As a filmmaker, Vera Zambonelli often likes to ask people to name three directors — which most can breeze right through. There is more trouble, though, when she asks them to name three female directors.
That question is often met with silence.
That likely is because of the dismal statistics when it comes to women in the film industry: According to a report by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, only 9 percent of the top grossing films of 2015 were helmed by a female director (and that represents a 2 percent increase from 2014). Low percentages persisted across various types of positions, including cinematographers (6 percent), writers (11 percent), producers (26 percent) and editors (22 percent).
It is figures like that that Zambonelli seeks to combat through her nonprofit, Hawaii Women in Filmmaking, which offers educational programs for girls and supports women in the industry.
“The connection that we make between those numbers is not only a question of gender gap in the industry … but it is also a question of all the stories that we don’t see,” she says. “What we strive to do is to put more girls and women behind the camera so we can see a more diverse and complex image in front of the camera.”
Part of the impetus for starting Hawaii Women in Filmmaking, Zambonelli admits, was a little bit selfish: She wanted to learn more about film herself. When she launched the group in 2011, she was still relatively new to film-making, and her first move was to host film professionals to talk about their work.
“I found that one of the best ways for me to learn about something that I have no clue about is to actually learn (from) other people who are already doing it,” she says.
“Sometimes I bring a teacher into the space so I can learn, too,” she adds with a laugh.
Her first brush with filmmaking came as a way to gather data for her Ph.D. dissertation in urban and regional planning at University of Hawaii. But as Zambonelli navigated her way through learning camera angles and recording sound, she found that she loved it.
And as she delved deeper into her new hobby, she learned about the gender gap within the industry — and decided to do something about it.
“I catalyzed my own anger in something positive and thought of the importance of creating a space where other women and girls who want to know more (or) pursue a career in filmmaking could thrive — where being a woman/girl does not engender inequality of opportunities.”
During the summer after she finished eighth grade, Caitlin Alvior entered Hawaii Women In Filmmaking’s Basic Reel program with a casual interest in making movies. By the end of the program, she emerged with a short film that went on to earn a spot in a HIFF student showcase.
Hawaii Women in Film-making’s Reel Camp for Girls program offers hands-on educational filmmaking opportunities for students in weeklong intensive courses. The classes, which include basic, advanced and animation, cover things such as setting up a shot and camera angles, while guiding them through story conceptualization to a completed film.
“It is really helpful for people who, like me, want to learn more,” Alvior says. “It is an outlet for people to learn and to get experience and know what the process is like.”
Now a senior at Mililani High School, Alvior now serves as a mentor for Reel Camp classes and dreams of becoming a producer, or perhaps a film editor, some day.
The camps are just part of Hawaii Women in Filmmaking, which also is comprised of programming targeting seasoned industry professionals. It hosts a monthly gathering featuring women involved in various aspects of film — curators, editors, teachers — to discuss their experiences. It also runs Making Media That Matters, an afterschool program that teaches film-making as a tool for social change, hosts yearly film festival Women of Wonders, and offers Work In Progress screenings, where filmmakers can share rough cuts of their works to get feedback.
But why have a group exclusively for women? It is a question that Zambonelli gets a lot.
The answer is perhaps illustrated by an exercise she employs in some of her sessions, in which she asks students if a film passes the Bechdel Test. Developed in a comic strip by Alison Bechdel in the 1980s, passing the Bechdel Test requires that a film have two or more female characters having a conversation with each other about something other than a man.
While it doesn’t suggest anything about the quality of a movie, it is a way, Zambonelli explains, to get people to start examining how women are portrayed on screen and what sort of gender norms are presented.
“It highlights the invisibility of women on the screen,” she says. “It is more likely that women on screen are either the girlfriend, or the mother, or the sister.
“It is one of those vicious cycles — because if you don’t see (other representations), you don’t think that you can. And that goes for women in politics, women in leadership roles,” she continues. “And what we are trying to undo is exactly that — if you start seeing it, then it becomes kind of normal.”
Hawaii Women in Filmmaking operates out of the Hawaii Filmmakers Collective in Kaimuki. For more information, visit hawaiiwomeninfilmmaking.org.
It’s going to be a busy next few months for Hawaii Women in Filmmaking. Here’s some of the programming it’s got lined up. Applications for the upcoming Reel Camp programs currently are being accepted.
Spooky Intensive Reel Camp
Oct. 28-30. A chance for girls to make their own scary movie. Participants should come with a story outline (think zombies, ghosts and monsters), props and a cast.
Women of Wonders Film Festival
The annual film fest is set to return Dec. 2-4. Submissions are accepted through Oct. 16.
Basic Reel Camp
Jan. 2-7, 2017. Covers filmmaking process from storyboarding to shooting to editing.
Jan. 9-13, 2017. Covers basic principles of animation filmmaking.
Stop Motion Reel Camp
Jan. 16-20, 2017. Covers basic principles of stop motion film.
Making Media That Matters
Jan. 20 April 28, 2017. Girls use film to analyze social issues.