Hope for filmmaking lies in diverse representation, recognition

by Jessy Hegland

heglandje@mnstate.edu

A little over a year ago, after a few years of setbacks and uncertainties, I finally realized I want to be a filmmaker. It’s a perfect medium to explore many interests, express myself and make changes in the world through the power of story with moving images.

What I didn’t realize was what I was getting myself into — a male-dominated field that doesn’t embrace diverse narratives from individuals who aren’t white, straight and cis males (cis means you are the gender you were assigned at birth, not a trans individual), at least, in the mainstream. I prefer the independent realm, as it has given more of a voice to individuals like Native American filmmakers, women and LGBTQ individuals.

However, there needs to be more support of female filmmakers and the realization of the need to hear diverse voices, especially now that we are in the midst of a cultural shift.

One can see what is dominating the mainstream by simply looking at what is nominated for the Oscars this year — films about white, straight men made by white, straight men.

“But Jessy, what’s wrong with the menz?” Nothing is wrong with the menz, but what is wrong is these are the only narratives we are hearing, and the only images we are seeing.

The truth is, only 4.4 percent of the top 100 box-office domestic releases between 2002 and 2012 were directed by women. That means, if you do the math, 95.6 percent of all the movies in the mainstream media circuit were directed by men. That’s way out of balance. In 2012, only 28.4 percent of all on-screen speaking characters in the top 100 were women.

Diverse representation has been out of balance for decades.  American mainstream media has long been dominated by men, a fact backed by numbers and statistics and all of the objective proof you need. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t enough females and diverse individuals interested in the craft; quite the contrary. One needs only to look around the film department at MSUM, and see the diversity of faculty, international students, queer students, trans students, female students and students of color passionate about filmmaking.

There are diverse voices out there, but they aren’t being given the chance to be heard or represented. There are six major studios that dominate the box-office films, and all six of those don’t seem to be hiring female filmmakers or other diverse identities. This needs to change, and I believe it is already in the beginning stages of a shift.

An example lies in “Selma,” directed and written by Ava DuVernay, an African American woman. It’s a film about the 1965 Selma Montgomery Marches led by Dr. Martin Luther King for African American voting rights. The film covers the civil rights movement and shows true courage and the way to change society through nonviolence. It’s a film about an important part of our American history finally told from the perspective of a African American person. That it did not even get considered for Best Director in 2015 is outrageous; it’s only nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Song.

Meanwhile, we have the wildly popular “American Sniper,” directed by good ol’ boy Clint Eastwood. It’s a film that misconstrued the book by Chris Kyle, showing the main character as a person with a moral compass who struggled when he pulled the trigger to kill women, children and other ‘savages’ during the first occupation after 9/11 in Iraq (Chris Kyle’s words, not mine. He even stated that he felt no remorse, and his only regret was not killing more — that he had gotten joy out of murdering them).

Indeed, films are art, and the filmmaker can tell the story and warp the truth all he wants. Think about this for a second: when was the last time you saw a person of Arabic descent shown in an American Film that was NOT depicted as a dehumanized terrorist? When was the last time you saw a film or played a video game with an Arab main character, instead of being the target that you shoot at?

This film, “American Sniper,” has become the highest grossing war film in America. It is evidence of the backlash of the cultural shift — the fear to cling hard to the traditional modes of masculinity. It panders to the crisis of masculinity as Chris Kyle, with his muscles and phallic weapons, destroys, dehumanizes and murders women, children and other human beings.

I’ve noticed the people who religiously defend this film are men that pine to look like Bradley Cooper, and live vicariously through him in this film. A majority of old, white men believe watching this film is a sign of true American patriotism — that you must follow blindly and not question the now immortalized, misconstrued god-like image of Chris Kyle, because if you question it, you’re not a ‘real’ American, and you can just “get out.” Those voices are louder than the majority of Iraq veterans who are horrified by this depiction of glorified war.

If you don’t think images have an impact, look at the  number of stories coming out involving hate-speech targeting people of Arabic descent and Muslims. After seeing the film, many people took to Twitter and talked about how this film makes them want to “kill some sandn***ers right now.”

Even people that are critiquing this film are getting death threats. DEATH THREATS for questioning its integrity and the meanings behind the images it presents. A friend of mine actually got his first death threat on Twitter. That’s messed up.

What about freedom of speech? Nowadays, it seems freedom of speech means freedom of hate speech and to threaten violence against individuals and whole groups of people who don’t agree with you.

This is a film that is nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Editing, Best Writing, Sound Editing and Sound Mixing. Who nominated this film and the rest of the films on the Oscar panel? What identities were on this panel? According to an article in the LA Times in 2012, Oscar voters were 94 percent white, 77 percent male, and only 14 percent were under the age of 50. Today, not much has changed.

But don’t let these statistics dishearten or discourage you. Let them ignite your passion. I sincerely believe our generation will be that which shifts these narratives. We have the power to speak and have already been exercising that strength.

I was talking to a colleague of mine the other day, and he said, “You know, this is the year I completely stopped caring about the Oscars and other award shows. They’re a joke.”

Another colleague said to me, in a tone of sarcasm, “I guess the only way to really break into the film industry and make it is to be a straight, white man.”

People are noticing the problem. If the Oscars and other modes of mainstream media don’t shift soon, they are going to lose a generation of consumers. Money talks, right?

At MSUM, I see so much potential to be part of creating this change. I see faculty in the film and women’s and gender studies departments encouraging and mentoring students of all identities. I see white, straight, male students open to ideas and identities, too.

Just recently, a big group of students attended the screening of “Thick Relations,” a film about queer identities. I was inspired by the willingness of students to go out of their comfort zones, and see a film they may not have otherwise watched. I’ll never forget last semester, where I learned about ‘the male gaze’ in cinema. The majority of the white, male and straight students said they liked reading the essay by Laura Mulvey, and that it completely changed how they looked at film.

“Mockingjay: Part 1” became the highest grossing film released in 2014. Why is that a big deal? The big deal is that it’s an action film whose main character is a woman. What this says to me is we have to always have hope, we have reasons to hope and we have the power to change everything because we have our authentic voices that cannot be taken away from us.

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