Today is International Womens Day. A day where we celebrate the achievements of women, and take stock of our progress. And today, filmmaker friends posted the feature films recently made by Australian women filmmakers all over my Facebook feed. And whilst it was exciting to see so many ladies doing diverse projects and taking up the directors mantle, all listed together in one post, I was disheartened in one respect – there weren’t many speculative genre films amongst them.
Of the 50 entries listed – only two could be termed a speculative genre feature. Speculative genre for those new to the film world is the term for any films in the horror, fantasy, science fiction, thrillers, and supernatural themed genres. These genres tend to be populated with the most commercially successful films of all time. The films that are in many top ten lists of audience favourites.
The two listed that met that criteria were both horror genre features – Inner Demon by Ursula Dabrowsky, and The Babadook by Jennifer Kent. Both films are a few years old now.
When I look at my top 50 favourite films of all time, very few were made by women. I won’t bore you with a list of those films here, but let me confess that I carry amethyst to remind me of The Dark Crystal, that I still thrill to Cary Elwes saying “as you wish”, I play act Jami Gertz’s Star flirting with Kiefer Sutherland’s David in The Lost Boys, and that I can quote word for word the “tears in the rain” speech by Roy Batty at the end of Bladerunner. [Please note – I’m saying ‘favourite’ not ‘best’ – it’s about what we personally love, not always what is critically esteemed]. Now I can swear that it wasn’t a conscious decision to discount women filmmakers, and perhaps I haven’t seen enough films directed by women to judge [though I’ll wager I’ve watched more than your average cinemagoer] – but my list is chock full of speculative genre films, with the odd drama, and documentary making an appearance. And I’m not alone.
If box office is any indication, then the most loved films that audiences went to see en masse, and for repeat viewings,were full of ; Hobbits, wizards, spaceships, toys, superheroes, Lion Kings, spooks, demons, spies, robots and aliens. There’s barely a drama amongst them.
You could argue that these films were a display of spectacle, and had the backing of a colossal budget behind them. But the point still stands if we reduce the budget and look at the performance of spec’ genre films compared to similar budgeted dramas. Many of the biggest hits last year and this year were in the horror and thriller section of the market. ‘Get Out’, ‘The Witch’, ‘Don’t Breathe’ are just a few instances of a long running trend. These kind of films have a primed audience, can often perform better internationally, and are in many instances, easier to market. But most importantly – these films launch careers. If you look at some of the most successful international women filmmakers, they made films in these genres. Kathryn Bigelow turned heads with ‘Near Dark’ – a vampire western horror, before she moved onto action thrillers. She even had a go at sci-fi with Strange Days. Mimi Leder had made several mystery thriller features before she was handed the blockbuster Deep Impact. Decades later Ana Lily Amirpour got serious buzz off ‘A Girl Walks home alone at night’.
So where are the Australian women making exciting speculative genre features ? Are they, as some filmmakers and critics have suggested, simply are not attracted to escapist genre ? I refuse to believe that. Australian women write some of the best fantasy and sci-fi novels in the genre – check out Fiona McIntosh, Isobelle Carmody, Kate Constable. In fact, two-thirds of Australian fantasy authors ARE women.
Aussie girls have embraced geek culture as if they were born to it – go to any cosplay at a comic convention and start counting. And then compare those numbers to a decade ago – we aren’t hiding our inner geek anymore.
Is it a matter of what I call ‘genre snobbery’? The idea that serious dramas are a better form of art because they capture the complexities of the human condition, and are layered with deep themes and metaphors that fantastical films gloss over.
Well, if you haven’t been paying attention – then in the last few years we’ve had horror films that explored the idea of grief, identity, loss and inhumanity. Science fiction films have plumed the nature of memory, of our destructive relationship with the environment, of gender identity in an anti-social world. Fantasy films have touched on racism, the nature of friendship, the danger of zealotry, the exercise of politics in the corridors of power. And that’s just for starters.
Is it artistic restrictions ? “these genre films are too formulaic” whined a fellow filmmaker recently. “It’s why I don’t make them”, she continued. And I promptly had to restrain myself from braining her with my iPhone. All films have a pattern or formula – even arthouse dramas. And too many of those films meander or lag as filmmakers bury themselves in the mistaken belief that characters spouting circular conversations are an adequate replacement for motivated action. The rules of fantasy films are very fluid indeed, and has for horror flicks and thriller films – I’d argue that their conventions aren’t boxes to contain you in, but are challenges for you to conquer and surmount. They are a discipline, not a cage.
Is it a matter of budget ? In spite of the many colleagues who bewail this question as though it’s the culprit at the scene, I have trouble believing that money is the key factor to this conundrum. I can’t deny that this plays a big role in perceptions of why more speculative genre films don’t get made – high concept ideas can be expensive. Costumes and prosthetics and CGI costs big buckeroos, but this doesn’t explain the imbalance of gender in the product that does get released.
Because: [a] raising $ for films is always hard. Unless you have a sugar daddy or mommy or rich parents. [b] I’ve met many super capable lady producers who’ve shown they know how to run a film budget soundly, and if anyone could spin straw into gold – it’s these ladies – and they’re working on dramas instead ! , [c] low budget spec’ films have been made that didn’t break the bank. At the micro budget end, we have examples such as Primer, Paranormal Activity, Cube. [d] When they DO get made – it’s guys at the steering wheel who are daring to turn fantasy into reality.
A few days ago, I got to see a preview screening of a Australian feature – ‘Boys in the Trees’ – a beautifully told fantasy take on the ‘coming of age’ film. It was written and directed by a guy, Nick Verso. I raved about it because it really resonated with me. Some years ago, I had a rip roaring time watching ‘Wyrmwood’, and was quietly appreciative of the ambition behind ‘Arrowhead’ – both low budget Aussie features that dealt in horror and sci-fi, and both made by guys.
The last time I saw a film by an Australian woman that got me really excited was ‘The Babadook’. This isn’t to say that I haven’t loved drama films directed by women, but I’m talking about the anticipation that flutters inside you for an adventure, an escape, for the chance to imagine a place where the otherworldly blurs the line of reality, where life isn’t about the practical, the common and the mundane.
I’ll continue to support my filmmaking sisters, ladies and lasses who are working hard at the filmmaking game, but it feels more like duty than desire, a place where I don’t dare to seek the different because I’ll always find the same.
There are small signs things are changing but certainly not in the fantasy and sci-fi movies being made.
Maybe instead of merely asking why there aren’t more female directors, we should also ask why aren’t they taking a punt on spec’ genres ? What are the reasons they are staying away ?