Women in film
Representation of women filmmakers in the international arena is considerably low compared to that of their male counterparts. Film festivals are constantly under scrutiny for this lack of equivalence. The film industry seems to be fumbling in the dark when it comes to ensuring gender parity. There are some film festivals specifically for women while some others keep a separate “Women Filmmakers Section.” Whether these efforts ensure more female participation or create separate standards for women is something to ponder upon.
The film world seems to have jolted out of a stupor with the onset of the #MeToo movement. As if to make amends for letting such abuse go unnoticed, the Academy of Motion Pictures invited new female members and nominated more women for the Oscars in the above-the-line categories such as directing and cinematography. Top film festivals like the Cannes, the Berlinale, the Venice and the Locarnoalmost simultaneously signed a “Gender Parity Pledge” last year that aims at better gender representation and transparency by 2020.
Bangladesh is a long way from signing the “50-50 by 2020” pledge. There is no women’s film festival at the moment. One such festival took place twice (in 2013 and 2015) sponsored by a certain fairness cream, which lacked adequate involvement of known industry figures. Needless to say, the festival discontinued. However, Dhaka International Film Festival has been regularly hosting a Women Filmmakers Section for around 15 years. Even the jury board of this section is always all-women.
It is debatable whether a separate section for women filmmakers was necessary because they performed well enough even without the extra push. If we look at the audience favorites at this year’s DIFF, we see a heightened presence of women. Films, such as, Isolation, Debi, Komola Rocket, Rong Beronger Korhi, Hridoyer Rong Dhonu, Ek Je Chhilo Raja, Botol Bhoot, Rising Silence, and Khejdi, saw a packed audience. These films have strong female representation both on and off screen. Botol Bhoot is directed by Meher Afroz Shaon, Rising Silence is directed by Leesa Gazi and “Debi” is produced by Jaya Ahsan.
This is not to say that an extra push is not welcome. Women filmmakers face a range of hurdles merely for being women. Many of these obstacles came up in diverse discussions at the 5th Women in Cinema Conference, which is an integral part of the DIFF. Women from all over the world presented academic papers and shared their professional experiences of working in the film industry at this conference. Topics ranged from patriarchy in cinema and female gaze to emerging women filmmakers and what we are doing to fight gender disparity in films. Sydney Levine, Aparajita Ghosh, Maja Bogojevic, Dr Debjani Halder, and Dr Gitiara Nasreen (all women) presented keynote papers at the conference.
It is hard to say how women filmmakers fared, compared to their male counterparts at this festival since most films by female directors were stacked in a separate category.
Be that as it may, women filmmakers in Bangladesh are doing pretty well on their own. At last year’s Bangladesh Short and Documentary Film Festival, the Best Director award went to a woman, Tasmiah Afrin Mou, for her short film Statement After My Poet Husband’s Death. In the documentary category, another woman, Jhumur Asma Jui, won the award for Best Director. There are numerous examples of this kind that compel us to think maybe a separate section for women is redundant.
But then when we look at the statistics of even the most privileged of industries, the participation of women is astonishingly low. According to womenandhollywood.com, in the top 100 grossing Hollywood films of 2018, women represented 4% of directors, 15% of writers, 3% of cinematographers, 18% of producers, 18% of executive producers and 14% of editors. While there are no such statistics available for our film industry, we really have no reason to expect our figures to be any better. In that light, it seems women filmmakers from all over the world could use a little more encouragement.
Women filmmakers and critics have welcomed this continuous support that the DIFF has been providing to them. Even if it were a non-competitive section, the real utility of a Women Filmmakers Section is in the fact that it allows the audience a rare glimpse into the female gaze.
“A filmmaker is an artist. There is no male or female distinction there. However, we almost always see the cinematic world through a male gaze,” said director Tasmiah Afrin Mou. “It is important to see the world through a woman’s perspective. This section enables us to do so by screening films by female filmmakers at a stretch.”
Makfire Miftari (from Kosovo), jury member at the Women Filmmakers Section at DIFF this year, , said: “Women Filmmakers Section at film festivals where women are not as active participants in filmmaking as men are, is helpful. Otherwise, I don’t think it is necessary to separate filmmaking sections at film festivals based on gender.”
Director Leesa Gazi said: “This is not so straightforward. I think we should rather ask why film festivals feel the need to include Women Filmmaker sections.
“If this is because they feel that woman as a gender has been disenfranchised in every avenue of life in any society, more or less, then this could be a gesture to level the playing field between women filmmakers and their male counterparts, then I am all for it. Because equality and justice are not the same things.
“On the other hand, the danger is that this gesture could be misinterpreted as the notion that women are not capable enough to compete with male filmmakers. In which case, I would reject it.
“But the world is a million miles away from the point where women and men are accepted as equal. Hence it is never harmful to create more opportunities for women."
So, whether a separate competition is justified or not, it is safe to say a Women Filmmakers Section is welcome even if it is only to watch films through a female gaze and relieve ourselves from involuntary gender biases. Besides, the DIFF surely deserves great appreciation for organizing the Women in Cinema Conference that helps bring issues women face in the film industry to the fore. After all, talking about women’s issues is the first step toward a workable solution to longstanding obstructions.
Sadia Khalid is editor of Showtime, Dhaka Tribune.