Bumble—the self-proclaimed feminist dating, lifestyle and career app—recently announced the five winners of its 2019 “Female Film Force” competition.
The competition, now in its second year, provides grants to female filmmakers in France, Germany, Ireland and the UK. Female Film Force received over 1,300 pitches by teams of women filmmakers (writers, directors, or producers) and awarded £20,000 (about $25,000 USD) to each winner.
The initial candidates had submitted their applications in March, and were subsequently reduced to a short list, following which ten teams pitched a film industry panel, and then that group was winnowed to the five victors. In addition to the grant, the winners will receive support and guidance from industry experts; the completed films will be released in January 2020.
The number of women in engineering (the crucial E of STEM) has risen in the last few decades, but still lags behind men — only 13% of engineers are women. A new big-screen film called, “Dream Big: Engineering Our World,” seeks to inspire the next generation of diverse female engineers. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), MacGillivray Freeman Films (MFF) and Bechtel Corporation are the key partners driving this initiative.
A Film About Big Dreams
“Dream Big” shares exemplary feats of
engineering and the stories of the contemporary engineers who bring them to
life, with a focus on women in the field. Towering buildings, underwater
robots, solar cars and sustainable city planning are a few of the topics
Minority directors are underrepresented in
film at a degree of three to one, while women are underrepresented at a rate of
seven to one, according to UCLA’s 2018 Hollywood Diversity Report. There is clearly room for
progress here in terms of equality, especially for women who are black or of
another minority identity. Rapper, singer, actress, label president, author,
real estate developer and entrepreneur Queen Latifah is out to shift the
scales; she recently teamed up with Tribeca Studios and Marc Pritchard, Procter
and Gamble’s chief brand officer, to launch the Queen Collective (TQC). TQC has
a goal of “accelerating gender and racial equality behind the camera.” Two
inaugural documentaries backed by TQC premiered in April 2019 at the Tribeca
Film Festival, and they are now streaming on HULU.
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.
Despite decades-long efforts from female journalists, broadcasters, writers, editors, and other media professionals, a gap persists in the representation and employment of women across all forms of media. The imbalance is even starker for female media professionals who are otherwise marginalized, like women of color, women with disabilities, and women who identify as part of the LGBTQ community.
The Women’s Media Center, a feminist organization that aims to close the gender and racial gaps in media with pointed research and training, recently released its annual flagship report on women’s media representation, including both the inequalities that haven’t been addressed and the progress that’s been made over the past year.
I am always keeping an eye out for instances of feminism breaking through to mainstream culture. So when Netflix decided to make its biggest payment ever of $10 million to buy the rights to Knock Down the House, I was eager to learn about how this film came about. How did this relatively new film team suddenly find itself poised to reach Netflix’s estimated 148 million subscribers?
Knock Down the House follows four progressive women who made it into the U.S. Congress in the 2018 elections, inviting viewers to witness the progression of their historic journeys into politics. Just weeks ago, it won Best Documentary Film for 2019 at the Sundance Film Festival.
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.”
Feminist Changer, Feminist Changed
“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.
“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, andThirteenth 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.
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.
Long before she was a meme and pop culture icon, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a sober-minded jurist, a workaholic and a trail-blazing advocate for gender equality. None of that has changed, but in the last decade Ginsburg has become a celebrity whose image is plastered on t-shirts, mugs and all over the Internet. She’s celebrated as both a gritty feminist badass, and cute old lady.
It’s great that someone of Ginsburg’s intellectual heft and societal importance is famous; still, you worry that the image of the bespectacled RBG is overtaking the person. Part of RBG—which is directed and produced by Betsy West and Julie Cohen—explores the hagiography surrounding the diminutive justice: college students express awe at just glimpsing her, and we see Ginsburg sporting a “Super Diva” shirt while working out with her trainer (who, incidentally, has written a book titled The RBG Workout: How She Stays Strong … and You Can Too!). The workout stuff is cute, and a testament to Ginsburg’s determination and discipline, but far more important, and interesting, is her work over nearly six decades as a lawyer, professor and judge.
Nominated by Bill Clinton in 1993, Ginsburg was not the first woman named to the Supreme Court (Sandra Day O’Connor served from 1981-2006) but she has been the most passionate defender of women’s rights, including abortion rights. And while she is considered a liberal icon, it wasn’t always the case. When Ginsburg was appointed, she was in the middle of the pack ideologically, but the changing composition of the court has moved her relative position to the left. Moreover, RBG has proven more than willing to dissent from her conservative colleagues, particularly on gender issues. She is able to do this while maintaining a reputation for collegiality, which included a long-running friendship with the boisterous conservative justice Antonin Scalia, a fellow opera lover who died in 2016.
There are plenty of well-known figures who weigh-in on Ginsburg in the film, including Gloria Steinem, Bill Clinton, NPR’s Nina Totenberg and long-time Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, an arch conservative who nevertheless recommended Ginsburg to President Clinton in 1993 to fill the open Supreme Court seat. “It was the interview that did it,” says Clinton about his choice of Ginsburg from a long list of potential nominees for the position.
Ginsburg’s daughter and son, and a granddaughter, attest to the judge’s sharp mind, prodigious work ethic and serious demeanor. So do two of her childhood friends who confirm, as does nearly everyone interviewed, that Ginsburg is no fan of idle chit-chat or time wasting.
Gender was an obstacle throughout Ginsburg’s rise in the legal ranks. “Being a woman was an impediment,” she notes dryly about her time at Harvard Law School. Ginsburg was one of only nine women in a Harvard class of over 500, and the scrutiny was intense, although professors would not engage the women in the Socratic interrogation that men received because it was felt that females were too delicate for such treatment. Ginsburg also recounts that a dean called the female students together to ask them how they thought they could justify occupying seats that would otherwise have gone to men.
RBG faced other challenges as well, including the death of her mother after a lengthy illness when Ruth was 17. RBG did her undergraduate studies at Cornell, which is where she met her husband Marty. They both went to Harvard for law school, and when Ruth started (she was a year behind Marty) she was caring for their 14-month-old daughter. Ginsburg neatly compartmentalized law time and baby time, she says, but then Marty was diagnosed with cancer, and RBG helped him keep up with his studies while he received treatment. All the while, she was rearing their child, attending classes and serving on the law review.
Ginsburg’s husband survived the bout with cancer, and he proved key to her later success. “Meeting Marty was by far the most fortunate thing that happened to me,” says RBG. Martin Ginsburg, a tax lawyer who died in 2010, was gregarious and social, an ideal counterpart to his more reserved wife. Moreover, not only did he actively campaign for Ginsburg’s nomination to the Supreme Court in the early 1990s, he gave up a high-flying career in New York when his wife was named to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals by President Carter in 1980. The family moved to D.C., and Marty took on much of the childrearing and cooking duties (there are several mentions of RBG’s culinary deficiencies throughout the film).
When RBG graduated from Columbia Law in 1959 (she’d transferred there after her husband took a job in New York when he graduated from Harvard), she had a hard time getting a job in a law firm, even though she’d been at the top of her class. The discrimination against women in the legal profession was not exactly subtle. She became a professor at Rutgers University, and soon learned that she was being paid less than her male colleagues, a situation she quickly moved to remedy.
RBG became a gender equality crusader in the 1970s, and in several cases that she took on, men were as much the victims of gender discrimination and stereotyping as were women. In 1973, she argued a case before the Supreme Court in which a female Air Force lieutenant was not given a housing allowance for her and her husband, even though male service members with wives were automatically granted such benefits. The policy was overturned. In a 1975 case, she represented a man whose wife had died shortly after childbirth. The widower was denied a survivor’s Social Security benefit, which he needed to be able to care for his son, even though in parallel cases women receive such a benefit when their spouse dies.
Once RBG got on the court, she continued to champion women and gender equity. She wrote the majority opinion in a 1996 case in which the Virginia Military Institute was ordered to end its males-only admissions policy.
Ginsburg says her mother gave her two pieces of advice: “Be a lady, and be independent.” By lady, Ginsburg says her mother meant that “One should not be consumed by useless emotions,” like anger. RBG seems to have taken this to heart. She’s certainly passionate about her work, but her career indicates that she is always thinking two or three steps ahead, not getting embroiled in controversies of the day, or recriminations against present or past antagonists. (The lone understandable exception was her misstep as a sitting justice in making disparaging comments about President Trump).
Ginsburg has more energy than most people one-third her age. Still, she is 85 and has survived two bouts of cancer. She dodges the question about whether she should have retired during Obama’s tenure so that a liberal, or at least centrist, judge could have replaced her, as opposed to a Trump nominee should she leave the bench before 2020. It’s hard to argue that someone as vigorous as Ginsburg should step aside before she’s ready, particularly after the outrageous stunt in which the Republicans refused to vote on Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the court in 2016 in the wake of Scalia’s death. It’s a tough one; let’s hope the judge keeps working out, eats right and tries to get a proper night’s rest so that she can outlast the current administration.
RBG was made by a team of women, including director-producers Julie Cohen and Betsy West, and executive producers Amy Entelis (Executive VP for Talent and Content Development at CNN Worldwide, which financed the film) and Courtney Sexton (CNN Films VP). Women also occupy the archival, associate and coordinating producer roles on RBG, as well as the composer, cinematographer, and editor slots.
In November, an unrelated feature film titled On the Basis of Sex will be released. Directed by veteran producer-director Mimi Leder, it will star Felicity Jones as Ginsburg.
There’s the philanthropy that happens when people invest money to promote social change, and then there’s the philanthropy that happens when people take their money and their talent, and employ them in a way that addresses a social problem. Celebrities, particularly multi-talented and highly educated ones, have a unique capacity to combine their financial capital, talent, and public stature in order to push for needed social change.
That appears to be part of what happened when Israeli-American filmmaker Sigal Avin teamed up with several feature actors including David Schwimmer, Cynthia Nixon and Bobby Cannavale, to film a series of six short films called, “That’s Harassment.” In each of these three to six minute cinéma verité shorts, the viewer is positioned as a cringing voyeur while scenes of sexual harassment unfold. Since debuting in the spring of 2017, these films have been adapted into 30 second public service announcements that are getting wide visibility.
Schwimmer, along with Milk Studios co-founder Mazdack Rassi, produced the series, and the former “Friends” star has been instrumental in promoting the films and getting them widely seen. The shorts are on Facebook, YouTube, Amazon and other platforms, and excerpts are being showing in New York City cabs, and as public service announcements with links to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) and the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC). The films are designed to help employers combat harassment, and encourage victims and bystanders to recognize it and speak out. RAINN and the NWLC have partnered with “That’s Harassment” to compile resource and discussion guides, and the list, “10 Ways Your Company Can Help Prevent Harassment in the Workplace.”
In one film, Schwimmer plays a lawyer who forces himself on a recent hire played by Zazie Beetz. It’s clear that he is abusing their power differential and harassing her, and yet he is not a menacing caricature. He is not violent and doesn’t make any threats. Once rebuffed, he is highly invested in maintaining a nice guy persona, asking “Are we good?” and wanting a final hug to demonstrate that everything is okay between him and his victim. The Schwimmer character tries to pressure an employee into sexual favors, but wants to be reassured that his behavior is acceptable, and that he won’t suffer any consequences for it.
The other films detail various forms of male-female harassment: a brusque doctor fondles his patient, a bartender verbally and physically harasses a new waitress under the guise of letting her know what pigs men can be, a photographer degrades a young model by asking her to touch herself suggestively as he shoots stills of her, a famous actor exposes himself to a star-struck wardrobe person, and a veteran politician comes onto a younger journalist interviewing him.
“All of the stories are based on real incidents,” says Avin in an interview she and Schwimmer gave to Build Series NYC about the project. When she was a young playwright, Avin says an established actor exposed himself to her backstage during a rehearsal. Schwimmer shares that once the “That’s Harassment” project was underway, his mother revealed that she’d been harassed by a doctor. Schwimmer notes that the majority of the crew working on the shorts were female, “Unsolicited, every single woman came forward and said this reminds me of what happened to me. Everyone had an experience.”
Avin based “That’s Harassment” on a similar series that she’d made in Israel, and called on Schwimmer to help get the U.S. versions made and distributed. She says that her motivation in making the films was that while there was a lot of talk about sexual harassment, “You never got to see it.” Her approach was single-take scenes of several minutes where the viewer is “like a bug on the wall.”
The U.S. versions rolled out in the spring of 2017, but in the wake of the high-profile sexual harassment and abuse scandals that roiled the entertainment and other industries in the fall of 2017, Schwimmer and Avin sought a wider audience for them, and got RAINN and NWLC involved. “That’s Harassment” has also been covered by various mainstream media outlets including Cosmopolitan, Good Morning America and USA Today.
What makes the films so effective is that the perpetrators’ behavior is abusive, yet familiar. The victims don’t dissolve in a puddle of tears, nor do they angrily confront their harassers, all of whom are in positions of power over them. The women appear confused, embarrassed and uncomfortable, deflecting the unwelcome advances and comments, and sometimes laughing or shrugging off the harassing behavior or remarks.
The bartender, actor, and lawyer characters want to be “good guys” who compliment women and do them favors, but what the films show is that the nicest thing they could do would be to respect their female colleagues and let them do their jobs. The doctor, politician and photographer characters don’t play the helpful nice guy card; instead, they emphasize their experience and authority. You can almost see the gears turning in the victims’ heads: what is going on here? Is this normal? How do I get this to end without a scene or future reprisals?
The films are useful in provoking discussion about sexual harassment, and as tools for employers to use. This can be tricky — employers have a legal and moral imperative to combat sexual harassment, yet didactic and heavy-handed training sessions and amateurish videos tend to provoke more eye-rolling than actual change. For this reason, having a professional like Avin script and direct the films, and use working Hollywood actors, goes a long way in making the scenarios believable, and something that should be taken seriously.
In the current climate surrounding harassment, many men wonder what their role should be. Most would prefer not to talk about it all. It’s easier not to get involved, rationalizing that if one is not a perpetrator, then it’s best to keep one’s head down. There are costs—including threats to one’s livelihood and social ostracization—for speaking up when harassment takes place. Moreover, some men fear that their involvement might be unwanted, or seen as patronizing by women. Finally, many men, and women, are still grappling with what constitutes sexual harassment. The films do not solve these thorny questions, but they certainly start the conversation, and can lead to some concrete and specific ways to stop harassment in the workplace, as indicated by RAINN and NWLC.
Schwimmer and co-producer Mazdack Rassi’s contribution to the project, supporting Avin in getting the films made (and seen), is a good model for other men to follow in terms of being allies to women in the fight for gender equality.