As Oscar Sunday approached, I reflected on my recent foray into the Land of La La; especially both the lack of accolades and harsh working conditions for women in film. For those of you who don’t know, the documentary my team and I made — Beauty Bites Beast — qualified to be considered for an Oscar nomination. We did not make the short list of nominations (“Boo!”) and I do not regret throwing our hat into the ring (“Yay!”)
March is Women’s History Month — yes, every year! — and in that context, it’s important to reflect on the “why” regarding the dearth of females on screen and behind the cameras. It’s well known in sociology, anthropology, and psychology that people relate to stories as a way to map their dreams, ambitions, and plans for the future. “If you can see it, you can be it,” is one way to put it. No wonder so few girls dream of being a director!
As Oprah Winfrey said, “Surround yourself only with people who are going to lift you higher. Life is already filled with those who want to bring you down.” During production, I often got discouraging, minimizing and protective advice from women and men. I do know that some advice is given to prevent the recipient from heartaches, loss and/or disappointment. And just as in sports, if you don’t attempt to play a bigger game, you will stay small.
Over the 11 years it took me to raise the money and then make the film, I was told multiple times by various people they doubted it could be made because “who wants it?” I was also admonished on a regular basis that, to be a sought after “commercial” and successful documentarian, I had to follow these rules:
- Do not use “overweight” women on-camera
- Do not use women over 35 on-camera
- Do not feature Israeli people or programs
- Do not use Muslims of any kind for anything
- Do not feature Mexicans
- Do not affiliate openly with Landmark Worldwide
- Do not be too “12 Step-ish”
- Do not offend anyone
- Be perfect in all ways
- Do not use humor! You won’t be taken seriously about a serious topic
- Do not make a movie without giving permission for input from interested parties, as in prior restraint
- Do not use animal footage
- Only use a famous narrator
- Do not start until you’ve raised all of the money
- Hire a seasoned line producer
- You must work for nothing
- You must hire a successful and established male director
- You must follow 1-3 “characters,” which is a time-tested formula for successful documentaries
- You must make a movie, to be trusted to make a movie… which is a classic Catch-22.
- Never use statistics! They bore people!
- Always use statistics. You’re not credible otherwise!
- Do not piss off campus or establishment feminists — like all women must agree about EVERYTHING all the time? Do men have that rule?
- Do not make a full-length doc about self-defense because it’s misunderstood and victim blaming, and no one wants to see women learning to set verbal, emotional and physical boundaries.
- Do not make anything over an hour; it’s “safer” for first-time women filmmakers
- Do not attempt a theatrical release
- Be gracious with people who want to see your film but don’t want to pay anything for it.
- Be content with your film being an educational tool for Direct-To-DVD and classroom use
- Do not complain about the unwritten rules or crappy advice
- Be super nice to everyone all the time
- Did I mention “be perfectly perfect”?
- And finally, grow a penis!
I’m kidding about the last piece of advice, although it’s not hard to extrapolate that having a white penis would have eliminated a lot of those rules.
Would I do it again? Heck yes! And, had I not had such an amazing husband and co-producer, Ken Gruberman; my intrepid editor, Carly Short; and great partner Yehudit (Yudit) Zicklin-Sidikman, my baby would never have been born. Initially, Yudit was a matron of the arts who morphed into a first time Executive Producer. Yudit repeatedly held my hand and kept assuring me that “it’s your baby,” even when my baby wasn’t the baby she might have made. Meanwhile, she was getting earfuls of advice on her end, and had to have big ovaries to keep going.
Some advice women get from other women is often based on the unconscious fear that we’ll look bad and make it harder for our colleagues. There’s truth to that. A frequently unexamined aspect of white male privilege is they are not required to succeed on behalf of their brethren. A guy can produce one money-losing bomb after another after another, and still be trusted. Examples of these massive failures are Mel Gibson, Michael Cimino, Tim Burton and M. Night Shyamalan. “Dude, you’re going to make it harder for other men to get movie deals!” said no one, EVER.
But women and other under-represented groups in Hollywood carry the burden of representing the entire team. A woman or “other” doesn’t get a second shot.
For this year’s Women’s History Month, I invite you to focus on women-centric movies or pieces directed and/or produced by women or whichever “out” group you want to support. We can vote with our time and money. Oscar isn’t the only way to weigh in on movies. And get your daughters into film-making classes!
NOTE: This article is an updated and expanded version of my column in the Pasadena Weekly that originally ran on March 2, 2017