By Damaso Reyes
Monday, May 21, 2007
A women's film festival that just marked its 20th year shows the movie industry's structural resistance to newcomers, organizers say. In Germany, for instance, women are near parity in film schools but win marginal industry financing.
STUTTGART, Germany (WOMENSENEWS)--The International Women's Film Festival marked its 20th season last month, with programmers saying that even though women are filling up film schools they still need a special showcase for their productions in Europe.
"Look at the large international film festivals--Cannes, Berlin--and you will find maybe one film by a female director," said Betty Schiel, a programmer for the festival, which exhibited over 90 films directed or co-directed by women.
Gender data on the German industry is not available, but participants say female film directors are scarce even though nearly half the students in film academies are women. The structure of the German movie industry, they say, helps explain many of the barriers to women and others trying to break in.
German movies are largely supported by the government through the German Federal Film Board, which dispenses support through a point system based on a combination of commercial success and awards from international competitions and film festivals.
Under this system--which requires producers to repay the film board out of ticket sales or other revenues--established filmmakers and producers are more or less automatically granted funds.
Less established directors and producers can apply to an 11-member committee--five are women--for selective grants, which require a producer's reciprocal investment of at least 15 percent of overall production costs.
Filmmakers can also apply for funding based on the merit of the project though this takes the form of an interest-free loan as opposed to a direct grant.
Meanwhile, the merit of a project is not just judged by the script but also by the overall personnel team. This can pose another entry barrier for new directors, who often work with obscure casts and crews.
To break in, new directors often try a combination of tactics. They work on the films of more established people, apply for discretionary funds and bring in more experienced producers and actors to help with the points system.
After decades of male dominance, this overall structure functions as a seniority system that holds back the industry's newcomers, where women are concentrated.
"There simply were not a lot of women" working in film in the 1970s, said German filmmaker Ebba Jahn.
Back then, Jahn became one of the first women to study at the Film and Television Academy in Berlin. While critical of the German funding system, she is quick to defend it over the U.S. movie industry, where in 2005, just 17 percent of directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers and editors working on the 250 top-grossing domestic films were women. The ratios have remained static since 1998 when the San Diego State University's School of Communication first conducted an analysis on the "celluloid ceiling."
"It's much more difficult to find funding in the United States," said Jahn, an award-winning director and sound designer who has worked extensively in both countries.
The director said the commercial focus of the Hollywood system makes it nearly impossible for more off-beat films to be produced, while fiscal success is not so emphasized by the German state funding system.
Since awards and representation at film festivals are watched by the financing board, the six days in April of the Women's International Film Festival are hugely important to established and young filmmakers alike.
The festival awards two prizes.
This year the $33,800 prize for best international female director of a feature film went to Andrea Arnold for "Red Road," a love story thriller about a female camera operator who becomes obsessed with a man she sees on her screen.
The second prize of $6,760 for directors of photography--intended to encourage female cinematographers in a male stronghold--went to Ute Freund for her work in "You Said You Loved Me," a drama about a one-time swimming champion who has little left in her life other than her daughter and memories of former glory as she faces retirement and old age.
The festival--which began in Dortmund and this year merged with the festival in nearby Cologne--celebrated women's work in all aspects of filmmaking from cinematography and screenwriting to film scoring. Dozens of filmmakers from around the world were joined by more than 9,000 visitors for screenings of nearly 100 films.
"There's no question that these kinds of festivals and awards help facilitate the work of women in film," Schiel said. "It's quite hard for women to keep working and it's even harder for women to get a big budget; there are still people who think that women can't do the job."
Festival organizers also ran workshops that attract those still in film school or who only recently graduated, both male and female.
Christine Aufderhaar, a 35-year-old Swiss composer, conducted a workshop on scoring music for film.
"I just held a workshop and there were many men," said Aufderhaar, who teaches at Germany's Babelsberg Film Academy, where women applied this year for the first time to study music composition. "This isn't just women for women. It's not so much about women; it's about people."
Schiel said organizers make a major effort to introduce participants to one another because a major goal of the festival is to provide women opportunities to network and learn from each other.
"It's a platform for women to discuss their experiences in a safe environment," Jahn said. "At other international festivals you can go and not talk to anyone for a week."
Damaso Reyes is a photographer and writer from New York. He is principal photographer of "The Europeans," a long-term documentary examining the changes that Europe and its people are experiencing as the European Union expands and continues to integrate. His work can be seen online at http://www.theeuropeans.net.
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