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Filmmaker, Rutgers professor discuss gender issues in film industry

<p>Michelle Materre, chair of the Women Make Movies board, said the lack of openness aids in shutting out females voices.</p>

Michelle Materre, chair of the Women Make Movies board, said the lack of openness aids in shutting out females voices.

Recent controversial issues in the film industry, such as the lack of female nominees for Best Director at the 92nd Academy Awards or the sexual assault scandals surrounding Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby, have sparked conversation about gender issues in entertainment. Two experts of film discussed their experiences and commented on the gender issues they see in the film industry today.

Michelle Materre, chair of the Women Make Movies board, an organization dedicated to promoting women producers and directors, has more than 30 years of experience in the film industry. As a professional who has worked as both a producer and a writer, Materre described some challenges she has faced as a woman of color in the industry.

“I would say early on, as a producer, it was very difficult to be in a position of authority and have men (in the industry) respect you. Particularly like when you’re working with Teamsters and all of these very male-dominated industry organizations and brotherhoods that have traditionally not had to deal with women,” Materre said.  

Along with being a woman of color in a respected position of power, Materre said being a woman in the industry has specifically shaped her experiences in some ways.

“I definitely have my antenna out more to ensure that the people I am interacting with are interacting with me (because of) my abilities, not because I check all of the boxes,” Materre said.

She also said she believes the lack of openness to different perspectives plays a large role in shutting out female voices from film.

Materre said two close friends of hers, who are female directors with major accomplishments, still have trouble getting their projects funded and produced. This is typically because the “gatekeepers” of the industry do not understand the projects of women and believe their perspectives are not as important, Materre said. 

“I think that the reason for (the lack of female Academy Awards nominees) is because (the industry is) not willing to give women big budgets. And typically, the bigger budget films win the Academy Awards because that’s what they put money into,” Materre said.

Another film expert, Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, a professor in the Department of Cinema Studies at Rutgers, also commented on this issue. Flitterman-Lewis's work specializes in analyzing the connections between film and feminist theory.

“Women who can get the financing make the films,” Flitterman-Lewis said. “There are a lot of women that are actually working, it’s just that there isn’t too much attention to them.” 

Flitterman-Lewis said she thinks there are more strong women’s voices now than there have been in a long time, but getting women’s voices out into the industry is an ongoing process. Some other important issues to tackle include ensuring women have access to production and encouraging awareness of films that do not get a lot of buzz, Flitterman-Lewis said.

“Women's issues are not secondary, they’re primary,” Flitterman-Lewis said.

Flitterman-Lewis also looked at the topic from a more historical lens and discussed past examples where men were credited for the work women were doing in film.

Germaine Dulac, a female filmmaker, made the first surrealist film, yet the male filmmakers Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali were credited with this historical accomplishment, Flitterman-Lewis said. Similarly, male filmmakers (Jean-Luc) Godard and (François) Truffaut were credited with starting the French New Wave in cinema, while Agnes Varda had created it four years prior, she said. 

Although the industry has evolved to some extent, Materre said, she still believes, since she is a Black woman, she faces challenges accessing resources and being respected.

“I think that white men don’t see us as a threat. They’re still at the top of the totem pole regardless,” Materre said. “My perspective is basically that because we are so underrepresented and misrepresented, we need to be considered first and we need to be in charge of telling our own stories first, as opposed to people telling our stories on our behalf.”

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