“I Don’t Have To Have A Penis To Be Able To Direct A Movie”: A Chat With ‘Strangerland’ Director Kim Farrant

Women are still hugely under-represented in the Australian film industry. We talked to Kim Farrant about the uphill battle.

Statistics show women are still facing a huge uphill battle when it comes to representation in the Australian film industry — and few people are better acquainted with that fact than filmmaker Kim Farrant.

With recently released stats from Screen Australia estimating that only 16 per cent of films in this country come from female directors (we’re marginally better than the US, which puts it at 14 per cent), the Aussie creative has spent her entire career knowing she’s part of a minority.

“I’ve definitely experienced the feeling of being marginalised as a female director,” she tells me, the night before her new film Strangerland premiered at Sydney Film Festival. “[Even when I was working in TV], I had someone sit me down and explain that I was like the fresh face in high school, and that being a woman would make it even harder for me. At the time I was like, ‘Wow, is that the reality?’. A lot of sets have equipment and men dealing with those bits of machinery, and people looked at me when I turned up in a dress and appropriate footwear like, ‘What are you doing?’ — as if you have to make yourself more masculine to prove that you can direct. I would think, ‘No, I can totally inhabit my beauty and my femininity and lead this production’. And that’s threatening for people.”

Farrant’s debut feature film, Strangerland had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January where it was up for the Grand Jury Prize in World Cinema, and at Sydney Film Festival it’s screening as part of the Official Competition. The film follows two parents in a remote Outback town (Nicole Kidman and Joseph Fiennes), and the detective (Hugo Weaving) tasked with solving the disappearance of their two teenage children.

But at its core, Strangerland is an examination of female sexuality, something – incase you haven’t noticed – Farrant feels strongly about. “I was interested in this big theme of how we act in times of crisis — and what about those of us who might act out sexually? It’s way more taboo for a woman acting out her sexual desires or her needs than it is for a man, and I wanted to explore that, and why [that might be],” she says. “Why is it that the veracity of female desire is so threatening to so many people? Why is a woman who is empowered in her sexuality and connected to herself somehow a threat, and not celebrated?”

Farrant is also interested in the damaging impact patriarchal gender norms and objectification can have on women of all ages. “When you look at a character like Lily (Maddison Brown) in the film, who is 15 and a beautiful young girl, she’s mostly been objectified sexually from day dot,” she says. “People would say, ‘Oh, you’re such a pretty girl’ and, ‘Look at you, don’t you look pretty’ — and it’s very easy when you get told that as a young girl to grow up thinking, ‘If I’m pretty therefore I’m likable, so I’d better stay pretty’. We have …  eating disorders and body dysmorphia because we have this massive sexual objectification that happens from such a young age. It’s like, what has happened to women and their ownership of female sexuality? It’s become objectified on one hand, and then feared and vilified on the other. Why are there so many predators out there, and why is it that a female can’t celebrate her sexuality without fear of being abducted or raped?”

Farrant has made a career of asking the big questions; her 2013 half-hour doco for Domestic Violence Victoria, Women’s Voices Steering Justice Reform, is an absolute must-watch. And she also has a habit of boldly ploughing into areas where women are depressingly underrepresented. Outside of her filmography of award-winning short films, Farrent has directed episodes of Ten’s underrated and unflinching macho police series Rush, and has gathered an impressive portfolio of commercials, for big brands like Kelloggs and McDonalds – another industry in Australia that leaves women behind. “There’s still not as many women directing in areas like commercials, it’s still a minority,” pioneering Australian director Gillian Armstrong said on a recent episode of the Eff Yeah Film & Feminism podcast. “All women directors should be considered individual artists who all have their own tastes, style and judgment.”

And just as female directors are a rarity in Australia, so too are women in the film crew; as Armstrong puts it, “they used to say the only place for women on a film crew was continuity or make-up.” Scanning the credits of Strangerland, though, one could easily think the industry ain’t that bad after all: eight of the eleven producers are women, along with the casting agent, editor, second assistant director, production manager, and costume designer, to name a few.

The thought of Farrant purposely surrounding herself with a bad-ass girl gang may warm the heart, but it didn’t quite go down like that. “You know, what’s really interesting is that it wasn’t a conscious choice to hire women. The choices for me were always about who was the best person for this position in the crew,” she says. “For me it’s about who is the most appropriate for the role; whether they’re male or female, they can be in touch with their feminine or masculine side … I don’t have to have a penis and set of testicles to be able to direct a movie — it shouldn’t matter what my gender is. It should be the same in the casting and crewing of the film: do they have the qualities … that I need in their capacity as DOP, or as an editor?

“That to me is most important, not what someone’s gender is, and I hope that at a certain point funding bodies and studios see that you don’t have to be male and wearing a pair of pants and be masculine to be able to lead a movie.” (It seems almost redundant to note that Strangerland passes The Bechdel Test with flying colours.)

Farrant joins a growing movement of women (and a few men) in the industry worldwide who are calling out sexism as they see it. From Melissa McCarthy, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Lexi Alexander (“By letter of the law, all female directors must fall in one of two categories: Difficult or Indecisive. Bitch or Ditz. Hello, my name is Lexi Alexander, Difficult Bitch. Nice to meet you!”), to Mark Ruffalo, George Miller and Paul Feig. In the meantime, Farrant is content to keep nudging change along by challenging the norms, from the big, broad issues, right down the tiny norm of “not wearing boots and jeans in order to somehow reassure people weirdly that I can direct a film”.

Strangerland  opens today in select cinemas around Melbourne, Canberra, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and Hobart for a one-week run; it opens in Sydney on Thursday June 18 for a one-week run.

Maria Lewis is a journalist from Sydney. She’s the co-host of the Eff Yeah Film & Feminism podcast, and tweets from @MovieMazz.