This year’s Screen Edge Forum pushed beyond the above the line roles commonly cited in diversity discussions to host a panel to discuss women and cinematography.

Gender stereotypes perceive men as powerbrokers, deal-makers, hard-nosed practical people; women as more intuitive, perceptive, empathetic, more creative and lateral in their thinking. If that were true, men would tend towards producing and production management, and women towards directing.

However, there are extremely few female directors, while production offices have women as the significant majority, especially in production management.

Recently studies on gender composition in various aspects of the screen industry have proliferated around the world. There has been regular confirmation that an extraordinarily small proportion of screen directors are female, particularly in Hollywood. The Diversity Report recently released by New Zealand On Air shows that, in the area of special interest programmes, gender representation pretty much matches the population gender split; in television overall, only 33% of directors are women (similarly in digital production, 32%), but in TV drama women make up just 11% of all directors. The situation is similar in regard to female writers.

The report also notes, “Women are well represented among television producers, making up 55% of those surveyed.” In television documentary production, the situation is slightly better, with women making up 41% of documentary directors.

Most of the successful feature documentary filmmakers in New Zealand are female – Annie Goldson, Leanne Pooley, Gaylene Preston, and Pietra Brettkelly. Add in doco-makers with more recent popular success such as Jess Feast (Gardening with Soul) and it would appear that in the documentary sector at least, women dominate the field.

But while there has been plenty of discussion of gender representation in the roles of producer, director and writer, there has been less about another major area of creativity in screen production – cinematography. Doc Edge tackled this particular challenge at its recent Screen Edge Forum, with a session exploring the participation of women in cinematography.

What was initially billed as a solo session with widely-respected Kiwi cinematographer Mairi Gunn turned out to be a panel discussion moderated by videographer and editor Aliesha Staples, with Gunn; Harriet Margolis, co-author of Shooting Women, a book about female cinematographers; stills and video photographer Alyssa Kath; and two males – the NZFC’s Dale Corlett; and Peter Parnham, executive officer of the NZCS, who early this year published an article about Mairi Gunn and her career on the NZCS website.


Women’s experiences
Corlett commented on reports from female directors which spoke of how a male DoP would often talk to a male First AD rather than to the female director. Often first time short filmmakers don’t feel they can stand up to this stuff on set, sometimes for fear of damaging their fledgling careers.

“The gear is too heavy for women to handle!” it has often been claimed. This has never really been an issue, and is even less of one with the miniaturising of cameras today.

When it came to handling equipment, CNN camerawoman Margaret Moth, famous for her work in war zones (and shot and seriously wounded in Sarajevo), used to say, “I come from New Zealand. We carry three sheep per person; I’m used to carrying sheep on my shoulders.” The first news camerawoman in New Zealand, she was often described by her colleagues as “quirky, tough, fearless and funny”.

Gunn spoke of having experienced isolation within a film crew, exclusion by men, and even bullying. Some of this would be relatively subtle – such as when she put a lens on the camera someone else would ask the (male) grip rather than her what the lens size was.

What helped immensely was hanging out with upcoming people in the Maori film world, particularly with the legendary Don Selwyn’s group. “Find your own tribe,” she said. What was also extremely helpful was to get her own gear, and work on her own stories – cooperating with colleagues and telling stories together. In retrospect, if she had to choose between working on the fringe and in the mainstream, she would still choose the fringe.

What do women bring?
“Why have female cinematographers?” Margolis asked. “Why not! That’s the answer.”

Women bring another perspective, a different world view. Various comments were made that reinforced common stereotypes – that men tend to be hierarchical, and often arrogant in their positions, whereas women are more collaborative.

In response to a question from a male cameraman in the audience, Margolis suggested that men tend to be interested in the technology, where as women are more focussed on what people want to see on the screen. Women are more interested in the broader purpose, in other words. Gunn suggested that female cinematographers are more focused on understanding the emotional arc of the story, and supporting the director’s vision.

My own experiences with cinematographers including Simon Raby and Davorin Fahn suggests that such qualities are not restricted to female camera people.

Having children can affect things – women are seen as having different priorities once they have children. (And men are not?) Producers are apparently reluctant to employ women once they have had children. It was pointed out that the idea that women will disappear from the workforce because of their children (and are therefore not worth investing in) is belied by the fact that the average working life of males is 48.1 years and females just over 42. It’s hardly a difference that warrants dismissing half of your potential talent and creativity forever.

A woman with a camera is often seen first as a woman, then as an operator – in the same way that women of colour as seen first for their colour rather than their role. How do we overcome this “otherness”? How do we do away with tokenism?

Gunn: “You’re not going to be given an opportunity. You have to demand it.”

Margolis: “You have to be willing to promote yourself.”

Margaret Moth used to say that she would see female camera students and think, “Yes, good, but not thick-skinned enough.”

You need to know what you want, particularly what do you want to do. Do you want to own a house? To have a family? Then you need to work out how to get to do what you want to do, and how to also achieve those goals.

The problem of how to move up the ladder from, for example, focus puller to operator, is not limited to women, though it appears to be even harder for them. Parnham suggested that you have to simply decide at a certain point that you are now an operator, announce that fact to the world, and start turning down assistant jobs.

Men tend to be less likely to be afraid of making a mistake than women. Women have to learn to surmount this fear.

It’s most important to engage – to spend time in each other’s company. Where to find the female film-makers? Check out both WIFT and the film schools. WIFT recommends that women go to their workshops – after all, “You are whom they’re for!”


Support and development
The Directors & Editors Guild has just announced a new scheme, the Women Filmmaker Incubator. Like the Film Commission’s Gaylene Preston Female Director’s Scholarship, this year-long series of workshops is focused on women as directors, not cinematographers. (Last year the NZFC-supported JC Cinefem Scholarship was awarded to cinematographer Maria Ines Manchego.)

Among the opportunities for directors (and producers and writers and actors), the New Zealand Cinematographer’s Society has come up with a new scheme of its own. The Camera Pathways programme was voluntarily set up by the NZCS, and is not funded. The programme “aims to identify and assist people who are entering the industry and are committed to a future behind the camera”. The NZCA intro to the scheme notes “it has never been harder to get a foothold in the camera department in the professional screen industry, particularly for women and minorities”.

There’s been plenty of interest in the initiative, but Parnham reports that it has just one big issue – women are not applying for it in any significant numbers.

Shortly after the Screen Edge Forum, in my capacity as a part-time tutor in a film school, I observed and assessed a third-year student film crew working on location. The crew list included a female boom operator, cinematographer, director, first AD, focus puller, gaffer, grip, location manager, sound recordist and (ironically) best boy.

Perhaps change is on its way.



Written by Tony Forster

Tony has worked in theatre and screen production for some decades. He recently made his first feature documentary, An Accidental Berliner


(from left): Dale Corbett, Harriet Margolis, Alyssa Kath, Mairi Gunn, Peter Parnham, moderator Aliesha Staples
Photo: Deane Cohen


  1. Thank you! Great to see this report.

    Marian Evans 5 years ago Reply