Four feature films by German filmmakers screened at the Toronto Film Festival, and three of them were directed by women – Angela Schanelec’s “I Was at Home, But…,” winner of the Berlinale’s best director prize, Ina Weisse’s “The Audition,” and Katrin Gebbe’s “Pelican Blood,” the latter two both starring Nina Hoss. Germany’s Oscar entry this year, “System Crasher,” also has a female helmer.
“It’s a good time for female filmmakers… at least in Germany,” says Nora Fingscheidt, the director of “System Crasher,” which won a Silver Bear at Berlin. After the festival she received 35 scripts to consider, and is now working on a major project, as yet under wraps, for a global studio. The film’s child star, Helena Zengel, has just been cast to play opposite Tom Hanks in Paul Greengrass’ “News of the World.”
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Fingscheidt says that being a woman – at least in the context of arthouse filmmaking – hasn’t held back her career. “The generation before me fought a lot already so I have other opportunities,” she says. “In my field, I never felt discriminated against because I was a woman at all, but maybe I’m in a very safe area.”
The statistics paint a gloomier picture. Birgit Stauber, a board member at Pro Quote Film, a group that lobbies for gender parity in film and TV in Germany, points to research that found that while 44% of film school graduates from directing programs are women, only a fifth of all German theatrical films are directed by women.
Gebbe says: “I recognize that men get jobs more easily while women directors around me struggle more when it comes to finding exciting, well-developed projects, especially bigger-budget films or series.
“I have heard quite a number of times that it is a risk for producers to propose women directors, because they really have to fight for them in order to convince funding partners.”
She adds: “Even though I feel change is happening, men still seem to gain more trust in general. And filmmaking is a lot about trust.”
Simone Baumann, managing director of the national film promotion agency German Film, says the problem isn’t a shortage of money for filmmaking. “It’s more about the approach of producers and funders, and also TV channels because a lot of [film] productions in Germany are financed by television,” she says.
Working conditions for directors – especially if they have children – is an important issue, with a lack of child care provision, excessive travel, and long working hours being some of the factors putting women off a career in film.
“Pelican Blood’s” producer, Verena Gräfe-Höft, says: “We need to change how family life is handled in the film industry. There must be a way to keep talented filmmakers, male and female, in the job despite the fact that they have just become parents.”
During the shoot and post-production on “Pelican Blood,” the production had a nanny and additional childcare for cast and crew. “As a society we need to come up with better ideas to create a more family friendly business in order to not lose all the great talent that is out there waiting to play a role and get a chance to develop,” she says.
Most female filmmakers would prefer that the focus is on their work rather than their gender, but another thing that the three films by female German directors at Toronto and “System Crasher” have in common is that their central characters are complicated, conflicted women struggling with the constraints that contemporary society places on them.
In “The Audition,” Hoss plays a stern, particular violin teacher, Anna, who becomes fixated on the success of one of her pupils at the expense of her family life. “Anna is looking for the absolute. We have tried to describe her inner conflict and insecurity. How she questions everything, how her expectations are high and at the same time her fear of failure [is also evident],” Weisse says. “Anna could have defended her inner conflict to her father, but she doesn’t, for fear of being seen as inadequate. Even if the character herself doesn’t see it, these doubts have value.”
The title of Gebbe’s film, “Pelican Blood” is “a metaphor for self-sacrificing love,” she says. “The mother pelican feeds her dead chicks with her own blood and thus brings them back to life. Wiebke, the protagonist of my film, treads her own sacrificial path in order to heal her emotionally ‘dead’ child. The more she tries to help her adoptive daughter, the more her behavior provokes the people around her. There is an ideal image of motherhood in our society. When a woman behaves differently from the norm, there will be many people who will judge and condemn her.
“On the other hand, people expect a mother to be sacrificing everything for her loved ones. And if a mother can’t live up to those expectations, she will blame herself, feel like a failure and will be condemned, too. So in a way ‘Pelican Blood’ explores a nightmare vision of motherhood.”