7% and Rising: The 2007 Bird's Eye View Film Festival

By Nancy Harrison

mothers-day-tsitsi-dangarembga.jpgMother’s Day, 2004

Recent studies of the film industries of both the UK and America have thrown up the not wholly unexpected fact that there are few women filmmakers. Most people questioned would have expected that – certainly assuming more than double and perhaps closer to three times as many male filmmakers than female. But to discover that in the 21st century, the percentage of male to female directors is 93% to 7% – that kind of takes your breath away. The inequality of gender in many professions is often put down to difficulties of balancing family and work, yet women have broken through in almost all other professions and in some cases – for example medicine and law, both demanding and time consuming careers –virtually equalising with the number of men. So why not cinema? Are women less cinema literate, less creative, less driven? It is too technical, too difficult to raise finance, too physically demanding? Or do they just need more encouragement and support? Birds Eye View was formed to do just that. The BEV Festival showcases work by women filmmakers – features, documentary, animation and short films – as a way of providing an opportunity for audiences to see what those tenacious 7% are coming up with.

Now in its third year, Festival founder Rachel Millward has emphasised that she does not want the festival to come to define what a woman’s vision of cinema is, but rather to encourage a wider range of cinematic vision generally. Therefore this includes lending a helping hand not only to women from countries like the UK and America with highly developed film industries, but also those from countries in the developing world, with embryonic film industries. By linking up in a partnership with the charity ActionAid, the festival has brought together a selection of films from a diverse range of countries and cultures, covering a wide number of topics, and using a large variety of storytelling techniques. BEV believes that a wider diversity of vision breeds increased creativity, and so want to offer more that just a ‘female perspective’ with their films. The films they screen must resonate with all viewers, no matter what gender, and are not limited by subject or approach purely as ‘women’s films’ As Millward says “These films are not about women, they are by them”.

house-of-smoke-camila-villate-myriam-ortega-luz-adriana-duque.jpgHouse of Smoke, 2006

Although not polemical, the ActionAid films are almost all political in content, reflecting the experiences and concerns of the filmmakers. The beautifully shot images in the documentary Six Yards to Democracy (Nisita Jain and Smriti Nevatia, India, 2006) are in direct contrast to the sordid political situation that the poor in northern India have to battle against to secure basic rights for themselves and their families. Centering on an incident in Lucknow when a local politician, hoping to secure votes with the poor residents by distributing free saris, caused a stampede in which 22 woman were killed and many more seriously injured, it serves as an illustration of the political corruption that forces the women to battle for years to secure even such basics as running water and drains. The widening gulf between the rich and poor in the city leads to homes being destroyed to make way for gated developments, while the evicted sleep among the ruins and groups of women pick their way through vacant lots to find a place to urinate.

The search for a home and community is also the subject of House of Smoke (Camila Villate, Myriam Ortega and Luz Adriana Duque, Colombia, 2006). A debut collaboration for the directors, the documentary charts the life, over six years, of a loose collective of 35 families that live together in a shanty town in Bogota. Brought together by profession – charcoal makers and waste recycling – they form a tight knit and mutually supportive community group almost universally shunned by those around them. But amid the smoke, dirt and danger of the life they lead, the film highlights the intensely hardworking, optimistic and loyal individuals that make up the collective. The filmmakers achieved a close and trusted rapport with the group as they followed the initial formation, as well as the dissolution, of the community when the group are successful in their battle to secure funds for resettlement. Hugely inspiring and poignant in equal measures.

and-there-in-the-dust-lara-foot-newton-gerhard-marx.jpgAnd There in the Dust..., 2004

A selection of short films from African filmmakers includes the truly unusual Mother’s Day (Tsitsi Dangarembga, Zimbabwe, 2005). Despite the clichéd expression ‘like nothing you have seen before’ – this film really can be described as like nothing you have seen before. Based on an old Shona folktale, part dance musical, part satire, part supernatural fantasy, it tells the story of a woman and her impoverished family during a famine, and the lengths a mother will go to, despite her selfish greedy husband, to ensure her children will have food to eat. Surreal and highly imaginative, it features beautiful songs, dancing termites and a twist in the tale.

Another standout short film, And There in the Dust… (Lara Foot Newton and Gerhard Marx, South Africa, 2004) is one that leaves an immensely profound impression. Inspired by a newspaper story about an unspeakable act of violence against a baby girl, the innovative animated short chronicles the effect the incident has on the rest of the township. Using multiple animation techniques and a voiceover narration, it beautifully illustrates the sense of shame and grief that the community feels about the incident.

The BEV Festival runs from March 8th to 14th at locations across London, and includes a range of features, documentaries and shorts, as well masterclasses, training sessions and director’s Q&As, all intended to inspire, empower and encourage women filmmakers.