8. They Might Have Completely Forgotten Us

Anna Keir Self Image (1981 silk screen on cotton 58×43.5)

I. How women artists disappear from history

As Sarah Polley said the other day, “It’s really lonely being a female filmmaker, there really aren’t that many women doing this job.” If we can’t connect to our women filmmaker histories, it’s even lonelier. Women’s histories disappear so quickly. We – and our intellectual and artistic achievements – get forgotten. Often because of lack of resources.

The other day I stumbled on a bilingual Canadian Women Film Directors Database filmmakers and was astonished to find it included 975 women who’ve directed at least one short or feature film. Created in 2006-2007 by Margaret Fulford, a librarian at the University of Toronto, the database provides additional information about 145 of the directors. It states that ‘more detailed records will be added over time’. I suspect that one golden year of funding made it possible to get the database this far, and that will be it – a tantalising glimpse into a rich history of filmmakers and films we may never know more about. (Happily I was mistaken: check out Margaret Fulford’s comment below!)

Women’s histories so often get lost within institutions which, unlike the Canadian database, are not only for women. There, women’s work is often entirely ignored, or framed in a way that obscures our contributions. Take, for instance, Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand. Te Papa describes itself as

…New Zealand’s national museum, renowned for being bicultural, scholarly, innovative, and fun. Our success is built on our relationships with and ability to represent our community.

But there’s strong evidence that the institution hasn’t built strong relationships with its communities’ women and women artists and fails to represent them adequately. In 2009 I wrote about Te Papa and how it fails women artists in an article about We Are Unsuitable For Framingits exhibition of women’s work. But the institution’s relationships with women artists’ history have also been unsatisfactory in more general exhibitions. For instance, in 2004, Te Papa created an exhibition called Out On The Street: New Zealand In The 1970s. According to Te Papa, this show

…takes in the Māori renaissance of this decade, investigates the radical influence of women’s liberation on Kiwi culture, and canvasses the alternative voices that rose to challenge the Establishment…New Zealand took to the world stage, sending a navy vessel to Moruroa in protest at the continued French nuclear testing on this tiny Pacific atoll…everyone seemed to be out on the street, making their views known on, among other things, sporting contacts with South Africa, gay rights, the Vietnam War, abortion, social welfare benefits, and ‘US imperialism’.

Out On The Street included posters, many of them made by women artists, but as I remember it a high proportion were unattributed. For example, the posters that women’s art movement leader Sharon Alston designed were not attributed to her. And a classic Herstory Press poster was displayed without naming the prolific photographer – Mary Bailey – and the women in the poster’s photograph. In less than thirty years two accomplished women artists and five women who posed for one of them had become ‘anonymous’, even though there were many people in Wellington who could have provided names. Can Te Papa’s self-description be taken seriously if it isn’t scholarly enough to research and provide the names of those who create the artworks it displays? It’s possible to argue that posters aren’t ‘art works’ so that it isn’t important who created them, and there were probably posters men made that were also unattributed. But I think that if posters are shown in an arts context they become art works and it’s important to identify who made them; given the underrepresentation of women in Te Papa’s exhibitions and women’s somewhat fragile art history the institution should be especially scrupulous in naming the women makers of works it does show. Continue reading


7. Kathleen Gallagher – Poet, Playwright, Filmmaker

Kathleen Gallagher & Mike Single on camera, filming the Hurunui River – one of the four principal rivers in North Canterbury – for Water Whisperers/ Tangaroa 

Two things affected me last month. First, the proposal to increase irrigation in Canterbury, a New Zealand region with many major rivers which are depleted and degraded, probably best known outside New Zealand as the site of major earthquakes in 2010 and 2011. Second, Sandy-the-Frankenstorm that devastated Haiti – where there was also a major earthquake in 2010 – Jamaica and Cuba before it hit the United States. I felt deep sadness first, then a desire to help, so offered support where I could. And I thought it might also help to protest about the Canterbury irrigation, and about climate change, but wasn’t sure what was best to do.

So I focused on what I had to do: an essay about New Zealand women directors, the garden.

The next draft of Throat of These Hours, my play about poet and activist Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980, ‘beautiful Muriel, mother of everyone’ according to fellow poet Anne Sexton ) and two women in a Wellington radio station, was waaay at the back of my mind – it’s ten days or so until I start up again with my writing buddy. But then I received an interview with Muriel that I’d wanted for ages. In the interview, from the New York Quarterly, she says

…a lot of things have killed and mutilated people I love. I will protest all my life. I am willing to. But I’m a person who makes, much more than a person who protests…and I have decided that wherever I protest from now on…I will make something – I will make poems, plant, feed children, build, but not ever protest without making something. I think the whole thing must be made again.

So I began to think about the relationship between protest and making, how they create a whole. And that took me back to Muriel’s book The Life of Poetry, where she writes about the fear of poetry, and its capacity to provide a place where all kinds of imagination can meet and change us, change the world. She saw her long prose works as footnotes to her poetry. And she was a film editor, too, who found that working with film was ‘a terribly good exercise for poetry although many [poets] have been seduced away to writing for film’. She also wrote that –

The work that a poem does is a transfer of human energy, and I think human energy may be defined as consciousness, the capacity to make change in existing conditions.

I began to understand the links between poetry and other ‘making’ and protest; and to think about people who work to make ‘the whole thing’ again, and for whom writing poems is part of that process. And came back to Canterbury poet and playwright Kathleen Gallagher, who makes films, most recently a trilogy – Earth Whisperers Papatuanuku, Water Whisperers Tangaroa, and Sky Whisperers Ranginui, and before that Healing Journeys He Oranga He Oranga about eleven cancer survivors and Tau Te Mauri Breath of Peace about how Aotearoa New Zealand became nuclear free and antiwar. Continue reading

6. Women Directors. Globally

After I completed my survey of New Zealand feature directors by gender, I wanted to put the New Zealand statistics alongside those from other countries. It’s impossible to do this globally, or exactly. The figures are unavailable for Lebanon, for instance, a country with about the same population as New Zealand, where there is a very different cinema history and no state funding. In the United States, the volume of filmmaking of all kinds makes it impossible to establish a comprehensive picture. But here’s some information which gives a general idea, for directors of narrative feature films only.

Australia (five years to mid 2011) 18%

(theatrically released features only, probably most state-funded) via Screen Australia

Canada (2010) 16% (all state-funded) via Women in View

France (2010) 21% (state-funded, but with lower budgets than men-directed films) my research

New Zealand (2010) 16% (same percentage in both state-funded and not state-funded lists) my research

Norway (2010) 19% (from the Norwegian Film Institute database, not known if all state-funded)
Sweden (2010) 11% (19% of all state-funded films) via Swedish Film Institute

United States (2011-12) 18% (films from round the world shown at selected United States festivals) via Martha Lauzen at the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film

United States (2010) 7% (250 top-grossing films, a steady decrease from 9% in 1998; 5% in 2011) via Martha Lauzen at the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film. I better understood this especially low percentage and the decrease when I saw this graphic.

For the first time, I feel confident that although there are some local differences the percentage of women directors of narrative features is about the same everywhere in the world. Consider these figures in association with the percentage of films with women as protagonists (thank you, Miss Representation!), 16 percent, and it’s obvious the problem is serious as well as complex.

But there’s hope! By chance I received an email that shows that women who make decisions within the entertainment industry are not only aware of the problem but trying to analyse it and seek solutions. The notes helped me think and I hope they’re helpful for you, too. Continue reading

5. A Singer May Be Innocent; Never The Song


The Problem

That was my winter with Muriel Rukeyser, poet and activist (1913-1980), ‘beautiful Muriel, mother of everyone’, as Anne Sexton called her. It was hard. And now it’s spring. I have a first draft of a play that includes some of her poems and prose. Two side-projects that helped me explore aspects of the play are also finished: the re-edited Aphros Tinkerbell short film originally made for the 48 Hours competition; and the Tinkerbell story I wrote for the Grimm Fairytales for Aotearoa competition, which I may make into a comic. I have a writing buddy to see me through the rest of the work. And the parallel Development project ‘for women who make movies & for the people who love them’ continues to grow and give me pleasure. Last week I discovered that women direct 50% of the New Zealand feature films that the state funded in the last year: wonderful. (November note: One of the women directors was later replaced by a man – the first time I’ve known this to happen after a feature project has received state funding for production.)

But. Continue reading

4. Celebrating Activism – YAY

This year, with half the feature films funded by the New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) directed by women, it’s arguable that discrimination against women directors is in remission here. Though probably not far away. A bit like a herpes virus. Lurking forever within the body, grasping at opportunities to act. Globally, the good gender statistics now available from places like Australia, Sweden and the United States show that for various reasons including discrimination, women direct far fewer feature films than men. Continue reading

3. Catch Up

Muriel Rukeyser

I’m more of a writer than an activist at the moment. Last week I finished the first draft of my play about Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980), the poet and activist whose life, poems and other writings inspire me. It’s set in a radio station in the present day and the two main characters are a radio host and her technician. Fellow poet Anne Sexton called Muriel Rukeyser ‘beautiful Muriel, mother of everyone’ and once I’d finished I could see the draft’s connections to my long quest for a satisfying literary and artistic matrilineage. The draft’s now with a reader and then there will be more drafts. I have a pile of other work to finish before year’s end. And I haven’t had time to organise my spring garden. So this post’s a catchup of alphabetically-ordered info that I wish I could write full posts on. Kind of like a magazine, to dip into and out of! And for the next little while I’m likely to post less regularly and more about my own work. Continue reading

2. Muriel: Crawling Towards The Thoughts of The Imagination of The Heart

I’m writing a play that includes some of Muriel Rukeyser’s poems. Muriel’s* second book of poems, U.S.1 (1938) excited William Carlos Williams, according to Jan Heller Levi.** When he reviewed it, he wrote that there were passages

…that are pretty dull but that is bound to be the character of all good things if they are serious enough. When a devoted and determined person sets off to do a thing, he wants to get there even if he has to crawl on his face. When he is able to, whenever he is able to, he gets up and runs.

Me and Tink in McFarlane Street May 2012, courtesy Struan Ashby

I get it. I remember crawling along McFarlane Street, looking for words: prep with Madeline’s word list, for the Aphros 48 Hours film.*** Continue reading

1. Tautoko For An Unknown Woman


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! Continue reading