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Below-the-Line Women Speak Out on Gender and Experience

Paula Goldberg

We sat down with three women from the filmmaking industry to talk about their own experiences and the larger conversation about women in the film industry.

We conducted a roundtable with three working professionals: documentary filmmaker Crystal Kayiza, director of photography Kristy Tully, and editor Carla Gutierrez. The result is a candid and informative peek into their world as women of different ages and races working in the film industry.

Below-the-Line Women Speak Out on Gender and Experience — Edgecombe

A still from Edgecombe by Crystal Kayiza, an official selection of the Shorts Programs at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Pete Quandt.

PremiumBeat: Crystal, your short documentary, Edgecombe, was a nominee for Short Film Grand Jury Prize at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. It won the Gold Plaque at the Chicago International Film Festival. Clearly, it is beautifully realized and well received — what was the path for you in getting it made? Did you find any resistance because of your gender, race, or youth?

Crystal Kayiza: I was very fortunate to have a great support network, while making Edgecombe. I was a Woman Filmmaker Fellow at the Jacob Burns Film Center, and the project was produced through the Creative Culture program there. If anything, I think my own internalized issue with the film industry, in relation to my gender and race, was an obstacle. Even with a supportive environment, it becomes easy to second-guess your creative decisions.

I was very lucky to have this project be supported by the Sundance Ignite Fellowship and Adobe. Even applying for that fellowship felt like a huge step, and something that I didn’t deserve. For most of my film education, I wasn’t exposed to a lot of non-fiction female filmmakers — which is wild to think about today. My experience taught me that a lot of the craft was about being a technician, and those roles — cinematographer, gaffer, sound ops, editor, colorist — were for men who were supporting the vision of male directors. I’ve had a very privileged experience, in that, I’ve had mentors and programs to affirm, and support me, along the way.

Below-the-Line Women Speak Out on Gender and Experience — Carla Gutierrez

PB: We know so much of history is written about men by men. Kristy, you were cinematographer for Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins, and Carla, you edited RBG. Both subjects were larger than life women, and the directors were women. How important is it for women to champion documentaries about women driven by women, and what has been your experience with audiences for the film?

Editor Carla Gutierrez: I think it’s super important. What inspired RBG was that most people didn’t know about Justice Ginsburg’s role, in fighting for gender equality in the law, in the 70s. I was, like many, a fan of RBG, the judge, but I had no idea how crucial she was to my legal rights, as a woman. Her early work is super important in our history, and few people knew about it. So yes, to bring stories like this to the forefront is essential to complete the untold parts of our history — the stories on the margin. The stories of women.

The most exciting has been to see different generations of women go to the theaters — together — to see the film. We heard of women who would take their mothers and daughters, or granddaughters, to watch the film. And, most come out surprised that they didn’t know this part of our history. It’s been really amazing.

Kristy Tully: It just makes sense to me that women would be interested in other kick-ass women, and want to shine a light on their contribution. I had such a great time working with Janice, the director on this film. Molly Ivins is a huge inspiration, reminding us to speak truth to power, raise hell, and have fun while you’re doing it. Audiences have responded really well. It’s just so timely. What she was writing about 20 years ago is somehow even more relevant today. She was a journalist before twitter, and social media, and you just gotta wonder what she’d be adding to the discourse in this country, if she were alive today.

We just won the audience award at SXSW, and we had a wonderful heartfelt response at Sundance. The film will go on to several more festivals across the country, starting next week, and I’m just really excited for people to get excited by the film, and inspired by this great Texan!

Below-the-Line Women Speak Out on Gender and Experience — Molly Ivins

Molly Ivins.

PB: Do you think there is any validity to the female gaze? If the director, cinematographer, or editor is female, and the subject is also female, the object of the film takes on a different role?

Carla: Yes, I strongly feel that there is validity to the female gaze. From picking the subject, to the focus of the story or narrative approach, our perspective as women informs every aspect of our storytelling. It offers, I think, more complete images of female subjects.

For example, during post production on RBG, the directors conveyed early on how important it was to show Justice Ginsburg as an older woman, in present day. Not to only focus on her days as a young lawyer, but really show the splendor of her later years, visually, and return to those present moments, often. I think that conscious decision to focus on how much power and intellect a woman carries on her wrinkles, and how sexy that is, really came through in the way we approached the footage.

Kristy: I think the female gaze is as real as the male gaze. I believe, however, that it is a choice the film makers make when deciding a film’s point of view, rather than if females or males are behind the camera.

At the beginning of a project, you talk about the subject of the film, and then, more specifically, what the film is about. What is the camera visually saying, what is the camera’s prerogative, which can be different than what the film’s subject matter. I’ve been a part of the male gaze, and I’ve seen men contribute to the female gaze.

Honestly, I’m not doing justice to the real conversation, here, about female gaze vs. male gaze. Is the female gaze simply the opposite of the male gaze — it is objectification of men on screen. Or, is there a female centric vision that is slowly making its way into our film culture, which would better represent the notion of the female gaze? But, that discussion is probably for another day 🙂

Crystal: I think all visual storytellers need to be conscious of gaze. I think people who identify as women, who are directors, cinematographers, editors, designers, production assistants, or wherever you are on set, are sometimes pushed to move through spaces, differently, because of how we see gender on set, or in the field. I believe that the way that women do and don’t experience power, in film, changes our perspective. What’s stunning about this medium, particularly non-fiction storytelling, is the way that women are using that experience to challenge the ways we tell stories.

Below-the-Line Women Speak Out on Gender and Experience — Crystal Kayiza

Crystal Kayiza, director of Edgecombe, an official selection of the Shorts Programs at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Andrea Gutierrez.

PB: Gersha Phillips, costume designer for Star Trek: Discovery, had this to say after we suggested her designs were sexy, but not sexist. The women looked amazing, but unexploited. “Sexy means something different to every person you talk to, and I love working with that. My goal was to empower the female and male cast equally.”

How often, when you work on a project, do you feel the female characters are as empowered as the men? And, in regard to the actor, are women given the same agency as men, in terms of being heard and respected?

Crystal: In documentary film, I think a lot about how women are seen. There’s casting that happens in non-fiction storytelling as well, and it’s important to remain conscious of who is speaking on behalf of communities, and depending on the topic, who we see as experts within documentary projects. People, often times, engage with documentaries as a representation of a community. In our culture, many women aren’t believed when they say the same things as men, or aren’t seen, when they move through frames, the same way as men. As a director, I have to be conscious of that bias, and challenge those assumptions.

Kristy: I’ve had the pleasure to work on two documentaries, recently, that are about empowered women getting attention right now. Feminists, What Are They Thinking (Netflix) and Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins (Sundance, SXSW 2019). I feel like there is a collective consciousness, right now, that’s interested in telling and seeing these stories.

I, also, work as a sometimes camera operator on TV series. I worked on I Love Dick, which is basically a moving meditation on the female gaze; Transparent  and Big Little Lies, which is dedicated to empowered women, both in front of, and behind, the camera. I also, recently, operated on Good Girls: Season 2. I filled in for a camera operator while she had a baby. Think about how rare of a sentence that is! The show is about empowered, accidental money laundering…..women. I think it speaks to the times that seem to be surrounded by woman centric projects, and also speaks to the effort that is actively working to cultivate female talent.

I was given an opportunity to work on I Love Dick partly because of my documentary experience, and more importantly, because of Jill Solloway’s and Jim Frohna’s intent to cultivate female talent. I feel so fortunate to have been able to be a part of these projects. They are leading the way in this area.

Carla: Well, as a documentary editor, we have the chance to write the story in collaboration with the director. There are already rich stories, in the footage, we are given to work with, and I’ve been lucky enough to work on many films about real-life, strong female characters. From the extraordinary singer Chavela Vargas, to the only professional female bullfighter in Spain, to a nun helping families find their disappeared relatives in the corrupt landscape of the US-Mexico drug war. I think there are more complex, diverse stories of empowered women in documentaries than you might find in fiction films. But, there could be a lot more.

Below-the-Line Women Speak Out on Gender and Experience — Carla Gutierrez

PB: We recently interviewed cinematographer, Carolina Costa, and asked how gender plays a role in the way she works, is respected, and heard. This is what she had to say:

It’s definitely getting better. I can see big changes in the 15 years I have in our industry, but we still have a ways to go. It’s funny to answer this question today because, just two weeks ago, I was mentoring a young woman and was mentioning that my gender was a much bigger issue at the beginning of my career, than it is now. Cut to two days later, on the film I am shooting right now, and some technical crew that came with a crane were mansplaining to me how a crane worked — I was baffled. And this was to make an excuse, why they couldn’t execute with precision, the shot I had requested. A few days after, I was interviewing MOVI operators for the same job, and I can’t get off my mind the face of disgust that this one guy had, once he realized I was going to be his boss. That being said, both my producer and my director, who are males, were also shocked by the situation.

Have you had similar experiences?

Crystal: I’m fortunate to, mostly, work with people I trust. I’m not afraid to ask questions. Regardless of scale, there are so many moving parts to making a film, and posturing disrupts the creative process. In that sense, I’m lucky. I’ve seen, and been in situations, where one question turns into waiting for men to finish explaining something you know how to do. I’ve watched men ask questions and be seen as thoughtful and intelligent, and when women ask the same thing, they’re seen as unqualified. It’s the culture of how we communicate. It’s simple decisions like only hiring male PA’s because “they’ll get the job done,” but not a woman — the underlying assumption being that she’ll need more help. One piece of advice I got from a male producer was that it’s beneficial, for women who direct, to know the craft as well, or better, than men so that you can retain creative control of your work. But, that’s been my upbringing, in a lot of ways, as a black woman. Hearing that I need to be twice as good.

Carla: I have had MANY instances of mansplaining. Other male editors “showing” me how to do a pretty basic shortcut on my edit system, as if they were showing me the world. Or a male assistant editor, talking over my head to the producers, about how to do the color correction for the film (he was totally wrong, by the way). I think that there is still a little ambivalence to hear from a woman about how to handle the technical aspects of an edit. I have worked with many amazing male directors, and I have the utmost respect for them. But, I sometimes have to wonder if my creative opinion is perceived with a little more resistance, because of my gender (or my thick accent). I don’t quite know if that’s correct. The edit room is such a delicate, creative space, that many factors are at play when you face a roadblock, or when magic happens.

It is very encouraging to see so many women documentary editors in our community. And I think there is a real camaraderie among us. I consider many of them mentors, who’ve had a significant impact in my career, and my creative development. The one thing I would like to find out is if we are at the same salary level, as the men – based on similar experience, of course. That’s something I’m curious about.

Below-the-Line Women Speak Out on Gender and Experience — Kristy Tully

Kristy Tully.

Kristy: I think a dialogue is important. I am cautious about framing these sorts of discussions, in ways that even might be construed of being answered from the place of “other,” because I don’t think it serves us. The truth is, there is bad behavior, sometimes, on set. I have stopped pathologizing the behavior, and instead, moved to surround myself with people that are collaborative, interested, and talented. In doing this, I think I have become available to some wonderful opportunities, to work with people who are amazing communicators and collaborators. Of course, there will continue to be bad behavior on set, and I invite women to stop questioning if their gender plays a role in it, and start wondering how to move away from negative energy, and encourage the kind of working environment that is enthusiastically creative.

Jill Solloway is a wonderful example to mention here, as well. She strives to create a working environment that builds people up, and gives people room to grow. My first day on her set of I Love Dick was really surprising. I was used to the quick-witted, slightly inappropriate, banter I had become so fluent in (and good at).

It was challenging to put aside my defense mechanisms, and become invested in being a part of a creative, supportive collective. I admire her for it, and I take that spirit with me to my other projects. I try to create an environment of respect, collaboration, and encouragement. It’s easy to be sarcastic and judgmental, on set. I’ve worked hard to put that easy go-to vocabulary aside, and work to be more communicative and positive in my problem solving, on set. That is a great discussion to have when thinking about this topic.


Cover image via Kristy Tully.

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