Interview with Brigid O’Shea

Brigid O'Shea, head of DOK Leipzig Industry

Brigid O’Shea is an Australian native who has been living and working in Germany for more than 10 years. After completing a fine arts degree in Melbourne and Berlin, she worked for the Berlinale Talents and later the Co-Production Market, as well as for the last 5 years organizing the DOK Leipzig Co-Production Meeting and related DOK Industry events. She has worked for various training documentary training initiatives like the Documentary Campus and Institute of Documentary Film in Prague, and gives workshops on European financing possibilities and co-production for beginners in places like North America and the Balkans, as well as in Germany. Brigid is head of DOK lndustry since 2015.

Please tell us about your career as a woman in the industry. Have you encountered any difficulties related to your gender?

I was born in 1985, grew up in Australia and although I never wondered necessarily if gender discrimination would affect my professional path in the coming years, certainly I believed that we were all on a linear, upwards and positive path to equality for all. I thought, as I aged, the world would become a fairer place. By the time I got to university, I realized that there were definitely different systems for men and women in the worlds of art & culture and that we were being “conditioned” for two different working realities. The balance between home and office, children & caring for family, making space for more than 40+ hours of work per week are extraordinarily difficult in this business, and I firmly believe, affect men and women completely differently. I routinely hear of men and women with very different paychecks in similar positions and levels of experience and certainly I’ve had to fight for everything I’ve achieved along the way. Throw into this the experience of being an immigrant and also not working in my native language (as now many of us must do!), working in a challenging industry as a (foreign) woman is not always easy. Nor is it easy to explain the absences due to the amount of travel I do each year or how much my job is also my life to friends and loved ones outside the industry. Sometimes I feel the festival I organize is an extension of myself, and I wonder if this also affects men and women equally because it certainly comes with a few sacrifices.

Particularly challenging to me was convincing the old established players of my “worthiness” in negotiations, at networking events, or presenting ideas in formal situations. I felt I had to justify my presence and then “scream” my ideas in order to be heard and my ideas taken seriously. I’ve become so used to this now that I find it no longer at all a difficulty, but certainly when I was forming my career it was a shock, as a naturally outgoing and opinionated person.

When I was struggling on one such occasion, a female colleague said to me, that I should never be ashamed for taking an opportunity that was in front of me. We are all learning and growing our ways into new professional roles, and a man in my situation would never feel the need to justify his hiring to his colleagues. I really cherished that and stopped making excuses for my success.

Through challenging moments, I have been extremely lucky to have been supported by some key industry and non-industry friends, colleagues and peers who have helped me navigate these challenges. These allies and mentors are both male and female, German and non-German and have provided me with opportunities, advice, inspiration and humor. We have tackled the difficulties I faced (lack of access to the network, inability to take vacation or extreme overtime due to perceived challenges, salary negotiation etc.) often collectively. Facing challenges in a group often diffuses their size and complexity.

And finally, because I never fit the “system” as I perceived it, being an outsider had benefits too. You can build your own system and invite all your friends! And then make others so jealous or films so good that the traditional system will want to join you.

How does being a woman reflect on your professional life today?

I’m at the beginning of the end of the beginning of my thirties (haha) and I wonder when exactly I will hit the glass ceiling or if I perhaps already have and what it will take to bust through it. I’ve been very lucky to have been offered professional possibilities I could only dream of or didn’t know existed, and I feel privileged to have had these chances. I wonder if my gender will affect my ability to step it up to the next level, or if my professionalism, reputation and network speak for themselves. I also wonder what will happen if I decided to take the time for a family and if I would be able to achieve the professional steps I would like. Again I feel very lucky to be surrounded by many women doing just this, but on the other hand I see that it is very hard work to balance an audiovisual career and child-raising, especially if you’re a freelance professional. But on the other hand, I try not worry about it and just be open to all possibilities, and navigate the challenges as they present themselves. I personally try very hard to be open with these kinds of worries, I don’t like the idea that we live in an age of taboo.

In this sense, I feel like it is extremely important that we are transparent with each other about our paychecks and professional worth. I’ve worked for DOK Leipzig now for 8 years, and if I was to change jobs, I would be very worried at underselling myself and negotiating a salary that is too low, because that affects all women. Every time we agree to a condition that is lower than a male counterpart (for whatever reason), we undercut each other everywhere. We can only control the conditions that we agree to, not what the first offer or overall project budget might be.

Which are the most urgent issues to be addressed to achieve gender equality within the industry? And which kind of initiatives would be the most efficient?

For freelance filmmakers, regardless of gender, the ability to list child-care fees as production costs! The standardization of parental leave across Europe so we all have the same system! But on a personal level (impact starts with what you can actually change yourself, as I don’t carry an EU passport there is basically no election I can take part in in Europe, a discussion for another day), I try to be always an advocate for female film professionals whenever I can. I talk about their films with other decision makers and film funds in Leipzig or when I travel to other festivals, I do my best to match-make professionals to strengthen and grow their networks, I discuss issues of structural inequality with the film funds and schools when I meet them, I count the number of female professionals on panels or in think tanks and tell their organizers when the numbers are imbalanced. I try to share every resource I have and talk as loudly as I can in the moments it counts. I advocate for the simple idea that all women want is the SAME chances as men to make great films, let us succeed, let us fail, but don’t hold us back from both.

The more I think about inequality in Europe, the more I also consider the role of quotas. With a certain time-limit, I wonder if they could make a real difference in creating change.

What advice would you give to women who access the industry?

Find one good friend and ally and then make friends with all their friends. No (wo)man is an island and a strong network is your best resource. Festival travel is so expensive and time consuming, use this network to advocate for you if you can’t attend yourself and really take the time to research the events that make sense to you. If you’re shy, find someone to talk on your behalf and be your best self. Also, unfortunately, take English lessons (even free ones) so you feel like you can express yourself in the crowd.

Who is your favorite female director?

Just one!? I would be embarrassed to single one out of the many friends I deeply respect. So I choose someone I have never met before: I love Nora Ephron. Mostly because she thought everything could be fixed by eating mashed potatoes.