The Wages of Tenacity

Meet Joan Prowse, Canadian documentary filmmaker, whose tenacious career story reads “against all odds.”

By Joan Prowse, as told to Cynthia Macdonald:

Sitting in an airport some 25 years ago, it suddenly became real to me that I’d finally arrived as a filmmaker. With the partners in my fledgling business, CineFocus Canada, I was preparing to embark on a cross-country journey to interview subjects for one of our very first productions. In many ways, it’s a journey that has continued to this day.

Like many women in the film industry, I started out in the background, studying journalism and working as a researcher and production secretary. At first I thought I’d be a TV reporter, but I ended up making documentary films and television shows, as well as running my own cross-platform content creation company.

In the course of my career, I’ve showcased important social issues such as feminism, the environment, free trade, and health care. I’ve also had the good fortune to profile scores of trailblazing Canadians, including women such as Buffy Sainte-Marie, Jann Arden, and Doris McCarthy.

Unfortunately, the exciting path I’ve managed to forge in the film industry remains closed to too many women. I often wonder, with the strides we have made in business, government, science, and the arts, why do some of us still struggle to establish meaningful film careers? More than half of all filmgoers are women, yet 80 per cent of films today are directed by men. Women are under-represented in all facets of filmmaking, such as directing, producing, writing, editing, and cinematography. This is especially true in Hollywood, which is plagued by what feminist industry analyst Martha Lauzen calls “gender inertia.”

Clearly, women need more support if they are to succeed in large numbers. During my professional life, I’ve been lucky to have had great mentors, role models, incentives, and support systems. If real change is going to happen, more assistance of this type is needed. Especially role models. In the mid-1980s, while researching sex-role stereotyping in the television industry for a media company, I witnessed a power struggle between my male and female bosses. It was inspirational to me when my female boss (and first mentor) struck out to start her own production company.

In fact, despite the obstacles, Canada boasts a strong tradition of female role models in film. Filmmakers such as Alanis Obomsawin, Shelley Saywell, and Jennifer Baichwal have been able to crack open issues and bring them to a wider audience. And, until it was shut down by budget cutbacks in 1996, the National Film Board of Canada’s Studio D netted several Oscars, producing landmark films such as I’ll Find a Way and If You Love This Planet. I’ve personally been inspired by Anne Wheeler, who started out making documentaries before turning to features and dramatic television.

In 1987 when I was a brand new filmmaker, I remember seeing director Patricia Rozema give a speech at the Canadian Film Institute. She had been enjoying international acclaim for her breakthrough film, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing. “Don’t look at me and think, ‘Oh that’s her. I can never be like her,'” she said. “You have it in you too.” Those words made a real impact on me.

I’m also proud to have given a voice to feminist role models in other fields. My series, Green Heroes, profiled ecological innovators such as Leilani Munter (a professional race-car driver who’s revolutionized her profession by only accepting green sponsors) and Laura Reinsborough (whose non-profit company salvages unsold farm fruit).

Not all of my role models or mentors have been female. Sometimes, the formation of male-female alliances can be the best solution to overcoming bias. One of my early jobs was production secretary on the book show Imprint at TVOntario. My boss, Daniel Richler, showed me that highly original programming could be made locally and inexpensively. During that position, I co-founded CineFocus with three male partners, all of whom were significant collaborators.

Women need to find supportive outlets for their projects. For me in the mid-1990s, it was the Women’s Television Network, now known as W. Geared specifically to programming by and for women, W provided a home for a passion project of mine called Beauty and the Beach. This film explored the women’s movement through the changing swimsuit styles of the 20th century and was ultimately sold to 12 countries on four continents.

I believe that incentive programs are also critical to women’s success. In just two and a half years, the Swedish film industry has managed to achieve gender equality by directing 50 per cent of its funding towards female filmmakers. In Canada, BravoFACT—which funds documentaries and short films—recently instituted a similar rule. But that is one channel, not an entire industry. We need to see more organizations come on board in the same way.

Support groups are great resources; more of them, and more awareness of them, could really change things. One that really enriched my skills as an entrepreneur was the Toronto chapter of Women in Film and Television (WIFT). Their panels and workshops have given me a lot of ideas over the years. I remember one story in particular. A female filmmaker found out the top executive she’d been trying to meet for months was flying to Europe the next day. She bought a first-class ticket to his destination, sat beside him and secured the sponsorship she needed before the plane’s wheels hit the ground. WIFT has definitely shown me that creativity and tenacity can take you a long way.

A newer support group is Film Fatales, run by Toronto filmmaker Chloe Sosa-Sims. This women’s collective meets on the same day each month to discuss concerns they face working in a male-dominated industry. I first encountered Sosa-Sims while participating with her on a panel at the Reel Indie Film Festival in October of 2015. This was one of three panels I’m aware of that convened in the latter half of the year to explore the challenges faced by women in film. It’s a sign that this topic is getting a lot of overdue attention.

Probably the biggest obstacle in my career, and that of many other women, is funding. Whether in documentaries or feature films, the budgets for women-run films are often lower than those on films made by men. And because documentary budgets tend to be lower than features, it’s perhaps no surprise that far more women are found in that field.

A recent joint study by the Sundance Institute and the Los Angeles chapter of WIFT found that “when money and risk get higher, opportunity [for women] gets lower.” This is true in Canada as well. Among the films that receive investments of less than $1 million by Telefilm Canada, 21 per cent of directors are women. When the investment is higher, that percentage drops to 4 per cent.

So while I and other female filmmakers have enjoyed solid opportunities in a field we love, there is clearly more work to be done before we achieve parity with male filmmakers. With a concerted effort from private industry, government funding agencies, and individuals, we could change the number of women making films to truly reflect our population. I hope that time will come soon.

Editor’s Footnote:  Joan’s company participated in the Imagination Catalyst (OCAD U’s incubator). Joan’s latest project, GreenHereos TV, produced by her company CineFocus Canada in association with TVO, offers 12 x 30 minute videos which tells remarkable stories of people who acted on their ideas and heroically “ventured forth” to protect our planet. From the celebrity to the everyday person, each story details the different paths and interests the GreenHeroes have taken in their quests to help save the world. Watch it now. Watch it here: 

 

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