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The Telling Stories of Babe Nation

Lindsay Tapscott, left, and Katie Bird Nolan founded female-driven production company Babe Nation six years ago (Photo: Talia Ricci/CBC)

 

INTERIOR. Emily and Lola clothing shop. Montreal. Summer, 2010.


LINDSAY TAPSCOTT (28), an unemployed University of Toronto English literature grad who recently moved to Montreal on a whim, enters the shop to drop off her CV. She is about to depart when the store clerk, KATIE BIRD NOLAN (21), aspiring actor working part-time to pay rent, calls after her: “Wait a sec, is your dad’s name John?” 

Lindsay turns around nodding, and the moment becomes more surreal as Katie announces that her mom is Ingrid Bird, the woman who spent years travelling through Europe with Lindsay’s father, John Tapscott.

CUT TO:

EXTERIOR. Six months later. Balcony of a Mile End apartment in Montreal. 1:30 a.m.
A group of 20-something women are drinking wine, laughing, getting to know each other. Lindsay has moved in with two of Katie’s friends who needed a roommate. Lindsay and Katie discover they both went to theatre school, like the same movies. They laugh about their fluke encounter, as if they were kindred spirits brought together by the magic of Montreal. They joke about growing up listening to stories about each other’s parent, their travel adventures together. Three decades later, John and Ingrid have lost touch so it’s a fun surprise when Lindsay and Katie announce their chance encounter. Both parents insist they had a platonic relationship all those years ago.
Katie: “Can you imagine if we were long lost sisters?”
Lindsay: “Ha! Sounds like something out of a film.”

Is That How Film Companies Launch?

INTERIOR. Next day.
Katie excitedly types on her laptop. She immediately calls Lindsay: “I have a ridiculous idea for a web series. Do you want to write it with me?”
Lindsay, without missing a beat: “Sure. How hard can it be?”

FAST FORWARD three years to 2013. Katie and Lindsay are sharing an apartment in Toronto, dubbed “babe nation” by Katie’s boyfriend. They are writing and making short films on microbudgets of $2,500 or less, either crowdfunded or paid for out of pocket. They try out Babe Nation as the name for their fledgling film company as a semi-joke. But the more they use it, the better it sounds.

Babe Nation: It’s about their deep connection and friendship, their feminist values and work ethic, their off-beat sense of humour, and also their raison d’etre: to focus on women-centred stories and hack away at the disproportionate opportunities that flow to men in the male-dominated industry.

When actor Vanessa Matsui came to them looking for producers for her web series, Ghost BFF, they jumped on board. The tone and subject matter suited Babe Nation: a dark comedy about female friendship and suicide. They learned to raise “real money” by nailing the “Canadian film financing model” — a combination of government funding from places such as Telefilm Canada, Ontario Creates, and often tax credits, presales, grants, and advances. The budget for season one — nearly $250,000 — enabled multi-day shoots, higher production values and a hit show. The budget for season two of the series tripled, with funding coming in from the Bell Fund, Canadian Media Fund (CMF), and a sale to Shaftsbury Films and KindaTV.

Perfectionists by nature, Katie and Lindsay took the first few years to establish their brand and understand the types of stories they wanted to tell. Influences include author Zadie Smith and producers Christine Vachon and Margot Robbie. Katie describes their “brand” stories as “slightly left of centre but with a really strong statement.” Rather than sexy sleepover movies with girls in bikini lingerie, they produce stories for an intelligent female audience. Subject matter includes loss, depression, and belonging. Characters are three-dimensional — both strong and fallible, vulnerable and ballsy, sometimes despicable yet relatable. They are smart and funny, much like the producers. “For us it’s about attaching ourselves to projects that depict female stories the way women want to be depicted, not the way men have been depicting them forever.”

They also learned to trust the “weird particles” that surround their projects, the same energy that brought them together in the first place. And they established one abiding ground rule when choosing projects: Both must love the project to the point of obsession. “Producing is so hard,” says Katie. If you’re not obsessed with the thing, why would you do it?”

How to Fight Sexism in Show Biz?

CUT TO: CLOSE UP: Women in View On Screen 2019 Report. Analyzed data of funded projects finds, surprise, that the way to get more women in film and TV is to support more women producers.  Calling it “The Producer Effect,” the report shows that a producer’s identity impacts who gets hired on a project. Women producers worked with more women on their team; women of colour producers worked with more women of colour; Indigenous producers worked with a far greater percentage of Indigenous women; men producers worked with more men. And male-produced projects received more funding.

Icky insider sexism sheds light on the impact of those stats on women.

Alanna Francis, Sophie Nélisse, Katie Bird Nolan, Aisling Chin-Yee,Heather Graham, Lindsay Tapscott, Jodi Balfour

INTERIOR. 2019. Berlin International Film Festival.

A large conference area bustling with industry types in stylish glasses, fashionable shoes, and egos that struggle to fit through the door.

CUT TO: Private meeting room.
The Babe Nation producers meet with an international SALES AGENT (55), bald, white, male. He stares at Katie’s chest the entire meeting. “I’m normally not interested in Canadian producers but you two look very exciting,” says the agent, his voice dripping with condescension.

Katie fakes a smile. Lindsay tries to tell the agent about their film. The guy cuts her off, his eyes now on Lindsay’s bright red lipstick: “Young ladies like you can have a very bright future you know.”
Lindsay tries to continue her pitch but the guy interrupts her again: “I mean look at you. This is Berlin! This is the big league!”
The two women read each other’s energy: Time to cut this short. “You’re right,” Katie says as they stand up to leave. “And we’re going to see more of the market now, thank you very much.”

CUT TO: INTERIOR. Meeting room. Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), 2019.
Babe Nation has booked a meeting with another sales agent – also white, middle-aged, male. He’s running seriously late.
Katie paces the room: “We could have had another entire meeting with someone else by now.”
Lindsay sighs: “Maybe two! One for each of our films in this festival!”

Finally, a SLICK DUDE IN BLUE JEANS saunters in. He wears a smarmy grin and a shirt unbuttoned at the neck, one button too low. “Well, hello there,” he coos, sliding his glasses to the end of his nose. “Babe Nation, isn’t it?”

This time, the women don’t waste another minute. “Correct,” Katie says, “and we need to be somewhere else.”

CLOSE UP: Gender Parity Action Plan, announced by Telefilm Canada, 2016. Babe Nation seizes opportunity. They enter the industry on a wave of increasing support for women. The Telefilm plan aims to “prioritize projects whose key creatives (director and/or writer and/or producer) reflect the diversity of the country in terms of gender, Indigenous communities or cultural diversity.” Results of its gender parity initiatives for projects funded during the 2019/2020 fiscal year show an increase in funding for projects with women in key roles.

Babe Nation, through their own hustle and networking, sought out incredible mentors in seasoned pros Damon D’Oliveira and Christina Piovesan, who introduced them to financers and became executive producers for their two features, The Rest of Us and White Lie.

How to Level the Playing Field For All?

CLOSE UP: Reelworld Film Festival and Reelworld Screen Institute Changing the Narrative Report: 2020 Status of Canadian Black, Indigenous and People of Colour in Canada’s Screen-Based Production Section. The report suggests a disproportionate amount of funding goes to white creators, while BIPOC creators receive smaller amounts targeted at emerging talent. A lack of BIPOC professionals on selection committees for funding decisions is cited as one reason for the disparity.

Babe Nation took note, recognizing their own white privilege. While they have worked with a number of women of colour, the relationships were unplanned and coincidental. Says Lindsay: “When there’s a sense we’re not doing enough from a creator standpoint we push ourselves further to do more.” They signed the producer pledge to take immediate action to acknowledge and dismantle systemic racism in the Canadian film and television industry, by committing to radical change. For example, when considering a project now, Babe Nation has committed to thinking more critically about the storyteller. Women always take first priority, but they’re now diving deeper and asking, is this someone we haven’t heard from before? Is this a BIPOC artist who is short on opportunities, or a younger woman without a lot of experience? In terms of paying it forward, they are currently mentoring two young producers working on their first feature.

The Feminist Future: Exhausting? Exhilarating?

From L to R: Heather Graham, Alanna Francis, Aisling Chin-Yee, Katie Bird Nolan, Sophie Nélisse, Daniel Grant, Abigail Pniowsky, Jodi Balfour // Photo supplied by Babe Nation

This year marks Babe Nation’s fifth as an incorporated company with substantial successes: two seasons of a major web series, two films at TIFF, two projects in advanced development, and four others in the works, including an adaptation of Bonjour Tristesse, Françoise Sagan’s 1950s controversial novel (it took three years to secure the rights) with Durga Chew-Bose writing the screenplay; and a feature by writer Alanna Francis about coercive abuse within female friendships.

So how are they handling the success? “Little sleep and a lot of anxiety,” Lindsay jokes. They are eager to hire more people, such as a junior producer and a business affairs person, but aren’t quite there, financially. A near goal is to score a studio deal so they can spend more time and energy in creative development instead of crunching numbers.

While the pair never set out to create a feminist company, they believe they grew into one as an extension of their own personal values. For writers and crewing a production, women are their first choice and often become lifelong friends and collaborators. To them, feminism is about equality, working collectively, and providing opportunities for people to voice their opinions in the creative development process. “We hear from the people we work with that our sets are an anomaly, which is equally lovely and horrifying,” says Lindsay.

Keeping their brand feminist-focused requires hands-on involvement in everything: chasing after scripts, optioning material, working on creative development with writers and directors, securing financing, marketing, and meeting with agents to sell their projects. “Our brand is as strong as it is because it is the two of us that have our hand in everything,” says Katie.

Still, their company name has raised eyebrows. How can Babe Nation be a feminist label? To the producers, the name is bold, tongue-in-cheek, even intimidating, invoking a place — a nation — where strong women unite, encourage and support each other. A place where women create generative work together, and tell stories that have gone untold for too long. But do they really want to be called Babe Nation when they’re 75 years old?

The two picture the scene, roaring with laughter.

FLASH FORWARD:

INTERIOR. Cannes Film Festival. 2060.
Katie and Lindsay stand in the wings of a glittering silver stage. They lean on their walkers as they sip champagne. The ANNOUNCER says, “And now, please welcome, the recipient of this year’s lifetime achievement award for change making cinema, Babe Nation!”
Lindsay peers at their company name, in big lights. “Did you really imagine we’d get here?”
Katie pushes a grey lock from her face. “Yes, of course.” Lindsay releases the brakes on her walker. “Me too.”


Publishers Note:  Babe Nation 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. 


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Related Reading:

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

The Power of Two

The Wages of Tenacity

Categories
Activism & Action Allied Arts & Media

Virtual reality—leads new reality?

Joanne-Aśka Popińska and her partner Tom Hall, cofounders of Tribe of Pan. Photo via Instagram.

If I say “virtual reality” your response is not likely to be “the next tool in the arsenal of progressive social movements.” VR has been relegated to the game space; it’s expensive, the headsets (helmets, really) are clunky, and it takes vision to imagine how the technology can be a weapon for good. But Toronto-based Tribe of Pan—headed by Joanne-Aśka Popińska and her husband and business partner, Tom Hall—is using VR to change minds in the worldwide struggle for access to safe, legal abortion. Okay, I was skeptical too, until I jumped on a meandering yet fascinating Zoom with Tribe of Pan.

Joanne and Tom dressed in dark, comfortable clothes—relics from the days when they met working on 3D-movie sets. Joanne explains, “I’m a sociologist, and I came to Canada from Poland to work on 3D movies in 2013. Funnily enough, 3D movies died when I came to Canada. I killed them,” she says, punctuating the story with a laugh.

The partners initially bonded over their dismay at the macho climate of film sets. Joanne describes her disillusionment: “Film is this vessel for change. Society is changed by movies, but on film sets even though we had Me Too, [the sexist attitude] is still there.” Tom agrees, adding, “The making of a film is an inherently toxic experience for everybody involved.”

So they quit their jobs to start Tribe of Pan, looking to do interesting work that was also socially meaningful.

Educating Humanity

Tribe of Pan also committed to having different values than the average film production company. Joanne recounts when she, a lifelong vegan, worked on a film glorifying meat that made her question her career path. She thought about how to have more control over the projects she worked on. She and Tom “wanted to do something that is either fun or has meaning, and to work with people we want to work with.” She pauses and looks at her partner. “VR technology is super new, super expensive, but our logo is an ape in a headset. The name is from a zoological term. The tribe of pan encompasses the great apes, who are closest to humans. It speaks to what we want to do as a company: to show the subject’s humanity.” That concept of educating humanity remains central to the company’s work.

Joanne started to think about abortion rights in 2016, when the situation for women in her native Poland became dire. After discussing it with Canadian friends and others, she and Tom embarked on their VR abortion rights documentary, The Choice. It had a successful but exhausting Kickstarter in January 2018, timed around Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration. The Choice uses proprietary technology developed by Tribe of Pan to bring more immediacy to VR. Their tech is a stereoscopic volumetric camera which harnesses 3D-cinematography to create a realistic experience of interacting with another person.  Joanne and Tom are equally passionate about this technology—which they see as key to using interactive VR for social change—as their mission.

Getting Real With Stories

For The Choice, they theorized that if they could film women telling their stories and answering questions (about why they had chosen to abort their pregnancies), the film might be able to change people’s minds. What was missing in the abortion debate was personal stories. Joanne explains, “I think what works best is personal conversation. It’s much easier to find connections through talking, even if you’re on the other side politically. We used virtual reality to introduce these women directly to the viewer.” For their first interview, they chose a woman whose story was both relatable and terrible. She and her husband had planned the pregnancy, and she was 13 weeks along when she was rushed to the hospital with bleeding. Her doctor reassured her it was because she had been walking too much the night before. As she lived in Texas, however, her doctor was permitted to conceal medical information to head off an abortion. Six weeks later, she went to a doctor in another city who confirmed the fetus had serious abnormalities, including Turner’s Syndrome, which reduced the chances of the fetus’s survival to one percent.

“The idea behind The Choice is that you put on the VR headset and talk to women who had abortions and they share their personal stories,” Joanne says. Thanks to Tribe of Pan’s technology, you can also ask the woman questions and get real answers. Their technology makes the VR figure more lifelike, with light in their eyes and realistic contours on their skin. Their tech is also mobile so you can use it anywhere—not just on the huge (and expensive) stages the industry relies upon.

Joanne-Aśka Popińska, cofounder, Tribe of Pan. Photo: Canadian Film Centre

Joanne interviewed the Texas woman for days, trying to film answers to all the questions a curious person would ask—even one hostile to abortion rights. She and Tom comprised the crew, from planning the shoot to doing all of the post-production work. Their two-minute film was designed to raise funds, which they are still seeking. In the meantime, they are busy helping clients tell VR stories, including the City of Toronto and XL Outerworlds, a company making a 3D IMAX film which is a collaboration between five Canadian artists. Among their socially conscious projects is a VR tour of the Ernestine Women’s Shelter, which they made to raise consciousness about the plight of victims of domestic violence.

Funding has been difficult because of the controversial subject matter of The Choice. The company applied for Canadian grants at both the provincial and national levels with no success. They did win two Kaleidoscope grants, which are awarded by the VR community, but the amounts were way too small to fund The Choice. Joanne says that readers can help directly by making a donation to their PayPal account. They are also looking for potential sponsors and partners in the private sector.

Yet the project has already been transformative. “I didn’t expect a two-minute film to have this effect. We had some anti-choice people at a local VR conference in 2018 trying the headset on after telling us directly why they are anti-choice and why we’re doing an awful thing. I said, can you just give it a try?” They plan to make the existing film the first chapter in a series of six stories which will comprise the documentary (they hope to release it in late 2020 or early 2021).

Joanne continues, “One guy put the headset on and after two minutes, he took it off and was silent. Then he said, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t think about it this way.’ Later he introduced us to other people, saying this is a very powerful project.” Tribe of Pan know that they have a potent weapon that can influence the abortion debate, even if change happens one headset at a time.


Publishers Note:  Tribe of Pan is a member of Fifth Wave Connect,  Canada’s first feminist entrepreneur and 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. Interested? Apply here. The Fifth Wave is a LiisBeth Media partner. 


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Related reading:

The Power of Two

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

 

Categories
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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