Part of the Solution: An Interview with Debra Zimmerman

debbie_portrait-300x251If you ask people in the film business what their dream project would be, you are bound to hear about multi-million dollar budgets or box office hits. Sure they are great things to aspire to but for me it is a simpler yet harder goal to achieve. My dream project would be walking on to a set and seeing women out number men.

As I have written here before, when you crunch the numbers of women working behind the screens it is pretty dismal. Looking at the See Jane research it is no better on the screen.

But would you believe this is an improvement? When I sat down with Women Make Movies Executive Director Debra Zimmerman I was reminded that we have made some inroads.

“I remember in the late 80s being on a panel with the African American filmmaker Michelle Parkerson and we could count on two hands – if not one hand – the number of African American female filmmakers in the entire United States,” she recalls.

“Now we see hundreds if not thousands of films a year made by women. Women are 50% of the film schools. You can’t open up a major newspaper in any city without seeing a film by a woman. It’s incredibly different but unfortunately we still have a long way to go.”

Debra is a woman I have admired for many years. For the past 30 years she has been at the helm of Women Make Movies, a non-profit film distribution company that distributes films for and by women. Our face-to-face chat is at Hot Docs, North America’s largest documentary conference and festival.

This year she is receiving the Doc Mogul award, recognition for her years of work in the documentary industry. However there is a real irony to this award.

“Although there are so many women filmmakers attending Hot Docs and that’s to their credit, it still is disturbing to look through the catalogue and see lots of films by men,” she says. “It is almost all full of films by and about men. Some of them are by women but they are about men and it is very disturbing.”

Debra has what you could call a post festival ritual. She sits and devours the festival programme collating her own statistics on how many films were made by women about women. What she has found is not encouraging and makes me grateful Women Make Movies exists.

“We are supposed to go out of business because we are supposed to reach equity,” implores Debra. “But I have to say we won’t be going out of business any time soon.”

As a female filmmaker who struggles with the inequities of this industry I turn to Debra for advice on how we can advocate for a more equal workplace.

“You know my way of doing advocacy has always been to do what we do really well,” she advises. “We don’t go around screaming really loud about the issues facing women but I do feel like I am going to say something tomorrow at the (Doc Mogul) luncheon because it is just so upsetting that it is 2013 and I have been doing this for 30 years.”

While the frustrations of fighting for equal representation both on and off the screen can get to the best of us, Debra is not going anywhere soon. This committed and talented Mogul is in for the long fight.

Published on: Jul 8, 2013, Discordia