Four female directors extol the virtues of short films in presenting new points of view

The red carpet at any film festival is known for star power and fashion, but when 82 women walked arm in arm down the red carpet at Cannes last month, it became a place for politics, too.

The march highlighted the lack of women represented at cinema’s most esteemed festival, and it comes at a time when the industry as a whole is being asked to provide equal treatment and inclusion for women and other groups that have been marginalized.

Such explicit statements may not have been made at the smaller festivals and conferences as of yet, but there’s no doubt such events will face increasing scrutiny.

Amid this climate Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia prepares to kick off its 20th edition with a three-week-long showcase that features around 250 films selected out of over 10,000 entries from more than 130 countries. The Japan Times spoke to four female directors whose work is featured in this year’s program about working in an industry that has long been dominated by men.

Marianne Farley, Mayu Nakamura, Jeanette Aw, Genevieve Clay-Smith

They are Canadian actress and director Marianne Farley (“Marguerite”), Japanese director Mayu Nakamura (“The Devil in the Afternoon”), Singaporean actress and director Jeanette Aw (“The Last Entry”) and Australian director Genevieve Clay-Smith (“Shakespeare in Tokyo”), and all are contenders for cash prizes that range from ¥600,000 to ¥1 million. One may even get a shot at competing at the Academy Awards next year if they do well here. Since the Short Shorts festival promotes the work of directors from around the world, the experiences of the four vary.

“In Singapore, we have quite a big number of female directors,” says Aw, whose film marks her first foray into directing. “That’s quite encouraging for this industry. I had a team that was very supportive and they helped me along the way. Right now, there’s a lot more acceptance for women to direct or be DP (director of photography). I think that’s a great sign.”

Nakamura says that there are many more female directors in Japan now than there were when she started out around 20 years ago (although there are still not many female crew members).

Similarly, Farley says she has noticed changes being made to address discrepancies in representation in the workplace, particularly in her home country.

“Statistically, there is definitely a huge difference between women and men in film,” she says. “That’s just a reality. In Canada, the film funds are really pushing toward parity, so it’s a good time to be a filmmaker in Canada right now. I think people are opening up to the fact that it’s not normal that most films are made by men and it’s always the male point of view we’re putting forward.”

All four directors make it clear that by having more diversity behind the camera, the types of stories being told through film will change. Increased representation of people from all walks of life is just as important on screen as off.

Clay-Smith, who runs an NPO dedicated to bringing people with disabilities and professional filmmakers together to create films, speaks in broader terms when discussing the film industry’s move toward allowing fresh voices behind and in front of the camera.

“On a global scale, the film industry has a very long way to go when it comes to being truly inclusive and diverse,” she says. “It is not enough to just represent the stories on screen — which is still not great; we are getting better at representation but we are still nowhere near as good as what we could be — we must also create pathways for the inclusion of marginalized groups to be a part of the filmmaking process.”

One of the most significant obstacles that has yet to be adequately addressed is the portrayal of women in films.

“I watch films by young Japanese directors, especially in genre films, and the portrayal of women is still limited,” says Nakamura. “You feel uneasy watching the women because they’re not fully developed characters.” She adds, with a hint of hope, “It is changing though.”

Farley agrees with the sentiment: “As an actress I can tell you, there are only (a few) archetypes of the female character. There’s the mother, the object of desire, the old woman and the crazy ex-wife. That’s pretty much it, that’s all you get offered. Whereas men, they can be anything.”

The directors also seem to be of similar mind that encouraging more women to be represented on screen and off all depends on where and how money is being invested. According to Nakamura, in Japan “it’s hard to make a film based on an original script or screenplay. It’s usually based on manga or bestselling novels, unless you’re already an established, famous director.”

In addition, she says it is hard to raise money for a film centered on a strong female protagonist because “people who invest in films are mainly men. They want to put money into something they want to see.”

Nakamura believes there’s a glass ceiling put in place by investors that prevents directors in Japan from receiving financial backing.

“I hope there will be more films that female audiences can enjoy. The awareness among investors need to change in order for us to tell our own stories,” she says.

Farley adds, “I think it’s about where you put the money. It’s also (about representing) different cultures and different realities. All these stories have to be told. It starts from funding. We have to make sure there’s more diversity in who gets to make their films.”

Lower costs and creative flexibility are among two of the factors that lead directors to create short films because they can often be made without a corporate investor. With fewer investors chiming in, directors have greater freedom to experiment.

“With a short film you have control over the project,” Nakamura says. “Creatively, it’s a different process, it’s a different way of writing.”

“There’s something experimental about short films,” Farley says. “There’s something very raw … You don’t have time to think about it too much or question yourself. Everything is so condensed, it has to be very clear, very pure. You have to make very bold decisions.” Aw agrees that with short films, “the impact is strong because it’s very focused.”

It’s clear that all four directors believe in the medium of short film as a way to convey important messages, though they also all believe this is the innate power of storytelling.

“When we consume a story in any form, we consume messages,” says Clay-Smith. “We consume messages about contemporary culture, messages about what is right and wrong, good and evil, messages about gender roles, equality and diversity, messages that either challenge or maintain the status quo.

“We must give representation to the minorities of our society so we can build understanding between community groups — we can challenge stereotypes and create a more just and inclusive society.”

Farley sums it up with a single sentence, “Films change the world.”

Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia takes place from June 4 to 24 at various locations in Tokyo. For more information on screenings and venues, visit www.shortshorts.org/2018.

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