What’s it like to be a young, female film director? We talk to Georgia Oakley

It’s fair to say it’s been a turbulent year for film. The disgrace of Harvey Weinstein and the subsequent unfolding of the #metoo movement revealed an industry that seemed rotten at its’ core. Only 5 women have been nominated for Best Director since the Oscars began (1929) and just one (Kathryn Bigelow) has ever won.  

Luckily, there’s a new slew of female directors, actors and stand-ups entering the fore. The recent ‘Nanette’ has been a groundbreaking hit for lesbian comedian Hannah Gadsby. Greta Gerwig is on a roll, and a vocal supporter of change: “there’s something coalescing. Every year they come out with the numbers. You know, out of the top 100 films, by gross, 4% are directed by women. I think those numbers are going to shift.”

We hope so.

Director Georgia Oakley is firmly ensconced in this new wave. As part of the latest cohort of the BFI flare mentor scheme –  a programme that sees six emerging LGBT-identified filmmakers mentored by a senior figure from the film industry, she has a specific interest in convention-defying narratives and the stories less told. Last month her first feature-length film Blue Jean was selected by iFeatures to be developed.

Blue Jean is set in 1988. Thatcher’s government have just passed a law that stereotypes lesbians and gays as paedophiles, recruiting children for their ‘deviant’ lifestyles. Female PE teachers are prime targets for homophobic accusations, and as a result, Jean [37] is forced to lead a double life. During the week she’s a respected member of staff – on the weekend she slips anonymously into Newcastle’s burgeoning gay scene. But when a new student arrives and threatens to expose her, Jean is pushed to extreme lengths to maintain her job and her sanity.’

In this photo I’m directing @emilytaaffe on the set of @littlebirdfilm // I’m posting this because Saoirse Ronan said watching Greta Gerwig direct made her think she could direct one day. —————————————— The world needs to see images of women directing. ITS HARD TO BECOME WHAT YOU DO NOT SEE #femalefilmmakerfriday 📸 by Jane Hobson // @ava the great 🌟 – – – – – – – – #womeninfilm #jamesonworks #shotonfilm #kodak #independentfilm #ukfilm #16mm #wwii #britishfilm #kickstarter #shortfilm #crowdfunding #tribeca #imeldastaunton #goldcrest_films #reelpitch #audienceaward #littlebirdfilm #periodfilm #California #losangeles #hollyshorts #incompetition #awardwinning #femalefilmmakers #filmfestivals #britishshorts #2018

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First of all congratulations on the iFeatures grant for Blue Jean. What gave you the idea for the film?

I got the idea for the film from my neighbour actually, who was a pivotal figure in the feminist movement on Greenham common back in the 80s that propelled gay women into the public eye. (Note: The press coverage of the event at the time was widely homophobic, writing the protesters off as a lot of ‘leftie loony lesbians’).

At that time there were a lot of women only separatist communities and a lot of the inhabitants were gay. Either they’d been thrown out or they’d run away from home. There’s no way they’d be able to live a normal life with a partner like I’m doing now. Back then, you couldn’t come out to your family or friends and not be ostracised. Section 28 stated that it was illegal to promote homosexuality in schools and local governments. Teachers started thinking if they came out, they’d be criminalised.

It was this specific attitude that interested me and why I decided to focus on a teacher. The homophobic idea that being gay was one step away from being a paedophile, the latent fear that ‘gayness’ was something that could be pushed on children. Blue Jean is about a PE teacher who isn’t willing to give up everything and go and live in a separatist community. It’s about someone not wanting to sacrifice one part of their life for another.

Do you think it’s important for young LGBTQ people to grow up with role models?

Absolutely. The law wasn’t even repealed until 2003, which meant if you were questioning your sexuality at school, there was no one you could even speak to. In ‘Blue Jean’, the teacher encounters one of her students at a gay club night and instead of looking out for each other, the student eventually outs her.

There was a definite lack of role models when I was growing up. I remember when I was coming out when I began to realise I was something not ‘box tickable’ that there was no one, either in my life or in the press I could really relate to. I found myself finally finding articles on Kirsten Stewart and thinking, ‘oh cool well she’s doing that.’  Section 28 affected me personally in this way and it’s certainly a story that really hasn’t been told enough.

The explosively honest stand up from Hannah Gadsby has been lauded as a watershed moment for comedy, detailing the struggles of a gay woman expressing her authentic self.

And we’ve recently had a spate of critically acclaimed films in the queer genre. Disobedience with Rachel Weisz is coming out later this year, which is sure to be widely reviewed and discussed. Do you think that queer cinema is going to remain a niche category?

Well, it’s certainly becoming less so. Films like God’s Own Country and Call me by Your Name have managed to commercialise queer narratives. The issue is that historically, most films with queer narratives end with death and disaster. It’s important for people to see films where it doesn’t all end horribly. God’s Own Country is a great example of a celebratory ending; unfortunately, my film wouldn’t be realistic if it was a happy ending!

Visibility remains an issue for gay women even now. Arguably gay men have had more of an imprint on culture than gay women. Why do you think that is?

I think there are two things. First of all, to state the obvious, the patriarchy. They are still men after all. Secondly, the criminalisation of homosexuality was specific to men. They had to go through a different sort of experience, one that was vastly more publicised. The reality is that gay women were there too. They were still frowned upon, still taboo. If you did come out in the 80s the police would come and take your kid away, even though as a woman you were most likely the primary caregiver. Facts like that are still relatively unknown.

As a female director, you’re fighting a war on two fronts. In the stories you want told and in the male-dominated environments you inhabit. Do you find that difficult?

Back when I was younger and mostly working on commercials, I probably didn’t notice, but I was often on sets that were 90% men, and lots were more experienced than me. Now I’m wised up to it all, I just won’t work with dickheads. The last film I worked on we had an 80% female cast, which was a fantastic experience.

Obviously we don’t want to get to a point when you’re doing women only sets but I do feel really passionately that until younger women can look up and see women of every personality in positions of power in the industry, from introverts to extroverts, to straight to gay, we haven’t reached total equality. You can already see that if that you’re a man. At the moment it’s Sofia Coppola or Kathryn Bigelow and what if you don’t relate to either? We need more diversity in film.

The Guardian recently reported that there is only one female director in Hollywood for every 22 males. What do you think is the best way to combat that disparity?

Women still get lambasted for being outspoken, for being too emotional, whilst men seem to get away with so much. As a female director, you have to prove you have the confidence to execute, AND ensure you’re not a wallflower in the process AND prove that you’re a really ‘nice’ person. You have to be calm and ruthless. It’s a tightrope.

We need to have quotas for a time for gender parity. The Swedish Film Institute did for 3 years, and has now achieved  50-50 Funding Distribution Between Male and Female Directors. I actually came up through the BFI’s queer programme, the Flare. The BFI are generally great at funding women, but higher powers won’t introduce quotas. It frustrates me that lot of older female directors are against this stuff. There seems to be a culture of ‘I haven’t got where I am because I’m a woman, but because I am exceptionally talented.’ It’s a generational thing.

What advice would you give young female directors?

I was at a talk at Berlin Film Festival recently, and one of the speakers said, ‘you know it’s’ the right film to make if you’d be very uncomfortable showing it to your parents’ which I think is wise advice.

Applying for schemes like the BFI’s is also really helpful. You’re matched with a mentor (Georgia’s is Desiree Akhavan – writer, director, actor, The Slope, Appropriate Behaviour). Desiree has been really generous with her time. You do need people around you to encourage you if you’re going to focus on convention-defying film. I was certainly swayed by what I thought I should be making when I was younger. Now I know. Don’t make films that you think people want to watch. Do what motivates you. Make stories you care about. Start with your own experiences and what’s individual to you.

We can’t wait to see what she does next.

Read more about Georgia and her feature Blue Jean.

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