Why I program films #DirectedbyWomen

First AC, Nina Florez, on the set of Jen Fischer's feature film SMUGGLED.

I’m often asked why I include films directed by women when I program films for events, organizations, online classes, etc, the answer is simple: “because they’re good.”

That’s it. When Barbara, the amazing force behind #DirectedbyWomen, asked me to answer this question in a blog post, I realized a three-word post probably wasn’t what she was looking for. I contemplated covering an entire page with this text recurring over and over: FILMS DIRECTED BY WOMEN ARE GOOD or some variation thereof, like WOMEN DIRECT SOME RATHER SPECTACULAR FILMS. And so on and so forth. Too simple? But, also true. Too often when a film directed by a woman gets media attention, the assumption (and framing) is that the film is getting attention because it’s directed by a woman, not necessarily because the film is good.

Films directed by women are often exceptionally good and are also just okay and some are not very good at all. Yet, the exact same reality holds true for films directed by men. The problem is that the dialogue in the film industry is often such that we come to believe that a film directed by a woman being good is somehow rare or exceptional. Women, in many ways, don’t have the luxury of making films that are not good. It’s simply too hard for women making incredibly good films to get their work supported. Let me be very clear: I’ve curated and shared LOTS and LOTS of films directed by women, shorts and features, and ALL of the films I’ve selected are good.

I never program a film directed by a woman, or anyone else, for any other reason. I won’t program a film solely because it is directed by a woman. I do, though, choose to focus extensively on films directed by women as I seek to share quality independent films with audiences. I do this because I know those filmmakers will likely have a harder time getting their work programmed or featured than a filmmaking colleague who is a white man might have. It’s the nature of the business, sadly.

I was reminded recently that this reality holds true in many areas of artistic work. Last week I was in Salinas, California, home of the National Steinbeck Center. While I was there, I couldn’t help but wonder what women authors of Steinbeck’s era were talented, but not recognized. Yes, Steinbeck was a great writer. But, there were likely many talented women and authors of color writing incredible books at the same time as him who simply weren’t getting attention because publishing in America favors white men.

A quick internet search solidified my inkling. Sanora Babb was a talented writer who had lived through many of the experiences highlighted in Steinbeck’s famous novel The Grapes of Wrath. She had interviewed countless migrant workers in the Central Coast of California who had fled Oklahoma for a more promising future in California. She herself had grown up in the Dust Bowl.

Notes for her novel, Whose Names Are Unknown, were read by an editor at Random House who was eager to publish her novel. Alas, Steinbeck (who had been given a copy of her notes and was also with Random House) finished The Grapes of Wrath first, so Random House took back their offer to publish her book. Steinbeck’s work is taught in high schools across the country. On the other hand, hardly anyone knows who Sanora Babb is. (I certainly didn’t until just now and I am a nerd, who reads obsessively.) By all accounts, her novel is quite good, but wasn’t published until many decades later. It wasn’t about talent. It was about timing and about the gatekeepers—the individuals with access. It usually is.

Many women are making incredible films, but their films rarely, if ever, receive the same attention and recognition as men who direct films. A woman director will likely wait much longer between major films to get another project as a director. Many women are talented directors and storytellers, yet the film industry on a whole remains centered around white male stories. Women are not funded equally. They are not supported in the early stages in their careers and mid-career directors experience huge challenges in getting the same support that their white male counterparts receive (Rachel Feldman is an authority on this, if you’re interested in learning more about this issue. She’s also a very talented woman director). All of these added challenges underscore why film curation matters.

Film curation is an art in and of itself. It requires that you know the audience you are curating for, that you have access to quality films to consider, and that you have a standard of assessing those films that holds up — meaning that audiences agree and like/appreciate the films you are programming. I also feel it’s my responsibility as a curator to offer something new to audiences, to work hard to find films and filmmakers that the audience hasn’t already been exposed to, but whose work they will enjoy.

I curate and highlight films directed by women because they’re good and because not enough other people are. Yes, that is beginning to change. There are more film festivals than ever and many are focused on work created by women. In my case, I love that I have the opportunity to highlight films directed by women in settings that aren’t exclusively for films made by women and/or about women. I feature films directed by women at a monthly variety show event with a very eclectic audience and line-up. I highlight films directed by women as part of content for online courses for families who want to increase their creativity together.

The content I curate is not exclusively directed by women, but women directors and directors of color are represented in great numbers because their work is good! This is the bottom line for me as a filmmaker, a former film festival director and a curator. I want to change the face and understanding of what independent film is. I want audiences to see that indie films are good. I want audiences to see that indie filmmaking includes filmmakers from a wide variety of backgrounds. I want to celebrate indie film in all of its glory — and there’s a lot of glory in films directed by women. Here are some of the most popular short films directed by women that I’ve highlighted over the past 12 months at events and/or online classes. I decided to highlight films of various styles, genres, etc. Enjoy!

Still image from Consommé
Still image from Consommé

Consommé (click on film title to watch) is a six-minute subversive fantasy film directed by Catherine Fordham, which begs the question: What is an appropriate response to sexual violence? Sparse, raw, cathartic, and humorously visceral, Consommé screams out like 90s feminist punk rock — Bikini Kill in pictures. A young woman’s fiercest self takes over to fight for her life when she’s attacked.

Interview with Catherine Fordham

You can also check out Fordham’s comedic work as a director through her series Best Thing You’ll Ever Do now available on Apple and Seed&Spark.

Extinction Poster

Extinction is a short film from director Iram Parveen Bilal, which tells the story of a struggling single mother, Joan, is forced to choose between morality and law when she finds out that a gentle farmhand, Adam, is more than what he seems while protecting her six year old daughter, Mary, and her ailing grandmother, Rose.

Check out the trailer and stream the film via Seed&Spark.

Tick Tock Time Emporium poster

Tick Tock Time Emporium is a short fantasy film set in Vermont. It tells the story of a little girl named Max who discovers a strange pawn shop that buys and sells time. You can watch Tick Tock Time Emporium, directed by Morgan Faust, on Youtube or Seed&Spark. (Bonus tip: watching on S&S actually supports the filmmaker!)

MUTED poster

Directed by Rachel Goldberg and written by Brandi Nicole Payne, MUTED, is a multi-award winning short film currently being developed as a feature. It has been described as “…an irrefutably mind altering cinematic experience.” Beautifully directed and acted, this moving short film was featured by HBO.

For documentary film lovers, I’m sharing Gan Gan, directed by Gemma Green-Hope. In this short film, the filmmaker seeks to make sense of the array of objects left behind after her grandmother’s death.

I’m wrapping my list up with a very unique short animated film by Lynn Tomlinson, The Ballad of Holland Island House, which tells the true story of the last house on a sinking island in the Chesapeake Bay. Told from the house’s point of view, this film is a soulful and haunting view of the impact of sea-level rise.

I would be remiss to not also include this incredible list of Films Directed By and About Women of Color curated by Ava DuVernay and her fans on Twitter, which Indiewire featured 2 years ago. There are other films since then that should be added to this list. Let us know what you think they are and check out my Directed By Women Pinterest board where I highlight films directed by women that are currently available online through various streaming platforms. If you’ve got a film I should add to this board, share it with me via Twitter @IndieJenFischer so I can continue to curate and highlight incredible films directed by women! (Don’t forget to use the hashtag #DirectedByWomen.)

Also, if you are a filmmaker with a short film (10 minutes or less) that you’d like me to consider for upcoming events, please email me at jennifer at thinktenmediagroup.com.