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Remembering The Forgotten Women Of Film

Tabitha Denholm Photographed by Bryony Shearmur
Have you heard of a woman called Frances Marion? Unless you spent three years at film school, the chances are you haven’t. Born in 1888, the American began her career at 24 and went on to pen over 200 films for Hollywood and was the first screenwriter ever to win two Academy Awards. Sadly, her name hardly rings any bells these days. But make no mistake, she was a pioneer.

It is women such as Frances that the new collective Women Under The Influence wants to celebrate. The brainchild of British-born, LA-based director Tabitha Denholm, who has made music videos for the likes of Florence and the Machine and Haim, WUTI is a community dedicated to raising awareness of female directors and their stories. Check out their wonderful Instagram, which gives shout outs to women such as Allison Anders and Susan Seidelman alongside some retro behind-the-scenes pics.

We all know that Hollywood today has a woman problem; you only need to glance at the stats. According to the Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, just 7% of the top 250 films of 2014 were directed by women. Female producers made up 23% and female writers 11%. It’s outrageous that a creative industry that purports to tell stories repeatedly ignores the talents of half the population.

So what an appropriate time, then, to launch Women Under The Influence to “educate people about the wonderful heritage of female directed film that often gets lost, and give a platform for female directors working today.” Refinery29 spoke to Tabitha about the enterprise.
What do you hope to achieve with Women Under The Influence?
Lack of visibility feeds into a lot of the negative misconceptions about female directors - mainly the subtly held belief that we are not as good! It has been proven time and time again that positive role models encourage people to take up certain careers. So, the more visible they are, the more young women will be encouraged to take up the profession (as directors but also as crew and directors of photography and other traditionally male-dominated paths).

It's really important for the careers of many talented women who were stilted for lack of opportunity, but more profoundly that a society where the majority of the population (women) continually have their stories told through a different perspective (men's) in film and leads to a distorted perspective of the world. And it's to share the many rad films and stories of kick-ass female directors who have had to go the extra mile to get their voices heard.

The most common comment people make when I tell them about the project - even from supposedly clued up male directors and people in the industry - is “won’t you run out of directors? There are only about seven aren’t there?” It happens all the time and assures me of the need for the project.

Why did you start Women Under The Influence in the first place?
I watched a documentary about Frances Marion, this wonderfully inspiring woman who was one of the main players in the birth of Hollywood, but no one has really heard of her. It made me want to tell more stories of these inspiring women who completely dispel the ridiculous myth that women can’t do certain types of jobs. I also wanted to start a screening night that would be a great excuse for filmmakers to get together. We don't get the opportunity very often.

Aside from the Instagram, how do you plan to roll out WUTI?
It is a three pillared programme. First is social media, so telling stories of female directors on Instagram. We are also seeding articles about inspiring women in the media.

Then we are working on a series of events celebrating female filmmakers. Our first event at NeueHouse in LA saw me speak on stage with Floria Sigismondi [director of The Runaways] and then she chose the film to screen (Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark ). The event was packed and then Samantha Ronson DJ’ed our after-hang. Our next event on May 24th is a collaboration at The Ace in LA with HERVISIONS from London which is a new group that explores the female gaze in contemporary music video and content.

Then we are also developing a documentary series made by female filmmakers about female filmmakers.
How did your own experience working as a female director inspire you to start WUTI?
It just all feeds into my passion for film. I really love presenting the female artists I work with as the interesting, positive, complex characters that they are. I feel if more women were in my position this would lead to more of that and, at the end of the day, that is what I want to see and I can relate to. And I don’t think I’m alone in that.

Why did you decide to call it Women Under The Influence? Obviously it's a reference to the film A Woman Under The Influence but why did you choose it?
The “Under The Influence” gives a nod to the trailblazers that paved the way; reclaiming a parallel history of cinema is important – I’m not setting up a victim-y perspective. WUTI is there to celebrate achievements and let people know about them. And obviously I love Gena Rowlands.

You've worked as a director in the US and the UK, how has your experience differed/been the same with regards to being a woman in the industry?
I have had a really positive experience on both sides of the pond (apart from a few knuckleheaded patronising DPs, but they are in the minority, and now I usually work with female DPs). My production company Partizan is largely female run in the UK and USA and couldn’t give a toss about your genitals if the work is good. As it should be.

Saying that, I have noticed a difference when it comes to breaking into commercials. I believe women get a tougher time making the crossover (it's always when the cash gets more serious) and this is certainly borne out statistically. There is a similar pattern for features directors; at film festivals women directors have a huge presence but there is a drop off comes when it comes to being awarded projects with serious budgets.

Do you have a favourite story about a lesser-known director?
There are so many heroic women with marvellous stories but I love Haifaa Al-Mansour, the first female film director from Saudi Arabia who made this great movie Wadjda about a young girl who wants a bike. When it comes to stories most people have never heard of, there is Doris Wishman, the only woman to work in the sexploitation field of the 70s. She seemingly couldn’t keep a lid on her madcap ideas, from nudes on the moon to gangsters hiding out in nature camps. She was one of the most prolific and leftfield women directors.

Who is your favourite female director?
Lynne Ramsay has only made three feature films but has left such a deep-seated effect on me and so many other filmmakers. I think her films are profoundly beautiful. She famously had a tough time butting heads on the last picture she worked on in Hollywood and ended up leaving it. But it had so much promise – imagine Lynn Ramsay directing a Western starring Natalie Portman! It would be a real joy for me to organise a screening with Lynne Ramsay in LA but more than anything I would just love to watch another Lynne Ramsay film.

Have you had much support from people in the industry?
People have been wonderfully supportive. There is an incredible network of women supporting women in the industry in Los Angeles at the moment; I have never experienced anything like it, it's really inspiring and shows what can be done when there's fantastic people like Jill Soloway at the helm. I think there is no point complaining about things without taking action to change them. And I believe things are set to change. I mean, remember when people thought women couldn’t be funny?

For more information about Women Under The Influence head here.