Interview with Barbara Ann O’Leary, Catalyst for #DirectedbyWomen


Copy Editing and Posting by Elena Cronick

Barbara Ann O’Leary

Barbara Ann O’Leary

Before we discuss your tireless activism for women filmmakers, tell us how your love for film and feminism began and evolved over time.

Thanks for welcoming me into the conversation. I appreciate the opportunity to explore together. I love being part of the agnès films community. We’re weaving together our unique perspectives and helping to dream a new world into being. So exciting!

Before I tackle the film and feminism question I want to share that I hear the word “tireless” attributed to my #DirectedbyWomen work quite often. I just want to say that on occasion I actually do get tired. But tireless is defined as “having or showing great effort or energy” and I am really moved by the acknowledgement of the energy I’ve been directing into this initiative in the past few years. I recognize that I do have an enormous drive to keep going. It feels crucial. There’s no question in my mind about it. This work DEMANDS my attention.

I’m moved that people are taking note. Noticing is an act that is central to this process, which at its core is a global invitation to shift perception. Each one of us deepening our awareness of and appreciation for films. #DirectedbyWomen invites transformation on a global scale.

So … to the question about my love of film and feminism I have to say that I’m aware that there’s probably a really long book or a feature-length film in here somewhere, but I’ll try to just share a few things that might give some perspective. I’ve been a film lover my whole life. Very early on I embraced film’s capacity to transport and transform me. I come from a family that relished the arts: photography, painting, dance, theater, writing, music, etc. Film was held in particularly high regard. Both my parents spoke animatedly about their filmgoing experiences growing up. Our family often made trips to drive-ins, cinemas, college campuses, art museums, and libraries to take in films or watched on our black and white TV whenever broadcast television shared movies. These were the days before VHS or DVD or online streaming. Film was something that had to be sought out and it was an experience most potent when shared.

My mother was a natural-born cinephile. I was deeply impressed by her ability to recognize an actor instantly just from hearing a snippet of dialogue drifting into the kitchen from the TV in the next room. I learned to value the creators of film experiences. I come from a family of theatrical performers. For instance, my father’s uncle John McGovern was an actor, who worked on Broadway and also in film, including Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds and Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass. So film was never something remote and foreign to me. I understood it to be a powerful, collaborative art form that emerged out of earlier art forms and had a force all its own, but one that was part of my lineage and essential to my understanding of who I was.

I have so many movie memories from my childhood. I’ll share a few that come to mind. I think it must have been my 11th birthday. Rain intruded on my birthday pool party plans.

My parents mobilized to implement a hastily thrown together Plan B and took the entire crowd of birthday partiers to an arthouse to see Fantasia, which had recently been re-released. I was ecstatic! My friends grumbled. They’d had their hearts set on the promised pool party. So I knew that my relationship with film wasn’t shared universally, but that didn’t stop me from being intrigued by the process of making film available to communities. At my Catholic all-girl high school, I mobilized friends to join me in programming a 16mm screening of Ida Lupino’s The Trouble with Angels in the student lounge one evening. I love looking back and noticing that the very first time I ever programmed film for an audience I chose a woman-directed film.

My family also placed emphasis on us creating our own work. I was inspired by my father’s keen eye as he actively and skillfully documented life with his 8mm motion picture and still cameras. As a girl I was intrigued by filmmaking, but gravitated to dance, theater, writing, and still photography to mobilize my own authentic creative expression. At Indiana University I majored in theatre and drama, concentrating in lighting/sound design, dramatic literature, and stage management. I worked for 10 years as a professional stage manager regionally and in NYC. I considered pursuing work in Hollywood. At the time my love of live theater was too compelling, but on my one day off each week I’d go to the movie theater—sometimes seeing two or three films on the same day.

self portrait sept 2010bFeminism has also been a natural part of my experience. My parents valued me highly and expected me to thrive fully as a human being sharing my gifts with the world in ways that felt harmonious to me. I was a girl during the emergence of the second wave of feminism. Activists like Bella Abzug inspired me. One of my earliest dates with my sweetheart—now life partner—was going to hear Bella speak on campus. Years later I went to work for Bella at Women’s Environment & Development Organization (WEDO) impacting processes on a global scale through caucus work at United Nations conferences. In the mid-’90s I formed Virtual Sisterhood, a global women’s electronic support network dedicated to increasing women’s access to and effective use of electronic communications for their feminist activist work. I love online communication. Virtual Sisterhood work included active engagement at the UN Conference on Women in Beijing. The 2015 #DirectedbyWomen Worldwide Film Viewing Party was timed to honor the 20th anniversary of the Beijing conference.

When people ask me if I’m a feminist I say, “Of course! And I’ve worked as a professional feminist!” To me, feminism is a matter of consciously inviting balance between the yin and yang energies. I’ve delved deeply into dreaming, energy, consciousness, and creativity throughout my life as I’ve explored ways to invite authentic creative expression to flourish in the world. That’s what really moves me. I think we all benefit when everyone is free to be themselves and bring their gifts fully into the world.

I choose to attend to creativity arising through film because I feel exhilarated by cinema. It’s so deeply moving to me. I also put my attention there because it is a natural place for visions to be revealed and perceptions to alter, and because there’s so much potential with film for consciousness to shift, sending ripples out to other aspects of world culture. I like to dream big.

To me, #DirectedbyWomen is about the global film community awakening to and relishing the work of women directors for the sheer love of film and the delight that arises when we say YES to creativity arising. And in the process yin and yang reassess their relationship.

Your title at #DirectedbyWomen, which you founded, is Catalyst. What does that term mean to you and what made you select it as a way to define the incredible work you’re doing?

A catalyst precipitates an event and that’s exactly the way I see myself, as a precipitator of a worldwide film viewing party. I’m not organizing the event. It arises organically and is shaped by those who respond to the invitation to relish and share films by women directors. I’ve noticed that the people who hear about the #DirectedbyWomen Worldwide Film Viewing Party and respond with, “That’s amazing!” rush out and create delightful experiences that are fun and celebratory reflections of true appreciation for films #DirectedbyWomen. The invitation itself acts as a catalyst. People mobilize themselves.

That’s the crux of the situation. #DirectedbyWomen is a grassroots, non-hierarchical, DIY experience open to everyone in the global film community, meaning everyone who makes, shares, writes about, watches, and loves film. Participation is open to anyone who feels like diving in to make something happen. What all #DirectedbyWomen events have in common is respect for intellectual property rights, a focus on celebration of women film directors and their work, and a desire to share the experience with other film lovers. The exact form is up to each organizer to explore. Create something fun!

What I’m catalyzing is perception. I’m inviting people to awaken to the incredible abundance of films #DirectedbyWomen. In my experience the dominant narrative of lack and exclusion clouds perception. I’m inviting people to realize that if they step back and look at the bigger picture, they’ll see that since the very beginning of cinema women have pursued filmmaking as directors and now we’re at a time where there’s an explosion of filmmaking by women directors. Let’s turn our attention to what they’ve created and are creating. Let’s explore it, share it, and invite more. Let’s make room in our lives and in our screening spaces for films #DirectedbyWomen.

When and how did the idea of #DirectedbyWomen come to you?

One day in April 2014 the vision of a Worldwide Film Viewing Party popped into my mind and it was a vision, not an idea. I saw the world bathed in silver light cast by films #DirectedbyWomen screening and streaming around the globe during a concentrated period of time, a time dedicated to joyous celebration! I saw the global film community awakening to and becoming exhilarated by the prospect of exploring the work of women directors in an expansive, ever-widening community.

This was around the time that my yearlong film viewing balancing act was winding down. In 2013–2014 I engaged in a private film viewing practice that basically meant I’d watch an even number of films by women and men directors over the course of a year. I blogged about it on my O’Leary’s Reel Life blog. Tweeted. Shared on Facebook, etc.

I’d started an IMDb list of women film directors just to help myself identify films I might want to see as the year progressed, but the list kept growing and growing. Almost daily I’d notice women film directors and add them to the list. Soon there were thousands. At that time, I was emphasizing films from the past decade so my list featured women who had directed something from 2003 onward. I found myself getting really curious. I wondered if I could discover how many women have directed films. Eventually I moved the list to my own database and rolled in directors from earlier times in film history.

At some point, I realized that there’s no way I could ever personally watch all this work. I started thinking it would require a lot of film lovers to adequately celebrate women film directors and their work. And I thought about how much fun it would be to have people all around the world actively celebrating women film directors in their own communities, choosing the films and filmmakers they wanted to focus on, yet feeling connected to others who were throwing their own film viewing parties elsewhere.

New Negress Film Society at IU Cinema

New Negress Film Society at IU Cinema

So I extended that invitation and repeated it over and over again. The invitation went out via social media. It was open to everyone and anyone. It spread virally. Not in the explosive way people often think of things going viral, but in a gentle, easy way. It went person to person until in September 2015 film lovers were indeed engaged in a #DirectedbyWomen Worldwide Film Viewing Party. It really was amazing. I’m deeply appreciative of everyone who dove in and helped make it happen. All the time leading up to the global party I was thinking of it as a one-time thing, but people kept talking about what they would do next year. It took on a life of its own and so we’re doing another this coming September. Only this time we’re spreading out to take the whole month. And again everyone’s invited. I’m hoping we’ll be able to reach out to even more people and more venues this year.

How much support do you have for your #DirectedbyWomen initiatives? Do you work with a staff or do you do most of this work on your own?

There’s been so much love for the initiative. Lots of people engaging, sharing information, and, of course, creating the incredible film viewing parties last September. All of the #DirectedbyWomen Worldwide Film Viewing Parties arose from people who felt inspired by the invitation to make something really fun happen in their part of the world or online. So much support. And bloggers and other media outlets spread the word. I’m so appreciative of that. People tweeted, shared on Facebook, etc.

Last year in the ramp up to the #DirectedbyWomen Worldwide Film Viewing Party an Action Team formed, made up of volunteers who felt moved to engage in preparations. We met in a Facebook group. The party would not have been possible without their contributions. Last summer a few interns stepped up to help out as well. That was great. I’m looking to invite a few interns to join in again this summer—virtually from wherever they are in the world.

I don’t have any staff. In 2014 I ran a crowdfunding campaign to raise awareness of the #DirectedbyWomen Worldwide Film Viewing Party and to generate a little money to operate from. I’ve just launched a new #DirectedbyWomen Generosity Campaign to cover expenses and give me more flexibility to continue to do the work I have been doing, to coordinate with people interested in co-creating #DirectedbyWomen2016, and to expand some of the #DirectedbyWomen resources.

But it’s more than just a fundraiser. The campaign is designed to mobilize 8,903-plus individuals each giving $1 or more to honor and highlight the 8,903 women film directors listed on #DirectedbyWomen’s website when I launched the campaign on May 1. It’s an ambitious plan, but I hope everyone who hears about it will chip in $1 (or more). I hope filmmakers and film lovers who find out about this will join our growing movement of film lovers who value women film directors.

Some of the most compelling #DirectedbyWomen work is your tally of films directed by women “8,981… and counting!”

Ah … that’s actually a tally of WOMEN who have directed film. The list is up to 8,981 … and counting at the moment. That’s almost 9,000 women who have directed! The list grows every week—often every day. Some of the information is shared by filmmakers and their fans using this Google Form, but the majority is content I’ve gleaned from resources I track online on a daily basis. It’s a work in progress. Definitely.

I still have no idea how many women have directed/are directing, but I’m eager to find out and doing what I can to bring them all together in one space to acknowledge their existence, honor the motion pictures they’ve manifested, and help film lovers learn about and explore their work. It’s time consuming, but I have to say that it is deeply satisfying. I feel such an outpouring of love when I’m engaged in the work.

Why do you think it is important to provide people with actual numbers when it comes to this issue?

Whenever I hear people declare that there are very few women film directors, I feel a surge of energy flow through me, renewing my commitment to encourage noticing, acknowledging, sharing, and celebrating as many women who direct film as I possibly can.

So few people really seem to grasp the numbers of women who have directed and are directing. The dominant narrative highlighting that the film industry is rife with discriminatory practices leaves many with the notion that there aren’t many women film directors. The list I’ve been compiling challenges that belief. Noticing is crucial to perceptual shifts arising and shifts in perception alter reality. So let’s really get serious about noticing women film directors and their work.

I invite everyone who would like to see women film directors flourish to put their attention on the women who have directed and are directing. Put attention on their work. Let that be the focus. Share and enjoy and share more. Become deeply knowledgeable. Expand your consciousness.

You’re also planning the second yearly Worldwide Film Viewing Party from September 1 to 30, 2016. Can you tell us what the first iteration was like and how people can participate in the 2016 version?

As I mentioned above, we’re gearing up for another #DirectedbyWomen Worldwide Film Viewing Party. We’re claiming the entire month of September. Participants who enjoyed the experience last year are gearing up to engage again this year, and others are discovering the initiative and thinking about what they might want to do.

A Worldwide Film Viewing Party in Spain

A Worldwide Film Viewing Party in Spain

It’s hard to describe the experience, because events were created by so many different people. Some involved individuals simply chose to watch films by women directors in what I call solo celebrations. People had family movie nights, threw house parties, screened films in community spaces, and at cinemas. And some went big with multi-day festivals.

Community reports about some of the 2015 #DirectedbyWomen Film Viewing Parties can be found here. One of the really exciting adventures that arose in 2015’s global party took place in Spain. A collective of women filmmakers there heard about the party, and proceeded to create a five-day festival and conference spread out between Barcelona and Madrid. They’re already preparing for this year’s Directed by Women BCN · MAD. Their #DirectedbyWomenSpain activities are invigorating.

There are so many things I could share—large and small events—including online conversations, streaming parties. What made the Worldwide Film Viewing Party particularly rich was the awareness that each event was part of a larger process. The feeling of togetherness and sharing across distances was palpable.

I’m really excited to share that experience with even more people this year. How to participate? Add events to the Global Calendar. Have fun. Invite others to join you. Share about the events online using the hashtag #DirectedbyWomen2016 when posting about Worldwide Film Viewing Parties.

One of your newest initiatives is #DirectedbyWomen’s Global Community Calendar. What prompted you to develop this calendar and why do you think it is important to hold all these events in one place?

I was looking for a way for people to share their #DirectedbyWomen Film Viewing Party events that would make it easy for visitors to discover events by location. And I thought it made sense to open the process up to include events year-round. It’s a great way to find out about organizations and venues that are prioritizing women-directed content. And actually it’s a great way to just find out about amazing films, even if you’re not going to be able to attend the events. It’s just getting started, but already I find it to be a rich resource.

Something I really like about this calendar system is that anyone can add events using a simple online form. And it’s even easier for the system to import Facebook event pages.

A Worldwide Film Viewing Party in India

A Worldwide Film Viewing Party in India

Your Twitter feed is an influential force in helping support the work of women filmmakers. What are your strategies to social media?

Thank you for saying that. Twitter has been a lively place for sharing. The @DirectedbyWomen account recently passed the 10,000 follower mark. That’s satisfying. I love that people are sharing and inviting.

My approach to social media emphasizes joyous appreciation and encourages film lovers to notice women film directors and their work. I focus on what I want to see flourishing in the world.

Every day I share a #VideoOfTheDay on the #DirectedbyWomen website, then tweet it out and share it on Facebook. I draw from the #DirectedbyWomen Vimeo channel, as well as noticing what’s showing up in my feeds. I lean toward experimental films myself, so I work on making sure I share a wide variety of kinds of films to honor the whole spectrum of work women direct.

I have a couple of Facebook lists that really help me focus on what women film directors are up to and these lists are public, so film lovers are welcome to subscribe and use them as alternate news feeds. They are Films DirectedbyWomen and Women Film Directors.

Every day I also celebrate as many women film directors’ birthdays as I can. I have birthdays for maybe a third of the directors on the list, so it’s not comprehensive, but I really like the 366 Days of Birthday Celebrations ritual. I gather images of the directors and their work. I share links to websites and videos that give people clues to what their work is like. Day after day, I’m celebrating and appreciating. I share this content on the #DirectedbyWomen TwitterTumblr and Facebook. I hope that as the year goes along it will start to sink in just how many women have directed film. It’s a time-consuming process, but I learn a lot every day. While I’m doing the celebrating, I make sure to expand the information for as many of the directors as I can, part of an ongoing process of building awareness and increasing access.

The birthday celebration is a way to counterbalance the momentum toward hyping new, hot content. If we’re going to look around and examine the terrain of women-directed work, we need to turn our attention toward women directors even when their work is not being marketed actively. I hope this process contributes to that. I’m deeply appreciative of everyone who takes time to like and share these birthday celebrations.

#DirectedbyWomen social media engagement in Tuscaloosa

#DirectedbyWomen social media engagement in Tuscaloosa

I also try to help get the word out about some crowdfunding campaigns. I encourage filmmakers to add their campaigns to the #GlobalCalendar.

I’m not able to share everything people tag me on. It’s really helpful when people use the #DirectedbyWomen hashtag so that they enter directly into the stream of conversation with the #DirectedbyWomen community.

You made a beautiful Super 8 film titled Attention to Detail Guides the Dreamer last year. What was that experience like and how has it influenced your work with #DirectedbyWomen?

Thank you so much. That moves me. I’m so glad you took time to experience the film. I loved making it. I shot on Super 8 in the woods where I live over the course of a few months during the fall of 2014. Some of the film was processed in a lab. Some was hand processed and treated during the processing with inks. All of the rolls were digitized. I micro edited the piece to respond to and reflect the original composition generated by a genetically inspired algorithm my sweetheart Scott McCaulay developed to create music following patterns found in nature. I layered, repeated, reversed, expanded images; manipulated speed; and applied some transitional effects, but none of the colors were altered during post production. I worked in a semi-trance state to access the dreaming as fully as possible while editing to invite viewers into the experience of nature as it reveals itself below the surface of form.

In January 2015 the film screened at IU Cinema as part of Iris Film Festival. I didn’t feel a strong need to share the film through festivals. Instead I decided to release the film online through my Vimeo channel. I was delighted, however, to include Attention to Detail Guides the Dreamer in the #DirectedbyWomen Experimental Film Viewing Party at Indiana University’s Wells Library last September. And we held that party on my birthday, so that was fun too. Great way to feel part of the flow of creative sharing and receiving that was at the heart of #DirectedbyWomen Worldwide Film Viewing Party. I felt inspired by #DirectedbyWomen to make the work and join the growing ranks of women who have directed film. At first I was shy about adding myself to the list of women who have directed films, but eventually I realized it was important to not hold myself apart. One way that the filmmaking influenced my work on the project was to strengthen my commitment to honoring women who have directed film rather than thinking in terms of women directors. We are all creative beings expressing ourselves in various ways.

#DirectedbyWomen is a process that honors the work that arises and has no need of assigning labels. Women who have directed film may or may not identify themselves as directors, may or may not have (or had) ambitions to direct other projects, etc. #DirectedbyWomen is a fluid exploration. We aim to honor what has arisen, what is arising, without attempting to control outcomes going forward. It’s holding space for transformation through the act of honoring and celebrate what has emerged through the work of women who have directed.

Do you have any plans to pick up the camera again any time soon?

I’m not sure about soon, but I will pick up a camera again. I do intend to make more films. I’ll see what arises. #DirectedbyWomen has been taking up quite a bit of my time these past few years. It will be interesting to see what shifts to open up time and energy for new filmmaking to emerge.

A photo of fire taken by O'Leary.

A photo of fire taken by O’Leary.

I also have an intention to adapt a friend’s novel into a screenplay. I’ve been mulling that over, but haven’t had time or focus to move ahead on that. I hope to get to that soon, because I’m eager to see the film manifest.

Through your activist work you’ve developed quite an encyclopedic sense of the current experiences and the history of women in film. What are some of the most fascinating things you’ve learned about women behind the camera?

The most fascinating thing for me is the sheer number of women who have directed. That continues to astound and delight me. I’m continually moved by how many women define themselves as directors, even when robust opportunities are not made available to them within the industry. That doesn’t stop them from recognizing themselves as directors and sharing that identity with the world. That gives me enormous confidence that as we move forward more and more women will thrive as directors in all areas of the film world.

As for encyclopedic … I feel I’ve only just begun to learn about women’s contributions to film. The #DirectedbyWomen Worldwide Film Viewing Party is my invitation to others to join me in this rich excursion into a much richer and more comprehensive awareness of film history.

What do you think the future holds for women filmmakers and how can we continue to support their work?

I’m very excited about the future for women filmmakers. Every day I become aware of more and more women directors and I see the global film community’s attention shifting toward them. Noticing is crucial. I see the film world making commitment to expanding opportunities central to the way business is conducted and discovering that their business flourishes financially and in terms of increased creativity.

When I think about the question of how to support women filmmakers’ work, I think the answer lies in turning attention to film lovers, recognizing that in the existing environment they are being deprived of rich film viewing possibilities and that is what needs to be addressed. What feels like an incredibly rich smorgasbord of viewing options is actually a highly restricted diet. Film lovers may be used to this diet and not recognize that they’re being deprived, but I see a future where people will have access to an immensely more satisfying array of film viewing choices created by many more kinds of people and opening up the possibilities of what film is and can be. These days we are in now will be remembered as a great time of transition during which we rescued film lovers.

It’s my vision that we support this transformation through invitation, noticing, sharing, celebration, and inclusion of as many members of the global film community as possible.

Any advice for women filmmakers hoping to tell stories that turn the world into a more egalitarian place?

Be completely aware that you have something remarkable to bring through into the world and we very much need you to bring it. Everyone and everything is interconnected. You’re not alone. Struggle is obsolete. Turn your attention to your authentic core self and invite your vision to arise from that deep place. Be clear that you are here to make that vision available. What you need to bring that into being will arise as well. We have no need of enemies. Co-creators are eager to engage with you. Celebrate creativity wherever you experience it. I can’t wait to celebrate with you … during the #DirectedbyWomen Worldwide Film Viewing Party and every day.

For more information about #DirectedbyWomen visit the website. You can contribute to the #DirectedbyWomen Generosity Campaign here, and follow #DirectedbyWomen on Facebook and Twitter and Tumbler. You can also visit Barbara Ann O’Leary’s profile here and Alexandra’s profile here.