Laura is a cinematographer and a graduate from the National Film and Television School, shooting drama, commercials, promos and documentaries. Her work has been screened at many international film festivals including Cannes, BFI London, SXSW and Los Angeles and garnered various awards and nominations. She is currently in prep for a forthcoming feature.
A fellow DP (and fellow new parent) excitedly comes up to me on set and asks me how I’ve been – the last time he saw me I was five months pregnant lugging light and camera gear onto a luggage trolley while filming in a London hotel. Though he is genuinely interested and patiently waits for my response, I suddenly realise how guarded I feel about discussing the incredible new human being in my life. Why? It should be natural to volunteer this information, so why don’t I feel free to gush? My daughter appears to have fallen in with the unmentionables: pregnancy, children and childcare, motherhood, a healthy romantic partnership … in fact any passion or commitment that could be perceived as preceding your passion and commitment to the job at hand. It seems someone would have us believe that in order to excel in this industry you need to keep these parts of your life quiet, if they are to be indulged at all.
People were positive about my pregnancy but there was vague undercurrent of uncertainty – was I in danger of indefinitely dropping off the face of the planet and kissing goodbye to any meaningful career? It’s not hard to see why, if not from an outdated cultural perspective certainly from a very real practical one: there is no safety net for freelance mothers in this gig, it’s really hard. I was sceptical from the get go, even to the point of planning the pregnancy so the birth would coincide with the end of November. That way I could use the quiet months of December and January as my maternity leave. I wouldn’t miss out on much work and hopefully no one would notice I was even missing. I tried to keep pregnant photos off social media, feeling the look was not conducive to the ‘can-handle-all’ impervious DP image, I fretted over an email to my agent as if feeling the need to explain myself and reiterate my unswerving ambition. Then, at one point on a set with another heavily pregnant female crew member, I had a change of heart. I asked a stills photographer friend of mine to come on set to take BTS stills. It seemed important somehow, just to be seen, this shouldn’t be a novelty, it was like saying look working women do have babies and it’s not a big deal – the job still gets done! This was the impervious DP image in the nut shell.
I, like many others, had been duped by this tired old cliché ‘There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall’. It implies to live truly as an artist one must live untethered to the tasks of the quotidian, and that by becoming a parent, you are seen as forfeiting your hand and with it your chance at reaching your full potential. When looking at my daughter, of the many qualities I dream of bestowing on her life having a passion would be pretty high-ranking. A love of something whatever that may be, something that can inspire, sooth and burn as a constant throughout her life. I would like that passion to be nurtured by her environment, both fortified and tempered through the beauty of everyday life. I want her to be allowed to wear more than one hat! That’s not a cliché – the lonely self-serving career woman or the self-sacrificing mother – that’s balance. That’s what Buddhists might call The Middleway. If only we revered balance as much as we do pigeonholing humans into types and being titillated by unhappy extremes over the glorious bliss of a healthy equilibrium. A little selflessness, a little selfishness, a little solitude, a little society. A multifaceted and mindful life. Maybe then we would have a value system that doesn’t leave working parents feeling guilty for not being with their children or, when with their children, bemoaning the perceived demise of their careers. The fear is just a waste of creative energy.
My daughter was born (almost) as scheduled and I was taking on jobs again after three months as planned. I live close to family and friends who can pitch in. Despite their own busy lives they are happy to take care of my daughter, they also value my passion. When I shoot a feature later this year I know I can rely on this group to rally round. BUT – I am extremely fortunate to be able to raise my child in a ‘community’ such as this and it’s still tough. The truth is I have to rely on these wonderful human beings to give up their time and value my passion when in fact, the worth of this passion should be valued in a wider society. I find myself asking what if this community were larger? What if freelance parents came together, felt protected and free to be more vocal, as opposed to struggling in silence behind closed doors, seemingly serene swans manically paddling below the surface of the water.
Parents face a choice: either pay for childcare or stop working until state-funding support kicks in. In other words, lack of financial wealth imposes a trade-off between career and parenthood. Easy to see why we are postponing parenthood later and later in life. This is a net loss for society. But parenthood cannot be postponed until retirement. Keeping away productive parents from their jobs decreases national wealth. Wealth that could fund state childcare from – let’s say when the child is one year old. Similarly, this situation may constrain parents to live close to their own parents and we know lowering labour mobility is another constraint on the nation’s growth.
A film is a reflection of the times in which it is made, so shouldn’t the filmmaking itself be the same? Or should we keep telling ourselves extreme sacrifice and imbalance is the penalty of having the privilege of working in the film industry? Better time keeping, more pre-planning, better security, more standing up for other people, more irreplaceable female directors and HoDs worth working schedules around – this is not in the nature of the filmmaking beast one might say – but who trained the beast? Perhaps this is as much a problem of cultural expectation as it is dictated by finance. A cultural shift in our views would lead to practical solutions and initiatives, and a future where it might end up being the industry trying to convince that much coveted filmmaker out of her domestic intermission because she is the best person for the project.
Perhaps some people are not happy about the emphasis on affirmative initiatives, fearing this could be counterproductive and end up sidelining minority players instead of levelling the playing field. But as long as there are organizations dedicated to getting skilled mothers (and fathers) of young children back into work there is a push to change the status quo. There is a window of opportunity to be seized for the many eager to breakthrough and do their jobs as good if not better than before. Their skills and passion embody active change so timely and overdue. We need to retrain the beast, that way my daughter might one day have a shot at wearing a few different hats. Heck, she might even have a wardrobe full.