There Are Women Working as Cinematographers

by Melissa Silverstein on March 4, 2009

in Documentary

ellenkuras

Ellen Kuras

Well of course there are, but the numbers are still pathetically low.  According to the statistics from the Center for the Study of Women in TV and Film at San Diego State, women cinematographers made up a scant 2% of those who worked on the top 250 grossing films in 2007.  (2008 stats should be released shortly)

So, I was excited to see the documentary featuring women from all over the world in Women Behind the Camera by Alexis Krasilovsky shown this past weekend at the Fusion Film Festival in NYC.  The women who work behind the camera in so many jobs from electrician to gaffer to cinematographer are truly on the front lines in breaking down barriers for women.  We should be thanking all of them.  Most of them work alone, get harassed (still!) and are doing jobs still seen as “male.”  The stories were all great but I especially loved the story of Yu Li Hua Shu Shi Jun who traveled with Moa Ze Dong across China by train.  He never gave any indication of when they were going to stop so she got accustomed of sleeping with her camera so she could be ready in a moments notice.

Here’s what I learned:

  • Like directing, this is a man’s world.  One woman even said “guys are just happier working with guys.”
  • France has had women working behind the camera for year no problem.
  • It’s virtually impossible for a woman to demonstrate the discrimination.
  • In Bollywood women are only hairdressers and heroines.
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger literally groped Kristin Glover working the camera on his 1975 film Pumping Iron
  • “Hollywood is not embarrassed about the statistics with women”- Liz Bailey.
  • Ellen Kuras just nominated for her directing and is one of the most respected cinematographers talked eloqurntly about being the leader of the crew and her job is the safety and care of her crew.
Leelaben Paben

Leelaben Paben

There was a panel after the documentary that was moderated by Sandi Sissel who shot Salaam Bombay is now a professor at NYU and is deliberately mentoring and training young women.  She has been in the business since the early 70s when she had to wear a dress and had to sue to get into the union.

Sissel had most of the interesting stories to share and dominated the conversation. More tidbits:

  • Maryse Alberti who just shot The Wrestler couldn’t get work in the past so she had to shoot pornos.
  • In 1974 there was a class action lawsuit against all the networks forcing them to hire more women and people of color.
  • While the number of women is still so low according to Professor Sissel, percentage wise women work more and win more awards.
  • An inexperienced director will work with an experienced director of photography (DP) but an experienced director will not work with an inexperience DP.
  • The percentages are still so low because there are not ready for a woman to be in charge of a budget.
  • Sissel didn’t hire women because she didn’t think she was the best as was shocked to find herself in the position she was.
  • It’s a young person’s business and working behind the camera is a really hard job.  you have to be passionate about it.

God forbid you should file a sexual harassment lawsuit.  YOU WILL NEVER WORK AGAIN!

The other panelists included Rachel Levine, Kate Phelan, Kat Westergaard, Una Lee, Valentina Caniglia, Jendra Jarnagin and Meg Ketell agreed that things are clearly better for women now, they can get into the union they can get jobs.  But there are still very few women behind the scenes on films and at times they are the only women on the set (STILL!) and more importantly there is no sense of sisterhood among the women.  Guys understand that if they help their colleagues be successful they look better, we still seem to be competing against each other for the crumbs.  If we women figured out how to band together in many industries…watch out.

Update: Got an comment from the filmmaker with a couple of corrections:

Producer Sarah Pillsbury is the woman who said, “Hollywood is not embarrassed about the statistics with women.” (Much to her credit, Sarah hired Tami Reiker to DP one of the features she produced, and said that Tami did a terrific job. Liz Bailey is a former Vice-President of what was then called “the Society of Operating Cameramen.”)

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

grrljock March 4, 2009 at 10:05 AM

“Guys understand that if they help their colleagues be successful they look better, we still seem to be competing against each other for the crumbs.”

This I truly don’t understand. What makes it so hard for women to help other women? The fear that they would jeopardize their hard-fought status somehow by promoting women (vs men), or reluctance to diminish their uniqueness (because they wouldn’t be the token woman anymore)?

Melissa Silverstein March 4, 2009 at 10:29 AM

I wish I had an answer for this. When I did my panel last week of female bloggers (which I probably won’t post anything on cause I never take notes when I am moderating and can’t remember anything anymore) they all also felt that there is no sisterhood for bloggers. And as a blogger, I agree with that. I am doing my best to be open and to share ideas but I feel that there are a lot of women who hate women haters out there masquerading as supporting women. So I am developing a tough skin and not taking it so personally anymore, cause if I did I wouldn’t want to keep going.

UGLY DEAF MUSLIM PUNK GURL! March 4, 2009 at 12:55 PM

I think that many women are afraid to help each other, because they think that if they help someone succeed, THEY will be left behind. Does that make any sense?

d March 5, 2009 at 10:17 AM

Wow. Encouraging and heartbreaking at the same time. But it sounds like a really interesting documentary.

Do you guys remember when Colin Powell endorsed Obama? He gave a litany of reasons why, it all made sense when you looked at Colin’s politics, and he even waited a good while so it wouldn’t really drastically influence the race (as well as taking a good long time to deliberate about it). And when he did, the first thing out of Rush’s mouth was that he didn’t care what Colin said, he believed it was about ethnicity, with them both being of African descent.

Could it be that that is what women fear? That no matter how qualified the other woman is, the other people will assume she is giving preferential treatment to a woman – and because of that her judgment gets questioned in the process?

Gosh it’s a shame that this even happens in the blogosphere, a place that I would think would be less prone to this. I’m sorry you’ve had to harden yourself Melissa, because really if we don’t help ourselves, who will?

Erin D. March 8, 2009 at 2:51 PM

I saw Ellen Kuras give a lecture at SFIAAFF a few years back, she is so great.

Alexis Krasilovsky, Director, "Women Behind the Camera" March 21, 2009 at 4:32 PM

Thanks so much for the terrific blog about my film, “Women Behind the Camera” and the Fusion Film Festival panel which followed the screening!

Just a couple of corrections: Shu Shi Jun is the Chinese camerawoman who followed Mao Ze Dong around China.

Producer Sarah Pillsbury is the woman who said, “Hollywood is not embarrassed about the statistics with women.” (Much to her credit, Sarah hired Tami Reiker to DP one of the features she produced, and said that Tami did a terrific job. Liz Bailey is a former Vice-President of what was then called “the Society of Operating Cameramen.”)

For more information about “Women Behind the Camera” or to order DVD copies, please see our website, http://www.womenbehindthecamera.com.

E May 8, 2009 at 4:24 AM

Hi Melissa,

Thank you for writing another wonderful post. I can’t believe I had missed it – found it through a google search of “women cinematographers.”

As female filmmaker (I direct, shoot, and edit), now in my late 20s, I can absolutely identify with these stories. I had a wonderful experience in film school – feeling nurtured, respected, and greatly appreciated independently of my gender, but found a very different situation out in the real world.

I cannot believe how many times I have been told, “you’re pretty, you SHOULD be IN FRONT of the camera! Have you ever tried acting?” As if looks had anything to do with one’s chosen profession. I wonder how many times a male cinematographer has heard the same comment. GRRRR. And don’t get me started about the need to establish your credibility. Every time I take on a new project / with a new crew I need to work 5x as hard just to prove that I know what I’m doing. All this provokes a great deal of stress and self-consciousness.

I have experience working in the U.S. and Europe – and although it is true that a country like France has lots of female directors and cinematographers, the culture there is far more misogynistic and I’ve had to endure lots of passive aggressive behavior from the male crew (esp. audio dept. They’re by far the most macho). As for the U.S., I have had a far more positive experience working there (my professionalism is never questioned).

That said, sexual harassment / unnecessary flirting / inappropriate comments are an added burden. In every geographic location I have worked. Whenever I am in charge of a project, as a producer/director, I like to hire as many women as possible, and often find myself with a 90% female crew. The experience is completely different – so much more positive, for everyone involved (because female ADs and script girls also usually experience much of the same treatment by male colleagues)

The only positions I can never fill with women? Sound jobs. I have yet to find a female boom operator or sound mixer. I now consider it the Holy Grail.

e May 8, 2009 at 1:11 PM

@ E! I think you’d find your Holy Grail in New Zealand. I have a woman heading the sound dept for my “Development” feature here, and the other day I visited a film school and a woman boom operator was on the set.

A June 28, 2009 at 7:20 AM

hi, I was wondering whether you could answer my question about women behind the camera, Why are there so few women working as a camera operator?

em December 18, 2009 at 1:32 PM

In addition to writing, directing, dp’ing and editing, I too am a woman who mixes and boom ops! I have my own Foxtex/Sure recording setup and a collection of mics and lavs.
I met my husband on a set and was sucked into his sound world. (And he wasn’t flirty or inappropriate on set. They’re not all like that!) I never thought I would be able to wrap my head around audio technology but it’s quite rewarding and fun. I feel that I’m a better director for learning so many different aspects of production, including sound.
In addition to production sound, I’ve been learning a lot about editing sound in post. Cece Hall was kind enough to give a lecture at my university in regards to dialogue editing and foley and my husband is well-versed in ProTools. Thanks Cece and Ron for teaching me everything I know about sound!

Lydia Joyner June 19, 2012 at 1:45 PM

I am currently searching and researching sites that have new and veteran female cinematographers. Where does that list exist? Whenever I try to find a list of them to contact for a film I will be shooting, I always come across this website:) Which is fantastic, but I’m really looking for a female dp, could you help me?

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