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Ingrid Nilson in Karen Lam’s short film Chiral, which screened at the Vancouver International Women in Film Festival. PhotoFirst Glance Productions.

Vancouver festival marks big shift for women in genre film

Film and television have a long history of ignoring women’s contributions to horror, science fiction, fantasy, and thriller canons

By Brittany Duggan and Frederick Blichert , in City Feature story , on March 23, 2016

Film and television have a long history of ignoring women’s contributions to horror, science fiction, fantasy, and thriller canons, known as “genre” storytelling.

That’s why this year’s Vancouver International Women in Film Festival decided to put a spotlight on women making genre cinema, by organizing a full day dedicated to their work, featuring directors from around the world.

“We wanted to express that there are so many untold stories out there,” said Katja De Bock, the festival’s communications director. “People don’t always know that they can hand in these kind of films at a women and film festival.”

But the full day of genre programming wasn’t the only thing that women filmmakers had to celebrate during the festival. A special announcement was made at the festival on International Women’s Day.

According to Claude Joli-Coeur, the head of the National Film Board, half of its future films will be directed by women, while half of its production budgets will go to projects with women directors.

This change marks a departure from the industry’s current gender imbalance. According to Women in View, a Canadian non-profit dedicated to strengthening gender and cultural diversity in media, only 17 per cent of publicly funded film projects in 2015 were directed by women.

Women in genre cinema

The event celebrated women in an industry that has historically treated genre as a boys’ club. Names like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott, and Peter Jackson make up the canon, but events like the festival are actively making space for women in the field.

Karen Lam on the set of Chiral. Photo courtesy of: First Glance Productions.

After receiving hundreds of submissions to its first women-ingenre writing contest last year, the festival put out a call for genre film submissions to screen this year.

This growing visibility of women in genre is also reflected in Hollywood, where women are increasingly appearing onscreen and behind the camera in high-profile projects.

The Hunger Games series has enjoyed massive success, while Netflix’s Jessica Jones was the first female-centred project from Marvel Studios. This year will also see the release of an all-woman Ghostbusters reboot. While all of these feature strong female leads, only Jessica Jones employs women in directorial roles, and only four of its 13 episodes were directed by a woman.

But major gaps remain.

The ever-growing slate of new Star Wars films remains entirely free of women directors, and none of the existing Marvel superhero films, or those announced, has managed to attract a female director.

– Genre hits out of Canada –


The persistence of male perspectives

Australian filmmaker Megan Riakos, whose “eco-thriller” Crushed was one of two genre features screened at the festival, said subtle forms of sexism plague genre filmmaking.

Riakos has noticed that, while agents and producers make a show of being supportive of women’s voices, they still demand more familiar, male-oriented narratives. This is harmful to female audiences and hinders creativity more broadly, she said.

“A female perspective is fresh and invigorating because it is a new perspective, but people are scared to take that risk,” said Riakos.

That failure to genuinely include women’s perspectives also fails to reflect real-world cinema attendance. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, women represent 52 per cent of movie-theatre audiences in Canada and the U.S.

But women aren’t just ignored or forced to conform. Vancouver filmmaker Karen Lam, whose short film Chiral played during the festival’s program of genre shorts, playfully titled 70% Dark, points to the sexualization of women filmmakers.

She recounted her experience being asked to pose for a horror magazine cover, drenched in blood and wearing a corset – an attempt to fetishize the women of horror. “I want to be on the cover, I want the coverage, but I refuse to do it in this way.”

The reasons behind gender disparity in genre cinema are the same as those for any other kind of filmmaking.

For Riakos, the people who control funding and festival screenings need to be representative of society before real change is seen.

She sees hope that this change can occur if filmmakers and audiences speak up. “Men don’t even realize it’s a problem, I think. When you say, ‘Hey, where’s the women on your panel?’, they are so happy to correct that.”

The NFB’s gender-parity announcement is one step in the direction that Riakos advocates. But it isn’t the only sign of change. At last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, the country’s foremost film festival, half of the programmers selecting films were women. In 2014, the Vancouver Queer Film Festival celebrated a milestone, with women directing 50 per cent of the fest’s film slate.

– The women of genre TV in Vancouver –


What genre has to offer

Karen Lam has worked exclusively in horror since beginning her directing career in 2006. She draws from the rich history of horror and its early pioneers like Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. Lam frequently strays into science fiction and fantasy, working in a combination of genres that she calls “the fantastic.”

“Genre allows me to tell stories in a really fantastic and symbolic way. I can explore a lot of different ways of thinking by using the paranormal and monsters as a sort of psychological experience,” said Lam.

Megan Riakos on the set of Crushed. Photo courtesy of: Megan Riakos.

Megan Riakos also uses genre to get complex ideas across in nuanced ways: “I feel like you can sneak in messages and reach a wider audience.”

For example, her film Crushed uses a detective narrative to explore corporate greed and an environmental disaster at a vineyard in Australia. Riakos believes the murder mystery allows the environmentalist message to come across without being “preachy.”

A changing landscape

Ongoing initiatives across Canada, like the festival, offer spaces where women filmmakers can collaborate, mentor each other and share resources. And the NFB’s new parity initiative will certainly open more doors for women in the industry.

But the biggest catalyst for change may come from online platforms.

More and more Canadians are watching movies. And most of them are doing it online, according to a report by Telefilm Canada, a government-funded organization that develops and promotes the Canadian audiovisual industry.

Lam uses social media to communicate with audiences and fellow filmmakers. As well, streaming platforms like Netflix allow her to showcase her work to a growing audience base.

“What it means is that we’re allowed to be as niche as we want to be,” said Lam. “Audiences are so interested and diverse that you will find an audience if you just tell something that’s true and that really inspires you.”