Interview originally published in HEROINE 8
The recent series of sexual harassment accusations in the film industry – starting with Harvey Weinstein – has thrown the deep-rooted issue of underrepresentation of the female workforce firmly into the spotlight, particularly in the directorial echelon.
Although often presented as a relatively new and purely meritocratic industry, there are deeply-rooted systemic issues that serve as ironclad barriers for minorities entering the sphere. What is much needed now, apart from corporations, governments, festivals, and employers providing female-identifying filmmakers an accessible space to risk and experiment within, is a change within societal values.
That is exactly what Nikola Vasakova, the founder of the London-based film collective Girls in Film, and Amandla Baraka, the founder of New York-based network Film Girls, have been building over the past two years. Seeking positive change, Nikola, Amandla, and their teams host real-life events that bring together women filmmakers from different generations and corners of the industry. The objective is not as much to forge mentor-mentee relationships, as much as it is to create a supportive community that can function as an autonomous alternative to a production company – something that Nikola has supported with an online database and forum, which also shares exclusive job and collaboration opportunities.
The two connected over a transatlantic call in order to discuss the role their initiatives play in advancing female talent within the industry, a close-knit sphere where, in their respective countries, the make-up of the directorial trier is only six to thirteen percent female.
Amandla Baraka: Hi Nikola!
Nikola Vasakova: Hey! How are you?
AB: I’m well. I’m in New York right now.
NV: I’m still at Boiler Room [an online music broadcasting platform], but I’ve found a little private hideaway so that we can chat.
AB: Nikola, I don’t think I’ve actually heard it before. How did you first get into film and why did you form Girls In Film?
NV: I’m a freelance producer, so film is my bread and butter as well as my passion. My background is in publishing, that’s what I studied, but when I graduated in 2010, working in magazines wasn’t really an option because the print world had completely collapsed under the new digital format and people were still working out how to operate under that format. It was a practical decision, and I wanted to organise stuff. I didn’t know a lot of people so I did a fair share of internships and unpaid running jobs. Within six years, I worked my way up. Currently, I’m a series producer at Boiler Room and I really enjoy the immediacy of working within the digital sphere. I don’t know whether I’d have the patience to work on feature films, not right now, and from the virtue of my job I get to know a lot of people who work in film. A few years ago, I noticed that I know quite a few girls who work in film, so I started doing a lot of link-ups. As people started to hit me up for recommendations, I thought it’d be really great to create a space where people could just meet and I wouldn’t need to do all the work. It was a practical idea. The first event that I created together with my friend Monique [Kawecki] from CHAMP magazine, we sold 200 tickets and not all of my friends got the chance to get a ticket. The demand showed that the idea was going to be well-received and it was very much needed. Gradually, it became about connecting women in London and connecting women internationally. We’ve now been to Prague and New York.
AB: I think I’m still on the newer side of this. My first stable job was with Oxosi, which is an online retailer that focuses on designers that are based in Africa and produce their clothes there. It’s also a content platform, so I managed the content, built it and commissioned it. Now, I’m going freelance, but I got there in a really interesting way. When I graduated in 2014, I decided to become a filmmaker. I decided that I’d just start going on my friends’ sets and start helping them out on their films. My first gig was doing short-form content for my friend’s feature film and I also helped out the production assistant. I loved that stuff. While I was on set we were looking for women to work with us, but for some reason they were so hard to find. I think the main issue behind it was that I didn’t go to film school. Most of the people in our joint network doing film were guys. We thought that the only way to connect the dots would be to put together an event. So I started Film Girls. It was an event that brought together women in the film industry so when we needed to make another film we could fulfill every role. It turned into an enormous group text. More recently, it’s been getting more attention. We’ve been holding small little gatherings where we all go to a bar together, but it seems like now people want something more formal. I’m trying to find women who are in the industry to come meet the girls who don’t have as much experience. Not so much for mentorship, but so that they can meet and talk.
NV: I agree. Most of my events have an educational element. I do invite women who are higher up in the industry to impart some knowledge. But, what I think is even more important, is to see other women in the room who’re just like you, seeing a support network and forming a connection. That gives you so much more confidence to continue. The only thing that is different between male and female filmmakers is the amount of self-confidence and visibility. Because the industry is more catered to a male-friendly environment, men naturally have that confidence that propels them. They’re more comfortable with putting out work that is just “OK” because they just don’t fear to be judged as much. I feel that a lot of the women that I’ve met over the past year-and-a-half have made great films, but when I ask them to share, they’d still be on private link on Vimeo because they’re so self-conscious about their work. It’s just that little difference. I encourage everyone to just put things out there and get as much feedback as possible, not be scared to fail, just keep going for it. Self confidence and visibility are very important. Seeing other women in the higher ranks of the industry really helps, and I think we have good role models, as female filmmakers from the generation above are a lot more celebrated.
AB: I agree, I feel like women filmmakers are being celebrated a lot more now. I still definitely struggle to put out short content on a day-to-day basis. I feel like when you put out content as a woman it’s being criticised more. I also think it’s really important for there to be studios and collaborations with bigger brands. They should be willing to start taking more risks on women, that’s how we build confidence. We need to learn that it’s okay to make mistakes. We definitely don’t get as many opportunities to make mistakes as men do. It shouldn’t be about gender or race, it should be about the concept.
NV: What I’ve seen a lot in more mainstream productions, say when the new Wonder Woman came out, it was scrutinised more because it was hyped as a film made by a woman. There’s definitely more pressure. My role is to champion good work by women and celebrate work by all female-identifying creatives. Your gender doesn’t make you a genius.
AB: In the US, there is a bit of this mentality that only a few females can make it to the top, so higher competition and scrutiny amongst women is more common. The social make-up of the film industry, the fact that it’s so male-dominated, that’s why some women get overly competitive and feel the need to do that. If the industry wasn’t built like that, if there wasn’t so much pressure on women to be the best at everything, then I don’t think we’d have this problem. We don’t feel like there’s enough room because we don’t have enough confidence. We need to have the flexibility that men have in this industry, people rooting for us.
NV: Personally I haven’t necessarily had such experiences in London, but I actively go against competitiveness. Between women, competitiveness is a social construct that’s been instilled in order to keep us down. It’s such a cliché. If we really put our minds and efforts together… It’s easier to take things out on another woman because we don’t perceive each other as equal, but it doesn’t come from within us. It’s been built in by the society, it’s there to undermine us. But this is a bigger conversation than just women in film. We should be each other’s weapons and make each other stronger. I never care what anyone else does, I just focus on my own shit.
AB: I agree. From my experience being on film sets, I could easily see why a lot of women could be put off from working in the industry. There’s a lot you have to deal with, I’m not going to even go into sexual harassment. Being a woman in a space where you’re mostly surrounded by men, you can feel excluded. I had to coach myself to think that I’m here because they asked me to be here. That’s a natural thing, but a lot of us aren’t as confident and it takes time to really get to know yourself. You need to be emotionally stable to thrive in a situation where you’re different from everyone around you, it can hold you back a lot.
NV: I have to say, at my current workplace, Boiler Room, I think it’s one of the best in terms of gender and racial diversity. They take the agenda of supporting women in the workplace very seriously, also how the company presents itself within the realm of the music industry, another industry that has huge issues with gender representation. I don’t think it’s only about the companies and the workplace, though. It’s also about the funding opportunities for women and minority groups. Most of the funding usually goes to men, most investors still feel that women can’t get a job done. I’m referring to the study by Directors UK, the governing body of all the directors in the UK, and there are some really depressing finds. Just over thirteen percent of working film directors are women and they make fewer films in their career, they’re less likely to direct a second, third, or fourth film. Only 22 percent of films with British public funding had a female director. 80 percent of the films with UK public funding, not even public investors, are made by men. Our very own public funds have a very long way to go. It starts from feeling alienated on set and goes all the way to the top. It’s easier to raise funding when you’re looking at £5–15,000, but when we talk about big budget films, that’s where all this Wonder Woman scrutinisation comes into play. Not much has changed since last year, but I’m excited that the general zeitgeist is changing. Right now it’s probably the best time to be a female filmmaker. Despite all that depressing shit that I just said, I truly believe that I’m so lucky to be working in this industry right now.
NV: I hope this is not something that’s just going to remain a hashtag trend, but we’ll see real impact in five or ten years. You know, the Weinstein issue amongst many other recent changes, they are huge. I mean, we’re really moving on here. There is a reason why it did not happen a few years ago but is happening now. Girls are taking initiative now and doing things for themselves. It gives you just such a good feeling that, despite the dire statistics, a positive change is happening.
AB: In the US, only over six percent of feature films are directed by women annually, I don’t think anyone should be OK with such a number. The fact that all these women are coming out about Weinstein, they might not even realise, but they’re paving a way for so many more developments. It’s so important that they feel heard. I’m so ready for a change to happen!
NV: I think the next step for a lot of media companies is to produce more content that’s created with the female gaze in mind. It’s relevant and what people want to see. I’m pumped for this, I have big hopes for next year! We’re hosting an event in South Africa this year, I’m interested in taking it outside London, expanding the community and letting people make it their own thing. I hope we find a sponsorship to take it to more cities and create a bigger international community.
AB: I’m still formalising Film Girls, reaching out to women and men in the industry. I think it’s important for us to include them, we need to get us through the door. We would create our own door if we could.
Discover more about Girls in Film.