In New Zealand, we like to think of our film industry as pioneering. We’ve got Weta Workshop, Peter Jackson, Taika Waititi, Andrew Adamson—who made Shrek and Narnia—and Jemaine Clement from Flight of the Conchords. But it also has a dark underside that we don’t like to talk about. When people play devil’s advocate and ask if gender discrimination is even a problem in our industry, I ask if they can name a woman director from New Zealand. On a good day, they’ve heard of Jane Campion. However, I’m still yet to find anyone who can name a second.
If you’re a woman who wants to make films, why is it so hard? Diane Twiss, the first women sound recordist in New Zealand, spent eight years in her apprenticeship, when her male colleagues only had to train for six months because it was policy at the National Film Unit that women were not allowed out with film crews until after 1973. By 2013, when I received my Bachelor’s, discrimination had moved from outright policy to more subtle tactics, with only 9% of the New Zealand Film Commission grants for feature film development going to women. This problem isn’t unique to New Zealand, and women filmmakers around the world know this struggle.
I became increasingly aware that the likelihood I would break into the traditional circuit of cinemas, festivals, or television was pretty slim. Even at Women in Film and Television events, when stated that I wanted to direct, I was looked at like a unicorn—a mythical creature that shouldn’t exist. So I started a search for even rarer unicorns—women who were beating the odds and actually getting their work out there. For my thesis, I set out to interview New Zealand women directors, writers, and producers about their experiences, specifically those outside of cinema, festivals, and television. YouTube does not discriminate when you create an account. PledgeMe and GoFundMe provide money that the New Zealand Film Commission does not. With over one billion hours of video being watched on YouTube every day, online platforms don’t just offer women equal opportunities to make and publish their work, but also an engaged audience who is more than willing to put their money where their mouth is. I turned these interviews into a web series, condensing the information into ten-minute snapshots of these women’s experiences with gender discrimination, online platforms, and success, and released them for free on YouTube. My participants were varied. The Candle Wasters made their first web series while still in high school. Their original series has over a million views on YouTube, and they are now onto their fourth and fifth web series. Another participant, Tegan Morris, uses her YouTube channel and public speaking background to show the reality of navigating life with disabilities. With thirteen participants and nine videos, I covered women who had been to film school, women who didn’t own a television, women who were single mothers, women who had moved to London for better YouTube opportunities, and so many more.
Several participants had turned to making their own web series after dealing with sexism and harassment on set. Some also talked about the struggle to find mentors and models to base their own careers off; with the invisibility of women filmmakers brought up time and time again. Each participant talked about the importance of telling authentic stories—sharing their experiences and making and changing the way people think about what stories by, and about, women can be like. When my grandma asks me how I plan on becoming a successful filmmaker, I don’t tell her about Peter Jackson anymore. Instead, I tell her about these women—women who are telling stories that have never been given the audience or respect. These stories are now being told by authentic storytellers, whether they’re vlogs about motherhood, web series representing diverse teenagers, or feminist parodies of breakfast television shows. These women are completely redefining the industry.
To my knowledge, my research is the first of its kind in the world. It’s not just an academic text, but a web series produced about women, made by a woman, and uses the same platforms that the participants discuss. Rather than including more quantitative research showing the percentages of women locked out, the web series puts faces, emotions, and anecdotes with experiences that happen every day. It provides information for policy makers and guilds to address systemic issues in more depth, rather than just saying “women aren’t being funded,” it explains specifically how their experiences relate to being locked out of the industry, from sexist comments on set, to not studying anything by women in film school. Moreover, the importance of being available on YouTube; it’s accessible, not locked up behind a paywall.
The web series gives advice and inspiration for young women interested in film, who were just like me, questioning whether they could even succeed in this industry at all. So many of my participants talked about how they go out of their way to support young women entering the industry, and how filmmakers reach out to them.
Online Heroines is a platform where women who would otherwise be overlooked have the chance to be seen as the trailblazers and leaders that they are. When I launched my web series, I invited some of the students I tutor in undergraduate video production to come to the event. I was so pleased when afterwards, several of the male students commented on how much they’d learnt from watching the interviews, not just about gender inequality, but also about creating interesting, compelling work for platforms that didn’t even exist 15 years ago.
Whether you’re a government policy maker, fresh out of film school, or a seasoned feminist filmmaker, I hope my research has something for you, and that it can add to the conversations happening worldwide about our industry. It’s inspired me to find that there is a community of women ready to support each other, share our stories, and make the industry a safer place. I feel like a lifelong career in filmmaking is something which is now achievable for me and for other women. I’m hoping to do a second round of interviews for Online Heroines once my thesis is handed in, wanting to highlight more women doing amazing work, and keep up with the ever changing nature of online platforms.
You can find Louise’s web series here.