The Feminist Lens is a bimonthly series that offers an inside look into the world of film-making and media production through conversations between women in the film, television and digital media industry and Aviva Dove-Viebahn, a Ms. scholar and professor who writes about gender and race in popular culture.
Filmmaker, writer and professor Dr. Michele Meek’s work reflects in myriad ways on the complex issues women face in the film and media industry through a unique dual perspective as both a media creator and teacher. An assistant professor at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts, Meek is also founder of NewEnglandFilm.com, a resource for regional filmmakers, and a film director. Earlier this year, she published an edited anthology of essays and interviews with 15 legendary female filmmakers: Independent Female Filmmakers: A Chronicle Through Interviews, Profiles and Manifestos.
You’re a professor. You’re a filmmaker. You’re a writer. Do you see these as separate pursuits or do you feel like there are some unifying threads that brings all these aspects of your career together?
I think in some ways teaching is very different from film production, which is very different from writing. They all call up different types of skills. They demand different things of you, but I try to have integrations between my work as much as possible. My research, for instance, is about sexual consent in films and I’m teaching this semester a course on sexual consent and violence in film.
I do think that teaching media production when you actually produce [media] is essential, so that you have some context for what it takes to make something from start to finish. I feel like I can benefit students with my industry experience because I can explain to them how it works when you get your film into festivals. It’s not just about making something, but if you actually have aspirations to have it be seen beyond your friends and family, how do you do that? What are the steps?
You teach production and critical studies classes?
Right. I teach both media production and film studies classes, and the media production classes I teach span different types of media production. So, I teach a class where the students make podcasts, they make short videos, and they make PechaKuchas, which are image presentations.
So, you and I know each other through the edited collection, for which I wrote a profile on filmmaker and choreographer Yvonne Rainer. What made you decide to bring together this collection of essays, profiles and interviews with female independent filmmakers?
I started this book before the #MeToo movement, and before #TimesUp, although it came out after. For me, there were two main motivations for working on this book. The first one was I had been part of a group that helped rescue the Independent Film and Video Monthly, which was a print publication from 1976 to 2006. Preserving those archives has been something that I’ve collaborated on for the past several years. Calling attention to this archive was important to me so that people would use it as a resource that represents an otherwise forgotten independent film history. All of the past articles and manifestos and interviews [in the book] are from the Independent Film and Video Monthly.
The second part is that it’s about women specifically. As a woman who has worked as an entrepreneur and a filmmaker, I have seen many forms of sexism and discrimination, some very subtle, some not so subtle. It has always been important to me to do whatever I can to help rectify that imbalance. This was one way that I could call attention to 15 female filmmakers who frankly should be listed in the history books alongside their male counterparts who are often remembered more easily.
In the introduction to Independent Female Filmmakers, you write, “if we think that these filmmakers have worked ‘in the margins,’ it is we who have kept them there.” Can you say a bit more about what you mean by that?
I think it’s really important when we use the word “marginalized,” we realize that someone has been marginalizing them. There’s a subject to that sentence. Often, many of us as scholars think we’re not the ones marginalizing [women filmmakers] because we’re for equality. But when you really start to reflect on what you’re teaching and what you’re writing about, you might be shocked to discover that you’re more part of the problem than the solution.
I include myself in this. I say in the introduction how, years ago, someone asked me for a list of names of filmmakers working in Boston and I answered with three white male filmmakers! We often write about films from a feminist perspective, for instance, but are not writing about films by women filmmakers. So we’re contributing to the over-study of certain films and filmmakers instead of calling attention to work that also should be part of our film history.
I was recently struggling with this with my own syllabus—where did all the women go?
That’s exactly what we’re all faced with. I was asked to teach a course on independent American filmmakers and the person who had hired me said, you know, like [Quentin] Tarantino, John Cassavetes, David Lynch, etc. The thing I realized as I started working on the course is that if we’re talking about independent film, why are we not incorporating other voices? One of the things as teachers that we have to do is become more comfortable being uncomfortable. These may not be the films that we’ve been writing about for years and years or the films that we studied in grad school or undergrad.
We have to seek them out and we can actually be part of re-writing our film history. When you look at something like the National Film Registry, it’s supposed to be a representation of American film history without bias. Then why shouldn’t it include all different kinds of voices? And yet it’s predominantly male, predominantly white. The fact is that if people don’t know about those films then they’re not going to be remembered.
When you were putting together the anthology, were you surprised by any of the filmmakers’ responses?
I thought it was interesting how some of the women said that, years ago, when people would ask them that question about being a woman filmmaker or a female filmmaker, they would bristle at the question. They didn’t want to be lumped in a category that put them in some kind of margin. Many of them don’t want to be listed as female filmmakers per se. All of them that are in the compilation are great filmmakers who have made a tremendous impact on film history—and whether we acknowledge that or not is our problem. They don’t want to see themselves as some side category of filmmaker. It’s always a problem of calling attention to the discrimination that exists and then also not wanting to have to think about gender anymore. Yeah, that would be great, but we’re not there yet.
You’re a filmmaker yourself. What drew you to the medium?
I’ve always liked to write and I’ve always seen myself as a writer, and the first time that I wrote something and it was made into a movie by someone else I realized I wanted to direct. I like seeing the project to completion and I have a certain idea of how I want it to go. Although I’ve made a bunch of films, they’ve always been short films. So the next step is embarking on a feature film because that opens up new possibilities even for grants and things like that.
It’s been an interesting journey. When I was first starting out, I was just making films based on ideas I had for characters or issues I cared about, like my documentary about female masturbation. I went back to school for my PhD later and have thought more about the meaning that we’re making in the world through film.
At first it was overwhelming and I felt like, how will I ever make another movie again because I don’t want to make the wrong kind of meaning. Now, I’ve come to the point where I can integrate that theory and that increased awareness into my work. That’s been an exciting trajectory. And learning about other filmmakers and watching their films, it impacts you. When we say, “who are your idols?” it would be nice to have a diversity of idols.
Do you have a future project on the horizon?
I started working on a feature film when I was in Berlin in the spring about the impermanence of making art. I became fascinated with street artists in Berlin who will spend hours constructing elaborate works of street art on legal graffiti walls and then, minutes later or hours later, someone literally comes with a roller brush, creates a new canvas and paints over it. It seemed to me an important metaphor for life and art and creation as a process in and of itself. It’s not permanent and letting go of that need for something to be permanent was very poignant to me. I started thinking more about types of creations that are not made to be savored forever. So, that’s the direction of my film; it would be a documentary.
Many of the short films that you’ve made to date have to do with girls—girls rebelling against their circumstances, imagining new realities, or exploring their identities. Is there something about girlhood/childhood you find particularly compelling?
My dissertation and a lot of my research is about girls and consent, but, before that, I think I always had an interest from a feminist perspective of getting at girlhood. That idea of a girl’s agency—not sexual—but her agency in the world. Even that film I made about masturbation, my intent was to have women talk openly about masturbation so that younger girls could learn something about an important subject that doesn’t get brought up very often.
When you develop a body of work over many years, you think, I’m doing all these disjointed things. But then you look back and realize, oh, wow, there’s actually a lot of coherence here. Sexuality studies, gender and women’s studies issues—those are things I have always valued.
Any final thoughts on the role of female filmmakers?
I think we got at the heart of the issue [earlier]. We’re so marketed to in terms of media. There’s more diversity of content than there ever was before; we’re moving in the right direction, but we’ve still got a long way to go. The more of us as audience members that put our money where our mouth is, the more it will effect change. I think about that now. If I’m going to the theater, I think who are the filmmakers that I want to support. We have to realize that you can’t say, I’m just one person. We’re all part of a collective, and we have to act accordingly.