“Hollywood is a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul.”
So said Marilyn Monroe, and oddly enough, those words still ring true nearly sixty years after her death. Allegations against industry heavyweights, such as Harvey Weinstein, have forced the film business into confronting the skeletons in its closet. Growing frustrations over the lack of equal opportunities, equal pay, and diversity have taken centre stage.
For London’s own growing film community, we’re fortunate to have tremendously talented female artists who are helping push the local industry forward. Here are some of the women doing just that, right now.
Forest City success story.
Alice Shin, a Korean born filmmaker, began her journey in the Canadian industry at the Forest City Film Festival Pitchfest. After winning the top prize, Shin went to another Pitchfest in Toronto and was eventually able to turn her script into a film. The finished product, Haru’s New Year, returned to the FCFF in 2018 as a competing film.
With work experience in Korea and Japan as well, Shin has noticed something a little different with the Canadian film industry. As a diverse country, sometimes it can be more difficult to estimate the reactions to her work. While Canadian screens are still heavily dominated by Hollywood, Shin draws influence from Asian cinema. A personal favourite being Hirokazu Kore-eda, whose film Shoplifters was nominated at the 2019 Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film.
“I usually catch my ideas from a slice of life,” she explained. “My films usually just follow some ordinary life, and then you can just catch a little miracle in your life. So I think I can say I’m more like the Asian side of film.”
It all starts with a script…
Mary Ann Dixon, a social worker who just recently decided to try her hand at screenwriting, is another FCFF success story. After attending creative writing classes, Dixon enrolled in Sighthound Studio’s Fundamentals of Screenwriting with Jordan Morris where everything just “clicked” together.
With the FCFF deadline fast approaching, Dixon went to the Pitchfest still fresh with enthusiasm from the screenwriting workshop and garnered some attention from producers with her idea for an adventure-drama.
Screenwriting tends to be under-appreciated by casual movie goers. How many people can name the writer of their favourite films? Yet it’s a craft that takes dedication and skill to pull off. An example Morris uses in his Screenwriting class is Walter Hill’s draft of Alien – it’s not just words mashed together on a page, but rather a carefully constructed blueprint. A common mistake for aspiring writers is either not reading enough scripts, or trying too hard to mimic other writers.
“I don’t come at them in terms like a film student would – critiquing, and styles, and voice and that sort of thing,” Dixon admitted.
“And I’m not really interested in mimicking anybody else’s voice. I have a good voice of my own to tell a good story but my real interest right now is perfecting my craft as a screenwriter. That’s where my focus is when I’m looking at screenplays and movies… Just to look at the actual craft of screenwriting.”
Taylor Sheridan, who starred in Sons of Anarchy before writing Sicario and the Oscar nominated Hell of High Water, is one example is inspiration for Dixon. Much like herself, Sheridan didn’t make the move into screenwriting until later in life.
Paula Ner Dormiendo moved to Canada from the Phillipines at the age of 8. When she was 13 years old, she watched Giuseppe Tornatore’s The Legend of 1900… a moment that would kickstart her passion for filmmaking.
Currently studying film at Sheridan College, Ner Dormiendo directed Filtered, a short horror/thriller about two friends who get attacked while walking home from a party. Using the Found Footage subgenre to tackle the theme of perception versus reality, Ner Dormiendo made a unique decision to break from the norm and shoot the film in a 9:16 aspect ratio.
“I was drawn to the idea of building tension by having the audience blind to what the main characters were able to see,” she described. “The popular aspect ratio, 9:16 often used in social media, was perfect for such a visual strategy that we decided to stick with it.”
Filtered would go on to win the Western Smartphone Film Festival. The editor of the film, Sam Batterbury, thanked the festival for “showing us that everyone holds a potential story in their pockets”.
Fresh out of Fanshawe…
Maddy Richard and Jessica Taylor, two recent graduates from Fanshawe’s Advanced Filmmaking program, both achieved notable success during their college program. Richard – a fan of Gene Kelly musicals, Edgar Wright comedies, and the extravagant cinema of Federico Fellini – directed the program’s first musical. A Little Boulder, about a women waiting to hear back about a job interview while her anxiety (played by Tabitha Carter, who also acted in The Bog Witch) begins a musical dual. The film went on to win Best Performance and Best Sound Mixing at the First Take Film Festival.
Taylor, who has a background in fine arts and interest in Wes Anderson and John Hughes films, went on to direct the colourful Lead by Butterflies. With a crew made up of nearly entirely women, it won Best Narrative and Best Director and was also screened at the 2018 FCFF as well as her other film, How to Sell.
Keeping it local.
Alongside a third student, Spencer Cartier, the trio has started Media 28, a video production company dedicated to working with local businesses and artists.
“Basically what we try to focus on is community and collaboration and focusing on the local scene,” Taylor described of their new business.
“Just trying to help independent businesses flourish whether it be social media content or just making local connections around the city to help one another. That’s really what we’re trying to do.”
Corporate advertising is still more profitable in London than full-time filmmaking currently, but Media 28 doesn’t end there. The pair also intend on maintaining their passion for filmmakers as well as reaching out to other artists in the industry.
“But no matter what stream we take, we do want to involve the London community,” Taylor added. “We don’t want to outsource from Toronto or anything that’s a little more populated or more to select from. But we do have the talent here so we might as well use what the city has to offer.”
It’s unfortunate that even among cinephiles, female filmmakers are often overlooked despite the immense talent and impressive filmographies. Yet, with streaming making so many popular and obscure films available nowadays, it’s a wonder why people can still pay such little attention to films directed by women. Lina Wertmüller, Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola, and Greta Gerwig are the other four women to be nominated for Best Director.
The prestigious Criterion Collection, a go to for film fanatics, has released several arthouse films by acclaimed female directors including Agnes Varda, Claire Denis, Larisa Shepitko, Catherine Breillat, and Vera Chytilova to name a few.
In the male-dominated exploitation genre, Doris Wishman, “the Grand Dame of Sexploitation”, directed thirty films during her career making her the most prolific female director of her time.
Stuck in limbo.
From action, to arthouse, to grindhouse, women have proven time and again that they are capable of filmmaking, but there’s still a lingering discrimination in the air.
For Shin in the Asian film industry, women were excluded from important conversations while men had cigarette breaks. And in Taylor’s experience, there’s a sense of hesitation to put faith in women to create a film.
“Do you trust a woman to do this job?” Taylor explained. “A lot of filmmaking is taking charge and standing up for your vision – and your idea, and your craft – and I feel like there have been instances where I don’t get that full trust.”
The lack of trust also motivates, Taylor added.
“We’re in a very weird limbo part right now,” she said. “I think that women are going to be appreciated a lot more in this field. It’s just a matter of maintaining our strength, our vision, and our determination.”
The bad seeds.
There can be a conflict of opinions regarding those who abuse their power in the film industry. Should their films still be viewed? Can they still be enjoyed while knowing about the filmmakers behaviour? Given the industry’s notorious reputation for “the casting couch,” how many films would be blacklisted if everyone refused to watch a movie associated with certain individuals?
To blacklist Harvey Weinstein’s filmography would include the films of Quentin Tarantino. Much of Roman Polanski’s best work (Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby) came before the director fled the United States for raping a 13 year old girl in 1977. He later won an Oscar for The Pianist despite still being a fugitive in the United States. And Alfred Hitchcock’s infatuation with his leading actresses is the stuff of legend, with Tippi Hendren (who starred in The Birds and Marnie) stating that the director had sexually assaulted her during production and blacklisted her when she refused his advances.
Art vs. the artist
Should art suffer because of the artist?
“If we don’t ask ourselves as filmmakers how we define ‘good films’ the cycle of assault and abuse in the industry will only continue,” Ner Dormiendo noted. “As horrible as it was to hear about the controversies over the past few years, it’s clear that filmmakers need to be good people before they can make good films.”
The behaviour of one can affect the entire cast and crew. Sometimes the project can continue without them, while other times it dies and leaves all those affected by it without work.
“I don’t think the project should be held hostage to something that somebody has done in their private life.” Dixon stated.
Triumph of the Will…
When it comes to separating the artist from the art, it may surprise people that one of the most controversial directors was a woman. It may even be more surprising that she is also one of the most influential and important filmmakers of all time.
Leni Riefenstahl, born in Germany in 1902, began her career as an actress staring in the “bergfilme” subgenre – the mountain film. After starring in a series of successful and popular films directed by Arnold Fanck (The Holy Mountain, The White Hell of Pitz Palu, among others), Riefenstahl would move on to direct her first film, The Blue Light. The project would be life changing for Riefenstahl, as her work on the film would catch the eye of Adolf Hitler.
Captivated by Riefenstahl, the Nazi leader would offer her the opportunity to direct The Victory of Faith, a propaganda film about a Nuremburg rally. Prints of the film were ordered to be destroyed, possibly due to the appearance of Ernst Röhm, leader of the SA and later murdered during the Night of the Long Knives.
Pioneer of technique.
Riefenstahl would direct another propaganda film in 1935 – quite possibly her greatest achievement and most influential work – Triumph of the Will. To capture the rally, Riefenstahl had use of 30 cameras and 172 crew members. The result was 61 hours of footage.
To this day, Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will is considered one of the most important – and dangerous – examples of filmmaking.
“We didn’t study Triumph of the Will because of the controversial nature but also because of the filming techniques in it,” Richard said. “It actually did create imagery you still see replicated in films nowadays – so a lot of scenes in Star Wars or other movies that have military – it’s very much how she shot things, it’s very grand and it’s wide shot so you can see the power behind it.”
Lessons from history.
Riefenstahl would continue her filmmaking achievements with Olympia. Recently released by the Criterion Collection, perhaps the most notable moment in the film features Jesse Owens winning gold while the Nazis watch on.
Her final feature film, Tiefland, was less successful. Confiscated by the French authorities at the end of the war, Riefenstahl was unable to secure a release for the film until 1954. Arrested after the war, she denied any knowledge of the Nazi crimes until her death in 2003 at the age of 101.
“She was actually one of the first filmmakers which forced me to rethink my initial opinion of watching films by controversial filmmakers,” Ner Dormiendo added.
“Triumph of the Will in itself is an immensely powerful and beautifully edited film but it is clear evidence of the significance of context. As much as I can appreciate the technical and artistic decisions from the film, even then, it is a dangerous path to admire filmmakers like Riefenstahl whose career was built from horrifyingly immoral means.”
A master of the image, Riefenstahl was as important to the medium as Orson Welles, Sergei Eisenstein, and D.W. Griffith.
Modern Hollywood, however, is not usually as groundbreaking or important as Triumph of the Will. The recent trend of rebooting male centric films with female casts (such as Ocean’s 8 and the 2016 Ghostbusters) is arguably a lazy attempt to please critics who condemn the sexism within the industry. As Richard put it, it shouldn’t be a novelty to see an all women cast.
“I think it’s putting a band-aid on a bigger problem,” she explained. “I always appreciate seeing women in lead roles but I don’t need them to be a female just because… it’s like ‘oh look, we’re with the times because we have female roles!’… I don’t really care, I want to make sure they’re good female roles, and I want to make sure it is telling a better story and not just piggybacking on another property.”
“You can tell when their just being on trend,” Taylor added. “And that’s almost devaluing and cheapening the whole idea of having a female lead or having a female director. That whole thing… it almost feels uncomfortable when they do something like that.”
On the horizon…
The five talents – Shin, Richard, Taylor, Dixon, and Ner Dormiendo – are only a few of the women committing their lives to their filmmaking passions and transforming the local scene into something larger.
On April 27, Londoners can get a double dose of cinema. Shock Stock returns and offers a variety of workshops for cinephiles, including “Tales from the Script” with Sighthound’s Jordan Morris. Dixon is far from being the only woman to enroll in the Fundamentals of Screenwriting class, Morris estimates that his classes are usually split evenly between men and women… a fact he is very proud of.
Later in the evening, Fanshawe’s First Take Film Festival also returns to Wolf Performance Hall and will no doubt feature short films by the next batch of London’s female filmmakers.
In the words of the recently departed Agnes Varda: “I’m still fighting. I don’t know how much longer, but I’m still fighting a struggle, which is to make cinema alive and not just make another film.”
Cover photo by Arminder Kheva.