Open The Door: Female Filmmakers Win At Telling Their Stories

It was six short films (including two animated works) in one evening of spectacular possibility.

Amy Guth (far right) and the all-female group of directors at the first female filmmakers festival in the Midwest.

Amy Guth (far right) and the all-female group of directors at the first female filmmakers festival in the Midwest.

The first-time juried Female Filmmakers Night at the Midwest Independent Film Festival in Chicago proved stories on screen produced, written, directed and performed by and about women are making an impact and changing the culture far beyond media and entertainment.

“Wider representation signals opportunity,” says Amy Guth, recently named executive director. “I think the film industry has started to take a hard look at itself, where the power lies and what representation means.”

@MidwestFilm’s Female Filmmakers Night proved stories on screen produced, written, director, and performed by and about women are making an impact on changing the culture. #WomenInFilm

That restructuring of power is certainly not contained only in media and entertainment.

Speaking on the producers panel, Chakka Reeves, Industry Pathways Manager for Free Spirit Media, addressed the timing of the #MeToo movement and the chance to make change as a result in filmmaking and beyond.

“I am inspired by the wave of filmmakers making new work and coming up. There are now a lot more conversations addressing systems, not symptoms,” says Reeves, who leads Free Spirit Media’s creative workforce development initiatives. These provide underrepresented emerging media-makers ages 18-25 with professional development, production and skills training, mentorship and work-placed opportunities.

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A digital producer, documentarian and the producer of the Highwater podcast, a forum for artists and creatives to share their stories, Reeves says she is concerned about the value of work done by women not just in film but across all industries.

“We are in a society where the value and work of women is constantly downgraded, so when you do get in a position of authority, you have to make sure you are not duplicating those systems,” Reeves says.

“Women not hiring women directors and addressing the social obstacles does not help,” Reeves says. “We have to make sure we understand the inherent worth and value of women and that we don’t conduct ourselves in ways that undermine women.”

Colette Ghunim, who is working on “Traces of Home,” her first feature-length film documenting her journey back to Mexico and Palestine to locate her parents’ original homes, has produced and edited videos for organizations in Costa Rica, India, and Egypt. She says fulfilling calls for diversity is one thing, but not enough.

“You cannot just have someone on the team for diversity, but you have to listen to what they have to say,” Ghunim says.

“In 2017, 70.7 percent of the 4,454 speaking characters were white, 12.1 percent were black, 6.2 percent were Hispanic, 4.8 percent were Asian, 3.9 percent were mixed-race, 1.7 percent were of Middle Eastern descent and less than 1 percent each were coded as Native American or Native Hawaiian. It’s worth noting that these designations are for characters, not actors – in 2015, one of the 3.6 percent of mixed-race speaking characters was Aloha‘s Allison Ng, played by Emma Stone,” according to The Hollywood Reporter reporting on a new study from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative.

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Pamela Sherrod Anderson, an award-winning writer, filmmaker, playwright, journalist and educator, said that in these conversations and diversity efforts it does not suffice for women and under-represented voices to just be at the table.

In #diversity efforts it does not suffice for women and under-represented voices to just be at the table. They have to be at the door to be able to open it. #WorkplaceEquality

“Having a place at the table is one thing. But you have to be at the door and be able to open it,” says Anderson who has worked as director, assistant director, producer, script supervisor and consultant on independent films. She was recently selected to be in Kartemquin Film’s and Community Film Workshop’s Diverse Voices in Documentary pilot program.

“A lot of conversations around diversity miss the ‘why,’” Guth says. Otherwise, “there is a message that I am other, and that I do not belong.”

So inclusion in an industry across gender, race, age, economic status and time in the industry “signals on a subconscious level that we are all welcome, and moves beyond a scarcity mindset,” Guth says.

USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative also found: “Although women represent 50.8 percent of the U.S. population, they represented just 31.8 percent of speaking characters last year, a disparity of almost 20 percentage points. This prevalence has held constant; among the 48,757 speaking characters in the 1,100 top-grossing films since 2007, just 30.6 percent have been female. One major reason for this gender disparity is that women have a much shorter onscreen “lifespan” than men: There tends to be gender balance among child characters (52.7 percent male to 47.3 percent female in 2017), with the gap slightly widening in the teens (55.3 percent to 44.7 percent). But by age 40, 75.4 percent of characters were male,” according to The Hollywood Reporter.

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Groups such as Women Make Movies, based in New York, describes itself as a non-profit feminist social enterprise that is the leading distributor of independent films by and about women. “Our Production Assistance Program assists women directors with their productions from concept through completion with fiscal sponsorship, consultations and other technical assistance. We work with creative, ground-breaking films which win awards at festivals around the world. Films and filmmakers we have supported have been nominated for or won Academy® Awards in 12 of the past 13 years,” according to the WMM site.

Mentoring and welcoming are also important for women in the industry and elsewhere. Anderson says. “Uplifting” each other is required. “You have to be willing to teach a sister and you have to feel you have a professional to guide you,” she says.

Others agree that the industry is enriched by the practice of women helping other women.

“Women are all supporting each other,” says Erica Duffy, founder of Camera Ambassador, a camera, grip, and electric rental company. She recently purchased and renovated a 6,000 square foot space with recording studio, video editing suites, an event space, and co-working offices.

This year’s Female Filmmakers Night screening selections offer a variety of film genres including animation, documentary, experimental, comedy, and narrative short films that address subject matter including Title IX, disabilities, violence against women, and women in traditionally male roles. The Grand Prize for the jury-selected film was director Emma Keehan for “Ourobourus.”

“This is a film about people who know who they are but have difficulty showing who they are,” Keehan says.

“For so long, the feminine energy has been minimized,” says Chaz Ebert, publisher of, and Honorary Jury Chair of the competition. These stories change that, she says.

“It is important right now to be having conversations in the open pertaining to the work we do,” Guth says.

@AmyGuth, Executive Director at the Midwest Independent Film Festival, sees that magic happens when collaborators are in a room together and approach issues as a community without hierarchy or a power structure. #genderequality

“We can learn from the fact that such magic happens when we are in a room together and approach issues as a community without hierarchy or a power structure. When we validate all points of view, no matter what the setting is, we can work together,” Guth says.

She adds, “A rising tide raises all ships.”

About the Author

Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project.