I’ve come across Roy’s works while working for an NGO, and I couldn’t resist not to contact him. As we started talking, I began to feel a great deal of connection with his values and the way he approaches art and filmmaking. He sent me two of his award-winning movies – On the Edge, The Other Dreamers -. I was in tears, then I laughed, and in between I was amazed how he took care of every little detail; a zoom in there and zoom out here. From that moment on I look up to Roy Zafrani as a film director. However, Roy has an other side, too.
And that is no less valuable. Here he talked to us about the importance of women in filmmaking, gender parity in this highly male-dominated industry, what makes a good filmmaker or why he doesn’t believe there is a need for a special award for women!
Virag on behalf of MissCareer/Less: So you are the owner of two film festivals, Festigious, and the Top Shorts Online Film Festival. What is the main difference between the two?
Roy Zafrani: The original plan was to start an online film festival, in order to promote independent filmmakers worldwide. My team and I called it “Top Shorts,” and decided to accept films up to 20 minutes in length. But then, when we started receiving submissions, we also got many messages from directors who wanted to be a part of the festival, but their films were longer. We didn’t want to change Top Shorts, as we thought that the platform fits independent filmmakers perfectly, so we started thinking about another online film festival that would accept longer films (up to 60 minutes).
This is how Top Shorts’ sister, “Festigious“, was born. While Top Shorts is a big celebration of two weeks and 150 films, Festigious is one week, accepts fewer films and focuses on other issues, such as women’s empowerment.
MCL: There you go, women. I saw your banner giving 50% discount for female filmmakers. Why the need for a special discount?
RZ: I wasn’t aware of the differences between men and women filmmakers until I started Top Shorts. After the first month of submissions, it was very clear that we are missing women in the filmmaking industry. When we had the full list of accepted films, just before Top Shorts started, the numbers surprised me: of 150 films that were accepted to the festival, only 26 films were directed by women. One of my main goals with Festigious was to bring exposure of films that are made by women, or films which feature the theme of women’s empowerment.
But I also got a negative comment by a male filmmaker, claiming that the discount for women only isn’t fair. Yet I think that if he believes in equality and if he knew the numbers, he would agree with me.
MCL: While it is clear that you want to encourage women filmmakers to submit their movies; you didn’t create a targeted award specifically for them. Why?
RZ: I think that making a specific award, such as “Best Woman Director” or “Best Woman Editor”, would have the opposite implication. It would mean that women couldn’t win the Best Director or Best Editor award, so the festival compensates them with a specific award just to make them satisfied. If we truly want to achieve equality in filmmaking, we have to be very careful and give women the chance to win the regular awards too. However, we are adding a special award for “Empowering Woman in a Film,” which is made for women who make a positive change in society, or women who can inspire other women worldwide.
MCL: I’ve read that one of the reasons for the lack of female filmmakers is the reluctance of producers and investors to back them up. As they say: ‘women have no track record of proven successes.’ Why is there such a few women film director?
RZ: I actually don’t know or understand the reason, but it’s not only in filmmaking. Women should be equal to men in every aspect of work; unfortunately, we know that the reality is different. Saying that they have no track record of proven successes is nonsense. It’s just like not giving a chance to a talented filmmaker just because he recently graduated from college.
MCL: Do you think digitalization and the expanding possibilities both as for the tools (movies on iPhone) and accessible resources (crowdfunding campaigns) can help women to overcome the traditional technical and financial barriers?
RZ: Definitely. The cameras have become smaller and lighter, so this could break a barrier for women cinematographers. I also believe that crowdfunding campaigns are changing the game for everyone. If in the past filmmakers were depending on producers and movie foundations, now there is another resource of funding, and it gets better and offers opportunities to many filmmakers.
MCL: Apart from financing issues, they often argue that women lack the confidence to come out when it to comes to filmmaking. Do you think this is a real factor?
RZ: It’s an individual thing, and I think it’s also true for men. People should believe in themselves, and do everything they can to fulfill their dreams. But it might occur more to women because they have very few examples of female role-models who really made it in the industry. You can see that every year in the Oscars.
MCL: Yes, and we’re getting there in a second.
But then there is sexism, gender discrimination, and the “Spotty Solidarity,” meaning that even those few women who make it forget to send the elevator back to their peers. You yourself are a filmmaker as well. Do you think there is a difference in the supporting system among men and women?
RZ: I’m not sure if I can blame them. Those women who have succeeded are now working in a male-dominated industry, and they have to fight even just to stay in the game. So maybe they don’t want this role, and that’s fine. But I think that people, and it doesn’t matter if they’re men or women, who care about equality in society, need to do something, especially when they are in a position that allows them to do so.
MCL: I would think that to be a filmmaker you need to have a good story to tell. This doesn’t seem so gender-specific. Are there any special skills you would need to succeed in filmmaking? Any that would put women at a disadvantage?
RZ: Not at all. To be a good filmmaker, just like being a good football player – you need to work very hard, every day. Some people are born with a special talent, but I believe that everyone, both men, and women, can learn how to tell a good story.
MCL: And now to Hollywood: With only 7% of Hollywood directors in 2014 being women, we can easily say that filmmaking is one of the most gender-imbalanced industries. What does your statistics say? What is the ratio of men and women film director at your festivals?
RZ: That’s sad, and the numbers say much more than words in that case. In the previous edition of Top Shorts, 17% of the films were directed by women, while in Festigious the numbers are better at around 30%. However, we don’t have the final numbers yet because we are still receiving submissions for Festigious, which starts on November 1st. My goal is to get to 50% women at least next year, and I think this can be realistically achieved.
MCL: And if we would check the winner’s name list? Are there any women? Let’s hope you can show us some better numbers than the Oscar, where out of the four female filmmakers ever nominated in its entire history; only one, Kathryn Bigelow has won.
RZ: In Top Shorts 2015, 20% of the winners were women. I hope that it will be even better in Festigious. So, I think we are already better than the Oscar, don’t you think?
According to the latest statistics, females direct more documentaries (34.5%) than narrative films (16.9%). Would you back up these numbers based on your festival turnouts? Why would women prefer documentaries to a good drama?
RZ: Yes, we receive more submissions by women in the documentary and animation categories. I don’t think that women prefer making a documentary over a narrative. Filmmakers, in general, prefer making script-based films, rather than documentaries. Maybe the fact that you can make a good documentary without being dependent on producers makes more women focus on documentaries.
MCL: There is a growing tendency to create women-only festivals. Names as the Women’s International Film & Arts Festival, Rocky Mountain Women’s Film Festival, Birds-Eye View Film Festival or the Underwire Festival are all aiming to raise the awareness and improve the parity in the film industry. Do you think these movements are still somewhat falling under a feminist banters?
RZ: I think that these festivals are amazing. One of my films, “On the Edge,” was screened two years ago at the Women’s International Film & Arts Festival in Miami. It’s a short documentary about an inspiring woman who got over a very tough life story. Screening the film in such an important film festival means a lot, and makes a different impact on the audience, most of whom are women.
MCL: In your jury, you are 5 men and 4 women. Not bad I would say. Was it a conscious attempt to keep a gender balance?
RZ: When I selected the judging team, it was important to me to keep it gender-balanced, but in that case, I can say it was pretty easy. Top Shorts women jury members are top-notch actresses, composers and producers, such as Julia Parker and Anna Bateman.
MCL: What are your 3 pieces of advice to (women) filmmakers?
RZ: One – Find your inspiration. Yes, it’s harder for women to get to the top, especially in the filmmaking industry. But still, there are many inspiring women out there that you can draw inspiration from. Take Viola Davis for example, who became the first African-American woman to win an Emmy Award just recently.
Two – Never give up. If you really want something and you work very hard to achieve it – you’ll win.
Three – It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman. Each one of us has a unique way of telling a story and I see that as a gift. Find the way YOU want to tell a story, without any barriers and without thinking what other people may say.
If you know what you want to say, people will listen.
MCL: Both of your festivals are open now for entries. Anything you would like to share with the candidates and the audience?
RZ: What we’re really looking for are films that matter, that have something relevant to say. My main goal, and the reason I founded those festivals is to support indie filmmakers and promote their works. I’m fortunate to have a wonderful team of people who believe that this goal is important.
The Interview lines up some of the submitted short movies for the Festigious Film Festival!