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Esther May Campbell: Heroes and Gods

Men and women are different. Whether because of our genes or conditioning. We experience, at home and on the street, playground or onscreen, different qualities prized in females and males.

Big cinema stories internationally exported most obviously in the superhero franchises, but across much commercial cinema, present characters as modern day gods and goddesses. Movie stars shine larger than life up in the dark heavens, heading heroically into the mysterious woods, called on to adventure, fight for a solution, defeat an antagonist, assimilate their fatal flaw and return to restore order. These Gods are mostly men and the people making these films – if we look at the stats – are also mostly men.

the very qualities celebrated in commercial narrative form have given men, and not women, the ambition to be the storytellers.

And so we are trying to figure out why women are not making films. And we are looking for one problem to be conquered, a magical elixir to be found. But perhaps answers to the narrative question ‘Where are Women in Film?’ can be tickled out in a more meta form.

When I began working as a runner, being a woman was not an issue (for me). If I received criticism it hurt (I’ll come back to this later) but I never imagined it was because I was a woman. As I began writing and directing, if a project was rejected I looked inside the material itself to ask what wasn’t working – I never thought it had anything to do with being written from a female perspective or form. Women, I believed, would catch up with men statistically – of course they would and I would be one of many female storytellers.

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Why not? But… it didn’t happen. When I stood under the lights clutching a BAFTA I was the only woman on stage that night apart from those in the ‘best actress’ category: a category men can’t be nominated for. When I directed TV dramas I would be approached as script girl/continuity. The anecdotes go on and on

The number of women controlling (writing and directing, shooting and financing too) stories has evidently gone down. This effects

  1. how female see themselves in the world and as potential story makers
  2. how males perceive gender
  3. the type of stories that are being made; not only their content but their form.

Form effects content and content form.

If commercial TV and film stories are being designed again and again by the same type (white/male), we get a homogenised version of our world. Which is sad, because we need many perspectives. But more than this: the very qualities celebrated in commercial narrative form have given men, and not women, the ambition to be the storytellers.

There is a kind of psychological colonisation going on, creating a hermetically sealed culture in which women don’t become storytellers because the current ones (unconscionably or not) have determined male and female traits – and the female traits don’t happen to be (apparently) film-friendly ones. (Even when film gender roles are subverted – Hanna, Hunger Games, Star Wars – they take on the traits men think are manly. Indeed re-watching Thelma and Louise with my daughter recently felt like a radical piece of drama – women in domestic worlds, their adventures, their need for change).

There has been myth-making about the qualities needed to enter, survive and thrive in the film industry. These qualities are very much reflected in the form. And like gender in film – repeated enough – myth becomes reality.

Qualities that are strangely similar to those endorsed in film narratives for male heroes – single mindedness, ambition, physical strength, endurance, familial sacrifice – are the ones mythologised in making films. And so while I’m not experiencing individual misogyny (much), the stories we experience do affect how women and girls perceive themselves.

Re-watching Thelma and Louise with my daughter recently felt like a radical piece of drama – women in domestic worlds, their adventures, their need for change.

How can I say this…? Some of us are not conquerers. Our trajectory is not straight but multi-layered. Our stories aren’t mono, like the one I described above. Moving from form to process – well, I’m a tender soul. Criticism hurts. I take it on and go inside. I thrive when having time to create, think and play. I’m not a fighter, who’ll do anything to get the shot.

Does this mean I shouldn’t make films? I believe in integration (of soul, body, time). I care for my cast and crew. I worry about their happiness and about getting the job done, and to function I must return to my daughter and take care of people who need me and whom I need. These traits which can be deemed as feminine (of course men have them too) are not those of the conquering hero. We can argue these have been conditioned and are not innate. Not all women are like this. Of course not! But right now, that’s not relevant. This is my truth, born from my experiences, my evolving personality.

I believe in integration (of soul, body, time). I care for my cast and crew.

We are conditioned to do well, but not stick out too much. It’s easier to avoid disapproval than fight for change; and easier to be governed than think freely. But real heroes do just that. They think and act freely. Making films at its best is fun, collaborative, family-like. It oftentimes draws in folk who want to get at stories that reflect their world, share in the joys and sorrows of being alive. Some of the best stories come from broken parts of the soul.

Change is scary, but inevitable. As much as I appreciate and encourage women who have had enough of the industry to find other places for their practice, art and time – I know that if women don’t make films, and make them their way, we will continue along the worst kind of journey into the woods. One mapped by someone whose values are not mine.

The industry prides itself on its stamina, thick skin, long hours. Work fast. Work hard. Shoot at any cost. Destroy what gets in the way. Bring it home. Cut it up. Win awards. Take credit. Sound familiar? Sounds a bit like the story arc I have described at the top, and one so often re-worked. Form reflects content which reflects form. But compassion, care and vulnerability are sources of great strength and wisdom. The stories I want to tell are human stories. The way I want to work is a human way. And celebrating being human (and not a God in the stars) feeds creativity and drives the work.

But real heroes do just that. They think and act freely.

Ah… that reminds me. I need to get back and write my story. It’s set in the distant future, in a time when compassion and collectivity, above physical strength and ambition, enables humanity to survive the inevitable losses that are surely on their way… It’s full of love, sex and vulnerability – and it’s awesome.

Esther May Campbell‘s debut feature LIGHT YEARS, produced by Samm Haillay, premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2015, and is currently on tour in the UK. More information on the film’s website.

2018-11-12T13:00:08+01:00June, 2016|The Long Read, Working in TV|