Lesley Elizondo spends most of her days directing, writing, and teaching about films. When not working on independent projects, she leads cinematography courses at the New York Film Academy and the University of California, Los Angeles, instructing students in motion picture camera preparation, composition, framing, and lighting.
Elizondo produced and did the cinematography for “Basta,” a film featured at this year’s Athena Film Festival. Viewers praised her for chronicling the efforts of the Ya Basta Coalition, a group created by female night janitors that survived sexual abuse at the workplace whose name means “enough is enough.”
However, as a Mexican American filmmaker, Elizondo noted that she cannot rely solely on independent filmmaking as a career, despite the acclaim her films receive.
“No one has come out and hired me and given me a sustainable wage for a project that can kind of keep me going on to the next project to the next project,” Elizondo said. “Obviously, right now with COVID a lot of productions have just kind of shut down, but even before that, being a brown woman who is a cinematographer who doesn’t come with her own equipment, it's next to impossible to get hired into production.”
For many of the filmmakers at the Athena Film Festival, the path to showing their films on viewers’ laptops was filled with systemic obstacles. But even now that these filmmakers have shown their films at dozens of domestic and international festivals, the future of women and nonbinary creators remains unclear as they struggle to make ends meet doing what they love.
According to a 2020 “Celluloid Ceiling” report, “women comprised 21 percent of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 100 grossing films in 2020, up from 20 percent in 2019.” The industry has made significant progress toward empowering women directors, since women accounted for 16 percent of directors working on the top 100 grossing films in 2020, compared to a mere 4 percent in 2018.
For films included on the Digital Entertainment Group’s “Watched at Home” list from March through December 2020, however, women comprise just 9 percent of directors and 15 percent of executive producers. Despite the upward trend in the number of women directors over the past three years, 67 percent of films in 2020 employed zero to four women in the aforementioned roles, whereas only 9 percent employed 10 or more women. In contrast, 5 percent of films employed zero to four men, while 71 percent employed 10 or more men.
These statistics can be explained in part by the gender pay gap that still exists both at Hollywood studios and much smaller production companies. In Hollywood, for example, male stars made $1.1 million more per film than women. Script supervisors, about 90 percent of whom are women, make roughly half the weekly earnings of first assistant directors, 77 percent of which are men.
According to Samantha Knowles, director of “Tangled Roots,” the inaccessibility of the film industry goes beyond just hiring women and gender-nonconforming people. Both Knowles and Elizondo believe that unfair and unequal salaries prevent filmmakers from working in the industry in the first place. Those who can afford to stay in the industry rarely receive promotions and thus higher salaries, a phenomenon that keeps women in positions like writer’s assistants rather than producers or directors. Knowles posits that the industry will become more accessible and diverse when filmmakers of color trying to fix systemic issues in the industry receive the recognition they deserve.
“I know so many people … who are hired at the entry level, and then they don’t stay because it’s not sustainable, they’re not paid fairly or they’re not paid at all, so they can’t afford to stay in the industry,” Knowles said. “So I really feel like people need to put their money where their mouth is, and they need to actually pay people fairly and then actually promote them and pave the path to somebody being a director or being a capital ‘P’ producer or being in the writers’ room.”
Women just getting their start in the film industry may become discouraged by the lack of female representation in positions of power. According to Jen Rainin, co-director of the documentary “Ahead of the Curve,” young female filmmakers need to be “able to see it to be it,” and when women rarely occupy executive roles in films, student filmmakers may reconsider their decision to pursue film.
To Rainin, this lack of representation goes beyond dissuading young filmmakers from becoming independent filmmakers. The straight white men who typically already occupy executive positions tend to hire others like themselves to fill higher-ranking job openings, especially on projects with large budgets.
“Because there are so few and there are even fewer in a position at studios to greenlight projects, because we’re talking with the film world about usually fairly large budgets, large dollar amounts, because of human nature, we tend to trust people who look like us with larger amounts of money before we go out of our comfort zone,” Rainin said.
This phenomenon results in a real drop-off of the number of women filmmakers who make a second or third feature—an issue that rarely occurs among men. According to Rainin, male directors who win awards at festivals like Sundance are more likely to be given a multi-million dollar feature deal than female directors.
Rainin and co-director Rivkah Beth Medow specifically put together an all-women crew with many queer women for “Ahead of the Curve,” a film about Franco Stevens’ launch of “Curve,” the best-selling lesbian magazine ever published. Rainin and Medow wanted to widen the opportunities for women filmmakers and create a mentorship model that would help prepare less-experienced filmmakers for directing their own feature-length documentaries.
“Even though we knew it might take a little longer, and we might end up paying a little bit more for that or having longer days, it’s so important to create those pathways to professional experience for women and to take a chance on women,” Medow said. “The only reason that we’re not in those positions just as much is just because it’s not for lack of talent, it’s not for lack of passion, it’s not for lack of hunger, it’s just lack of opportunity.”
This opportunity for women and queer filmmakers to play an active role in producing a documentary means considerably more when taking into account the highly competitive nature of the industry. According to Jalena Keane-Lee, director of “Standing Above the Clouds,” the fight for funding is fierce, with some fellowships having to narrow down over 600 films to just three.
“In addition, there’s not that many resources available with a quick turnaround,” Keane-Lee said. “So even if you do get funded, it might be eight months from when you applied with a project that could be really urgent, because usually [funding programs] want things that are urgent.”
For Jessica Earnshaw, the director of “Jacinta,” the funding process can be really difficult to navigate. Earnshaw shot “Jacinta” mostly using out-of-pocket earnings from her photography projects, noting that the cost of making films locks a lot of people out of the industry.
The difficulty in securing funding stems from the fact that the arts are criminally underfunded. The 2021 New York City budget slashed funding for public school arts education by 70 percent, thereby reducing the funds from $21.5 million to a mere $6.5 million. As a result of budget cuts such as this, Loira Limbal, director of “Through the Night,” views the art world as a “space of the elite” in which only the wealthy can make a career out of filmmaking.
“So much of access relies on what relationships, what networks you are a part of, and if you don't come from a background where your parents or someone else has paved the way, it can be virtually impossible to figure out a way in, and nothing really in the U.S. is a meritocracy,” Limbal said.
Ashley O’Shay, director of a film titled “Unapologetic” that is about two fierce abolitionist leaders in Chicago, further explained that prohibitive costs and hard-to-find funding particularly disadvantages first-time Black filmmakers. O’Shay did not get funding until three and a half years into the filming process, attributing this in part to her relative inexperience at the time she began filming.
“I think there’s already a built-in barrier for a lot of first-time filmmakers when it comes to approaching institutions and grant-makers because there’s not a lot of faith, or there’s a bar that is set that you have to prove that you know how to make a film, that you know how to complete a feature-length film,” O’Shay said.
When taking a more intersectional approach, however, O’Shay noted that those in control of funding films made by Black women about Black women may not understand the necessity of stories like these. In her case, she thought that funders may have wanted to see a film on the spectacle of the Movement for Black Lives in Chicago instead of the more intimate, personalized angle she took.
“I really wanted to still make sure that I was always existing or like presenting myself authentically in [the film],” O’Shay said. “Subconsciously, just because [of] who the dominant identity and personality is in the film industry, it was definitely something personally I had to push myself on because we all deal with wanting people to like you, wanting people to like you so they could give you money or support.”
For many women of color on the executive side of production, similar challenges arise in that the burden of giving a voice to other women of color falls on them, according to Ellie Wen, who directed a film titled “The Missfits” that is centered on a women’s robotics team. She noted that she experienced the most sexism while working in Hollywood production companies in part because she had to spearhead efforts to document underrepresented communities. Even so, she remains optimistic that such issues are trending in the right direction after a recent reckoning in the industry in response to the protests of the summer. The representation of women in STEM, however, still remains minimal.
“I still think that there’s a long way to go in terms of representation, especially in the narrative film space,” Wen said. “It’s just baffling to me how few stories there still are about female scientists or doctors, it still is like a handful that people can probably count.”
Challenges surrounding funding also disadvantage filmmakers with disabilities like Ashley Eakin, the director of “Single,” who has a rare bone condition. Eakin previously worked on “Crazy Rich Asians” with director Jon Chu, who gave her a shot to prove herself on set.
“I think one of the big things is fear that holds people back because they don’t know how to navigate talking with a disabled person if they are unable to do something,” Eakin said. “That doesn’t mean that every disabled person is unable to do everything but … I guess the bigger question is why being unable to do certain things is that inherently negative.”
For her short film “Single,” in which a girl born with one arm is set up with a guy missing a hand, Eakin cast two filmmakers with disabilities as the main characters. Eakin had a difficult time finding actors who had limb disabilities, acknowledging that the two leads did not have a ton of acting experience. Eakin also noted that often a director with a limited budget or filming window would rather rely on veteran actors.
“I think that maybe it’s the fear of trying to get a good performance out of someone is why they don’t go with these people, and then I also think it’s because of the financiers saying they need a big name; they need someone fancy to be in this role,” Eakin said. “It has to be that disabled actors are getting the roles because they can never play non-disabled roles, and so they should be the ones who are getting hired for that.”
With such a small pool of actors that can play the roles Eakin writes, she admitted that taking on less experienced actors with disabilities is a risky “trial and error process” of navigating the strategies for newer actors’ best performances. This conversation also applies to people without disabilities; echoing Rainin, Eakin believes that executives are often fearful of hiring younger filmmakers and actors who may be unable to perform certain tasks.
Nevertheless, many filmmakers showcasing films at the Athena Film Festival acknowledged that film companies and executives are trying to fix issues of funding, accessibility, racial bias, and disability advocacy within the industry. According to Italian American director Cecilia Albertini, CC ’13, who co-directed “Basta” with Elizondo, there is an increased awareness of the fact that women are not given as much of a voice as men. Italy, for example, is 20 years behind when it comes to women in film.
Albertini cites the success of women at the 2021 Golden Globes as a sign of progress in the industry, from Chloé Zhao winning Best Director for “Nomadland” to Andra Day winning Best Performance in a Motion Picture Drama.
With funding assistance from major organizations and fee waivers for applications to film festivals, filmmakers can worry less about the potential risks of going against their conscience by creating a film that differs from their artistic vision in order to accommodate fiscal concerns. Rainin noted that as barriers to entry continue to be broken down, such as with the Athena Film Festival accepting dozens of feature and short films from filmmakers of all backgrounds, more nuanced and unheard stories are being brought to the big screens.
“The stories that are told about the way that queer women are portrayed in media, they’re often being told by straight men or straight women, not by us, and we have a different lens. We see our stories through a particular lens,” Rainin said. “I think that is one of the things that Athena is getting at, our film is explicitly about visibility, queer women’s visibility.”
For Eakin, as visibility of disability movements grows, more young filmmakers with disabilities who were told that they had no career in film will enter the industry and be able to tell their stories.
“I was just super honest in the film, and I think that’s something that sometimes … for me at least, I would try and compensate so people would like me, I would never rock the boat, I would never be too blunt, even though I naturally kind of can be sometimes, or very outspoken which, as a director, you have to be,” Eakin said. “But I really just leaned into like the honesty and the truth of what I was dealing with, with internalized ableism.”
O’Shay has seen film studios and production companies over the past few months internally interrogate how they are—or are not—centering Black experiences and healthily engaging with Black people both on staff and the communities they film. She noticed that a lot of white executives have taken a step back and refer to other people for certain projects who would be a better fit to tell those stories.
“I don’t think this film would have looked the same way if a white woman or a man was the one in the director’s chair. I was very aware of that because I wanted the film to feel like it was made by a young Black woman,” O’Shay said. “I think a lot of the positive feedback that we’ve been seeing and how people respond to different moments in the film is a result of that decision.”
When women filmmakers have greater opportunities to showcase the communities with which they are familiar, perspectives rarely seen in mainstream media can become amplified, as seen with the women of Turkana County, Kenya, who are shown in Anjali Nayar’s film “Oil & Water.” Nayar, who served as a foreign correspondent based in Nairobi for Reuters, read reports about oil expansion in the region and decided to showcase how the women of the community, who had never had any say in land rights, rallied together against patriarchal systems and corrupt politics to protect their futures.
For her, film is about nurturing diverse perspectives without having one dominating narrative showcased at festivals. Although barriers to entry still keep women and minority filmmakers out of many film spaces, festivals like the Athena Film Festival are centering marginalized voices, reexamining who can tell stories, who can play certain roles, and who can break down the barriers that make the film world an elite and inaccessible space.
“Everybody has a story, everybody has an experience, and as an audience what often feels most surprising and interesting and different and beautiful is something that you haven’t seen before, so making sure that the voices [are] not just a specific and controlling voice is really important,” Nayar said.