In Women Behind the Camera, Director Alexis Krasilovsky examines the lives of camerawomen around the world. Click here to learn more about Women Behind the Camera and to view clips of the movie.
Q:What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
A: I came up in the world during what became known as Second Wave Feminism, and I felt that filmmaking could give voice to the silenced part of myself as a young woman artist. I also needed to prove that I could master technology—things that were traditionally off-limits to girls growing up. I loved the idea of being a pioneer. I wanted my ideas to be taken seriously: with a background in theater, dance, literature, music, and painting, film was the only contemporary art form that could validate the art forms that I loved, all at once.
Q: This documentary followed the lives of a diverse group of filmmakers from around the world; we see video journalists who risk their lives in war-torn countries to commercial DPs on Hollywood sets, yet many face similar issues. Did you pursue this film as a means to show the commonalities camerawomen from around the globe actually share or was this accidental?
A: Once I recognized that often camerawomen were using similar visual approaches to war, whether shooting narrative films about war in Brazil or Kurdistani Iraq, or shooting people surviving actual wars in Kosovo, I began to look for these commonalities. The relationships between camerawomen who are often isolated from other camerawomen become relationships between their visual styles. There’s also a commonality of issues such as balancing motherhood and film careers that many camerawomen have faced whether in Hollywood or Bollywood, although the solutions are sometimes very different.
But I was just as interested in exploring camerawomen’s unique visions. For example, Byun Young Joo talks about Korean women filmmakers creating a feminist lexicon that’s different from that of Agnes Varda and other women filmmakers in the West. And Sandi Sissel, ASC, is often hired for her unique style in shooting action film sequences that don’t have much in common with delicate, ballet-like movement or attention to small details that some might label as a common female aesthetic. In fact, Sandi Sissel, like several of the other camerawomen we interviewed, has worked both in war-zones and on Hollywood sets.
Q: I was struck by the amount of discrimination and sexual harassment these women have faced in their careers. Did you experience this, too?
A: Yes, and I didn’t have the courage and tenacity to fight and persevere in my craft. One cameraman wanted me to swim naked in the ocean with him after a shoot which had entailed walking up and down sand dunes with heavy metal boxes of film equipment. I had been so proud of myself, proving that I could do this grueling job, and for what? The manager at one of the unions that I joined only had one question for me, and it didn’t have anything to do with cameras: he wanted to know how tall I was. Another time, I spent a week in an equipment house learning to fix Arris in preparation for a shoot in a remote location, only to be replaced the day before the film went into production. It’s my admiration for those camerawomen who were able to stick it out—suing the unions and networks, if necessary, to get work—that led me to want to make this “North Country” for camerawomen.
Q: I noticed these women were modest in that they often referred to other women to be “true pioneers” or the “firsts” in the film business. They also continually thanked their mentors. Is this typical in the film business?
A: Actually, now that I’m a professor in the Department of Cinema and Television Arts at California State University, Northridge, I find myself continually training students to pitch their projects and toot their own horns. Modesty’s a nice trait, but when you’re in a business where the competition numbers in the thousands, you have to learn to speak up for yourself. (In my case, I was the first camerawoman outside of Lucasfilm to use endoscopic camerawork in my movies, and the first to incorporate filmic devices such as dissolves into my 35mm holographic camerawork.) Some films, like Visions of Light, make it seem as though great Directors of Photography descended from the clouds, fully formed in their talent and mastery of the craft. But actually, many of the top male DPs had to start as camera assistants, too, whether or not the people who gave them their breaks are fully acknowledged. In an industry where there’s traditionally been so much discrimination against women, it’s important to acknowledge those men and women who have been willing to open doors.
Q: In rural India, these filmmakers brought attention to water issues and eventually this neighborhood got clean tap water as a result of the film. Do you think women documentary filmmakers are especially suited to making a societal impact like this?
A: Women in rural areas are often the water bearers, right? They are the ones who pour the water for their children to drink. If the water carries diseases like typhoid, they are the ones who nurse their children to health, whether or not there is water enough for bathing. It’s only natural, in my opinion, that women would be personally invested to push for a water tap that would allow them more time to work at other tasks important to their families’ and communities’ survival.
To me, coming from the First World with a kind of antiquated Florence Nightingale mentality, it was personally transformative for me to discover that SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association) had its own video unit, self-empowered to come up with viable solutions to help their communities in Western Gujarat, India. The most important thing I could do was to make sure that Women Behind the Camera validated the work of women who are taking up digital cameras as a political and social tool for the well-being of their families, their communities, and themselves.
Q: What were the biggest challenges in making Women Behind the Camera?
A: How to keep going when we were continually running out of money. In between the wonderful, wonderful support of the Roy W. Dean Award, the Fledgling Fund, the Women in Film Finishing Fund, and my university, and the generous in-kind contributions and support from women all over the globe, were a lot of periods of financial struggle. It took six years of production to make this film plus over a year of post-production. By the end, my beat-up old Honda ‘95 was losing its third gear, “Little Miss Sunshine”-style. I had to remind myself that the project was much bigger than just me: its message of global interconnectedness carried with it the responsibility to find a way to finish the film, regardless of the juggling act between producing, directing, teaching a four-course load, and single motherhood.
Q: What’s your advice to women choosing film as a career?
A: If filmmaking is your passion, go for it! There’s a page on my Web site, Women Behind the Camera, that can help you get started.