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LA Film Fest Doc Slate Powered by Women

By KJ Relth

Directors Holly Morris and Anne Bogart at the Los Angeles Film Festival World Premiere of 'The Babushkas of Chernobyl'

For women interested in pursuing a career in directing, the opportunities for gigs in commercial filmmaking in America have never been great. But the American Civil Liberties Union’s recent indictment of the entertainment industry for its unfair and biased hiring practices was an unprecedented move, uprooting the conversation from the small realm of feminist film bloggers and planting it into major conversations in mainstream media outlets. Hollywood and its studios have since been taken to task for their egregious oversights, and it’s been a banner year in the movement toward equality in the industry. But outside of the Tinseltown machine, independent female filmmakers are already leaps and bounds ahead of their big budget counterparts in access, output and creative control—especially in the field of documentary filmmaking.

According to a 2014 study supported by the Sundance Institute, Women In Film Los Angeles and the Women Filmmakers Initiative, "Documentary filmmaking is an arena where women directors thrive." The quantitative findings of the study substantiate this claim, showing that, from 2002 to 2012, 41.1% of the directors in the Documentary Competition at the Sundance Film Festival were female. With Sundance as a clear high water mark for American festivals and markets, that number should make everyone feel just a little better, at least about the state of docmaking for women. What should make those of us in Los Angeles itself even more elated is that our own film festival topped that number—and substantially so.

This was a great year for women at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Overall, women directed 40% of all the films selected for this 21st edition of the fest. If we look closer at the documentaries, 16 of the 23 on the slate, or 69.6%, had ladies at the helm—and that’s not counting the many female producers who made male-directed docs such as In Football We Trust and Oriented come to life.

Programmers for the LA Film Festival will tell you point blank that this was no accident. In an LA Times article that came out just after LAFF concluded, Festival Director Stephanie Allain said of her proactive stance, “Diversity doesn't just happen. It has to be mined starting from the first set of eyes on the film.” This year, Allain assembled a team of 16 leading and associate programmers, 11 of whom were women, and the filmmakers whose films were selected for the lineup felt the change.

“I think it's wonderful and inspiring that the female representation at LA Film Fest was so high,” says Maiko: Dancing Child director Åse Svenheim Drivenes. “At the same time, I'm not surprised. There are many talented women in the film business. In my home country of Norway, the documentary environment is dominated by women directors. I guess in Norway the gender debate is rather different. We don't like it when the film industry divides between female and male directors and place us in a ‘women-film’ category.”

Maiko Nishino on stage in 'Maiko: Dancing Child'

Holly Morris, whose film The Babushkas of Chernobyl won the hearts of the audiences who filled each screening, was similarly thrilled. “Launching Babushkas in this atmosphere—an environment that wasn't default male—was really thrilling,” she exclaims. “It was fantastic to be a part of the 'dominant' creative community of filmmakers.”

Morris’ filmmaking partner, Anne Bogart, echoes her sentiment: “LAFF seemed like an instant and welcoming community of great diversity. I don’t take it for granted, but the fact that I never once thought about my gender as some kind of ‘minority’ voice or handicap during the festival is no doubt due to the fantastic inclusive and supportive atmosphere that LAFF creates.”

Natalie Johns, whose film I Am Thalente tied with Lilibet Foster’s Be Here Now for the Audience Award, recognizes this, too: “It was exciting and empowering to know that we had a platform that was carefully and thoughtfully curated to present our stories. The voice of 'community' was consistent in the films I watched at the festival—something that is desperately needed to surface and find airtime in our current social climate.

“As a woman,” Johns continues, “I am drawn more to the emotional aspects of a story. I'm driven by a desire to genuinely understand the people and stories I tell, to look deeper than what's on the 'label.' As a filmmaker, this leads me down a path of focusing more on the character arc and portrait versus a series of events or facts. With this motivation, I find that there is a greater openness with my subjects, who, just like me, are seeking happiness and fulfillment.”

Los Angeles Film Festival programmer Roya Rastegar with Best Documentary Audience Award winners Natalie Johns ('I Am Thalente') and Lilibet Foster ('Be Here Now') and LA Film Fest director Stephanie Allain

We were curious if the filmmakers felt that their perspective as storytellers contributed to the interactions they had with their subjects. What followed was a resounding response around the unique nature of their position, especially when shooting abroad. “We were filming in the midst of a very turbulent and violent political environment,” says Chai Vasarhelyi, whose film Incorruptible focuses on the sustainability of a people’s movement in Senegal. “Culturally, Senegalese women, while holding a prominent place within the household, do not traditionally protest in the streets. I think the fact that I was a female filmmaker allowed us access to female subjects that otherwise would not have felt comfortable voicing their political opinions publicly.”

Morris feels that she brought a sensitivity and willingness to allow her subjects to tell their own stories. “An overriding value of the film is that the babushkas are the authors, the experts, the heroes of this story. They are defining history and conveying the complex, nuanced story of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. In reality, they are a marginalized group, often ignored or subject to caricature. Approaching them and the story with a pro-woman lens and respecting the subjects as unlikely icons helped the film transcend the common image of Chernobylites as only victims, and older women as powerless.”

“We also felt that we could achieve a special level of trust with our subjects,” Bogart adds, “because of a universal feeling of intimacy that develops when one talks woman to woman, no matter what the language or culture.”

The filmmakers we spoke to, whose films made such strong impressions on audiences last month, understand the power they hold as seasoned artists with successful films under their wings, and they appreciate their responsibility to pass their knowledge and experience on to the next generation of women docmakers. “Do not be afraid to pick up a camera, or a microphone,” Bogart advises. “Do not take ‘no’ for an answer, and ask more questions and challenge what people tell you.” As a mother, Bogart issues a battle cry against those who doubt a woman’s ability to work and raise a child: “Do not apologize to your children for your lack of time or attention. Tell them that you are a very important person making a very important film.”

“Filmmaking is a long, hard battle,” Morris maintains. “Make sure it’s fun. Work with people who are kind, whom you respect, and with whom you share creative value. Don’t waste years waiting for powerful institutions or individuals to sanction your voice or your vision—just get it out there.”

“Surround yourself with a team of people that you trust and respect,” Drivenes insists. “Trust yourself and your ideas, but also be open to listening to those people that you have selected as your ‘trusted team.’ Directors are sensitive and have a strong intuition. Use that intuition.”

Now that the 2015 festival is over, it’s easy to see the clear path Allain and her programmers have set for it to forge toward a future with potentially even more representation—not just of women, but of docmakers of color and from around the world. The filmmakers this year were a strong crop, and while the women did reign supreme, the merits of their success don't lie just within their gender identity.

“There are many great ideas and stories out there,” Johns encourages. “Whilst it is the strength of the story that will ultimately be its success, it requires an equal measure of perseverance to not only see it through, but to continuously push through the challenges of crafting the story. We are living in exciting times when more female directors and storytellers are being recognized and acknowledged—but nothing good comes easy, no matter what your gender or ethnicity.”


Katharine Relth is the Digital Communications Manager for the IDA.