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Despite Oscars' neglect of women in top categories, UNC female filmmakers fight on


CFA executive board member junior Melissa Tomczak is photographed working on the set of a project on which she serves as an editor on Friday, Feb. 7, 2020.

Many filmmakers have their “movie.” The movie that made them see film as its own art form. The movie that inspired them to make their own films. The movie that changed everything.

For junior Melissa Tomczak, that movie was “The Usual Suspects.” 

Now, Tomczak is the director's guild head and is on the executive board for the Carolina Film Association (CFA). 

“I just thought it would be really fun to make one for myself,” Tomczak said. 

She is just one of many female directors on UNC’s campus making films and planning for a future in what some consider a man’s industry.

The Academy Awards were held on Feb. 9, honoring what many would consider to be the best of film. In the category for best director, no women were nominated. 

But despite this lack of recognition, many female directors at UNC are far from disheartened.

Through programs such as film studies in the communications department to student organizations like CFA, students are able to engage with film in both academic and professional spheres. Female directors on campus are actively striving to break through this gendered barrier. 

Anissa Deol knew she wanted to get involved in film before she arrived on UNC's campus. In middle school, Deol would edit home videos with footage shot by her mother, compiling the clips into short videos. From this young age, Deol knew she wanted to be a storyteller. 

Now Deol carries around notebook with her, and within its pages are lists of individual shots that would compose her film ideas. 

"I write down what I want it to look like through my eyes without even looking at the camera," Deol said. 

CFA executive board member junior Ellie Baker is photographed working on an independent film set on Sunday, Feb. 2, 2020.

Behind the camera, CFA executive board member Ellie Baker said directing is technical. Each shot of the film involves a series of choices centering on small moments, such as framing, composition and physicality — all of which adds up to create the finished product. 

“It’s a lot of small decisions that probably don’t seem very consequential, but if you don’t make them, then the film doesn’t happen,” Baker said.

For Tomczak, everything starts with the script. She first reads through it once, making no notes. Then she reads through the second time, pen in hand. From those initial reads, she develops a sense of the tone and atmosphere for the film. 

But directing is far from an individual job. As a director, CFA President Julia Stamey said her job is to make sure all the talent and creativity at work in the filmmaking process functions as one cohesive unit.

CFA president junior Julia Stamey is photographed on the set of a project on which Julia serves as assistant director on Friday, Feb. 7, 2020.

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“The goal is to have some kind of unified vision and make sure everybody’s talent is working to meet that same vision,” Stamey said. 

Stamey described the film community at UNC as inspiring and invigorating. Her experiences on campus have encouraged her to pursue film beyond just as a hobby and closer to a career.

“Every time I sunk my teeth deeper into film, it became more clear,” Stamey said. “The wonderful thing about film at UNC is it seems like there’s so many great opportunities that I’ve never been disillusioned by it.” 

On UNC’s campus, female filmmakers experience support from within majors and student organizations.

“Most of the people I’ve met in the film community are women,” Tomczak said. 

But in the film industry as a whole, female filmmakers and female directors are not as recognized.

Out of UNC, into the film industry

According to the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film, only 12 percent of directors for the top 100 grossing films in 2019 were women. In 2018, only 4 percent. 

When Stamey, Tomczak and Baker learned that no women were nominated in the best director category this year for the Academy Awards, they all agreed on their initial reaction: disappointed and not surprised.

In the 92 years of Oscars awards, five women total have been nominated for best director. Only one has won — Kathryn Bigelow for "The Hurt Locker" in 2010.

Tomczak cited Greta Gerwig’s lack of even a nod in the best director category (for "Little Women") as evidence that there might not be as much progress made for female directors as she had hoped. Tomczak said Gerwig seems “perfect for the academy,” as a white woman, in a relationship with a successful white director, who looks up to Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino.

“If a white man in Hollywood were to choose what a female director would look like, that’s what she is,” Tomczak said. 

Conversely, Baker sees Gerwig’s rise in popularity and attention as evidence of momentum in a movement highlighting and recognizing female filmmakers. But she noted obstacles still plague the path for female filmmakers in the industry. 

“Being a woman planning to go into this industry comes with a sort of understanding that it’s going to be an uphill battle,” Baker said. 

As a rising filmmaker, Deol said the lack of recognition for women — specifically for Indian women — leaves her questioning the potentiality of her ambition.

"For me, I think it's harder to make a path for myself when I haven't seen other people do it," Deol said.

However, Stamey’s experience in film at UNC leaves her feeling hopeful for the future. 

(From left) Sophomore undecided major Jack Brownlee, sophomore psychology and Hispanic linguistics major Claire Mink, and CFA president junior Julia Stamey review sound on set of a project on Friday, Feb. 7, 2020.

Stamey cited the changing demographics of CFA as evidence of changing ideas about filmmaking. Last year, Tomczak and Stamey were the only women on the CFA executive board. This year, five out of seven executive board members are women. 

She said the diversity and inclusivity surrounding student film defies the Hollywood standard. 

“The people who are going to be the future of the film industry are either supportive of women or are women themselves,” Stamey said. “So UNC makes me hopeful that it’s going to be a changing industry.”

She believes that will eventually carry through Hollywood, the Academy Award voting pool and the entire industry itself.

“I can’t imagine that we’re alone at UNC having female filmmakers, and I can’t imagine that that’s not going to trickle into Hollywood,” Stamey said. 

Looking for diversity outside Hollywood

Sabine Gruffat, an associate professor of art, said films made by women and other diverse voices are out there. Gruffat said that in determining her curriculum, she works to include many diverse perspectives. 

“It’s definitely something that a lot of film professors think about now, how to find work and interrogate the canon of films that in film history have been mostly white men,” Gruffat said.

Gruffat said she often turns to international film festivals to find new films for her curriculum rather than to the Oscars, which she said has lost credibility. 

“If you can’t be a part of that world, then it’s hard to want to celebrate that world,” Gruffat said. 

Gruffat said at UNC, screenings shown at UNC — such as at the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History and the Department of Asian Studies, offer students an opportunity see films from diverse voices that you wouldn’t see in mainstream media. 

“It’s not that the filmmakers are not there, they’re just not getting that kind of attention,” Gruffat said.