Directors Call the Shots on “What’s Left To Do”: A Women’s Panel on Future Solutions

“When you get a chance to be in the room, don’t shut the door behind you. Don’t say, ‘I’m in. Bang.’ No! Keep that door open, be ready to pull another person in so there’s more of us in there, making decisions. That’s how you bring about change.” So says Teniola Olatoni Ojigbede, director of The New Normal and creator of the Sour Mouse Stories Production Company dedicated to telling women’s stories on stage, TV, and film. The Nigerian filmmaker was talking about the kind of inclusion seldom heard on the lips of male directors.

In celebration of Women’s Month, the HFPA hosted an international women’s symposium moderated by award-winning HFPA journalist, KJ Matthews, focusing on “What’s Left to Do?”

Breaking the door down has been the obvious focus, but by keeping it open, it allows a “richer spectrum and kaleidoscope of characters,” agreed German panelist, Katja von Garnier whose Iron Jawed Angels generated three Golden Globe nominations and a Golden Globe win for Angelica Huston in the Best Supporting Actress in a Series, Mini-Series or Television Film category. The idea is not a woman pitching a woman’s story, but “broadening the representation of women whose stories are told.” Von Garnier, creator of her own production company, Unique Home Pictures, elaborated, “We have to create female characters that are like our experience, and not recycled from stereotypes. Let’s create more female characters that are different.”

A USC Annenberg study credits 2020 with the highest increase in female-led films. While that study might suggest that the increase is a win, Olatoni Ojigbede called out the hypocrisy. “Why are we applauding 15% in 2020? It shouldn’t even be a thing anymore. We don’t want to count it.” She verbalized what 51% of the population has long queried. However, the third panelist, director and screenwriter, Sol Berruezo Pichon-Riviére from Argentina (Mamá, Mamá, Mamá), took no issue with the idea that being a woman has been turned into a brand. “Right now, it’s super fashionable to be a woman. All the festivals want to have the face of a woman.” But it does prompt the query, “are women included for their art or their gender?” She shrugs. “Changes are always painful and uncomfortable. We are in a transformation.”

Olatoni Ojigbede recommends that in the future, “parameters be clear and the same for everybody so there is no doubt that women’s art is chosen because they have something new to add or say, and that a director’s gender is not due to some kind of quota system that needs to be met.” She continues, “If the entire panel is male, their idea of what a woman should be may be this character that doesn’t reflect anyone. You watch some things, and go, who are these people? They don’t reflect anybody I know, they don’t reflect my group of friends. They don’t reflect my family. They don’t reflect anybody I meet. If you have men making the decisions, they’re going to decide according to what looks good to them. I’ll tell you something. If you’re filming a sex scene, for example, we know what we see of the guys, and we know what we see of the female. There are two people in this picture, and we see so much more of one person because that’s okay? But hello, there’re two naked people here, right? We should see everybody’s bits.”

Diversity and inclusion was a clear strategy. “The way forward is to have more women in leadership positions, making the decisions about which movies are getting greenlit.” Von Garnier called out the importance of diverse gatekeepers, while Pichon-Riviére prompted this reminder for bringing about systemic change through self-examination: ‘How are we, the ones that are already in the boat, allowing new voices to emerge?”

The directors explored the variance within cultures and countries for getting a film made. Olatoni Ojigbede: “A lot of us are indie producers [in Nigeria]. You have to self-do. Getting the crew, talking to people, actually having them listen to you is a different thing. There are no tax breaks. Distributors are the select few who judge what they want or don’t. Those are the real holdbacks.” In addition to tax breaks, von Garnier notes that Germany has a subsidy, a system that equals the playing field. Governments should consider that in the name of equity these processes would greatly benefit representation and access.

The one thing that never comes up in a men’s panel discussion was introduced by these directors.  Pregnancy.

Pichon-Riviére talked about balanced gender representation. She recalled, “In university when I studied film, even more than half of the students were women, but what happens in between (studying and helming a film)? There are a bunch of things happening.” She answers her own question. “For example, motherhood.” She talked of the onus in many cultures of women being the ones to raise children and often to sacrifice their ambitions for the sake of their offspring.

Von Garnier and Olatoni Ojigbede straddle two approaches. “I had to defer my dream of making films for 20 years so my kids could grow,” notes Olatoni Ojigbede. “Then I made a decision in 2018. It was now, or just shut up. Stop talking about it, do it. We’re not asking for extra special. Just give me the opportunity, just open that door and that’s it. Watch how we go.” Von Garnier calls it a prison of love but refuses to be held back by that love. “It is possible [to do both]. I was nursing during prep. I thought, oh, I can sleep next year. It was amazing to have that combination actually, to birth to these two projects together. A film and a child. It was pretty exciting and possible.”

After highlighting women’s future strategies, on closing, the conversation turned to advice.

Olatoni Ojigbede doesn’t hesitate. “The truth is you cannot please everybody and if you’re trying too hard to please everyone, you will please nobody, least of all yourself. I got asked recently, what is my best career advice? I said, ‘The best career advice is, Teniola, to thyself be true. Nothing is for everybody.’ If we’re all doing the same thing and we all have the same voices, then what’s the point?” Pichon-Riviére concurs. “Even if you try to do what it’s in the market, what is selling now, by the time you will be making your film, the market will have changed.” Von Garnier sees the benefit of being the ‘other.’ “Sometimes it’s interesting to have a different view on something.”

Many topics were explored and solutions shared. Watch the full conversation here.