Female Filmmakers Give Voice to the Unheard

Caucasian woman in pink shirt aims camera right toward the photographer.

Dana Kupper, a professional lecturer DePaul’s filmmaking program.

Only about one in four people in the film industry in the United States is female. Yet, in the School of Cinematic Arts (SCA) in the College of Computing and Digital Media (CDM), 80 percent of the documentary courses are taught by women, and the MFA program is headed by a woman.

“Documentaries give women and people of color more of a voice,” says Anuradha (Anu) Rana, assistant professor of cinema production, directing and screenwriting, who created the graduate documentary program. Because documentaries generally cost less to make, Rana says, “You don’t have to wait for a big Hollywood producer to support you.”

The documentary field is certainly more balanced than the world of feature films, which is where Dana Kupper entered the business as a union camera technician. Now a professional lecturer in SCA, she was the rare woman in a technical position 30 years ago.

“It’s a totally testosterone-driven world, features,” she says. “It was chaos, and people were mean. You had to fight for stuff. They were always testing you.”

Her experience filming documentaries for Depaul USA was the complete opposite. “At one point, I did realize that it was four women running it, and I wondered if that’s why it went so smoothly.”

Three female students with camera equipment film a female client of Depaul USA on a sidewalk in a on a sunny, green street.

DePaul student filmmakers interview a client of Depaul USA for a series of short documentaries.

Stars such as Meryl Streep and Oprah Winfrey are trying to diversify the industry. They are the primary donors behind The Writers Lab, a screenwriting retreat designed to increase both the number of women in the field and the number of multifaceted roles for female actors.

Anna Hozian, assistant professor of screenwriting in SCA, was one of 12 writers selected for the first lab in 2015. Industry award winners helped her refine her script, “Anchor Baby,” which she hopes will begin production soon.

“The Writers Lab was a launching moment for many of us,” says Hozian. “The film industry is really about personal connections.”

She thinks that’s partly why there are so few women in Hollywood. “We all like to surround ourselves with people we identify with, right? The men in power positions will anoint people they identify with and it becomes perpetual.”

Hozian is committed to disrupting that cycle. “I love all my students, male and female,” she says. “But, there are times when I see very talented female students, and I want to help cultivate those voices.”

Bringing unheard voices to the fore is why JoAnne Zielinski, associate dean of CDM, Liliane Calfee, adjunct faculty, John Psathas (CDM MFA ’11), assistant professor of directing, cinema production and cinematography, and James Choi (CDM MFA ’16), instructor, partnered with the Chicago Housing Authority to create a documentary program for teenage residents.

“We gave them a chance to define themselves instead of being defined by the media,” Calfee says. “If we give them skills, if we give them a voice, we’re giving them an opportunity to really make a large ripple effect in their communities.”

Four teenage African-American women with filmmaking equipment pose with a Caucasian adult woman who is one of their instructors.

DePaul partners with the Chicago Housing Authority to enable teens like these to make documentaries. Liliane Calfee, adjunct faculty, is in the center.

By Chaz Ebert (JD ’77)
Photo by the Chicago Housing Authority

Few programs inspire me more than those committed to empowering the voices of future filmmakers, especially female filmmakers. That is the goal of the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) Program in Documentary Filmmaking. Held during the summer at DePaul’s School of Cinematic Arts, this five-week program kicked off in 2016 and is designed for female high school students living in CHA housing on Chicago’s South and West sides. I love how it prepares these young women to become future documentarians by instructing them on everything from aesthetics to technical skills. Professional filmmakers are among the students’ mentors as they shoot and edit their movies.

These lessons enable the students to express their views on social issues that personally concern them. Four documentaries are created each summer. Two of the films produced in 2016 were selected for local film festivals, including the Global Girls Film Festival. The wonderful documentary “Rise Up” premiered at the 2017 Windy City International Film Festival and won the Rising Voices award.

I am pleased that this program is being sponsored by DePaul because that institution remains so very important to me. I not only received my law degree from there, but established a small grant for law students to help with incidental expenses. The CHA documentary program is but one example of DePaul’s commitment to our city and its various communities.

“The underlying motivation for the CHA documentary filmmaking program is our belief that young women can be cycle breakers in their community,” says Liliane Calfee, adjunct faculty member and director of DePaul’s program. “Film can be a powerful vehicle for social change … Mentored by film students and award-winning filmmakers, the girls dive deep into social topics affecting their communities. Last year, they chose teen pregnancy, bullying, gun violence and single- versus dual-parent homes. Not only do they learn professional filmmaking skills, but perhaps more importantly, they realize the power of their voice.”

I went to speak to the future filmmakers. I wanted them to know that I, too, became interested in film while I was living in CHA housing. It is important to me that they look to the future to see how what they bring to the program can help change the direction of their lives. Calfee told me that she constantly reinforces that idea.

“They are our future and change can only occur if they take an active role in bringing awareness to the challenges they face. Through their films, they are able to foster positive dialogue … As we put the focus on young women, we introduce a new voice—a largely unheard perspective—that inherently helps to humanize what have become very polarized narratives in the media,” she says.
I say amen to that.

Originally published as a blog post on July 17, 2017, this article was edited and reprinted with permission. See all the videos.

Read the main article on DePaul’s documentarians.>>

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