Behind the Cameras: agnès films and #DirectedbyWomen Supporting Women and Feminists in the Film Industry

An interview with Alexandra Hidalgo and Barbara Ann O’Leary

by Ariel Newman

Alexandra Hidalgo is an award-winning Venezuelan filmmaker whose documentaries have been official selections for film festivals in twelve countries and screened at universities around the United States, and whose videos and activist writing have been featured on The Hollywood Reporter, IndieWire, NPR, and Women and Hollywood. She is assistant professor in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures at Michigan State University. Her video book Cámara Retórica: A Feminist Filmmaking Methodology for Rhetoric and Composition was published by Computers and Composition Digital Press in 2017. Her academic video essays have been published in Enculturation, Kairos, Technoculture, Itineration, Present Tense, and Peitho. She is the cofounder and editor-in-chief of the digital publication agnès films: supporting women and feminist filmmakers and a managing editor for constellations: a cultural rhetorics publishing space.

Barbara Ann O'Leary is an activist, filmmaker, and catalyst for transformation. Her love of film inspired her to launch the #DirectedbyWomen Worldwide Film Viewing Party initiative in 2015 to encourage discovery and celebration of work by women directors. She created and curates a list of women who have directed film. The list is now at 11,627 as of publication. A graduate of Indiana University in theatre and drama, she later served as IU Cinema's founding social media and web specialist, and she was the founding editor of A Place for Film, IU Cinema's blog. She is in her third year as a member of Ann Arbor Film Festival's screening committee and has previously screened films and served on the World Cinema Jury for Indy Film Fest. Her online activism in support of women's empowerment and authentic creative expression extends back to the 1990s, when she formed Virtual Sisterhood, a global network of women strategizing feminist uses of emerging online technologies. This work followed her groundbreaking implementation of online communication strategies for the UN NGO Women's Caucus led by Women's Environment and Development Organization.

Ariel: Good morning. Thank you for joining us for this interview for Films for the Feminist Classroom. I’m excited to get to talk to you both this morning. I’d like to start by asking you both to describe your projects, agnès films and #DirectedbyWomen? Why and how did you develop them?

Alexandra: I started agnès films in 2010 as a PhD assignment. I was taking a course for which we needed to create a digital piece, and a friend of mine, Caitlan Spronk, and I put it together. I did a lot of the writing and the thinking, and she did the coding. Denah Johnston joined us soon after that as our Experimental and Fringe Film Editor.

Basically, with the PhD I didn’t have time to work on it much, so it was this thing that had been a passion project and I was embarrassed by how little content we had, how little we were doing, and how little time I could dedicate to it. But I just couldn’t bring myself to kill agnès, so I didn’t. And then after I got my job at Michigan State four years ago I was able to get grants to pay undergraduate students to help out with it. We started doing reviews and interviews, and suddenly we had a big staff: writers—who are unpaid and who are brilliant filmmakers, academics, and thinkers—and undergraduate students, who are paid and are also amazing. They do the social media work, copyediting, posting on the website, and web and graphic design. So it started as a little PhD project. For a while it was almost going to disappear and then it blossomed into something wonderful. And we collaborate a lot with #DirectedbyWomen, with Raising Films, Wellywood Woman, and other organizations that support women filmmakers.

Barbara: In fact, agnès films, was one of the inspirations for my project. I really liked the vision you had. So, #DirectedbyWomen is something I came up with in the spring of 2014. I had this vision of doing a Worldwide Film Viewing Party, or something we could celebrate in a concentrated period of time, to help people understand the richness of what women were creating as directors. I wanted to focus on directing and think about how many women had been directing since the beginning of cinema, and agnès films helped me realize that there are a lot of women whose work I didn’t know. It was also bringing together a community, which included a lot of academics and film lovers in your community. This was really important to me because I’ve made a film as a director, but, really, I am a film lover, and I felt welcome.

Alexandra: And a catalyst of the celebration.

Image from the #DirectedbyWomen Facebook page.

(From the #DirectedbyWomen Facebook page.)

Barbara: Well, I’m a person who loves film and loves to share about film, and I was welcome in that community because it was this diverse group and not just a group of filmmakers. There areThe 2017 agnès films team at work. Pictured from left to right: Samantha Fegan, Jessica Kukla, Alexandra Hidalgo, and Hannah Countryman. Photo by Valeria Obando. a lot of wonderful groups about filmmaking—women and mixed gender groups—but I thought that the breadth in the community made yours unique. So, about #DirectedbyWomen: I had this idea—actually, my project was a way to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the UN Conference on Women that took place in Beijing in 1995. I had been there with a lot of women doing media work, and I was with a very influential group of people at that time working on social media. Though they didn’t call it social media back then; they called it computer-mediated communication.

Alexandra: That’s awesome!

Barbara: That’s what we called it, but it was the same thing, you know? You worked in communities and you shared online; there were just different tools.

I also worked with a lot of different kinds of media people and filmmakers, and I thought it would be really interesting to focus on what women had been doing. Prior to my creating #DirectedbyWomen I had developed a practice of balancing my film viewing. I spent a year—starting in May 2013—watching an even number of films by men and women. And that’s how I got my list started. I realized that it’s really easy to find a film by a man. I don’t even need to look. I can just turn the TV on and one will be playing. So every day my process was to watch a feature and a short. And I wanted to watch films from the last ten years because a lot more women were making films during this time and I thought it was fairer to compress the men’s films into it. I know this is extremely rigorous, but I did this.

I started a list on IMDb of women who had directed something in the last ten years, so when I was desperately looking for something I could go to my list. I thought this would be a very small list that would be only for me, but what happened is that I kept noticing another woman and would think “ooh, I don’t think she’s on my list.” There were also the women I knew about but had forgotten to include. You know, famous women. I would notice that I didn’t have someone like Julie Delpy on my list and wonder, “how did that happen?” And suddenly everywhere I looked, there were women directors. I thought, “we need to celebrate this,” because I realized by the end of my little year-long festival that I’d never have time to watch even a small fraction of the films by the directors on the list. But together we could. So, that was where the idea came from for the Worldwide Film Viewing Party: people everywhere around the world can create their own events to watch films directed by women and celebrate in whatever way they want.

In 2015 we started with a fifteen-day party, but now it lasts the whole month. I didn’t mean to do it every year, but when the month finished everybody kept asking about the next year. So we do this thing for the whole month of September, but I have built my list and moved it from IMDb to my own webspace, and it has over 10,800 filmmakers now.

And I continue working on my list.

Image from the #DirectedbyWomen Resource List.

(Image from the #DirectedbyWomen Resource List.)

I. Current Projects

Ariel: Can you talk about some of your current projects: what you’re working on now and what might be upcoming?

Barbara: Well, I’ll just say we’re in the middle of the third annual worldwide film viewing party right now. In fact, this is one of the reasons Alexandra and I are sitting here in the same room, well, porch—

Alexandra: Yes, the same porch. [Laughs]

Barbara: I heard that Alexandra’s new film Teta was ready, so we had a screening last night with a wonderful group of people, including Alex and her family. We watched it in a brand new beautiful screening room, and we had a Q&A afterwards. We also tweeted about it to connect with other people who are celebrating in the party—like our friend Kate who’s up in Maine. Last night, at the same time we were having our party, she was doing an outdoor screening. It was really exciting, and this is one way that we can celebrate.

Alexandra: That’s awesome.

Barbara: There’s a sense of community, that we’re doing these things together in our own communities. And next year we’re going to get even more elaborate. I keep working on the list, and we do a conversation series inspired by yours, Alex.

Alexandra: One project we’ve been working on at agnès films is trying to come up with better editorial processes, because we’ve been inundated with requests from filmmakers to provide various kinds of press for their work. At the start, there had been few enough requests that I could reply as needed. Then, when things exploded, I realized that we had missed some requests. We were still able to cover the films filmmakers had contacted us about, but sometimes three or four months had passed before we got in touch with them asking if they still wanted coverage. And they said, yes, of course, so everybody did get the coverage that they had requested. But that led us to think that we needed to make changes.

My students and I came up with a new process. After I get a request email, I send it to our editorial assistant editor. She puts it into this wonderful spreadsheet that we discuss during weekly meetings. Because our growth has been pretty exponential, we’re mostly trying to find systems that can support the requests we receive. I’m not ready to do anything but sustain what we have, at least for this year.

Barbara: I know that we talked about this: how to bring focus to a wide range of kinds of filmmakers. And I mean that in terms of the kinds of films they make, who the women are themselves…

Alexandra: What level they’re at, right? Are they making their first film or their thirtieth film?

Barbara: How do you make that happen? Because that sounds like a lot of requests.

Alexandra: We have eleven staff writers. And I always say yes. I’ll send out a request with information about a particular film that requires coverage, and usually somebody picks it up. If nobody picks it up, then I’ll email specific people asking them to write about the film. And if everyone keeps saying “no,” then I often do the coverage myself.

agnès films brings up interesting questions about this kind of work. I write grants to pay the students, and they make $10 an hour, which is what undergraduates make at Michigan State, and they work three-to-four hours a week. Often, the students who will start working for our team in the fall are interns during the summer. I feel like it’s actually a really good experience for them and they end up getting great jobs afterwards. I give them amazing recommendations because they’re fantastic.

There are also the staff writers who write for us out of the kindness and generosity of their hearts. Most of them are filmmakers or academics interested in film. I think one of the benefits is that they wouldn’t get to watch many of these films otherwise, because we send them the screeners we receive.

The 2017 agnès films team at work. Pictured from left to right: Samantha Fegan, Jessica Kukla, Alexandra Hidalgo, and Hannah Countryman. Photo by Valeria Obando.

(The 2017 agnès films team at work. Pictured from left to right: Samantha Fegan, Jessica Kukla, Alexandra Hidalgo, and Hannah Countryman. Photo by Valeria Obando.)

Barbara: Yeah, that’s an important point: access to film.

Alexandra: Yes, otherwise, you wouldn’t get to see a lot of these films. For instance, yesterday Julie Casper Roth, one of our staff writers, wrote a review of a marvelous film called Sands of Silence, which is by Chelo Alvarez-Stehle, and it’s on sex trafficking. I sent the review to the director and the producer, and then the producer, Dierdre Roney, wrote an email about how much it had meant to her, how much it helped her understand the film in a new light—to see how powerful it was. So there’s a sense in which one of the rewards of doing this work is that you really get to connect with an artist about their work. Often you just write about a film and never get to hear what the person who made it thinks, but, for us, since filmmakers are usually the ones who contact us, a connection is created.

Barbara: Speaking of systems—I used to just stick things in emails to myself, but then I had so many of them. But I use Jira, which is a really nice management tool. I create tasks for myself in the program and just tag them so that I can keep track of what I need to do.

I used to just be overwhelmed all the time with work on this. People think there aren’t any women filmmakers, but, believe me, if you were me, you would never say that again. I learn about so many that I can’t turn around without meeting one. I could spend every minute of my life trying to do this, but I just decided, on the full moon and on the new moon, I’m going to just crank out as much work on the list as I can that day.

Alexandra: [laughs] New moon, full moon? That’s very feminist of you.

Barbara: Yeah, it’s really funny. I do add things other times, too.

I find, in terms of social media, Twitter and Facebook are two areas that really work the best. I know Facebook’s been rocky lately with all the political upheaval, and it’s hard for people to feel at ease there, but I find that filmmakers will pop up and just drop me a note. They just pop up, and they’ll say, “Hey, I’ve got a screening. Can you share about it?” Things like that. You know, Facebook allows for these kinds of interactions.

I find the ways in which we interact, and what you were saying, Alex, about mutuality, is important. If people see that I’m friends with a bunch of people, they’ll friend me. Sometimes one of them will pop up and say, “Hey, have we met? Because I meet a lot of people at festivals, and maybe we’ve met.” And I say, “No,” and they say, “I can see you like women directors so I think that might be why you’re doing this,” and I say, “Yeah.” Every so often they’ll say, “Are you a filmmaker? I’d like to see your film,” which is one of the nicest things they can say. And then I show them my film.

Still from the film Attention to Detail Guides the Dreamer, dir. Barbara Ann O'Leary.

(Still from the film Attention to Detail Guides the Dreamer, dir. Barbara Ann O'Leary.)

Alexandra: Which is beautiful.

Barbara: Thank you. It’s this little experimental film I made, which I really like.

Alexandra: It’s excellent.

Barbara: Thank you. I really like it, but I don’t think of myself as a person pursuing a film career, so I don’t put it out there all the time. But when someone actually looks at it, and then gets back to me, it’s really fun. The other day, a woman said to me, “I felt like I was lying in the yard, looking up at the trees.” And my film is actually filmed in my backyard, but it’s abstract. And I said, “Well, that’s exactly right” You know? [Laughs]

So I wanted to talk about access to films. Women-directed content is often not distributed, not preserved, and not made available. And even when women are putting their films out online—for instance, on Vimeo or YouTube—people don’t necessarily know where to look. So in my database I try to link to social media, other online platforms, and filmmakers’ IMDb listings—things like this—so if you were curious you could click through and learn more. But people still ask me, “Where can I find these films?” And I wish we could solve this problem better. The whole industry is challenged by this, but women particularly.

Alexandra Hidalgo filming at the Lansing Women's March. Photo by Nathaniel Bowler.

(Alexandra Hidalgo filming at the Lansing Women's March. Photo by Nathaniel Bowler.)

II. Women in Filmmaking

Ariel: Can you talk about the broader context of filmmaking and explore the factors that tend to lead to women’s exclusion. What do you think keeps them out?

Barbara: Sexism, misogyny. A disregard for women’s expression. A lack of awareness that they’re capable human beings. To me, it’s very much connected to these factors.

Alexandra: There’s also the issue of what movies are shown in theaters. Little girls are brought up going to movies that encourage them to identify with male protagonists. They're like, “Oh, okay, cool, I can be this dude. Awesome.” But boys, if we don’t take them to see movies with a woman or girl protagonist, they don’t experience identifying with women. So then when women want to make a movie about women, many men think that only women would be interested in it. But this perception is wrong. Women’s films are making quite a bit of money, and a lot of people are watching them, but people don’t really realize this.

Barbara: But it’s not just that. It’s that most men who are investors want to invest in something that relates to them, and they don’t think they’re going to get that with a women director.

Alexandra: They also don’t think we can handle technology. For example, the first Twilight film was made by Catherine Hardwicke, a woman director. She did a hell of a casting job and it made loads of money. But for the second movie, there were werewolves, and the werewolves needed special effects technology, so the studio decided to have a man do it. Even though Catherine started this whole thing!

Barbara: It’s biased. But one of the things I’m interested in is how many films women manage to make in an environment where there’s very little support. To me this is an underreported story, and it’s actually extremely important that we talk about it. If people believe that women aren’t making movies, then they don’t see a lack of fairness when women aren’t chosen to direct films. And women would make as many movies as they could possibly make. There are so many capable women making movies.

I was thinking about the screening last night, when we watched three of Alex’s shorts. They are about motherhood and raising a bilingual family, and how to do this in a way that’s rooted in both the present and the past. Alex, you bring up issues about how to manage your work and breastfeed your babies, and all of these wonderful stories. These films are not designed to be played in the AMC. This isn’t their purpose. But they’re very important films, and the audience that came was very engaged in conversation about them afterward. So, yes, we need to focus on the top two hundred and fifty grossing films and who’s making them, but we also have this issue of women expressing themselves for their own purposes, for their own communities. How can we honor and appreciate and support these efforts? And make it accessible so that it’s not something that is just on the margins?

Alexandra: Like my film Teta, for example, which is about nursing and which we screened last night at Indiana University. This film is meant to be shown at prenatal courses. I really wanted to make a film that would inspire women to nurse because nursing happens to be a very rewarding practice in a lot of ways for mother and child. In spite of this target audience, it has done well with more general populations. It’s been at sixteen festivals in about ten countries, and we’re only about halfway through its festival run, so who knows how many it will actually end up being in. These kinds of films are going to fall off the radar, though, if you are only looking at what’s playing at the multiplex.

Barbara: I also remember you were mentioning last night that young men who see the film are really moved by it, and it opens their eyes. But it’s not lecturing. It’s a story about—it’s an actual human story; it’s a beautiful story. However, most men probably don’t think, “Oh I’m going to go to a movie about nursing,” but when they do, they go “wow, this is great.” One of the key things that will help transform our culture around this is to focus on celebrating and sharing and raising awareness about these different films. The fact that people feel comfortable allowing primarily men’s expressions to dominate—it’s very disturbing. Men, though, have been very active in worldwide film viewing party from the very beginning. They’ve jumped right in because they’re film lovers and they want to live in a balanced world.

I will tell you one thing: during my Yearlong Film Viewing Balancing Act, my sweetheart, Scott—he watched a lot of films with me—one day he said to me, “women filmmakers are harsh.” Men may think they’re tough, but they have nothing on women. Women make the most intense, difficult-to-experience films—moments that are true and real and honest and violent. There’s a moment in Fish Tank—Andrea Arnold’s film—when a young girl in a state of distress puts someone else in danger because of her confusion and her unconscious desire to lash out. It’s the most chilling moment in film history in my view.

Alexandra Hidalgo: Feminist Visionary from the Directed by Women website.)

("Alexandra Hidalgo: Feminist Visionary" from the Directed by Women website.)

III. Advice for Filmmakers

Ariel: Do you have any advice—especially for people who are marginalized in the film industry—who wish to make films?

Barbara: Form connections with people who are going to be supportive. I personally always suggest people go to agnès films because, for one thing, when you want to get a film out, they always say yes if you ask them.

Alexandra: And we share each other’s films.

Barbara: I also tell people to start building their online community, not in a forced, false way, but by actually getting to know people so that when you’re ready to put your film out in the world, there are people who are ready to help share it.

Alexandra: If you want to make films, you’ll have to decide about your training. You don’t have to get an MFA in film, but if you can, that can be immensely useful. Regardless, just know that it’s going to be a complex journey. Your first films are hopefully going to show some promise, and then the more you do, the better they’re going to get. I think a lot of people put their whole heart into that first film, but it might have a million things wrong with it—just because it’s your first film. A lot of people get disheartened—that it didn’t get into Sundance, for example—and then they deflate. Don’t deflate. That’s normal. But hopefully there’s a little kernel of something wonderful in it, and then you build on that, and you build on that, and you build on that. So, it’s a long journey. And I know that in the film I’m making now, there are things that are going to annoy me and that will be problematic about it. It’s just how it goes.

Remember: it’s a journey, and be patient with yourself. Be loving and build community.

IV. Films and Pedagogy

Ariel: What are some ways for educators who show films in their class to encourage students to think about the film in a way that considers the role of the director?

Barbara: First, be intentional about choosing films that are directed by women and those that aren’t directed by dominant-culture men. A lot of people will show films by men who reflect the dominant culture in their community, like Akira Kurosawa—not a white man, but he’s the equivalent in Japan: the dominant male culture. People will teach an entire course on film history and not include any films by women, and they won’t even notice. They don’t notice because they were taught these films, and they think these are the films that have to be taught. So I would say, pay attention to which filmmakers you include.

Or, sometimes a program might have a whole class on women directors, but there’s just one class. And who gets shown in those classes? Are these courses making a new canon of women filmmakers, telling students “these are the important women filmmakers”? These women might be good filmmakers, but if we highlight only the same few, then we’re showing a narrow portion of what’s out there. So university and college instructors need to make a commitment to highlighting and making available a wide range of information about filmmakers through interviews, reviews, and lists of people.

Irene Lusztig is teaching a class on feminist filmmaking. It’s not a course about films; it’s about making films from a feminist perspective, and my database is going to be part of what she’s working with because the students will have to interview filmmakers. This is a really good way to bring attention to directors, asking people to actually research and talk to them.

Alexandra: I had to teach a class last fall called “Documentary History and Theory.” I asked people who had taught it—some of whom were men of color, some of whom were women—for their syllabi, and their syllabi almost exclusively featured white male filmmakers. So I went to my community, agnès films, on Facebook. I said, “Hey, all. I’m teaching this course. Please tell me who I should teach. I don’t want to teach an all-white-male course.” So I drew from the suggestions people offered, and I also used some of the films I love. And then we had a class that did have some white men, some men of color, some women of color, some white women, and some queer people.

Barbara: And not just from the United States.

Alexandra: Yes, they were from all over the world, representing various languages. And in this class we had conversations about how race and gender are represented in film. Does it make a difference if a person represents their own race or gender or if you have somebody representing others? Are we othering? Are we not? And that became a big part of the class. For us, it was a great way to look at the ethics of representation.

Instructors can start by showing a diverse group of films by diverse populations and then have those kinds of conversations with students. What is the significance of the person behind the camera? How are they portraying those in front of the camera?

V. Filmmakers of Note

Ariel: Can you mention any directors or filmmakers/films you’re excited about or any films you would encourage us to look for?

Barbara: I always ask this question and so I should be able to answer it. I always tell people, one of the reasons I write them down is because I can’t remember them.

Alexandra: agnès films is named after Agnès Varda. And Agnès Varda just won the Golden Eye, the highest award at Cannes for a documentary film Faces Places [Visages Villages]. And she just received the Governor’s Award from the Academy of Motion Pictures.

For Faces Places she worked with a French artist, JR. He’s a really cool visual artist; he paints the most amazing murals. They drive this truck around France trying to make sense of existential issues. I haven’t seen it because it’s not available in the US yet, but it’s being released now.

Barbara: I have a few people I want to mention: one is Megan Griffiths. She’s a filmmaker who’s based in the Pacific Northwest. Her films are amazing. Her film Eden, about trafficking, is really a stunning piece of work. I put off watching it because I was daunted by the topic. I thought, “Oh my god, I don’t know if I can tolerate the intensity of it.” It is intense. But it’s a very, very satisfying film. It’s extremely well done. I think she’s a very interesting artist, and I can’t wait for her to make her next film. She’s also recently started to work in TV; she’s directed two episodes of the new Room 104 series.

Somebody else whose work I just had the chance to watch is Laura Citarella, an Argentinian filmmaker. She has a film Ostende, and she has another more recent one called La Mujer de los Perros [Dog Lady]. Ostende is a little bit Hitchcockian in that there’s a kind of strange unfolding of mystery, and you’re not sure what’s happening. But one of the things I like about some of these films is they’re women-focused, women are starring in them. I love films that have men in them too, but it’s surprising how often we see films that have men as the center of the film, with women only in subsidiary roles. And when we see it the other way around, it’s just a completely different experience.

Ariel: There is much diversity within the category “women” (women of all backgrounds, racial/ethnic identifications, geographical locations, ages, class statuses, sexualities, religions, etc.), and gender is also more widely recognized as fluid and falling across a spectrum of different identifications (for instance, Facebook now offers a number of different options for users). I know that both of you pay particular attention to women in the film industry; however, how do you see your current and future work with #DirectedbyWomen and agnès films in light of the complexities of gender as a category?

Alexandra: I am thrilled that Facebook would provide users with 71 gender options, and if the number grows, that’s great. One thing I’ve learned as part of having diverse friends and teaching diverse populations is that I can’t be aware of everything that will pain others because I am limited by my own history and perspective. If someone points out that they have a particular preference for how they would like to be called or addressed, or if they are insulted by a particular film or remark that didn’t insult me, I respect that. We have better things to do with our time and energy than worry about the gender designation someone wants to give themselves. People should be able to call themselves what they want to call themselves and they should be able to revise that terminology as their identity unfolds.

In terms of how this philosophy affects agnès films, we were very specific from the start: we believe that anyone, regardless of their gender identification, can be a feminist. We have always explicitly welcomed men and at times review work by male directors if it has a strong presence of women in the cast. We also review work by trans women, such as Lana Wachovski. Our philosophy has never been to exclude but rather to include, and that goes for the ever-evolving ways in which we think about gender around the world.

Barbara: #DirectedbyWomen is a mixed gender initiative. Everyone’s invited to celebrate with us. The initiative focuses on work by women directors—that includes work by any director who self identifies as a woman (or girl). The initiative is global in scope and seeks to bring enthusiastic attention to the work of women from all parts of the world, all backgrounds. One very important part of my practice is to be as inclusive as possible in the work we share and feature. At its core #DirectedbyWomen aims to invite greater balance in the global film community to help make space for authentic creative expression to arise fully and inclusively.

Image of Alexandra Hidalgo, Ariel Newman, and Barbara Ann O’Leary. Photo by Nathaniel Bowler.