Through her eyes: Jane Sloane on the feminist filmmakers confronting inequalities

As calls grow to address the stubbornly persistent gender imbalance in filmmaking, both in Hollywood and around the world, 2017-18 Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity Jane Sloane is spotlighting an inspiring group of Asia Pacific feminist filmmakers and artists who are making a difference.

Jane’s exhibition FRAME: How Asia Pacific Feminist Filmmakers and Artists Are Confronting Inequalities, created in conjunction with photographers Ariel and Sam Soto-Suver, opens on 27 November at the Griffith Film School Gallery in Brisbane, Australia, on the eve of the 12th annual Asia Pacific Screen Awards.

FRAME, Jane says, “provides a platform to highlight, discuss and identify the strength of women as filmmakers and as characters and activists on screen. Together we hope to challenge the pervasive nature of the patriarchy.” We ask her about its inspiration and aims.

What was the genesis of this project?

Jane Sloane: “The Elements series of films by Deepa Mehta, Fire (1996), Earth (1998) and Water (2005), greatly influenced my thinking. The film, Water, affected me deeply with its focus on the plight of widows, and the practice of child marriage and prostitution. This film powerfully conveys the reality in India, and in many other countries, that even though laws may be in place to support widows remarrying and to protect girls from prostitution, these practices continue.

“What is critical here is the message that if you don’t change people’s attitudes toward inequality, then there’s little opportunity for women and girls to realise their rights. Today, there are about 33 million widows in India, and many of them in rural areas are still being treated like the outcasts in the film. The struggle of women and their ill-treatment as a result of to religious doctrines is clear in the film and, while it’s set in the 1930s, this reality continues today.

“This film was also made at a time when few feminist films directed by Asian-born women achieved global distribution. In my current role at The Asia Foundation, and as an Australian who has deep networks across the Pacific as well as Asia, I’m working to support a new generation of activist filmmakers to raise awareness of critical issues in the region. I also want to work with scriptwriters of soap operas in Asia that invariably present ‘good’ girls and women as being quiet, invisible and obedient. We can’t be agitating for a bigger world, a different world for women, if one of the most profound influencers of attitudes sustains the image of the passive woman as the desirable one, and the dominant narrative. That’s why influencing current media creators and connecting activist filmmakers to citizen movements for change in the global South (and global North!) is so important.

“Also, there are phenomenal women who are leading powerful social movements and who have been at the front lines advocating for change. They are the new Joan of Arcs of our time, and yet their influence, presence and visibility are often erased or minimised. I’d like to see full feature films about some of these women, rather than just presenting their stories via documentaries, so that children and young people have role models of women who, in all their complexities, are fiercely and passionately working to address inequalities while also dealing with the layers of resistance to their roles and activism.”

You focus on 11 filmmakers: Anida Yoeu Ali (Cambodia), Jan Chapman (Australia), Mattie Do (Laos), Erica Glynn (Australia), Van Ha (Vietnam), Rubaiyat Hossain (Bangladesh), Anocha Suwichakornpong (Thailand), Anida Yoeu Ali (Cambodia), Jan Chapman (Australia), Rubaiyat Hossain (Bangladesh) and Leena Yadav (India). Were all of these filmmakers known to you, or was it a journey of discovery?

JS: “Some of the filmmakers and artists were known to me by name, and by the movies and documentaries they had made, even though I haven’t met them. Primarily it has been a journey of discovery through word of mouth, research and revelation.

“My whole world has expanded because of interviewing and getting to know these filmmakers and artists. It’s been a sense of doors opening to reveal perspectives and insights, which then opened more doors. The intersectionality provides a layering of learning about how these filmmakers and artists have thought about inequalities and how this is expressed through their film and art.”

What things did you learn from speaking with the filmmakers that surprised you?

JS: “The sustained inequality that so many female filmmakers face in front and behind the camera and their ingenuity in addressing these challenges and flipping the status quo through their creativity, commitment and vision.”

The exhibition is being held during a film industry event. Was this a deliberate choice?

JS: “Yes, the Asia Pacific Screen Awards is an annual event that brings together many of the film industry working in Asia and the Pacific, including some of the filmmakers who feature in the FRAME exhibition. Both Rubaiyat Hossain and Jan Chapman will be at the launch and at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards. It’s an opportunity to build on the strength, talent, momentum and networks that already exist.

“I’ll also be co-leading a session on diversity in film, with [FRAME artistic advisor] Maxine Williamson on the day of the Asia Pacific Screen Awards, so it’s an opportunity to translate the experience of developing this exhibition to an engaged dialogue with members of the film industry in Asia and the Pacific.”

Given the high cost of making films and barriers to distribution, is cinema a difficult art form for marginalised groups to work in, and a more challenging place to present progressive messages?

JS: “In many communities in Asia and the Pacific, film remains an accessible form for many people, especially young people, in forming their opinions and in shaping their attitudes, behaviour, sense of identity and perspectives. Young people in some Asian countries constitute the majority population and with growing extremism, fundamentalism and the closing down of civil society in many countries, it’s more important than ever that we cultivate values of openness, plurality, critical thinking, justice, creativity and respect. Film has a powerful and important role to play in this regard.”

You and your FRAME partners have mentioned the aim of creating a Feminist Film Academy. What would such an academy look like?

JS: “The academy would, through a suite of available project grants, support, build and sustain a community of feminist filmmakers from across Asia and the Pacific, thereby increasing solidarity, raising awareness of critical gender equality issues, and galvanising an engaged citizenry using film as a transformative change-maker.

“It would be a strategic response to all inequality that has come before it and continues unaddressed today. Its role and clear objectives would enhance people’s lives, provide dialogue opportunities with each other and, longer term, make for better, healthier and happier communities.

“There is no network, platform or collective for feminist filmmakers of Asia Pacific, yet it is the world’s fastest growing region and boasts just over half the world’s population, of which women represent 52 per cent. The Asia Pacific also produces half the world’s film output.

“The first global map of the cultural and creative industries (EY, Cultural Times 2015) reveals that Asia Pacific is also the world’s largest cultural creative industries (CCI) market, generating 33 per cent of the global CCI sales and 43 per cent of the CCI jobs worldwide.

“Opening space, taking up space for women to have vocal, visible and meaningful roles behind and in front of the camera is a critical part of these filmmakers’ feminist approach. Taking full advantage of their creativity to position women in all their complexity as protagonists and as as professionals is a key focus for these feminist filmmakers in their work to challenge inequalities and advance gender equality.

“What is certain in the wash-up of the troubled times that have rocked the film industry recently is that in the emerging industries that lie amongst the Asian superpowers, the feminist movement and its much-needed film industry adjustments have yet to substantially begin. There is much to be done to bring equality and provide identifiable, sustainable and accessible pathways for feminist filmmakers of Asia Pacific for them to thrive.”

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JANE SLOANE, director of the Women’s Empowerment Program at the Asia Foundation, tweets at @janeintheworld and blogs at https://janeintheworld.com/. She is a 2017-18 Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity.

MAXINE WILLIAMSON, former creative director of the Asia Pacific Screen Awards and an Asia Pacific Screen Academy member, tweets at @thegreatestmax and can be found on Instagram at @maxineyearofdragon

ARIEL AND SAM SOTO-SUVER tweet at @bowerbirdphoto, are on Instagram at @bowerbirdphotography and can be found at www.arielandsam.com

The exhibition FRAME: How Asia Pacific Feminist Filmmakers and Artists Are Confronting Inequalities launched at the Griffith Film School Gallery in Brisbane, Australia on Tuesday 27 November at 5pm, on the eve of the Asia Pacific Screen Awards.

READ MORE: Jane’s speech on the evening of the launch, in which she discusses Atlantic Fellowship, feminism, the power of storytelling, the arts as ‘conduits and circuit-breakers for change’, and how ‘making women’s lives visible is a political act’

WATCH MORE: Jane Sloane and Maxine Williamson’s Top 20 inspiring feature films by and about women.

LEARN MORE about the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity programme at the International Inequalities Institute at the London School of Economics.

Photo: (c) Ariel and Sam Soto-Suver