Saturday, November 9, 2013

Group 8: Independent Documentary Filmmakers

Introduction by Christine Pierce

The Study: Keri Putnam, Executive Director, Sundance Institute, and Cathy Schulman, President, Women In Film Los Angeles, did “first-of-its-kind research study examining gender disparity in American independent film. The study is part of a collaboration between Sundance Institute and Women In Film Los Angeles to support independent female filmmakers”
“First, it quantitatively assessed the gender of 11,197 directors, writers, producers, cinematographers and editors in U.S. movies programmed for the Sundance Film Festival between 2002 and 2012 to identify the prevalence of female filmmakers. Second, researchers documented the qualitative experiences of female filmmakers through interviews with filmmakers and film industry representatives” 


-Women were half as likely to be directors of narrative films than documentaries (16.9% vs. 34.5%).
-Female directors of Sundance Film Festival films exceed those of the top 100 box office films. 23.9% of directors at the Sundance Film Festival from 2002-2012 were female, compared to 4.4% of directors across the top 100 box office films each year from 2002 to 2012 that were female.

-Small number of women onscreen.
-An unrealistic representation of “real life” through cinema.
“The disproportionately small number of female directors in Hollywood seems to have a direct impact on the number of women seen onscreen”
“A 2010 USC Annenberg study led by Stacy L. Smith notes that movies with male directors featured only 29.3 percent female actors, whereas in movies with at least one female director, that number rose to 44.6 percent.”
“The movies are not just a mirror of reality—they shape reality, as well. For female directors today, the independent film world has become a proving ground, one that can transform mainstream Hollywood and shape the images, values, and stories that we live by.”

Why is this happening?

Five major areas were identified as hampering women’s career development in film:
-Gendered financial barriers (43.1%)
-Male-dominated industry networking (39.2%)
-Stereotyping on set (15.7%)
-Work and family balance (19.6%)
-Exclusionary hiring decisions (13.7%)

What could help?

-Mentoring and encouragement for early career women (36.7%)
-Improving access to finance (26.5%)
-Raising awareness of the problem (20.4%)


Women In Film
“Women In Film is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping women achieve their highest potential within the global entertainment, communication and media industries and to preserving the legacy of women within those industries. Founded in 1973, Women In Film and its Women In Film Foundation provide for members an extensive network of contacts, educational programs, scholarships, film finishing funds and grants, access to employment opportunities, mentorships and numerous practical services in support of this mission.” 

Reel Girls

is the premier year-round media-training program for girls. At Reel Grrls, girls ages 9 - 21 learn production skills through hands-on workshops and classes taught by female media professionals and educators. Since 2001, over 1000 students have participated in Reel Grrls programs and Reel Grrls media have been honored in more than 90 film festivals globally. Reel Grrls is a 501c(3) non-profit organization located in
Seattle’s Central District.”

Women’s Independent Film Festival

“Giving voice to the diverse and unique perspectives of women of every part of the world”

In order to qualify for entry, a woman must fill AT LEAST ONE of the following key positions on the film: Director, Producer, Writer, Lead female Protagonist, Editor, or Cinematographer. 

Support and Ownership:
-Independent financial support to make films.
-Much smaller budgets than Hollywood Studio movies mean less possibilities in craft.
-Gain support from Sundance Film festival, which has help turn independent films into blockbuster hits in the past.
“The USC Annenberg report reveals that of the 4.4 percent of women who directed the top studio films over the past 11 years (a total of 41 unique women directors), 41.5 percent of them had received support from the Sundance Institute's programs or had had their films screened at the festival.”

-Because most of these independent films are only released to film festivals, only limited audiences see the works.
-Without large advertising budgets, the word of a particular film does not get out.
-Even if the film is known, it is almost impossible to find online because of limited releases.
-Most of these independent films go unseen.

Works Cited

MURTY, Govindini. “How Female Directors Could, at Last, Infiltrate Hollywood: Go
Indie First.” The
Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group. Feb 21, 2013. Web. Nov 8,

HORN, John & Rome, Emily.  “Indie Films Find Financial Backers Online Through
Kickstarter.” LA Times Blog.
Los Angeles Times. May 10, 2012. Web. Nov 8,

SUNDANCE INSTITUTE PRESE RELEASE. “Sundance Institute and Women in Film
Los Angeles Study Examines Gender Disparity in Independent Film.” Sundance Film Festival. Sundance Institute. Jan 21, 2013. Web. Nov 8, 2013. 

Below are a sample of independent filmmakers from different walks of life who share a passion for a documentary style or representing women's lives on screen.

Haifaa Al Mansour (by Yaribel Castillo)

Haifaa Al Mansour

Haifaa Al Mansour is the first female filmmaker in Saudi Arabia and is considered to be the most influential woman in cinema by many. She finished her bachelor’s degree in Literature at the American University in Cairo and completed a Master’s degree in Directing and Film Studies from the University of Sydney. She directed three short films that gave her much success. Her documentary Women Without Shadows made a big impact in Saudi Arabia because it addressed women's lives. This documentary opened doors to filmmakers and gave women a voice in Saudi Arabia. Women Without Shadows received an international award in 2005. This accolade marked Al Mansour's courage and success. Her work challenged the world to look outside of the box. She wanted the world to take a critical look at traditional and restrictive cultures. 

Works Cited
"Haifaa Al-Mansour: I Wanted to Have a Voice." The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 19 July 2013. Web. 08 Nov. 2013.

"Undercover Director: Saudi Film-maker Haifaa Al-Mansour." Financial Times. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Nov. 2013.
"Welcome to Online Film Home." Welcome to Online Film Home. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Nov. 2013.

Catherine Gund (by Jin Kim)
Catherine Saalfield (now she goes by Catherine Gund) is an activist, producer, director, writer and organizer. She founded Aubin Pictures, Inc., a nonprofit documentary company, in 1996. She co-founded the Third Wave Foundation, created to address the need to have a fund for young feminist activists. She is also a founding member of DIVA TV (Damned Interfering Video Activist Television).
Gund believes “filmmaking is the most efficient, creative and satisfying form of activism (Redding 66).” Her media work often combines documentary with activist agendas; she regards filmmaking as a form of activism and education. She was the founding director of BENT TV, worked with lesbian, gay bisexual, and transgender youth (Hetrick-Martin Institute), by video work shopping with them (Redding 67).
Her media work focuses on arts and culture, sexuality and gender, HIV/AIDS and reproductive health, and other social justice issues. One of her video projects I’m You, You’re me: Women Surviving Prison, Living with AIDS (1993), addressed gender, HIV, and health issues on female ex-prisoners. I’m You, You’re me is a documentary about the AIDS program at Bedford Hills prison in New York. It explores the mistreatment of prisoners. The documentary critically investigates, with female ex-prisoners, why largely African American, Latina, and poor women have struggled with motherhood and many other facets of their lives, and how they have the courage to try to change (Juhasz 162).
However, funding is also an obstacle for Gund in making films. She said, “It hurts to see a production that would be great on film be shot on video because the funding isn't available… Often, you have to work for nothing especially if you’re doing something about AIDS or about being lesbian" (Redding 70).
Her latest work seems to suggest an alternative: social media fundraising. She used Kickstarter to successfully raise $40,643, which achieved her goal of collecting $40,000 for her project. The video “Born to Fly" (2013) (formerly called "How to Become an Extreme Action Hero") introduces choreographer Elizabeth Streb and dancers in pursuit of human flight, and beautifully represented the boundaries between action and art.
Among Good Christian Peoples (1991 – Catherine Gund, Jacqueline Woodson); Bird in the Hand (1992 – Catherine Gund, Melanie Hope);
I’m You, You’re me: Women Surviving Prison, Living with AIDS (1993- Devra Levine and Catherine Saalfield, 1993)
Sacred Lies, civil Truths (1993) Cuz It’s Boy (1994);
Positive: Life with HIV (1995 Co-producer) When Democracy Works (1997); Hallelujah! Ron Athey: A Story of Deliverance (1998- Best Documentary Award, Chicago Underground Film Festival); Keep you Laws Off My Body (1999)
Making Grace (2004- theatrical release);
Motherland Afghanistan (2007- AFI Fest Official Selection; PBS broadcast),                                      
What’s on Your Plate? (2009)                                                                                                                
Born to Fly (2013)
I’m You, You’re me: Women Surviving Prison, Living with AIDS;
Juhasz, Alexandra, AIDS TV : identity, community, and alternative video, Durham, N.C. : Duke University Press, 1995.
From our reading;
Judith Redding and Victoria A. Brownworth . Catherine Saalfield: Art and Activism, Film fatales : independent women directors (Book) 66-70. Seattle : Seal Press, c1997.   

Agnès Varda by Rebecca Mitnik  
Agnès Varda

“I still can’t figure out what made me want to make films, or at least that first film, since I was not a cinephile.” Varda at age 83, on her career as a filmmaker
Varda has an incredible way with words and images. This becomes apparent after viewing her films. It is no wonder she has so much recognition in the field of cinema. Her style blends documentary and narrative is almost a pastiche of the collage of the written and visual forms. What better way is there to present Varda then with her own words? A selection of some of Varda’s musings are found below and throughout. 

I had no knowledge at all, no knowledge of films. I’d seen few films. I knew nothing. I was interested in painting and theater at the time. Then I learned and I went to see movies.

Sometimes I say, If I had seen some masterpieces, maybe I wouldn’t have dared start. I started very—not innocent, but naïve in a way. So that’s a big freedom, you know? I didn’t go to school. I didn’t go to film school. I was never an assistant or trainee on a film. I had not seen all those cameras. So I think it gave me a lot of freedom. I see all these students, and I admire them—they’re trying to learn something, they go to school, they do film school, they go on shoots, they help. I’m sure they learn a lot, and some of them, it makes them aware of what they wish to do. I was—that’s the way I was—autodidact. (The Believer magazine)
Born in 1928 in Belgium to a French Mother and a Greek father, Agnès Varda, an 85 year old French filmmaker, photographer, and artist whose career spans 58 years is considered an influential figure in French and global cinema. She is also the foremost woman in French New Wave (a term coined by critics of the associated fimmakers). Varda is known for both her fictional narrative and documentary films. Some narrative films she made are: her debut film La Pointe Courte (1955) Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962), Vagabond (1985). Some of her documentaries include: Daguerréotypes (1976), The Gleaners and I (2000), Ydessa, the Bears and etc. (2004), Cinévardaphoto (2004), The Beaches of Agnès (2008). Her film La Pointe Courte (1955) is considered a precursor, inspiration, and often the first of the French New Wave genre. She mixes documentary footage and a fictional love story in the film. It is significant that she was a young woman who was not trained in filmmaking when she made the film. La Pointe Courte is ahead of its time in many ways, particularly in its idiosyncratic aesthetic value. 

Words are very important to her film form. She describes her style as cinécriture (writing on film). Dialogue and narration is heard throughout her narrative and documentary films, respectively.

Varda on her unique, personal filmmaking approach:
To be a documentarian in the way I chose to be, I have to be extroverted – not just to approach people and ask questions, but also to be able to set up a dialogue. Even when a film is about a person or a group, it’s about me, the go-between; the people I film; and the viewers. I’m part of the film because I make the film.(The Believer magazine)

Because film is a relatively new technology and art form, filmmakers polemicized and pondered its role as a channel for other art or as a stand alone, independent medium. Varda rejected the conventions of film up to that point. She believes in cinema as a language, distinct from its literary and theatrical sources.

When I saw what painting had done in the last thirty years, what literature had done—people like Joyce and Virginia Woolf, Faulkner and Hemingway—in France we have Nathalie Sarraute—and paintings became so strongly contemporary while cinema was just following the path of theater. Theater! I mean, psychology and drama and dialogue and making sense! At that time, when I started, in the ’50s, cinema was very classical in its aims, and I thought, I have to do something which relates with my time, and in my time, we make things differently. (The Believer magazine)

Some critics classify her work as feminist. It is not known whether she identifies herself or her themes as such. She certainly has mostly female protagonists and her style is categorically realist, philosophical, experimental, and deals with social commentary.

Agnes Varda from Bergmancenter on Vimeo.

Works Cited

Carter, Helen. "Discovering Agnès Varda." Senses of Cinema. Oct 2002: Web. 8 Nov. 2013. <>.
Scott, A. O. . "Living for Cinema, and Through It ." New York Times 28 Jun 2009, New York AR1. Web. 8 Nov. 2013. <>.
Varda, Agnès. Interview by Sheila Heti. "Agnès Varda [FILMMAKER]." The Believer. Oct 2009. Oct . Web. 8 Nov 2013.
Wang, Sue. "Take a Visual Tour of the Fantasic Solo Show of Agnès Varda." CAFA Art Info. (2012): Web. 8 Nov. 2013. <>.
"Agnes Varda--A Retrospective of the Godmother of New Wave Cinema Comes to Beijing ." Beijing Tourism. (2012): n. page. Web. 8 Nov. 2013. <>.
"People: Agnès Varda." The Criterion Collection. The Criterion Collection. Web. 8 Nov 2013. <>.

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