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Australian film industry boys club needs redressing


It's always exciting when an Australian film does well at the box office, especially when that film is identifiably local, and not just a Hollywood blockbuster filmed here for tax breaks and cheap labour.

Dressmaker and Mad Max mash-up by Chris Johnston has Charlize Theron and Kate Winslet riding an apocalyptic sewing machineAnd so the success of the outrageously stylish and very Australian gothic comedy The Dressmaker is rather thrilling to those closely watching the film industry.

The Dressmaker, directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse and adapted from Rosalie Ham's bestselling novel of the same name, is currently strong on Australian charts ahead of Ridley Scott's The Martian and Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies. It has taken more than $11 million in three weeks and looks capable of making at least $15 million in its full run. In an environment where the majority of Australian films struggle to pass the $1 million mark, this is cause for celebration.

There's even more to cheer in the fact the film is proudly female in both its story and its production, being written and directed by a woman (Moorhouse), produced by a woman (Sue Maslin) and led by a raft of superb female characters played by Kate Winslet, Judy Davis and Sarah Snook.

Female book clubs, mothers groups and gaggles of girlfriends are flocking to The Dressmaker, proving yet again that women not only constitute more than half the human race, they also (in a fact seemingly little-known by film executives) purchase more than 50 per cent of movie tickets.

And yet we have an ongoing problem, in the world, and in Australia: there are just not enough films for women, about women and by women. We are nowhere near gender parity.

As researcher Monica Davidson reports in the Women in Film edition of Lumina (May 2015), here in Australia, 'Male directors are responsible for more than 85 per cent of the feature films made since the 1970s. This figure has not changed significantly for 25 years, nor has this disproportionate power been strenuously questioned.'

In fact, as Davidson laments, citing a 2012 study by Lisa French, the perception is that things are getting better and the problem is solving itself. Yet in 2015 (an unexceptional year similar to the five years preceding it) only 16 per cent of Australian feature films were directed by women, 20 per cent were written by women and 29 per cent were produced by women — startling given the fact that roughly half the graduates coming out of film school are female. Many of the stats suggest we're actually going backwards, or at best standing still.


"I'm forced to cheer on Charlize Theron and her warrior breeding-babes in Mad Max: Fury Road, because aside from them, this is quite frankly a blokefest."


Sure, we're not as bad as Hollywood, where just 15 per cent of leading roles and only 30 per cent of speaking roles go to women; and only 5 percent of major studio feature films in the last five years were directed by women. But we need to do better.

If you're looking for current evidence of Australian women both behind the camera and in front of it, there are many to note.

Robyn Butler is currently starring in Now Add Honey, a comedy about a dysfunctional family that she also wrote and produced. Director Sue Brooks (Japanese Story) will be releasing her new drama Looking for Grace in January, starring Radha Mitchell and impressive newcomer Odessa Young. Meanwhile, Cate Shortland (Somersault, Lore) is currently directing her next film, a psychological thriller starring Teresa Palmer, based on Melanie Joosten's novel Berlin Syndrome.

In 2015 we saw Gillian Armstrong's latest documentary, Women He's Undressed, Kim Farrant's debut feature Strangerland, starring Nicole Kidman, and Holding the Man, produced by Rosemary Blight and Kylie du Fresne — the producers who brought us The Sapphires.

Tracking back to 2014, there was Jennifer Kent's acclaimed horror film The Babadook, with a knockout turn from Essie Davis as a single mother deranged by grief; Sarah Snook's gender-bending lead in the Spierig Brothers' Predestination; and Mia Wasikowska filling up the wide brown screen in John Curran's meditative outback voyage, Tracks.

But a smattering of high profile female directors, producers and stars have always been cited and celebrated to give an impression that all's well in the Australian film industry. The Dressmaker will no doubt be dragged out to support such a view (along with Jane Campion — who remains the only woman in the world to have won the Cannes Palme d'Or, for The Piano in 1993; and Armstrong, whose 1979 film My Brilliant Career was the first Australian film to have been directed by a woman).

Why does it matter if a film is written, directed or produced by a woman? Because women are more likely to tell stories about women. That we should even have to defend this as a good thing suggests how ingrained the problem is.

As director and film executive Megan Simpson Huberman writes in Lumina, worldwide, there are pitifully few films aimed at women and about women. In the US in 2013–2104, for instance, less than 30 per cent of features had a female lead or co-lead and in Australia in that period, only 21 per cent of Australian feature films had a female protagonist. That's just plain boring if you're a woman looking for stories that might reflect your own experiences or those of your sisters.

Statistics are dry and best measured against real life experience. So let's take a quick look at the top-grossing Australian films of 2015, as of October, before the release of The Dressmaker. There were some other small Australian releases, but this is the broad-brush picture of what our industry is producing. All of them are directed by men and dominated by male protagonists: Mad Max: Fury Road, The Water Diviner, Paper Planes, Oddball, Last Cab to Darwin, Blinky Bill, That Sugar Film, Holding the Man, Ruben Guthrie and Manny Lewis.

As I'm scanning the list above, I'm desperate for a woman, an interesting woman. A woman on top, a woman in charge, a woman director or a woman star.

I'm forced to cheer on Charlize Theron and her warrior breeding-babes in Mad Max: Fury Road, because aside from them, this is quite frankly a blokefest and a boys club. Jocelyn Moorhouse and Kate Winslet with their killer Singer sewing machines couldn't have come at a better time. But let's not pretend they represent any real shift in the landscape. Not yet, anyway.

Postscript: This week Screen NSW introduced a target to achieve 50/50 gender equity in its development and production funding programs by 2020. Production house Jungleboys (A Moody Christmas) also changed its name to the gender neutral 'Jungle' to reflect the fact that 50 per cent of the staff are female. It's a start.


Rochelle SiemienowiczRochelle Siemienowicz is a film critic, journalist, editor and columnist. She has a PhD in Australian cinema and was previously film editor for The Big Issue and editor at the Australian Film Institute. Her work has been published widely, including in The AgeKill Your DarlingsScreenHub and SBS Movies. Her first book, Fallen: A Memoir About Sex, Religion and Marrying Too Young is published by Affirm Press.

Original artwork by Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Rochelle Siemienowicz, The Dressmaker, Kate Winslet, Charlize Theron, Mad Max



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Existing comments

Dear Rochelle, . What is your suggested policy change ? Tallying all scripts written, how many satisfy your preferred criteria ? Is that the cause for the skew? We fare better than Hollywood. How do we fare against other markets of similar size and value ? "Women are flocking to the Dress Maker" A male friend of mine recommended it yesterday and I will go and watch it. What is then statistical gender variation watching films ? Does this variation become more pronounced when viewed against film genre ? Is genre a more determining factor that cast gender ? Has anyone else made a demonstrable difference in their market from a particular strategy to include more women in the industry ? At what level ? The comments about low wages and tax incentives are terribly misplaced. The AUD is trading at .72 to the USD and that gives us a "manufacturing advantage" taking into account lower costs (wages) in an industry where revenues are mostly traded in the USD ( reserve currency ). What would our industry look like if we took out all these jobs ? That is probably a more insightful question to ask in understanding its "effect".This is not different from any other industry one would look at and indeed we would hope the currency would have this effect and more so if it goes lower.

Luke | 23 November 2015  

I loved the film. It seems strange to me that a film by women for women and about women is the occasion for a gripe about gender equality. I am more and more convinced that gender equality has become an imposed ideology. Many women take time to raise families and this will always produce a statistic that is horrifying to those that mistake genre inequality with the suppression of women. Women are now free to choose whatever profession they want. They are also free to not have children. So what is the point?

Peter Sellick | 23 November 2015  

Yes.....but name the great female cinema directors. It's a very short list. Before you say that women have been held back by a male dominated industry think of Ida Lupino, the dreaded Leni Riefenstahl and women in all subsequent eras directing movies.

Peter Goers | 23 November 2015  

OK, I see some guys don't get it. When I was younger my reading was mainly American white male authors. Then I discovered there were other ways of viewing the world and my reading habits were changed forever. I want stories which see the world from my perspective. In film I don't want violence and science fiction, as a mature woman I don't want coming-of-age movies, nor do I want a solid diet of what is dismissively called chick flicks. To see how bad things are, try applying the Bechdel Test to movies. A movie just has to pass these three simple questions: 1) are there two or more women in it who have names; 2) do they talk to each other; 3) do they talk to each other about something other than a man. It is amazing how few films pass this simple litmus test for the inclusion of women and whether they are engaging in things other than men. It is not even a real test for 3-dimensional female characters but they still fail.

Eclair | 23 November 2015  

Alas, the comments by Luke and Peter Sellick, proving they are part of the problem not part of the solution, serve to show why feminist analysis is needed more than ever. In a short piece, such as this by Rochelle Siemienowicz, it is not possible to fully explore the issue. It's a great pity it still needs saying, but thanks for saying it. What stories do we tell? Whose stories are they?

Karen | 23 November 2015  

interesting article. Thank you Rochelle.

Kate Maclurcan | 23 November 2015  

Just a minor correction; there was at least one female director in the silent era, called Paulette McDonagh: http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcdonagh-paulette-de-vere-7792 The situation is dire in this industry. Interesting that some commenters just can't see that only one view of the world is readily available, or how that view is perceived as somehow neutral.

Penelope | 23 November 2015  

Any investigation into gender bias in the film industry would benefit by an analysis of film theorists in Australia who have historically been men working within a masculine paradigm

Lorna Kaino | 25 November 2015  

Thanks for all the comments, some of which seem to prove my point that men don't get it! 'Women are free to not have children.' Is this the level of debate we are having? The purpose of the article was to point out the difference between our perception of women doing well in our industry, and the reality, which is that we're nowhere near gender parity, and the kinds of stories we're telling reflect this. They're not serving female audiences. I leave policy recommendations to others - but there is little real disagreement that something needs to be done. According to AFTRS, the longest running film school in Australia, graduates in screenwriting, directing and/or producing since 1973 are 52% male and 48% female. One assumes most of those 48% of women would like to keep working over the course of their lifetime, whether or not they have children. For extensive research and statistics into gender inequality in the film industry, check out Monica Davidson's excellent CLIMBING THE CELLULOID LADDER Women, Mentoring and Australian Feature Film, a thesis you can read here: http://www.creativeplusbusiness.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/MDavidson_THESIS_FINAL2014.pdf

Rochelle Siemienowicz | 26 November 2015  

Perhaps one of the reasons for this lack of 'gender parity' is that, although some women-dominated/focused films (for want of a better term) are successful, even box office hits, many are not. The same is true of male-dominated movies -- there is a lot of dross that is produced. If a female director establishes a record of commercial as well as critical success, she is more likely to secure investment for future projects than if she churns out one flop after another, no matter how critically acclaimed by the feminist press they may be. The same occurs with male directors: the unsuccessful ones don't keep getting funded. It is basic economics. Or are you suggesting male producers should be forced to sink money into films with little or no prospect of a return, just because it will be made by a 'girls' club'?

Fred | 01 December 2015