As female directors still struggle against the celluloid ceiling, Kinofilm’s Women in Shorts night showcased the best of women’s cinema in a Salford venue last Wednesday.
Greater Manchester’s most prominent independent film exhibitor has been screening shorts across different county venues for almost 20 years.
But Kinofilm’s latest event at the Black Lion pub was a particular must-see for how it countered the notion that cinema needs to be a male-dominated industry.
This was a hot topic after the Cannes Film Festival was mired in a sexism row last May and Helen Mirren also called for more female representation at the Czech Republic’s Karlovy Vary festival this month.
In a country where less than 10% of British films are directed by women, one cannot rely on the power of the purse to support local talent.
This is why Kino’s events director John Wojowski and presenter Jane McConnell both believe that ‘women’s cinema’ – an area so small and specialised, it has its own Wikipedia page – deserves a leg-up, particularly when so many of Kino’s Greater Manchester directors are male.
Ms McConnell said: “I don’t think women’s cinema should be separated from cinema.
“Cinema itself is the zoetrope, its projection technology that tells a story, and it shouldn’t have any kind of gender restrictions, but unfortunately there is.
“Using Hollywood as an example, all your big financial backers are chaps with hedge funds.
“That’s why it is a celebrated and rare thing when women and film are bought to the fore.”
Ms McConnell bases her definition of women’s cinema on the three-point Bechdel test, a humourous way of analysing the presence of women in film which first appeared in the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For.
In this instance it has to have at least two women in it, they must talk to each other, and the conversation must be about something besides a man.
Most of the eight films screened last Wednesday certainly pass the test, and all were directed by women (many others also had female producers and screenwriters).
They found work through independent initiatives that were previously unavailable to aspiring female film-makers in the past.
Director Aurora Fearnley’s Shades of Living was made through the Green Shoots scheme at Vision + Media, which grouped her with producer Nia Wakeham and writer Elaine Brassela.
This tender 10-minute piece about a young boy who tries to help his parents deal with a personal loss comes with a twist ending and is a great follow-up to Daniel, an eight-minute period drama set in an elitist public school.
The piece was funded by the Nokia Shorts competition and was shot entirely on a mobile phone.
When asked during her post-screening Q&A about what advice she would offer to hopefuls, Ms Fearnley replied: “I recently saw Mike Leigh give a talk for his short film A Running Jump during the Cultural Olympiad.
“He said, Don’t compromise; it’s going to be tough, no matter the gender, if you’re a film-maker doing it for your personal reasons and you just don’t compromise.”
Ms Wakeham agreed: “If you want it, you’ve got to get it, whether you’re a man or a woman.”
Aimee Powell’s Shades of Beige was a highlight for most as its challenging subject matter left the audience in silence until the very last credit scrolled.
Its fragmentary narrative jumps back and forth between siblings Jodie and Brian’s comforting past and their contemporary struggles to salvage their idyll after Brian is convicted of indecently assaulting an infant.
It had a very professional sheen, not least because it starred Michelle Dockery from Downton Abbey.
Ms Powell said: “She wasn’t famous before I attached her to the film. I knew I wanted to work with her after seeing her before she graduated from Guidhall School of Music & Drama, and she blew everyone else off the stage.”
The British Council Film-funded project spent a long time in post-production stage and the editorial department went through various digital intermediary producers, as Ms Powell’s team had to schedule them in between their big feature jobs: “We didn’t have the money to be at the front of the queue,” she laughed.
Things have changed quite a bit since the 1940s, where masses of women were hired to work on wartime propaganda from beyond the wardrobe and make-up departments for the Ministry of Information.
Female involvement in film production dwindled in the rigidly unionised post-war era, and the rates picked up again with the arrival of Channel 4 in 1982, but today we rarely find women in the director’s chair.
Ms McConnell said: “I think the barrier to entry has changed in the film industry. You can come to the film industry as a woman with nothing and leave with everything if you want to.
“Katherine Bigelow has finally won an Oscar, so ‘women’s cinema’ for a white middle-class audience is certainly very progressive, but I think a lot of work still has to be done.”
After Lynne Ramsay described the film industry as ‘completely sexist and completely class-biased’ in the run-up to her We Need to Talk to Kevin last year, it would appear that financiers need to be less guarded.
But there is also the issue of too few films passing the Bechdel test – when mainstream English-speaking cinema is synonymous with ‘men’s cinema’, then David Cameron’s suggestion that the industry should concentrate its funds on ‘commercially viable’ product appears to some as very dubious.
Ms McConnell, who is also publicist for Future Artists, the only independent distributor outside of London, said: “Tax breaks for major film studies is great for the UK, but at the same time I don’t think he realises that he is strangling a British film industry which has been going for a very long time and has a lot of history to it.
“I don’t think he understands what independent art is.”
The other Women in Shorts movies were Ruthie Meiri Newgrosh’s Salford University student film Almighty Lulu, Molly Brown’s spoof public information film A Guide to Safe Dining, Soile Mottisenkangas’ Bully Factory, Adele Myers and Raj Page’s Racing Time, and Katie Murphy’s Humper’s End, which was made during this year’s Filmonik Kabaret’s 24/7 film-making boot camp session.
There are going to be lots more vintage Kino nights, so fans should keep an eye out for those at 3 Minute Theatre in Afflecks Palace.
Kino Shorts will resume in September.