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

We’ve heard (and written about) the statistics regarding representation for women on- and off-camera. The Citizen Jane Film Institute, founded by Paula Elias and Kerri Yost, is doing its part to change the status quo — one educated mind and empowered spirit at a time.

Citizen Jane is a collaborative effort with Stephens College in Columbia, Mo., one of the oldest women’s colleges in the nation and home to one of the only digital filmmaking programs just for women. From its start in 2008 as a lecture series, Citizen Jane has grown into a women’s film festival (complete with workshops on topics ranging from story-telling to crowdfunding), a film series and a filmmaking camp for girls ages 12 to 17.

Elias, a marketing entrepreneur who has worked on documentaries, was inspired to create Citizen Jane along with Yost, a Stephens professor and filmmaker, to help balance the inequities facing women. “Maybe someday, this won’t be necessary, but at this point, it is,” she says.

For our Women in Hollywood project, we spoke with Elias about the power of film, the importance of having more female directors telling women’s stories, and what she thinks must happen for change to occur.

Edited interview excerpts below.

The Story Exchange: Tell us about the reasons you co-founded the institute.

Let me share some statistics — according to the Celluloid Ceiling, only 6 percent of the top 250 grossing films were directed by women. And last year, women were only 15 percent of protagonists, 29 percent of major characters, and 30 percent of all speaking characters in the films on that list. Film is one of the most powerful cultural mediums that there is. It’s one of the biggest ways we understand our culture. It has a huge influence. So, when more than half the population doesn’t have a seat at the table, that’s a problem.

The Story Exchange: What makes film such a powerful medium?

Films are a great way to have real conversations about issues — to suspend everything and go on a journey. I honestly feel we can really change the way we think through film. I know I’ve been changed by film. The framework of film connects people — and when we connect, we can make change happen.

The Story Exchange: What will getting more women behind the scenes accomplish?

We don’t get enough of a chance to see women behind the camera — and statistically speaking, when we do, women get better story lines, more screen time, and are generally richer characters. It’s not all bad now; I remember when I saw Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill,” that it was the first time I saw a woman being a true badass in a movie. That was really powerful. But, it was still a story told by a man. And not that it wasn’t a great story, but there are still not enough stories about our lives being told by women themselves. The more you see stories about women being told by women, the more you see other women getting the courage to tell their own stories.

The Story Exchange: How do the programs offered by the Citizen Jane Film Institute help?

It occurred to us that the people [who participate in our programs] are a passionate audience looking to do something more. So, after our first festival, we held an impromptu summit. First, we talked about the problem itself and laid out challenges. Then, we strategized how to make a change. We talked about influencers, about breaking the celluloid ceiling, about building a “good ol’ girls network.” Our festivals and film series have been great for connecting filmmakers of all ages. The camp has also helped — we teach [the children] about filmmaking, but it’s also a very safe space, so we have lots of difficult conversations. And, these kids get it – they try to step outside and talk about how internalized sexism can be.

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After all, gender can really influence the way you think. Once, at a conference, I heard a man suggest that art houses could make a difference overnight [in the underrepresentation of women in film] by simply pledging to make sure half of the films they show are ones made by women. That moment was so interesting to me, because I didn’t think to ask that — I didn’t even think of that idea. I work on this problem 18 hours a day, and that thought never occurred to me. There’s almost a disconnect in our brains, as women. Because we can’t be what we can’t see, we can’t even imagine some of the solutions.

The Story Exchange: What has to happen for progress to happen?

It comes down to how we communicate with each other — we need to both step up and step back. Many people will naturally step forward [in a conversation], and are really comfortable with that role. But people also need to think about stepping back, so that everyone else can be heard. And in terms of funding, unhealthy competition is another piece of it. People sometimes get into the “poverty complex” of fighting over one nugget of resource. There’s plenty in the world, and we have to find a way to support one another.

The Story Exchange: And that’s how we’ll get more female directors, producers and studio executives?

I really believe it goes beyond just getting more representation behind and in front of the camera — it’s about building a whole new system. If we just pop women into positions of power while using the same hierarchy, things will just go back to the way they are eventually. We need to learn how to do things differently, and the tools of collaboration are going to be really important to figure out a way to improve diversity — not just for women, but for people of color, and people of different socio-economic backgrounds. We need to find a way to get everyone a seat at the table.

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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. 
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