• Director Gillian Armstrong (left) with Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett, on the set of the film 'Oscar and Lucinda'. (AAP)
Why are women filmmakers consistently overlooked in Australian cinema?
Briony Kidd

14 Jul 2015 - 6:39 PM  UPDATED 15 Jul 2015 - 9:35 AM

It's been an interesting year for issues around gender and film: Patricia Arquette spoke up for equal pay at the Oscars, although her choice of words was problematic for many; and the Cannes Film Festival attempted to redeem itself on the representation of women, but tripped on a little matter of banning flats from a film premiere.

Closer to home, in the same week that has seen the release of the trailer for Jocelyn Moorhouse's long-awaited The Dressmaker, Australian film critic Luke Buckmaster penned an article for BBC Culture celebrating the “Australian invasion” of Hollywood. But the article failed to include a single woman director, not even Jennifer Kent (The Babadook) got a mention.

In the US – where women direct only 18 per cent of films (and seven per cent of ‘big’ films) – there’s a growing movement to redress the gender inequalities in the industry. In May, the American Civil Liberties Union asked state and federal agencies to investigate the hiring practices of major Hollywood studios, networks and talent agencies for what it describes as “rampant and intentional gender discrimination in recruiting and hiring female directors".

Gender bias is not as blatant in Australia as it is in Hollywood, where there are reports of crude ‘we had a woman director once and she was a dud’ style discussions at all levels. Yet the proportion of feature films directed by women here is sitting at 16 per cent, a figure that has fluctuated only a little over the last 20 years. In the 1990s the figure was 18 per cent, so there’s actually been a decline. These abysmal stats aren’t new, but they are getting more attention.

We’ve been here before. As Luke Buckmaster pointed out in his May article for Crikey, this same issue was faced and addressed by the industry in 1970s. With women directing only four per cent of feature films at that time, the efforts of progressive groups like the Sydney Women's Film Group kick-started many careers and led to discrete opportunities - such as a Women's Film Unit at the ABC and a course for women at the Australian Film and Television School. But once such measures were removed progress stalled. ‘The idea that a discussion around something as fundamental as gender equality can come and go in cycles,’ writes Buckmaster, ‘… is a depressing one.’ That's exactly what must be guarded against now, and I'd respectfully suggest that Buckmaster's BBC piece this week points to that very problem.

The forgotten history of Australian women filmmakers

In LUMINA magazine’s dedicated ‘women in film’ edition this year, Monica Davidson writes: 'Men dominate creative leadership in Australian feature film, and always have.' This, however, depends how you define ‘dominate’ because in the earliest years of the Australian film industry women were producers, writers and directors, and had almost as much chance as anybody of getting a guernsey. (Filmmaking was a fringe activity then, and the money and power attached to it comparatively negligible.)

The sisters Paulette, Phyllis and Isabella McDonagh made three highly regarded feature films in the 1920s. Lottie Lyell, in partnership with Raymond Longford, was across all aspects of production. Louise Lovely, determined to bring back to Australia what she'd learnt from a decade as an actress in Hollywood, optioned a popular novel of the day, which she turned into successful large-scale film Jewelled Nights in 1925 (working with husband Wilton Welch, but it’s clear she was at the helm). The women of the early industry didn't have it easy, and didn't get the credit they deserved during their lifetimes - to some extent they still haven't, although the recent renaming of the AACTA’s Raymond Longford Award as the Longford Lyell Award is a good start - but in terms of their creative contributions, they were giants.

'Women filmmakers are often not best placed to advocate for themselves, as much they are broadly aware of, and alarmed by, the disadvantage they face.'

Soon after, the American stranglehold on distribution killed the Australian film industry – not to be reborn until the more conducive political climate of the 1970s half a century later. This time the industry was male-dominated to the extent that most iconic categories of Australian film, the quick-and-dirty cult favourites now known as Ozploitation, can boast not one single female director. (But in the 1970s women's collectives emerged to provide opportunities and lobby for change and... you know the rest.)

I make this point to highlight the two assumptions that must be challenged if there's any hope of meaningful change. One, that low participation rates of female directors is the default or somehow ‘natural’. And, two, that we live in a society which is slowly but inexorably progressing towards equality, essentially of its own accord. The facts don't support either of these comforting notions, and both have enabled decades of inaction.

While it's difficult to compare filmmaking careers, given varying capacities and interests, there's a clear pattern of women getting fewer bites of the cherry. Compare top male directors Fred Schepisi, Peter Weir, Bruce Beresford and Phillip Noyce to top female directors Gillian Armstrong, Jane Campion, Moorhouse and Nadia Tass (Campion's a New Zealander but studied and has worked under the Australian system). All made their debut features in their twenties or thirties. Excluding TV movies and documentaries, the men have so far made 16, 13, 29 and 15 feature films respectively, which is 73 in total, while the women have made 9, 7, 4 and 7, so 27 in total.

Beyond the big names, where is the follow-up to Elise McCredie's Strange Fits of Passion (1999) or Davida Allen's Feeling Sexy (1999)? Or Jo Kennedy's The Forest (2003)?  Why has Shirley Barrett only made three features? Why didn't Emma-Kate Croghan make more? What's Ana Kokkinos up to these days? Why hasn't Tracey Moffat made another feature film? Why didn't Hollywood snap Samantha Lang up after The Well and Monkey's Mask? Why has Ann Turner quit filmmaking in favour of novel writing? Why the eight-year hiatus between Cate Shortland’s debut and her follow-up? Why almost 20 years between Megan Simpson Huberman's Dating the Enemy  to her second feature, the upcoming Salvation Creek?

The numbers confirm an opportunity gap. Screen Australia production database figures show that of female directors who've made a feature film in the last five years, 81 per cent have only that one credit, versus 59 per cent of male directors with one credit. So while it's great to see Moorhouse returning to the big screen with The Dressmaker, it's startling to realise she hasn't made a feature since 1997 and nothing in Australia since 1991's Proof. And should we be concerned that, even with Kate Winslet attached, The Dressmaker attracted a budget of around $15 million when first time director Russell Crowe received $22.5 for his male-led war story The Water Diviner?

Kim Farrant has recently spoken of the 13 years it took to get her first feature Strangerland to the screen, which is double the oft-quoted, far-too-lengthy seven for an Australia feature film to go through development. So yes, the current generation of women filmmakers are finding it hard going, there's no doubt about that. But then so are their male peers. Getting a first (or second or third) feature off the ground in this country is a near miraculous feat whoever you are, so failing to achieve it doesn't necessarily lead to reflections on ‘institutional bias’ or unfairness. Instead, this failure tends to be internalised or blamed on bad timing. Women filmmakers are often not best placed to advocate for themselves, as much they are broadly aware of, and alarmed by, the disadvantage they face.

That's why Farrant's recent comments while promoting Strangerland are refreshing. She doesn't hold back, telling the story of how she was encouraged to dress more “like a man” to be taken seriously at pitch meetings, but refused. “I hope that at a certain point funding bodies and studios see that you don’t have to be male and wearing a pair of pants and be masculine to be able to lead a movie.” What's required now is more straight-talking, until claims of a meritocracy, or about the different aptitudes of women filmmakers (that they're not as ambitious, that they don't like big movies or genre movies, to name but a few) can no longer be made with a straight face.

Another promising development is the formation of a new enterprise made up of high profile younger women working in the industry, including actor Rose Byrne and director Shannon Murphy. Byrne has been vocal recently about Hollywood sexism, and it's heartening to see her using her influence to practical effect. No doubt many across the industry share The Dollhouse Collective's hopes for more opportunities for women filmmakers and more female-driven stories.

Even Gillian Armstrong is calling for positive discrimination, an issue that she's changed her mind on recently. Speaking to ABC Radio:

“I was really snobby about all the affirmative action for women filmmakers because I felt it should be about your talent and I made a film that won awards and people wanted me. [But] they’re coming out of AFTRS or VCA, they might have even won an award for their short film, and what I’ve noticed is the young men that win the awards are head-hunted immediately.”

Much could of course be done on an individual level but I don't believe women filmmakers need to ‘lean in’ or be more aggressive. That's a cop out, just a way of avoiding collective responsibility. It’s the gatekeepers who need to take action to fix this situation, not those most impacted by it.

Watch the trailer for Jocelyn Moorhouse's The Dressmaker: