Interview with Betty Schiel

Sarah Hurtes
Sarah Hurtes

A conversation with the German film director, journalist and activist, Betty Schiel

EWA had the pleasure of meeting Betty Schiel at this year’s Women in Films Festival in Paris. A distinguished German film director, journalist and activist, Betty expressed her views on the film industry’s gender gaps with lucidity and sass. Evolving from a film study background with a special focus on feminist film theory, Betty has been a Programmer since 1997 for the annualDortmund|Cologne International Women’s Film Festival which began this April 8th. Betty takes part in selecting films directed by women according to each year’s specific theme. Last year’s theme being EXCESS, Betty went through the whole film history of that theme and selected films which’s cinematic language spoke in unique and thrilling ways to the eye.

Why did you choose to take part in a women’s film festival?

During my 7 years of film studies, I think I must have seen 2 films directed by women. When I went to the cinema, it was all movies directed and produced by men – only Sally Potter stood out as a female film director. You have no idea how depressing it all was for me. When I heard there was such a thing as a festival showcasing films only made by women, I couldn’t believe it! At the beginning it was an incredibly new concept, I saw stories on films that I had never seen before, it brought a whole new perspective on screen. For a women film maker to realize that she is not one in a million, to meet other women in the industry and discuss topics in depth and in length in a secure and friendly space – well - it’s a very special experience. Of course I came to realize that not all films directed by women are films I enjoy. It’s not enough to have a woman behind the camera, what’s also important is the story behind the film, the formal approach and the attitude of the filmmaker. I’ve therefore grown to equally value cultural diversity. Most movies are made my middle class people who go to good film schools – it makes me wonder – what else is out there?

Can you expand on why you think “It’s not enough to have a woman behind the camera, what’s also important is the story behind the film”?

For example this year at theDortmund|Cologne International Women’s Film Festival, we debated the issue of violence against women portrayed on screen. We have come to realize that displaying rape in films has been very popular these past years – scenes that are explicitly showing the whole rape incident. This is equally portrayed in films made by women. At some point you’ve got to stop and think – what kind of images are we creating? How much can you show rape without glamorizing the act? There are directors out there such as Jasmila Zbanic who manage very well to portray incidences of sexual violence without falling into this glorifying trap, but that’s because they know the subject with a deeper level of understanding then most. Another example can be seen with many Western directors; both men and women who go to Third World countries and create films out of people’s misery – again, what kind of images are they creating! I really believe that in the past there was a much stronger alliance between the blacks, feminists and gay movements, altogether working to create cohesive messages. I don’t feel that this is happening today, most people simply run after their individual funding.

During this year’s Women in Films Festival’s panel on Women in Cinema, you said that feminist is seen as a dirty word. Can you explain what you mean by this?

It’s not very sexy to call yourself a feminist. I don’t think it’s a dirty word but I have the feeling that many achievements made from this movement are now historicized. Many believe that feministic goals have long been achieved in the West and that in regions such as Africa or the Middle East they are extremely far behind. It’s almost as if people like to draw a timeline where they can measure and compare how advanced countries are from one to another. I don’t believe in that at all, I perceive the world altogether despite its contrasts, to historicize feminism is to pretend living in a bubble. There are many female directors who struggle to finance their films wherever they are, and quickly attribute this to their individualistic fault, when in fact it often comes from broader structural inequalities in the film industry. Of course many men similarly struggle to find funding – money is not so widespread in this highly competitive industry - but it comes to no surprise that great deals of movies are completed by men and not by women. And that’s not even because the number of female film directors is scarce – especially for short films and documentaries – but because when it comes to big budget productions they all tend to vanish! In other fields such as those of camera operators the level of women is simply very low. This is why it would be extremely interesting to have exact numbers and I think EWA can be really helpful at this level.

How do you think the film industry can address the issue of gender equality in the industry in a way that’s appealing to others?

That’s a difficult question – especially when there are so many who hold prejudices against the entire realm of gender. When it comes to mobilizing crowds on issues affecting the film industry itself, I think it’s important to create pleasant atmospheres for people to view films and think about what they’re seeing. This will then open up creative spaces for them to debate what they’re screening and how this affects their reality. For example many Turkish directors are doing a great job at the moment in Germany, where they present their films to the public with themselves and their actors present. They then organize thematic debates around their movies and create exciting opportunities for people to discover something other than donor kebabs - and all that in a fun and interacting way! At the Dortmund|Cologne International Women’s Film Festival, we focus on selecting films that are artistically very interesting in order to create some cinematic language for all audience to be impressed with. Anyway, many female movie directors are getting fed up with the situation and are getting organized, in the sense that they are building networks. That is really an excellent thing because it enables them to speak with more than one voice. It becomes increasingly apparent that there should be more diversity and despite this whole movement coming into waves – I think now is a good time.

What is your message to women who aspire to become successful in the film industry?

Find networks – even on a small scale, find a group of people who you can work with, stick to projects where you don’t feel so alone, and never forget to watch and learn from many films that are already out there. Young directors must never forget that they learn a lot by simply watching more and more movies and by attending various film festivals. It will give them a clearer sense of what’s out there and inspire them to seize the right idea at the right moment.