Women in Film panel at Vail Film Festival discusses female roles in Hollywood
There was already a line at the door to the Cascade theater when I arrived. It was Saturday, the Vail Film Festival was in full swing, and along with the folks in line, I had made sure to include this moment in my personal festival schedules.
Scheduling your time at a film festival is a delicate affair. You organize films and events into musts, really want to’s, maybes and probably not’s. You plan down to the minute not only what you’re seeing but where, how you’re getting there and when, if ever, you might grab a bite to eat. Among everything, the Women in Film panel discussion was definitely on my “must” list this past weekend.
With the entire festival focused on women in film — from starring to writing, directing and producing — the panel served as an opportunity to take that theme even further. After watching and enjoying all of these films for the past day and a half, now was the chance to dig deeper into the role of women in the film industry, to examine the state of things and how they might be improved.
To do this, the festival lined up four attending filmmakers with impressive resumes to get the conversation going. This included Vail homegirl Miranda Bailey — an actor, writer, producer and director who has played on the screen across from actors such as Kristen Wiig and Richard Gere; Courtney Balaker — a producer also with Colorado roots who came with her film “Little Pink House,” which won the festival’s Audience Award; Leila Djansi, an experienced director who brought “Like Cotton Twines” to the festival and Katie Mustard, a prolific producer named one of Variety’s Top 10 Producers to Watch and representing three films at this year’s festival. Moderating these accomplished women was producer and director of the Denver Film Festival Britta Erickson.
To start things off, each of the four panelists discussed how she had first gotten into the film business. For most, their love of film started at a very young age, propelling them on to forays in the theater, college film studies and starting-level assistant jobs.
For Djansi, who grew up in Ghana, writing was her path to movie making.
“I create these little worlds and I escape,” she said. At age 19, her script was bought and made into a movie. This led to a full scholarship at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
“I came to America with $120 in my pocket,” she said. Fast-forward years later and she is raising enough money to finance and direct her own award-winning films in both the United States and Africa.
Choices of format
Moving the conversation along, Erickson mentioned that women tend to create, direct and produce more documentaries than any other type of film. “That’s where that first ceiling crashed through,” she said. Her question to the panel — why did they choose narrative (aka fiction) form over documentary in their festival films?
Balaker’s film “Little Pink House,” for example, is a narrative that closely follows the true story of Susette Kelo, who led the fight against a large corporation attempting to use eminent domain to take away her and her neighbors’ land and homes.
“I personally thought that a narrative would be far more compelling and reach a larger audience,” Balaker said.
Djansi agreed. Her film “Like Cotton Twines” is also a narrative that tackles the Ghanaian tradition of trokosi, in which young virgin girls are given to priests in religious and sexual servitude to atone for a family member’s crime. Though it had the potential to be a documentary, Djansi chose the narrative route instead. Documentaries on the subject already exist, and “narratives travel further,” she said. “People like to get lost in a story.”
Choices of who to hire
Next, Erickson asked Mustard whether she consciously hired women for jobs in the films she produces.
“In all honesty, not until lately,” Mustard said.
Recently becoming aware of statistics has changed her outlook on her own hiring process, she continued and she has made it a priority to pay more attention to gender-based opportunities in her own projects.
“First you become aware, and then you start making conscious decisions,” she said.
Djansi added that mentoring women in the industry is important to her, and something she’s made an effort to do, not only in America but during her visits back to Ghana as well.
The discussion then circled around the issue of whether or not hiring someone simply based on gender was the best decision.
“All that we care about is if the movie is good,” Bailey said.
If she finds a quality script, then she wants to take it on, regardless of the author.
“But (women) need the opportunity to apply for the job,” she concluded. “As long as we can interview them, we can make the decision to hire them (or not).”
Erickson added that ideally gender wouldn’t even be a part of the conversation.
“We don’t want to be ‘the women filmmakers.’ We want to be filmmakers,” she said.
Mustard agreed, but said that while she saw mostly half-and-half women and men in film school — the beginning stages — often five or so years out, more women than men had left the field due to, she believes, a lack of opportunity.
Choices of what to see
While the discussion went back and forth on the merits of quality and opportunity, one theme continued to arise — the power of audiences and their money to make a difference.
“You can speak your mind with your dollars,” Bailey told the panel audience.
That means going to films that have women writers and directors, and that star strong female characters. She, for example, went to see the second “Bridget Jones” movie in theaters. While she wasn’t a fan, she was happy to support a film with a female protagonist and female director.
The other panelists agreed.
“Hollywood understands green,” Djansi said.
She added that women have done a lot of work on many films, but audiences simply may not realize it, especially if the work is behind the scenes.
“That’s why I love the festival circuit,” she said, as it gives her a chance to speak one-on-one with film enthusiasts and impart to them how much work each film takes to make.
Later that evening, I had the chance to interview famed actor and director Julie Delpy before she accepted the festival’s Vanguard Award for her successful career in the film industry. And she reiterated this same point when I asked about the impact of festivals such as those in Vail giving an emphasis to women’s roles in film.
“Listen,” she said, leaning in with sincerity. “Everything to help — women filmmakers, independent filmmakers — any festival, (like) this festival, putting a bit of a spotlight on independent filmmakers, women filmmakers, is essential. So every single step is essential.”