Female Film Directors Take The Lead At New York’s Margaret Mead Film Festival

by Erika W. Smith

The exact number vary, but many studies find that women make up a drastically low number of film directors. One study (via Variety) puts it at 7%; another (via Forbes) at only 4.1%. Most people would struggle to name ten female directors – there’s Kathryn Bigelow, Sofia Coppola, Ava DuVernay, Angelina Jolie….and…well…hmmm.

Of course, there are many, many women who direct films but haven’t reached household name recognition yet. So we are super excited that New York’s annual Margaret Mead Film Festival at the American Museum of Natural History (Oct. 22 – Oct. 25)  is not shying away from featuring female directors – in fact, women direct about 60% of the films featured this year, including the opening night film Circus Without Borders. The festival, which honors documentaries, has always included diverse filmmakers, but this is the first year that women have made up the majority of directors – a fact that’s a perfect fit for this year’s theme, “Thresholds,” defined as “celebrating stories that take us beyond our normal boundaries.”

“We saw both the subjects of the films and the directors were breaking all kinds of boundaries and realized it was the right theme for this year,” Bella Desai, director of public programs and exhibition education at the American Museum of Natural History, told us via email.

“We always seek a broad diversity of voices as part of our film selection process, and we are eager to feature filmmakers who are underrepresented in the broader community. But we are also an open-call festival, and ultimately we make our selections on the merits of each film. We were thrilled when we learned that the majority of the fantastic films we had chosen were made by women, but we didn’t go in with any specific intention to make this happen.”

In A Perfect World… – a documentary about men raised by single mothers told us via email that she sees female directors face discrimination all the time. “It is no secret that there are closed doors, or all boys networks or nepotism, cliques and clubs, all of it exists,” she said.

“Color matters, being a woman matters, being a woman with a child matters, these things tend to push you a bit further back on the line, but it’s not going to stop us from coming and making films.  We certainly have an audience that will support our projects.  We just aren’t getting the support/financing like the select few.”

To find that support and financing, several of the directors turned to creative means in order to fund their films. 

“As a woman Producer and Director in today’s industry, I knew I had to build my own house and then open my own door.  When I set out to make my film, I couldn’t raise money (outside of a modest Kickstarter campaign), I financed the documentary myself,” said McWilliams.

Circus Without Borders director Susan Gray said via email that she and her partner Linda Matchan turned to crowdfunding in order to retain control over their project. Her film follows two world-class acrobats from opposite ends of the world who meet and realize they share a dream.

“Over the course of my career I haven’t found that the closed doors were necessarily because of my gender, but more about how difficult it is to fund and make documentary films. However, making Circus Without Borders did present problems from a gender perspective,” she said. 

“This is a film set partially in the Arctic, which traditionally is the territory of male explorers.  We faced competition by men who wanted to take this film away from us and direct or produce it themselves, and resistance from our character who probably would have felt more comfortable working with a man and didn’t think we would be able to work comfortably and independently in the Arctic.”

Drawing the Tiger director Amy Benson said that she’s drawn support from other women making films. Shot over seven years, her film follows a family in Nepal who sends their gifted daughter to the city after she receives a scholarship. 

“In Seattle where I live, there is a wonderful community of women directors, editors, cinematographers and producers,” she said. “We meet often for coffee in the morning and before you know it— it is time for happy hour. From shop talk, distribution tales, to life balance advice, we have each others backs. This past month, we had our Seattle premiere of Drawing the Tiger, and all my documentary sisters were there. Their excitement for my accomplishment was palpable. What a blessing!  All independent filmmakers should feel such support—no matter their gender.”

Photo via Drawing the Tiger

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