The visibility of women; making your voice heard and knowing when to break the rules

Producer Ivana Mackinnon, writer Bola Agbaje and director Caroline Bartleet talk about the challenges and opportunities in the film industry.

15 July 2016
Simran Hans
By Simran Hans
Simran is a freelance writer, and the producer and programmer of Bechdel Test Fest, an ongoing celebration of films that represent women in a positive and progressive light.

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a girl covered in blood in a pool of blood
The Descent (2005)
When Matimba Kabalika (BFI NET.WORK) confessed to me over coffee that just 9% of The Postroom’s submissions came from women, we both decided it was time for an intervention. We gathered producer Ivana Mackinnon, writer Bola Agbaje and director Caroline Bartleet to try and figure out why so few women were engaging with this initiative – which gives filmmakers the opportunity to submit their work for review by the NET.WORK’s producers – and to come up with some solutions. We also reached out to some of our favourite emerging female writers, directors and producers to ask what advice they had for their fellow female filmmakers. Here’s what they had to say below, and you can listen to our accompanying podcast now too.
 
CLAIM YOUR TITLE
 
Matimba Kabalika (BFI NET.WORK): I always meet women who are directors but they say, ‘Well… I’ve made a film but I wouldn’t say I was a director.’ Call yourself a director.
 
Joy Wilkinson (Writer, Killer Resumé): I didn’t even dare call myself a writer until I was making a living at it. Some guys call themselves writers if they’ve had one idea.
 
Bola Agbaje (Writer, Gone Too Far!): It took me years to say I was a writer… You want to claim something once you feel that you’re competent in it, because you don’t want to say ‘I’m a writer’ and then people say, ‘OK, what have you done?’
 
PERFECTION EQUALS PARALYSIS 
 
Ivana Mackinnon (Producer, The Descent): All the women I know are like, ‘I’m gonna work on it, I’m gonna make it really really good…’ I think that female directors feel a real burden upon them to be incredibly competent, to be able to manage a set, to do all the things that they fear men think they can’t do, so they don’t want to put anything out there that is in any way sketchy, even if it’s got absolute vision and voice… I think actually, we’ve got to put ourselves out there.
 
Bola Agbaje: Some men apply for jobs they’re not qualified for, and some women don’t even apply for jobs that they’re overqualified for. 
 
a man is being dragged by his mum through a park by his ear
Gone Too Far (2013)
 
OVERSELL YOURSELF
 
Joy Wilkinson: We need a bit of belief in ourselves, not waiting for a pay cheque or certificate as proof that we’re any good. Conviction catalyses everything. If in doubt, risk over-selling yourself. You’re probably not.
 
KNOW YOUR NETWORKS
 
Ruth Grimberg (Director, Across Still Water): I do think that it has been hugely important to access some of the best support networks for women interested in working in film such as Underwire, Birds Eye View and WFTV where I have met, been inspired by, encouraged and supported by strong, creative and hard-working women. I must acknowledge how important it has been to see films by female filmmakers who I greatly admire such as Agnes Varda, Molly Dineen, Andrea Arnold, Beeban Kidron, Sarah Polley, Clio Barnard, Kim Longinotto and others in a landscape overwhelming dominated by male directors.  It makes me think it really is possible and that things will change.
 
Caroline Bartleet (Writer/Director/Producer, BAFTA winning short film, Operator): You need really good people around you. You need a really great producer, if you’re a director.
 
Simran Hans (Programmer/ Producer, The Bechdel Test Fest): Persistence is really important when you’re trying to seek out mentorship, and feeling like you are entitled to be in the same world as them, but not entitled to their time. That’s a fine line to try and negotiate but there’s a way of being persistent and enthusiastic without pissing people off.
 
Ivana Mackinnon: There are relationships you can have in this industry where there are no monetary transactions and you’ll probably never work together, but they’re some of the most powerful relationships because you need to trust people and support each other.
 
a woman wearing a phone headset
Operator (2015)
 
TELL YOUR STORY - IT MATTERS 
 
Rachelle Constant (Producer, Two Dosas): Always remember your personal story matters. Fight for the story you want to tell and see on the big screen. Have confidence in your vision and team up with talent that inspire and challenge you.
 
Ivana Mackinnon: People are not interested in your being able to manage everyone on set. Obviously they want you to come in on budget, on a schedule, but what they really want is for you to say something that is yours. That is the thing that you need to show people.
 
REMEMBER THAT YOUR VISIBILITY IS IMPORTANT FOR OTHER WOMEN
 
Bola Agbaje: The more female producers, directors and writers [women] see, the more they will go, ‘I can do that.’ I have young people that I mentor and I bring them here, to this building [BFI Stephen Street]. They don’t know this place exists, and that you can just walk in here and sit down and use the wifi.
 
Ivana Mackinnon: We have to diversify the stories we’re telling or else the industry is going to die because we won’t reach out to enough audiences… We have to redress the balance of history by making more of an effort. You can’t just be neutral about it.
 

Operator, Caroline Bartleet

 
STAND YOUR GROUND
 
Cat Bruce (Animator, No Place Like Home): If you sense that you are not being taken seriously or not being listened to, then let it be known, ask for support, and make sure your voice gets heard. Be resilient, stand your ground, don’t back down.  
 
KNOW WHEN TO BREAK THE RULES
 
Abigail Blackmore (Writer/Director, Vintage Blood): Take every note with grace, but trust yourself to know which ones are useful. Be mischievous. Defy convention. Make up your own rules. Keep telling yourself that no-one knows anything!
 
JUST DO IT
 
Bola Agbaje: I would say to people out there that you just have to do it. You have to be a part of this conversation and you have to – for women filmmakers, you have to want to be a part of it, because actually, the more we fight, the easier it’s going to be for each and every one of us. There’s space for everybody.
 
Rachel Tunnard (Writer/Director/Editor, Adult Life Skills): Don't wait for validation, just get your friends, get a phone and have a go.