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Filmmaking Has a Gender Problem. Here’s What Happened When Canada Tried to Solve It

7 minute read

In the wake of the ongoing, epic scandal involving Harvey Weinstein — and a growing number of men in positions of power — a haunting question has emerged. How many women were forced out of a business where they are already disproportionately outnumbered, and how many simply fled, out of fear of having additional sexual harassment or assault?

A recent article in The Guardian outlined how numerous women bailed on the film and TV milieu, one that has already come under fire for being ludicrously male-dominated. It is often pointed out how few women sit in the coveted director’s chair. Indeed, when Wonder Woman became one of the box-office sensations of the past year, it was noted that the film’s director, Patty Jenkins, had not made a feature film in 14 years — and that gap in time seems all the more strange when one considers that her last feature, Monster, garnered considerable critical acclaim (including being listed on many critics’ top-ten lists) while winning its star (Charlize Theron) the best-actress Oscar for her portrayal of tortured serial killer Aileen Wournos.

But while trying to figure out how and where to create opportunities for women filmmakers, a look back at a Canadian experiment in getting more women behind cameras is well worth examining. In the early ’70s, Canada’s National Film Board — which operates entirely on federal government funding — was coming under fire for being too male-dominated. The NFB, which had been launched in 1939 as a way for Canadian filmmakers to tell Canadian stories for Canadians, had long been associated with documentaries, and in later years experimental and animated films. But as one technician who worked at the Board, Kathleen Shannon, noted, women were still being overlooked to write and direct films. And that, she forcefully argued, was simply unacceptable in an organization like the NFB, which was run entirely by tax payer dollars. As a publicly-funded agency, the Board had a responsibility to reflect all Canadian citizens, regardless of their sex.

While facing an uphill battle, 1974 presented a unique and opportune moment in time: the U.N. declared it the Year of the Woman, recognizing the economic, social and political disadvantages women faced globally. Shannon made the argument that the NFB needed its own studio for women filmmakers, one dedicated to making films by women, for women and about women’s issues. In essence, the studio would act as one giant affirmative-action program, carving out a space where women would get the opportunity to call the shots.

The NFB agreed, giving Studio D a modest budget and some room in the basement of their Montreal headquarters for office space. At first, the Studio was met with some derision. Shannon used to tell the story of one male producer at the Board, who said he would eat the celluloid of the first successful film made by Studio D.

But a funny thing happened on the way to failure: Studio D began succeeding, making fascinating films about social issues that pushed boundaries, gained attention and audiences, films that traveled well and even ended up winning Oscars. It was a success that even surprised Shannon and her Studio D colleagues.

In 1977, Studio D would produce I’ll Find a Way, Beverly Shaffer’s poignant film about a girl who is dealing with a disability (spina bifida), but who manages to remain optimistic about her future despite the challenges she faces. To this day, the film remains a frank reminder of the challenges young disabled people contend with on a daily basis. Its intentionally heartwarming tone worked, winning over the Academy and winning Studio D its first Oscar in the short-documentary category.

In 1983, filmmaker Terre Nash would retrieve recently-declassified footage of survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear blasts by the American military. She used this footage to illustrate the horrors of nuclear warfare, as she captured the lecture of peace activist and physician Dr. Helen Caldicott. The film, titled If You Love This Planet, won huge praise and was noteworthy for including footage of then-President Ronald Reagan, seen through ironic hindsight in jingoistic propaganda films made during a bygone era. The Reagan administration was so alarmed by this film, they labeled it propaganda, a rarely-used legal action that meant If You Love This Planet would have its distribution restricted. But the move by the administration — which was then overseeing the largest peacetime military buildup in American history — backfired, making If You Love This Planet the film everyone had to see. The controversy made it a cause celebre, and on Oscar night If You Love This Planet would win in the short documentary category. In her acceptance speech, Nash thanked the Reagan Administration for the publicity they gave her film.

Studio D would win another Oscar the following year, for Cynthia Scott’s frenetic dance film, Flamenco at 5:15, also in the short documentary category. The Studio became renowned for controversy: their 1982 feature film, Not a Love Story: A Film About Pornography, polarized audiences; while some felt it was a much-needed expose on the horrors of the porn industry, others saw it as a puritanical response to pornography, one that leaned dangerously close to advocating censorship and sexual repression.

Studio D did face criticism for being too prone to favor second-wave feminism — placing the focus on domestic violence and daycare while neglecting the concerns of then-emerging third-wave feminism, including the perspectives of women of color, sex workers and queer and trans women.

Some of that criticism would be addressed when Studio D released Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives in 1992. This brilliant, audacious film profiles nine older Canadian lesbians, who talk about the roadblocks they faced in coming of age in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. They regale the audience with stories of bar raids, custody disputes, social alienation and isolation, and discrimination from co-workers. This film is noteworthy for the rigorous research of filmmakers Lynne Fernie and Aerlyn Weissman, but also for the sheer resilience of the women who are portrayed; they never once come across as victims, but rather proud, victorious survivors.

Studio D would come to an end in 1996, a victim in large part of government cuts, which saw the NFB’s budget reduced drastically. Founder Shannon would lament the end of Studio D, telling me in an interview at the time that “it’s a loss of possibilities for communities outside the dominant culture to make films, because Studio D’s been the only place with that kind of commitment… I think the really critical thing for everyone though, is that this is a loss of perspective that’s different from the corporate culture.”

I still screen all of these films in my classes whenever I can. They remain vital, fresh and pertinent, and in many cases were films made by first-time directors. They prove that when a space is carved out for women to pursue filmmaking, they can succeed on their own terms, and create cinema that is distinct, powerful and every bit as full of creative ideas as films made by men.

Shannon passed away in 1998, but up until her death she used to recall the story of the NFB producer who predicted disaster for the trailblazing women’s studio, the man who said he’d eat the celluloid of the first successful film Studio D ever made.

“I’m still waiting for him to eat it,” she’d say, laughing.

A Montreal-based author and journalist, Matthew Hays teaches courses in film studies at Concordia University and Marianopolis College. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian and The Daily Beast.

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