice. The panel members were experienced in making work with groups in workshops and in educational settings, and Birgitta talked about the all-female Performance Drawing Collective she performed in. Ellie also added that she had found the experience of working closely with animator Paulina Brinck on Centrefold to be beneficial to her practice and indicated that this would be a way she would work in the future.
The panel all agreed that it was key to build your networks. Ellie mentioned that being based in the North of England, ensuring that she had networks in other areas such as London and Bristol, was vital in keeping up to date and feeling part of the animation community.
In both sessions the issue of a lack of self-confidence amongst women was raised. Hannah McGill spoke of gendered behaviour being encouraged in children by parents (girls being quiet and pretty, boys being boisterous). The audience debated this, and people spoke of how this behaviour was played out in schools and in Universities, where boys often appeared to be more tenacious, more ambitious and more willing to take risks than girls.
One of the modern myths Kate Taylor broached in the feature film session was that ‘women don’t help other women’, which was vehemently disagreed with, and certainly from talking with my panel there was evidence that women working in film are supportive and encouraging to one another. In their roles as educators, my panelists spoke about the active encouragement they give to women in their classes to try to build self belief in their female students.
Why does gender matter?
There was consensus within the animation panel that having platforms that showcased and supported women was necessary in building visibility, networks, and self-confidence. Lizzy spoke positively about a residency with Tricky Women Animation Festival in Austria that had enabled her to make a new work. Others who had attended Tricky Women whole-heartedly endorsed the ethos of the festival and opportunity it provided to meet others in the industry.
In terms of working within the industry, there were mixed feelings and varied experiences of working in studios. Whilst some people had had good experience of working in mixed teams of men and women, this was balanced with experiences of being made to feel awkward or less capable by being female. I appreciated Matilda’s ethos of “do it regardless” – that you should stick to your guns and make your work even if people are making you feel that you wouldn’t be able to. She also cited filmmaker/actress Lena Dunham as a good role model, as a young woman doing what she wants to do professionally and making unique, popular work.
On the features panel there was much debate around the idea that by the very act of making films women were making a political act, and Carol Morley spoke about ‘the burden of representation’ she felt as a female director. And the title to this blog comes from Carol’s assertion, which echoes earlier advice, that when others are telling you to give up on your project, your baby, that you shouldn’t listen to them, that you shouldn’t kill your babies… With her last feature Dreams of a Life, which centred on the story of a young, black woman, Carol faced difficult conversations with distributors about how commercially viable a woman’s story being told by a woman was. Even though in recent years we’ve had a surge of ‘women’s stories’ – Bridesmaids, Mamma Mia, The Iron Lady etc. The film has since gone on to touch the hearts of female and male viewers and been nominated for several film awards.
I’m heartened to have since read that for the first time in its history, that in 2013, Sundance Festival’s drama film category will be 50% female directors. After Cannes 2012 came under fire for having an exclusively male Palme d’Or shortlist earlier this year this is a welcome (though perhaps cynical) result. It’s vital that women directors are as visible and given the same recognition as their male counterparts.
There was also conversation on why it was important to encourage a diversity of representation in film criticism, opinion polls and with juries. Hannah McGill brought up the recent scandal of an all-male jury awarding Creative Scotland’s chief award to highlight this. If you look at the shocking lack of women director’s in Sight & Sound’s Greatest Films of All Times poll, where only a quarter of the voters were women and only nine female-directed titles featured in the top 250 titles, with Chantal Akerman the only one in the Top 50, it gives some weight to the argument for gender balance. It’s not that there aren’t any hugely talented female directors (Kathryn Bigelow, Jane Campion, Claire Denis, Lynne Ramsay etc) they’re not being represented at Academy Awards and film festival competitions. Interestingly in the Sight & Sound poll Carol Morley voted for 5 female directors, noting that this was not tokenistic but that these women were great filmmakers and should be recognised as such, and Lizzie Franke only included 2 women in her list.
How the animation industry compares
Something we didn’t get time to discuss in either session, what with the million other pertinent issues clamouring for attention, was the legacy of the animated feature. Aside from issues around representations of women on screen (Disney Princesses, smurfs etc), if we’re talking about an under representation of women working behind the scenes in feature film, then animation has to be one of the most male dominated film genres.
Lotte Reiniger made several fabulous fairytale features in the 1920s, Joy Batchelor of Halas & Batchelor fame directed the iconic Animal Farm feature, and they’re probably still the best known female animation directors. Although there are lots of women producing animation nowadays, female directors can be counted on one had – Jennifer Yuh Nelson (Kung Fu Panda 2) and Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis).
And then there’s Brenda Chapman, who last year had to walk away from directing Brave – the story she devised of a feisty princess who has the courage to refuse to be married off – owing to ‘creative differences’. Chapman now has a role at LucasFilms and tries to help others as a mentor for aspiring animation professionals, and although she had to give away her baby, she’s still proving that she can cut the mustard.
We spoke briefly on the animation panel about which other women filmmakers the panel rated, we had: Vera Neubauer, Agnes Varda (who Carol Morley also mentioned), and Becky Sloan of THIS IS IT Collective. I would also add Suzan Pitt, Kerry Laitala, and Julia Pott (who it transpired won Best Director at Underwire).
And if you’re looking for other female inspiration, here’s the Smithsonian’s top five women who apparently ‘shook up the industry’. Shook up might be overstating it.
And finally, in the spirit of Underwire and showcasing and promoting talented ladies, do check out the brilliant work of the animators who spoke on my panel at Underwire…