March 8, 2018
By Evelyn Lee
A few years ago, while I was in film school, there were situations where I would end up being one of the only three or so women in a class. This gender disparity was considered fairly normal. At one point, a professor of mine marveled at the fact that, in his thirty years of teaching, my production group was the first all-women group that he’s ever had. In fact, there were many situations in which it would be the first time there was an all-women group or a record number of women doing cinematography or directing, or even screenwriting. More and more women are pursuing film and the arts.
But, of course, that doesn’t mean we get hired. The gender disparity in the classroom translated over to the environment of many film sets I’ve been on over the years. Sometimes, unfortunately, even on sets that were run by other women. And because of that, women often had to put up with degrading comments or being referred to as “the estrogen team,” and having opinions in discussions laughed off with, “we don’t need to ask her, she probably thinks it’s just a movie.” In some cases, certain situations definitely crossed into the #MeToo territory. (And yes, #MeToo.)
I’m usually accustomed to questions like, “Where are you from?” or “When did you come to the US?” and my personal favorite comment, “Your English is so good!” It’s just something that comes with being Asian-American. So when I wanted to include an all-Asian (specifically Chinese-American) cast in my short film, and was told by decision-makers that it wasn’t necessary and that I should just have a “regular” (read all-white) cast, I guess I should have expected that, too.
But, I’m very stubborn. I kept pushing for it. In order for me to finally persuade them that having an all Chinese-American cast was the right choice, I had to make the story more “cultural.” So I did — a small compromise that ultimately allowed me to cast Chinese-American actors in all parts. I’ve since made several films either with English and Mandarin, or entirely in Mandarin (but that’s another story for another time).
What if I never had to make those compromises? What if I never had to put up with demeaning, degrading comments?
Why is it so difficult to see women or people of color beyond a statistic, and see us for our worth as creators and filmmakers?
Women can make movies. Asian-Americans can make movies. We are creators. We are artists. We are directors.
I am a director, too.
Starting in film school, I had developed a habit of working with a small crew of people I trusted when making my own films. A safe and friendly work environment is of utmost importance, especially for jobs that require spending long hours working very closely with everyone else. And by pure accident, I’ve always had an almost all-women and very inclusive crew. I have also been very lucky to have the support from them to make films of and about women, featuring all-women casts.
It’s in these moments that I don’t have to make any compromises; I am respected as a director and allowed to just create. There are no judgements. There is only a small group of artists coming together to bring a vision to life.
Over these last few years, I’ve seen so many incredible people in the industry fight for change. I’m so tremendously grateful for their perseverance and bravery to speak up, speak out, and take action. They’re fighting for a safer and better work environment. They’re fighting for the inclusion of more people of color and women across the board. Seeing proper representation onscreen and behind the camera is a beautiful experience.
And while change always takes time, there has been progress. I know there’s more work to be done, but I’m so elated to see the industry heading in the right direction. I’m optimistic about the future.
I hope to have the honor and the privilege to continue telling stories. And I hope you do, too.