Fifty-fifty vision: For the women’s films we’ve never seen

Glaring gender imbalance behind the camera means we view the world through a distorting lens, women documentary-makers tell Dani Garavelli.

Emma Davie and Noe Mendelle. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

The year was 1982; the place was Greenham Common. Women from across the country had gathered to protest against the decision to store cruise missiles at the airbase. Among them was aspiring documentary-maker Noe Mendelle, an anthropology and feminist studies student at York University who had taken to lugging a 16mm camera around with her wherever she went.

Now she wanted to document the ad hoc peace community. Over 12 months she filmed women reading, knitting, chanting, binding themselves to one another, literally and metaphorically, in the name of disarmament.

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“The women brought different ways of thinking, different books to read, different recipes to cook,” she says now. “Some began experimenting with their sexuality and questioning their role as mothers and grandmothers. It was an exceptional moment.”

A scene from Housing Problems in which Ruby Griersons interview technique broke new ground

Mendelle’s film, The Good Cause Wimmin, which was observational rather than issues-driven, came to the attention of commissioners at the nascent Channel 4. “They wanted to know if we had footage of the violent clashes between the protesters and the women,” says Mendelle. “‘Without that your film has got no punch,’ they told us. The film had punch in terms of representing the sisters on the line. If we had included footage of police violence it would have been a different kind of film.” Mendelle refused to budge, and C4 refused to buy it. It was an early lesson in how a male-dominated industry can thwart female creativity and shape the way women’s stories are told.

Today, Mendelle, a dark-haired firebrand with laughter in her voice, is the director of the Scottish Documentary Institute (SDI), an organisation she founded after moving to the land of John Grierson – the father of documentary – 20 years ago. The corridor outside her office in Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) is testament to all the two organisations have achieved. It is lined with film posters for acclaimed productions by former students of the ECA’s Masters in documentary directing, many of them women. There is Tali Yankelevich’s 15 And A Half, about a symbiotic teenage friendship; Lou McLaughlin’s Caring For Calum, about a murderer looking after his terminally-ill father, and Edinburgh-born Sara Ishaq’s Oscar-nominated Karama Has No Walls, about the Yemeni revolution.

SDI’s Bridging the Gap and Right Here schemes, which support emerging documentary-makers, have made gender balance a priority. And yet, beyond the organisation’s walls, the job continues to be largely the preserve of men. Separate figures from Creative Scotland and the British Film Institute suggest less than a fifth of documentaries made in the past three years were directed by women. According to Directors UK, women are also less likely to direct a second, third or fourth film, or to be trusted with large budgets.

The obstacles to women’s advancement are culturally entrenched and self-perpetuating. It is difficult for women to thrive in a profession which requires such a high degree of flexibility when the burden of childcare still falls disproportionately on them. In addition, most commissioning editors are middle-class white men who tend to hire other middle-class white men and commission programmes that reflect their own tastes. Risk averse, they cleave to tried and tested formats and subject matters. That means football over fashion, issues over intimacy, and conflict over community.

Jenny Gilbertson in Shetland in 1932 to film Seabirds

Mendelle knows all about gender discrimination. Before The Good Cause Wimmin was rejected by C4, she had already been told she couldn’t take up the offer of a place at the London Film School because she had a baby (she gave birth to her only son at the age of 20).

Later on, she had to endure hostility from all-male crews who mocked her French accent, sneered at her lack of technical knowledge and ignored her instructions. Eventually she held workshops to teach other women the skills she had learned so they could be spared a similar ordeal.

The starkness of the latest figures has galvanised her into action again. On Tuesday, cultural luminaries including broadcaster Janice Forsyth and directors Amy Hardie and Uzma Mir-Young will help launch the SDI’s campaign to ensure documentary-making in Scotland is 50:50 by 2025.

It’s a tough ask, but Mendelle is well up for the fight. She believes it’s important not only because women are being deprived of professional opportunities, but because it means so many women’s voices are going unheard, and the world is being viewed through a narrow lens.

In her most recent essay collection, Whose Story Is This? US feminist writer Rebecca Solnit explores the question of narrative control and how it can shape the way we interpret our environment. “If white, middle-class men are doing almost all of the commissioning and directing, then the stories of women and the female perspective are being lost,” says Mendelle.

One of the challenges for aspiring female documentary-makers is the dearth of historical role models. As with other creative fields, it’s not that such women did not exist; more that their contribution was never recognised.

Just look at the Grierson family. Anyone interested in documentary-making will have heard of John, but what of his sisters, Ruby and Marion, who were talented directors in their own right?

Ruby’s role in the direct-to-camera interviews which made the 1935 documentary Housing Problems so radical went unrecognised, but her style was both feminist and pioneering. As Glasgow University film and TV lecturer Sarah Neely has noted Ruby’s film They Also Serve was remarkable for its “focus on the intimate thoughts, worries and frustrations of the ordinary housewife during the war, but also for its attempts to connect intimately with its subject”.

Ruby is said to have told John: “The trouble with you is you view things as though they were in a goldfish bowl.” When he agreed, she said: “Well, I’m going to break your goldfish bowl.” Ruby’s career was cut short by her sudden death in 1940 when the ship in which she was travelling and filming was torpedoed by a German submarine.

Marion’s approach was equally original. In So This Is London – a film about city-dwellers’ escape to the seaside – she used a non-synchronous sound track, with intimate exchanges about going to the coast played over long, anonymous shots of London streets. Marion’s career was cut short when she became a mother.

Jenny Gilbertson was another understated revolutionary. In the 1930s, she made beautiful silent films about crofting on Shetland, where she lived for much of her life. Her empathy, humour and ability to capture the islanders’ visceral connection to the land was astonishing.

After the war, Jenny married Johnny Gilbertson, the star of her most important film, The Rugged Island. She gave up making documentaries and took a teaching post to keep their family afloat. But in 1967, after Johnny had died, she picked up her camera again. By then in her late 60s, she travelled to the Arctic to make documentaries about the Inuit people.

Shona Main is writing a PhD on Gilbertson. She has followed in her hero’s footsteps, travelling out to Grise Fiord in the Canadian Arctic, and made a very different kind of film about her experiences there.

“Documentary-making back then was a machine. They had the kit, the resources, the people. They would get an idea, do a little bit of research, story-board it, record it, edit it in Soho, release it, then start on another project,” says Main.

“Jenny was doing something completely different. She didn’t have the kit, she didn’t have the resources. What she did have, though, was time and friendship. She could build relationships with people. It afforded her access to their lives. She didn’t really story-board; mostly she just went with what was happening. “

Gilbertson disliked the fact the Inuit people were being exoticised. “She wanted to show their lives as they really were, with dirty snow, the guns and the dancing.” Yet her work wasn’t given the respect it deserved. “The Inland Revenue would never accept she was more than a hobbyist and so she wasn’t allowed to claim for travel and accommodation,” says Main. “She was often treated as an eccentric have-a-go granny.”

We like to think things have improved for women; and, of course, to an extent they have. Scotland now has a clutch of award-winning female documentary directors, including Louise Lockwood (Fair Isle) Sarah Howitt (The Bridge: Fifty Years Across The Forth), Uzma Mir-Young (After Sheku) and Emma Davie (I Am Breathing), who also lectures at the ECA.

And yet many of the barriers faced by the Grierson sisters and Gilbertson still exist. And female directors are still in the minority. “You just have to look at the credits and it’s ‘man, man, man. Oh there’s a woman. OK she’s a production coordinator’,” says Mir-Young who started out on a BBC graduate trainee scheme in 1989. “I find it hard to understand how so little can have changed.”

So what are the obstacles preventing female directors gaining a foothold ? Even now, having children is a major issue. Directing documentaries requires flexibility; the hours are long and you have to be able to drop everything to travel at short notice.

When I speak to Karama Has No Walls director Sara Ishaq, she is at home in Amsterdam, waiting for a C section for her second child. She fell into directing after the BBC hired her as a translator while making a documentary about women in Yemen in 2007. On the second day of shooting, the assistant producer got food poisoning and Ishaq found herself drafted into research and script editing.

Hooked, she went on to do a course in London, spent three months filming in Palestine and then applied for the ECA, where she made a feature about her Yemeni family as well as her short about the revolution.

Since 2015, however, when she became pregnant with her first child, she has found documentary-making logistically challenging. “It was so much easier for me to work in the industry when I was a single 25- year-old and able to jump about from Egypt, to Yemen to Dubai – and to go somewhere for an intensive three-month period to edit,” she says.

“That’s very difficult for women with two small children, whereas I see men who started their careers at the same time powering forward. They have kids and it’s fine. They get on with it.”

It’s not all about childcare, though. The fact that film and TV is so male-dominated, particularly in the upper echelons, means there is discrimination in terms of the directors hired and the subject matter commissioned.

The Directors UK report concluded gender inequality was caused by unconscious bias stemming from systemic issues, including the absence of a regulatory system to monitor, report and enforce gender equality and a lack of structured hiring and recruitment practices. It went on: “The industry’s lack of certainty means it leans towards greater risk-aversion causing a greater reliance on the stereotype of the male director. Old habits remain ingrained and the short-term nature of film projects discourages long-term thinking.”

Mendelle encounters bias on a regular basis. “Not long ago, we were talking with a male commissioning editor about a short film centred on girls and directed by a woman. He said: ‘Hmm, I don’t know, the female director doesn’t have much experience, but I know just the right guy to co-direct with her.’” The man he identified was equally inexperienced. “I stood my ground. I said: ‘Actually, we have a strong team of female producers and if we need a co-director, we will have another woman.’”

The boys’ club atmosphere fostered in male-dominated environments can be intimidating and exclusive. “In the new channel [BBC Scotland], all bar one of the commissioners are men. This is not to say they don’t commission female directors, but I would argue that the men get each other’s shorthand somehow,” Mir-Young says.

“It’s difficult to put your finger on – but they feel they are more comfortable with one another. I have experienced it in meetings – there’s a form of short-hand, a [camaraderie] I don’t feel part of.”

The perception that directing is a man’s job is pervasive and internalised by women coming into the industry. “Talking to lecturers and female film students, I hear that it tends to be the guys who go for the camera and volunteer themselves as director and editor, while the women fall into more organisational roles,” says Mir-Young. “The message that directing is as much for women as men does not seem to be getting through.”

The predominance of men at the top also impacts on the subject matters being covered. Louise Lockwood spent 17 years working as an in-house director with the BBC before going freelance. When she left, she took three highlighter pens to her CV – one blue (for male subjects), one pink (for female subjects) and one yellow (for gender-neutral subjects). “It was 90 per cent blue,” she says.

“That was a kind of wake-up call for me that I have to push for female subjects. I went on a bit of a rant with the executives saying: “Can you give me a female subject? I have done a few Imagine programmes since then. The first one was David Hockney, but then I got to do US artist Faith Ringgold, who is amazing. It was a big deal for me getting to make that.”

In her book, Invisible Women, Caroline Criado-Perez demonstrates how technology is designed to meet the needs of default male consumers. Equally, documentaries are often commissioned for default male audiences. “I have heard stories of commissioning editors who have said: ‘You have to remember – ultimately, it is men who hold the remote control.’”

However Mendelle’s experience of pitching to the BBC and STV has convinced her there is a hunger for diversity amongst the viewing public. “Every time we propose female-focused stories, there is a little bit of a battle, and yet, when the documentary is broadcast, we hear: ‘Oh my God, you came second in tonight’s figures.’ Like it is astonishing. Like: ‘Who can these people interested in women’s stories possibly be?’”

Davie says the first time she saw a movie directed by a woman – she thinks it might have been Jane Campion’s Sweetie – she felt was being spoken to in a way she hadn’t been spoken to before. “It was really exciting. It felt so intimate. I didn’t realise you were allowed to be as intimate as that,” she says.

By coincidence Davie has also been reading Solnit’s Whose Story Is This? “The question is: who is given the work, and also: who has the right to see it?” she says. “So often women have been the subject of the male gaze rather than being allowed to dictate what’s in the frame.”

So what can be done to shift the balance? Ishaq believes the industry needs to change its attitude towards childcare. “There should be a recognition that women with small children require crèches or full-time nannies when they are travelling,” she says. “If men were the ones shouldering the bulk of the responsibility that would already have happened.”

Though she knows they are controversial, Mir-Young would like to see quotas introduced for the numbers of female directors, while Lockwood believes in mentoring and strong female networks. Lockwood is also conscious that directors are increasingly expected to be able to shoot, and that some women may be put off by the weight of the cameras. She makes a point of countering the macho talk that has grown up around equipment. “I take out all the crap – the stuff the techy bods insist you need, but you don’t – and I say, in a proud way: ‘This is my woman’s kit.’”

After I have interviewed Mendelle, she emails to tell me she is going to York to hear film-makers pitching their first feature documentaries. “I have five proposals in front of me and they are ALL from men,” she writes. She believes simply drawing attention to the statistics will force organisations like Creative Scotland and broadcasters to look more closely at gender balance along with ethnicity and class.

“Our campaign will allow us to go to institutions and say: ‘Guys: time to come up with some pledges’,” she says “A 50:50 balance is something that will take time to build, which is why we gave ourselves until 2025. But I do believe it is possible.”