Destroy All Monsters: What I've Learned From Completely Failing At #52FilmsByWomen
As bootstrapping initiatives go, the 52 Films By Women project - hashtagged #52FilmsByWomen - seems easier than most. The ask is simple: watch one movie by a female director per calendar week in 2016.
Hey! That's right in my wheelhouse! No problem, I thought to myself.
It's been happening on Letterboxd and elsewhere since the New Year, and nearly 2 months into 2016, I've got to acknowledge the hilarious reality: I suck at this.
It's not an outright disaster yet - I've banked four films in the available eight weeks, so far - but I'm beginning to run up against repeatable themes and problems that threaten to stop this whole project dead.
The good news is, I'm learning a few things. With Variety reporting on the abysmal state of inclusion and representation in the Hollywood film industry, they should come as no surprise. Let's unpack:
1. None, and I mean none, of my "comfort food" films were made by women.
If you're at all like me as a movie fan and movie watcher, you divide your home viewing between stuff you've seen before and stuff that's on your seemingly-undefeatable, ever-burgeoning watchlist. There really should be a further division: stuff you may have seen before but are re-watching with fresh eyes, and stuff you've seen a gajillion times that you watch to enjoy and relax.
The latter bunch is where Star Wars, The Avengers, Indiana Jones, the teen comedies of the 1980s, everything David Fincher has ever made, all of Kurosawa's samurai pictures, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Mad Max: Fury Road live. They're the ones you "throw on" - you only ever "throw on" this particular kind of film, usually immediately before throwing yourself backwards onto a couch with one leg propped up on the coffee table and an arm flung over your head - like you throw on a beloved record or take a hot bath. And in case you couldn't parse it from the list above, women never get to make these movies. Ever!
Unless Punisher: War Zone is in your list of favourite superhero movies, or Wonder Woman turns out to be awesome, this category is probably going to remain the ultimate boys club for most of my adult life. The only corollary "comfort food" genre in which women have made any inroads, ever, would probably be romantic comedies - I could see "throwing on" Sleepless in Seattle sometime, if that were your particular bent. A deep fondness for the genre cinema of Rachel Talalay or Kathryn Bigelow might get you across the goal line here, too; for a couple of weeks of your 52 weeks, at least.
The lack of female directors in my particular comfort food category of choice is news to no one. But it sucks down #52FilmsByWomen time, because if one is just looking for a film to relax with, and the best one can come up with is Laggies; well, shit's bad.
(Bonus round: Bend it Like Beckham, I realized after drafting this, fits in this category for me. I wish Gurinder Chadha got to make more movies!)
2. Surprise surprise: distribution channels for female-directed films are terrible.
All right, so let's say I get over my own laziness and am not seeking a comfort food-type film tonight. I want to watch one of the dozen or two dozen female-directed films I've pearlishly stored away on my Letterboxd watchlist.
Well guess what: I can't!
The reason the majority of those women-directed films are stored in my Letterboxd watchlist is that I can't store them anywhere else. They aren't rentable in the iTunes store; they aren't available on Netflix. (Unfortunately, I live in Canada, and must therefore deal with shit-ass Canadian Netflix. We're getting The Force Awakens before you guys, though, so that's something.)
The pic at the top of the page is from Leena Yadav's Parched; I missed it at TIFF '15, and have no idea when or if it will ever be distributed in this country. (Of the films to miss at the film festival, those are the ones that frustrate me the most: the "this is your only chance!" ones.) A lot of acclaimed female-directed films seem to be falling down this distribution hole.
With VOD not an option, my only recourse would be to go to one of the two DVD rental stores left in my city and see if they bought a single DVD copy of, I dunno, Samira Makhmalbaf's The Apple; or throw $40 at Amazon and buy Niki Caro's The Vintner's Luck on speculation. The death of physical media is going to annihilate another whole cadre of films, just like the VHS bust did - how long before none of these films are made available by any means at all?
I could also, of course, turn to the usual suspects - the handful of highly-acclaimed female-directed films that improbably made it through the queue into mainstream digital distribution, like Celine Sciamma's wonderful Girlhood and Tomboy (both of which I've seen several times); or the "mainstream" ones, like that flick from the '80s that's supposed to be one of the worst movies ever made (but was directed by a woman), Ishtar.
Or I could work my way down the (Canadian) Netflix library and just watch every single movie directed by a woman in that vast storehouse of data, for no reason other than the gender of the filmmaker. If you're familiar with Netflix at all, I'm sure you know what I'll find, because it makes up the majority of their content pool: crap they got cheap. But I digress.
Throwing the net open will help. I'm hoping my friends and relations can turn our #52FilmsByWomen project into a kind of all-city lending library.
Because this is a really important point, as regards representation in filmmaking across the board: It's no longer enough to evangelize for films we like or think are important. When distribution is this shitty, we're going to have to start physically putting copies in other peoples' hands, too, or none of this is going to get anywhere.
3. Stories that aren't about me can be... incredibly challenging, and equally rewarding
Of all the things that have been running around my mind in the past couple of months, this one delights me the most. I was watching Athina Rachel Tsangari's 2010 film, Attenberg. A writer I admire had listed it on her Letterboxd page as one of her favourite films.
I could make neither heads nor tails of Attenberg for a long while. The lead character, Marina, is confusing and offputting in many ways - and sort of acts like an alien the rest of the time. (This is on purpose.)
And so, I am embarrassed to report that this movie produced for me the dumbest, most obvious a-ha! moment that has struck me in quite some time, as I was processing my thoughts on my film and the degree to which portions of it made me feel like I was on the outside, looking in, on characters and situations that didn't directly represent my experience:
"Uh, this is really frustrating."
No shit it's frustrating. It's not even that it's hard work; but it is certainly work, to strengthen the empathetic muscles in the brain enough to look at someone else's story and cherish it as closely as you do your own.
Imagine having to do that all the time.
So I'll admit it, with all due deference to all the other guys like me: I am a privileged, entitled, half-blind moron. I am going to have to work a lot harder to balance my perspective, and whine a shit-ton less. I'm ashamed to say I took on this project because of how easy it seemed, and am now blown back by how hard it feels.
I don't think I had a good scope of how far away from balanced we really are. 52 films? Just 52? It seems like a joke that this should be difficult for anyone, anywhere.
Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on Letterboxd.