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#OscarsSoMale: Why don't we have more women directors?

This year's Oscars will once again feature not a single female nominee for best director or cinematographer. John Meagher asks successful Irish film-makers what's holding women back?

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Obstacles: Irish director Aoife Crehan on the set of her film The Last Right

Obstacles: Irish director Aoife Crehan on the set of her film The Last Right

Award: Neasa Hardiman with her IFTA from 2016

Award: Neasa Hardiman with her IFTA from 2016

Director Mary McGuckian. Photo by Gerry Mooney

Director Mary McGuckian. Photo by Gerry Mooney

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Obstacles: Irish director Aoife Crehan on the set of her film The Last Right

Neasa Hardiman had just completed a major television project when one of the senior figures associated with the drama decided to pay her a compliment.

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"He told me," Hardiman recalls, "that he was really happy that I had directed as well as I had because they had had a bad experience with a female director before and were taking a leap of faith with another one."

As compliments go, it could hardly be more backhanded - although the person uttering the words may not have realised for a moment just how sexist his remarks had been.

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Award: Neasa Hardiman with her IFTA from 2016

Award: Neasa Hardiman with her IFTA from 2016

"It's something that women working in certain aspects of the film industry have to put up with a lot," she says. "Or, there are times where you might have directed something brilliant and you're really proud of it and the producer turns to your cinematographer and goes, 'Well done!'

"But you've just got to get on with it, even though there appears to be this intractable glass ceiling and an unconscious bias. I can't tell you the amount of times I've been told over the past few years, 'You know what? You really think like a man!' I don't - I think like a woman, because I am a woman."

By any measure, the Dubliner is one of the most successful directors this country has ever produced. She won a Bafta for directing the gritty BBC drama series Happy Valley. She has made a handful of critically lauded films, and there's considerable excitement about her forthcoming west of Ireland set feature, Sea Fever. And she is no stranger to working with big budgets, having directed the superhero Netflix series Jessica Jones.

Right now, she is in Tel Aviv making another series for Netflix. It's an international spy thriller called Hit and Run and it will likely be on our screens at the end of this year or beginning of 2021.

"For too long, there simply haven't been enough female directors - and even though that is changing, there's still a sense that women aren't trusted with bigger projects. Once something is in the realm of about $5m per hour, say, those jobs tend to go to men. By doing that, the industry is sending out a really clear message to women: 'You don't belong here'."

The obstacles that female directors face will be writ large at tomorrow night's Academy Awards. Yet again, no female has been nominated for the Best Director gong.

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Director Mary McGuckian. Photo by Gerry Mooney

Director Mary McGuckian. Photo by Gerry Mooney

Since the first Oscars, in 1929, there have been 449 nominations for best director. Just five of them were women and only one of those, Kathryn Bigelow, has won the award.

One in 609

When it comes to cinematography - a pivotal role in the fortunes of any film - the statistics are even starker: of the 609 nominations in Oscars history, all but one were men. Rachel Morrison - nominated in 2018 for Mudbound - remains the only female ever to be in contention for cinematography's most coveted prize.

"I don't believe in being nominated because we are women," she told the Guardian this week. "It has to be about the work. People were in an uproar about Little Women [whose director, Greta Gerwig, was overlooked], but maybe it wasn't perceived to be one of strongest films of the year.

"That said, my favourite films this year were almost all female-helmed: Atlantics, Portrait of a Lady [on Fire], Honey Boy, The Farewell. Change has to start from the ground up - more female directors. Period. And we need to be given similar budgets, similar access to time, to toys [film technology and studios], etc. Most of the best pictures were huge productions like 1917 and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Joker.

"How can Honey Boy [directed by Alma Har'el], which was made for $2.5m, ever be expected to compete?"

Irish film-maker Aoife Crehan has worked in the business for more than a decade. Last year, her debut feature, The Last Right, was released. She has first-hand experience of the difficulty of being a woman in what used to be seen as a man's world.

"The creative process involves a battle of self-belief and self-doubt," she says, "with the self-belief winning out strong enough to produce something. From my experience, what can make it hard for women directors is that as a woman, you are at times met with attitudes of patronisation or dismissiveness from some male collaborators, co-workers and peers that can feel intrinsically sexist and/or resentful. It's like, 'How did YOU get funded or financed?'

"This is another obstacle to the creative thought process that is above and beyond the myriad other obstacles that are already involved in directing a film. I think female directors have to be twice as brave as male directors because they are battling this patronisation and dismissiveness."

Director Mary McGuckian says the challenges females face to become directors is echoed in the wider society. "There are very few women in charge of the Fortune 500 companies," she says. "There is this societal sense that women aren't to be trusted in roles of responsibility."

McGuckian says the damning statistics about the pitifully low number of women who have been nominated in the director and cinematography categories only tells part of the story.

"The BFI [British Film Institute] has studied this and they've found that while only a small proportion of directors are women, only a tiny proportion of those go on to make three films or more - in other words, have a career in this industry. I'm someone who fits into that tiny cohort and there really are very few of us."

The upshot of all of this, she says, is a gross absence of films made from the female viewpoint and about the experience of women. Her forthcoming film, A Girl from Mogadishu, would - in all likelihood - not have been made by a man. It tells the story of one woman's experience of female genital mutilation.

"I would have struggled to get a film like this financed in the past," she says. "But Ireland is a much more enlightened place and there's a sense now that stories like this really have to be told."

For Gráinne Humphreys, director of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival (DIFF), one of the great travesties of movie history is how the work of gifted female directors has essentially fallen through the cracks.

"There are any number of introspectives about Kubrick and Hitchcock and Scorsese and Coppola but what about those great women who made wonderful films, people like Agnès Varda? Sometimes, it's not even possible to get to see the work that female directors have made, or it can be incredibly difficult to find those films."

A central thematic plank of this year's DIFF will be the celebration of the work of female directors from all over the world. Great forgotten or obscure films made by women will also be shown at the festival which runs from February 26 to March 8.

"We're also showing - over two days - Mark Cousins' incredible 14-hour documentary [Women Make Film] on female film-makers," she says. "It gives a sense of how many wonderful films have been made by women in all parts of the world and right throughout movie history. And it begs the question: why haven't these film-makers been celebrated like their male counterparts?"

Humphreys believes young film-makers are coming of age in a more enlightened time when there is a hunger for movies to be a made from a female viewpoint and from that of minorities that have, too often, been excluded in the past.

It is a sentiment shared by Ruth Barton, associate professor of Film Studies at Trinity College Dublin. "There's a sense that the tide is slowly turning," she says. "People are questioning just why it is that the vast majority of directors are male and why men continue to dominate a field like cinematography, and that's a good thing."

But, she feels, there is a long road ahead. "It is a truth that women get offered lower budget films - with documentaries and relationship films seen as being more appropriate for them - because they [women] are seen as a risk and not able to handle big budget releases."

Barton says that when it comes to awards, such as the Oscars, the likelihood is that voters have been "conditioned" to honour muscular films made by men. "You need a cultural shifts in the kind of films that are being valued. You also need an understanding that women can direct big budget action films like 1917 and Joker."

Role models

She believes role models are very important. "If you look at a list [of nominees] and you don't see someone like you on it, it can be difficult to project yourself into the future and imagine you yourself doing just that. I think active discrimination is what we have to have [to make nominations more inclusive] - whether it's quotas or whether it's just re-education and looking in different places to find those nominees."

Aoife O'Toole is the manager of the annual Dublin Feminist Film Festival [DFFF]. "If you can't see it, you can't be it," she says. "It is massively discouraging and disheartening to not see women's creative work in the film industry recognised and rewarded.

"There are many talented female film-makers creating wonderful work so one has to wonder at the criteria for selecting nominees and eventual winners. The challenge of calling this out is that it risks 'othering' women by perpetually drawing attention to women as a distinct category, but when awards committees so persistently ignore female-made films, it begs the question of whether this work continues to be seen as a niche category - as 'women's films' - rather than simply great film."

DFFF aims to highlight the work of female film-makers that might otherwise be forgotten. "In an industry where women remain in the minority - even if there are signs of improvement - it's important and necessary to have festivals like DFFF to give female film-makers a platform to showcase their work," O'Toole says.

"Despite a high-profile and highly active push to increase the number of films directed by women here, the number continues to hover around 20pc in any given year. But even with growing vocal demands for inclusion and Screen Ireland's important and admirable gender parity plan, 20pc remains far too low a number."

For Dr Lynn Farrell, research fellow at Queen's University Belfast's School of Psychology, and a specialist in the phenomenon of gender bias, the importance of female role models - of directors like Neasa Hardiman, Aoife Crehan and Mary McGuckian - cannot be underestimated.

"The impact of female role models can be particularly powerful for women," she says, "and has been found to increase their empowered behaviour when completing a leadership task. These approaches are likely to be important when tackling gender bias in the film industry also - we need to be aware that there's a problem that can operate at the implicit or unconscious level, and we need to see women succeeding in this domain to inspire future generations and show that women are welcome and valued here.

Unconscious bias

"This is probably best reflected in the phrase 'If she can see it, she can be it' espoused recently by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media [named after its actress founder] which looks to tackle gender bias and stereotypes in the media."

Dismantling gender bias is no easy task, however. "Women are stereotyped as being communal and caring while men are more independent and assertive," Farrell says. "We see this both through self-report questionnaires and measures of implicit or unconscious bias.

"Related to this, women are stereotypically associated with caring and support professions while men are associated with leadership roles. Higher power and status is also typically ascribed to men. So when women enter professional domains not typically associated with them, they face this perceived role incongruity between stereotypes of their gender and of the role, which can result in a lower evaluation of women in this role."

For Neasa Hardiman, hard work and self belief are essential in order to make it as a director. "I'm not afraid to say I've worked constantly bloody hard at this and am really talented and really good at my job and that's why I am where I am. But there are obstacles that are put in the way of women and I long for the day where my femaleness - and that of other women directors - is no longer relevant, where articles like this don't have to be written."

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