Films and Feminism: The Melange of Progress

The world had just stepped into the 20th century when Alice Guy-Blaché released ‘The consequences of feminism’ in 1906 which became the first ever movie to lay an honest depiction of a reversed patriarchy where women roamed freely in the society enjoying leisure activities while their male counterparts were demoted to child-rearing and household jobs. This daring portrayal despite being a menace in such an era marked the very beginning of a feminist sub-revolution for female filmmakers. The rebellious trail of the first ones continued with Lois Weber and Dorothy Arzner in the US, Tazuko Sakane in Japan, Germaine Dulac in Europe and finally Fatma Begum in India, who started her own production company and directed ‘Bulbule Paristan’, in 1926.
fatima-begum-imageSubjection still lurks even in 2016. Filmmaking while being considered a much liberating field of work hasn’t been able to emancipate itself from sexism. Incidents are casual but provoke a larger pressure. There in fact, exists a tumblr page just for blogging these incidents of workplace sexism in Hollywood. One of the many posts on this page reads:
“I was at a film festival fundraiser in LA with my husband and we were talking with a few people about the film we were working on together. Some random guy joins and derails the conversation, and then turns his sights on me. “You,” he says. “I’m really good at guessing people’s jobs in this industry. You’re a makeup artist!” I reply, “While that’s a completely legit job, it’s not mine. I’m a documentary Director and Editor. But thanks for assuming!”

Sonali_GulatiA recent study on gender inequality in Hollywood brought into limelight the initial disadvantages women directors have to face throughout their careers. The study concluded that women represent 28% of the directors of narrative shorts. “Female film directors face a fiscal cliff in their careers after making a short film,” noted Smith, one of the researchers. “For males opportunities grow, while for females, they vanish.” In the period of 2002 to 2014, female-directed movies comprised just 4.1% of the total top-grossing movies.

In India, filmmaking for women is one of the most arduous career choices. The issue here doesn’t even begin with workplace sexism but starts right from the beginning when a female student in her early twenties aspires to pursue a career in films. A lot of such dreams are crushed while some manage to break the initial glass ceiling only to later find themselves surrounded by the discrimination imposed within the industry.

Starting from the prominence of Fatma Begum and Arundhati Debi to the contemporary stardom of Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta, India has produced some of the most influential film artists till date but the lack of employing female directors for big budgeted films has always been a classic setback. While some possess the economic privilege to venture out of the country and carry on with the production, the hassle stand adamant for the ones still living in India. Deepa Mehta faced numerous objections from religious organizations while making the ‘Elements Trilogy’ which tackles the oppressive traditions of Indian culture. She was prohibited to direct it within the country and later did it in Sri Lanka.

The denotation of sexism in earlier times was characterized by blunt confrontations and outlaws by the authorities; now it has transformed into a milder structure of self-righteousness and casual humor. The motive however remains the same. It’s not just about the directors and writers, but jobs such as cinematography are often seen more of a masculine worthy field of work. Priya Seth is one among the fraction of female cinematographer in Bollywood, who shot a recent successful film ‘Airlift’.

“The opportunities are fewer because you’re judged already right at the beginning on the basis of gender. I don’t understand what a ‘physical film’ means! I don’t understand why a man can shoot this and I can’t.” said Priya in an interview after a famous reviewer expressed his surprise towards an action film cinematographer ending up being a woman.

The moment Priya Seth gave her statement the anti-feminist brigade spun out from all corners discerning how we all should just take a break. It is believed in the filmmaking community that women don’t mind “minor issues”. The case of copyright violations filed filed against Kunal Kohli by Jyoti Kapoor is an illustration a lot of us missed when it first came to light. Quoting from a report

“Jyoti’s ordeal began when her agent emailed her script to Kunal. He met her and they discussed money and credit. She wanted top billing since she had given him a bound, 90-page script. But Kunal wanted certain changes and wanted to buy the script without giving any credit to her. The deal fell through. Kunal has been asked to withdraw the defamation case against Jyoti. He has called her names in the media like ‘extortionist’ and ‘publicity hungry’.”

In the upbeat of recent efforts in breaking gender barriers, the name of Jennifer Siebel Newsom comes up. In her film ‘Miss Representation’ the feminist director wrote and documented the under-representation of women in positions of power. Featuring eminent feminists like Gloria Steinem and Nancy Pelosi, Jennifer exposed the sexual objectification of women in mainstream advertisements and highlighted the unending stream of machismo faced by female politicians- The kind where women are often interpreted as “complaining” while males tend to “state their opinion”.

When it comes to the recent efforts in breaking the barriers, the name of Jennifer Siebel Newsom comes to mind, a feminist director who wrote and documented the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence and challenged the limited and often disparaging portrayals of women in media in her film, ‘Miss Representation’. Featuring a group of influential women like Gloria Steinem, Nancy Pelosi and Condoleezza Rice, Jennifer not only exposed the sexualized objectification of women in mainstream advertisements but also highlighted the unending stream of machismos faced by female politicians like Hilary Clinton- The kind where females are often interpreted as “complaining” while males tend to “state their opinion”.

“When I started the film I wanted to make a feel-good film, but I could not. In a way I feel bad about it, but I felt like it would be good to share a real story. When you take the story to the people there can be discussion. Importantly, I want to talk about something. I wanted to do this film also because it challenged my own notions as a feminist from an urban area.” Director Nishtha Jain on her film ‘Gulab Gang’.

Nishtha is one of those movie directors who decided to capture the rural feminist struggle. The film features the infamous group of women in Bundelkhand (UP) led by Sampat Pal Devi, who revolt against patriarchy and caste oppression in one of the most conservative locations in India.

Equally significant to representation is its awareness. In the ongoing annexation of women’s success by the mainstream media, sources like Women Making Films and The Director List stand out to promote the forgotten and unnoticed female icons of the world cinema.

Women Making Films is a platform dedicated to establishing collaborations among Indian as well as foreign female filmmakers. The brainchild of Vaishnavi Sunder, an Indian director/writer, and a feminist activist, has been featuring names like Esfir Shub (Soviet), Tressie Souders (Africa) and Saba Sahar (Afghanistan) in its every-day feature posts. Some other perks of being a follower of WMF involves interviews like Female idol blog series and informative write-ups like the misguided portrayals.

Every time a woman marks a peak in her career, be it art, science or sports, it is seen as a revolutionary move but the very crowd that appreciates it also undermines it in the sense that it is this gender who did that, the gender that wasn’t expected to.

On one hand, we are trying to arrange chunks of achievements by women but on the other, we are also very keen on getting rid of movements and labels formulated to stand against oppression. Feminism and Filmmaking forms an intense duo because both sustain the propensity to bring change in the society and all the names mentioned above are just the dawn of that change.

This is a guest post written by Prateek Sharma.