Affirmative aesthetics and responsibility within the film and TV industry
Updated: Sep 22
This weekend I listened to amazing filmmakers, producers, artists, activists, and researchers talking about their work to 'create a new normal' at the Carla 2020 Conference. With the many successive feminist movements of the last decades (Time's Up, OscarsSoWhite, MeToo, 50/50 by 2020, only to cite a few), it is hard to keep ignoring that the film and TV industry remains dominated by white middle-class cis-gender men. What especially came across during Carla 2020 is that women of colour have it the hardest.
Compared to their male counterparts, women often seem to wait for permission, and accumulate training before they even think of applying for funding (as content director Diana Williams notes). And when projects with women directors are funded, they tend to receive much less money than men do (the Norwegian Film Institute (NFI) annual report in 2019 shows just that). In addition to this, producers (both men and women) tend to work more with men directors. There is a false belief that women do not generate as much profit as men do, and hence are perceived as 'riskier' in terms of investment. Two (among many more) reasons immediately come to mind for this difference in risk perception. One: The audience now accesses film through a multiplicity of digital platforms that need to be taken into account on top of box office admissions, which do not represent an accurate measure of success any longer. In its report, the NFI suggests that children films in the past years have generated the most cinema entries, and most of them were produced by men. Two: Men have been given higher budget than women to make their films, and high-budget films tend to generate more entries. This is a typical case of catch 22.
[Being inclusive and diverse in funding choices] is about becoming comfortable with a risk that is not a risk. We perceive as risky things that we are not familiar with -- Researcher Doris Eikhof
Producing films by people from different backgrounds and situations certainly increases the quality of films being made. Another strategy for designing stories that include people from a wide range of backgrounds and situations is to thinking about the heterogeneity of the audience when making films. For that matter, it is essential to look at the content of films, not only at who makes them. While giving funding to a diversity of artists may provide a wider variety of perspectives of the world, it does not guarantee it. After all, we are all social products that abide by similar norms. Quotas are great but should neither be considered as the end goal, nor as a reliable means to an end. Looking at representation should thus be at the centre of production and distribution: representation that avoid stereotypes and clichés, such as, for example, sexualised representation of women or violent representation of black people.
Filmmaking is an incredibly powerful tool to tell real stories, stories of real humans. More often than not mainstream films reproduce stereotypes, which are damaging to how people see themselves and how the world view them, damaging including to white cis-men. In my work I have attempted to show how the aesthetics of films can provide affirmative images, sometimes despite the negativity present within the story of the film. A lot of films --sometimes perceived or advertised as feminist-- lament women's lack of equal rights and possibilities to inhabit (public) spaces in the same way as men do, but very few films give models that change and provide alternative futures for women/humanity.
I call this affirmative aesthetics and here I want to outline three (simplified) questions that would help to identify such affirmative aesthetics:
- Does the film include (at least) a main character that is not a cis-white man?
- Do those characters act or speak against gendered models, heteronormativity, and racial denominations?
- Does the film show that another reality from neoliberal patriarchy is possible?
Filmmaker Joey Soloway sums well what patriarchy is, as she explains that the objectification of women and black women happens through thinking of man as default, and everybody else as other. In this logic, the male gaze is taken for granted and normalised to the point that it stops being seen:
When we live in patriarchy, every single thing that is uttered by somebody who is not a man is suspect, because of the way that it stops the male gaze from seeing. So even saying "I don't want to be an object, I want to be a subject", even that is incredibly threatening to a giant, giant pool of humans who control the world. -- Joey Soloway
If diversity is on every mouth at the moment, there is something essentially disturbing about the term 'diverse' as producer and activist Heather Rae argues. Identifying someone as 'diverse' implies that there is a standardised norm, and that others are diversed from the white, male, and cis-gender 'norm'. Normality is an illusion that the media and the film industry keeps feeding. There is an illusion that some people are at the centre of the circle and that they need to give space to others, but Rae asserts that we need to understand that we are all part of the circle, and there is no centre to it.
In this view, mentorship and inclusivity are not about helping others or doing them a favour, but it is about creating an inclusive future and restoring a view of the world that is authentic, that involves real stories, which are representative of the world's population. Reel World Film Festival and the ReFrame Rise Project and Sisters in Film in the MENA region are some of the initiatives that aim to do just that: tell stories from all perspectives.
There is a responsibility that comes with making films. And how well you do at designing, producing and distributing stories cannot be measured in terms of money: 'Money is not the only currency; change, creating awareness and positive social impacts are currencies too' (in producer Claudia Blumhueber's words). It is not about charity but it is about integrating other values in funding film, and measuring profit in all its shape, not only monetary.
You can watch some of the presentations of the conference on the WIFT International Youtube channel, and read chair Wendy Mitchell's 50 Ideas to Revolutionise the Film and TV Industry
Pledge from the Carla 2020 team, for the film and tv community: