Debra Zimmerman has been the Executive Director of Women Make Movies, a non-profit New York-based social enterprising organization that supports women filmmakers since 1983. During her tenure, it has grown into the largest distributor of films by and about women in the world. Women Make Movies’ internationally recognized Production Assistance Program has helped thousands of women get their films made. Films from WMM programs have been nominated or won Academy Awards for the twelve of the last thirteen years, including recent Academy Award for Best Documentary winner, “Citizen Four” by Laura Poitras. Debra has been traveling the world as a speaker on independent film distribution, marketing and financing as well as on women’s cinema. She has moderated panels and given masterclasses at the Sundance and Toronto International Film Festivals and IDA’s Getting Real Conference as well as other events in Europe, Africa, Asia and South America. She has keynoted conferences and spoken on panels, including the Women’s Film History Conference at the University of Sunderland, the Visible Evidence Conference at NYU and the Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference at the Boston University. She lectures regularly at universities across the United States, including Harvard, Smith College, Bryn Mawr, UCLA and others. She is the recipient of numerous awards including the New York Women in Film and Television’s Loreen Arbus Changemaker Award, the Athena Award and Hot Docs’ 2013 Doc Mogul Award.
Tara Karajica caught up with her at this year’s Sarajevo Film Festival.
You became head of Women Make Films in 1983. It was so ahead of its time compared to what’s happening now!
Debra Zimmerman: It’s pretty amazing! It was actually founded in 1972 by Ariel Dougherty and Sheila Paige with Dolores Bargowski, who were filmmakers who wanted to teach other filmmakers how to make films. It was very much part of the second wave of the women’s movement. Even though you say it’s ahead of its time, it was very much of its time. I just think it’s taken a really long time for the world to catch up. It’s really extraordinary how much women have accomplished and yet there’s still so much discrimination against them in Hollywood, in all over the film world. And it’s really indicative, actually, of how much misogyny there is in the world. I think film is a place where you really see it because it’s about the representation of women. The reason we’re so committed to increasing the number of women directors is because we want to see a different image of women on screen and we’re convinced that that only happens in great part when women are the directors.
Obviously. But Women Make Movies was also behind many Oscar-nominated films in the past few years. Can you talk about that big achievement?
D.Z.: Yes. We’re very proud of it! Every year, for the last thirteen years, I think, we’ve had a film that’s been nominated or has won an Academy Award for Best Documentary, Feature, or Short. But in the last year, we’re especially proud because one of the filmmakers from our Production Assistance Program, Dee Rees, was the first African American woman nominated for Best Screenplay and she hired a woman cinematographer, Rachel Morrison, who was the first woman nominated for Best Cinematography. I can’t believe she was the first woman to be nominated – that is really ridiculous!
In 2018! It is crazy!
D.Z.: Yes, it is! And last year, also one of the films from our program was made by the first transgender person to be nominated for an Academy Award. But the story of Rachel and Dee Rees really shows you that women bring other women along and it’s another reason why it’s so important to have women producers and women directors. There’s this statistic that when there’s a woman producer or director on a film, it’s six times more likely to have women in key roles like editing, cinematography, writer or another kind of producer.
There has been so much talk about women in film for the past almost two years. You must be very happy about that! But what is your opinion on the matter? Has something changed at all?
D.Z.: It’s a really good question! I deeply hope that we’re in a moment of true transition. I don’t think we’ve really seen the results yet, especially in Hollywood but, of course, it takes time for Hollywood films to be made. However, I’ve been hearing anecdotes, stories where people in Hollywood are saying: “Oh! We’ve done that now and we can go back to the old ways” or “We’ve had one woman director, that’s enough.” In the art world and in the film festival world, I think there’s a much greater recognition of the need for gender parity, but when you look at how bad it is in Venice this year, where there are only two women in Competition, you have to wonder if things are changing. No, that is not an accomplishment! I was on a panel at the Sofia Film Festival a couple of months ago, and I was really appalled because it was a panel on women’s filmmaking and there were two programmers in the audience and one of them said: “I’m sorry, but I find it very hard to find good films by women to show at a film festival. I would like to show them, but I can’t find them!” And somebody else said: “Yes, it’s really an issue” and then two wonderful men from Kosovo stood up and said: “We have no problem finding really good films by women. You just have to look.” So the fact that they were the ones that stood up and said that, for me, that’s a real change. I don’t know the question would’ve been asked five years ago and I don’t know that that would’ve been their answer. So, something is changing. Enough? Absolutely not! Will it continue? I’m not sure…
Are you working with other Women in Film organizations?
D.Z.: This is the other interesting thing. When Women Make Movies was started in the 1970s, there was a conference of women’s film groups and there were many, many groups – like seventy-five or eighty groups – and then they all disappeared and Women Make Movies was one of the very few that remained. Women in Film & TV chapters also started around the same time and they have continued to grow. But now, there’s something like thirty to forty new initiatives that are happening all over the United States that are either grassroots groups or initiatives of existing organizations that are working on issues related to women in film. For example, there’s a group of Asian American women in documentary, and another group working on scriptwriting… There are just many, many things that are happening, so I think that’s really positive. Worldwide, there continue to be new women’s film festivals. I just spoke to a women’s film festival in China. It’s going to be their second year, so that’s also very exciting!
Something is changing. Enough? Absolutely not! Will it continue? I’m not sure…
Do you collaborate with these women’s film festivals?
D.Z.: Yes, very much! Because as a distributor, we provide films to them. In fact, for a long time, we’ve had a longstanding offer that if anybody wanted to start a women’s film festival, we would give them the first year of films for free. And we did that in Istanbul with a film festival called Filmmor, we did it in Israel, we did it in Taiwan with a festival called Women Make Waves. We’re also very proud of that.
Can you talk about the distribution branch of Women Make Movies?
D.Z.: We have a distribution program where we distribute more than six hundred films, almost seven hundred films by women filmmakers from all over the world. Of course this is films from the 1970s up to now. When you look at other festivals that don’t show many films by women, you wonder: “Why can’t you?” – especially places like Venice or the New York Film Festival. And, by the way, I know that both of those two festivals signed on to the 50/50 by 2020 pledge, but they have a very long way to go to get there, if they do. Even Cannes is better than Venice and the New York Film Festival in terms of competition films! But I will say that what also bothers me very much about Cannes is that they very rarely have women directors on the jury; it’s always women actresses and men directors and this is yet another way in which women are put into a certain kind of category. Or this whole issue a couple of years ago about women having to wear high heels to go to the screenings at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s insane!
It is! But going back to distribution, what is the proudest achievement on that front that you have done in terms of visibility?
D.Z.: One of the things that we’re the proudest of is with a film that we distributed a number of years ago, about the rape of women in the Congo. The filmmaker, Lisa F. Jackson, was working on this issue before most people knew about it. She actually finished her film either before or just after the first story broke in The New York Times and we were able to screen the film to a very small group of people at a foundation event. But one of the people was the wife of the U.S. ambassador to the UN and she brought the film home and showed it to her husband and he introduced a Security Council Resolution to help protect the women in the Congo. That’s impact. And that’s really what we’re about. I regularly have the experience of people meeting me and saying: “Oh My God! When I went to University, we saw your films and they were so important! We saw films from Women Make Movies and we thought ‘Wow I can make a movie too!’” And that’s another reason why we’re so committed to distributing in the what that we distribute, which is film festivals, museums, universities and colleges because we want to give young women an opportunity to see themselves on screen in a different way and also imagine themselves as filmmakers.
Can you talk about Women Make Movies’ teaching activities?
D.Z.: Yes. We have workshops and webinars and I’m really excited about that because they’ve become really international. With digital platforms, people can watch our webinars from all over the world. We used to be able to only have thirty people attend in our offices when we did workshops in New York. Our workshops have always been about the business side of the business. It’s not about how to shoot a film or how to edit it. It’s not the production side. It’s the things that you don’t learn in film school that we always felt that women need to know so that we can equal the playing field. We have “Meet the Industry” events where we bring funders and broadcasters to talk about what they’re doing, what their programs are; we also do webinars on distribution, marketing, festival strategy, fundraising and budgeting, legal issues and clearing rights.
Are you considering expanding into digital media, multimedia, interactive media, VR and new technologies?
D.Z.: Yes. We are doing that in our Production Assistance Program. In fact, I just saw a wonderful VR piece called The Tree and it was made by one of our former interns, which is very nice, and she then came and did a workshop for us. We’re very interested in making sure that women are part of these new technologies because we don’t want to be left behind…
What are you working on now?
D.Z.: We have a new film that’s coming out in the fall. It’s called The Feeling of Being Watched and it’s a film about the way the FBI was putting Arab communities under surveillance even before 9/11 and it’s going to be broadcast on television. We’re also doing a lot of work with our films on reproductive rights because of all that’s going on in the U.S. with this kind of war against women and we have a very strong film called Birth Right, which is about all these different laws that are being passed that are taking away women’s human right to control their own reproduction. It’s not just about abortion, it’s also about pregnancy and about children being taken away from them. Unfortunately, we’ve still got lots of work to do because, as I said before, we’re so far away from having equality in the industry…
This interview was conducted at the 2019 Sarajevo Film Festival.