Creating New Ways to Expand Film’s Reach and Vision During COVID

In this global Pandemic time, philanthropic resources are stretching to a maximum. As well, our vision of what is philanthropic is also expanding. For the many of us who are tech savvy and broadband accessible, while we are isolated in our homes, our intercommunications online have tripled and quadrupled. Virtual meetings and presentations abound. We are tackling service in entirely new ways and through newly chartered venues.

From the Women Make Movies website, promoting their Virtual Film Festival. THE REST I MAKE UP began March 27. (Image Credit: WMM)

The independent film community is rallying around extending ways it can serve both its filmmakers and audiences – all while shut in at home. The Art House Convergence community listserv initiated a discussion early on and set some guidelines about safety as the coronavirus started to spread in the United States. Two days before SXSW cancelled, members of AHC pondered “when and if” questions. Then, one by one, art house movie theatres posted their closing statements, and a discussion emerged on what message to place on the empty marquees.

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Women’s Voices Unfettered: A Feminist Survival Issue

Yet another U.S. feminist media outlet bites the dust. A lengthy article in the Sunday New York Times, December 8, 2019, “A Farewell to Feministing and the Heyday of Feminist Blogging” skirts around the reasons why. Is it, as author, Emma Rosenberg, writes, “Feminist media has been especially hard hit by the financial turbulence in the news industry”? Or, as she also states, “the sites were undone by their own popularity…..larger media organizations…hired [these women journalists]”? Rosenberg does a disservice by not being clear.

Like many other feminist publications, Feministing has suffered chronic underfunding and now must close down. (Image Credit: Feministing.com)

Money and the lack of it is the core reason that feminist media continues to have such trouble. This problem runs deeper than “turbulence in the news industry.” Over the summer, I wrote about other feminist media in trouble, and raised concern about how the chronic underfunding of feminist media has crippled the movement for gender equality.

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The Legacy of Jennifer Schlecht and the Tragedy of her Loss

The global reproductive rights community is reeling with the tragic and untimely death of Jennifer Schlecht on November 6, 2019. A devoted and dedicated friend to women and girls everywhere, Schlecht had spent her entire career fostering family planning efforts for women across the globe. In recent years, she directed special attention to the need to provide family planning services for women drawn into humanitarian crises.

Jennifer Schlecht with her daughter Abaynesh. The child’s name means “you are the Nile” in Amharic. (Photo credit: Women’s Refugee Commission)

In April of 2018, Jennifer Schlecht took a new position as Senior Advisor on Emergency Preparedness and Response at Family Planning 2020. For Family Planning 2020, housed under the umbrella of United Nations Foundation’s activities, Schlecht collaborated with CARE on these issues as well as the Inter-Agency Working Group on Reproductive Health in Crisis.

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Toxic Donors and The Perils of Not Listening to Women

Arwa Mboya, a MIT graduate student, speaks as a rally September 13th on campus organized to protest the university’s accepting Epstein donations. In August she had called for Joi Ito, director of the Media Lab, to resign.

In the fall-out around MIT’s prestigiously respected Media Lab over its acceptance of repeated donations from Jeffrey Epstein, a known sexual predator of underaged girls, a number of sheros shine. Each act of these women highlight a different aspect of the larger cultural problem about misogyny and how deeply masculinist views are entrenched at multiple points in society. I list the women here as the chronology of the story unfolded:

Arwa Mboya, MIT graduate student in Civic Media, a division of the Media Lab

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Sheryl Sandberg: A Philanthropist’s Profile

Sheryl Sandberg (Image Credit: Creative Commons)

Sheryl Sandberg might be among a handful of the largest donors to women and girls. As such, it is important to understand the nature of her giving and where this money goed. Through a thicket of documents, it is not always easy to tell.

Last November The Chronicle of Philanthropy announced that the Facebook COO was donating another $100 million to charity. This brought Sheryl Sandberg’s contributions at the time to over a quarter of a billion dollars — a total of $286.1 million. When I first started to explore her donations, I got no responses. Even for this article now, I received a very positive and polite response from Sheryl Sandberg & Dave Goldberg Family Foundation staff member, Pamela Nonga Ngue: “We will not be able to participate in the story, but we appreciate your consideration and the work you do to highlight women in philanthropy.”

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Funders, Please Step Up On Crisis in Women’s Media

The current homepage of Rewire News (Photo Credit: Rewire News)

The failure of the feminist movement to tackle changes in public media policy may be one of the most significant shortcomings of my generation. Take these few facts as proof. According to a report from the Global Media Monitoring Project by Margaret Gallagher entitled Who Makes the News?, the percentage of women in newsmaking roles stagnated at 23% from 2005 to 2015. And the output from media that focuses on women? Even more dismal. According to the report, “Across all media, women were the central focus of just 10% of news stories – exactly the same figure as
in 2000.” And just a few more statistics to get your hair standing on end: women only directed 8% of the top 250 grossing films in 2018, and women-directed films reach just 2.75% of screens in the U.S.

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How Feminist Philanthropy is Studying Who Buys Sex and Why

Swanee Hunt, Founder and Chair of Demand Abolition. (Photo Credit: Demand Abolition)

A new effort has formed to refocus issues of sex trafficking on the buyers of sex, not the victims. Demand Abolition, initiated by philanthropist Swanee Hunt, has the goal of fighting sex trafficking by eliminating the illegal sex industry in the US – and thereby the world. Among the tasks, Demand Abolition funded a research report “Who Buys Sex? Understanding and Disrupting Illicit Sex Demand.” Conducted by a team of researchers at the University of Portland, over 8,000 men were surveyed. The report fills critical gaps in understanding of the illegal sex trade, why men buy sex, and what might be done short term and long term to alleviate this exploitative behavior.

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New Funding to Spotlight Women’s Many Historic Roles in Filmmaking

Jill Godmilow editing her 1975 documentary, ANTONIA: A PORTRAIT OF THE WOMAN, one of the many thousands of films in the AFI Catalog of Feature Films.



Gender-lens projects coming out of Washington, D.C. these days are rare, but here’s a great one. The National Endowment for the Humanities has just awarded the American Film Institute a $350,000 grant toward a study on gender parity in the history of American film. The funds support a survey of the roles of women in the over 100 years of American movies that are in the database in the AFI Catalog of Feature Films. The collection has amassed over 500,000 listed credits on all these productions.

The database is complete for the years 1893-1993 and is abbreviated for films released after 1993. It covers all Hollywood films and independent works that made theatrical release. My own single entry is here.

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Abigail Disney: Feminist Changer, Feminist Changed

Screenshot from a Facebook discussion: Abigail Disney, left, with Rev. Rob Schenck, right, on the release of his book, Costly Grace.

An email arrived from Fork Films. Who can open and read the mountainous volume of emails one receives these days? This one, however, I opened.

There was Abigail Disney sitting with Rev. Rob Schenck. He is the center point of her own first directed film, The Armour of Light, released in 2015. In the process of making the film, the arch-conservative preacher wrestled with his position on guns, and came to the conclusion that gun use was contradictory to his position on right to life. He has now formed The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute to combat present social crises. The current special focus of the Institute is on gun violence in the U.S. from a Christian, ethical perspective. Abigail Disney, filmmaker, activist and philanthropist, is a Governor on his Board of Directors.

Abigail Disney, also a mother and wife, and a beacon of ever-evolving feminist consciousness, is prepared for action. Unafraid to tackle difficult issues – she was a major advocate against the Trump tax bill, despite the huge gains she would personally receive. The Disney heiress has metamorphosed into a principled actor on behalf of the issues that concern her: peace and social justice. Evolution is her forte. While she comes from a major U.S. media family, she did not set out to become a media maker herself.

In May 2008, Abigail wrote a piece for the Huffington Post about how she came to produce the documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell. The story focuses on the women’s movement for peace in Liberia and its impact on ending fifteen years of war in the country.  In the post, Abigail questions why the mainstream media has been so absent on the job of covering these critical events involving women’s leadership. She wrote: “How was it possible that these Liberian women had accomplished such an enormous feat without having been noticed and reported on by the news outlets I had come to know and trust?”

Her partner in founding Fork Films, Gini Reticker, and director of Pray the Devil Back to Hell, before an audience at the Brooklyn Museum, described early pre-production research on the film. She screened over 80 hours of news footage that captured only a glimpse of the women who daily led peace protests: “I had journalists say to me: ‘I saw the women on the field. But they were so pitiful looking that I didn’t film them,’Reticker recounted. In contrast, boys captured and forced into a warring militia, clutching AK47s, are glorified in hours of footage. I have written before about this egregious gender bias within mainstream media.

One of the key leaders among the Christian and Muslim women who banded together for peace in Liberia is Leymeh Gbowee. Her experience anchors the film. Through the many awards Pray the Devil Back to Hell won and speaking opportunities, Gbowee became widely know in peace circles. The film has had a lasting impact which she believes can inspire more women. Gwobe writes: “This documentary is like a landmark or something that tells other women, ‘People did it before we came, we’ve done it, and they can also do it. It is not a fluke. It can happen. People just need to rise up and rise above the politics that so deeply divide us as women.”

Pre-dawn on a brisk October day in 2011 the Disney-Hauser household was bubbling with excitement. A teenage daughter of Leymeh Gbowee was living with Abigail’s family and attending school in the U.S.  Leymeh Gbowee, too, was in New York promoting her newly released book, Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War. News from Oslo swarmed across the Atlantic before first light, announcing that Leymeh Gbowee was one of three women to win the Nobel Peace Prize. The film Disney had produced three years earlier, her first venture in movie making, had given an international stage to the women’s peace efforts in Liberia. The power of film had an indelible effect.

During this same Fall, 2011, Disney and Reticker teamed up with WNET to create a five-part series, Women, War and Peace, for PBS. At the time, Donna Williams, Senior Publicist for WNET declared, “This series is rare in that it puts women at the center of an analysis of conflict and peace.” The five videos from 2011 can be viewed online.

Vessel, a film about the stellar work of Dr. Rebecca Gomperts and her Women On Waves program that brings abortion services across the high seas, is another important work that Abigail Disney has helped deliver to the film world.  Director Diana Whitten in August 2011 joyously wrote me: “Some exciting news! Abby Disney has joined the Vessel crew as Executive Producer!”  Having a dedicated producer is key for successful film completion, and I was thrilled to see Abigail stepping into such a role in advancing other women’s films.

Official funding is listed as 2013 for VESSEL. By 2013, Fork Films had already supported over a dozen films. A more formalized funding program from Fork Films emerged around the time that VESSEL was released in 2014. Another forty films are featured that have been funded through Fork Film since 2013. All totalled, the company states it has “supported nearly 90 documentaries that support peace and social justice.”  Among the list are highly acclaimed works including Cameraperson, Strong Island, and Roll Red Roll. Grants range from $10,000 to $50,000. The next grant deadline will be in the Fall of 2018.

Ninety productions in less than a decade is a sizable collection of works by women supported by one entity. When you leave the darkness of the screening room, you can see that Abigail Disney is on the move, again. She is not resting on these laurels. In late May, she was a speaker on a recent panel about Violence Against Women at the Women+Money Summit organized by the Women’s Funding Network.

Earlier this month she was again with Rev. Rob Schenck, this time at Harper Collins in New York for the release of his book, Costly Grace: An Evangelical Minister’s Rediscovery of Faith, Hope and Love. In promoting the book, they spent an hour via his Facebook page discussing its content, their friendship and work together. He read from the acknowledgments: “Finally, it was Abby Disney who first prompted me to write this book, then nudged me until I had unstoppable momentum. Abby was the angel behind this undertaking.“

They described their first meeting. Disney voiced, “I was looking for someone who was politically different from me in every conceivable way to try to make common cause. I hoped to take the discussion of gun ownership in America back to its roots and talk about it from a moral, ethical and religious standpoint. Who I met instead of a fire-eating dragon was a menschy guy.” The common thread was that they both “crossed over.” Disney’s family was conservative. Schenck’s family of origin was liberal. So, as Disney underscored, “We are both bilingual. That is what this book is about.”

Schenck went on to describe how his work became over-framed by politics and that he lost his spiritual compass. A whole chapter of the book deals with how Evangelicals made a deal with Donald Trump and lost their moral compass. Later, in discussing Dietrich Bonhoeffer and a crisis in the church in Germany in the early 30s, Schenck discussed how Evangelicals had made a deal with Hitler.

Both Disney and Schenck delved into the conundrum of making people mad as hornets in their different worlds. Disney asked, “How do we reach out to them? How do we help them get past their anger…….not only for the people who are angry with us, but the people who we are angry with.”

“Change is hard for all of us….you’ve changed more than I have. I feel guilty about it sometimes.” Disney prefaced as she asked Rev. Schenck a final question. I queried her further on this and she responded: “Yes, for sure, I truly have changed through the meta-partisan work. It’s made me more kind, it’s made me more prone to approach issues with love instead of hostility, and it has widened my networks and spheres of influence. It’s been nothing but good!”

Watch out. Abigail Disney is on the move. Stretching her own mind and moral compass, lifting the minds and experiences of others as a part of her own expanding experiences. Focusing on common cause, she may just be changing more than she knows. And, as I suspected, she assured me she does have “a glimmer” of a new film bubbling up,“But, I can’t talk about it yet.”

ARIEL’S PITCH: Support independent women’s narrative filmmaking with your dollars. A feature, By Now I’ve Lived A Thousand Lives and None of Them Are Mine, is directed by Britni West. Regional filmmaking is vital to cultural diversity. She has $13,000 more to raise by July 20 in Kickstarters’ “all-or-nothing” process. Over on Indiegogo, is Wonderland, a comedy written by and starring Yetide Badaki. Directed by Jessica Sherif, Zodwa, like Alice, stumbles through the looking glass into Hollywood. Will she survive the madness? Only if you assist to raise the remaining $8,400 by July 9th.

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Women at Cannes Stress Urgency of Gender Gap in Film

At the final press conference of the Features jury, Ava DuVernay thanks Cate Blanchett for her remarkable leadership of their panel.

“Compton to Cannes. Dreamy!” tweeted Ava DuVernay to her two million followers once she arrived May 8th in Cannes, the globe’s most prestigious film festival. The directors of A Wrinkle in Time, Selma, and Thirteenth joined four other women on the jury of the feature competition, forming the majority of the body that selects the Palme d’Or winner, the festival’s most coveted prize. Just days earlier, Michelle Obama was on stage in Los Angeles – a short distance from Compton – at the United State of Women Summit. Tracee Ellis Ross, star of the TV series Blackish, sat across from the beloved former First Lady, leading her in a womanist conversation. The greatest portion of their 40 minute talk centered on a pointed question the actress asked: “Are girls today dreaming differently than we did?”

‘Dreaming’ and ‘Dreamy’ are not exactly equivalents, but they both flourish in a realm that more women are venturing into and in which women are taking charge. Dreams, framing ideas into visual constructs, are core in filmmaking. Many, many women are making films, excellent films, putting their dreams onto film. They just are not reaching key spotlights within the established boys’ clubs.

Until audiences see women’s visions crafted into vast, powerful imagery in film and media, the cacophony of women’s calls for full social, and cultural, parity will go unheeded. Without women and men, girls and boys being able to see the possibilities, hope and dreams from women’s imaginations – as well as women’s rightful place in historical drama – there cannot be equity in the workplace, the political arena, or bodily integrity.

The magic and mundanity of women’s visions are essential, and impact all other things. This awareness – while expressed in one of the very first feminist demands in 1967 at the National Conference for New Politics (Freedom for Women, Giardina) – has simmered on back burners among feminist media activists and advocates for decades. Only now has it finally percolated before the larger, general public, thanks, in large part, to the #MeToo movement.  Now the #TimesUp movement is taking things further by joining film stars with women from all industries, calling both for economic justice along with ending sexual harassment.

The Cannes Film Festival has been especially recalcitrant – as 5050X202, a French advocacy collective and Women & Hollywood, the U.S. based publication started by Melissa Silverstein, among many, have repeatedly pointed out. #Cannes2018, however has responded with some positive strides. Festival director, Thierry Fremaux, for many years has claimed that,“films are chosen on merit and that he opposes the idea of pro-women quotas and ‘positive discrimination.'” However, Jessica Chastian, a juror in the 2017 main competition, has had his ear, and may have finally gotten the message through. “She made me understand the importance of the female gaze,” Fremaux  said in March. He credits the U.S. actress with opening his eyes to creating equity in the selection process. Cate Blanchett, the Australian actress, a signator of the #TimesUp Letter of Solidarity (as is DuVernay), is president of the Feature Films jury. She oversees this key jury of four women, including DuVernay, and four men. The Un-Certain Regard jury is also comprised of a majority of women.

That over fifty percent of women are involved on the juries does not rectify the persistent problem that women’s work is not more often selected by festival staff and committees to be included in the ten day festival. Only three women-directed films are among the 21 films in this year’s feature competition for the festival’s most prestigious award. Jane Campion still (as #Cannes2018 has now closed) remains the sole woman to win the Palme d’Or in 1993 – that is twenty-five years ago – for The Piano. Agnes Varda, the mother of New Wave Cinema, received an honorary Palme d’Or in 2015.

On Saturday, May 12, 82 women – actresses, producers, directors, make-up artists, scriptwriters and other feminist media advocates – stood in a series of rows before the red carpet steps. In protest, the women represented the 82 women filmmakers who have made it into competition over the 71 year history of Cannes Film Festival. This is a mere 5% of the 1688 male-directed works. After marching en masse up the steps, Cate Blanchett, in English, then Agnes Varda, in French, read from their prepared statement.

“Women are not a minority in the world, yet the current state of the industry says otherwise,” Blanchett and Varda declared. The protest, organized by the French based 5050×20202 [here’s the US 5050×20202], was done just in advance of the screening of Eva Husson’s Girls of the Sun. This feature, about Kurdish women fighters, was the first of only three women’s films to screen in the Features Competition of twenty-one total films.

The failure of the Cannes Festival to be more equitable is a policy issue. That Fremaux on many occasions emphasizes “merit-based” as the barrier for women reflects the failure to recognize male bias, with a false nod to ‘professionalism’ and a thorough lack of understanding about how the entire structure of filmmaking  — from funding to distribution — discriminates against women. LA Times reviewer, Justin Chang, too, disputes Fremaux’s premise, “All sorts of factors and favors come into play when programming a festival, and I’ve long suspected that if the process were strictly merit-based, we would routinely see more female filmmakers in competition.”

Before she could even get into the Cannes competition, Eva Husson, for her feature about the Kurdish women warriors taking on the Islamic State, needed to raise 4 million euros. She had immense difficulty. Twice as much could be raised for a war picture by a male director, she stated in an interview.

Take for instance the MEDIA Programme — a major public fund that supports European films, a division of Creative Europe established by the European Union. 84% of their awards went to male directors, with the men getting 86% of the monetary awards. Lecturer in Film Studies at University of Southampton, Huw Jones, documents this appalling data in an April article for The Conversation. He analyzed 1,473 films funded through a distribution process that promotes films across Europe.

The European Women’s Audiovisual Network – EWA – has been hammering at this problem for a number of years. In August 2015, as a major step, they worked with various stakeholders to create the Sarajevo Declaration. In a recent email to Philanthropy Women, their Project Manager Cecilia Johnson-Ferguson outlined the study they conducted in 2016 about public funding provided to projects led by women directors in Europe. Jones’ analysis is based on this study, she underscored.

“We are continuing to shepherd our recommendations through the EU process,” Johnson-Ferguson reported. Their contribution to the MEDIA Programme can be found here. Overall EWA seeks “an integration of gender equality among the priorities of the next Media Sub-Programme.” They conclude their request: “The imbalanced presence of women in the European audiovisual sector should be urgently addressed at the European Union level through concrete action.”

In the US, little is being done to ensure that women receive a fair share of the public funding for filmmaking. Two structural challenges hinder this. First there is no national, unified organization quite like the EWA leading the charge to both analyze the current public funding picture regarding women films – or other art forms for that matter – and then armed with such data taking the lead to correct the situation. Second, the agency structure in the US – in comparison to Europe where most countries have cultural ministers, even ministers of women’s issues – is a hodge-podge of different agencies with different interests and constituencies. So, it is hard to lasso them collectively into any unified effort. Last, an agency like the National Endowment for the Arts, which in this author’s opinion could best lead the collection of data across federal agencies, is so politically hand-tied to have the smallest of mandates. Its current Congressional Authorization would never allow such a study or correction. How sad. How discriminatory.

Women in the US have a lot of work yet to do to achieve equity in the film business. The most significant steps are policy issues. Maybe all the women this year running for political office is a sign of change that will impact this problem. With more women in office in 2019, perhaps they will enlarge America’s cultural mandate and the funding for cultural activities.

Women are not moving fast enough to significantly change the public funding picture, not in Europe nor in America. The directors of three important sectors of Cannes, however, did sign a pledge to: 1) create a more transparent selection process; 2) keep records of key filmmaker’s and key crew’s gender in submissions; and 3) to work toward parity on the executive board. One small step for womankind. This is not policy, but a promise.

The French minister of culture, Françoise Nyssen, one of the 82 women in the red carpet protest, announced after the action that she would work to assist women filmmakers to raise funds. She was following the lead of the Swedish Film Institute, headed by Anna Serner, “the first public film financing body to achieve parity in its allocation of funds”. Viva La France! Viva La Sweden!

Post Script:  We can all play a role on an individual basis to fund women filmmakers. Here is a feature narrative that deserve support, large or small. 39 1/2, now in post-production, is Kara Herold’s first feature. Filled with comic irony and high drama, it splendidly mixes live action with lyric animation. She’s just half way through raising $30,000. Your support can assist in making her dream a reality.

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