By Srikanth Kanchinadham. Posted on September 18, 2015
One look at the wiki page of Indian women directors, you'll find only 55 names. Over 100 years of our cinematic history, if we've had only 55 recorded women filmmakers, then it says a thing or two about us as a society. While that's not exactly news material, it is still a disheartening data point.
The scenario hasn't exactly changed in the last few years. While there are more women filmmakers around now, and female technicians are making a mark in the various film industries, the scales are still tilted heavily against them.
Inspired by her own experiences and with some conviction to bring about change, Chennai based filmmaker Vaishnavi Sundar has launched Women Making Films, a platform to promote women filmmakers.
WMF recently organised a festival of films made by women filmmakers. The festival ran from Sept 1st to 16th, with 10 screenings in 8 cities with a preparation time of just over 15 days. In that span, the festival and the initiative got off to a grand start, underlining the groundswell of support that exists for initiatives like this.
We spoke with Vaishnavi about the initiative, her vision, the challenges of being a women filmmaker in India and how female filmmakers can benefit from WMF.
Instead of whining and cribbing about my not-so-good experiences as a woman wanting to make films, I thought i would channel out all the frustration into something that will be useful for me and also for the fraternity. So, it didn't start off as a big website, I thought I will get a few friends to sign up and send their details to be posted on the website, so that, it will then motivate a few of their friends to sign-up.
While I settled for a just a simple blog, my friend offered to design the whole website for me, and that's when it got its form and content. The brain was mine but the whole execution was of my friend JOE. On July 28th, we took the site up and also put the Facebook page and within a week we had 1000 people liking, commenting and engaging.
The response was quite a big deal for me. It just made me realise: how much needed was a platform like this and when there was an immediate response, I thought, Okay! Not bad! It wasn't a hasty decision after all. Then I started pushing people to sign-up.
Since the website is ready, I felt really responsible to do something more, because the work doesn't end there, the work had just begun. There is a community in the U.S called 'Directed by Women' and they have this annual global film-viewing party, of films made by women. I also set up a twitter handle, and they contacted me saying there is an initiative like this, but at that moment I was shooting a documentary somewhere in the remote corner of Tamil Nadu. I came back and I just had over a week before I could prep up for this multi-city festival.
I initially didn't plan the festival to grow on such a big scale, but I realized in retrospect, I wouldn't have settled for something small. So subconsciously, I seemed to have pushed myself quite a bit. The film-viewing party was an inspiration. I initially thought of just getting people together to watch films made by women. That was the first approach and that itself was a statement worth making. Instead of doing it just in Chennai, I thought I will spread all around the country, because of its size and diversity. If this was done in Chennai alone, people in Delhi and Mumbai would not know about it and vice versa.
I just picked up my phone and started calling people. In this process, I was also interviewing them because; I wanted someone as crazy as I am, because I won't be there personally in all the places. So i wanted someone who was interested about the project, who for sure can take over completely on their own. It started off with Trivandrum, and it was a huge hit. Trivandrum started off, then I convinced someone from Hyderabad university to do it, then Kolkatta happened and Delhi, Noida, Design Village happened and then in Saket, there was a terrace screening. In the meantime, there was Pune, Bangalore and Mumbai, and now we have the closing session in Chennai.
I have so many things planned under WMF but initially, as a very basic step; the idea is to make the world aware of the existence of so many women who are making films. 9/10 times, I have noticed that female filmmakers shy away from putting their work out. Telling the world, that they are good and need to be hired. I myself have done it and I realize it's such a big mistake, because if we don't speak about it, nobody would. So i thought as a first step, let's make the world know about these women who are pursuing different skill sets and are in process of making a film and just put it up online.
What if tomorrow, somebody from Chennai wants to go to Delhi to shoot and she needs an editor in Delhi. It becomes easier to hire an editor in Delhi, instead of taking one all the way from Chennai for example. Just imagine this on a country wide setting. In every department there shall be enough number of people for you to pick and choose from. An entire film can be made out of this one website. If you want an international crew member, it is completely possible. Say, if i want to make an indie film in Spain, I will not have to start from scratch; I will have some contacts, thanks to the website. I can somehow get through to them and then get to whoever I want to.
On an international scale, think about how much money one could save. I am thinking of this extreme point in time where there are so many filmmakers, each specializing in different departments like music direction, art direction, make-up, and everything else, so you don't have to wait to be hired at all. You can create opportunities from this one website.
I am also planning to create an e-commerce set-up where you can short-list your crew based on the department and city. I just have to wait for few more entries to come, because right now we have 50 members and it’s too little to make such a classification already. If there are about 100-150 people, I can make a classification which will be easier. Filmmakers are perpetually broke; it is not possible to pay for everybody's expenses like travel and food. This becomes ideal, and they can be hired by anybody, not necessarily women filmmakers. You want to make a film and you feel that a particular editor is good, you hire her, so it's for everybody and eventually it will come to a point in time where collaboration becomes so natural that it becomes a self-sustained model. Slowly, you make films, get better at the art and you build a team for yourself that you are comfortable with. According to me opportunities are endless.
No, that wouldn't be the end-goal. The end-goal would be to have films like that come out on a regular basis. In fact, people should be hired from the website based on their work and the reputation of the community. For example, you (a male director, for example) don't know this editor from Delhi and you happen to see her work only through the WMF website and you thought it was brilliant, then you hire her, now that's an accomplishment. Basically, I have put them forth to you. You are a complete stranger and she is a complete stranger, but the platform is WMF and you have created a mutual employment opportunity.
When they sign-up, their show-reel will be mandatory. Also, per the terms, it is mandatory that they should have worked as Head of any Department for at least one film, a feature, a docu or a short. Otherwise, they will not be able to showcase their show-reel and thus have nothing to put forth. So many people are pursuing filmmaking and it's just a matter of time that they finish theirs. I am not qualitatively going to judge them for the work that they have done. They have done it, they have put it forth, so it's for other people to decide whether or not they want hire. There will also be an option where they update their show-reel periodically by including their latest works.
We have about 50 members at this point.
Basically, I haven't traveled to any city other than Bangalore and Chennai because, I am literally broke. I am very picky when I pick projects to make some money. It is very difficult to travel to these cities without any funding or support. I also wanted to challenge myself in finding someone who could run this without me. Feminism and communism prevails even after the people who inculcated the feeling are long gone, so even if I am not there, I wanted the feeling to prevail. A woman can relate to it, a man can relate to it, it must be true considering so many men in this whole process helped me out.
From the very beginning, when the call for entries came in, women filmmakers were very excited, because:
1. It's a multi-city screening. So the number of people who will be watching the film is very high.
2. They were very happy about its exclusivity.
Unfortunately, I could not show all the films that had come through for the festival. This was because I wasn't sure about the time and logistics per venue. I had to minimize it to just 15 films, some 3 minutes long, some 12 minutes and so on. I didn't include my own films because I just thought I will take mine off and include three more films that are of shorter duration. The idea was to showcase as many films as possible. I managed to get a lot of other people's films dipped in diverse and genre, including documentary, animation, fiction with a local and international mix to it.
Not necessarily. It was not a condition, I did not give them any criteria, but just incidentally most of the films had female protagonists. I can imagine the psyche of these female filmmakers, because we tell stories of things that is most accessible to us. It was beautiful how it turned out, most of the international films had female protagonists, one or two Indian short fiction had a male protagonist.
I didn't want to put any criteria and limit the number of people who would be sending their film because they are trusting a complete stranger and sending their treasure. I myself probably wouldn't have but these people did, so I am very grateful to these people from Spain, Belgium and other countries. So i pushed hard, to get more cities on board and also to make the scale bigger.
Initially, I just wanted people to gather in their terrace and watch a film, but then I realized, no that won't work. So i pushed it and talked to more and more people. The response has been great. It was very good, very satisfying for me to be the catalyst and see the whole thing happening.
I screened 15 films, and they were sent from 7 countries including India. I had 10 screenings in 8 cities in a span of 16 days with just over 2 weeks of preparation time.
I have a bunch of plans. The screenings will continue. So many people are writing to me, asking me to bring the films there. They are offering to pay for my stay and travel and everything. It has made me realize that so many people were just waiting for something like this and now that it is there, everybody wants to collaborate.
Other than that, there are institutes/women (filmmaking) groups that I want to associate with. By collaborating with them, I can get their audience, see if there is a common ground and explore that avenue.
I also want to do three other things:
1. I want to show a lot of children films to school kids and hint to them about the possibility of filmmaking as a career.
2. I want to enable older women, say retired or at home but are very enthusiastic. I want to put them in a platform where, few women, housewives - retired or working, get together in doing small film related tasks. For example, if there is a short film shooting about to happen in Chennai, and if they need some help with props or they need some help with costumes/sewing etc. or if they need somebody to provide catering services: I want to encourage these women who are enthusiastic about it, to make that get together and make it happen.
3. The third one is, I want to build a unique workshop environment where I'll bring in female filmmakers who I think have done stellar work and engage local filmmakers in creating scripts with powerful female protagonists. Most times this is done by making her look masculine, in the form of a police officer, or someone who beats people to death, or someone who smokes. I want to conduct workshops where female filmmakers learn to characterize their protagonist in such a way, that they can be elegant and feminine and still be powerful.
I also want to conduct other workshops on cinematography, editing, acting & directing the actors. Now that I have gotten in touch with so many people, people are quite forthcoming. They want me to conduct workshops in their venues because they are smitten by the whole ideology behind WMF. The first festival has given me so many acquaintances, I feel very responsible and excited because the options are now endless.