In Hollywood, at the upper echelons of blockbuster filmmaking, it’s still very much a boys’ club.
Consider this: According to Variety, a San Diego State University study found that, of the 250 highest-grossing films in North America in 2016, only seven percent were directed by women. That was down from nine percent in 2015. Those numbers — plus other factors, such as widely reported instances in which female film stars are paid far less than their male counterparts — are a stark reminder of the inequalities women face in the film business.
But, if the numbers reflected by the annual Indie Grits festival are any indication, change could be on the way in years to come.
A festival-record 83 films — features, narrative shorts, documentary shorts, animated shorts, experimental shorts, student shorts and music videos — are set to hit the screen at Indie Grits this year. Festival organizers note that 53
percent of those are helmed by women filmmakers.
It won’t be the first time women have had strong representation at the multi-faceted Columbia festival, as festival director Seth Gadsden notes that there have been several other years recently in which at least half of the movies at Indie Grits were made by women. He says that occurs somewhat organically through the kinds of films Indie Grits seeks out.
“We’re looking for smart, out-there films that really engage with community, engage with people,” Gadsden says. “When you do that, you don’t have to strive to find women. They are the ones making a lot of those films.”
One of the most talked-about films heading into this year’s Indie Grits festival is the feature documentary Farmsteaders, from director Shaena Mallett of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The doc has been given a plum timeslot at the festival, screening at 7 p.m. on Friday, April 13, at the Nickelodeon, and it’s preceded by a couple of short films. Mallett filmed the documentary, which focuses on a family trying to make a life on a small farm in Ohio, over the course of a number of years.
Mallett says she hopes the film offers an honest, heartfelt portrait of American rural life.
“Farmsteaders is about a family of farmers, yes, and it takes place on a farm, true,” she tells Free Times. “But it runs a lot deeper than that. Rural life can be so incredible, beautiful, and connected. It feels especially important to offer a different story — one of resistance, one that is accessible and compassionate — right now as our country navigates some painful divides. I’m exhausted with the one-dimensional stereotypes of what is means to be rural or Appalachian or a farmer. I think Farmsteaders offers a deeply human story.”
The 30-year-old Mallett, who has a six-month old son with fiancé Chad Stevens (a producer and post-production supervisor on the film), says she’s heartened that a majority of the films at this year’s Indie Grits are made by women.
“We all bring our own unique perspectives to the table that have been informed by our life experiences, shaped by things like gender, race and class, and I believe there is so much power in telling stories that we can personally relate to and empathize with,” Mallett says. “More equity in the film industry and in the kinds of stories we tell requires holding space for female, gender nonconforming, racially and ethnically diverse filmmakers.
“Better representation means better stories being told, which means more opportunities for us to connect and to heal and to inspire one another.”
Kelly Gallagher also appreciates the fact that Indie Grits typically has greater representation for female filmmakers. Gallagher, a longtime animator and an assistant professor in media arts at Antioch College in Ohio, is also a filmmaker, one who is familiar with Indie Grits. She is a past winner of the Helen Hill Memorial Award, which honors the top female filmmaker at Indie Grits each year.
“I think it’s really important that film festivals ensure that women and genderqueer filmmakers be given equal screen time as men filmmakers are given, if not more,” Gallagher says. “Women and genderqueer filmmakers have historically been sidelined at film festivals, generally having much less screen time than men. … As we all know, there is a lot of structural sexism within the greater film industry that we need to explicitly fight back against together.”
Gallagher is a film juror at this year’s Indie Grits, a fact for which she says she is “honored.” She calls the Columbia festival one of a kind.
“Indie Grits, more so than any other festival I know, is steeped in a true sense of community,” Gallagher says. “The Indie Grits festival equally celebrates, values and cares for the filmmakers, the Columbia community, all the participating artists and festival staff. It feels like we’re all working together to put on the most beautiful festival, while simultaneously celebrating what makes the Columbia community so unique and special.”