‘It’s a bold feminist act’: Columbia filmmakers hope for more female representation

By Camryn Cutinello, Staff Reporter

Vicki Lei

For the first time in 93 years, two women have been nominated in the Best Director category for the Academy Awards. For students like junior television and arts management major Marliese Ruch, these nominations made them feel bittersweet.

“I felt really overjoyed because it’s not something that has happened often, but at the same time, there was also a feeling of ‘Why did it take this long for two women to be nominated for Best Director?’” Ruch said. “The Oscars have been around … for a very long time.”

These nominations, given to Chloe Zhao for directing “Nomadland” and Emerald Fennel for directing “Promising Young Woman,” represent a changing film industry, where women and people of color are recognized and given opportunities more often.

Kristin Pichaske, associate professor in the Cinema and Television Arts Department, said she believes these nominations are not just by chance.

“There have been a lot of forces over the last few years really pushing for equity in film for women,” Pichaske said. “Women have been banding together in recent years to push for more opportunities, better festival distribution, more recognition and slowly chipping away at the power structure that makes it so difficult.”

The lack of women in the film industry is also felt at the college level. Ruch said in film classes at Columbia, it is common to see male students speaking over female students.

“You take film classes, and there will be male students in the class who mansplain to you what a film is or they try to speak over you or talk down to you because you’re a woman, and that is definitely discouraging,” Ruch said.

Emma Pillsbury, a senior cinema arts and science major, said for future filmmakers, these nominations make them hopeful that the changing film industry could better allow them to succeed.

Pillsbury said as a female filmmaker, there are often feelings of doubt that sprout in her mind, and some filmmakers might feel they are not able to make it as a director due to their gender and because film is historically a male-dominated industry.

“It feels hopeless after a while being a filmmaker, being like, ‘I don’t think I’m going to make it because I’m a woman’ or ‘ I’ll have to work even harder,’ because clearly [men] are getting things worked out in a way where it’s much easier for them to get hired,” she said.

To Pichaske, inequality in the film industry is not just due to people being biased against movies women make.

“That goes for people of color as well,” Pichaske said. “A lot of it has to do with the power structures in Hollywood that favor privileged white men.”

Zhao is the first woman of color in Oscar history to be nominated for Best Director. Nine people of color also received nominations for acting this year, a stark contrast from 2015 and 2016 when all acting nominations went to white actors.

Viola Davis and Andra Day received Best Actress nominations, Davis for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and Day for “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.”

Pichaske teaches courses on documentary film, and while other areas of filmmaking may have seen a recent increase in women, she said documentaries have always been a place for female filmmakers.

“You don’t need the kind of resources to make a documentary that you do to make a Hollywood film. The power structures are very different,” Pichaske said. “You can do a lot with just blood, sweat and tears, and so women have always been fairly prominent in the documentary world.”

Susan Kerns, associate chair and associate professor in the Cinema and Television Arts Department, said the need for more women’s voices in the film industry is not because of a lack of female interest in filmmaking.

“The interest has always been there. Women have always been interested in not just making films but telling stories … that reflect them,” Kerns said. “So what’s changed is really the discussion around inclusion.”

The change can also be seen in the movies nominated for awards at the Oscars this year. Ruth Leitman, associate professor in the Cinema and Television Arts Department and documentary co-coordinator, said that both “Nomadland” and “Promising Young Woman” are complex narratives that do not typically receive Academy recognition.

“For ‘Promising Young Woman,’ this is a first-time filmmaker,” Leitman said. “She’s nominated for an Oscar. It’s unheard of. Why [was she nominated]? The film [is] undeniably innovative, unapologetically in-your-face and bold.”

Leitman said that she hopes the Academy does not backslide and continues to recognize women in the film industry. She said she is excited for her students who are entering the larger world of film and hopes women see the power they hold.

“It’s a bold feminist act,” Leitman said. “A woman with a camera has a lot of agency and a lot of power.”