When Leah Meyerhoff invited some fellow female filmmakers to dinner at her New York City apartment, to get their advice about a feature she was trying to write, she had no idea she’d lit the wick.
But two years later that film, I Believe in Unicorns is out and an award-winning hit on the festival circuit – and that original group of women has expanded into what is now known as Film Fatales: an international, growing network of people-who-identify-as-female filmmakers.
“We sat around for about an hour and talked about all sorts of relevant topics in film,” says Leah, remembering the night. “It was so empowering. Not just for me, but for the other women at the table, that one of them said, ‘let’s do this again next month, I’ll host it at my place’. It just organically grew from there.”
As well as chapters across the US, FF now meet in London, Sydney, Melbourne, Toronto, Costa Rica and Brazil, with Istanbul and South Africa about to join the list.
“We’re growing so rapidly that we’re trying to figure out how to be more focused in that growth,” says Leah. “While still connecting all of us together. There really is power in being a global network.”
The groups meet monthly; they number no more than 20, and members must be actively working as filmmakers. Over dinner everyone updates each other about their work, then as a group they zero in on a topic selected by the host. At the end of the night, each person puts forward something related to a current project that they need help with, and the rest are given an opportunity to offer advice and practical help.
“One woman might say, I’m looking for a writing partner, or I need an editor, or I need a new entertainment lawyer, or whatever it may be,” Leah explains. “I’m happy to say that around 90% of these problems get solved. If you take 20 female filmmakers and put them in a room it’s amazing what they can do.”
The time is ripe. Attention has become relentlessly focused on gender inequality within the film industry, particularly the lack of female directors being given access to financing and opportunities, and the typical discrepancy in pay for female vs male directors.
Things have been in such a state that the US federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission launched an enquiry into discrimination against female directors in Hollywood, to decide whether to take legal action against the industry.
But, while Film Fatales actively advocate for better representation of women, they don’t lose time slagging off the boys’ club. Brooke Goldfinch (Red Rover, The Color of Time), founder and head of Film Fatales Sydney points out they’d rather spend energy looking at how to encourage and support the progress that has and is already being made.
“We’re creating our own collaborations. We’re creating our own sources of funding,” says the director, who first linked with FF while doing a Master in film at NYU. “We’re not sitting around navel-gazing that the industry’s against us. When we meet we’re actually just talking about us as filmmakers.”
“I think it’s really important to see women talking about their craft,” she continues. “Just being terrific filmmakers, not having to wave the banner of gender equality. It’s hard to picture ourselves as successful, accomplished filmmakers when we don’t really hear that much from women filmmakers about filmmaking. We hear from them about gender politics.”
Which isn’t to say FF aren’t interested in establishing equality in film as a new normal. The international collective are definitely doing their bit to draw attention and opportunity to female filmmakers. Along with the director meet-ups there are producer groups, writer groups – and a unit that conduct outreach to film festivals.
“A team of volunteers have put together an extensive database of all of the films from Film Fatales that are currently on the film festival circuit,” tells Leah. “We reach out collectively to festival programmers, and say, ‘if you’re interested in programming more films directed by women, here they are’. It’s had incredible success.”
Pop culture shapes us. It just does. If to date it’s hugely favoured a certain (straight, white, male) framing, then think not only how many stories have gone untold, but also what filters this has hung over how the tale of human existence has been constructed so far.
It’s a narrative that affects how we live our lives, because we base our choices on information provided to us, including via film. If one of the medium’s roles is to expand our understanding of the world by exhuming its stories, and a certain telling is disproportionately told, we all lose.
A lot of film is about fantasy – escape by any means necessary – and its value in terms of that isn’t in doubt. Women don’t want to shut escape down; we’re calling for a broader scope, more easily accessed by the mainstream. Most products update as people get bored. It’s time for that to happen in film.
“To be a director you have to believe that you’re a creative force, that people should hear your voice,” says Brooke when asked why she thinks female directors are still few, compared to men. “I think a lot of women struggle with, ‘I’m important, and my voice is important, and the world needs to hear this’. Just that confidence.”
“I think there’s been a social and generational change,” adds Leah. “Female filmmakers today are no longer complacent with the tokenism that says, ‘there can only be one woman nominated for the Oscar, or one woman in this writers’ room’.
“Instead we say, ‘these gates have been so narrow for so long, let’s all get together and storm the gates and push our way through’. There’s room for all of us here.”
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