Is documentary filmmaking becoming a man’s game with Vanessa Engle

By Cecilia McAloon

In 2017, the BBC's gender pay gap was revealed to the public and "it unleashed a firestorm". A lot has changed since then, or has it? In 2018 Directors UK published figures indicating that across all four of the main UK broadcasters the gender gap had widened, with the number of female directors in factual television decreasing by as much as 10%.

So why is it becoming harder for women to rise up the ranks in TV’s creative roles? I spoke to Vanessa Engle on behalf of Equality Check to find out. Engle is a prolific documentary filmmaker who has been nominated a record eight times for Grierson Documentary Awards. For the last 16 years she has been making authored social affairs documentaries on a wide range of topics, including ‘Lefties’, ‘Jews’, and ‘Love You to Death: A Year of Domestic Violence’. Across her thirty-three years in filmmaking, Engle has noticed the increasing sexism that has crept into the television industry: “progress has gone into reverse whilst we were sleeping.” Today, Engle shares her thoughts on how this has happened and offers her advice to young filmmakers.

As technology in the filmmaking industry has changed, so have industry practices. One of those changes, according to Engle, is that “it is now a prerequisite that young directors have to be able to shoot their own films”. ‘Self-shooting’, as it’s called, involves a measure of physical stress. Engle jokes, “I wouldn’t want to lug all the equipment around, it’s a horrible job”. But while self-shooting has given some the freedom and independence to be able to take control of their work, it has also contributed to the systemic sexism that keeps women out of the director’s chair. “There may be some sort of assumption that the women can't carry the bags and that the men can. But more than that, there is some sort of perception that when operating complex technical equipment, that men are somehow more suited to do it. So when the young men assert they can shoot and can operate the camera they tend to be believed more, and there seems to be more scepticism about whether women are likely to be able to do that.”


Because of this pervading scepticism surrounding women’s ability to operate (and “lug”) the tech gear, Engle finds that it’s the men who have risen to the top creative jobs in recent years. “I know there’s a lot of young women who feel very resentful about that and think that they’ve been passed over because of this perception about their camera-abilities”.


“It's not happened because of evil sexist men plotting for it to happen, it's just something that evolved. A lot of it is social conditioning. Why is there an assumption that men will be better at operating the cameras? That's somehow in the air isn't it, this notion that men are better at techy stuff than women are? It's just a gender stereotype but it's not specific to telly. I think it's pretty universal. You know, you think men are more interested in cars than women or whatever. They're kind of stupid gender stereotypes but they also may be true.”


The impact of these new male-oriented practices on aspiring female directors doesn’t stop there. Not only are women deprived of the chance to direct because of their perceived inability to self-shoot, they’re then urged into producer-roles which, for Engle, has “horrible parallels in family life”. That is, after thirty-three years of being a producer and director (PD) of all of her films, the latest practice in filmmaking is to split those roles into two. “There's a director, who tends to be a man, and there's a producer and the producer is almost invariably a woman. She has to form all the relationships with all the interviewees, do all the heavy lifting when it comes to the journalism, do a lot of spade-work, and carry responsibility for many aspects of the production. And then the director comes in and that's the creative bit, that's kind of the fun bit.” Engle compares it to the woman who does “the cleaning, the housework, the Tesco shop, the baths, and putting the kids to bed”, “and then the bloke comes in and cooks a magnificent dinner party and everybody thinks he’s marvellous.” And so over the course of Engle’s career, systemic sexism seems to have crept into the film industry in the “very gendered” division of labour between the female producer and the male director. “I’m sort of scandalised that this has happened - it’s just not right. And you only have to watch TV and look at the end credits of documentaries and you will see what I mean. I can give you a long, long list of programmes where that has been the case.”


And no, men aren’t the problem. In fact, I ask Engle whether she feels that she’s experienced sexism in her career to which she emphatically replies, “I wouldn't say that I have experienced sexism, I really wouldn't actually. Most of the men who I've worked with in creative roles are just not remotely sexist, they're just great, it's one of the things I like about this industry. The sexism creeps in in this systemic change where suddenly women are being approached to make films about women - which is in part a result of identity politics.” For Engle, there are two problems. The first is that fewer and fewer women are being given the opportunity to work in creative roles. The second problem is that where women are being given opportunities, it’s because of their gender which is “probably a slightly unfortunate outcome of this box-ticking and diversity awareness.” “Increasingly there's a: ‘you're a woman, they're a woman, snap, that'll do’, and that did not used to be the case.”


“I used to be asked to make films about everything and anything under the sun. I could swear to you that if you talk to the people who commissioned me for the first at least twenty-five years of my career, they did not commission me because I was a woman. I think they would just laugh at that suggestion. When I said I wanted to make films about Jews or lefties or money or Harley Street, no one said, ‘oh yes, that's a good subject for a woman’, it was never ever on anybody's radar. Now I most often get calls where I'm being called because I am a woman to make a film on the subject of women. In one sense that's progress: that there is more sensitivity to the fact that certain topics might benefit from being addressed by people who have some understanding of that topic. But, in another sense, I would say that it's the opposite of progress. We don't want to be all just pigeonholed and told to just make films about things that we have some sort of natural affinity with. The point about being a film director is that you're open-minded, you're curious, you want to learn. You don't just want to learn about things that are very close to home. So that's another shift and it's a shift that I lament.”


Gender inequality in documentary filmmaking is increasing - there’s no question about that. So what’s being done about it? According to Engle, nothing. Two years ago when #MeToo came about, “for the first time the issue of inequality in the film and TV industry really took centre stage.” In other words, “the pendulum swung”. But, the momentum behind the movement dissipated and the agenda changed. The industry has since reprioritised its diversity categories. “Now, as I understand it, the current diversity categories that the industry is focusing on are race, economic diversity, and disability”. The fact that those three issues “need addressing more urgently, I'm not questioning”. “But what you will notice about those three things is that women and LGBTQI issues are not on that list anymore. They were on there, they were in the spotlight and they've simply dropped off. I'm not sure they're even counted as diversity issues anymore.”


This is a problem that Engle has herself tried to raise with people in positions of authority but the response that she has received is underwhelming, “whilst on the face of it they are sympathetic, it's what I've just explained. I just don't think it's a priority right now.” The result is that the gender gap widens with every year and it’s the young women in the industry who are feeling its impact the most. “This is a freelance industry. Pretty much everyone in this industry on the creative side is freelance now and that is a huge problem because if you are freelance, it's simply not in your interest to rock the boat or say anything that will upset any past, present, or future employer. This is a really competitive industry. You'd be mad to bite the hand that potentially may feed you. It's really hard to speak out and that's why a lot of people don’t. I suppose one of the reasons I do is because I am older than a lot of other directors. A lot of the young women that I mentor say they often find themselves in situations where there are quite mediocre men who are given opportunities that they, as unbelievably smart and talented young women, are not given and it makes them mad and they can't understand why it's happening. And I say, ‘you need to say something’, and they can't.”


In 2021, the filmmaking industry is a worse place for female creatives than it was in 2018 when #MeToo came about, and it’s a worse place than it was in 1988 when Engle began her career. My hope is that Equality Check is the change that the industry needs.


In the past it has been impossible to speak out against inequality at work. Help Equality Check change that by taking 2 minutes to leave an anonymous review of your workplace. Your voice is powerful. Be #SeenAndHeard

About the author:


Cecilia McAloon

Cecilia has a double first in English Language & Literature from the University of Oxford. Before joining Equality Check, Cecilia co-founded an award-winning film production group and worked at the Oxford University Filmmaking Foundation. Cecilia has a long-held passion for ED&I and hopes that her work at Equality Check will have a lasting impact on creating equal opportunities for the UK workforce.