by SHAWN WHITNEY
It’s funny: Just last night I was engaging in that favourite past time of Canadian filmmakers – complaining about the Canadian film industry. Complaining about the lack of government financing and the difficulty of breaking into a distribution market that is locked down by the studios and mini-majors and, here in Canada, where there is now “1.5 distributors” to choose from (as my co-conversationalist described it).
We didn’t even get on to the lack of women and minorities in the Canadian film and TV industry. But it’s true also. For an industry that is widely reputed to be liberal and progressive it is one of the most segregated and exclusionary industries in the country. Just check out this report in Playback Online.
“…out of the 130 Telefilm-funded films made in 2011, only 17% were directed by women, with only two directors being minority women.
Women were only slightly better represented among screenwriters, with 21% of 175 being female, but still only 3 minority women.”
If we were to extend our research into the area of the kind of work that actors get, we would find a similar pattern. I recently attended an online seminar about pre-sales in the film industry and the speaker was upfront: if you want to pre-sell your movie the most important cast to attach are white males of a certain age. (Pre-selling to distributors – ie. before the film is made – is a key way to finance a film and reduce the risk to your investors). As for the rest (you know, the majority of the world population), they get the leftover roles, usually stereotypes whose job is to provide support or target practice to the white, male protagonist. Manuel Rodriguez-Saenz, our lead actor in A Brand New You, is regularly cast as a drug dealer, dishwasher, occasionally a taxi driver. It’s a bit of a joke amongst us – literally every time he gets an audition for a TV series it is as a criminal. Apparently that’s the price of being brown and having an accent. It’s the reason that our mandate at Dangerous Dust is to make films with the kind of cast that don’t get seen in lead roles, even in indie films, by and large.
But, of course, we are a puny company with one film in post-production and just beginning development on our next project. The problem is systemic and massive. But just as one little indie company can’t solve the problem of “under-representation” (the polite way to say racism and sexism when we don’t want to offend sensitive ears), nor can the timid solution of the important study that I quoted above.
“[Women in View executive director, Rina Fraticelli] says it’s vital that we begin rethinking the way we mentor women in the industry, and find ways to sponsor them as well.
“In addition to being well trained, disciplined and having the talent to do something, to really get to the highest levels of work, what you really need is somebody championing you,” she explains.”
To be fair Fraticelli does point towards a tax credit system to promote the advancement of women. But the idea that mentoring is a way to solve under-representation is a non-starter. For one it guarantees that those with the connections to industry players are the ones who will advance. At best that means upper class (usually white) women, at worst it means relying on the people who have benefited from nepotism in the past breaking with the patterns that have helped them advance. Unlikely.
No, it will continue to be difficult for people who aren’t white men until there is an affirmative action program with clear, quantifiable measures. Telefilm financing, instead of being obsessed with market measures that are mostly phoney baloney and reinforce the kind of same-old, same-old that leads to the Hollywood organ-grinder of remakes, retreads and sequels (in both casting and content), ought to be tied to innovation, including in personnel. Films with female and “non-white” directors, producers and/or writers ought to get incentives to foster those projects. It’s only with quantifiable goals that the natural tendency towards nepotism can be broken and the industry opened up to new voices that accurately reflect the character of our changing country and world.