“Do not wait for permission,” film critic Rebecca Theodore-Vachon urged at this weekend’s Miami Film Festival. The Google Seminar Series on Gender & Racial Gaps in Film & Tech, which featured festival programmer Kiva Reardon moderating conversations with five women in the industry, emphasized that advice.
In fact, every woman involved echoed that sentiment. In addition to Theodore-Vachon and Reardon, the panels also included Array executive director Tilane Jones; actress and filmmaker Sarah Gadon; and the duo behind Shugs & Fats, Nadia P. Manzoor and Radhika Vaz. During each of their conversations with in-person and live-streamed audiences, the women spoke about their respective strengths and careers. But it was Google’s Daraiha Greene who punctuated every panel with a much-needed intro full of statistics.
“If you can’t see it, you can’t be it,” Greene emphasized, discussing unconscious bias in the industry. Most interesting was the way Google and her initiative had influenced shows such as The Fosters, Miles From Tomorrowland, and even HBO's Silicon Valley. When executives from the HBO show approached Google for advice, Google referred them solely to female engineers, which the show now features. “We want to get to the point where we don’t have to say ‘female engineers’ anymore,” Greene added.
“Creating art is a form of activism,” said Jones, opening the series with a refreshing conversation about her distribution company, Array. She presented marketing efforts for films such as Ava DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere and the upcoming Namour by Heidi Saman while discussing the company's efforts to spread awareness.
It’s not simply that Array helps garner exposure for underrepresented communities or helps distribute stories it believes audiences haven't seen before. The collective encourages the intersection of film and activism. With Middle of Nowhere, Array was able to influence prison reform. Activism doesn’t have to be that big, though: The company's Twitter Takeover — which has featured filmmakers of color and women filmmakers over the years — is one such method of slowly changing the canon.
Rewriting the canon is exactly what Theodore-Vachon discussed, alongside what to do and what not to do as a critic and a filmmaker. For example, more publications should hire people of color as editors so incidents like last year's famous “coat-switching” debacle — in which a Toronto Star film critic revealed he didn't understand the term "code-switching" — can be avoided. She also pulled out receipts on white critics such as Rex Reed, who has proven time and again to be both racist and sexist, and Camila Long, whose tweet "whitesplaining" Moonlight garnered a lot of rightful criticism. Individuals like them, and many others, are part of the problem when discussing films through a limited scope.
The call for more women film critics — especially women of color, members of the LGBTQIA and disabled communities, and those from various socioeconomic and religious backgrounds — is equally essential. Though Theodore-Vachon didn’t limit herself to the discussion of hiring critics, she emphasized the need for female voices behind the camera and suggested that even male filmmakers could help, such as Ryan Coogler, who often works with female cinematographers.
This brings us to the three other guests, all of whom work both in front of and behind the camera as performers and filmmakers. Gadon, whose panel took place Sunday, split her presentation into a short journey through her career by way of four clips from four works: Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, Amma Asante’s Belle, James Schamus’ Indignation, and the Hulu miniseries 11/22/63.
Sarah Gadon and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Belle
Between those four clips — and mentions of other films, including her work with David Cronenberg and her first experience with the studio system by way of Dracula Untold — she guided attendees through the obstacles she faced each time and how she overcame them. Like the other presenters, she also explained the need for a shift in the canon, because most of the films she was exposed to were typical male-driven works. She admitted The Godfather Part II was her favorite film before college because of that exposure, but it all changed when she discovered Agnès Varda’s Cléo From 5 to 7, a film she said is "very meaningful" to her.
Gadon was vibrant and willing to entertain the audience. During a technical glitch, she dove into performance mode, joking that she felt the need to chitchat with guests, and she even answered a child’s question when he raised his hand to ask about her favorite film. (She couldn’t choose just one.)
Last was the hilarious duo of Manzoor and Vaz. Not only did they kill the audience with clips from their series — including “Girl on Fire” and “Week of Shame” — but they also interestingly presented their journey from individual comedy shows to the Gotham Award-winning show they do now.
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The two said they found it difficult to identify as filmmakers for a long time. They dealt with impostor syndrome and thought they were simply making amusing clips on the web. But each step, from cultivating good material out of these improvised characters to scripting the show and becoming more politically engaged, encouraged them to continue. This sense of entrepreneurship is what has gotten them so far.
The advice they offered for anyone with a passion project was essential: “You have to be the first investor.”
All four of the Google Seminar Series on Gender & Racial Gaps in Film & Tech conversations are available for viewing on Miami Film Festival’s Facebook page.