When the list of exclusively male nominees for Best Director at the 2020 Academy Awards was revealed, host Issa Rae couldn't help but comment. "Congratulations to those men," she said dryly. Her words went viral, striking a chord following a Golden Globes director shortlist that was also all-male.
According to the 2019 Celluloid Ceiling report, a long-running annual study of the film industry, 21% of the directors, writers, executive producers, editors and cinematographers working on that year's top grossing 250 films in the USA were women. It's a figure on the up, but one that has risen only 4% since 1998. Meanwhile, just one female director, Kathryn Bigelow, has won an Oscar in the event's 90-year history (The Hurt Locker, 2009). Why is there still such a significant gender divide in the film industry?
We put this question to two successful cinematographers, Claudia Raschke and Laela Kilbourn. Claudia has been director of photography on five Oscar-nominated documentaries, including RBG, about pioneering female Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and has also worked on art films, fiction and commercials. Laela has been a camera operator on television shows such as Castle Rock and Jack Ryan and shot numerous award-winning documentaries.
Here, both women share their experiences, discuss how advances in technology are breaking down barriers to entry, and suggest what can be done to bring about change…
In the 1980s, Claudia was studying dance in New York and working as a waitress when a colleague – who also happened to be a cinematography tutor – noticed she had a good photographic eye and asked if she'd considered cinematography. "I had no clue what it was about," she remembers, but accompanying her friend on set, she was "mesmerised". He gave her work, encouraged her to go to film school, recommended her to others, and her career snowballed. "My break was having somebody who could say, 'I believe in this person, she has talent.'"
Laela took a more traditional route, working her way up from a role as a runner, but found that she always had to be the one to push herself. "Every step up through the hierarchy that I took, happened because I decided to do it," she says.
Laela attributes the challenges that female filmmakers face to stereotyping. "Cinematography is traditionally a male profession," she says. "It's a technical and physical job. It involves endurance and heavy lifting. These are things, certainly in Western society, we have not thought that women are good at."
This means women in the industry experience extra pressures in their attempts to progress in their careers, says Claudia. "Women in the film industry have to work twice as hard as any man does because you're working against that stigma. Can a woman do it? Does she have the stamina? Can she handle the stress, the camera technology, the software, the high budgets?"
And as a woman on set, Claudia adds, "you can't make any mistakes because you're representing women in the industry. You have to be careful to set a good example. Because if you fail, it echoes, and potentially closes the door behind you."
What holds women back most of all, according to Laela, are the "calculations people make in their heads that they don't even voice. They don't offer you the job, they don't look at your reel, they don't recommend you to someone, all because they unconsciously think you're not qualified – or they think a man they just worked with is more qualified – and they don't even know why they think that," she says. "Both men and women are guilty of doing this."
More open conversation and analysis of our inherent biases is needed in order to effect change, along with recommending women for jobs. "People in the industry have to be willing to extend offers of work to people they wouldn't necessarily have thought of first," she says. "There might be someone you never expected who could just transform the situation for you, and bring something to it that you'd never have thought of."
The industry is slowly changing. "There are huge changes from when I started 25 years ago," says Laela. "I certainly see many more women shooting and putting themselves out there, whether it's on social media or in the documentary world."
Advances in technology are breaking down barriers at the budget end of the industry. When Laela started out, an entry-level quality film camera cost $100,000; today's models are a tenth of the price. Laela has done a lot of work with the Canon EOS C300 and its successor, the Canon EOS C300 Mark II, which she finds remarkably user-friendly. "Especially in documentary, you're reacting to events as they happen and you want your equipment to react with you," she says. "The Canon EOS C300 Mark II is less obtrusive than many other cameras, and people are not intimidated by its presence. At the same time it's a complex camera, capable of many things."
Claudia praises the creative potential afforded by the Canon EOS C300 Mark II's 8.85MP Super 35mm Canon CMOS sensor. In the early days, she explains, "you need a palette of colour and contrast and possibilities, but also a camera that is consumer-friendly so that you don't get overwhelmed. I think Canon should win an award because I feel the layout of the camera and the easy-to-understand menus are wonderful to start out with."
Visibility matters, says Laela, reflecting on the all-male award nomination lists. "When women are not recognised and when their work is not valued in the same way, it matters – both for the women coming up who are not seeing role models, and for society at large as a reiteration of the concept that women can't do this job, or the idea that they can do it but they can't be the best.
"That has everything to do with habits – habits of thinking, habits of viewing. There are few films that are directed, shot or composed by a woman that are multi-million-dollar, billion-dollar movies. They exist, but they don't necessarily get the attention. And that's a systemic issue. This is a societal problem. We can't just solve it in the film industry and nowhere else. We have to solve it everywhere at the same time."