When Women Direct

Client portrait: How SDI's new women's directory is offering fresh hope for Scotland's documentary makers in waiting. 

I’m Hannah, and I am a documentary filmmaker. That’s me holding the camera on the cover of the new Women Direct(ory), which launches this week as part of the 50|50+ Women Direct campaign by the Scottish Documentary Institute. This directory, developed by Film & Campaign, will create a Scotland-wide pool of female-identifying documentary talent who are waiting for the call, waiting for an opportunity to challenge the shockingly low numbers of women making films. When SDI 50|50+ launched, only 16% of Scotland’s documentaries were directed by women.

How I came to hold my camera is a story 20 years in the making – because I knew I wanted to make documentaries from the age of nine, but did not consider that I could actually become a director until the age of 29. What stopped me? And what stops other women? Those are some big questions, and they require big answers. Here goes!

I’ll try to keep my own story brief. I started out in journalism as a teenager, writing features for Scottish newspapers. The 2008 crash put a stop to that career path, with papers cutting most of their freelancers. In truth I had always wanted a career in TV, but without any contacts, my attempts to find work experience were unsuccessful. I went on to study a degree in History, having no inkling that TV production courses actually existed (my school careers advisor advised against a career in media and gave me precisely zero leads). I ended up in marketing, until a small indie production company in Edinburgh took a chance on me and hired me as production manager. In this role and my next as commercial producer at STV Creative, I learned so much about the industry - but all of the directors I worked with were male. They seemed to know everything about cameras and angles and commanded such authority in their role that I, with no clue where to start and no confidence, came to believe I couldn’t possibly do that job.

My path to becoming a documentary director was going to be a long one

It took me until age 27 to leave commercial production and try to navigate my way into documentary. I met a talent manager at BBC who asked me ‘what I wanted to be when I grow up’ and told me that my commercial production skills did not translate to television production. Again, an indie gave me a chance, hiring me as a researcher on a Channel 4 programme (for those not in the know, roles in television tend to begin with production runner, then production assistant, then researcher, assistant producer, and finally producer/director). It dawned on me that my path to becoming a documentary director was going to be a long one: the promised ‘learning on the job’ opportunities just never materialised, and despite being told I was good enough to be an assistant producer, no one seemed willing to promote me.

Frustrated, I threw caution to the wind and left television to go back to school, completing a one year masters in documentary directing at Goldsmiths in London. I was fortunate enough to gain a TV commission from my graduation film – this got the ball rolling, and the next few years are a blur of receiving funding for my second film from Screen Scotland and Scottish Documentary Institute, winning a BAFTA for That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore, directing another television documentary and winning a new commission, which I start filming this summer. I have to say that BBC Scotland and the space it creates for new directors has been invaluable to kicking off my career – so new opportunities are emerging for women, and it’s encouraging to see – but I still feel like I’m ‘catching up’ most of the time.

Dismissed, discouraged, disconnected – and still feeling like I'm 'catching up'

Only in hindsight have I realised how many hurdles I jumped to get here: my dream was dismissed in high school, discouraged by prospective employers and professionals; I did not have contacts in the industry and found it difficult to get in the door; and when I got in, I worked in a world where directors were mostly male.

“There is a very clear, very vicious cycle in the film industry which blights women at every stage of their career,” says Maria Mackenzie of SDI, where she is Head of Fundraising and 50|50+ Women Direct Campaign Manager. “There is systemic bias which means the role of the director is engendered – so there are many men in the industry, and not many women. Because filmmaking is challenging, filmmakers tend to work with the same people again and again – so men tend to get the jobs because they are more visible in the industry, and women don’t develop the experience they need to break into directing, which perpetuates the image that a male director is a safe pair of hands.”

Less film funding for women

Women also get less funding, and therefore work with lower budgets on their films. The Equality Matters report by Screen Scotland in 2018 showed that only 20% of their documentary funding went to women – pretty shocking.

Inma de ReyesFilmmaker Inma de Reyes is not surprised: “As someone who is entering the industry, 80% of my applications get turned down, if not more. For women now, we usually have to rely on job opportunities that ‘tick the box’ of gender equality. Opportunities are very much appreciated but these are generally lower paid, lower ranked roles. For me, it is a race I am constantly running. I dream of the day that talent will overrule gender, but until the industry recognises the lack of opportunities given to women today, we must rely on each other.”

The Scottish Documentary Institute has always been a trailblazer in developing female talent – run by Noe Mendelle and (until recently) Sonja Henrici, the organisation consists almost entirely of women and has launched the careers of many female documentary filmmakers – myself included. But SDI began to notice a pattern emerge: that from their mixed-gender initiatives, men went on to launch themselves into the industry fairly quickly, whilst women were witnessing problems when trying to rise up the ranks. Most fell away from the industry; those who stayed often found themselves pigeon-holed as producers. When Maria uncovered the shocking statistic that only 16% of Scotland’s documentaries were directed by women, “we thought this is ridiculous, we’ve met so many women who have encountered these problems – we need to do something. That’s how the campaign started.”

The aim: 50% of Scottish documentaries directed by women 

With 50|50+ Women Direct, SDI is on a mission to reach 50% of Scottish docs directed by women by 2025. The ‘+’ is to include cis women, trans women, genderqueer, femme/feminine-identifying non-binary filmmakers. “We want to break the cycle, address all of the barriers,” says Maria.

These barriers include a clear lack of confidence in women, feeling isolated on the edges of the industry and not knowing how to navigate in, fighting to get paid fairly or credited for their work, and fears over being a filmmaker and a parent. Another problem is a lack of role models – SDI 50|50+ responded by launching New Voices, an initiative connecting documentary filmmakers with mentors and each other. New Voices is just for women and a safe space to talk about internal barriers. For the first round, SDI received 64 applications for nine places – a clear indicator of the number of women seeking guidance in their documentary career. “It’s been brilliant, it’s worked so well,” says Maria. “Because once women have more self-belief, they get over the fear and go for the opportunities.” Maria proudly tells me the programme has resulted in four new features in development, five new TV commissions, five successful funding applications, and 10 meetings lined up with commissioners and funders.

Bircan BirolWhen documentary filmmaker Bircan Birol was selected for the latest cohort of New Voices, she told SDI 50|50+: “I’m in love with documentaries. I know what I want to do in my life, but it doesn’t mean I know how.” Bircan is being modest – her beautiful film My Name Is Anik was created as part of SDI’s Bridging the Gap initiative, which is how we met – but I relate to her lack of confidence. Bircan does not hold back when I ask her about the current position of women in the industry: “We scream for equality and diversity. This is a constant fight for all women filmmakers. Mentally, economically, even physically. I often feel like I have to prove myself and sometimes, I end up not even applying for the job because a wee voice inside me says: ‘A cis white male will get this job. Don’t waste your time, don’t get your hopes up.’”

Barriers of classicism and ableism

Filmmaker Kiana Kalantar-Hormozi is a recent graduate of New Voices. She says: “Overall, the industry is not accessible, and I mean access in a broad sense. Classicism as well as ableism. If films are meant to represent our reality back at us, we need diverse filmmakers to make content.” Kiana has spinal muscular atrophy and has faced constant barriers to a career in the industry: most production companies are based in non-accessible venues without fully accessible toilets – “imagine going to work and not being able to use the bathroom” – and before the pandemic, Kiana was told that the roles she applied for could not be done from home. Many entry-level roles are such low pay that they would not sustain the cost of living for Kiana, who has to factor in wheelchair repair costs and taxis, and a lot of roles require driving. But with the help of New Voices, “I’ve figured out the path I want to take – as an artist and filmmaker with an authored stance. The role I want in the industry isn’t out there as a job for me to apply to, so I’m going to take small steps towards making my own content and finding ways to fund it. I’m building my own media conglomerate in the near future!”

Kiana Kalantar-HormoziKiana has already used the Women Direct(ory) to identify opportunities for collaboration with other women. The directory is intended to promote visibility of women at any stage of their career – opening up paid work opportunities and making it easier to find female talent. “A lot of people say they don’t know where to find female crew,” says Maria. This is our way of saying “LOOK! Here they are!” Women are more likely to hire other women, so SDI are hopeful the directory will make a huge difference to the number of women in the industry, and are encouraging female-identifying and non-binary talent to add themselves to the directory.

Why Film & Campaign built the Women Direct(ory) on NationBuilder

The directory was created by Film & Campaign’s Ben Kempas, an outreach strategist who specialises in NationBuilder – software that originated in the political campaigning world which Ben has adapted for organising film campaigns. A former Producer of Marketing and Distribution at SDI, Ben used the software to create successful campaigns for feature documentaries including I Am Breathing and Future My Love, both directed by women. Now, he has hacked the capabilities of the system to create a clean, functional and easy-to-use platform for the Women Direct(ory).

“Our main aim was to have everything available at a glance, with women having the opportunity to present their skills briefly on profile cards and then, on their individual profile pages, write whatever they like,” says Ben, who has been working to create the pioneering platform to promote female documentary talent in Scotland. “A big inspiration was the members' directory of Brown Girls Doc Mafia – we wanted to recreate that for women in Scotland. It’s not meant to be yet another IMDb, it’s there for a very specific purpose – and I like that it’s organic and evolves around how much folk choose to interact and share.”

With the directory launching today, Ben says: “We’re very excited to see it go live. I’ve looked at the profiles submitted so far and found remarkable people I’ve never heard of, because they’ve just not been visible in the Central Belt industry circle. We’ll definitely be using the directory as a resource to find talent in the future at Film & Campaign.”

Inma is also excited: “I have great hopes for this initiative,” she says. “I hope everyone involved in the industry will refer to the directory to find talented women to work with.” Bircan is more sceptical: “It’s good to have a database, but if behaviours don’t change, it’s just a database”.

It's the industry that needs to step up now

Maria understands: “We’re doing what we can at SDI to raise awareness of the issue, to make sure the women who work in docs are visible, and to prepare them for the industry as best we can. But there comes a point where the industry needs to step up and commit to commissioning, funding, employing and promoting more women. That’s the only way we’ll see sustainable change. Once women are in the system they’ll definitely support other women to come through.”

There has been some improvement in recent years: when Maria looked at data from 2018-20 she found 30% of Scottish feature length documentaries directed by women, an increase on the 16% figure of 2016-17. It’s too early to calculate the direct impact of SDI 50|50+, but the campaign has certainly caught the industry’s attention in Scotland. “We’ve seen companies, broadcasters, exhibitors and funders willing to question their practices,” says Maria. “At SDI, we commit to 50% of our intake across the board and all of our initiatives support women, and as the only dedicated documentary organisation in Scotland, that does have a massive impact. The more women we support at SDI, the more we see their confidence and filmmaking practices improve, and the more we see production companies pick up their film. We hope to see more initiatives commit to a 50/50 gender balance.”

The Grierson Sisters

In order to broaden the work it does around underrepresented communities, Scottish Documentary Institute has recently achieved charity status in order to build a much bigger support network, a broader funding portfolio, and ultimately an organisation that can help more people make it in the film industry – including 50%+ women. Their plans include a Grierson Sisters Fund, celebrating the amazing work of the Grierson sisters who were just as influential to documentary as their brother John but have been washed out of history. The fund is still being finalised, but Maria reveals there are plans to offer women development money to spend in any way they want – including childcare. The plan is to allow women to fully immerse themselves in the development process, affording them the same opportunities as men to make great films.

Maria is fired up on the issue: “At the moment, women’s perspectives are just not respected. Women aren’t seen as authority on anything: even women’s issues, there will be men speaking for us. When you think of what documentary filmmakers do – their role as reporters, activists, artists – men have been largely choosing what we see. It’s time for us to speak on the issues that are important to us.”

I couldn’t agree more. I hope Scotland will become a world leader in building a fairer film industry. We are women and we are filmmakers, and we want to be part of it all.

Hannah Currie receiving an award at the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival

Hannah Currie is an award-winning Glasgow-based documentary filmmaker with an interest in mental health

Banner photo: CA Media. SMHAF photo: Ingrid Mur. Additional photos supplied by Inma de Reyes, Bircan Birol and Kiana Kalantar-Hormozi. 

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