A Look At The Lesser-Known Stigmas Female Filmmakers Face

Photo: Courtesy of Alana Bonilla.
It goes without saying that women have long been underrepresented in the film and television industry — but that extends well beyond just actors. According to the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film, in 2017, only 16% of directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers on the top 100 grossing films in the U.S. were women (up a mere two percentage points from 2016). Research is even more grim and practically nonexistent when exploring women in roles such as “best boys,” key grippers, and electricians.
In partnership with DOVE® Chocolate, an advocate for women in film, Refinery29 set out to find the inspiring women pursuing their dreams and breaking barriers in traditionally male-dominated positions.
Assistant director Alana Bonilla started her career as a film student at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Since graduating in 2014, she has racked up an impressive portfolio, working on popular sets from late-night shows to some of the most-streamed TV series ever. Bonilla is also a member of the Directors Guild of America and guest lectures at her alma mater to help inspire others pursuing jobs in the field.
Read on for Bonilla’s insight into her world behind the camera — from the lesser-known stigmas associated with women working in film to the importance of global learning.
Where did your dreams of working in film and TV originate?
“I grew up in Los Angeles, so I got exposed to the creative arts early and saw the many beautiful ways people were telling stories. I knew that I wanted to do film, so I applied for an 'honorship' program that trains college students. During my time, I had the opportunity to work for four years during the summers and have internships in different departments at a prestigious Hollywood studio.”
What was it like working on major sets early in your career?
“The first day when I got home, I cried thinking, Oh, my gosh; this is so much harder than I thought it was going to be. But I told myself that it didn’t matter and that I was going to go back again the next day and the next day. Whatever they asked me to do, I told myself that I was going to say yes and get it done. By the end of it, the experience was amazing — we were all such a family. I still go back and visit my old crews seven years later.”
What was your greatest takeaway from your internship experience?
“Being on set made me want to stay on set. Working on [a major TV show starring female lead actresses], it was my first time seeing female first ADs, which was really cool. To see a woman like me who could mentor me and take the time to explain things to me kept me going.”
Photo: Courtesy of Alana Bonilla.
In your opinion, what does the process of bringing more women into the industry look like?
“For me, it’s being a mentor. I don’t have to have years and years of more experience to be able to support someone who is just now coming up. And maybe one day, that person will be the person to give me a job. That’s the cool thing about film.”
Describe what it has been like returning to NYU’s film school as a guest lecturer.
“It’s really cool to go back because I’m really not that far from where they are. I get to show them that they’re not just going to school for something they’ve read about. They actually get to create these things.
“I also tell them [film] doesn’t need to be like an army. I think that’s how ADs used to be — assistant directors were basically like generals of an army. It was like you had to lead with an iron fist, and everyone had to conform — that’s how things were done. But working in film is about creating an environment that’s loving, caring, and compassionate. Even if the TV show or movie has nothing to do with those things, you can feel them — the crew being happy and joyful to be there is captured on film.”

To see a woman like me who could mentor me and take the time to explain things to me kept me going.

You also studied at the Film and TV School of Academy of Performing Arts, located in the Czech Republic. What did the journey teach you about filmmaking?
“Getting to go to a different country and share with people my vision, even though I didn’t speak the same language, was so beautiful and meaningful — taking risks and doing something I've never done before. I realized that I’m really capable of anything. Also, I learned that when you have a vision, if you believe in it enough, others will believe in it, too, and help make it happen.”
Working in a field dominated by men, what has helped fuel your success?
“I think it’s being authentic and being true to who I am. It’s being a powerful woman and embracing that, even when it’s scary or when I’m afraid. It’s pushing past fear. At first, I stumbled and fell and thought I didn’t have a voice or that what I had to say wasn’t important. But I realized that I was given a responsibility. I have to use it and use it to its fullest extent. People may try to hold me back, but I can push through that.”
Can you speak to the boys' club narrative of filmmaking?
“Some [women] think the only way we’ll be respected is if we play how the boys play. There's this thought that to be a leader you need to be a tyrant. I don’t feel that way, though. I don’t feel like I need to yell at people or make people feel small to get the job done. I think if we hold everyone high, and if we are compassionate about our teams, care about them, and listen to each other, that’s the best type of collaboration possible. That’s what film is all about. We have all these different kinds of people from all walks of life working together to create someone’s story; it’s electric.”

Some [women] think the only way we’ll be respected is if we play how the boys play. I don’t feel that way, though.

What are some of the barriers of entry into film and TV that aren’t as widely discussed?
“I think, especially this year, it’s bitterly evident that the industry is very much a boys’ club. There’s certainly women who are there to bring you up, but it shouldn’t be just women helping women. It should be men helping women, too. It should be a mixture. Men don’t really see it that way when hiring. It’s interesting to see them attempt to, but it’s almost like they put on a show. They often [hire] men anyway even when there’s a woman who is just as committed and qualified.”
What are you looking forward to the most as your career progresses?
“To become a first [assistant director]. For that to be my role in telling a story, it would be amazing. I am in love with this; this is where I belong.
“I have this vision of working on an action movie, standing on top of a mountain, and saying, 'Action, go!’ At the end of the day, what we make as filmmakers is only two or two and a half hours long, but it’s something that will last forever. That’s the legacy I’m leaving behind me.”
This story has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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