Written by Giovanna Chesler
The Director of Photography circled the gear and nodded, approving the way the packages were coming back together. I was crouched over his smattering of cases in a parking lot off of Market Street, loading up a delicate array of equipment for his return trip to New York. We had worked for days on location, shooting a woman’s television show. When I got the call for this job, I thought I had landed my dream position. In eighteen months of freelancing, I had started working my way up, moving through Production Assistant, Grip, and Camera PA jobs to this shoot where I would be an Assistant Cameraperson. The Production Manager who called to hire me seemed amused to hire a woman in the role, telling me I’d be the only woman in a below-the-line crew position on set. This happened often. It seemed that Production Managers were hiring me into grip jobs readily to mix up the gender on their sets. I was happy to take the jobs on and go with the shtick as a woman who could lift heavy things and hang with the guys.
Once I got to this set, I recognized how very odd it felt to be the only woman on a crew of 20 when we were shooting a woman’s show with a female star and a team of female producers. But when the star got to set and walked toward me, I reconsidered my misgivings. Finally! I was going to meet the woman who taught me how to paint a room properly, bake the best chocolate chip cookies, and arrange a cocktail party for fifty that would never fail to amaze. As she settled next to me I effusively introduced myself: “Hello! I’m a fan of this show and it’s great to meet you and work for you.” She silently ignored my greeting. I looked straight ahead, deathly embarrassed. It was then that she changed her posture and I realized she was standing up as straight as she could and had inched closer, shoulder to shoulder, with me. She was measuring our comparative heights! Once satisfied that her stacked clogs would maintain her position as the tallest woman on set, she strolled off like a silver backed gorilla in platform sandals. That was our only interaction.
This shoot involved supporting three video Camera Operators by setting up and breaking down their gear at each of our many Bay Area locations. I was hired to work with another AC and we would share the work equally. But on set, he did very little. Mostly he sat in the truck and looked around while I busied myself wrangling cables, power and tapestock. At the end of this long and final day, he reappeared and joined the three camera operators and the DP nearby. The DP brought out a six-pack of beer and passed a bottle to each member of the camera crew, thanking them for their work this week. When each had a bottle in hand, I looked over at him and he at me. But he did not offer me the same thanks. He popped open a beer and sat down to drink. His crew followed suit. They drank and watched as I finalized the gear wrap up. Someone commented on a tattoo I have on my back that becomes visible when I bend over to pick things up. Another remarked how much weight I could carry – far more than he thought would be possible for me to manage. They all chuckled and swigged along.
I carried on with the work, but with tears in my eyes. I feared speaking up and confronting them because I desperately needed the paycheck and the imagined job that would come after this one. When I returned home and told the story to my family, furious, exhausted and demoralized, they recommended I change my goals. This was not the first time this had happened. On nearly every set I had worked on, some dude would inevitably ask me, “You sure you can lift that?” And in moments when I bent over to wrangle a cable, a low voice behind me would comment on my tattoo, revealing how he had become more interested in my ass than any other task at hand. These comments collectively shamed me and made me feel an interloper in a male space.
Thankfully, my first set position had been strikingly different. Twelve months prior, in the spring of 1997, I launched my film career by quitting a legal assistant’s job, taking classes at the incredibly supportive Film Arts Foundation in San Francisco, and by responding to calls for interns or PAs willing to work for free/food. The first film set that invited me on board included a largely queer crew on an independent short film. I was mesmerized by the energy the crew brought to their roles and the ease with which they worked together, led by a female DP who commanded respect while mentoring eager newbies (like myself). That set job was a fortuitous start to my career, but anything like it had failed to reappear in the many months of freelancing since.
I had not initially thought of film as my calling, just my obsession. Years of watching and re-watching classic films, and endless hours spent at the local art cinema in my hometown on Long Island seemed like a good waste of time, but not a potential career. In college at The University of Virginia, I focused on archaeology and women’s studies but took film theory and history classes each semester, pass/fail, as a hobby rather than a discipline. The day before I graduated, I was turning in a final exam to my gruff film professor who had taught me for three subsequent semesters without acknowledging that he recognized me. He asked what I was doing after graduation. I told him I’d be moving to Berkeley to establish residency and apply to the PhD program in archaeology there. He scoffed, “You should be a filmmaker.”
It is hard to believe that it only took two sentences from a man who could not look me in the eye to change my life. I had started to feel uneasy about my work in archaeology. It felt too heavy; I had been involved in writing part of a gendered history by asking loaded questions of illusive and opaque material objects. Ultimately, I wanted to find a way to engage with ideas of culture and gender construction. Archaeology that is mindful of gender may be possible, but to me it felt shaky. I wanted to be political without putting anyone’s history in danger – particularly as an impossibly opinionated young white woman. Film seemed like the space to achieve that. Filmmakers like Jane Campion and Trinh T. Minh-ha’s approach to gender, subjectivity and theory enlivened me. Pedro Almodóvar and Terrence Malick’s work gave me ocular orgasms and made my heart and tear ducts burst. What if I could turn an obsession into a career?
So, once in San Francisco I added my resume to the pile at the Film Arts Foundation, highly exaggerating my experience on a one-day photo assisting job. It was the late 90’s and the height of the high tech boom. There was lots of industrial work to be had and the calls started coming. Beyond the PA work, I was taking classes at night in screenwriting, directing and cinematography. I had begun reading a good amount of film theory and was particularly fascinated with the story of Babette Mangolte shooting Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Their choices in camera height and duration of take were thoroughly feminist. Though I had yet to see the film (which was only available on film at the time), I studied the stills and dreamed of merging theory and craft as sublimely.
Prior to this TV job as an Assistant Camera, I had imagined I would become a cinematographer. But the day after the television shoot, I changed course, deciding that I would work to create that dream set – becoming a director rather than a crewmember. In this role, I would make feminist sets AND feminist films. I started by dedicating myself full time to a production management position for a documentary film where I had been volunteering two days a week. I was offered a full time gig as the production started to take off. At first, I turned it down, as it meant far less money than I would earn freelancing. But in light of the effects of freelancing on my psyche, I rethought the potential of this position.
The doc was called Wild at Start: High Technology Adventures and the American Dream. We followed a dozen Silicon Valley high tech startups around for two years, amassing 250 hours of material and eventually a feature length doc. Sadly, the doc floundered. We had captured companies taking off, but released it as the bubble burst to an audience that didn’t want to witness over-inflation at work. Learning by failure, however, taught me a tremendous lesson in producing, timelines, and sustaining energy and focus for the duration of a film project. Plus, the experience of working with smart, creative, dedicated and progressive folks on a daily basis was invaluable. The entire crew of the doc had met at San Francisco State in the MFA program in Cinema. They encouraged me to apply and I entered the program in the Fall of 1999.
SF State taught me how to be a self-sufficient filmmaker and there I started my production company G6 Pictures. I learned every element of film production through hands on experience, from cinematography and lighting to sound design, Foley recording, mixing and even hand processing! The program gives film theory, practice and craft equal weight, which was perfect for my nerdy self. It prepared me well as an academic filmmaker through coursework in teaching and writing. I was not adequately trained in fundraising and promotion, however, and I continue to struggle to build professional connections that often come with other MFA programs. I produced three films at State, a trilogy called BeauteouS (three portraits of myself and my two sisters and our relationships to beauty) which did well and earned awards and screenings at about 50 international film festivals. The films were paid for through grants and student loans. SF State is a relatively inexpensive school to attend and most of what students take out on loans will go into their films, rather than toward tuition.
I laugh sometimes at the idea that my first film screening was for BeauteouS: Stephanie at the Chicago International Film Festival in 2000. The film won the Gold Plaque for Best Student Documentary there. I knew nothing of promotion at the time and attended the festival only for my film, foolishly skipping out on any parties or awards events and failing to use the event as an opportunity to meet funders, distributors and other directors. I still kick myself at the memory of standing in the theater lobby of the Music Box, alone, next to Agnes Varda, as The Gleaners and I began. Beauteous: Stephanie was screening on the screen next door. I was too shy and inexperienced to approach her and didn’t understand until much later that moments like that would not come back again (or that Gleaners would become my favorite documentary film).
While in my final year at State, as I was completing my fiction film BeauteouS, I realized that to continue make explicitly feminist films I would most likely remain in academia. The idea of working within an institution as a filmmaker excited me – academic freedom, unlimited library access, engaging colleagues, and lectures and screenings! Through what seemed like a semester long course on building your academic portfolio, I revised some papers, honed a teaching philosophy statement, a thorough CV, and a lengthy letter of application that articulated my voice and goals as a filmmaker. With these, I applied to two teaching positions – one short term and one tenure track. I was incredibly lucky and fortunate to land an Assistant Professorship at the University of California, San Diego in the Department of Communication. As an interdisciplinary department, my colleagues there expressed appreciation for my background in anthropology, women’s studies and archaeology. They also responded to the scholarly writing that I had produced at State and were excited by BeauteouS: Stephanie which is a text that speaks to the body, disability, and beauty.
At UCSD, I produced the hour-long doc Period: The End of Menstruation an examination of trends in hormonal birth control that allow women to stop their periods for months and years at a time. I also made a short doc, hand-some that addressed my sexuality and my relationship to documentary filmmaking. In 2007, I moved back to my home on the East coast by taking a one year position at American University in the School of Communication (where I made the Tune in HPV project with students and the Center for Social Media support). At the end of that year, I applied for a tenure track position in Communication Arts at a small liberal arts college in New York City. I joined the faculty at Marymount Manhattan College in the fall of 2008.
Thirteen years and six films later, my work has been largely supported by academic grants, individual donors and every cent I earn through my academic employment and occasional freelance work shooting for feminist artists and producing for progressive organizations. In my own work, I’ve lived up to my promise to create feminist sets, hiring four female DPs, trans and feminist male gaffers, female and feminist male sound recordists, and grips of many genders. The last film I crewed up, a short fiction film Bye Bi Love was made with an all female, multi-racial cast and crew. The female actors noted how different it felt to have a lavaliere mic attached to their shirt by a woman – the first time either of them had experienced that on any set. We wrapped our shoot with Prosecco and homemade bread pudding, tired but content, having recorded every shot we needed and ending each day on time.
Film is my passion and purpose. I spend most of my time on film related endeavors. Presently, I teach others the craft in my role as an assistant professor of digital filmmaking at Marymount. I start my first lecture in Beginning Video by raising a tripod. I don’t erect the tripod to its tallest capacity, but I watch as the students inevitably do, extending the legs to the fullest height and planting cameras on top. As the shorter, mostly female students, stand on tip toes to get the camera in place and crane their necks to see from the viewfinder, I ask them to reconsider the height of their tripod. When fully extended with a camera on top, the lens will fall at 5’ 8”. It is no coincidence that 5’ 8” is the average height of a Caucasian man’s eye. As filmstocks and light meters have been historically designed to match the skin tones of Caucasian actors rather than people of color, our video and film technologies also reify the male gender and Caucasian race in their structure and form. As feminist artists we must revaluate our tools, how we use them, how we direct others to do so on set and whom we ask to join us in our collective endeavors, knowing that each choice matters. I often look for other women directors who will hire women into key roles in their crew. Sometimes, when women directors bring all white, male crews on board, I wonder why. Not all men are sexist and not all women and trans folks are feminist, by any means. But a racist and sexist set culture has been created by Hollywood and that culture is reinscribed when we crew up without considering gender and race in hiring. It is a lot of weight to carry, to be sure, but there are many women and trans folks eager to get involved who can help women directors lift as much as any man.
To visit Giovanna’s profile, click here.