Real Issues in a Reel World


This article originally appeared in Issue# 49

A feminist filmmaker describes how she makes films and uses them to bring about change

When I started working in documentary film in 1952, I thrilled to rhetoric about the Role of Film--to educate, to inform, to move people. By the time I joined the National Film Board of Canada in 1956, the thrill was wearing a bit thin. It was nearly threadbare by 1961 when it was kindly explained to me that "everyone at the NFBC contributes, whatever they're doing"—a gentle way of telling me I wasn't wanted in Unit B, where all the "best" films were being made.

In those days there were very few of us women. I worked almost exclusively with men and I always felt a little crazy. My perceptions were different. My perceptions must be wrong! It wasn't until the early l970's when I finally began making films with women, by women and for women that I finally found that my "different" perceptions were not so different afterall.

During the 15 years I have spent at Studio D, I've done a lot of thinking about women and media and how we are perceived by our male colleagues, by critics and by the public, particularly the women who make up more than half of the public.

When we first started Studio D, the idea was to provide an opportunity for more women to get technical skills and experience in filmmaking. But as we evolved, we discovered that women filmmakers see things differently. We make different kinds of juxtapositions. We see connections and things more in their interwovenness — which men call diffuse.

The idea of special programs for women always upsets some people, who mutter regretfully about "excellence" and "compromising professional standards." These standards of professionalism and excellence have, of course, been defined by men on the basis of men's work, and they assume their permanent appointment as custodians of "standards."

At Studio D, we don't consider ourselves as filmmakers belonging primarily to a filmmaking community, as many of our colleagues do. We consider ourselves first as women, Canadian women, working at this time in history. We share an enormous amount with other Canadian women, and what we share with all other women is far greater than our differences. We use the filmmaking skills we've been lucky enough to acquire to move towards the goals we share with our constituency. So it is not just the making of the film but the using of it that is a natural extension of the process to which we are committed.

If Studio D films are well-used, it's probably because they are useful. First, we make them for use--for the interests and needs of the women who are our audience--and not with the focus of shipping them off to festivals to get good "critical response. Most critics don't like them that much anyway, because they break the rules that men have evolved to judge films, based on the best of their work. Impressing other filmmakers or an elite cadre of appreciators isn't sufficient reason, to me, for going through all the anguish--and dollars--of filmmaking.

One of film's strongest advantages is its ability to bring people together. Wherever people gather, from national conferences to meetings in a local school auditorium or women's center, films can enhance the process underway. Of course, you don't need an existing event: a film can, by itself, be the event.

It is not a matter of simply showing a film. I hate seeing films used as wallpaper during other activities, or run only for relaxation or diversion. There's already more than enough of that kind of media beamed at us. What thrills me is to use films as catalysts for reflection and communication.

I think of communication between people as a sacred activity. It is how we learn, how we share what we have learned and how we inspire each other to go on every day.

A well-planned discussion following a film makes the best use of the its impact. The shared experience of audience members who saw the film at the same time in the same place greatly facilitates a discussion leader's ability to initiate interaction between people who didn't previously know each other. Even though the film is a shared reference point, it becomes clear as discussion proceeds that every audience member has seen a different film, because each viewer filters it through his or her own unique set of experiences and perceptions. Because discussion airs emotions and feelings, one such session can create as much or more trust and openness among group members than could be expected after several regular meetings.

But it isn't just information that changes our attitudes and opens our minds. The most effective means to change our attitudes is hearing another individual's own experience. Because it communicates emotionally as well as factually, film is a wonderful medium for transmitting people's own stories and ideas. The person we've heard on the screen can't be engaged in argument or refutation. Her reality just is. The issue is how do we respond to her from our reality?

Sharing Reactions

When I'm conducting a film showing and discussion myself, I often start with a quick round in which everyone is invited to say a few words about how they feel. This kind of sharing is particularly important in the discussion of a controversial film like Abortion: North and South or films on incest or battering. Without such an airing of feelings, it's hard to avoid longwinded intellectual expositions that distance people from their discomfort. Experts in adult learning have identified that discomfort is the necessary initial stage of opening to new ideas.

Another challenge must be faced when a mixed audience is dominated by one age, race, profession or class. Often, asking people to pair off and take turns talking and listening can help clarify and formulate their reactions and ensure that all viewpoints are aired.

Another technique has emerged from showing Not a Love Story, our documentary on pornography, to mixed audiences. We found that men and women react quite differently, like one person talking in colors and one in numbers. Very often men, out of discomfort, deny and discredit what women feel, to say nothing of utterly dominating the whole conversation, even when they are only a minority present.

After several disastrous experiences with the film, we altered the process. Now I start by asking everyone to write their initial emotion -- in a word or a phrase -- on paper I supply. The paper is small, to encourage brevity.

Then we arrange the chairs in two circles, an inner one for those who will be speaking and an outer one for those who will be listening. Assuring everyone that we will trade places before long, I invite the women to sit in the inner circle first. We collect all the papers and jumble them. As we go around the circle, each woman takes a paper out of the hat and reads aloud the reaction of some other woman. This is very helpful for people who are shy or embarrased about the strong feelings that a subject like pornography evokes. Once we go around once, an incredible, intense and passionate conversation just explodes in the inner circle.

Before it is exhausted, however, we invite the men to take the inner chairs and we repeat the process. Usually the men have a harder time talking about their feelings than the women did. Once one man manfully confessed, "I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm finding it really hard to talk with the women listening; my palms are sweating. . . "
We learned more that night about the different perceptions of men and women than we could possibly have done if we had just had an open free-for-all conversation.

The fact is, people do their best thinking when they are listened to, listened to with respect. This is something we must learn to do for each other because it is in the best interest of every one of us that everyone else be enabled to do their best thinking.

Audience Connection

Unfortunately, over recent years, the NFB as an institution has attached less and less importance to this kind of distribution activity in favor of commercial marketing. However, some of us--mostly women--still hope to turn this around and stubbornly continue our connection with audiences. When there are no funds earmarked for such programming, we do it on our own.

As women, we have a long history of bringing people together to talk, of communicating with each other about matters of human relations. We are professionals at human relationships, with many of us spending the bulk of our lives preoccupied with ensuring the nurture and well-being of other humans; mediating conflict and balancing seemingly irreconciliable needs and desires while often stubbornly insisting that it is always possible to find a way that is good for all the individuals involved.

As women and filmmakers at Studio D, we know the value of honest subjectivity, and we don't pretend to the kind of spurious "objectivity" in which creators pose as detached observers of events and conflicts that pose a threat to their lives as well as those of others. This activist stance goes beyond merely being open to filmmakers who approach us about their work. Instead, we aim to take the necessary active steps to make opportunities available to women whose perspectives aren't completely represented in the work we have been able to do so far--women of different cultural backgrounds who lack creative role models in their communities and are underrepresented in film schools.

Making and using film provides a means for our perspectives to be made more widely available and gives each of us the strength that comes from knowing that women's culture has crucial contributions to make in all areas of human concern.

Thanks to our experience, we now know that the world as women see and experience it must appear on our large and small screens. Only when we see women speaking up and acting powerfully can we be empowered to use our own abilities to take charge of the world around us.
Author Bio: 

Kathleen Shannon, now deceased, was executive producer of Studio D from its founding in 1974 until 1987. She has received Canada's highest civilian accolade, the Order of Canada, which she considered "recognition of the collective work of the many women who make up Studio D."