Why Are Women Filmmakers Working With Such Low Budgets?
By Erin Mick
Earlier this year, amidst heated debates about divisive politics, I, like so many others, felt frustrated. “That’s it,” I texted my mom, “I’m quitting everything and moving with a documentary film crew.”
My urge to drop everything and record the world around me in the wake of North American political turmoil wasn’t unusual: it came at a time when, despite frequent debate and open discussion, female representation both onscreen and behind-the-scenes of the greater film industry is dismally and archaically low. Participation of women as producers, directors, and writers is minimal worldwide, and this certainly isn’t because women don’t want to make movies, or because we aren’t good at it. Festivals like St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival illustrate exactly this point.
Notably present in this year SJIWFF’s lineup were documentaries, and if you were in the audience at all, you probably noticed this astounding prevalence of non-fictional and/or topical screenings, even in the short film programmes.
It's easy to pass over this detail without further discussion by pointing out that documentaries in general are popular right now. A blogger for another film festival earlier this year attributes this popularity in part to the current state of audience demand for ‘facts’ over ‘fiction’. In the humble opinion of Yours Truly, however, the mere fact of documentary popularity right now seems like a lackluster explanation for the dominance of docs at a specifically women’s film festival. Especially since women are hardly only making documentaries – we’re just making a whole darn lot of them. To get to the bottom of this issue, I went snooping for statistics about women in different genres of filmmaking.
According to some of those recent statistics, we’re having the most trouble breaking into the action and horror genres, and women filmmakers account for about 20% of dramas. The most prominent female filmmaking presence resides, sure enough, in documentaries – but even then, it’s sort of dismal, sitting around 24% this last year.
And the numbers offer an incomplete picture – stats like this don’t address the compounded challenges facing women of colour, or under-represented groups such as transgender filmmakers, and non-binary or genderqueer visual artists. Marginalized groups aren’t making many Hollywood movies – but we are making docs.
This, as far as I can tell, and to put it bluntly, is largely because documentaries can be cheap to make. Sure enough, the statistics show that as budgets increase, women, and presumably other filmmakers in marginalized groups, lose their grip even further, dropping to almost negligible populations. As a result, our influence pools at the ‘bottom’ of the filmmaking budget ladder; we’re hovering in larger numbers on indie features, low budget shorts, and, yep, documentaries.
Measure those stats against this year’s festival programme: a veritable cornucopia of vastly different, equally interesting topics in both docs and fiction, from young love, to dancing; from wildlife conservation, to rock-and-roll, to loneliness on night shifts, or domestic violence; from grief, to profane embroidery – almost every single one a low-budget feature, a documentary, a movie made with a grant, a school project, or an indie short film. Why is this the case?
I don’t claim to be an expert on statistics, but I know the numbers don’t indicate that women are disinterested in action and horror, or in making blockbuster features. Or, more accurately, maybe it is because we’re less interested, but not because of the films themselves. It certainly isn’t because we don’t want the money to create. Rather, I suspect that the correlation between lower-budget passion projects and higher participation from women artists illustrates that we’re still smacking our faces against a very low glass ceiling in the entertainment sector.
I also tend to notice that women are drawn to more collaborative, well-intentioned projects that are spearheaded by teams with a healthy onset rapport and non-confrontational workplace culture. In my own life as an actor, I’ve recently been frustrated by some elements of onset life, and although I wouldn’t trade my career in film for anything, it’s appealing to seek out projects with kindness and integrity at their core, rather than competitiveness and bravado. The implication isn’t that women can’t ‘handle’ the posturing and weight-throwing machismo of traditional big-budget movie culture (after all, we’ve been handling it since the dawn of cinema). Rather, I think the desire comes because we’ve reached some kind of boiling point.
This proverbial boiling point is a hot topic in the lives of women everywhere, especially since October. But the issue has stood for many decades that it’s difficult for women to see the value in fighting for bigger budgets if the trade-off might be teamwork for harassment, or creative control for side-lined input. While floating around the festival this year I learned a lot about the ways in which women filmmakers are stubbornly and resourcefully seizing that creative power.
At one of the lunch forums during the festival, following the opening night gala screening of Jordan Canning’s luminescent film Suck It Up, Julia Hoff and Erin Carter (the film's writer and lead actor, respectively) took to the panel stage to discuss the creative process.
As it happens, the film sprung from frustration about the representation of women in most projects, and was originally spearheaded by the two lead actors who were fed up with auditioning for pittance roles like, as Erin put it, “Redhead in Bar.” They brought in Julia Hoff to write the script, recruited Newfoundland darling Jordan Canning to direct, and what proceeded was by all accounts the creation of a beautiful piece, born entirely out of positive, supportive working relationships. A collaborative environment of women helping women; even moreover, of young artists helping young artists.
As a narrative film made almost wholly in a single location, Suck It Up had a larger budget than many of the movies that screened at this year’s festival. Even still, it was made – and made beautifully – for the Hollywood equivalent of pocket change. And yet, it was stunning. The budget does not make the film.
Later in the festival week, I attended a Q&A with documentary filmmaker Jessica Beshir following a screening of the first film she ever made, a short doc called He Who Dances on Wood. Almost immediately, an audience member asked how she found her beginnings as a visual artist.
She explained that she had never gone to film school, and that it hadn’t occurred to her to be a filmmaker at all until she encountered tap dancer Fred Nelson, the subject of her film, on a street in her neighbourhood in Brooklyn. Jessica said she was instantly inspired by him and his personality, but even when she finally bought a cheap camera, intending to record elements of Fred’s daily life, she felt she had no idea what she was doing.
Through experimentation and collaborative learning alongside an excellent editor, Jessica has gone on to create multiple very successful shorts. She screened two of her films at SJIWFF this year, the second being Hairat. Although very different, both are strikingly lovely in form, indistinguishable in quality from many higher-budget short films.
In Jessica’s case, low-or-no-budget documentary filmmaking has been a way for her find her feet in the world of making movies, without the pressure and cost of handling a huge crew, without the need of a well-edited script or a vetted set of storyboards and an elaborate pitch, without the control of an external production company, and without any requirement of expensive technical training.
This trend continued with one of the features that screened this year, Wexford Plaza.
Joyce Wong spoke at length about the creation of her first-time feature, and once again, she spoke about her film as a profoundly collaborative effort. In essence, Joyce said that the team-like culture on the set of Wexford Plaza was in contrast to her experience in film school at York University. She was effusive about her professors and mentors, who she said were all very supportive and talented, but she explained her classmates tended to view the slice-of-life stories she wanted to tell as “boring.”
It’s likely no coincidence, then, that her first major project took the form of a movie in direct defiance to the criticism of her former peers. Wexford Plaza doesn’t read at all like the stereotype of a low-budget movie. If it were shown in a Cineplex, no one would bat an eyelash with respect to its quality or look, even thought it was filmed entirely on a little documentary camera – something akin to a Canon C300. But many aspects of the film’s production Joyce seemed to have treasured most – the portability of the equipment and small crew, the collaborative, improvisational nature of the process, and the relatable realism of the story itself – demonstrate that many women in film value flexibility on their projects.
If women like Joyce Wong are feeling shut out of film school, since filmmakers like Erin Carter have seen that diverse women's roles aren’t valued in the industry, and given that brilliant artists like Jessica Beshir have had to learn filmmaking through small-scale collaborative projects, it makes perfect sense that women are turning to independently funded, low-budget projects like documentaries, small features, and indie shorts.
So - why are women making so many low-budget projects? I’d say it’s because no one can bloody well tell us not to.
Erin Mick is an actor and a grad student in St. John's, Newfoundland. Between film projects and writing her thesis, she can be found puttering around downtown with a coffee in hand, trying to pet every dog.