Women filmmakers have been in the news—from the low representation of women filmmakers in top grossing films to Ava DuVernay’s directoral Oscar snub for Selma, to the number of women-led films at this year’s Sundance. In the entire Academy Award history, only four women have been nominated for best director and only one has won: Kathryn Bigelow in 2010 for Hurt Locker.
While the numbers always seem pretty dire, thousands of women filmmakers continue to tell compelling, unique stories in documentary, narrative and experimental films. Whether they are producing, shooting, writing or directing, women filmmakers are indeed making waves.
For Asian American filmmakers or filmmakers telling Asian American stories, things are no different. Many films are passion projects that end up as extraordinary, epic films, like Grace Lee’s documentary American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs (CAAMFest 2014 Centerpiece), to coming-of-age tales like The Sisterhood of Night (CAAMFest 2015), led by a team of mostly women. These stories transcend gender, yet are tales specifically about women and girls.
In the narrative competition, this includes 2 of 6 in the competition: The Sisterhood of Night (dir. Caryn Waecther), “a bold young adult thriller about three high school girls whose secretive friendship throws their small town community into a modern day witch hunt,” and She Lights Up Well (dir. Joyce Wu), “a dramedy that follows a struggling New York actress’ return home where she stumbles upon a sense of purpose.” If one includes writers and producers, then there would be more, including Miss India America, about a driven student who ends up competing in a beauty pageant, co-written by Meera Simhan and co-produced by a team that includes Megha Kadakia and actress Hannah Simone.
Not all women-directed films have women or girls as protagonists. But films made by women are 10 times more likely to have female protagonists, according to a study by The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film: “In films with at least one woman director and/or writer, females comprised 39% of protagonists, males 35% of protagonists, and male/female ensembles 26% of protagonists. In films with exclusively male directors and writers, females accounted for 4% of protagonists, males 87% of protagonists, and male/female ensembles 9% of protagonists.”
Some CAAMFest narrative films with leading female casts and directors include CAAMFest 2015 Centerpiece Presentation, Margarita, with a Straw, by Shonali Bose about a young Indian woman with cerebral palsy who finds love in herself, and the Korean film Cart by Boo Ji-Young about big box store temporary workers—mostly women—who fight for their rights. There’s Tales by Rakhshan Banietemad, dubbed the “First Lady of Iranian Cinema”—it’s her first feature film after an 8-year hiatus, which has won international accolades.
Women nearly sweep this year’s documentary competition with 5 out of 7 directed by women: Ursula Liang’s 9-Man about Chinatown street volleyball, Stephanie Wang-Breal’s Tough Love about families entangled in the foster care system, Vanessa Hope’s All Eyes and Ears about U.S. and China relations told via Jon Huntsman and his adopted Chinese daughter, Sara Dosa’s The Last Season about a friendship between a Vietnam war veteran and Cambodian refugee and the hunt for matsutake mushrooms, and Mina T. Son and Sara Newens’ Top Spin about three young Asian American table tennis players with big dreams.
In addition in the documentary realm, there’s Winning Girl, an inspiring film that follows the journey of a young Hawaiian judo and wrestling competitor by Kimberlee Bassford (Patsy Mink: Ahead of the Majority) and Grace Lee’s latest documentary about food, Off the Menu: Asian America, which world premieres at CAAMFest 2015.
We are also honored to have these esteemed filmmakers in the mix: Academy Award-winning director Ruby Yang with My Voice, My Life, about disadvantaged children in Hong Kong who participate in a musical and A Moment in Time, about the historic Chinatown movie theaters, and Felicia Lowe’s epic and personal documentary about her mother in Chinese Couplets, which makes its world premiere at CAAMFest 2015.
Below, we chatted with one of many women filmmakers at this year’s festival: director Stephanie Wang-Breal, who made the award-winning Wo Ai Ni Mommy and comes back to CAAMFest with her second feature-length documentary, Tough Love, which is a CAAM Documentary Fund recipient. “Tough Love follows two parents as they navigate the American child welfare system to reunite their families. The parents work through their individual situations, which include a harrowing maze of conferences, advocates, attorneys and court hearings, all while trying to prove they should be reunited with their children.”
From Wo Ai Ni Mommy Filmmaker Stephanie Wang-Breal Comes Tough Love
How did you get into filmmaking?
I graduated from college in 1999 and that’s when I decided I wanted to make movies. I got a degree in History and Economics and I had never taken a filmmaking or creative class so just tried to get a job in production. My first job was at the night shift at CNN in New York City. It was a legitimate job with a legitimate brand that my parents could understand. After my shift, I would go work on independent films as a production assistant or whatever they needed me to do. That was my introduction to film and TV. From there, I just worked my way up the production ladder.
Finally, in 2005, I was working at MTV doing commercials for them. I was producing them. I was on a tech scout with a cinematographer, Maryse Alberti. I wanted to make films about all these stories I heard about in history class, about Asian Americans. She encouraged me to make it. It was the first time that anyone had given me the vote of confidence coming from that level to say, you should make your own film. That’s how Wo Ai Ni Mommy was born.
What was it like making Tough Love, your second feature-length documentary?
The first film is hard. The second film is harder, because the first film does well. People didn’t know who you were the first time, and now I’m trying to make a third film that’s totally different. The first is a passion project. The second, of course, is a passion project in the sense that you really want to make a film, but it doesn’t come from the same place as the first film. I feel like my third film, I really want to go down the creative path and challenge myself on that level. With each film as a filmmaker, you have to be given that chance to grow. It’s important for foundations and grants and organizations like CAAM to continue to support, not just first time filmmaker, but emerging filmmakers.
You started off in producing, then became a director. Do women face barriers in those jobs?
I don’t think that as a producer women face many barriers. It’s easier for a woman to be a producer—not in the sense that the job is easier. It’s a really challenging job. Good producers are hard to come by. It’s just—women are pushed to that role. And if you ask a lot of producers if they would like to direct something, the majority would probably say yes.
I think that one of the barriers that women directors face is, even if your film does well, you don’t get the same type of commercial or second chance attention from industry people that you might get if you were a man. I think that [directors like] Ramona Diaz (Don’t Stop Believin’) is a very talented filmmaker. I felt like she should be getting more commercial-type stuff. Commercial work helps us pay our bills. We can’t rely on independent documentary budgets to survive in New York City, on the West Coast and most places. There aren’t many freelance directing jobs for women. People still call me to ask to produce. But I say, I’m really just trying to direct.
Can you talk more about Tough Love?
Tough Love a labor of love as well, it was a very challenging project to take on. There were a lot of emotional hurdles and administrative obstacles. I really hope that people come and see the film. It really sheds light in an area in our society that I think is highly neglected. I think the child welfare system is neglected. There are too many layered issues, and we think we can’t solve it. But if you take a look at this vulnerable population, we can. It would change the way we treat not just families in the system, but also foster care kids.
Anything else you want to add?
CAAMFest has a special special place in my heart. From CAAMFest, I’ve taken on the role of bringing more Asian voices out there.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Catch Tough Love at CAAMFest!
March 15, 2015 4:30 pm
March 17, 2015 8:50 pm