April 30, 2009

Representing your minority as a filmmaker

As I have said before, I go to film school. It has been my observation here that filmmakers of any minority persuasion, be it race, sexuality, gender, whatever, make films about that particular minority. Black students make films about black people. Gay men make films about gay men. Women make films about women. And so on. Looking to a wider scope of filmmaking, this also seems to hold in the professional world. Spike Lee makes films about black people. Gus Van Sant makes films about gay people. Sofia Coppola makes films about women. The probable reason, whether conscious or subconscious, is to give these minority groups greater representation, and also to show what you know best. But is that really the way to go?

This notion of representing your own minority in filmmaking has been on my mind lately. As you may know from an earlier post, I recently completed a short film about Jesus Christ in high school. The key fact there is that I am a woman who wrote and directed a film about a teenage boy. Knowing there are many grants, festivals and categories of festivals devoted to female filmmakers, where people seemingly throw heaping piles of money at you for having a cooter and making a movie, I thought I had it made in the shade. Since some of those suckers cost a lot of money to enter, I started going on these organizations' websites to see what kind of films had won in the past. And I realized that I didn't stand a chance.

What I found is that in an effort to foster equality, these organizations have been unintentionally exclusive to minority filmmakers depicting stories outside their minority. Every winner for these women's festivals or categories seemed to be about lesbian mothers with breast cancer or something equally Lifetime-y. My college hosted its own film festival in LA that offered a cash prize for female-directed projects, and I entered, but sure enough the finalists were both lesbians who made movies about lesbians. There was one student contest that had categories for women, Asians, blacks and Latinos, and the winners of each category in past years seemed to be ones that dealt with issues of that minority head-on. I think there has been a confusion and convergence of what should be two different issues: encouraging minority filmmakers, and encouraging minority stories. Those are not one and the same.

I understand and completely agree that minorities of all kinds are under-represented on screen. But instead of having people from those groups feel solely responsible for the duty of representing their kind, what if we switched it all up? Certain gay male directors, for instance, have proved themselves hugely adept at depicting women's stories (i.e. Cukor, Almodovar), as have white directors with certain stories of racial minorities. Perhaps this is because the outsider view brings in an objective and fresh perspective that someone who belongs to that group is too shortsighted to see. Often when filmmakers push themselves outside of their own kind, they produce their best films. To cite the above examples: arguably Spike Lee's two most critically successful films (with the exception of Malcolm X, for which most of the reviews attribute the film's quality to Denzel Washington) are Do the Right Thing and 25th Hour, the former of which deals with a whole spectrum of races with equal consideration and weight and the latter of which is virtually all white people. Gus Van Sant's most critically and commercially successful film was Good Will Hunting, about a bunch of East Coast straight dudes as opposed to West Coast gay dudes. Sofia Coppola, who admittedly has only made three films, was most successful on all accounts with Lost in Translation, which has a rich portrait of a male character where her other films were more female-centric.

Another thing to consider is that working outside your group gets more people interested in you and your work, which means that if you revert back to tales of your group, you have a wider audience. If Good Will Hunting hadn't happened, would Milk have been anything more than a blip on the gay cinema scene? If it hadn't been for Do the Right Thing, would Spike Lee just have been another Tyler Perry catering exclusively to niche audiences? (And as for Sofia Coppola, well, her dad is Francis Ford, so that doesn't really count.)

So this is why, as a female filmmaker, I don't feel obligated to tell only women's stories. A good story is a good story, no matter what kind of person or people it's about, and I shouldn't owe anything to women to represent them.

What do you think? Do minority filmmakers owe it to their communities to represent them? Do filmmakers push themselves and produce better work when they move outside their minority?


Scott Nye said...

I'll defend Sofia Coppola to the grave, because while her dad might be rich and famous, in the late 90s he had almost no influence and was bouncing back from bankruptcy. Sofia's (we're not on a first name basis, it's just the only way to differentiate her) an incredibly talented filmmaker in her own right and deserves all the success she's had.

In the case of Marie Antoinette, she deserves all that she's been denied. It's rare to find someone with such absolute understanding of film language, and she put it on full display with that film.

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