‘There’s something you are doing right,’ a male Ugandan film director told me, as we discussed the crew of this TV series I created, Mama and Me. ‘Do you follow some kind of feminist agenda? Why is your crew so full of women?’ I’d just told him that I was the only male in the writer’s room, and that most heads of department were female. ‘It wasn’t a conscious decision,’ I replied. ‘It somehow just happened.’ And he said, ‘Well, if you can put together a film crew that is sixty percent female, then you are surely doing something right.’ I got similar remarks about Her Broken Shadow, with some critics saying it as feminist, and lauding me for having an all-female cast.
In writing this article, I’m trying to see what it is that I’m ‘doing right’, and I’m reflecting on some of the challenges and adventures I’ve had with a female film crew. It’s the second blog I’m writing as part of series to celebrate ten years in the arts business, since October is the birthmonth of my company, Dilstories. I’m looking back at my journey, seeing what worked for me, and perhaps you’ll learn a thing or two that will help you succeed as a creative entrepreneur. I wrote the first one here, and I previously shared many tips on how to successfully become a full-time artist, and when is the right time to quit your salaried job to pursue your dreams.
Growing up with a sort-of feminine side
I do get amused when people say ‘feminist’ in regard to my works because I don’t see it as anything special. It’s just the natural thing, to create a main character whose POV will best tell the story, or give the job to a person who I can comfortably work. Perhaps, my upbringing has something to do with how I see things. A disability meant I stayed at home a lot when I was a child, unlike other boys who were allowed to roam the streets at their pleasure. My mother having given birth to only boys, and so I ended up doing all the chores, sweeping, cooking, and such, when my sisters (cousins) were off to boarding school. I ended up playing a lot more with girls than with boys, especially games that were not too physically challenging. I can’t say I experienced the life of a girl in Uganda, but well, I had a sneak-peek.
After school, I soon discovered that the only jobs are I could go for were those that society regarded as ‘girly’. My best chance for employment was with NGOs, and they had ableist policies. In their job adverts, they’d state ‘ability to ride a motorcycle’ as essential, and would automatically disqualify me. One day sometime in 2001, I went for an interview at Tororo hospital for a CDC funded project, and I prepared, reading a lot about HIV stuff as if I was jabbing for an exam. And yet, the moment I arrived for the interview, they showed me a motorcycle and they said, “If you can ride, you go in for the orals.” In retrospect, that’s the day I decided I had to focus on becoming a full-time artist.
I changed my strategy. I stopped applying for graduate-level jobs, since all were ableist. I could type and I was good with computers, so I focused on desk jobs, mostly IT related and data entry stuff, low paying jobs which were regarded as ‘secretarial’, hence for women. I found myself working in departments where I was the only male. Right until I finally quit salaried employment in 2008, I shared offices with women. It just makes sense that when I think of a work environment, let alone a film crew, a lot of women have to be in the picture.
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It all depends on your circles
As a result of this, all my friends were women. I have had only one male ‘best friend’ since. I became more comfortable in the company of women, and today I’ll much more easily have a conversation with them than with a man. If you find me in a room full of men, I’ll most likely be very quiet and not contribute much to the conversations. So, needless to say, when looking for people to work with, I’ll favor a gender I relate to in some ways.
I’m a writer and women dominate writing cycles, sort of. Most of my social media followers, and those I follow, are writers, or into writing and books, and hence, women. When I put out word that I’m looking for crew, women get to see it first. Certainly, when looking for writers for Mama and Me TV series, ninety percent of the applications I got were from women, which is how I ended up the only man in the writing room. A few months ago during lockdown I offering to train and mentor scriptwriters, and again, overwhelmingly, applications were from women. We had only two men in the group of about fifteen, so tell me how I’ll have a lot of men in my writing rooms?
My next post will focus on the training and mentorship, and how this contributes to my film crew, but I’ll just make a brief not about it here. A lot of those who reach out to me, asking for help or some kind of mentorship in film making, are women. Often young women in their twenties. Perhaps men are much more confident or have a lot more opportunities and so they never reach out. If the applicant has potential, I offer them my time, and when they become good at what they do, well, it makes it easier for me to work with them. I’ll say more on that in the next post, as it deserves a much longer treatment than a few paragraphs.
Some challenges I’ve had with a female film crew
One of the male crew, in the TV series Mama and Me, expressed his displeasure at some point. “Why have you given us only female bosses? They are very emotional!” Ah, I did not respond, and I expected to hear that he was giving them trouble, but he turned out to be obedient. Perhaps he was just a little surprised to have female bosses since he was used to all-male crews. At the end, he wasn’t complaining at all, and I want to think he saw the light.
My biggest challenge working with female film crew happened sometime in 2016. I had work in Karamoja for a few weeks and I took an assistant. Call her Jane Doe, for obvious reasons. She had come to me eager to be a photographer and I convinced her to go for cinematography, and in Moroto she was handling my camera work. The first week things went smoothly. Then, all of a sudden, she falls sick, and for the next couple of days she could barely work. When it was getting out of hand, she told me, “I’m pregnant.”
Worse, the guy responsible was ghosting her. The moment he learned of the baby, he switched off his phones, and she was falling apart. She was scared I’d fire her, for I was in a quandary. I needed a functional assistant! I called a friend (female) for advice, and she told me ‘Don’t be a feminist! Fire her and get someone to do the work!’ That surprised me a bit, but I couldn’t fire Jane. We were in Moroto. I just couldn’t find a replacement. Even if I had that option, we were in the middle of a contract and someone new would need a week or so to orient themselves to the job. By then, we would be packing up…. Jane did try to step up, forcing herself to get to work, but I ended up doing most of the work I’d hired her to do.
Somehow, we finished the job, and she worked with me for another five months or so before she had to go on a birthing break (the contract with the client had run out). About a year later, she got another job (sadly, she gave up on photography), but it’s with a religious organization, and they don’t tolerate single, unwed, mothers, so she has to hide the child from them.
I shared this drama with another creative entrepreneur (male) who runs a much larger organization, and I thought perhaps it is easier for them to deal with such issues since they must have the budget for stand-ins, but he told me; there’s a cost to diversity that we should be ready for.
Earlier this year I had a vacancy, and I interviewed the candidate over the phone, and she said, ‘I’m pregnant….’ and I said, ‘No problem.’ And she said ‘Are you sure? It’s a problem for some employers.’ And for a moment I remembered Jane, but I also remembered another staff running one of my projects, who goes to work with her toddler, and I said, ‘Yes, I’m sure.’ We worked without any issues for the duration of the contract. She was fun to work with.
There are other challenges, less dramatic, but I’ll point out one that has baffled me. One day, a female film crew will tell me ‘I’m sick’, and I’ll say ‘Take the day off.’ Of course, Dilstories has come a bit of a way since 2016, and I now have more than one person around, or rather there are more people I can call on quickly. So I confidently tell her to take the day off, and she instead says, ‘Ah, no worries. Let me just lie down for a while. I’ll be fine.’ I was confused for several minutes, then she added, ‘It’s women’s issues.’ And I went, ‘What issues?’ And she was frustrated and said, ‘I’m in my P’s!’ And I went, ‘oh, okay’ in a very embarrassed sort of way. It has happened quiet a few times, and somehow, I just can’t get it.
So the next day I told her, ‘If you have this issue every month and it makes you so sick, why not mobilize all the woman and you draw a timetable for each of your P-days, and you take those days off.’ Ah, she was excited. She passed the word around, and they were all very excited. They laughed about it, and I thought they would actually make that schedule, but nope. They only laughed, and when I reminded them, they laughed a little louder and this one in particular said, ‘Don’t worry. We’ll be fine.’ Yeah, women.
Now that you are here, I have a small favor to ask. I regularly make science fiction short films and I’m looking for your support. It’s very difficult to make it as a filmmaker in Africa, where there is virtually no market to encourage big film investments, and so any dollar you can spare will go a long way into changing things. Please pledge on patreon.com/dilstories You only pay after I make the film, and you can stop payments at anytime. For other options, like donating via mobile money or PayPal, please go here dilmandila.com/donate