Drama: outside the box

Kirsten Stevens

The dismal statistics around gender inequality within the screen industries are by now well known. Since the launch of Screen Australia’s Gender Matters report and program some 18 months ago, attention to the need for visibility and opportunities for women working in Australia’s film and television industries has increased. But the question of what action to take still longs for answers. While the first round of Screen Australia funding linked to gender-equal and women-led projects might be laying the groundwork for a better future for Australian women’s films, waiting for these outcomes is not enough. There is plenty more to be done right now to highlight the work of Australian women creatives in the screen industries.

 

Show’em what we’ve got

If Geena Davis is correct about our need for role models — that ‘you need to see it to be it’ — then showcasing and recognising the work of women in cinema in Australia is a key first step in getting more women to make films. Yet, outside of the film festivals, where Australian films of all types traditionally do well, it can be difficult to find opportunities to see the work of Australian women on the big screen.

This is where organisations like the Melbourne Women in Film Festival come in. As part of the team behind this event, I see the need for public screenings to draw attention to Australian women working in film. MWFF is focusing attention on the overlooked history of Australian women’s filmmaking, commencing with a retrospective of the 1975 International Women’s Film Festival program earlier this year. But we’ve also found that we don’t need to look that far back to find examples of films thus far overlooked but deserving of attention — there are plenty of contemporary films that fit the bill.

So in May 2017 MWFF teamed up with the Australian Centre for the Moving Image to present two screenings of a recent Australian film that, despite festival screenings in Sydney, was yet to find an outlet in Melbourne — Sophie Mathisen’s Drama (2016). The screenings, which included a Q&A with the film’s producer, Dominique Mathisen, offered a chance to see and hear about the work of local filmmakers. More than this, the screenings prompted some important questions. What makes Australian female-led film projects unique? How do they get made? And what still needs to change to see more of them?

“End the Sausage Party” protest participants celebrate

Make it any way you can

Looking at Drama, we might deduce that contemporary Australian women’s film can be independent, made with ingenuity and guerrilla filmmaking tactics, and, among other things, French.

In fact, at first glance, Drama doesn’t look all that much like an Australian film. Not funded by Screen Australia or any other government funding agency, shot entirely in Paris with sections in French with English subtitles, and produced as director Sophie Mathisen’s London-based Masters project, the film offers a more global approach to filmmaking, showing off its independent roots. As the producer explained at the film’s Q&A session in May, “Sophie is my younger sister… She was supposed to make a short as her final thesis and she went, bugger it, I’m going to make a feature. So she brought me over to Paris and we had a lot of crowdfunding support but we also had a lot of private investing and lots of family and friends chip in.”

With only a small budget — reportedly under $300,000 — the film came together quickly. “It took eight months from script to shoot, which is pretty quick in terms of everything,” Mathisen explained, “so the fact that we didn’t have any government assistance gave us that little bit of leverage.” While the short turnaround had its advantages, this was a project that was also born out of the reality of not getting projects funded in Australia. “We were never going to be eligible for government funding because we were first-time filmmakers, we were filming in Paris; all of these things were like no, no, no.”

Promotional material, DRAMA

Moving outside the box

As those reliant on subsidy for their work know, money tends to follow money — but getting started without funding can be a challenge. As government funding becomes scarcer for many projects, Australian filmmakers are finding other ways to get the job done. Speaking to Drama’s self-funded, upstart model in the Q&A session with Mathisen, ACMI Film Programmer James Nolen acknowledged, “It certainly is a model that we’re seeing a lot more at ACMI and we’ve screened a lot of films that have been either self-funded or crowd-funded. I think you do need to think outside the box these days, especially with Australian film.”

In this sense, Drama certainly moves outside the box. Looking overseas to tell a story that, centred on the trials of its expat lead, remains recognisably Australian, the film also sought to break conventions in other ways. “We crewed Drama with an intention of having a gender balanced crew — so 50% men, 50% women, we actually ended up with 65 [% women]” says Mathisen, noting the need to support women within the industry in a wider variety of behind-the-camera roles. “The way to give women a hand-up in the industry is to get them into departments that would not necessarily have an easy road. So we had a female gaffer, we had a female grip assist, but we also had a female camera operator who became focus puller. It was all about giving women an opportunity to shine.”

The film sits as an example of what can be done when working outside of the system. While Screen Australia offers some hope for new projects, films like Drama are getting the job done now and putting women in film front and centre without waiting for permission or action from policymakers. Screening these films — showing that they exist and what women filmmakers can do — can only inspire.

Read Eloise Ross’ review of Drama.

Drama, Q&A, ACMI, Melbourne, 27 May

Drama, writer, producer, director, Sophie Mathisen, co-producers Dominique Mathisen, Sophie Mathisen, cinematographer Cameron Ford, editors Julie-Anne De Ruvo, Katie Flaxman, composers Jonathan Dreyfus, Louis Gill, Kyle Grenell, Trent Grenell; Little Sure Shots, 2016

Dr Kirsten Stevens teaches in Film and Screen Studies at Monash University in Melbourne. Her research is focused on Australian film festivals and their historical significance as practices in specialist film exhibition.

Top image credit: Sophie Mathisen, DRAMA

20 June 2017
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