I’ve been finishing Mouse, my first short comic, and am researching/writing a play. Being quiet. And it takes a lot to get me out of the house before 2pm. But last week was Writers & Readers week here in Wellington. Part of the big New Zealand International Arts Festival. So I went to sessions I thought would help my work. A Bill Manhire poetry masterclass to enhance my research. A genre session where Denise Mina talked about the way (writing) comics exercises both sides of her brain and about a list of ‘rules’ that includes one about using only 40 words per panel. And a session on “Why is Theatre Not Dead Yet?” with local playwrights Dave Armstrong and Ken Duncum and with Englishman Robert Shearman, probably best known as a playwright who also wrote for Dr Who. They were very warm and funny and informative and I loved it. And then came the Q & A. This is how poet Bill Nelson reported the element that concerns me, in a sharp little review-as-script—the story of a woman who told the truth even though her voice shook. Who articulated an ‘emperor’s clothes’ question: Look! Look! Let’s Not Pretend! This Matters!
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN SITTING BEHIND ME You are all white, middle-aged men. Would you like to comment on that?
ROBERT It’s true, I can’t deny it.
DAVE How do you know I’m not an 11 year old Samoan girl?
KEN (Turning to the next questioner) I’m going to avoid that question.
As I remember it, Robert Shearman added that he had wondered why few women write for television (in the UK, not true in New Zealand). And Ken Duncum said ‘evade’ not ‘avoid’, and added that it was interesting that audiences for theatre are mostly women. As was the audience at that session.
These were three lovely men. I’ve written before about how much Ken helped me as my supervisor within the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML), that beautiful institution that has done much to ensure that women prose writers and poets excel in New Zealand,* to an extent that is unusual compared with other countries and unmatched in New Zealand’s theatre and film—except at South Pacific Pictures. I haven’t met the other two men on the panel, but I liked the way that Dave Armstrong said “Hello, Mum” during the sound check—later I heard that his mother was in the audience. Did these lovely men not hear the tremor in the questioner’s voice, and realise that it may have been painful for her to speak out? Why did they not respond to the question more effectively? Had they not thought about the issue enough to acknowledge that there is a problem and to take a position on it? (Yes Robert Shearman did acknowledge the immediate issue. But his extended comment about television writers seemed to imply that the small numbers of women in television is a trivial mystery he hasn’t thought about much.) Do the panelists’ responses in this forum mean that women playwrights can’t rely on them for advocacy and support within other institutional contexts? Was Ken implying that since women go to the theatre in large numbers they (we) like the predominance of plays by white middle-aged men, or that he and other middle-aged white men write for this audience?
And what about me, hearing the unknown woman’s question and the tremble in her voice? Did I applaud the question (which had occurred to me, too, when I first saw the Writers & Readers programme, full of sessions that featured women—Germaine Greer was a major event—though the plays in the larger festival included very few that women wrote)? No. Did any of the women in the audience, some of whom were probably playwrights who had met with institutionalised discrimination in the theatre? No. Did anyone leap to their feet in support of the questioner and her question? Stand beside her? No. Did I? No. I was enjoying myself in the front row, next to a writer friend I hadn’t seen for a while, a woman who also understands the issues. And when we left together, talking enthusiastically about Writers & Readers week, we didn’t mention the woman’s question. Or the inadequate response. From the panel. From the audience. From us. From me.
In New Zealand a Maori word, tautoko, is sometimes used to describe public support. As I understand it—as someone who is not Maori—there are many ways to tautoko. Sometimes tautoko is expressed in a firm and heartfelt “Kia ora” in response to a statement. I’ve seen tautoko in action when someone sings for or with a speaker. And I’ve seen people go to stand beside someone whose voice shakes, not necessarily because they agree with what’s being said, but because they want to support a fellow human who is in pain. Last year, I saw Green Party MP Metiria Turei stand to speak—and be refused a voice and then walk to support Clare Curran, a Labour MP evicted from Parliament because she was wearing a sports team shirt (see the YouTube clip below, from about 4:25). This is my belated tautoko for the unknown woman who asked her question at “Why is Theatre Not Dead Yet?” Her question matters. Our responses to her question—and to questions like them—matter. And she matters, too.
And now, another opportunity to tautoko, across borders. In the last couple of years Women Make Movies (WMM) has expanded its production assistance programme to include filmmakers from outside the United States. And now it’s going further. In a low key announcement at SXSW Debra Zimmerman, WMM’s CEO, told Adam Benzine:
We’re…looking at a digital platform, and that’s very exciting. We think that will be launching in 2013. It’ll be a distribution platform for both streaming and downloading.
This is amazing and major news, signalling a potential revolution for women filmmakers around the world whose films do not reach the audiences that will love them, because they don’t find good (or any) distribution, whether or not they screen at major festivals. I don’t know what WMM plans of course, whether for instance it intends to distribute educationally only online (the education market is their strongest to date), whether it will acquire more films by and about women than at present (about 30 a year I think), or whether it’ll start to distribute as many narrative features and shorts as documentaries. But because as far as I know none of the big online distributors vigorously market films by and about women, and online geoblocks limit viewing for many of us outside the States, I hope that WMM is thinking big.
There are of course already some distribution platforms for films by and about women. For instance, Busk Films and Tello Films provide lesbian content. Digital Chick TV is great for webseries. New Day, which like WMM focuses on the educational market, distributes some women’s films online. But WMM’s current list is, I think, longer and broader than any of the others. And, uniquely I believe, it has close relationships on the women’s film festival circuit, where it acquires high quality festival films that other distributors may never see, because they don’t attend the festivals and aren’t familiar with the WMM audiences and their huge commercial potential. (I read on Twitter the other day—via @Kimberly_King that ‘women age 50+ control net worth of $19 trillion and own more than 3/4ths of the [United States’] financial wealth’ and this fits with some of my own research.)
Why does the women’s film festival circuit matter in relation to online distribution? It matters because like the internet it is global and because all the festivals focus on films by and about women, on women as audiences and on women and girls as filmmakers and potential filmmakers. Their collective expertise, networks, resources and latent influence are extraordinary and at the moment under-utilised. For instance, when I add film festivals to this site’s festival page I check out their websites and often see whole programmes I’d love to watch and imagine that others would love to watch; this is one reason I hope that women’s film festival tourism is on its way. But no-one can go to all the festivals (though WMM is trying for 40 in this their 40th anniversary year) and I’d also delight in seeing the films online.
In addition to its own in-depth experience, like the rest of us WMM can now draw on the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement’s (AFFRM) paradigm of working with festivals, with their databases, their conversations, their audiences. AFFRM works with African-American film festivals to release African-American feature films into theatres in the United States. According to AFFRM founder and filmmaker Ava DuVernay (winner of best U.S. director award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival for Middle of Nowhere):
We simply want to offer African-Americans quality black films, while at the same time create a safe haven for filmmakers of color to share their stories, their way.
AFFRM initially planned to release two films a year and so far, just over a year since its first release, it has acquired four and released three: the idea’s worked very well in practice. There seems no reason why a similar, global and online model can’t work even better for WMM, already with a list of quality films and the opportunity to acquire more; and already a safe haven (like the women’s festivals and AFFRM) where women can share their stories, their way. There may be rights issues, but they’re already in flux for most filmmakers anyway, and if WMM’s market grew enough its online service would attract gifted and commercially successful filmmakers in the way that AFFRM now attracts gifted African-American filmmakers.
This is where tautoko would come in: those of us who care could support WMM so that the audiences for their online films would grow. Would all the women’s film festivals, women’s film organisations and blogs and sites and FB pages and Twitter feeds spread the word about WMM’s service? Would they support WMM if it included an ongoing online women’s film festival, with selections from current festivals (this month in places like Vilnius, Vermont, Vancouver, Vienna, New Delhi, London and Los Angeles, Soria in Spain)? If WMM is looking for partners, do any of us work at MUBI, and can encourage MUBI—or a similar global distributor—to partner with WMM? What about women’s film club partnerships that mirror the book clubs that Gender Across Borders and Mumsnet run and the other much-loved localised women’s book clubs across the world? What about a partnership with EWA, the powerful European Women Audiovisual Network/Red Europea de Mujeres del Audiovisual, based in Spain, with networks throughout Europe and in South America?
And would that support be enough? I don’t think so. One reason, I think, for our collective failure to support the unknown woman at the Writers & Readers session is that for all kinds of reasons, works that women write and direct, in film and in theatre, are still not viewed as being ‘cool’. Many of us are content with the status quo so long as we’re entertained. How best to persuade potential audiences that they’ll (we’ll) benefit from the riches that women writers and directors offer, globally? When I investigated setting up an online women’s film club last year, and tested the idea, there were two related and interesting issues to resolve. Many people who enjoy movies don’t care whether or not women write or direct them and most of us have a high tolerance for films with male protagonists; we’re used to them and they entertain us. But, if there’s someone we admire and trust ‘fronting’ an online service that offers entertaining and well-made films by and about women from around the world, even with subtitles—which turn off many Americans in particular (distinguished producer and distributor Karen Chien calls it ‘subtitle phobia’)—that person will make the service cool, and we’re more likely to give it a go.
This is similar to the advice often given filmmakers. To reach audiences (and attract investment) attach a star, someone who is universally recognised: think the Meryl Streep/ Phyllida Lloyd partnership with Mamma Mia and The Iron Lady (though according to Meryl Streep even her presence may not attract a big budget; studio executives still find it hard to imagine that movies with interesting women as central characters will make them ‘an enormous amount of money’.) Would Meryl Streep tautoko the WMM online service, introduce films she loves, made by women in and outside the States? I imagine that’s not impossible when I remember her beautiful reading of Afghan woman Zarcquona’s Story, think of her support of the National Women’s History Museum. What about Tilda Swinton, whose 8 ½ Foundation is such a lovely online contribution to cinema for children? Would Angelina Jolie help, because women’s storytelling is a human rights issue? Or Geena Davis, whose Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media is ‘the only research-based organization working within the entertainment industry to improve gender portrayals’? After all, women actors will benefit from greater demand for a rich and diverse collection of films by and about women. So will our children and their children. So will everyone. Wherever we live.
In the past, I’ve often sat in a group and heard emphatic whispers of ‘Tautoko. Tautoko.’ Seen the nudges. Seen and heard and felt the support that followed. This post is my whisper. I hope it reaches many ears. Encourages more whispers. Nudges. Helps us all to consider the issues carefully, to stand up, to speak out, to take action where we can. To embrace women storytellers and their work. Everywhere.
Notes to I.
New Zealand Women Playwrights: the problem, via Branwen Millar New Zealand Women Playwrights: a solution, via Page Left *Via Writers & Readers week’s tweets I also read two other writers’ opinions about IIML and women: Patrick Evans here–no relation–and Sarah Jane Parton here.
Posted on Wellywood Woman 20 March 2012 This is the beginning of writing Throat of These Hours, the beginning of understanding that the process was probably going to make me very uncomfortable indeed; and understanding that Muriel Rukeyser’s life and work showed me enormous courage that I’d have to attempt to emulate if I were to finish and present the play.