From men earning higher salaries to the #MeToo movement, Hollywood is known for being an industry where sexism and gender inequality are still rampant. Women both in front of and behind the camera face an array of challenges in what's still largely a male-dominated industry, but the past year has indicated that female filmmakers are making a monumental mark on the biz.
Earlier this year, Chloe Zhao was the first woman of colour to win the Best Director award at the Oscars for Nomadland, and only the second woman to ever win it in the award's history (Katheryn Bigelow was the first in 2010).
Closer to home, we've seen a wave of emerging and established Australian female voices take the reins of directing and screenwriting roles and steer important conversations through film.
The recent Sydney Film Festival's opening night production, Here Out West, is a notable example. With five female directors at its helm, the movie is not only a women-led project, but one that's intersectional in its approach. Based on stories from eight Western Sydney writers, the movie navigates themes of assimilation, racism and family, and nine languages are spoken on-screen.
As one of the emerging writers who worked on the film, Nisrine Amine was responsible for a storyline inspired by her own upbringing as a Lebanese Australian in Parramatta, the hub of multiculturalism in Western Sydney.
Young actor Mia-Lore Bayeh features in Amine's storyline, and her casting is particularly special to Amine, who rarely saw people on screen who looked like her when she migrated from Lebanon at age three.
"It just lights up my heart," Amine told Refinery29 Australia. "To be able to have Mia-Lore who speaks my version of Arabic and has my background... to be able to give her that opportunity at such a young age, I just hope that for her whatever it is she wants to achieve, she knows that she can do this because she has done it. She's done at once and now the sky's the limit for home from this point on."
Being able to work with Bayeh is also significant for Amine because she didn't have similar opportunities when she was younger to be able to forge an acting career, the way many living in other areas of Sydney did.
"My parents always knew about my dreams of acting but I never knew that I could do it because NIDA and all of those places were out there," she explained, referring to the prestigious Eastern Sydney-based National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), which boasts a list of impressive alumni including Cate Blanchett and Mel Gibson.
After finishing high school, Amine studied a commerce degree before delving into public relations, first teaching and then ultimately acting and writing. In 2018 she opened the Parramatta Actors Centre with her sister and brother; a "dream family project" as she describes it, which catered to a gap in Western Sydney.
"We started with one class that was made up of just our family and friends' kid," she laughed. "And then after that, it started to grow and now we offer adult classes, and we have teachers in New York that do Zoom classes, and we've developed a really beautiful local community.
"It came at a time when Parramatta needed it."
Christine Milo is one of the diverse actors starring in Here Out West. Portraying a strong Filipino woman in the story arc written by Filipino Australian writer Vonne Patiag was a dream come true, because there was a time when Milo didn't even believe such authentic Asian representation was possible on Aussie screens.
When she graduated from the Queensland University of Technology, Milo recalled telling her teachers and peers that her "deepest fear" was not getting work as an actor, especially as a woman of colour.
"I did actually struggle to find work or to find even representation when I graduated from QUT... and I would do my research," she said. "If an agent already had a person of colour on their books, I would immediately be like, 'Well, they're not looking for anyone else, they have that base covered.'
"There just weren't enough of the jobs to go around for them to keep or to have multiple people of colour as talent on their books."
Milo then realised she needed to create her own work in order to be working, which is what prompted her foray into filmmaking with an initial short film that was shortlisted at the 2016 Tropfest Film Festival.
She soon realised though that the job prospects within the industry for women of colour were rather limited in Australia, and it's for this reason she moved to the US for a greater chance at achieving widespread success.
"I was on my way in the United States to carve out a career for myself because there just there wasn't the same amount of opportunity happening in Australia," she said, revealing that she had landed both management and auditions in Los Angeles.
"Everyone was saying it's getting better [in Australia] and you know what, slowly it was. But it was still really tough."
The timing of her Here Out West gig aligned with her returning to Australia due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and she hopes the movie will give the industry more faith in investing in much-needed diverse voices who up until now haven't had the chance to tell their stories due to a lack of funding.
"I think Australia needs to give those emerging creatives and stories the time and money. Take the risk, so to speak, to see these stories and it might surprise you that people connect with them."
Funding initiatives opening doors to up-and-coming talent are something director, writer and story producer Kimberley Benjamin is all too familiar with and a passionate advocate for.
The proud Yawuru, Bardi and Kija woman from Rubibi/Broome, WA got her start in 2016 thanks to an emerging filmmakers' fund that allowed her to create a 30-minute production for NITV – the First Nations-focused channel linked to SBS.
"I think those initiatives are so important in just being able to give people like myself, who had no experience – I didn't go to film school – a chance to give it a go and in a supportive environment," she explained.
Over the past five years, Benjamin has worked across film and television, most recently writing and directing ABC's factual series Back to Nature. Documentary filmmaking is her true forte in her opinion, and she values the opportunities to tell truthful and impactful stories about Indigenous people.
"I'm particularly passionate about telling First Nations stories," she said.
"The best part of filmmaking is the relationships. You get to bond with the stories, and the people and the communities that hold those stories and are sharing them with you.... I just really love documentary because it's telling people true stories."
The documentary field has recently seen more projects driven by talented women who have the passionate drive to elevate untold stories, and also to nurture other female filmmakers rising up the ranks.
Cody Greenwood's most recent production, Under The Volcano, was nominated for Best Australian Documentary at the Sydney Film Festival. She's also the founder of her own company, Rush Films, which strives to tell diverse stories and enlist female-led teams behind the camera.
After working for Heath Ledger's company The Masses in Los Angeles 10 years ago where she production-managed music videos and short film content, Greenwood came back to Australia and got her big filmmaking break working on docos for NITV.
Despite her success, she said her career hasn't been without its challenges, particularly as a woman.
"I found especially in the earlier days of my career that I really struggled to have a voice," she revealed. "For me specifically, that was to have a creative voice when I was on set with male key creatives. That's been a real challenge.
"But I think that there's a real undeniable demand for the industry to reassess the ways in which women are heard in writers' rooms and during the development process, and it's no longer okay for women not to have a seat at the table when it comes to filmmaking."
Greenwood said she's noticed an improvement in the past few years, but there's still progress to be made towards greater gender parity.
Right now, women supporting one another can be the greatest asset in this field.
"Our industry is undeniably a difficult industry to work in at times," she said. "But I think it's the women championing other women so that we can all come up together."
Greenwood worked as a producer with fellow Aussie filmmakers Samantha Marlowe and Francis Elliott on the recently-released doco, Girl Like You, which documented a young woman as she watched her partner transition from male to female.
Like Greenwood, Marlowe and Elliott said they've faced sexism in the industry and working as a duo has brought a unique dynamic to their working environment and a source of support and authority in an often cut-throat landscape.
"One of the best things ever for us is that we go through everything together so it gives us so much more power on set," said Elliott.
"When we get treated really badly by some men, you know, a lot of times when you're going through it by yourself, you internalise it, but because me and Sam are together, we get to sort of walk away and be like, 'Did you hear what that jerk just said what did he like?'"
"I think that's also true for having Cody as a producer," she continued. "You know, a lot of times when we go through sexism on set, we'll call her just to vent to."
With Marlowe adding that these instances are "not rare" and still "very prevalent in the film industry today", Elliott added there's something empowering in "surrounding yourself with women who actually understand what it's like and who are not going to invalidate your experience."
"It means like, you have a lot of power to not let it get to you."
Marlowe and Elliott believe that now is the time for women to claim their power and make the films that resonate most with society.
"Fo so many years, the majority of films have been written and directed by men and all the characters within them are men's perception of them," said Elliot.
"So men's perception of transgender people, men's perception of women, and I think that there's no sort of way to relate to the women in those movies because they're not real. They're sort of the men's version of them.
"But I think by having diversity and that means females, queer people, people of colour behind the camera as well as in front of the camera, that means that their life can be adequately represented and properly represented."
It's because of these sentiments that events such as the Melbourne Women In Film Festival are so important for female filmmakers and audiences alike.
Established in 2017, it's a not-for-profit event aimed at celebrating and supporting the work of women and gender diverse filmmakers and creatives.
Vyshnavee Wijekumar, who has an extensive background in film and arts marketing, is the current Deputy Chair of the Melbourne Women In Film Festival. It's one of her most treasured roles to date because the festival embraces the female talent she never saw while growing up in Australia as the daughter of South Asian immigrants.
"With a lot of South Asian communities, your parents are the ones that really influenced your taste in that kind of cinema," she said, explaining a lot of her on-screen idols were mainly men — "the prominent actors of those times".
"Often not a lot of the ones that you think about are women, even though they've been amazing women who have been at the forefront of cinema during that time as well," she said.
What's special about the festival in her opinion is that it's a grassroots effort at platforming "retrospective women's films" that haven't had the exposure "their male counterparts have had" as well as the work of emerging filmmakers "doing groundbreaking work in contemporary times".
Wijekumar said funding has been a consistent challenge for women in the industry, as well as cultural barriers or obstacles faced by underrepresented communities such as not having access to established industry networks.
"When you're someone who's from a different cultural background, or have that additional barrier, you don't even know where to start," she said.
With submissions for the festival closing today, Wijekumar and the team are now planning the event scheduled for February 2022.
Wijekumar said the appetite for female-led, intersectional content is thriving across the country and while she may be ramping up the promo for the Melbourne Women In Film Festival, she wants to acknowledge that the more widespread diversity nationally, the better.
"People are hungry for this kind of content," she said. "You could see that from the fact that Here Out West had three sold-out sessions at Sydney Film Festival. "There's a reason for that. These are stories that people actually want and communities actually want."
As all of these women begin storyboarding their next move for 2022, Greenwood sums up the energy felt by so many.
"I'm just really proud of the talent that's coming out of Australia both in the emerging sector that I'm in, but also a lot of established filmmakers. The content that they're creating makes me really proud of my career," she said.
"I'm actually really proud to be a female filmmaker."