Australian actor Simone Ball blasts gender inequity at Tropfest in open letter

18 February, 2016 by Simone Ball Santamaria

Simone Ball.

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On Sunday night, almost 100,000 Sydneysiders flocked to Centennial Park to enjoy Tropfest, the largest short-film festival in the world, renowned for showcasing and celebrating Australia’s emerging film talent. Emerging male talent, anyway. 

This year’s films included stories of an Australian ex-boxer battling the bottle, unlikely Taylor Swift fans, identical twins, and a best friend with a dangerous secret. There were comedies, documentaries and animations. The films were diverse in story, but sadly not in gender. 

For me – as an actor, a female, an advocate for equality and for the Australian film and television industry – it was this imbalance that stole the show. 

Of the sixteen finalists, only one was female. As for female talent featured in the films, if you blinked you might have missed her. 

As Simon Baker said as he presented the award for best female actor to Natalie Bassingthwaighte for her role in the film Would I Lie, “women were grossly under-represented in the acting department tonight.” And I don’t mean to detract from Nat Bass’s performance or her abilities, but she had zero competition for this award. 

Tropfest founder John Polson told Inside Film last year that the number of female entrants and female finalists traditionally hovered around twenty percent, “marginally better than the industry standard, but still way too low." 

But twenty percent of finalists weren’t female this year – not even ten percent were. 

In fact, since 2010, there have only been 18 female finalists out of a total of 96 shortlisted films.

Sadly the issue of gender inequality isn’t exclusive to Tropfest. It’s an industry and society-wide problem. 

The gender imbalance in the Australian film industry is significant. And according to Screen Australia, the imbalance is most notable in film. Of the feature films funded by Screen Australia in the past five years, twenty-three percent were written by women, thirty-two percent produced by women, and just fifteen percent directed by women. Of the best performing Australian films last year, only fourteen percent were directed by women. 

This is not about a lack of female talent. There is a surplus of exceptional female actors, directors, writers and producers emerging (and emerged) in this country. And there are just as many women as men pursuing careers in Australia’s film industry. Statistics from the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) show that forty-eight percent of graduates in screenwriting, producing and directing between 1973 and 2015 were women – yet only a small portion of these woman are getting their work on screen. 

So where are all the stories by, for and about women? 

Has someone forgotten that women make up over fifty-one percent of the Australian population? There is a whole market out there waiting to be capitalised upon. And our stories must reflect the diverse and important role that women play in our society.

Without true gender equality in film, we not only eliminate half our audience and half our stories, but we discourage female filmmakers entering the market. A market which is hard enough to break into even for men. And the less women there are, the more the imbalance grows. It’s a vicious cycle. 

It is encouraging to know that Screen Australia is aware of the issues of gender imbalance and last year committed $5 million to a suite of initiatives to address the inequality within the Australian screen industry.  And also that Polson himself is “disappointed” by the number of females represented in Tropfest, and welcomes conversation on how to “increase the number of women entering Tropfest, as well as women getting more equal opportunities in the industry as a whole”. 

More needs to be done, and it needs to be done yesterday. Because it’s 2016, and I still find myself on a Sunday night watching men telling stories made by men. Tropfest is supposed to put a spotlight on the future screen talent of our nation – next year, I really hope it includes the other half of it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  • James

    Why isn’t she calling for 50% plumbers to be female? Or 50% bricklayers? Because film is a glamour industry that gets lots of media time.

    Tropfest is free to enter. So why didn’t more women get up and go make a film to enter? There were only 20% female entrants. This could MAYBE be taken to mean that women are repressed and held back. Or maybe it means women aren’t as interested in making films as men are. Just as women aren’t as interested in being plumbers as men are. But when you’re in the middle of it, like Simone, and you have a lot of female friends and you all sit around lamenting the lack of women in film, it feels like it’s an all-encompassing issue. It’s not.

    Why aren’t you pulling statistics from the credits of all these films (off youtube) and looking at how many male names are in the credits vs female names? Then calling for 50% women gaffers, 50% women electrics, 50% women everything. You can’t just cherry pick directing and acting and “blast” tropfest. It’s not their fault your female friends didn’t enter more films.

    How about this? Next year, a requirement of entry is that there are zero up-front credits, and when films are watched and selected for finalists, they press stop before the credits roll. That way you don’t know which director was male and which was female. Films should be chosen on merit, not what gender the crew was.

  • John Chapman

    For true equality the best female and male actor categories should be abolished altogether having just one award for Best Actor.
    There are no awards for best female and male writers, producers and directors, so why actors?

  • James

    Disappointing that IF has not published comments on this story. I though I was being quite objective.

    1) Why call for 50% directors / producers / actors but not get equally upset about 50% plumbers, electricians, garbos? Why not 50% women gaffers, set decorators? Why not 50% men producers? You can’t cherry pick roles and demand equality in some.

    2) There’s no barrier to entry to tropfest. If more women want to be represented, more women should make films. The winner this year was made in 4 days on the floor of a house with a consumer-grade camera. There is no glass ceiling to the ability to get off your butt and make a film and submit it.

    That’s not to say there aren’t valid issues and concerns in what Simone raises. She is just being selective about her battles.

  • Gemma Thornton

    I entered a film into this years tropfest, unfortunately it was not selected as a finalist, but of my shooting crew all were female except a for a production assistant. So thats director, producer, cinematographer, audio, 1st AD, writer, and make up. definitely plenty of females getting into the industry. Also I thought Tropfest was supposed to be a competition for amataur film makers. Why are there so many clearly not amateur film makers or actors in these films, with obviously huge budgets?

  • Danelle

    Thanks for your article Simone. My curiosity about the potential impact of unconscious bias has been piqued. Another bit of info that would be helpful (for me at least) in terms of progressing the discussion is the diversity of the panel/s deciding who is shortlisted and then of course those who are successful. The Tropfest site refers to celeb artists who have participated in the past at various times – around 7 out of 25 of whom are women – but that’s not an indicator of gender balance on the panels over the years. Any chance of finding out?

  • Bobby Galinsky

    While I appreciate the letter and am one for equality on all levels, there is no “fix” for this. If Simone would like more films by and for and about women, and there are not more female entrants at Tropfest, how does one ‘fix’ that? Do we have forced minimum or force the judges to have a minimum in some kind of Affirmative Action plan?

    I personally don’t care if each and every film at Tropfest or in the Academy Awards or Golden Globes was directed by women, written by women, and had more than 51% of the cast and crew as women, so very respectfully for women to feel underrepresented by it, the only ‘fix’ is to go out, write the stories, option the material, raise the money, gather the cast and crew, go out and shoot it. If the judges don’t choose it at Tropfest or Cannes or Flickerfest or the West Jesus Lord Howe Island Leper Fest well, who really cares if the film finds an audience elsewhere.

    You have to become PRODUCERS of your material and go get the money and you will control your destiny. Investors who are predominantly male are more likely to part with funds to a woman with a vision. And a female producer has that advantage plus being able to after the financially endowed ‘sisterhood’ for funding. That’s not fiction, that’s fact. Don’t wait around for anyone else to do what you can do.

    Regarding this year’s Tropfest finalists? Maybe they wasn’t good enough? Maybe the judges were misogynistic? Maybe Jada Pinkett Smith is a CGU shareholder and sent the Tropfest sponsors a note saying only pick black females at Tropfest this year and there weren’t any?

    The answer to every problem is at our own fingertips. The writer / director/ film maker who wants more of (Blank) needs to go out and make it happen him (or her)self.

    I am sympathetic to your desires and wants, but I am not sympathetic to having someone legislate or ‘fix’ what you can go out and fix yourselves.

    The world awaits with open arms, Simone.

    There is no conspiracy other than the one that you might be imagining. This could be the trigger for female film makers everywhere to ‘just do it’

  • Scot McPhie

    So the amount of female entrants is approximately 20% and the amount of female finalists is approximately 20% – so what’s the problem?

    Have you ever thought maybe women are choosing not to enter it? Maybe they’re just not interested, maybe they’ve got better things to do. There is literally nothing stopping them from entering if they want to – it has never ever been easier to make low or no budget movies than it is now. There’s no structural repression at this end of the industry – maybe further up, but not at this end that Tropfest represents.

  • Hugh

    A better headline for this story would be “Actress of no note tries to promote herself by complaining.”

    Tropfest is a level playing field. Anyone can enter. But the festival will most certainly not select films for the Top 16 simply because the director is female. This is discrimination. Films are selected on merit and always will be, no matter how much minor actresses like Ball cry and complain.

    Did Ball herself submit an entry? This article doesn’t say she did. Seems she just wants to whinge.

  • James Ricketson

    Simone

    You write: “Of the sixteen finalists, only one was female.”

    Did the judges discriminate against female filmmakers?

    I do not know who the judges were but if one or more were women perhaps you (or IF magazine) should ask them.

    “John Polson told Inside Film last year that the number of female entrants and female finalists traditionally hovered around twenty percent, “marginally better than the industry standard…”

    Whose fault is it that only 20% of Tropfest entrants are women? In this day and age any young man or woman armed with a mobile phone and with access to a home computer editing system can make a film. Tropfest is a celebration of imagination; not a competition to see who can access big budgets. A film make for $100 can be demonstrably better than one made for $100,000.

    Some basic maths is required here. You write: “In fact, since 2010, there have only been 18 female finalists out of a total of 96 shortlisted films.”

    18 out of 96 is roughly 20%. And the number of female entrants is roughly 20%. What is the problem?

    You write “…in the past five years, twenty-three percent were written by women, thirty-two percent produced by women, and just fifteen percent directed by women. Of the best performing Australian films last year, only fourteen percent were directed by women.”

    These statistics mean nothing unless we know what percentage of projects considered for funding were written, produced and/or had women directors attached. If only 20% had women directors attached, for instance, that only 14% were directed by women may not be a shocking statistic at all, as it seems to be in the absence of statistical context.

    As for your observation that only 14% of “best performing Australian films” were directed by women, whose fault is this? Could it be that the films did not ‘perform’ well not because audiences discriminate against films made by women directors but because they were not films that audiences (male and female) found entertaining?

    I have written about the question of gender equity and quotas – to be found here for you and anyone else interested in what I believe is an important debate to be had:

    http://jamesricketson.blogspot.com/2016/02/adg-calls-for-50-of-feature-films-to-be.html

    cheers

  • Gloria

    Looking forward to Simone directing, producing, writing and starring in her own short film Tropfest entry next year. Or perhaps she only writes ‘open’ letters.

  • James

    Are you guys going to publish ANY comments at all?
    Why does she get to say something and no one else gets to reply?
    Tropfest is free to enter. It takes no resources to make a winning short film, evidenced by this year’s winner. So, what is she complaining about? That not enough women had a go? She seems to imply that women were deliberately not selected as finalists.

  • Jessica

    Tropfest founder John Polson told Inside Film last year that the number of female entrants and female finalists traditionally hovered around twenty percent…

    But twenty percent of finalists weren’t female this year – not even ten percent were.

    In fact, since 2010, there have only been 18 female finalists out of a total of 96 shortlisted films.”

    18/96 = ?

    Perspective.