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Allied Arts & Media

Full Stream Ahead

picture of black woman entrepreneur, Samah Ali, Sistserhoodmedia
Samah Ali, founder of Sisterhood Media

Samah Ali remembers being struck by a disconnect between Black creatives showing their work on social media and the near absence of racialized content on streaming platforms. The self-proclaimed “binger” spent nearly eight years streaming movies and TV series on Netflix, but still found herself hungry for satisfying content. A Somali-Canadian, she didn’t see stories relevant to her community and life.

“I was just really tired of scrolling through Netflix for hours,” she says and finding little relevant to Black folks or other racialized or Indigenous people, certainly nothing sophisticated or nuanced. “I would watch terrible movies that were being distributed because they had a Black face or brown face. At the same time, I was on social media and I just saw all of these brilliant artists that I was following.” But getting access to those stories took time and work to find and follow the artists.

Ali felt there needed to be a single digital space where audiences could access all the work of racialized artists, whether video productions, music or podcasts. And those artists could reach their communities in one place.

In 2017, Ali launched Sisterhood Media, a content production and distribution company with a streaming platform to share stories by racialized artists, from racialized communities, for racialized people.

From creating to educating

Ali says her first hurdle was raising the initial seed funding to kickstart Sisterhood Media. Producing and distributing content is expensive and she did not hail from a family that has millions “to just give for love money for a passion project or business.” She joined Western University’s Propel summer incubator and the Western accelerator program to help her get started, but she says they did not really understand what she was trying to build.  

Ali grew frustrated by investors and accelerator programs who wanted Sisterhood Media to become a tech company because it was more sexy. She saw Sisterhood Media less as a tech  company than an organization that builds community by sharing content from diverse creatives—using tech as the medium to achieve that.

Ali hired a team of three other Black creatives, and together they chose to create two separate entities under the banner of Sisterhood Media: a distribution arm and platform for streaming content called Sisterhood Media TV; and Sisterhood Media projects, which create safe spaces such as movie nights showcasing short films and connecting racialized audiences with filmmakers. A screening series called What If Media Looked Like Us? addresses representation in the media industry.

According to Ali, these spaces help racialized people and artists come together and talk about importance of their stories, as well as exchange filmmaking and digital media skills that they can’t just learn from YouTube.

“[The educational component] has been by far the best driver of our impact because not only are we getting more folks involved in the industry and [getting] people who are already involved in the industry learning new skills, but also they find out about Sisterhood Media TV and end up wanting their films distributed on our platform as well.”

Sisterhood Media TV operates on a membership basis, with a monthly membership costing $5.99 and a yearly membership $54.99. The educational component and support for racialized creatives is supported by a three-year funding grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundatio

Raising the funding for Black creatives

One of the things Ali’s most proud of is how the organization is creating investment opportunities for racialized artists in the media industry through its partnership with Snail Mail Media, an independent production company based in Toronto. It specializes in narrative projects with a focus on diverse, commercially viable, impact-driven films for niche audiences.

That collaboration offers filmmakers early investment in their projects, from pre-development through post production as well as guaranteeing video on demand distribution on Sisterhood Media TV.

Ali wants to make it easier for young filmmakers, new filmmakers, and especially racialized filmmakers to find investment without having to go through a lengthy application process where they may be competing with thousands of other, more seasoned applicants.

“They simply have to submit their films Sisterhood Media and we’re able to look at their assets, look at their pitch deck, look at all the information that they’re offering us, and then we let them know if we want to be an early investor and offer them a pre-sale deal, or if we want to distribute other films that they’ve made in the past.”

Ali says this process of “acquiring content and pushing it out” helps create exposure for short films and web series because they may make it through festival rounds and receive exceptional acclaim, but don’t always get the distribution deal from broadcasters the way a television show might.

“It’s all about exposure, it’s all about showing content, and how people can produce these brilliant stories in these very short episodes, which need not go to some television broadcaster—it can go right to the user,” she says.

From producing to collaborating

As a feminist content production and distribution company, Sisterhood Media created a nonhierarchical structure, with a core team consisting of four members: Ali; Shewit Kalaty, who is the marketing director; Mandeq Hassan, who is responsible for programming and acquisitions; and Zenab Hassan who oversees the digital content. Ali says all four all have a say in decision making because “all our voices matter.”

The team makes decisions about the organization and direction as well as what content they choose to support. One of the main questions they ask every time they watch a movie or receive a pitch is who the audience is. They want to make sure the content they’re sharing reaches a diverse audience.

She says they ask themselves key questions. “Who is going to be brought in with this film? Who are we attracting around the world and around the entire globe? What geographical region do we think that this is going to be most applicable to?”

“What we’re trying to do is not just serve one audience—we’re trying to serve a plethora of audiences and that’s very hard to do.”

To do so, they collaborate with other BIPOC media makers, to achieve the “impact together.”

An example is a three-episode web series Somewhere In, created by Muna Dahir. Set in Scarborough, the series follows two young girls, Amina and Sara, who are going out of town to “save face” with family members. Amina’s mother trusts the two girls with money to deliver to the neighborhood auntie, but the pair get themselves into a sticky situation after losing it along the way.

Sisterhood Media co-produced the series with Badass Muslimah, a digital content creation project that launched in Toronto in 2016. It provides access to skill training through podcasting, filmmaking and web development programs for young Muslim women.

The project, says Ali, proudly, brought young creatives into the process of filmmaking. “Everybody behind the scenes is a racialized person. It was their first opportunity to be on a film set. Everybody who worked on it really saw their impact on what they can make, not only as a personal artist and a creative, but also as a team.

Mandeq Hassan, acquisitions director at Sisterhood Media (photo provided).
Shewit Kalaty, marketing director at Sisterhood Media (photo provided).
Zenab Hassan, digital content manager at Sisterhood Media (Photo provided).

From cultivating to sustaining

This year, Sisterhood Media joined the Canadian Film Centre’s (CFC) Fifth Wave accelerator, created to accelerate and sustain the growth of women-owned and led enterprises in southern Ontario’s digital media sector.

Fifth Wave is the fourth accelerator that Ali has taken part in, but she says the CFC program is unique because of the kinds of conversations it provokes, most notably what it means to build an ethical, sustainable business that puts people at the heart of all its work.

Ali says becoming a business owner was challenging as she saw capitalism as a trap. She wanted to build an organization where members are seen “as people—not as numbers, not as dollar signs.” Fifth Wave helped her meet other women entrepreneurs who share those same basic principles.

“We are focused on our clients and our people first, rather than our shareholders and the dollars that we bring in.” In Fifth Wave, she is able to connect with founders who share the same mindset and values.

Through the program, Ali wants to focus her work in 2021 on making Sisterhood Media a more sustainable enterprise.

“Last year, we were focused on cultivating. This year, we’re [focusing on] sustainability. We’re really focused on perfecting everything that we have started, and then building on it and making it better by building more partnerships and by funneling more money into filmmaker-driven programs.”

Publishers Note:  Sisterhood Media  is a participant in Canada’s first feminist accelerator program for womxn in digital media, Fifth Wave Labs. The Fifth Wave is a year-round program offered by CFC Media Lab and its partners to support the growth and development of women entrepreneurs in the digital media sector in southern Ontario. All enterprise founders in the Fifth Wave community are selected for both their potential and commitment toward weaving intersectional feminist ideals of equity and fairness into sustainable and scalable business growth strategies. Fifth Wave Initiative is committed to 30% participation by members of underrepresented groups. The Fifth Wave is a LiisBeth Media partner and ally. Apply here.

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Allied Arts & Media

Moving Pictures: What We Learned from Women Filmmakers at TIFF 2019

Cynthia Erivo (Harriet) on the red carpet in at TIFF 2019 in Toronto. Photo by Frazer Harrison

Last year, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and its counterparts in Cannes and Venice committed to achieving gender parity in film selections by 2020, signing the historic 5050×2020 agreement. With the Share Her Journey fundraising campaign, TIFF created the Micki Moore Residency (for female screenwriters), the inaugural TIFF Talent Accelerator (for female directors, producers, and writers), and achieved gender parity in both the TIFF Filmmaker Lab and TIFF’s programming team.

Despite those initiatives, the total number of female-fronted films barely nudged up from 35 to 37 percent at TIFF, a fact lamented by TIFF’s own co-head, Joana Vicente. In 2019, Venice selected only two films by female directors for its 21-film competition while Cannes selected four out of 19. Unlike Vicente, the heads of Cannes and Venice argued that redressing exclusion by quotas alone could dilute quality.

Women directors enjoyed the last laugh at that, with Manele Labidi’s Arab Blues winning Venice’s audience choice award, and Mati Diop taking the Grand Prix at Cannes for her film Atlantics, while also making history as the first Black woman director to compete at Cannes.

Here at LiisBeth, we wondered what happens when women get the opportunity to direct the storytelling? Do film plots, points of view, and ideas shift? And what might feminist entrepreneurs directing enterprises of their own take away from these narratives?

Five Films, Five Takeaways

At TIFF 2019, many international films made by women rejected facile notions of “girl power” or “leaning in” in favour of more dissonant, challenging plots. Take this cross-section of five films, which unsettle assumptions about who women are, what we can achieve, and what our models for work can be.


Arab Blues: Things Rarely Go According to Plan

I can see why French-Tunisian director Manele Labidi’s bittersweet comedy won the audience choice award at Venice. It was my favourite, too.

The film follows young, intrepid Selma (Golshifteh Farahani), who studied in Paris for 10 years, as she returns to her hometown in Tunis to start her own psychotherapy practice for locals, post-revolution.

Challenges abound. The labyrinthine licensing bureaucracy forces Selma to work around the law. Locals are amused or irritated by her services. Yet her sessions soon become truly rewarding moments in the film. They not only reveal the limits of Selma’s tacit mentor, Freud (whose portrait hangs on her office wall), but also how she is an outsider in her own hometown.

Ultimately, Selma’s status as an outsider helps her forge her own path and build a more culturally nuanced “talking cure.” Starting from a vague desire to “help,” Selma learns why she really chose this path, which deepens both her practice and her clients’ lives.

The takeaway: Entrepreneurs know that the best laid (business) plans can fall apart fast. Many opportunities must be seen—and seized—on the fly. Only much later can we see why we started.


How to Build a Girl: Success at Your Own Expense Equals Failure

Courtesy of Protagonist Pictures

Coky Giedroyc’s UK film brings to life Caitlin Moran’s semi-autobiographical novel. Working-class ’90s teenager Johanna (a dynamite Beanie Feldstein) morphs into “Dolly Wilde,” a mean-spirited music journalist alter ego. Her scathing review of Queen, for example, bears the withering headline, “Bohemian Crapsody.”

Discussions of entrepreneurship often emphasize the value of failure. How to Build a Girl, however, reveals that failing can be a lot harder for a working-class girl stuck among posh bros. For Johanna, there’s no safety net if she doesn’t win, yet dudes set the terms for that “win.”

The more Johanna becomes Dolly, and the more men reward her, the more we see all the problems of her “success.” That makes for a refreshing feminist rebuke: Don’t mistake sexist cynicism for intelligence, let alone success.

No spoilers, but this well-written script will have women, especially those who’ve had to play “one of the guys,” cheering on nerdy, smart-girl Johanna long past the closing credits.

The takeaway: Trying to become someone you’re not isn’t worth it—even if all signs point to a win.


 Harriet: Don’t Lead Later, Lead Now


After directing the haunting Eve’s Bayou in 1997, Kasi Lemmons joined a coterie of Black American filmmakers who seemed on the cusp of transforming the film industry. Sadly that did not materialize thanks to persistent Hollywood racism.

Lemmons’ latest, Harriet, suggests a new day. It’s a suspenseful biopic of Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery and then returned to lead others to freedom along the Underground Railroad. Indeed, Harriet begs the question of why it took so long for the story of this amazing woman to reach the big screen.

Played with verve and grit by Cynthia Erivo, the diminutive Harriet displays a fierce will to eliminate slavery. Underestimated, even by herself at first, she begins in fear-driven flight, and then buoyed by faith and success, dives undaunted into leadership.

Harriet illustrates and intertwines three layers of Black female leadership—Harriet Tubman, Erivo in an Oscar-worthy performance, and Lemmons as auteur. For all three, defeat should have been inevitable, but they persevered.

The takeaway (in Harriet’s words): “I’ve come this far on my own, so don’t you dare tell me what I can’t do.”


Atlantics: Communities, Not Individuals, Generate Heroism


For those in social justice–driven enterprises, it’s hard to keep fighting the good fight, day after day. Directed by Mati Diop, this Senegalese-French-Belgian co-production, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes, is both ghost story and love story, a poetic, magical take on how we can keep on pressing on—if we don’t try to go it alone.

Atlantics opens with several men demanding, but not receiving, unpaid wages for their work on a half-finished high-rise in Dakar. From there, we see the relentless, sun-bleached ocean. Crashing waves foreshadow how the men will soon be doomed refugees, a juxtaposition that drives two star-crossed lovers apart.

Or do they part? Atlantics dives into magical realism to suggest that unresolved historical trauma will have the last say. Mourning women left behind start to embody the men’s ghosts—and demand retribution. Eschewing realism, Atlantics offers a powerful, poignant parable.

The takeaway: By acting as a community, substantive social change can unfold.


Three Summers: Adversity Can Reveal Surprising Allies


We don’t always know who our allies are until push comes to shove, and those who show up may not be whom we expect.

This Brazilian-French film, directed by Sandra Kogut, offers a canny exploration of class struggle. The legendary Regina Casé plays Madá, the lead housekeeper at a wealthy resort in Rio de Janeiro. Over three summers, we see how her boss’s white-collar crimes affect but do not defeat Madá.

Based on the real-life Operation Car Wash investigation in Rio, Three Summers isn’t interested in rich criminals. They’re more sad sacks than masterminds. Instead, the film spends time with the staff, mostly women led by Madá. They are as pragmatic and resourceful as they are funny and kind, even when caught in the crossfire.

Madá transitions from identifying with her employers to supporting her coworkers and strikes up a friendship with her ex-boss’s elderly father, Lira. He’s abandoned—like the staff—and considered useless by his own self-absorbed family. Three Summers builds a plucky collective of who’s left behind, and how they survive this failed (last?) resort.

The takeaway: Allies take surprising forms. We need to stay connected to those who show up for the hard work, for these allies will prove far more valuable in the end.

That’s a wrap! If you attended TIFF, what films made you leave the theatre inspired and ready to act?


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Activism & Action Our Voices Systems

The Wages of Tenacity

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: 

 

Categories
Activism & Action Systems

Oppression of Women Working in the Film Industry

Think you know your anger ceiling when it comes to oppression of women working in the film industry? Think again.

In a recent investigation piece in the New York Times Maureen Dowd reports on the oppression of women in the film and entertainment industry. Dowd spoke with over 100 female actresses, executives and filmmakers about how they have been systematically and routinely shut out from business opportunities that are readily available to their male counterparts.

However, this is not the first time women in the industry have spoken out against oppression in Hollywood.

In 1979 a group know as the “The Original Six” started the Directors Guild of America’s Women’s Steering Committee. They encouraged the Guild to launch a class action lawsuit in 1983 against the studios, which moved the number of women directors up by almost 16% in 10 years. During that time however, none of the six women got any work. Afterwards, most women directors and women in the industry would not speak out about the lack of opportunity because they were afraid of being blacklisted.

So what will it take to dismantle a sexist system where women feel like they can’t stand up for what they want or help other women, without jeopardizing their own success?

A more recent study by the University of Southern California found that only 1.9% of directors of the top-grossing 100 films of 2014 were women. Another report found that women represent just 16% of television directors. Dowd writes, “It’s hard to believe the number could drop to zero, but the statistics suggest female directors are slipping backward.

Prof. Martha Lauzen of San Diego State University reports that in 2014, 95 percent of cinematographers, 89 percent of screenwriters, 82 percent of editors, 81 percent of executive producers and 77 percent of producers were men.”

The Women of Hollywood Speak Out is our pick for this weekends dispatch. Before you dive in on your way to or from work, check out a few of our favorite quotations from her reporting below.

It’s kind of like the church. They don’t want us to be priests. They want us to be obedient nuns. Anjelica Huston, actress, director and producer

That’s another layer to the conversation — being a parent in Hollywood. While my kids are young, I am absolutely less aggressive in my career, because I aggressively want to be a mom. I’m more selective with my projects — and in the long run, that will be good for my career. Maggie Carey, writer, director

A big part of getting a ‘shot’ is about studio execs seeing themselves in you. As a woman and a black filmmaker, I’m often not that person. Dee Rees, writer, director and producer

You’d have to go to forklifters to find a lower percentage of females — 99 percent of people on my crew have never worked with a female director. A woman who’d been working as an extra for 30 years was on my set and told me: ‘I just want to tell you, right on, sister. Do you know how nice it is just to see a woman in charge?’ I kind of got teary. Denise Di Novi, producer and director

The idea that women don’t like each other or undermine or sabotage each other is a big myth. It is not true at all. Smart women connect with each other instantly and help one another. Patricia Riggen, director and producer

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Allied Arts & Media Our Voices

Going Against the Flow: New Documentary Film

Go Against the Flow is a new documentary film and movement that wants to empower young women to be risk takers and entrepreneurs. After college Go Against the Flow founder and Campaign Planner for LinkedIn, Charu Sharma, used all of her $22,000 savings alongside a grant from her employer to make a documentary film on revolutionary female co-founders of Cloudflare, Getaround, Kabam, Zinepak, Mightybell, Bridge Up: STEM, Women Who Code, Rockhealth and Malala Fund.

In Go Against the Flow, award-winning entrepreneur Charu Sharma brings together audacious female entrepreneurs who went against the flow and pioneered their own destinies. There has never been a better time to start a business, and no better way than to go in with your eyes open having learned from these great success stories. Baroness Joanna Shields, UK Minister for Internet Safety and Security

LinkedIn hosted an exclusive premier on November 11th, 2015. The film’s mission is to empower one million viewers by end of 2016. Sharma is asking for your support to help her raise the funds she needs to her bring the film to wider international audiences of high school and university students.

To actively help bring this documentary film to young women in high schools and universities donate to their Kickstarter campaign before it closes December 11th!

For more about the movement visit goagainsttheflow.com or follow Sharma on Twitter.