Destroy All Monsters: What I've Learned From Completely Failing At #52FilmsByWomen

Contributor; Toronto, Canada (@tederick)
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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.

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KurtFebruary 25, 2016 10:07 AM

In terms of 'lay on the couch'/'throw on' comfort cinema, I have a real soft spot for Karyn Kusama's AEON FLUX. I watch it often. It's great.

Ard VijnFebruary 25, 2016 11:50 AM

If we go into 'lay on the couch'/'throw on' counter-examples (and the harder you need to search, the more we validate Matt's story), I'd offer RAVENOUS.

Ard VijnFebruary 25, 2016 11:52 AM

Also, I was shocked to read that none of the films David Fincher made have been directed by a woman. ;-)

KurtFebruary 25, 2016 12:04 PM

Damn! I watch that film all the time. Superb stuff, deeply funny, very grotesque. I wish Antonia Bird were still with us!

KurtFebruary 25, 2016 12:05 PM

Surely, you mean Quentin Tarantino...

lbyrd14February 25, 2016 2:12 PM

I have a list of directors and films from doing this same project last year. And yeah, if you're not willing to do VOD, you're not going to be watching very many films. My other frequent option was my local library. https://laurencbyrd.wordpress....

Women watch films about men and directed by men all the time. It's the norm. Some of those films that star and are directed by men are some of my favorite films, but sometimes I just want to watch a movie about awesome ladies, and guess what? Those are few and far between. I also don't find it hard to watch films that aren't about my experience. That's one of the reasons I love about film, because I can explore a totally different story than my own, whether it's a different culture or time period or what have you.

xavierka_TFebruary 25, 2016 4:07 PM

I am a woman - and I loved Attenberg! - and I still share at least two of your problems, which saddens me immensely. I tried doing the #52filmsbywomen this year, and I even started a tumblr somewhere around that time (although I am waaaay too old to have a tumblr) so I can keep track of what I am watching and also tag films by female directors. After a few weeks, with a strong sense of despair washing over me, I quit the hashtag.

The truth is, so far this year has been a turbulent period, and when it gets to that, I often retreat to "comfort food" films (love that expression!) rather than getting into something unknown. Now, my idea of a 'comfort' film is probably a bit skewed: I don't enjoy (most) romantic comedies or the likes, but I get a kick out of deeply 'humanist' cinema, be it going back to the Dardenne brothers, digging into some old Atom Egoyan or re-watching the entire filmography of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Well guess what? Almost all of these films are directed by men. Not only that, but - a really high percentage of them is also about men. And even when the same director takes on stories about both men and women, it is likely that the films about men will be made with a more insightful, and thus tender look than those about women. Case in point: I recently re-watched the three available films by Lodge Kerrigan, whom I absolutely love (I cannot overstate this); while both Keane and Clean, Shaven are trying to humanise the protagonists, albeit in very different ways, the camera in Claire Dolan keeps such a tremendous distance from the protagonist that you never get even remotely as close to her as you do to Peter or (to a lesser extent) Keane, despite the fact that Kerrigan goes out of his way to de-mistify prostitution, and I believe his intentions are absolutely good (and it is in a way a masterful film).

I am not sure how I feel about all this, aside from the fact that I am aware that I too contribute to this problem. I take the status quo as almost normal - albeit disappointing - and keep recommending further mostly films by men about men, because I love them. (Again, even when it comes to the same directors: I much prefer the Dardenne brothers' Le Fils to Rosetta, because it always seems to me that his character is more understandable to me). I sometimes go along with the director's focus and want to know more about men than women in his films (I saw Spike Lee's 25th Hour today, another one of my 'comfort' films that I adore, and realised that it is not only Lee who prefers the inner world of Jacob to that of Mary; I prefer him too, and I am fine for her being there just for the sake of his dilemma) - as if I am simply taught not to expect more for women. And that is absolutely disheartening.

Don't get me wrong; not only is my writing above confusing and probably partially nonsensical, but I also see women directors objectifying men in films, mostly unintentionally (e.g. Alice Winocour admiring the physicality of Matthias Schoenaerts perhaps a bit more than necessary in Disorder, no?) - but we all know it is simply not comparable. And I hate being part of the problem myself, but I hardly see an easy way out. That being said, lybrid14's list is wonderful, and I'd gladly add Maren Ade to it - a fantastic lady director who makes excellent films. Her Alle Anderen is actually a true 'comfort' film as well :).

(Sorry for so much rambling...)

Less Lee MooreFebruary 25, 2016 6:03 PM

This is so wonderful.

ToryKFebruary 25, 2016 10:17 PM

Yarp! LOVE Ravenous.

"I returned that spring happy. And healthy. And virile."

Ard VijnFebruary 27, 2016 3:31 AM

KUNG FU PANDA 2 is one of my comfort films, I realize. Score!