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Student female filmmakers set out to level the industry playing field

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The Ackland Art Museum is highlighting the achievements of women in film with the "Women with a Movie: American Female Directors 1990-Present."

Katie Otto’s allergies were acting up as she stood in Merritt’s Pasture to scout her film location. The wide expanse of wild grass behind Fordham Boulevard would serve as one of her primary backdrops for her 2018 experimental film, “Against the Morning Sun.” 

Otto’s work is a dreamy, one-woman piece with shifting perspective and advanced editing inspired by the avant-garde work of Maya Deren, one of America’s most influential experimentalist filmmakers. 

Deren won a Guggenheim grant for her creative film work. She established the Creative Film Foundation to encourage other independent filmmakers. And, like most people, Otto had never heard of her. 

“There’s not a lot of women filmmakers in the mainstream that we hear about, and that’s definitely a problem.” Otto, a senior communications and women’s and gender studies double major, said. “Out of curiosity, I Googled ‘famous filmmakers.’ Google pulled up a list of people they’ve compiled. I counted. Out of 51 people, three of them were women.”

To help shed light on this trend, and to highlight the achievements of women in film, the Ackland Art Museum, partnered with the UNC Department of English and Comparative Literature, will host a semester-long, seven-film series celebrating female film directors. 

Focused on films from the past 30 years, “Women with a Movie Camera: American Female Directors 1990-Present” will include in-depth looks at race, gender and sexuality through genres ranging from horror to documentary. 

“The series includes multiple genres, production modes (both mainstream and independent films), and cultural contexts,” said Rick Warner, associate professor of film at UNC. “It encompasses directors from a range of ethnic backgrounds and involves multiple student organizations, who will introduce certain films that relate to their interests.”

Warner also mentioned how creative opportunities in film have been skewed towards men since the industry’s beginning. According to The Center for Study of Women in Television and Film, of the top 100 grossing films of 2017, women made up just 14 percent of editors, 10 percent of writers and eight percent of directors. 

In fact, only one woman, Kathryn Bigelow, has ever won an Academy Award for Best Director. It was for “Hurt Locker,” and it happened over eight years ago.

“To women out there who want to be filmmakers, you can’t be what you can’t see,” Otto said, quoting the feminist documentary “Miss Representation.” “If we don’t have women’s voices, if every story is told from the male perspective, it furthers this notion that the male perspective is the neutral perspective and that the female perspective is ‘different.’” 

Finding women of color who have made a career in film proves even more challenging. The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film found that, of the top 100 grossing films of last year, only four had production led by women of color. Women of color are also vastly underrepresented on films’ Board of Directors seats, as critics and in feature roles. 

Without knowing it, senior Sidney Morris began contributing her voice as a woman of color to film when she picked up a flip camera as a young girl and began shooting scenes with friends. 

“I remember when I first told my mom that I wanted to be a filmmaker, there was a moment of really strong pause,” Morris said. “She looked at me and pointed at her arm — mentioning her skin tone — and that there aren’t a lot of us in that world. And was like, ‘You’re right. But I want to change that.’ And ever since then I’ve been determined to make this dream a reality.” 

Her recent film “She’s so Cool,” created in collaboration with other female filmmakers at UNC, was inspired by leaving behind the white male lens to explore diverse perspectives in film. 

“It’s always cool to do a film with other student filmmakers because everyone kind of knows what they’re doing but not really,” Morris said. “You’re all learning from each other, and no day is ever the same.”

Morris is also one of just 50 students worldwide to be invited to Telluride Film Festival’s student symposium, a four-day filmmaker’s dream in Telluride, Colorado. Past speakers have included Barry Jenkins, the director of the Academy Award-winning film “Moonlight.” 

Rick Warner, who organized the Ackland’s upcoming series, wrote Morris’s recommendation letter. She found out she was accepted in March and leaves on Wednesday to meet the other students and prepare for a weekend of film education and inspiration. 

Otto, Morris and Hayley Sigmon, who created an entirely female and non-binary crew to work on her film “Breaking and Entering” for UNC’s Campus Movie Fest, would all like to see a class at UNC that focuses on women, gender and diversity in filmmaking. Furthering the conversation and encouraging more underrepresented voices to pursue cinematic art is how the perspective will continue to evolve. 

“When I was first starting out, I didn’t have women directors to look up to,” Sigmon said. “Even now, my favorite directors are men. But that’s just because there’s not that many women in the industry. We just have to jump through more hoops to prove ourselves, I feel.”

But as more women become interested and break into the field, young filmmakers will be able to look up to women and non-binary creatives who represent their views. 

“We need more women in all positions — in all aspects of production,” Sigmon said. “It’s time to level the playing field.” 

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