Women Filmmakers, Taking Center Stage

(Written for Discover Magazines)

With the 2022 San Diego International Film Festival under our belt, Discover Magazines is celebrating the women who are expressing themselves in the male-dominated film industry. 

Through a wide variety of genres and experience levels, female directors, writers and producers are standing up and being heard. The shift in mainstream Hollywood has been noticeable, but slow. Yet it’s through the independent lenses, untethered to the commercial needs of the mainstream film industry, where women are able to shine.

In a field overwhelmingly dominated by men, these filmmakers are carving out their places in cinema history with original, thought-provoking work. 

We had a chance to talk with four of these women. The films range from lighthearted and fun to educational. While each one had a different story to tell, one thing remained constant. They are ready to stake their claim in films. 

The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks

Yoruba Richen and Johanna Hamilton 

Documentary filmmakers walk a fine line between journalism and entertainment, and never has there been a more crucial time to tell stories that are both engaging and accurate. 

We caught up with filmmakers Yoruba Richen and Johanna Hamilton, who have brought us the first feature-length documentary about the legendary Rosa Parks. The film seeks to broaden the scope of this historical figure who’s story, while very well known, has been limited in scope to one event. Both historical and timely, this film gives us a long-overdue view into the entire life of Rosa Parks, and the scale of her contribution to civil rights. 

We all know about Rosa Parks because of one event. What surprises are in this film? What are we likely to learn about Rosa Parks as a whole?

Yoruba Richen: We’re not just going to learn about her commitment to the black freedom struggle and her commitment to fundamental change. She says, “I was never an integrationist, that’s not what it’s about.” It’s about fundamental change for black people, and for all oppressed people in this country. She’s able to achieve it through a myriad of different ways; through working with Dr. Martin Luther King, through the beliefs of Malcolm X, and more “radical militant” freedom fighters, through voting and through marching. Through this holistic approach. I think that’s really what stands out in terms of what we learn about Mrs. Parks. Also, that it wasn’t just that moment on the bus. It was a lifelong commitment. 

Johanna Hamilton: Literally everyone in the world knows about her, and learns her name for about five minutes. I think it’s rare to get under the surface of a celebrated icon, and find someone who’s even more impressive. That’s what happens in the film. She’s not the tired old bus lady or the accidental matriarch of the civil rights movement; that’s sort of a simplistic tale. It’s made her a household name, but it’s also trapped her in this elementary school curriculum. So we will learn that she challenged police brutality, she fought for voting rights, reparations and black history in every school, amongst other issues. By paying attention to those details, we hope to give her a different place to
stand, and not just those five minutes on the bus. 

Many civil rights documentaries have focused primarily on the men of the civil rights movement. We wanted to make a clearly feminist film, told uniquely through her prism. And our goal was to make it urgent and pressing, because many of the issues she fought for are still pressing today. 

YR: She hated the story about her tired feet, and she spoke throughout her life about being cognizant about being symbol. So she both embraced that, and pushed against that, but in the most gentle manner. We have a small notion of what her courage was then, but here we have a full understanding of what her courage was throughout her lifetime. 

It’s interesting that we would talk about them as being “radical,” yet it seems that radical in this context just means basic human rights. 

YR: What we consider “radical” is about justice, and equality, taking positions, and asking or demanding things that at one point would have been considered fringe or crazy. 

How long has this been in the works, and what inspired you to tell this story at this moment? 

JH: There’s always the assumption of “oh, I know that story.” Jean Thereux Harris, the author of the book that we based the film on, always does a twitter thread on Mrs. Parks’s birthday, enumerating little known facts about Mrs. Parks. That morning over my coffee, I was like “how come I didn’t know, she worked for John Conyers for 25 years, how come I didn’t know she helped get him elected? How come I didn’t know that, as a six-year-old, she was sitting on her stoop with her grandfather, leery of the clan?” There was a whole range of things that made us say “how come we didn’t know this? We should know this.” 

YR: It was Johanna who came to me with the idea. She had read the book and connected with the author. When I read the book, I was like “wow, I can’t believe there hasn’t been a full-length documentary.” And it just seemed like the time to pursue it because of many things, because of how we are finally looking at and acknowledging black women in the civil rights movement. But really, I think any time is the time, because all these things are going on, and it’s just what gets attention at different moments. 

JH: To be clear, people have made a couple of short films, but they focussed clearly on the bus boycott. We were trying to push this along through the pandemic, and we were in the midst of a new political movement and consciousness at a perilous time. So we wanted the audience to feel that this story couldn’t be more urgent and more necessary. 

Documentary filmmakers are somewhere between entertainment and journalism. Where do you fall in that, and what do you feel your are responsibilities in that regard? 

YR: I think as documentarians we are lucky in that we’re not straight journalists, that we are artists, and can take artistic license and figure out how to take a story and make it entertaining and interesting. Even if it’s educational or informative, you still have to get people to watch it. Even still, there is a journalistic integrity that you have to meet. We’re telling real life stories of real people and real events. So there is a journalistic standard that you must have. It comes up in different moments. Like, “this footage isn’t from this exact time period, but still conveys what we are trying to say. Can you use it?” 

JH: I really do think it’s telling those stories through the entertainment prism. It doesn’t always have to be important. It can beautiful and enlightening. In this instance, we are trying to bring someone to the fore who everybody thinks they know, but we’ve only just scratched the surface. 

What other projects do you see yourself doing going forward? What other topics would you like to explore? 

YR: I am in the midst of finishing an episode for Showtime about big pharma, which is an episode looking at the birth of the birth control pill, which is very timely right now, and I’m working on a film about reparations. 

JH: I feel like we should all be making films about climate change, so that’s definitely in the ether. I feel like that is urgent. And to your previous question, how do we do that in a way that isn’t all doom and gloom? How do we do that through a more uplifting prism to capture the most eyeballs? 

What advice would you have for upcoming filmmakers? What do you wish someone had told you? 

YR: I think fifty percent of it is confidence. And faith that you’ll finish your film. That you’ll get funding, and that you have a story to tell. If you’re passionate about the story, and you figure out a way to convey that passion, people will get on board. There are so many different homes now, and people create their own homes for their projects. 

Even when you don’t know exactly how the story is going to be told, that’s part of the process. Finding the story is part of the process of making a film. You don’t have to go in, knowing how everything is going to happen. So be open to that process, and don’t be scared. Don’t give up, and have faith that you will find the story. 

JH: My advice to younger filmmakers is that, you really need to have a thick skin. You might develop that over time. Tenaciousness. Your hit rate may be extremely low, but that doesn’t mean you should give up. If you have a good story, believe in it. Surround yourself with a group of mentors, in this case women mentors; people who have your back and people who have experience, and believe in your vision. People can help in the smallest ways, but sometimes that can be life changing. 

Did you find the narrative of this documentary changing as you went along? 

YR: Always. That’s the nature of documentary. We’re not scripted, so the big part of finding the story is in the edit. It’s in the interviews that people say “wow, that’s a whole other theme that I hadn’t thought about.” When we were first making the film, we knew we had a lot of access to her writings, things that had not been widely seen, so at one point, we made the decision that the whole film should be driven by her voice. 

JH: Hopefully we’ve given her a different place to stand, and people can understand fully the courage, and the tremendous sacrifice. 

Think Like a White Man.

When I started in the business, there were so few people of color and women especially, who were able to make a living from this. 

Obviously, technology and the explosion of streaming and documentary has changed things, but still black women are not well represented in the field. And when you are not represented, you can feel like you don’t have a right to be there. Like you’re not good enough, or you don’t have access to the same tools. 

So it was actually a friend of mine who told me, “You have to think like a white man.” 

You deserve to be here, that you deserve the funding, you deserve to get the broadcast. That shifts how you see yourself in the industry. ~Yoruba Richen 

The Moon and Back

Leah Bleich

On the lighter side of things, Leah Bleich gives us the comedy The Moon and Back, a film that will likely resonate with filmmakers of all genres.

Leah reflected on the process of making this film, and how this fictional piece offered real-life insight into their work. 

The Moon and Back feels like it’s a commentary on making a film with no budget. Is this something came out of your own experience? 

Leah Bleich: The movie is actually not based on personal experience, which is strange because it feels like a personal film in so many ways. Throughout the filmmaking process, we often felt like we were living the experience of the protagonist. There are a couple of lines in the movie like, “we have no costumes, we have no cast, we have no leading actors. This is impossible!” And we felt that all the time. So, sometimes we had to take the advice the protagonist receives to heart ourselves, because we needed that encouragement to keep going. 

So did the film itself change based on the actual experience of making the film? Were the two inspiring each other at that point? 

LB: Yeah, I would say so. Because of the way we were all thrown to the wolves on this project, we had to sort of take a lot of unexpected things, and incorporate them and just figure out a way to make it work. In any film production, things are inevitably going to go wrong, especially when you only have nine days for principle photography. I think when you have that limited of a budget, and that little time, you just can’t be too precious about what you’re working with, because you’re going to need to make changes on the fly. 

How did it become such a time crunch? 

LB: This was actually produced via a program called the “Six Feet Apart Experiment.” I actually wrote the screenplay based on the idea of competition and what I thought would be a producible project, which became less producible over time. So I wrote the screenplay in June of 2020, and when it got selected, they had a really tight timeline of when they wanted these films to be done. 

It seems like a lot of films are dealing with social issues and the kind of heaviness of modern times. Do you feel like this film is a break from that or were you trying to get a message out through something a little lighter? 

LB: I think that it’s actually both. A lot of what I was feeling when I started writing this was this need for joy. It was a dark moment and a scary moment in the world, and I was just feeling this need to stray towards joy and comedy, in the face of so much incomprehensible pain. Also, I was really drawn to telling this story about a female creator finding her voice, because I was very much in that boat too of finding my creative voice, and having the time and space for that and figuring out what that means. So while fiction, the protagonist is very much going through this arc that I was trying to figure out for myself at the time. 

Was this different from other projects you’ve taken on? 

LB: I feel like I’m still defining for myself what that means; what I normally take on, what I normally do. I’m definitely doubling down on comedy at the moment. It’s a space I love to be in, and I love the community that it creates. But I’ve definitely done drama, and I’m working on a horror story now, so I’m all across the map in terms of genre. I think that generally as a creator, I’m drawn to stories that celebrate sincerity and joy. So I think whatever I do regardless of what genre it lives in is going to have that celebration of life and the joy and pain of being a person. 

What’s next for Leah? What have you got on the horizon? 

LB: I’ve written a couple of screenplays since The Moon and Back and very actively defining what my voice is, and I think I’m figuring that out through creating more materials. I’m very much interested in finding partners for the next project, whatever that may be. On a more specific note, I’m writing a scripted horror podcast for a company called AudioLove which we’re very excited about. It’s very spooky but still very YA (young adult), which is a space that I enjoy. I love that sort of teen genre. So all across the map, and eager to find those next opportunities. 

What advice do you have for filmmakers who are just getting their start, particularly for young women filmmakers? 

LB: The number one thing an aspiring filmmaker can do is create. I also think decoupling your vision from perfectionism is essential. The more that you can play, and learn to play, the faster you’re going to develop your voice. We’re in an exciting moment for female creators, I think that the gender gap is finally and slowly shrinking. But there’s still a really long way to go. So I think that finding mentors, finding people that you can look up to is so important. A lot of the reason a certain demographic has a hard time breaking into a field is because we don’t have people in that field that we see ourselves in. So finding the people like that that you can develop a relationship with is very important. 


Edith Hagigi

Though set in Manhattan, and loaded with the spirit of the Big Apple, Edith Hagigi’s slice-of-life film brings her worldwide experiences into a work that focuses on the human connection we all seek, regardless of where we call home. 

What inspired Bleecker, and how much of it comes from your own experience?

Edith Hagigi: In addition to living in other states and countries, my family lived for a few years on Bleecker Street in Manhattan. We lived in a tall I.M. Pei building in the Village while my dad studied for his PHD at NYU and my mom also worked in the city. So we didn’t live in a brownstone like you’ll see in this picture, but there is a little of that old New York spirit.

 We also lived in Texas for a while, and aspects of the character of “Jeanette” are a composite of people I encountered there. But I wouldn’t say the storylines and characters were inspired specifically by anyone. More by an affinity for NYC, past and present, and an interest in human beings, regardless of what state they call home. 

Inspiration for the story, tone and aesthetic have come from a wide range of sources in the humanities, be they films, fine art, music, theater or more fundamentally an interest in humanity, and in the nuanced work that actors do as a means of exploring that.

As a slice of life piece, what message do you hope to convey to a wider audience? Perhaps something that is missing from the narrative of modern life?

EH: I don’t know that I’m trying to convey a message or if anything is missing from the narrative of modern life, though I am interested in human connection and find that the medium of film can unite people of different interests and backgrounds. For example, I’m excited about screening this film in California. It’s not meant to be only about people with fire escapes; I believe there’s a wider audience for this, just as I can look at Almodovar’s films from Spain and instantly relate to them or to the characters in Altman’s Nashville or Pirandello and Ionesco’s absurdist plays and find their match in daily interactions, just as I can in looking at Vivian Maier, Gordon Parks, and Saul Leiter’s photos in black and white or early color.

I think in some ways, what one focuses on becomes their reality. That can be very colorful and full of life, or it can become myopic. I do think that fiction can be just as “truthful” as a documentary in that it acknowledges that all film is mediated. And I think humor is a useful tool for getting at something more substantive and making it palatable to an audience. Thurber said “the best comedy is serious.” I’d like to make people laugh, simultaneously feel something, and think for themselves. That’s a tonal mix I appreciate. I think it lends itself to the type of character-driven stories that appeal to me, which may be grounded in reality, then veer toward an expressionistic direction and come back again. So they are all part of a unified whole.

With this film complete, what can you tell us about the future of Edith Hagigi? What do you have in the works currently?

EH: I’m still very much focused on this film, now slowly sharing it with the world. I’m writing/developing a few other projects, in addition to directing some philanthropic work for organizations such as RX Art, who help children heal through the power of visual art. 

What advice would you have for young filmmakers who are just getting their start?

EH: I think one of the wonderful things about the internet (though there are negative aspects, too) is that we can pull up loads of fascinating, informative interviews with filmmakers and others whose work and worldview may inspire us. We can listen for free as interesting people recount their experiences, and we can keep learning from them. “Resolve to be always beginning, to be a beginner,” wrote Rilke. I appreciate people who don’t think they know it all and also treat folks with respect. 

I’d also suggest they be prepared for the work that is involved in getting films off the ground and in every stage along the way. I’ve worked on projects of different-sized budgets and there are always challenges involved, so I would suggest only pursuing it if you really love film. Then go into it with your whole heart, be prepared to have it broken along the way, but still persist. Keep going.

A Look Into the Future of Hollywood 

The four filmmakers interviewed here are but a small segment of the growing force that is women directors, writers and producers. The work featured here only scratches the surface of what we can expect to see in the years ahead, both in the United States and around the world.  

Films from around the globe graced screens at this year’s festival. Female directors and producers as far away as South Korea and Argentina brought us films that made us laugh, made us think and left us on the edge of our seats.  

It seems Hollywood itself is struggling for original ideas, instead leaning heavily on past successes and concepts, resulting in films that ultimately feel more like templates than anything else. Yet one can see the next wave cinema greatness taking shape. 

Like most advancements in film and storytelling, they begin on the independent circuit. Fresh perspectives and bold concepts take root
at this level, then flower into the trends that shape the films we never tire of seeing. 

What is almost certain is this current wave of original material, told from the fresh voices of previously-marginalized people will shape mainstream Hollywood in the future. 

A new Golden Age of Hollywood is upon us, and it’s starting here.  

Leave a Reply