Last month, film enthusiasts in Chiang Mai were offered a rare treat when Payap University and the South East Asian Institute of Global Studies hosted the Lifescapes South East Asian Film Festival.
Beyond the many programmatic highlights which included thought-provoking films, a discussion on film censorship, and a live appearance by film star Ananda Everingham, there was another very welcome aspect of the festival: a significant presence of female filmmakers.
Of the 28 films screened at the four-day festival, eleven were made by female directors.
The Lifescapes Film Festival is a strong supporter of up-and-coming filmmakers and was proud to promote such talented women. “As the point of Lifescapes is to showcase the different lives and realities in our region, it is important for us to include the female vantage point,” explains festival organiser Jessica Loh.
Pham Mai Phuong, a young film director from Vietnam, came to the festival to screen her film which she co-directed with Tranh Thanh Hie. While the event was a very encouraging environment for a new director like herself, she feels that her society, in general, isn’t as accepting of women who make films.
“Women making films is not so usual in Vietnam,” she says. “Many people still believe the traditional concept of the role of women. They think women need a husband and family. The work of a director is hard. People don’t think a woman can have a family and be a filmmaker at the same time.”
Mon Mon Myat, a journalist and occasional film producer whose environmental film, Floating Tomatoes, was screened in the 2011 festival, attended again this year. She says that she has seen discrimination against women extend beyond the film industry and into the media sector as a whole.
A few years ago she read a surprising op-ed article by a popular news journal editor in Myanmar. “He criticised female journalists for wearing modern style clothing, like blue jeans, when they did their interviewing,” she remembers. “He said that women were dressing in alluring ways so that men will give them the answers they want.” Similarly, she commented that conservative thinkers in Myanmar society may not believe that the requirements of filmmaking are appropriate for women.
But all this, the aspiring filmmakers agreed, is evolving.
“The situation is changing little by little,” commented Vietnamese filmmaker Phuong Thao Tran, who co-directed With Or Without Me, a story of two male drug users. Her extensive background (a Masters degree in Documentary Filmmaking and over six years of making films) gives her an experienced perspective on how things have changed for women filmmakers. She has seen the industry open up over the years, especially in the documentary film sector.
In fact, many of the female filmmakers at the festival commented that there is a significant difference between women’s participation in documentary filmmaking compared to commercial feature films.
“There are many Myanmar female directors for documentary films, and some are very successful directors, but not in feature films,” states Hnin Ei Hlaing, a film editor and first time director. Her film, Burmese Butterfly, about the life of a young homosexual man in Yangon, was screened in the festival.
Lay Thida, another young Myanmar director agrees. She has directed eight short films’ including Bungkus, a true-fiction tale of ‘package brides’ which screened at the festival. She believes that the more freelance nature of most documentary and short filmmakers allows women more autonomy whereas women trying to make it as feature film directors have to battle through a very male-dominated environment.
Certainly, support from documentary film training centres in the region, two of which trained a number of female directors at the festival, is also a factor. At the Yangon Film School in Myanmar the current beginner’s class is half female. At DocLab, a documentary film training centre in Vietnam that was started by two female filmmakers, 80% of the students are women.
Pham Mai Phuong, who is a current student there, says that the female instructors at DocLab are some of the women from the film industry that inspire her most. “They share their experience with us about their past struggles as filmmakers. They share it with the male and female students to inspire us all to work hard.” She believes that her path will be easier because of the women who paved the way before her.
As much as she and the other female directors are hopeful for the future of female filmmaking, they do dream of the day when their sex won’t be of consequence. “A director is a director,” states Pham Mai Phuong. She doesn’t understand the need to put the word ‘female’ before ‘filmmaker’.
Despite the present challenges posed to filmmakers like Pham Mai Phuong, in the end, she cannot be deterred from her passion. “People were born to do something. For me, its filmmaking. I have tried other jobs but finally I just do what I love.”
The hosts and presenters at the Lifescapes Film Festival would like to thank its sponsors for their support: Movies that Matter, Amnesty International, Heinrich Böll Stiftung – Southeast Asia, Chiang Mai Vista, Greenery Villa, and Get Idea T-Shirt Design.
For more information about the festival, please visit filmfestival.payap.ac.th/.