June 9, 2015
There have been rumblings of rebellion in the international film industry of late. Dress-code boycotts at Cannes, podium protests at the Oscars. Industry insiders are speaking out over gender inequality and a lack of cultural diversity in film – on and off the screen.
Last month in Australia, the screen arts journal Lumina released new data that illuminates the experiences of women working in the film business. As Tracy Mair writes in the opening note, the numbers are shocking. In 2015 only 20% of Australian feature films will be written by women, a mere 16% will be directed by women, and in the US it’s as low as 3%.
The Sydney Film Festival opened on June 3 with a program that showcases a half dozen new Australian features. Both opening and closing night films are Australian-made (Brendan Cowell’s Ruben Guthrie and Neil Armfield’sHolding the Man) and another three films are in the official competition: Simon Stone’s The Daughter, Jennifer Peedom’s Sherpa and Kim Farrant’s debut feature Strangerland.
The film festival’s program, with its rich selection of world cinema, provides a useful context in which to consider the current Australian filmmaking landscape. Of the Australian films Kim Farrant’s Strangerland is an oddity in light of the aforementioned statistics. It’s directed, co-written and produced by women (respectively by Fiona Seres and Naomi Wenck), and has as its lead one of Australia’s great exports, Nicole Kidman.
Farrant had the film in development for thirteen years before all the financing came together. But the wait was worth it. It debuted at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and soon after was picked up by a US distributor. Farrant has since had multiple job offers and has joined the LA-based talent agency Gersh. Critic David Stratton wrote in The Australian, “Strangerland may possibly be too mysterious to be a major success, but this immaculately made movie goes a long way towards reminding us why a vibrant film industry is so essential for the nation as a whole.”
“I just assumed it was hard for everyone”, says Farrant explaining the thirteen years it took to get the film made.
“When I was at Sundance a lot of the journalists were saying to me, you know like ‘how is it that we’re in an industry and a climate where suddenly there’s a resurgence of female directors and we have 30% of films at Sundance directed by women?’, and it’s like ‘wait, why isn’t it more balanced?’.”
As Nashen Moodley, director of the Sydney Film Festival, points out there are no quick fixes: not women-only film funds, affirmative action, nor programming quotas. “It’s a tough thing for a film festival to do, to solve those deep problems,” says Moodley. But a festival’s championing of certain Australian films can help highlight the need for more diversity in the film business and in the process help new filmmakers find their feet in this tough business.
“When you have a great film, its selection doesn’t redress imbalance, but I think being seen by an appreciative audience shows or raises the question ‘why don’t we have more women directors in this country?’ ‘Why do we only see a particular aspect of this city or country represented or a particular type of person?’”
First time feature film director S. Shakthidharan co-wrote and directed the feature film Riz with Guido Gonzalez. Based on Gonzalez’ own experience growing up in Western Sydney, Riz tells the story of a bright young man who struggles to maintain his childhood friendships as he starts to build a life away from the suburb he grew up in.
“Riz looks at different parts of Sydney geography, and in terms of classes as well, and forces all the characters and hopefully audiences to come up with a version of Sydney that reconciles all those different aspects and acknowledges it as one city rather than many different parts,” explains Shakthidharan.
With a budget of only $85,000 Riz has few flashy features. It was made by a student crew under the guidance of a professional director of photography, but Moodley saw great promise in the storytelling.
“I really see a great deal of talent. It was wonderful to see this multicultural aspect of Sydney depicted on the screen. It’s not really what I’ve seen before. And I really wanted to support these filmmakers, because I think they’ve made a fascinating first work and I think they’re going to go on to make many more films.”
Shakthidharan’s plans to make more films with Curious Works, the community arts organisation he co-founded, are also fuelled in part by a promising economic proposition that he hopes will encourage the sector at large to diversify.
“There are markets out there, of first and second generation migrants, or working class communities, who are so hungry to see their stories on screen and are willing to pay for it and we’re missing out on all of that market share by not telling those stories,” says Shakthidharan.
“The need for proper socially diverse filmmaking, you don’t even need to be socially minded, economically it’s the smartest thing to do.”
Sydney Film Festival runs June 3-14, Strangerland is in wide national released from June 11. .
– Produced by Nicola Harvey and Rachel Store