Commitment to feminism must reflect in our actions, not be confined to lip service: A filmmaker speaks
'What irks me is being let down by my own kind, and the allies that claim to fight the same fight. You are pulling the rug from under some of our feet, and I am speaking for a whole lot of us,' writes Vaishnavi Sundar.
Over the past five years that I have been making films, I have gravitated towards subjects that focus on women and women’s rights. I didn't start out with the intent to exclusively make women-centric films, but with five films in my kitty, and more than three years of uninhibited film activism, I have carved myself a niche within the film fraternity as someone creating unapologetic feminist content.
While this has been fantastic in many ways, it has also become the source of mental breakdowns. (Disclosing some of which could question the very ethos I stand for, but I urge you to hear me out.)
After I decided to quit my job and nosedived into making my own films, I worked with many women’s organisations around the world, screening films made by women and strengthening the community I founded three years ago. Some of these organisations have been downright exploitative. Since it was in the early stages, I did not mind slaving for next to anything, and losing sleep (for someone else’s profit) because my desire to contribute towards the movement blinded me — and in retrospect — cost me.
Lately, I have also been asked to speak at events, lecture at universities, be part of panels, screen my films with discussions etc. By engaging with these opportunities, I have experienced a gamut of bittersweet reality checks. I have learned that there is a very distinct dichotomy between people/organisations that want to join hands with filmmakers like me to nurture the movement, and those that think they do. They merely resort to hollow, token feminism that I have come to despise. I will break it down with a few examples:
— There is something about my willingness (and my age?) that has often been taken for granted. I have had people expect me to devote my time to an event and simultaneously make it sound like they are doing me a huge favour (read: “provide exposure”). This starts with the way I am approached to begin with, and all the communication thereafter. At one such event, a male panelist was flown down, and provided five-star accommodation while I had to haggle for a “lunch pass.”
— I have been asked to fill in as a backup when their “actual guest” backed out last minute. I am not a stranger to unexpected cancellations while trying to organise something, so I empathise with such a situation. But a backup speaker can’t be treated as a second-class citizen, nor should her time be any less valued. It’s funny how the organisers have always resorted to overt appreciation — bordering condescension — after such an event is over as if they expected me to do a lousy job.
— A man who runs a popular cultural space in Chennai (India) offered to screen a bunch of films to passersby from his cafeteria window. He thought that would be a great way to make a name for himself as someone who promotes women filmmakers. He later joined hands with another (read: popular) group to conduct a lavish festival. Suffice to say, promoting female filmmakers didn’t make it anywhere on the agenda.
— I have been asked to be the “woman’s voice” in events discussing ‘women’s cinema’ and ‘the future of cinema’ on a panel comprising, and moderated by men. Given the highly homogeneous makeup of such “manels,” could it be my lack of male genitalia that is disruptive to the balance these men bring to a discussion concerning women? How much of a ‘future’ do these people actually care about when the 50 percent of the world population is not even represented in their lousy four-member panel?
— After I completed my latest film, I was contacted by many well-meaning entities to screen it at their premises. While it gives me an audience and a space for free, it is often humiliating when they ask me to screen parts of my film as a ‘filler item' before the “actual event.” In one such case, I was asked to “fast forward to the important bits”. How do I decide which is the unimportant portion of a two-hour film that I condensed from 18 hours of gruelling footage? Or maybe I need to seek advice from this “expert filmmaker” on best practices for “arriving at the important bits” when I make my next film.
— I have also been made to feel ashamed for wanting to be compensated monetarily for my time and work. I am not deluded so as to demand anything outrageous, but events have cancelled on me for asking something as meagre as the conveyance, let alone compensate me for my labour. I have written in detail about NGOs wanting to hire female/feminist filmmakers, but treating them as pushovers, and eventually cancelling the gig. When we claim to fight for equal pay, in line with the feminist movement, why is asking to be compensated seen as egregious?
— Women, fellow feminists and advocates of gender equality with a large following on social media have been indifferent despite my best efforts to reach out to them for support. Something about their unwillingness to openly support a common cause has left me wondering if our politics is indeed the same. Some of these people will message me privately, appreciating my “efforts” and assuring me of their “unwavering support” which never seems to materialise when needed. I believed their empty words only to be disappointed later. I think this is one wound that will forever remain raw. Their “woke” tweets on the importance of “sisterhood” are like salt on my wounds.
Being a woman in this world is hard as it is. Being a foul-mouthed “feminazi” is just upping it by many notches. I don’t mind such labels by men, I’d flaunt them like medals. What irks me is being let down by my own kind, and the allies that claim to fight the same fight. You are pulling the rug from under some of our feet, and I am speaking for a whole lot of us.
I have often lamented with fellow filmmakers who, like me, make feminist content. We are isolated, ostracised and entirely stripped of a support system even from our families. It takes monumental grit to carry on despite such odds stacked against us — do not for a minute think that we do this “for fun” or as a “hobby.” I know many filmmakers who find a way to balance their love for film by periodically taking up commercial work, and I am happy for them. But for some of us, that’s not an option, that’s not how we are wired.
I wish to clarify that despite all this, I am profoundly aware of my privilege, and I know that I have a free pass to a lot of opportunities that many women don’t. I also want to extend my gratitude to some organisations who quietly do their work. My rant is in no way in exclusion of my privilege, in fact, it is only within the purview of it. But by speaking up, I wish to affirm that I speak for all women who face a similar predicament or worse — our time is not free, our labour far less so.
As 8 March approaches, I brace myself for the deluge of empty ceremonial gestures and lip service reverence on the occasion of Women's Day. Where you check some boxes by hosting events, claiming to have done your bit. Therefore, after hours of wasted time in the name of “meetings,” and thousands spent on getting there, I have resolved to put my head down and go about my work. If along the way we can join hands, I’d be glad. But for now, I am done with your token feminism, count me out for good.
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