I have noticed that in recent years, women still have been worryingly under-represented in cinema and when they are, they appear as contre-jour figures anchored in the fabric of a culture, often portraying stereotypical images that are easily recognizable to the general public and have no effect other than being aesthetically pleasing and “satisfying” the audience’s expectations. Do we still want such visions of gender representations? Or do we want a more natural, more objective vision of such representations? It seems that in the past years, female directors have managed to bring back, to refresh the visions that were somehow denied by the tradition-oriented mainstream cinema. What confuses us, however, is the same lack of visibility. I’m not a fan of statistics, lists, or classifications of any kind, but I have heard these numerical inequalities too many times (both in art and cinema and in literature, where I feel more comfortable and where I myself have noticed significant discrepancies in representation, echoes and stereotypes).
For example, Lucy Fulford & Rachel Seagal Hamilton deal with this topic in an article for Canon Europe, Women have to work twice as hard – debating gender bias in the film industry. In 2019, only 21% of that year’s US film industry (directors, writers, set designers, production managers etc.) were women, a percentage that had only increased by 4% since 1998 – with only one female director, Kathryn Bigelow, who received the Academy Award for The Hurt Locker in 2010. A study conducted by the European Women’s Audiovisual Network (EWAN) concludes that of the 44% of women who graduate from a film school, less than half manage to work in their profession.
What is it like to build a career in an industry that is often associated with a certain kind of authority that the West perpetuates by spreading both content and background stereotypes? I think that the answers to this question were given to us by the female directors of recent years who, through professionalism, technique and intuition, have built a strong image of themselves. Their mission has become the deconstruction of stereotypes, the change of perspective in the way films are analysed.
How is it that we can still see such strong women, if the mainstream film industry is still dominated by stereotypical representations of an almost toxic femininity, sometimes without substance? Here I mean not only the typical high-school films where the categorization is quite obvious, but also many other films in which they are removed as instances of power, at least on the surface.
The critical tools that could readjust the interpretation contexts to some extent are not favourable either, at least from a statistical point of view. Women are still under-represented in film criticism as well. According to a study by Martha M. Lauzen, Thumbs Down 2022: Film Critics and Gender, and Why It Matters, the pandemic appears to have threatened both the performing arts and the film industry (as well as the newspapers that perpetuated film criticism). According to Lauzen, in 2016, 69% of (radio, television, online) film critics in the United States are men, and the remaining 31% are women. The percentage of female critics increased to 35% by 2020, only to decrease gradually to 26% by mid-2022. Why is representation in cinema so important? Films are by far the most accessible ways of disseminating information, ethical values, and have significant educational potential.
As far as Romanian cinema is concerned, it is dominated by a traditionalist, conservative vision, which looks at power relations with an eye little trained to notice that images have the potential to deconstruct this vision. The Romanian public is still not used to paradigm shifts, but I have noticed that the shift has started to occur slowly, with the help of some, I would say, brave initiatives, which are trying to provide the public with critical tools of analysis and interpretation, and to create a common space of tradition and (post)modernity, where accepting the deconstruction of norms may become the norm itself. It is natural to have giants on whose shoulders we stand (to use the famous metaphor that has haunted cultural history). And it is just as natural to want to fight against them, keeping only those scenarios that help us grow both as individuals and as a community.
This is what I actually wanted to say – I gave the above statistical data only to suggest that we need more perspectives, new spaces where cultures, contradictory visions, and highly diverse discourses can meet. Such a vision is that of the F-SIDES. A Female Gaze Cineclub project, one of the brave initiatives in Romania that tries to refocus the cinematographic world, to look at it through the eyes of female directors, to bring diversity back to the Romanian public and to create a dialogue space that filters gender relations and female representation in cinema. It is also the first cinema project in Romania dedicated entirely to female directors.
The potential of the project is precisely that for reconciling the discrepancies within Romanian cinema, where “in recent years, only 19% of Romanian productions in cinemas have been directed or co-directed by women. In 2019, only 17% of the films released in Romania were directed or co-directed by women.” I met Ioana Diaconu, co-founder of the project, while I was involved in another program, Poster x Poem, which aims to create a space for a dialogue between literature and visual arts. Then I found out that she is also the organizer of Bucharest Fashion Film Festival, already in its fifth edition, that brings fashion and film together. F-SIDES, on the other hand, is concerned with the intersection of gender studies and cinema, how we see women (whether they are characters or producers), or how we perceive femininity per se. The festival organisers aim to bring films from as many places as possible, as diverse as possible, which could resolve the ethnic discrepancies and reduce the cultural distances that can arise when it comes to representations of femininity.
While talking with Ioana, I thought it relevant to develop an educational module for teenagers to question the importance of representation and to provide critical material dedicated to young people, touching on topics such as: why is feminism still needed today?; Beyond blue and pink: how do we broaden the horizons of gender socialization; The body: a personal but deeply political area; Female Citizens: women’s relationship with the nation-state; You are not welcome here: gender and space; Domestic work in a globalized world; Women in positions of power; Taking it forward – emerging feminism, pop feminism and post-feminism. Started in 2020, F-SIDES has developed organically, making its way into several cinemas in the country (Bucharest, Cluj, Sibiu, Timișoara). Timișoara will also host one of these events at Cinema Victoria, between 27 September and 2 October. I am confident that these films will have a significant impact on the cultural space.