Female gaze(s): On F-Sides, with Ioana Diaconu and Alexandra Lulache

30 July, 2020

In the past ten years, just 19% of local films released in cinemas have been (co-)directed by women, with just 17% of titles in 2019 being helmed by a woman. These are the numbers from a recent study published by F-Sides – a new and innovative multidisciplinary project launched by Ioana Diaconu (director of the Bucharest Fashion Film Festival) and Alexandra Lulache (researcher). At the same time, F-Sides is the ever Romanian cineclub that dedicated to female-directed cinema – aiming to bring films which touch upon topics related to femininity, which break the boundaries of traditional female representation in cinema and which meld together both aesthetics and social topics, onto the big screens in Bucharest (for the moment). Last but not least, F-Sides is also a platform for women who are interested in cinema who want to discuss female experiences and their representation in cinema, which then are published as articles on the F-Sides website.

We discussed with Ioana and Alexandra about the ideas that lie behind their projects, about the inequalities in the Romanian film industry and about the fact that, at the same time, this seems to be a moment in which the glass ceiling is slowly starting to shatter.

Ioana Diaconescu și Alexandra Lulache. Credits: Diana Elena Păun.
Ioana Diaconu and Alexandra Lulache presenting the first F-Sides Screening at M60. Credits: Diana Elena Păun.

I wanted to start by asking you about the origins of the project. There had already been many discussions for quite some time about the various inequalities in the Romanian film industry – ranging from film production and the roles that women fulfill on set, to the actual representation of women in the film – and these themes were beginning to become more and more present and acute, but they never materialized in terms of a program until now. In this context, how did you start the F-Sides film club?

Ioana Diaconu: I’ve already had this idea for a couple of years. Just as you pointed out, these things were starting to be noticed and much has been written on this topic – not just locally, but also internationally. We were already keeping an eye on such international initiatives, and the planning for the project itself began during winter. It started out as a personal project – I talked to Ale about it and I told her we should apply to the National Cultural Funds Administration (AFCN) and see what comes out of it. In the meantime, the project was very well received by many people around us, who joined us and helped to achieve a more consistent project.

Alexandra Lulache: I think we’re both trying to be a little more aware of what we’re consuming, in terms of culture. It started with books as well, even though I’m more of a film consumer. We started lending books to each other – Ioana more than me [laughs] – and I think that in recent years I realized how unequal my consumption of culture was, but also how much a balanced consumption can bring in terms of self-reflexivity and diversity. My background is in gender studies, so it all happened at the right time.

Once you have established that you will be only screening films directed by women, how have you worked on the curatorial directions of the film club? Your first screening was of La Niña Santa, by the Argentine director Lucrecia Martel, who is one of the most visible and appreciated female directors internationally, today. The second film that you are screening, The Last Summer of La Boyita (2009, dir. Julia Solomonoff) is also a South-American film. I find it interesting that you decided to start the series with films that are not European, nor well-established, not yet another screening of an Agnes Varda film (not that there is anything bad in that, on the contrary, but you know what I mean).

Ioana Diaconu: I talked about curatorship with Georgiana Vrajitoru, whom I originally met through the Queer film club. We asked her to help us with the programming side of the project, and the indication was to also tie in world cinema so that we could reach as many areas as we could and not get stuck in a purely European selection. At the same time, I wanted the films to be quite accessible to a larger audience – at least in this first phase of the project – in order to be able to open this discussion on several levels, and not just for the festival audience. 

Alexandra Lulache: It’s very clear that we owned the fact that we only want to screen films made by women, but I think that there is a semi-open question here: if indeed only women can make films that contain a female gaze, and how does one achieve it.

How has the project been received so far? I saw that there were some very enthusiastic reactions in the cinephile and feminist circles, but what was the general reaction? And how was the first screening, which was followed by a discussion with journalist Ioana Pelehatai?

Alexandra Lulache: The reaction was very positive. Frankly, we were expecting to get a lot of hate. We were really getting ready for this. [laughs] But it hasn’t arrived yet.

Ioana Diaconu: But we’re still waiting for it. [laughs]

Especially considering how tribalized the climate is oftentimes in online discussions on these topics.

Alexandra Lulache: As far as discussions go, we’ve created a Facebook group where anyone can join, but we’re trying to keep it a safe space. We don’t do it right on the public page of the event, precisely so that we can have more personal, intimate, exploratory conversations.  As Ioana said, the goal was for it to be an accessible space for anyone. We have tried to reach a demographic as wide in range as possible, especially for women – and this process still continues, but the women we have reached so far, whether they are 17 years old or over 50, have been very supportive. That’s even though some of them still play around with the term “feminism” and don’t have a 100% attitude towards it (not even 50% for some), but they were very excited.

The discussion at the end of the first screening, which was led by Ioana and Georgiana, is what our structure will be like – namely, to have a discussion that also covers the formal, cinematic elements of the films, but which also positions the themes of the film in a social context. The first discussion was more about education and gender socialization, but also about a girl’s management of abuse and the mechanisms that she can use to describe her experience. This was also very related to the current context in Romania [in which abuse is becoming increasingly discussed in public].

Prima proiecție F-Sides: La niña santa, de Lucrecia Martel. Credits: Diana Elena Păun.
The first F-Sides screening: La niña santa, by Lucrecia Martel. Credits: Diana Elena Păun.

Because you also mentioned the Facebook group – F-Sides is not just a film club. When you announced the project, you also launched a very powerful manifesto that was accompanied by some quantitative research on the Romanian film industry. How did you work on this research and how did you develop this component of the project?

Ioana Diaconu: I handled this research. I took all the box office lists from Cinemagia [the Romanian IMDB] and went through all of them. I’ve also researched how often female screenwriters are included in films, where there’s about the same percentage (maybe a little over 20%) as is the case with female directors – and that also reflects the official statistics we have at a European level and those in the United States, which say that only about 1 in 5 films that end up being distributed in theaters is directed by a woman.

What do you think determines – at least in the context of the local film industry – these rather blatant inequalities, but also certain stereotypes that are deeply rooted, such as that of the producer wife? Which are obviously reductive and offensive.

Alexandra Lulache: I’m not necessarily going to link this to the film industry, but these trends reflect what the labor market is like for women in general. It’s hard to be taken seriously. It’s much easier to be allowed to take up space in operational trades, but not in a creative or leadership function. Inequality is also about early socialization – if a girl is good at mathematics, for example, instead of being encouraged to study engineering, she is encouraged to become a math teacher. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, obviously, but I think that applies to any field. But at UNATC [the local film university], the gender balance is pretty good, from what I’d seen at one point.

The problem, therefore, is the labor market and the way you are treated and integrated if you are a woman, of how you are permitted access to certain positions.

Alexandra Lulache: At one point we had also asked ourselves the following question – namely, why women make more documentary films – and one of the explanations is that it’s proof that you are technically capable when you’re not given a certain, different kind of space to do it. And oftentimes, men are not asked for such clear proofs before they are attached to such a bigger project.

Ioana Diaconu: In order to answer this question, we started to keep a dossier of information – and starting with August, we will start a research project in which we will try to map out all the roles on set and in the film industry, but also to have interviews with women who work in it, to tells us exactly what their roles entail and what it’s like to be a woman in that role.

Alexandra Lulache: Or how they built their authority on set. Regarding research – Ioana has taken this first step, but we also want to build this platform through which we can gather as much information and opinions as possible, which is as participatory as possible.

Ioana Diaconu: Let’s see how it goes, we’re very excited about it.

On the other hand, it seems to me that this is a special moment, in the sense that, each passing year, we have more and more female directors who are releasing their feature film debuts.  From this perspective, it seems that this (im)balance is beginning to change. I know that the figure of 19% is laughable, but ten years ago, it would have been 0%. Even if the current amount of change is not enough, it does exist at the moment. And it is seen especially in festivals and short film selections.

Ioana Diaconu: Yes, I saw that the short film competition at the Anonimul Film Festival has a lot of films directed by women!

What do you think about this particular moment, when the doors seem to be starting to open little by little for the filmmakers, but also for a cinema that has a female gaze, which is sometimes queer, even intersectional, and is connected to global topics?

Alexandra Lulache: My personal opinion is that it’s great! But I think it’s also about having to take on an agenda, from a certain point onward. Especially when it comes to film festivals, we have more and more women present in the lineups, but this increase is not reflected in Hollywood or much of the mainstream. On the other hand, Netflix has actively committed to promoting equality and hiring more female directors, as well as more women throughout the entire production chain. That’s an active decision of the company, and I feel it as a consumer. And I think that they did it in a very nice way, that they didn’t simply tokenize women. I think it’s really great that these changes are happening. I wouldn’t say that they’re happening organically, but they’re also happening because some powerful people – regardless if we’re talking about festivals or VOD platforms – chose to ride this wave.

Ioana Diaconu: And I think that, right now, we are also seeing the results of the sustained work which was done over the course of the last years, which helped us get here. And I think that it’s also about the fact that online discussions are moving a lot in these directions and an increasing amount of people with such views now have a bigger platform than ever.

Alexandra Lulache: And there are role models – female directors to look up to, as an aspiring filmmaker, and think that “hey, I can do that too!”. As Ioana puts it, this adds up over time, so maybe we’ve reached the point where more trust has been gained.

Ioana Diaconu: And it was probably this context that encouraged us to start this project now, even if it may have been needed for many years – but it was based on this accumulation of energy.

In your opinion, in what way does a better knowledge of female cinema help in these regards? Many people discuss the moment in which they realized they had lived for years without watching any films directed by women and without even being aware of it, without looking at it as an anomaly. Which says a lot about this naturalized state of affairs, in which the woman who makes the film is an exception.

Ioana Diaconu: I think it has to do with this representation, the way you see yourself and you recognize what you consume, which applies both to films and books. When you start to see the other perspective, there are many sides of yourself that you begin to recognize, and you begin to realize that you were used to seeing women as an object of desire, or only as supporting characters in films. And it seems to me that there’s a pretty big psychological effect that happens once you start seeing role models, or recognizing parts of yourself on screen.

Alexandra Lulache: Here I would also mention the category of funding to which we applied to AFCN, namely ‘Education through Culture’. I think that cinema can have this superpower – it can advance feminist ideas and not just simply adopt them. It shows you all these ways you might look like, different emotions that you can feel, which may not have been shown on the screen in the past, different ways to live your life, where you can see for yourself what might suit you. And that several parts of you may exist simultaneously.

Ioana Diaconescu și Alexandra Lulache. Credits: Diana Elena Păun.
Ioana Diaconu și Alexandra Lulache. Credits: Diana Elena Păun.

What plans do you have in the future, both in terms of programming and from a research point of view? (Let’s pretend for a moment that there is no coronavirus.) If it’s possible, would you want to move the screenings indoors?

Ioana Diaconu: We would like the project to last all year long – and not just this one – and apply for funding and find sponsors. We started the screenings outdoors because of the context that allows – or, actually, obliges – that, and I would like us to take even more directions in the future. We started with this direction that targets the general public, but we would also like to bring in more specialized titles. Films by Chantal Akerman or Laura Mulvey, for example. And to have these discussions opened up, as well. In the long run, I would also like to distribute these titles, meaning not just have these one-off screenings, but also distribute them in cinemas around the country. It’s a long-term project.

Are you preparing other components for the project besides the film club, research, and distribution?

Alexandra Lulache: We’ve been considering the concept of a decentralized film club from the very beginning. If there’s a group that wants to watch these movies and have discussions around them, we can help them with a list of titles and a certain discussion format, so that they can make film clubs in other cities, somehow independently from us.

Ioana Diaconu: And I have already received several messages from high school girls from various cities across Romania who want to bring these films to their hometowns. That would be a good start.

Flavia Dima Flavia Dima
Film critic & journalist. Collaborates with local and international outlets, programs a short fim festival, does occasional moderating gigs and is working on a PhD thesis about home movies. For Films in Frame, she's in charge of interviews, along with Laura Musat. Favorite international film festival: Viennale.