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Interview: Beeban Kidron

Beeban Kidron, Baroness Kidron, OBE, is a filmmaker, activist and campaigner. Her early films, Carry Greenham Home and Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, are key texts of British and feminist cinema. She subsequently moved to Hollywood, making films including Used People, To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar and Amy Foster. Her 2004 film Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason had the second-highest admissions in Europe of any European film directed by a woman this century. Her documentary work includes Hookers, Hustlers, Pimps and their JohnsDevadasi and InRealLife. She is the co-founder of Intofilm and has worked on the iRights framework.

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Being a woman director with kids, or a woman in a frontline film job, it’s not that you are stopped at the door – more a gradual slide into making choices that mean you do not fiercely and fully pursue your own creative interests.

 

You have been working in the film & TV industry for more than 30 years: how has it changed (or not) as a work environment for women, and for parents?

When I first started there women were few, and generally in traditional female areas, make-up, costume, script supervisor etc, there were few above the line and absolutely none in so-called technical grades. The crews I worked with in the early days had, almost without exception, never worked with a female director. I always found it funny when they would sidle up after a couple of weeks and call me ‘governor’. Giving me the mantle of a traditional male title was a sign of respect and acceptance I was one of them. Now I hope women are numerous enough to be accepted with no reference to their gender.

I would make the point that it is even harder for women who are in areas like camera, sound, and editing to be parents also – where you go from job to job, the hours are long and irregular, and set by the needs of production. As much as it is tough for Directors, they have whole swathes of time which they can set their schedule, and much longer gaps between periods of production. It is important to recognise that because there appears to be less outrage of the lack of women in those areas than in Directing.

 

Have you experienced a particularly good childcare/family-friendly situation on any of your shoots? What made it work? Is it better in the UK or US? TV or film?

Stephen Spielberg did the most incredible thing when I got pregnant and could not get insurance. He put himself forward to direct if I missed a day of the shoot for reasons associated with my pregnancy. I did end up 9 months and 5 days pregnant on the last day of principal photography, and we had to charter a flight for me to get back from Nebraska to NY with the cast and crew. I am eternally grateful to him and all at Amblin (as his company was called at the time). But Stephen had had many children and made many films and he saw no reason that it should be different for me.

As Sarah Solemani’s blog on your website so eloquently points out – this is an issue of who is ‘responsible’ for children. Directing is a job of selfish devotion to the act of storytelling, which may involve hiding under the duvet thinking, drinking with colleagues, reading endless peripheral texts, kicking the walls of your work place because of a blank imagination – just as much as flying to LA for the day, showing up for 18 hour days, answering calls at unsocial hours, and/or saying action and cut. Parenting is an act of selfish devotion to your offspring. These two things necessarily and absolutely come into conflict – and when they do come into conflict the kids win. Which means the responsible parent loses.

So being a woman director with kids, or a woman in a frontline film job, it’s not that you are stopped at the door – more a gradual slide into making choices that mean you do not fiercely and fully pursue your own creative interests.

 

Have you ever encountered implicit or explicit prejudice (e.g. lost jobs) because of being a parent?

So-many-sexist-fucked-up-unacceptable-things-explicit-implicit and on occasion positively illegal. The most evocative of which is that I went into labour with my second child the day before the Director’s Cut screening. My assistant asked the studio to delay for a couple of days – but they refused. At 4am I gave birth. At 11am I was at the screening. By 2pm I was back in hospital with my baby.

I would never do that now. I hope no one would feel comfortable to put a female (or male) Director in that position.

 

The worst thing about being a working parent is the idea that you always need to be elsewhere: with the kids when working, with the work when at home. It is the most debilitating feeling.

 

What were your most successful strategies for balancing filmmaking and raising a family?

My four pieces of advice to the younger women who have asked me over the years are:

1.  Don’t have childcare that covers work, have childcare that covers your whole life. Which includes your thinking time, your personal time, your social time – as well as your hours at work. And whether the cost of that is your privacy, your money, or that you have to share childcare in a way that means you have to take periodic breaks to return the favour, it is worth it.

2.  I do all my watching rushes and talking to producers/studio/actors etc. before I walk through the front door. I have on occasion spent three hours in the car in front of my own house, so that when I walk in I am not conflict. The worst thing about being a working parent is the idea that you always need to be elsewhere: with the kids when working, with the work when at home. It is the most debilitating feeling. I remember being very amused when ‘quality time’ became a parenting fashion. Actually mostly kids want you there in order that they can safely ignore you, so it’s really important to be there in a way that is not costing you too much.

3.  Take your partner and kids to work – not often or oppressively to your work colleagues – but every now and again. My generation hid their mothering, because we were so busy proving our gender should be no barrier. But it is important for your kids and your partner to know what you do and feel proud. And for all the fact that I would never wittingly short change any filming situation for a domestic one, it is humanising for us all to allowed to be both artists and mothers.

4.  No one is waiting for you to speak, but everyone has the right to be heard, even a woman with children!

 

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© Joe Lederer. Beeban Kidron on the set of Used People.

 

Did you ever feel either pressed to speak out about those issues during your career, or alternately silenced? Did you feel at any time that talking about family life, personal commitments etc. could compromise your professional standing? Do you feel differently today?

I felt that just being there – on set – was shouting out. There were so very few women in UK and US and many of the handful that there were (certainly in the first 20 years) were not parents. I was a feminist and gave plenty of ‘lip’ – but I did not advertise my gender: I wore jeans and baggy shirts, had short hair, never wore make-up and generally ‘hid’ all outward signs of femininity. I took transatlantic flights to get home for the Christmas play or a sports day, and then went straight back – but would not dream of mentioning it to those I worked with.

I do feel differently. Women are quorate now. More men are engaged as parents. The laws on equality and diversity are more observed. The barriers are less technical and more cultural. I go to a lot of schools, I talk to young people in Universities, at Intofilm, Youth Parliaments etc;  I speak as loudly and clearly as I can. My kids are grown and I have taken a public role by accepting a seat in the House of Lords. I hope that by my speaking out it makes it easier for young women still juggling and perhaps more compromised by their dual roles.

 

I have always seen part of my role as filmmaker being a public conversation with the world, and giving voice to those who may not have equal access to the airwaves.

 

Your first film, Carry Greenham Home, was about collective action (which was particularly undertaken in that instance by women), and you are now involved with the iRights campaign: what’s the importance of campaigning and activism to you?

I have always seen part of my role as filmmaker being a public conversation with the world, and giving voice to those who may not have equal access to the airwaves.

My interests in film, the role of art and culture as tools of political change – with one eye always on the needs of the young – all are, in my mind, a seamless whole. A lot of people think I have had a very weird and inexplicable journey, some think it is wild and glamorous to go from behind a stills camera, to film, into politics and campaigning. For me it is really a case of going where you can, saying what you must, using the tools and the landscape that is available to you at any given time.

If I have one regret it is that i was not more confident when I was young. A woman needs a room of her own, an income – and to feel that she has the right to interrogate and develop. I was so busy justifying my presence it was hard to take the time and space to develop creatively. I really encourage anyone reading this to take themselves seriously to only do the very best work under circumstances that support them – even if it means driving a cab in-between.

 

Do you think that social media tools, if used responsibly, are a good space for community campaigning online? We feel it’s particularly useful for parents, who often can’t secure childcare to attend networking events or meetings.

Digital media and social media are very different. Digital media in forms both current and not yet invented have the potential to transform access, right across the globe, bringing in the billions of people, men and women, who do not currently form part of the dominant economies and culture. But I am worried about public discourse and personal data being in the hands of a few private owners. I think we are ludicrous in our ignorance about data gathering.

And I do feel that if parents are engaged from afar whilst those without kids (or fathers) are in the room it will further exclude them rather than include them. So whilst social media has a role to play  it should not be instead of being present it has to enhance our presence not replace it.

 

Some of the language around parenting is really disconcerting: there are many ways of being a good parent, and not all of them are equally acknowledged.

 

Oranges are Not the Only Fruit was an incredible portrait of a family, and particularly of a daughter struggling with her difference from her parents. Why is it important to you to tell family stories? Do you think families are well-represented in contemporary media?

Families, coming of age, intergenerational issues are very well documented and a continual source of new material. Mothers’ stories less so. Because mothers often struggle to make work.

 

Your documentary Devadasi, which was made with EveryChild, highlighted how the experience of being a child (and a parent) is complex and varied internationally. What, for you, are the universal rights of children? What about the rights of parents?

The universal rights of children are fairly well described by the UNCRC. They are less well delivered. It is an essential part of our work, domestically and internationally to uphold them – in spirit, in practice and in law. Adults have human rights which should also be upheld. If they conflict with the rights of the child I believe the needs and rights of the child should win.

What rights parents should have beyond those that they claim on behalf of children is less clear and I sometimes see how the law fails to deliver for children in arguing on behalf of parents – that is wrong. We also have a responsibility to make cultural and personal decisions that are inclusive of all people and not to valorise the role of the parent. Either by design or disappointment many people don’t have children, and those that do, are guardians of future adults not owners of mini me’s. Some of the language around parenting is really disconcerting: there are many ways of being a good parent, and not all of them are equally acknowledged.

 

What better resource [than film] to open up the world to young people, whose experience is so circumscribed by their geography, social setting and lack of mobility.

 

Intofilm has been so successful in bringing films into schools in the UK: what can film bring to education? And why is it so important for children to have access to a diverse range of films?

Films tell stories from all over the world, from different times and different perspectives – and it can be delivered with technological ease EXACTLY as the artist intended every time. What better resource to open up the world to young people, whose experience is so circumscribed by their geography, social setting and lack of mobility. We have 12,000 clubs and 300,000 members; it is a joy to bring the world to them and encourage them to see film as something they can use to dream and learn. We are continuously moved by what being an Intofilm member means – and very proud of the number of budding filmmakers from very diverse backgrounds we have ignited.

 

Finally, if you could pass on one piece of advice to an emerging filmmaker who is considering starting a family as well as a career, what would it be?

Be practical but do not compromise. It’s not a race and you will be remembered for the good work that you do not for the gaps you needed to take.

2015-10-05T09:00:39+00:00October, 2015|Interview, The Long Read, Working in TV|