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Women  &  Film

96% of films are directed by men.

However -- there was no stopping these women from making their debut features. Here are their stories:

Director: Sarah Kernochan
Debut feature: The Hairy Bird (aka All I Wanna Do)


I used to make short 8mm films in middle school and high school but my ambition was to be a writer. After I dropped out of college, and after a brief stint as a journalist, I decided that I didn't want to toil in obscurity for years as a novelist with the inevitable rejection slips piling up, until being "discovered." I thought a faster route to being published would be to become successful at something else, and I arrogantly assumed I'd get to the top relatively quickly in screenwriting since scripts didn't seem that hard and the quality of the writing in films made at the time (1969) seemed pretty bad, therefore within easy reach. I never had in mind being a director, ever. As it happened, my first script got me an agent, and then my boyfriend Howard Smith met this guy called Marjoe, and I said, that's a movie we can make, but there was not much writing to be done on it so we made ourselves co-directors. After that I made a few stabs at continuing to write and direct, but the industry at the time was not at all hospitable to women directors and I was distracted by my recording career. I never really got the bug to direct until I wrote Impromptu and observed my husband at work directing it. I thought, I could do that, and then I can stop worrying about another director misunderstanding my intent (yeah sometimes even he didn't get it). So I wrote THE HAIRY BIRD aka All I Wanna Do and that became my crusade for the next 7 years. The first day I stepped onto the set, instead of feeling nervous, I felt like I was where I belonged all along. It was just exactly right, like the air was clearer and I was no longer under a blanket.
- Sarah Kernochan, August 2003

All I Wanna Do (The Hairy Bird) is available on DVD at

Director:Desiree Lim
Debut feature: Sugar Sweet

Wolfe Video

I wanted to be involved in film when I was in my third year [of] college in Tokyo, Japan. I majored in Journalism and found my passion in using moving images as my storytelling tool through TV production training courses in college. After I graduated from college, I started working [at] a TV network station, writing, directing and producing news features and documentary. While pursuing a career in TV, I was also making my own independent shorts as a video artist, and kept my passion for storytelling through visual images alive. The short films I made during this period of time found an audience at the Tokyo International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, and I continued to make shorts for several years. Due to the lack of understanding of queer issues and homophobia in Japan, I remained closeted throughout my career in TV, until I decided to quit my "day job" and move on to explore opportunities in dramatic filmmaking.

After I quit my career in network TV, I had planned to move to Canada and relaunch a career in dramatic filmmaking. Before I was able to pick up my bags and leave, however, I had an opportunity to meet a Pay TV Producer in Tokyo who was looking for a female Director to direct an "authentic" lesbian erotic film. I pitched them a few ideas and they picked up the one that eventually turned out to be my debut dramatic feature - "Sugar Sweet". I practicably came out to the world as a lesbian filmmaker with the launch of this film.

I made it because there was really no one out there in Japan who has written and directed a commercial lesbian feature as a queer and out filmmaker. It was also an opportunity for me to direct my first feature. There have been erotic films made on lesbian sexuality and relationships, but till then, they were all made by men, or women who were not out and gay.

So Sugar Sweet broke new ground and became the first commercially made lesbian feature by a queer and out filmmaker. I also wanted to challenge the images of lesbians in Japanese film to date, and tell a refreshingly entertaining story through non-conventional characters. It turned out to be a very sexually empowering film not only to the Japanese women, but also to many Asian women all across the globe.

I was only given a budget of less than US $40,000. I had a skeleton crew and worked with non-actors. Due to budget constraints, we had to shoot the film in 7 days. I was fortunate to have a professional crew that was very supportive of my film. I was given total creative control of the film, which was quite a gratifying experience. At the end of the day however, my producers wanted to market it as a "sexual" film to the straight male audience, and I was against their marketing strategy of selling it with a strong "pornographic concept and image" -- which ironically, was the very obstacle the protagonist of my film was trying to fight. So this film turned out to be art imitating life in a lot of ways - it was about a filmmaker's struggle to stand up for herself as a lesbian for her true vision of her art.

It was...quite a challenge to direct non-professional actors in this film. The biggest gender/sexual orientation barrier I ran into was when my producers marketed it through a heterosexual male concept of a "lesbo erotic film". Things were quite out of my hands in the marketing of the film and I felt "exploited" in some ways as a queer woman. Although the fact that I was able to make an empowering film mocking the male-dominated porn industry did make a huge difference for me as a filmmaker.

Sugar Sweet has garnered many positive reviews from media, including Variety magazine. It has played on Sky PerfecTV Japan, and in more than 20 film festivals in the US, Canada, Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand. It is now available on video and DVD through Wolfe Video.

I would like to see more lesbian films out there, and I am determined to make that happen myself. Right now, I am developing several feature length and short scripts for production, and working towards directing my first English feature in Canada - a place where I now call home. - Desiree Lim, September 2003

Sugar Sweet is available on DVD from Wolfe Video

> > Continue on to Desiree's Bio and Links

Director: Lois Siegel

Siegel Productions Inc


I segued into film from photography. I was a senior at university and had started watching foreign films as a freshman. I was fascinated with what you could do with film. I had to take a photography course as a senior for my journalism degree. Some of my friends were in film. Some of us would appear in their films. I made my first film in 1971, titled 'Spectrum In White'. The film was accepted at the First International Festival of Women's Films. I was 'hooked' after that.

My first feature was "A 20th Century Chocolate Cake".

Description: A 20TH CENTURY CHOCOLATE CAKE is A Film Recipe for the Future. This bizarre comedy is an offbeat look at the absurdities of the 20th century - where dreams don't come true. Pick up a newspaper, turn on the TV or just look out the window. It's all there.

What obstacles did you encounter in the making of ths film?

Many. It was made with no budget. Any money I had each week, I put into making the film. It was crazy. I had to convince people: friends and students to work on it. This wasn't a big problem, but actors sometimes threatened to disappear just before a shoot...or they did disappear. It took me ages to complete the film working this way because I was also working full time- teaching and working on other people's films.

It was my first feature film. I wanted to try making a longer film. It was a bit of an experiment, combining fiction and documentary footage. I learned never to start a long 'dramatic' film without having a very solid script first. I learned how to make a feature with very little money. I also learned that people can really take advantage of you. We had over 1000 for the opening. The theatre owner, who was a druggie, ran off with all the money.

I remember one scene where we were shooting a dog trainer and his vicious dog. I wanted to put some powder on his face because it was a very hot day. I knew if I asked him, he wouldn't allow this, so I asked my male cameraman to ask him. I'm sure this guy thought the cameraman was the director. I didn't care. I wanted the shot. The dog trainer was very macho. I didn't want to interfere with this. I just knew what we needed on film. Go with the flow, as they say. Most of the time people think the cameraman is the director, especially if he's male.

My first films were experimental, then I was introduced to documentary, and finally sync sound fiction. Then I went back to directing documentaries. Being at the Film Board was a big influence on making documentary films. They are noted for their documentaries and animation.

I love making films because you never know exactly how they will turn out, you create as you go and use the skills of many people. With documentaries there are always surprises. With fiction, you have to choose skillful actors to create 'magic' on the screen. It's a great challenge. - Lois Siegel, August 2003

A 20TH CENTURY CHOCOLATE CAKE is available on videocassette from Siegel Productions

Director: Cynthia Scott
Debut feature: The Company of Strangers (aka Strangers in Good Company)

National Film Board of Canada

At what point in your life did you know you wanted to be involved in film? What were the precursors?

Oh, that's an interesting question. I loved film, I guess I've always loved film, but I became very attached to it at the university. I think I thought film directors were men only, and I ended up working in television after university -- I don't know what they're called in the states, up here they're called script assistants -- and I worked as an assistant to a producer director. I slowly began to realize that it wasn't a male sensibility, that women, too, could conceive of doing this work. I became a television producer, and then I started doing short films, I just kinda lucked into it. There came a point where I just didn't want to do television anymore, I just wanted to do film, and that started out being documentary. Then later on I became interested in dramatic film, film with actors.

Company of Strangers is the only feature I've done, in the states I think it's called Strangers in Good Company. And I just came up with...this idea popped into my head of wouldn't it be wonderful to do a film in which the stars are all older people. And it just seemed logical that that would be a feature length movie. So it was the idea that caused me think of doing a feature length film, it wasn't "I want to do a feature length film", it was the idea that said, if you're going to do this topic, it's going to be a feature length movie.

Working with elders, is there something special about your life that made that appeal to you?

No, actually, I was casting for a little short dramatic film -- it took place in a hospital, in a ward where there were chronically ill people and old people, who, for better or worse, ended up in a hospital, rather than in institutions -- and I was looking for some older women to be extras in this ward. I went to a fabulous community club for seniors, it was called the Golden Age Club, and it was a Jewish club, it was part of a huge center that does a lot of things for the Jewish community. I walked into this place one morning, at 9 AM, and I opened the front door and it was like being blasted by heat, there was so much energy and activity going on inside. These were all senior citizens -- there were drama clubs and art clubs -- there was so much stuff going on and there was so much energy that I was just blown away by it. And it was literally at that moment that "Oh my God, look what's here, try and explore that". So I was just overwhelmed, because, outside of immediate family members, I had never spent much time with older people at all. And so that started me thinking about doing a film. Those people may have been particular and special, because they were nearly all people who had either come over as very poor immigrants, so that none of them had finished school: the men had probably been working since the age of twelve and the women would have gone to work in their mid teens: they were either that or they were holocaust survivors. So I think they had an extra hunger for life, maybe. Many of them were getting the educations they'd never been able to have in their youth, because they needed to earn money to support their families. Anyway, thanks to that place, this project arose.

At what point in the production of Company of Strangers did you know that something 'magical' had taken place?

During the shooting, the first couple days were scary for all of us; was this going to work? Very soon I thought that something very extraordinary was going on here. My producer-editor, who was not on set, and was looking at rushes, did not feel that. He felt that it was all sort of cliché ridden. I didn't feel that at all. Anyway, he ended up falling in love with it once he started to edit it. But there was just something about being out in this landscape, which had been a decision I had made early on, that I had wanted to set the film somewhere free of the confines of the city. I didn't want the women stepping over cables, all of the machinery that's a part of making films, and also, I guess in a way, the idea was to put them in a landscape to set them free of the world as they knew it. All of those women lived alone, all except for [Alice] who lived in the arms of her family. And all of them felt marginalized, and out there in the countryside, the beautiful countryside surrounded by a crew, they became the center of the universe, and they just blossomed with a sense of their worthiness: I mean they were doing work, and it was meaningful, and they were being paid for it, and being respected for it. It was just a combination of many things, I mean you're right, it all seemed to me to be sort of miraculous; it could have gone the other way, their blossoming, and their wonderful individual personalities, and their superb naturalness. Everything was all fake and fiction, but it all felt real and wonderful in some way.

This is a cliché that I'm sure many filmmakers have said to you, you know, the film takes on a life of it's own, it's like a child growing up. I mean you know you were involved with it, but it seems to have it's own life. One of the things that pleases me enormously is that it continues to have a life -- or I hear little nuggets: I was at a Christmas carol service this year and there were a group of elderly Anglican nuns at this service, and it turned out there was a little reception for anybody who attended the services afterward, and I was introduced to these nuns, and it turned out that they used the film to do community work: they do a lot of work with women who are estranged or abandoned or battered. And they use the film as an example of strangers becoming empowered. I mean I was just so enchanted, these are virtually cloistered nuns, and they use this film. And of course they think the nun in the film is the heroine of the film, which delighted me: I mean I never think of her as the heroine, but they did [because] of course she saves them.

The film was a gift to all of us, in the end, you know, the fact that it worked was a miracle, and everybody who worked on that film, the actresses, certainly, all said it was one of the best moments in their lives. It was a gift to us all.

Tell us about your decision not to include men in the cast.

Initially I had thought that the cast would be men and women, and my first idea was that it was going to be the coming together of a former chamber orchestra, 'cause I had had the fantasy of seeing people playing cellos and violins in a landscape. So I did a lot of research with old musicians in Montreal, to see if I could find a cast that way, and in fact, I mean, nothing excited me: the people I found were lovely but they weren't movie star material in the sense of being people you wanted to watch on the screen; they all had a kind of blandness to them. Well then it was going to be I was going to strand some people on a landscape, and we started doing auditions. I had done a lot of of hunting through the streets of Montreal through various organizations, looking for potential cast, and a number of people in the film were people I had actually met. But hundreds came to the auditions, and, in the proportions of that age, I would say there were 4 to 5 times as many women as men, because that's what the statistics are: in terms of people in their 70s and 80s, there are more women alive than men. In the auditions, women I was interested in I would call back for a second audition. These were always improvisations, and so there were women that I had been very interested in 'cause they had a kind of inner integrity and a kind of honesty of self that made them quite powerful on the screen: Alice, the Mohawk women, being an example. So I would sometimes do an improv where I'd have 3 or 4 women and one man, and if there was a man in the improv the whole chemistry changed: the women became much more docile, much more coquetteish, more passive and demure, and they would let the man take control. It clearly came from, I guess, their upbringing, in the times they lived through, but the man just took over, and these women and their wonderful spirits just disappeared. I thought oh-oh, I don't want this film to be a film about the battle of the sexes of people in their 80s. I wanted to see the potential of the characters and their humanity and their strength. So I just gave up men, so I could see the women be what they were, rather than these demure little silly creatures they became. Maybe I could have worked that out but it just added a complexity that I thought I just don't need to go there. So it was goodbye to men.

As a woman, did you face any gender barriers to getting the film made or getting it distributed?

No. At that point at the Film Board I was respected as a documentary person, I had done a film called Flamenco at 5:15 which had won an Oscar and there had been a number of films already made by men at the board using this kind of process of doing a fiction film, but using non-actors. No woman at that point had come forward with an idea, but the idea seemed of great interest to the people at the Film Board. I mean the film never would have been made if there wasn't something called the National Film Board of Canada. No private producers were going to invest in a film about 'boring old people', none of whom were famous actors, knowing full well that the project could have failed. We hoped it wouldn't, and we had done everything we could to make sure it was probably going to be a success, but the women could have fallen ill, one of them could have died, or it just might not have worked. I don't think that film would have ever happened if it hadn't been for the Film Board. But no, once I had proposed it, and they had said yes, there were no obstacles.

An article on women directors at states that 96% of films are directed by men. Does this ring true for Canada, and how do you feel about this?

Oh, I'm sure this is changing, but that's no doubt why I as a young woman thought only men could be film directors. I thought you had to be some kind of super genius. I'm retired now, so I'm slightly removed from the film scene. Of course, men still dominate here, but there are a lot of young women and middle aged women doing good stuff. I mean there are outstanding established directors here in Canada and I'm sure there are a ton on the way. It continues not to be easy to make films in Canada, films get more and more expensive, and producers want more and more of a guarantee that the film is going to make its money back. The whole digital thing may transform all of that. I think it's hard to do independent films that maybe aren't percieved as commercial. It must be the same in the states. Maybe there will be...I mean right now it's film as entertainment, right? You go to your Cineplex downtown and 9/10ths of what's on the screen one has no interest in watching, but there obviously is an audience that is watching. Good films have a way of surfacing, and maybe there will be a swing around to stuff that's more than entertainment. Certainly in Canada, this extraordinary thing has happened in the realm of literature. Women writers are the stars of Canadian literature, I mean there are some wonderful male writers as well, but there's this huge cluster of women novelists who are now commanding international respect. Maybe that will happen in cinema too. Cinema is just more expensive, it's not just you alone; that's the problem. You need to hire a crew, you need to hire a whole symphony orchestra, it's a much more complicated process.

You were a participant in a Women in the Director's Chair workshop in Banff. Tell us about that experience.

I went there, actually, for me, it was like just going there to practice my scales. I hadn't directed anything in a while and was about to embark on directing a feature The Stone Diaries based on Carol Shield's novel, and so I went there to workshop some scenes in that script just to tone myself up. It was a terrific experience. It was very valuable to me and it was just a lot of fun being with other women directors in an intensive workshop there to help us all. Unfortunately I became ill a year and a half ago and the project was abandoned and I don't know whether it's going to resume or not.

Would you say that women supporting women is the key to fostering more women directors?

Oh, I think so, absolutely. In terms of Company of Strangers, I had a core group of people working with me: the associate producer, a number of p.a.'s, my writer, my assistants, were all women. And the crew was male. But right between me and the crew was this group of women who were totally supportive of what I was doing. Even though the producer-editor back in Montreal was pooh-poohing what we were doing, I did have this support from the other women who thought what we were getting was remarkable. So sure, female support is enormously helpful because, although we are all individuals, I think that there are things that interest us women that are of less interest to men. I'm sure that workshop was terrific, and I'm sure it helped kick-start a number of women into becoming directors, or improving their directing skills. - Cynthia Scott, January 2004

The Company of Strangers (Strangers in Good Company)
Available on DVD at

See also the companion book In The Company of Strangers by cast member Mary Meigs
Available at

» Links to 54 Women Filmmakers on the Web

Who they are, what they do. A glossary of filmmaking. Under construction.

» Other Links

At the New York Women In Film & Television website is this awesome collection of links:
Status of Women in the Industry.

African American Women In Cinema Website:

Women in The Directors Chair Website:

Where are the female directors? at

Feminist Film Theory by Anneke Smelik.

General Filmmaking Links

Guerrilla Filmmaking 101.

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