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Moms-in-Film Founder Talks of Challenges and Lessons Learned

I have recently come to three realizations about being a filmmaker and a parent. The first is that everything comes down to money. The second is that the challenges facing parents in the industry disproportionately affect women. The third is that babies – and boobies – freak people out, especially if they don’t have any, and there’s a way to take advantage of that situation. More on that later.

Moms-in-Film founder Mathilde Dratwa, eight months pregnant with Independent Award nominee Nisreen Faour, producer Elisabeth Durkin, art director Marissa Herrmann, and director of photography Mark Sasahara on set of her short film, Peta Pan.

My background is in acting. It took me seven years to realize that my true passion was for crafting stories rather than performing them, and I wish I’d made the switch sooner. I suppose that my training at Drama Centre and my years of experience auditioning (and sometimes performing) gave me valuable insights about the craft; I know how to speak to actors and am what I suppose you’d call “an actor’s director.” Nonetheless, it’s difficult not to wonder what my career would have been like if I’d gone to film school instead of drama school, and spent all those subsequent years experimenting behind the camera instead of trying to get in front of it.

I don’t think my trajectory is unusual. Trying on a career for size, finding it doesn’t fit, switching to a second or a third – that’s par for the course these days. But if you’re figuring out exactly what you want to do, and you’re a little behind (compared to those who knew straight away what they were born to do)… then you might also “make up for lost time” by waiting a little longer to have a child. I did. I was afraid of getting pregnant, of the impact it would have on my ability to work.

“I was afraid of getting pregnant, of the impact it would have on my ability to work.”

For women, waiting comes with certain consequences, because we’re the ones carrying said children. It has physical consequences on our bodies, and it has financial consequences because “at risk pregnancies” (you’re automatically at risk if you’re over 35) cost more – and the cost of having a child in the United States is absurdly high.

Those of us that got lucky – that have a certain level of success and financial stability – can take time off after giving birth and hope to get employed again after “maternity leave” (in quotation marks because there is no law mandating paid maternity leave for anyone in the US, let alone for freelancers).

When they have children, really successful (read: famous) women can bring their nannies to set – paying said nannies enough to work long hours, checking in with the children in their trailer every time they take a break. Those lucky women are few and far between. Most of us can’t afford that luxury. It all comes down to money.

A woman I know, an editor, lost out on a gig because she was visibly pregnant. The employer, who liked her work, lamented the fact that “the timing wasn’t right.” Her husband got a job at around the same time; his employer didn’t know he was about to become a dad. He also didn’t feel that he needed to take as much time off right away; he felt he could take his time bonding with his child. And he was spared the ordeal of breastfeeding. And I deliberately use the word ordeal, because in my own personal experience, it was really, really hard. I had a milk supply issue, my son was losing too much weight, and I spent a little over a month attached to a pump, feeling more like a dairy cow than a new mother, crying every time we had to resort to a bottle of formula.

Sure, digital technology makes filmmaking more democratic, more accessible, but there are still “gate-keepers.” There are hoops to jump through to become a big player in the industry. Women, heavily underrepresented behind and in front of the camera, have to show up uninvited to a party where most people are men, and almost all of these men are white. It’s harder to make room for yourself if you don’t look like you belong.

“Women, heavily underrepresented behind and in front of the camera, have to show up uninvited to a party where most people are men, and almost all of these men are white.”

So you try to put yourself on the scene by creating good content. It’s hard to receive funding when you are starting out, so many people self-fund their initial short projects. (My producer and I self-funded our first two shorts and our web series.) If you can afford to, you hire professionals to collaborate with and learn from. If you don’t, you ask your friends to fill in, even if they don’t know what they’re doing. Again, it comes down to money.

I moved to New York from Belgium; my family is still in Europe. My husband moved to New York from Portland, Oregon; his family is on the West Coast. That’s not unusual. In our group of friends – creatives, young professionals – almost everyone comes from elsewhere. It’s similar in Los Angeles. When, 8 months ago, our son was born, we felt that distance more acutely. We didn’t have a built-in support system: no grandparents down the road, eager to babysit (for free).

If we were both going back to work, we needed tofind childcare. Leaving your baby in the care of someone else, whether it’s a daycare facility or a nanny, requires trust. The best options are, of course, the most expensive. As a freelancer, you don’t necessarily have the job security to cover the cost and commitment of putting your child in year-long, full-time care, particularly if you might need to travel for a shoot.

Most childcare options don’t offer much flexibility. Long work days mean you might still have to hire someone to drop off your child at daycare and pick them up, if your partner isn’t available to pick up the slack, or if you’re a single parent. That’s another person you need to pay. At the risk of sounding like a broken record: it all comes down to money.

State laws govern many of the issues relating to working parents, rather than union contracts. Most employers in most parts of the country have to provide new mothers with a “wellness room” to pump, for instance. But the laws are made for traditional, permanent employment – not for freelancers. In the film business, you may well have to travel to another state to shoot. Another state, another set of laws pertaining to parenting. You may also have to work ridiculously long days. Regular pumping breaks work well for those working 9-5. But for days that often run longer than 12 hours, there are no provisions that mandate whether infants are allowed on set so mothers can breastfeed and check in with their newborns.

I would argue that the length of the film industry’s work days are discriminatory, that they make employment really, really tricky for parents. But because it’s hard to get work, we are made to feel grateful that we work at all, in an industry where we know we’re expendable (someone is always ready to jump in and take our place if our demands are deemed too costly by the powers-that-be. And I don’t even blame the “powers-that-be” – especially in the indie world, budgets are already spread thin.)

“The film industry’s work days are discriminatory, that they make employment really, really tricky for parents. But because it’s hard to get work, we are made to feel grateful that we work at all, in an industry where we know we’re expendable.”

I founded Moms-in-Film to address some of these issues. Like Raising Films, we’re working on building community, raising funds, and providing advocacy. We recently had a fruitful conversation with representatives at SAG-AFTRA, the actor’s union. One of our big takeaways was that female performers are wary of discussing their needs as mothers. There aren’t enough roles for women, especially past a certain age. They understandably don’t want to broadcast the fact that they’ve graduated from “sexy young love interest” (more roles available) to “young mom [sic]” (not as many roles). Granted, that’s a generalization, but there is a documented paucity of complex roles for women, and on-screen mothers can be particularly two-dimensional.

Attitudes and policies need to shift. The corporate world is beginning to offer paid maternity leave and childcare on-site. The film industry, supposedly made up of “lefty progressives,” should be a model for others to follow instead of lagging so far behind. It’s not as simple as it sounds; childcare on-set requires special insurance, which is costly, and these insurance policies are not currently structured for short-term projects like film shoots.

While we work towards effecting change, we still have to move forward with our careers. We have to fight for our right to tell our stories, while doing the heavy-lifting: actually telling them. We have to simultaneously remove the barriers and crash through them.

Here’s a gate-crashing tip. Not long ago, I attended a public conversation between Julie Taymor and Jodie Foster as part of the Tribeca Film Festival. I was a little late getting there and almost didn’t get in. I was late because I had to hand off the baby to my husband, who was late coming home. I knew he might be late, but I didn’t want to pay for a sitter. (Money.)

A few rows behind me, I noticed a couple with a stroller. I was dumbstruck. I could have brought the baby? I tried not to stare. Half-way through the conversation – coincidentally, right about the time that Julie Taymor and Jodie Foster were complaining about ‘always getting asked about the woman thing’ – the baby began fussing. A (male) usher started walking towards the family. Without missing a beat, the baby’s mother scooped her up and began nursing. And the usher stopped dead in his tracks.

The lesson I learned is this: just bring the kids. You’re already crashing a party you weren’t invited to… So bring the kids. Don’t ask, because someone might say no. Just show up: to a Tribeca talk, to set, to an editing session, wherever. Chances are, nobody will dare say anything. Someone will probably step up and help out if it’s needed. Here’s the good thing about crashing a party full of dudes: they’ll be too uncomfortable to react. And if they look like they might, pull out a boob – that ought to do the trick.

We are excited to be starting on this journey and to count a trailblazing community like Raising Films as a friend and ally. If you live in the US, we hope you’ll be part of this journey with us. You can start by joining our mailing list and Facebook group.