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Femme filmmakers have plenty to say, but they’re not shouting

KARLOVY VARY, Czech Republic — There’s a paradoxical truth often revealed when showbizzers get together at a panel or confab to discuss the issues that shape their work: For a business centered around creative expression and performance, somehow the real discussions of experiences and problems usually don’t happen until after the lights and microphones are put away.

With that in mind, I was determined, as instigator and moderator of the “Women on the Verge of a Major Breakthrough” panel at the recent Karlovy Vary Intl. Film Fest, to foster that kind of lively discussion onstage. I even added wine to the dais to loosen up the talk.

It helped, but most of the best points still came after the session.The audience did glean a few insights on the challenges facing women filmmakers in Europe. And the female panelists did share plenty about their travails:

  • “For probably 20 years, it was really hard for a woman to make a film,” said Austrian helmer Sabine Derflinger. “The first women who started breaking through in the last few years, such as Jessica Hausner (“Lovely Rita”) and Barbara Albert (“Nordrand”), really had difficulties in getting accepted.”

  • “There is still a great gap of roles for women after age 50,” noted Dutch director Ineke Smits.

  • Icelandic actress Magret Vilhjalmsdottir credited the last generation of women with making her life easier, noting she was “not a feminist; my mother did that for me.” Oz helmer Charlotte Roseby seconded that emotion, saying, “I’ve been spoiled by the women who went before me.”

  • Czech documentarian Helena Trestikova was hopeful that women could break through the male-dominated tech side of the biz, observing that “cameras are getting smaller and lighter, so it’s easier for women to enter the ranks of cinematographers, which today is the domain of men.”

  • U.K. helmer Phillipa Collie-Cousins echoed complaints about limited roles for women: “I’ve got a sci-fi project that everyone tells me is too big to have a woman as the central character. They say I’ll never get it off the ground.”

These were all terrific observations, but I noticed that while the first round of questions elicited a collective “Why are we still talking about women filmmakers, it’s all equal now,” the second round — perhaps it was the wine — drew more pointed descriptions of life in the boys’ club of showbiz.

There was a visible thaw. Vilhjalmsdottir went from saying “talking about a breakthrough is kind of insulting; it’s like we’re falling downstairs” to citing her belief that “the entire history of the world is told from the point of view of a patriarch — from God to the man of the house to the directors who run everything like it’s their little family.”

We were clearly starting to get somewhere, but then it was time to wrap.

As for the conversations afterward, I won’t betray the sources of the off-the-record comments, but let’s say that the most common complaint was along the lines of “Everybody knows you have to be a total bitch in order to get a male crew to listen to you.”

And the talk got angrier and more explicit, as well as more plaintive.

The women all expressed sadness that they had experienced a lack of authority when they tried the “nice woman” route.

“I wish it would work that way, because it would be more pleasant. But that’s not the world we work in,” said one woman in the post-panel rap.

Were my panelists demure and polite in front of the audience because a man was asking the questions? Were they afraid of appearing strident or whiny and consequently censored themselves?

I don’t know, but I’m damned curious to find out more. So I’ll do the “Women on the Verge of Major Breakthrough” panel again somewhere.

And given the strides women are making in film today, maybe next time the panel will be titled “Women After the Breakthrough.”

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