Monday, 25 May 2015

We Need to Talk

A Discussion About Sexism in the Australian Film Industry and Hollywood

Interviews with: Bianca Bradey (actor), Catherine Terracini (actor, producer/director), 
Lâle Teoman (actor, writer), Kiah Roache-Turner (director/producer, writer) 
I first started to suspect there was a gender imbalance in the film industry when I was pottering around Hollywood with Australian director Kiah Roache-Turner and producer Tristan Roache-Turner. They had just released the action zombie horror film "Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead" and premiered at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas and I was along for the ride and to take an occasional photo and film the celebrations. 

While in LA with them I was perusing the seemingly endless list of important people they had to meet and greet in various studios when I noticed something. Hang on, I said to Kiah, are there any women on this list? We looked through it together and found one name that sounded feminine. When he came back from the meeting with the only woman I asked him what she was like, Kiah considered the question briefly before responding;                                                            
                                       Kiah: Hungry
                      Me: Hungry for power? 
                                      Kiah: No,You know, like emaciated. Hungry for food.

When I got back to Australia I decided to start checking out the film industry statistics for women. I got online and noticed there had been a bit of an outburst, no more like an explosion of articles, blogs and social media about the poor treatment of women in the industry and it's deeply entrenched sexism. Apparently Hollywood is actually just a big old boys club. 

I dutifully watched the Amy Schumer skit about Julia Louis Dreyfus's last fuckable day and something rang true. 
Then Rose Byrne announced her all woman production company called the Dollhouse Collective and Patricia Arquette topped it off by using her 2015 Oscar acceptance speech to talk about wage equality (among other less 'well received' things) As a grand finale I began reading the recently released, anonymous and unexpectedly popular Tumblr blog; "Shit People Say to Woman Directors and Women in Film" and I was outright horrified.  It struck me forcibly that  it wasn't just a boys club, it was a boys club where women in the industry seemed to be seen as, well at least in some circles, the main course. 

This, of course, was Hollywood. According to Screen Australia in 2012/2013 women in Australia accounted for 34% producers, 18% Directors, and 25% writers. We have surged ahead a little, apparently only 4% of women were Directors in the 1970's. I still feel there is room for improvement. 

 I decided I would interview some people from the Australian film industry and find out about their real world experiences and opinions and managed to rope Kiah and the two leading women from his newly released film "Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead" Bianca Bradey and Catherine Terracini in to talk to me and, in addition to this, I found talented Australian writer and actor Lâle Teoman who wrote and performed in her own short film "The Palace That I Live In" which was shown to high acclaim in the Palm Springs Film Festival last year .

Lâle Teoman describes the Australian film scene as not being very brave, she feels the industry doesn't like to do things first and has a tendency to take its cues directly from Hollywood. This could be quite useful for us given the current Hollywood explosion of public candour about sexism in it's own backyard. However, the Australian film industry is considerably smaller than Hollywood, so females aspiring to have a career in it are already at a disadvantage . 

Given that there are less opportunities here it stands to reason that it is even more competitive. As Kiah acknowledges, women can spend years training at NIDA as Lady Macbeth and then end up playing a hooker on Rake. He also thinks our film and television are way behind other area's of the arts including theatre for giving women juicy roles that take them outside of more stereotyped, less well rounded, characters.

Catherine  Terracini backs this point up by talking about her new role producing and directing Hamlet at Bell Shakespeare, she points out she has had some good juicy roles, but she attributes this to her physicality (Catherine is tall and was a dancer), she says she experienced more sexism when she was blonde. 
Catherine: Interestingly, I tend to get cast in more fiery, complex & physical parts. I've been cast as Belzebub in Faustus for example, and about to start rehearsals for a show, playing 4 different men's roles in Hamlet that have been re imagined as women.
Catherine Terracini in a "meaty" role as Annie in Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead

Bianca Bradey reminisces about a period of time where the only roles being offered to her were those of a high class escort. This from a woman who just played one of the most badass female roles of the year, and she didn't have to do one sex scene or take her top off. (Admittedly there was cleavage, but Kiah assures me next time she will be in "badass battle armour") Bianca is currently starring in "Starting from Now" a lesbian web series that doesn't focus on titillation, but on relationships. They are currently crowd funding for the 4th season. 
Bianca Bradey as "Emily" with Sarah de Possesse as "Steph" in "Starting from Now"

Lâle Teoman is currently waiting on hearing back about funding for her short film "Felix and Rosa" and hoping that because it will be directed, produced and written by women it might, in this climate, have more of a chance to be funded. However, she says they are determined to make it and will seek crowd funding if they can't go the traditional route. Lâle explains that before she started writing her own scripts she was typecast as "dark and damaged" for a while but that she would prefer to play a role like the lead woman Lagertha in the television series "Vikings,"  or Joan of Arc (a role also coveted by Bianca Bradey).

So where are all the contemporary Joan of Arc roles for women? (and would they be allowed to keep their clothes on?) There is a general consensus between everyone I spoke to for this article that there are not enough meaty roles available for women in film and television. They also acknowledge it is much easier for males to get juicy parts, and at any age. Kiah points out that when he started writing he thought he wrote 'bad female roles' but recently discovered he was just writing 'bad characters'.
Jean Seberg playing "Saint Joan" 1957, Lâle Teoman and Bianca Bradey Joan of Arc contenders
Kiah: So when you [the writer] say: "I want to write a strong female character" what you really mean is you want to write a good character and if you write a good character, it's a good character its not about sex.
However, he admits that when it comes to casting he is going to have to fight to keep his future female characters from having to be hot 19 year olds ... 
Kiah: I'm more interested in casting a character who is amazing but there will be that pressure on me to cast hot and young because it sells. 
So there is also a problem with agism. Not only are there too many women actors and too few roles for them, there are also age restrictions, at some point in a female actors career she seems to become, well, invisible, or as Julia Louis Dreyfus put is so succinctly "Unfuckable". What do Maggie Gylenhaal and Kiah Roache-Turner have in common? They are both 37, they are both professionals in the film industry but Kiah won't get refused a directing role because of his age, whereas Maggie just got told she was too old to play the love interest of a 55 year old man.
Maggie and Kiah, both 37. Only Kiah could star with Mel.

Mel Gibson as a 55 year old man
Kiah: It's really hard for women actors in the industry and that's terrible to see, certainly in this country. I'm assuming it's the same in LA if you are over a certain age you just don't get parts, any parts. You know, if you're a woman in your mid to late 30's no agent will take you. I think that's despicable.
Bianca: There's roles for a young hot girl and then you have a break and then there's roles for mum and then you have a break and then there's roles for grandma. Where are the 'in between' roles? Whereas men, they just get to work constantly, the whole way through.

Men also don't seem to have to put their bodies on the line in the same way women do, remember those high class hookers? 
Lâle : It seems like women have to put their bodies on the line a lot more. There aren't that many roles available so you need to make that decision whether you're going to be an actor that reveals themselves, or set up strong boundaries.
Lâle Teoman demonstrating discreet nudity in her beautiful short film "The Palace That I Live In"
That can be tricky when you can't even audition without signing a form that says you are happy to be naked on set as with Game of Thrones, and Underbelly (just two recent examples). What happens if you don't even have the opportunity to show off your excellent NIDA training because you have principles about which productions you are happy to bare your chest in? That's not to say women's sexuality shouldn't be a part of a performance.
Bianca: I think there is a place for sexy women. Who says that a strong woman can't be sexy? Why not? Why does she have to be completely without sex? Sex is a part of life, sex is a part of who we are and just because a woman has a push up bra on or a short skirt doesn't mean she's not strong and she's not a role model.
Bianca Bradey being strong and sexy in Australian feature film "Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead"

Unfortunately it's not just actors that seem to have a hard time getting roles, Kiah bemoans the distinct lack of women in the upper echelons such as CEO's, but he also would like there to be more women producing and being part of the crew, 
Kiah: I like working with women, my wife doesn't like me working with women but I like working with women I'd love to shoot a film with a female DP like Reed Morano, I love the female perspective.
Amazing award winning cinematographer Reed Morano 
There was a general consensus that part of the problem is there aren't enough women telling their stories, writing and directing and producing. Lale describes her experience in Palm Springs with her short film:
Lâle: On the panel of casting directors in one of the forums there was only one woman and about twelve men and they said that the percentage of female directors to male is about 4% or 5% which is pretty intimidating. 
Catherine thinks women are finding louder and more prominent voices in the US than here.
Catherine: I love watching work by female storytellers like Lena Dunham, Kristen Wigg, Tina Fey, Julia Louis Dreyfus and female comedian Tig Notaro who is so strong and vulnerable and brave …There is obvious demand for their stories which is shown by the fact that millions of people are watching them.
She also thinks it is happening more and that we will find  a balance as we see more female storytellers emerge. Bianca agrees that we need more women telling the story from their point of view, she says:
Bianca: I think the more we acknowledge it and the more we stand up for it then things will change. 
Kiah: Women need to be the herald of their own change. I've always been somebody who just goes out and if I want it I will get it. and I wanted a film. I wanted a feature film and I went out and I made a feature film and now  I have a feature film!
Catherine says she deals with sexism at work by not thinking about it, or giving it any energy. She approaches it as though it doesn't exist but calls it out when she see's it. 
Catherine: As soon as I do, they usually back track or make a joke out of it.
Kiah is hopeful that men are becoming better educated about how to treat women in the workplace and  in general:
Kiah: I think  a lot of men are learning that maybe they are a little bit misogynistic including myself, I put myself in there sometimes, I've got to look at myself and go; I really was taught a lot about how to interact by young Australian males and I'm pretty sure I have some habits that are inappropriate that I'm trying to even out.
Apparently some men are still intimidated by the concept of feminism, which Kiah agrees with despite admitting his father, mother and wife identify as feminists, he prefers to identify as a "humanist" because, as he points out, he doesn't want to offend all the other movements for equality, so perhaps it's just the word he objects to. 
Lâle:  there's probably a bit of a stigma around feminism like if I went to a film festival and there was a specifically feminist section I probably wouldn't go to it, but I would love it if there were several good feminine films in the program. Just the label is a problem for a lot of people.
Catherine: A lot of men assume that 'femmos' are all angry bra burners who hate men and want to 'take their jobs' (??!!) Feminism for me means equality. But this doesn't mean aggression and masculinity. I personally want to maintain my femininity - but femininity doesn't necessarily mean weakness which I think is a misconception. 
Bianca: I guess I don't even understand how it [feminism] can't have a place. women have been trying to stand up for women forever, this isn't a new thing. I think it's getting more notice and I think it's definitely going to infiltrate our popular culture which is movies and TV.  
Catherine Terracini being feminine and strong in Faustus
It seems that making sexism visible could be part of the cure, and more to the point as Everyone I interviewed observed the demand is there for more woman created content. There is also a problem with funding the arts in general in Australia (see current budget, it is designed to make all artists weep)
Catherine: we also need greater amounts of funding in general to produce more stories; along with a greater value placed on the arts in Australia, not as a luxury, but as a vital part of being alive and contributing to our generation's stories. 
Politics aside, on a pragmatic note, since more women now have jobs, they also have more money to spend.  If the entrenched sexism in the industry can just be moved to the side for a moment, it's simply good business sense to have women creating and contributing to more diverse content that they might actually relate to and want to watch. It would be more lucrative, not only for the Australian film industry, but the industry as a whole. It is not just a conversation for women, more men including actor Mark Ruffalo (Hulk) are joining the discussion. It is a discussion worth having, true gender equality in the film industry would reduce sexism and enable more women to have a genuine voice to tell their stories to the world.