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April 1, 2010

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Bigelow boost for women directors

AT the recent 82nd Academy Awards, film maker Kathryn Bigelow made history winning a Best Director Oscar for her Iraqi war drama "The Hurt Locker." She was the first woman to win the honor.

For every talented and hardworking female director, the most exciting part of the news was not that this modestly budgeted film dominated the Oscars by earning six Academy Awards, but Bigelow's assault on the last bastion of male domination in films.

Before her achievement, only three women had earned a nomination in this category - Lina Wertmuller for "Seven Beauties" in 1975, Jane Campion for "The Piano" in 1993, and Sofia Coppola for "Lost in Translation" in 2003.

"Bigelow's win let the whole world see the power and explosive strength of women directors," says Li Ying, a female documentary film maker from the local Documentary Channel who journeyed to the dangerous regions of Somalia to make a documentary on Somali pirates.

"Her success will encourage many young women to pursue their film-making dreams and break into the boys' club," she adds.

Today, women directors are a rarity both in Hollywood and in the domestic film/TV industry. People can name only a few influential Chinese women directors, such as Hu Mei, Li Shaohong, Ann Hui and Peng Xiaolian.

Li says women still face bias in this part of the industry. A lot of people are likely to question their ability to work under harsh conditions and depict major issues such as history, war and the economy.

"At first when I stood in front of my team, I could read suspicion in their eyes," Li recalls. "As a woman director, you have to make more effort to win their trust and prove that you're not just a frail and sensitive girl."

Unlike her peers, the 29-year-old has had rare experiences such as 10 days on a French warship off Somalia and a lengthy working and living experience in a remote village in Yunnan Province.

In her eyes, an excellent female director should have both good execution and communication abilities. But it doesn't mean that she has to appear tough and undaunted like male directors.

In her leisure time, Li is also seeking for chances to refresh her knowledge in the fields that women usually don't have much interest in, such as politics, economy and history.

"My advice to all of my women colleagues is to make good use of women's prominent advantages in communication, carefulness and perseverance and never forget to improve their ability to think logically," Li says.


Su Da, a female animation director from Shanghai Animation Film Studio, has never given up her dream to rejuvenate the domestic cartoon industry.

Her original animated series "Big-Ear Tutu," which tells the story of the joyous growth of a three-year-old boy named Hu Tutu, has garnered big popularity and many awards nationwide. It is also regarded as an indigenous counterpart to the Japanese animation hit "Crayon Shin Chan."

Su says that most of the funny stories and lines in "Tutu" come from her experience of being with her son.

"Every child has the curiosity to know the adult world," says Su. "A good animated series should always cater to the demands and taste of its audience and combine education with entertainment."

As a cartoon director in China, Su needs to get involved in all the production process of a cartoon series, from its early planning, design, creation and funding to promotion. She also participates in developing by-products such as stage plays, books and toys.

During her 10-year career as a director, she feels the pressure to keep a balance between work and family.

"No matter how busy I am, I will spare a few hours every day with my son," Su says. "I won't miss his amazing growing moments."

Su also feels a strong "gender imbalance" in her field, with men continuing to dominate technical areas such as editing, sound and cinematography.

"But women do have their advantages in film making - they're slightly more sensitive and have superb intuition, imagination and communication skills," Su says. "In that sense, I believe that the lack of women behind the camera will just be temporary."

Art film

Peng Xiaolian has more than 20 years' film-making experience since her graduation in 1982 from the Beijing Film Academy with alumni Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige.

After shooting a couple of art-house films - "Me and My Classmate" and "Women's Story" - Peng went to New York University in 1989 for her master's degree in fine arts. In 1996, she returned to Shanghai.

Many of her recent films have Shanghai as their backdrop, including "Shanghai Story," Peng's semi-autobiographical movie telling of the lives of a wealthy Shanghai family from the mid-1960s to modern times; "Shanghai Women" about Shanghai wage earners living in shikumen (stone-gated) houses; and "Shanghai Rumba," which tells the love story of an actor and actress in the 1940s.

"I am not a very social person," Peng says. "I write scripts on my own and I have established a long stable relation with my team."

Peng says that the 1980s used to be a golden period for Chinese female film directors, who then made up about a third of the country's film makers working for big state-owned film studios. But in the 1990s, there was a sharp decrease in the number because of the flourishing of commercial cinema.

"Even today, many film investors have major doubts about a female director's ability to make a successful commercial film," Peng says. "Men still dominate senior positions of the film industry. They have the power of discourse and decision. It is really hard for a female film maker to stand out in the competition."

Since women directors still have not been considered enough of a guarantee for movie investors, that can explain why lots of women turn to making short films or TV series. It is difficult for them to get the financial support for a feature film.

Without special art cinema lines in China, conditions for women directors seem to get tougher. Only a few art films have the chance of a public theater screening. And, compared with big-budgeted commercial films, they don't enjoy a long screen time.

"I don't think such a dilemma for women film makers will change much in short time if their talent and film passion can't be widely recognized," Peng says.


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