The stories we tell reflect our world, frame our public debate and delineate the future that we envision. They thereby have a direct influence our collective destiny. That’s why it matters that our most widely shared narratives – films – are made almost exclusively by men.
In the 30 years since I left film school the shift from celluloid to digital and the proliferation of distribution channels have been hailed as radical game-changers, democratising the dream factory. But the dream factory has not been democratised. In the UK today 88% of films are directed by men. Regardless of the talents and aspirations of those individuals, the industry overall remains an exclusive white gentleman’s club reflective of the post-colonial patriarchal culture from which it springs. The picture grows even worse for women film-makers as they get older, a consequence of ongoing, institutionalised sexism and – often – parenthood.
Like many women I sidelined my career to do the work that women have always done and continue to do across all cultures: giving birth, mothering, caring for other peoples’ children, counselling friends in distress, caring for the sick, caring for the elderly, keeping vigil at deathbeds, becoming part of the web that provides succour, celebration and ritual for others doing the same. I nearly died in childbirth, as so many millions of women have done. I’ve lost 3 young people I dearly loved – one in an accident, one to suicide, one murdered. I looked after my elderly mother for 7 years. I held her hand for nine days and nights as she lay dying and came to understand that death, too, is a kind of labour.
These and other experiences have made me a wiser person and for that reason they’ve made me a better film-maker. Returning to the fray at 57, these experiences have changed the kind of stories I’m interested in watching and the kind of stories I want to tell. They have also made me understand that – despite the apparent proliferation of media and media channels – women’s voices are in fact more marginalised than they have ever been. The pre-eminence of the movies, which so few have the wherewithal to make, and their reach across the globe have resulted in a cultural dispossesion. Before the advent of film and of widespread literacy, women’s stories were the warp and weft of our social fabric. A subversive antidote to the sermons of priests and masters, they were integral to our children’s education and our popular culture. Dotted with warnings about tyranny and greed, poverty, abandonment and sexual violence, threaded with coded stratagems for survival and rebellion and laced with the bracing optimism of the fairy tale, they were shared wherever women and children gathered. Now, as the cultural historian Marina Warner has written, we are losing stories just as we are losing species of flowers from our hedgerows.
If our world was peaceful, equitable, sustainable then the issue of diversity in the film industry would be one of equal opportunities. But it’s far more urgent than that. Can we afford to exclude the majority of the world’s people from the dream factories when the future being cooked up, in part, in that all-white Gentleman’s club threatens to be such a terrifying and brutal disgrace?