Documenting the Women Behind the Camera

Filmmaker, author and professor Alexis Krasilovsky says financing is the biggest issue facing female directors and producers.

Candice Helfand-Rogers By Candice Helfand-Rogers

Alexis Krasilovsky (alexis.krasilovsky.com), Writer/Director, “Let Them Eat Cake” and “Women Behind the Camera” (http://womenbehindthecamera.com). (Photo: Amy Halpern)

Alexis Krasilovsky, writer/director of “Let Them Eat Cake” and “Women Behind the Camera.” (Photo: Amy Halpern)

Note: This is part of our ongoing Women in Hollywood project. 

Filmmaker Alexis Krasilovsky is all too familiar with Hollywood’s patriarchy, and how the foibles of the system affect her access to funding. In a nod to the old boys’ club that’s running the show, she notes, “It used to be that a lot of deals were made on golf courses — and I don’t play golf.”

It’s not for lack of effort, or talent — Krasilovsky has garnered multiple awards for her work. And ever since graduating from Yale University in 1971, she has been the subject of critics’ praise (some even likened her to directors such as Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese). Unlike them, however, Krasilovsky didn’t see an increase in greenlit projects or film funding following critical acclaim. One of Krasilovsky’s most well-known works, “Women Behind the Camera” — a 2007 global documentary and book — even examines this and other issues facing scores of women behind-the-scenes through interviews with female cinematographers from around the world.

Krasilovsky ultimately resorted to starting her own production company, Rafael Film, in the hopes of supporting the projects she’s most passionate about. And for the most part, she’s been successful — though money was (and is) still an issue. “I was able to keep my own vision, but my shoe-string budgets have sometimes taken their toll on-screen in terms of creative limitations; less production time, few takes, inferior equipment, and casts and crews that have their ups and downs. It’s a continual challenge.”

Despite those challenges, she continues to make critically praised films (like her 2014 release, “Let Them Eat Cake“) while also working as a cinema professor at California State University, Northridge — and as an educator, she’s become even more aware of the need to create a better, more equitable film industry for both present and future generations of filmmakers.

Edited interview excerpts below.

The Story Exchange: While conducting interviews for “Women Behind the Camera,” what trends or patterns did you observe?

Some female camera operators today aren’t aware of the huge obstacles and sacrifices that camerawomen of earlier generations faced. And some pioneering women in the field didn’t recognize themselves as pioneers — they were just “doing it” — while others felt pressure to succeed on behalf of women trying to make it in a male-dominated industry. They felt that, if they failed, it would all be over for another generation of women behind the camera. Also, I’ve seen that having mentors and role models helps one’s self-assurance and opportunities grow, as does networking with other cinematographers (particularly other camerawomen) who are facing the same challenges. And in the burgeoning indie world, there are growing chances for women and minorities behind the scenes. Yet while many women are now winning awards and other recognition for their work, these are still not guarantees against ageism toward women who want to continue working behind the camera. But on a positive note, for those who have the talent, determination and perseverance to move forward often cite a special joy while filming.

The Story Exchange: Is fundraising easier or more difficult in the indie world?

The biggest obstacle women directors and producers face overall is financing. Many of those investing in the big films want to work with the tried-and-true — mostly male — filmmakers that they already know, despite the talented, award-winning female directors whose rate of return on their films has been comparable to or higher than those of men. I’ve been privileged to win a Women in Film Finishing Fund award that made the completion of “Women Behind the Camera” possible. Between that and other foundations, such as Chicken & Egg Pictures, which specializes in film by and for women, as well as initiatives such as the one women started at the Sundance Institute, there are increasing opportunities for women in the indie world today. And sometimes, that success carries over to opportunities in Hollywood (for those who want to go mainstream).

The Story Exchange: What other issues tend to repeatedly plague women who are trying to become successful behind the camera?

Women need more people in power positions to see their reels, to read their scripts, and to meet with them — period. The “Celluloid Ceiling” statistics are continually shocking. In Sweden, women have been successful in getting more opportunities behind the camera, thanks to their government. But I don’t see that happening anytime soon in the US, even if the ACLU’s efforts at investigating the underemployment of women directors are successful.

The Story Exchange: What do you tell the future female — and male — film industry workers in your courses to help them become part of a more equal film ecosystem?

I teach film students that creating more equal opportunities for women and minorities behind the camera will benefit not only them, but our entire world. Storytelling needs to take into account diverse perspectives to help us co-exist. There’s no “one size fits all” structure that will serve everyone’s needs for storytelling in the US and around the world. Men, too, can benefit from re-thinking the stereotypical hero’s journey. We also need to remember that, in promoting diversity in the stories that are told, it’s not only about gender; there’s a full range of LGBTQIA [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex and asexual] stories that can also expand our perspectives.

I also encourage my students to strategize towards success. An Academy Award is unlikely to fall into one’s lap, especially in an unequal playing field. It helps to have a plan which includes both mainstream and indie options. It’s tragic when so many women and minority students graduate from film school with award-winning student works to show, only to find a dearth of opportunities in the professional world. We may just need to create that more equal film ecosystem ourselves.

The Story Exchange: How can we make the world behind-the-scenes more welcoming and supportive of women?

First, address the financing issue — and when the discrimination is overt, women shouldn’t be afraid to sue. Secondly, which world? If Hollywood isn’t welcoming, what about Bollywood in India and Nollywood in Nigeria, which make more films per year than we do in the US? Or perhaps look into other filmmaking centers around the globe. And, if we still aren’t welcomed, let’s make our own films — whether we’re making our films for $64 million, $64,000, or shooting them on small HD cameras and editing them ourselves on Final Cut Pro for $6,400 or even $640, telling compelling stories that need to be told and letting our creativity take up the slack when financing falls short can be a way of seeking entrée to the world’s creative community. Thirdly, as long as sectors of that community remain sexist, it will be important to continue to support women’s film festivals and women’s periodicals that review women’s films in order to make sure women are being heard.

In coming months, The Story Exchange will be exploring Hollywood’s gender gap, interviewing directors, producers, actors, writers and academics who are following the issue and advocating for change. Interested in being a part of our series? Drop us a line at info@thestoryexchange.org. 

Posted: February 12, 2015

Candice Helfand-RogersDocumenting the Women Behind the Camera