Deborah Sathe is Head of Talent Development and Production at Film London. She oversees groundbreaking domestic and international projects which champion new talent and audiences. Last year she relaunched the award-winning feature film fund Film London Microwave, and through its initial round has greenlit two projects from over 160 applications. Alongside this she delivers short film schemes and key training programmes which cover everything from financing through to alternative distribution. In November 2014 she launched Microwave in India, supported by the British Council, securing commercial finance from Cinestaan in India and Bob & Co. in the UK. She joined Film London from the BBC where she was a Digital Drama Producer and Story Producer for EastEnders. Other BBC projects included creating new talent pathways through the Webby Award-winning series EastEnders: E20, of which she delivered three series, and creating the award-winning radio soap Silver Street.
I’m a single mum so it’s extra tough. I have to balance the absolute need to work – I have to pay the mortgage – against not being there for my kids because of the demands of the industry. Days often start early and finish late, so there’s a constant pull to sacrifice either parenting or work. The guilt never abates for whatever you’re missing out on, whether that’s being at home or missing a screening. But it does make you more efficient: I’m a more efficient worker, used to making big decisions quickly – you do not sweat the small stuff. Being a single parent has made my career move forward more aggressively because I need to make the money for my family.
However, the plight of female directors on the floor is absolutely to do with having kids: in television, you’re commonly shooting 12 hours a day, six days a week. That means leaving the house before the kids are up, and getting home after kids are in bed – for some people, that’s just not workable. There’s no more job security in television: there are no more staff director jobs, you have to hustle for every job you get. That means you can’t say you’ll take your kid to the dentist if it means missing a day; you have to get someone else to take them.
And if you want to move up from soap to drama to high-end drama, it’s even more demanding – and those chasms absolutely exist. In my time on EastEnders, I worked with only a few female directors: it’s a show that runs 52 weeks a year, with one director responsible for each week. It can seem like either you’re a mother – or you work, in television. Film is slightly more manageable because it’s bespoke, and so much time is spent in development, not shooting, but as your career progresses or in order to enable your career to progress the same challenges TV people face will be faced by film mums.
Television is tough for mums. My time there meant up early and out of the door, and late home. And for me, because I am a worrier, when you’re in your downtime with your kids, you are thinking about solutions for the next day’s work, particularly when you’re producing a series, or running the story office at EastEnders. The pressure to deliver two hours of tele a week is relentless, and it’s almost impossible to walk out of a meeting that’s run over saying you need to get home for the kids when the problem the meeting is facing hasn’t been solved.
The feature scheme I’m responsible for, Microwave, doesn’t present such a problem for a parent who is a first-time feature director: it’s a very short shoot, you only have to organise child care for a month. The problem is permanence, and how you’re going to organise the rest of your career. If your film is successful, you might get an offer from the US for a short-term project, or on short notice. If a man says “I’m going off for six weeks to do a project in the States,” no-one would question his ability as a father; if a woman said it, her relationship with her children would be questioned. Rightly or wrongly, that is our culture; and rightly or wrongly, women carry that guilt. If you’re forced to do it, to earn the money, the guilt is taken away from you. That’s a decision that was taken for me. It may be tougher for someone in a couple, because they’re faced with choice.
I say to my kids every six months, “Would you rather Mummy worked and we’re able to do things, or I didn’t work and we could do less?” I check in that there isn’t a secret longing I’m at home. I’m lucky: my mum lives up the road, my ex will have them for a sleepover if I have to work away overnight – if I can’t find someone who unconditionally loves them to take care of them, I won’t go on an overnight. There needs to be someone there for them in the middle of the night.
So many people tell me how lucky I am to work in the film and television industry – actually, I think they’re lucky to have me! There’s this sense that we should be grateful for a job in the creative industries because there’s so much competition, as if it’s not really work. But there’s an expectation you’ll read scripts during your holiday, and just keep working. That’s still a major barrier for parents.
The main difficulty I still face is choosing whether to mention that I’m still a mum or not, and whether that will weaken my position in the room. 99% of the time it doesn’t, it actually enables people to bond with me, but it’s still a concern, especially saying I’m a single mother. That frequently goes across my brain, far more than being from an ethnic minority – I see that as an asset, but I’m not as confident to say, “I’m a single mum.” You panic that they’ll think, “Oh, she’ll take all the holidays off or have another baby.” And that affects how all women are seen.