The Multiplicity of Us: Immigrant/First Generation Women. Directed by New York Women in Film and Television. New York: Third World Newsreel, 2015. 15 minutes.

Half the Picture. Directed by Amy Adrion. El Segundo, CA: Gravitas Ventures, 2018. 94 minutes.

Reviewed by Mary Erickson

Seeing and Being Seen: Women’s Identity and Opportunity in Filmmaking

At two of the top film schools in the United States, women make up about 50 percent of enrollment but only 11 percent of all directors working on the top 250 Hollywood films.1 In the last several years, there have been increased efforts to improve parity in film’s top leadership roles. The two films reviewed here document the journeys of women seeing and being seen through media.

The Multiplicity of Us allows a space for women to tell their own narratives about personal and cultural complexities, focusing on a 2015 event in which twenty-four women gained production skills while sharing their multicultural stories. As part of long-term programming, workshops such as this are offered through a partnership between New York Women in Film and Television and Third World Newsreel, a New York City–based organization supporting independent media production by people of color and emphasizing primarily social justice issues. Workshop participants produce documentary shorts about their unique cultural experiences; these films are then publicly screened.

This film melds the activity behind and in front of the camera. A selection of immigrant and first-generation American women from varying backgrounds share their thoughts on living in the United States with multicultural backgrounds, growing up in border spaces, and navigating cultural exchanges. Interspersed throughout these narratives are shots of these women as production crew, operating the camera, holding a boom mic, and directing scenes. The production scenes are brief and have no explanation, but as the film progresses, we recognize familiar faces in front of and behind the camera, and the collaborative nature of this project emerges as the women take turns telling their stories for their colleagues.

There is a moment in the film when a young woman discusses being subject to politics and immigration policies while living on the border. She laments the injustices of being restricted from visiting family and friends because of the Mexican-US border; this audio is juxtaposed with visuals of her walking up to a metal gate. A grandmother, having experienced similar injustices but in the form of cultural limits imposed by her parents, approaches the other side of the metal gate. The gate opens and the two women come together and embrace. The metaphor here is obvious and serves mostly as a production lesson about how to consider and complement visual and audio content. But then the camera cuts to a medium-long shot of the production crew filming this metaphorical lifting of restrictions. Viewers are reminded that these women, as crewmembers, are testing their own borders, opening their own metaphorical gates and enabling expressions in a historically marginalized environment.

Half the Picture, directed by Amy Adrion, documents the challenges that women face as they move through their professional careers as directors in Hollywood, showing the ways that women have long been internalizing the narrative that women’s stories—both on- and off-screen—don’t matter. Countering this message, Half the Picture argues that women make an important contribution to our cultural identity but that their work is constantly limited by a systemically discriminatory industry.

Through interviews with some of the most well-known women directors (from Ava DuVernay to Gina Prince-Bythewood to Penelope Spheeris to Lena Dunham), Adrion builds the case that at nearly every turn of their careers women’s opportunities are muted, shunned, and discarded. The collection of interviews serves as a cautionary tale for women getting into the industry to expect constant difficulty based on institutional and infrastructural gender hierarchies. So often, women consider themselves professionally deficient because they do not get opportunities to secure adequate financing, to tell their stories authentically, to make a follow-up feature after a successful first film. Lack of opportunity does not come about because of lack of talent; rather, it comes about because of a lack of certain genitalia, to say nothing—and the film does not do so explicitly—of intersectional identities that take into account race, ethnicity, sexuality, or any number of other identities, which may make it difficult for viewers to know where to go from here.

The film, however, also relates the efforts of filmmakers to challenge industry practices. For example, Maria Giese, at the expense of her career, sought to expose the industry’s systemic discrimination. She took this issue to the ACLU, who then demanded that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigate gendered practices in Hollywood. It is also inspiring to hear how DuVernay, discomfort be damned, called out disrespect on her film set, and that Nisha Ganatra hired women crew members so they could build their resumes. Hopefully, these efforts mean that the next generation of women filmmakers will be able to (slightly) more easily navigate rampant discrimination in the industry. But the underlying message is that it is up to the individual to make small changes in her own way, on her own set. The film prescribes the viewer to “do it yourself.” Be the change you want to see in the world, as it were. Don’t wait for permission to make a film. Command respect. But demanding change from a monolithic, dinosauric, and highly resistant industry is a supreme challenge, and one that will be professionally costly to women.

A sliver of hope has emerged in recent months with Warner Bros’ announcement of a “diversity inclusion rider,” a contractual requirement to hire diverse crew and cast; what this will look like in practice is unclear.2 With one studio’s nod to the problem of discrimination (based on gender, race, sexuality, etc.), perhaps others will follow. Half the Picture documents that this problem pervades Hollywood, but so are the number of women working to change it. And, as evidenced by The Multiplicity of Us, all women’s stories are important, unique, and worthy of telling.3

1 Jessica P. Ogilvie, “How Hollywood Keeps out Women,” LA Weekly, April 29, 2015; Martha M. Lauzen, The Celluloid Ceiling: Behind-the-Scenes Employment of Women on the Top 100, 250, and 500 Films of 2017 (San Diego: Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, San Diego State University, 2018).

2 Sam Levin, “Warner Bros to Launch ‘Inclusion Rider’ Diversity Policy with Michael B. Jordan Film,” The Guardian, September 5, 2018.

3 Educators wishing to show these films could draw from the following readings to stimulate student discussion: Lisa French, “Women Documentary Filmmakers as Transnational ‘Advocate Change Agents’” (Mujeres documentalistas y su rol como agentes de cambio transnacionales), INTERdisciplina 7, no. 17 (2019): 15-29; Irina Grugulis and Dimitrinka Stoyanova, “Social Capital and Networks in Film and TV: Jobs for the Boys?” Organization Studies 33, no. 10 (2012): 1311–31; Deborah Jones and Judith K. Pringle, “Unmanageable Inequalities: Sexism in the Film Industry,” The Sociological Review 63, no. S1 (2015): 37-49; Ellen Riordan, “Intersections and New Directions: On Feminism and Political Economy,” in Sex and Money: Feminism and Political Economy in the Media, edited by Eileen R. Meehan and Ellen Riordan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 3-15.

Mary Erickson teaches media studies at Western Washington University. Her research focuses on regional and independent screen media, gender and intersectionality, media industries, and global media. She coedited Independent Filmmaking around the Globe (University of Toronto Press, 2015) and Cross-Border Cultural Production: Economic Runaway or Globalization? (Cambria Press, 2008). She has also worked in independent film as a publicist, researcher, and distribution consultant.