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The 82nd Annual Academy Awards has made history on several fronts.

Probably the most talked about is Kathryn Bigelow becoming the first woman to claim the Best Director Oscar. And lesser known is the fact that her film “The Hurt Locker” has also distinguished itself as the lowest grossing movie to win Best Picture. With $15 million spent on its production, “The Hurt Locker” has gained back $14.7 million in its domestic gross, and a total worldwide sale of $21 million, paltry compared to Avatar’s $2.6 billion. Bravo to the Academy voters.

Another major breakthrough at Oscars 2010 is Geoffrey Fletcher winning Best Adapted Screenplay for his work “Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire.”  He is the first African American ever to win a screenwriting Oscar.  Let me re-direct you to an inspiring post on Geoffrey Fletcher’s win from the blog Screenwriting From Iowa.

The Celluloid Ceiling

Does Bigelow’s win signify the turning of a new page for all female directors and woman workers in the film industry? Or is it just a one-time victory? Throughout Oscar history, there have only been three other women nominated for Best Director: Lina Wertmüller for “Seven Beauties” in 1976, Jane Campion for “The Piano” in 1993; and Sofia Coppola for “Lost in Translation” in 2003. None of them won.  It has taken 82 Academy Awards to arrive at this point today.

The annual ‘Celluloid Ceiling’ report compiled by Dr. Martha Lauzen at the Center For the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University tracks women employed in the film industry over the years. Her 2009 study records the following findings:

  • Women comprised of 16% of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films. This represents a decline of 3% from 2001.
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  • Women accounted for 7% of directors in 2009, a decrease of 2% from 2008, and no change since 1987.
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  • As for behind-the-scenes employment of 2,838 individuals working on the top 250 domestic grossing films of 2009, women represented 2% of the cinematographers and 8% of writers.

Has Bigelow shattered the Celluloid Ceiling once and for all? The answer is yet to be seen.  Considering the gender disparity in the film industry, it remains a long and arduous journey for aspiring woman filmmakers.

But I admire Kathryn Bigelow for one thing: she downplays the gender issue and pursues the universal role of ‘director’, shunning being called a ‘female director’.  When accepting her Award, she did not even mention the history-making significance of her win but rather acknowledged the troops at war.

Of course, she won on her own merits and not on account of her gender.  So just let me help Barbra Streisand utter what is unsaid in her statement, the all important subtext:

“Well, the time has come … for us to recognize the excellent work of a director despite the fact that she is a woman.”

Bigelow, a painter turned filmmaker, was first trained at the San Francisco Art Institute and later won a scholarship for the Independent Study Program at the Whitney Museum in New York, “which gave her the opportunity to study and produce conceptual art that was critiqued by the likes of Richard Serra and Susan Sontag.” Later she re-directed her passion to film theory and criticism at Columbia University.

When asked about her movies not being “female”, Bigelow, gives a thought-provoking answer from the point of view of an artist [1]:

But you don’t get exasperated with this notion that your movies are not “female”?

No, because I respect it, and I understand it. The thing that’s interesting is that I come from the art world, or that’s where I was creatively, aesthetically, and intellectually formed and informed.

Certainly at the time I was there, there was never a discussion of gender per se. Like, this is a woman’s sculpture or a man’s sculpture. There was never this kind of bifurcation of particular talent. It was just looked at as the piece of work. The work had to speak for itself. And that’s still how I look at any particular work.

I think of a person as a filmmaker, not a male or female filmmaker. Or I think of them as a painter, not a male or female painter. I don’t view the world like that. Yes, we’re informed by who we are, and perhaps we’re even defined by that, but yet, the work has to speak for itself.

Hopefully the film industry can learn from the art world, such that we would never have to give a movie a gender, or stigmatize its filmmaker for being a woman.  Then we can comfortably call them all artists.

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[1]  CLICK HERE to read the full interview by Willa Paskin on Slate Magazine “What Kathryn Bigelow learned from Rembrandt.

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