Martha Jeffries: Where are the women in film?

It was lunchtime, a few weeks before the Arab Spring and I was directing a shoot in Egypt. I watched nervously as a large man nodded off, periodically dipping his head, overcome with fatigue and then shaking himself awake. We were filming in Cairo and our government-issued (insisted) security guard was fasting for Ramadan. Watching us eat a sumptuous feast in the midday heat proved a soporific experience for him – which would have been fine, were he not leaning over a machine gun that threatened to spray us and our pitas in a shower of bullets if the sleep got too deep. When you are directing, a regular day is anything but.

I got my break directing early in the new millennium. It was a reality show, which shall remain nameless. I was working as a production assistant and I got a rapid promotion the day one of the hired directors (an MTV whizz from the UK) turned up still drunk from the night before. Really drunk. I already had a good relationship with the talent so it was decided I would do some interviews while MTV slept off the bender. Suddenly I was calling the shots. In the weeks to follow, while MTV devolved into a nightlife casualty, I was shifted into the director’s chair. I’d been in the industry for two months. I hadn’t been to film school and I hadn’t been around other directors enough to mimic. It was sink or swim.

And so my directing career began – on the fly. Which proved to be a particularly apt way for it to start, because if one thing is certain in the type of work I do, it’s that nothing comes at you straight on.

In the decade since, I have directed television series, documentaries, music videos and commercials. I’ve shot in more countries than I can remember, on every continent except Antarctica. I’ve been in situations that are terrifying, touching, inspiring and sad. I’ve learnt a lot about people and the myriad ways they think and behave. I’ve been witness to the highs and lows of being alive in a complicated world full of beauty and chaos.

For several years I made travel shows. Working abroad I often felt we were inadvertently chasing turmoil. I was in Sri Lanka near the end of the civil war, Bali after the bombings, the Colombian jungle when FARC still held Ingrid Betancourt captive, Bangkok when political protests overcame the city, Greece in the grips of austerity riots and Cairo (where the dozing security guard nearly clipped me) mere weeks before the Arab Spring. The more I travelled, the more I came to realize the world is full of fresh disaster and incident. Expecting the unexpected is what prepares you best.

At times directing can be a role in crisis management. The infinite complexities of personnel, talent and technology mean that there is little in directing that happens in a straightforward way. You are up against an ever-unpredictable landscape and something always comes up – whether it’s weather, cops and permits, traffic, falling light, jetlag, language, illness, a cable that doesn’t fit or kids photobombing your shot. No matter how prepared you go in, something is likely to change – it’s important to maintain equanimity and work out a new solution. Keep your eyes on the story, keep the energy up, push yourself and everyone else to make something good, great. Stress is a killer. The moment it gets you, your talent and crew will wind up tight as well. But it’s not all excitement in the field. Being a director also involves long stretches of preparation and research followed by long stretches of post-production, mostly in a small, dark room. And then in between all that there are, at times, the unwelcome long stretches of hustling for the next gig.

A good director is patient, leads with confidence and calm, gets the best out of talent and crew, engages and excites those around them, can focus on small details while retaining a strong sense of the bigger picture, has a vision of sight, story and sound, and endeavors to make something different.

For this kind of work you need to be tenacious, informed, adventurous, brave and maybe just a little bit crazy. But male? No.

Being both female and a director puts me in a minority. Although film schools graduate equal numbers of males and females there is a huge bias towards men in the workplace. The rates of women working as directors at every level are dismal. On the rosters of most agencies representing directors it is unusual to see more than one woman represented. But it’s particularly bad in the narrative film world in white, male-centric Hollywood. In 2010 Kathryn Bigelow won an Oscar for Best Director. She was the first and to date, only woman to ever receive this accolade and one of only four females to even make nomination – this in 86 years of competition.

According to a recent survey conducted by the Directors Guild of America, men directed 86% of US television in 2013 and 91% of films. Perhaps it’s little coincidence that 85% of last year’s lead characters were men too. Female writers, producers, executive producers, cinematographers, composers and editors are also far outweighed by their male counterparts. And the rates are getting worse. This poses major problems both on-screen and behind – a dearth of realistic female role models on-screen and a serious lack of equality in the workplace are just the beginning.

There is no way around it. We need more women telling stories. Stories are important – not just for information or entertainment. They provide a way of understanding life, a way to make sense of the human condition. If we are to truly understand the world we need to see it from every perspective. And, whether those stories are dramatic, documentary or even commercial, more women behind the cameras will provide a better representation of women on-screen. Too often age gaps between actors playing mother and son are much smaller than those playing husband and wife. Too often women are merely support roles for men. Too often any credible female perspective is entirely ignored. And too often poor stereotypes of female characters presented on-screen color real-world expectations of who we are and how we should behave. Call me cynical, but sometimes I can’t help but wonder if the new spate of historical dramas are not in some way an excuse to celebrate the ‘good old days’ when women knew their place.

Perhaps the most insidious aspect of all this exclusion is that it often leads to women turning on each other. Women in the film industry can be the most obstructive in the careers of other women. In my own career I have dealt with more female bullies than male. And it always seems to come from a place of fear. As women we are shown there are only a few spaces for us and that those spaces are to be fought for and protected. But while we fight amongst ourselves and protect our territory we are doing the industry a huge disservice. It is the reverse attitude that will carry us forward. As women it is important to work together and reject the notion that this industry is not for us too. There is nothing quite like the power that is harnessed when good women work together. In my past few projects I have worked with female cinematographers – an elusive type, even more rare than female directors. Women like New York-based cinematographers Hillary Spera and Zoë White are showing that gender plays no role in shooting stunning imagery. I hire women in male-dominated roles whenever I can. I love working with other women, and frankly, if they’ve managed to get a far as they have being female in a male world, they are probably damned good at their jobs too.

If we are to carve out an equal space for ourselves in the screen industry we must encourage, support, collaborate with and mentor other women. Being female in a male-dominated world is not always easy, but then nothing worth doing ever is.

Martha Jeffries is a director and producer based in Brooklyn, New York. Find her at