Interview: Barbara Ann O’Leary of Directed By Women

I spoke in depth to Barbara Ann O’Leary who created the Directed by Women initiative and website, an essential film-goers almanac. The pioneer talks a lot about building a deep culture of appreciation within the global film community which includes making space for conversation in and among filmmakers and film-lovers. So here we go.

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Robin Write: A couple of starter questions then. Get things warmed up. I mean I have to mention the election. As we speak we’re still in the dawn of this new phase for America and the world. How are you, family and friends holding up?

Barbara Ann O’Leary: Thanks for asking. I’d been looking forward to Hillary Clinton becoming our next president. I’m very impressed with her unique skills and her deep dedication to making life more wonderful. She inspires me with her tenacity and resilience. I’m going to use her as a model going forward as we find creative ways to continue to dream a new world into being – one that values everyone and honors their authenticity and uniqueness. The outcome of this election is freaking a lot of people out, but I feel calm and filled with love and a great sense of unfolding possibility.

RW: I hope many feel the same once the dust has settled. I know some do already. Compassion over hate.

BAOL: Each of us has the capacity to shift perspective and when our perceptions shift our world shifts with it. This is key to the work I do with #DirectedbyWomen, with my shamanic work, and basically in every aspect of my life. For quite some time I’ve been following insights I’ve received from the dreaming. A few crucial messages include: “Struggle is obsolete.”, “Chaos reigns. Meaning emerges.”, “Attention to detail guides the dreamer.”. The last one is the title of the short experimental film shot on Super8 and digitally edited into multi-layered collage – a project from the Indiana University Cinema. I’m always working to see how I can invite people to look below the surface and see what’s attempting to arise and reveal itself. In the blink of an eye perception shifts opening up opportunities to explore and fluidly move between waking and dreaming realities.

RW: Okay. For those that don’t know then, briefly describe who you are, and what you do film-wise?

BAOL: Ah. Well, I’m a life long lover of film. I come from a theater background. I have a degree in Theatre and Drama from Indiana University where I focused on Lighting/Sound Design and Dramatic Literature. I developed a love of stage managing as it suits my desire to help people thrive fully as themselves. I stage managed theatrically for about 10 years before moving into other areas, including organizing at the UN level in Bella Abzug’s organization Women’s Environment and Development Organization. Among other things I worked to innovate strategies for using the emerging online communications capabilities to foster global communication. More recently I joined Indiana University Cinema’s team acting as their Social Media and Web Specialist, and have just been named Editor of their new blog A Place For Film.

RW: Yeah I saw that. I’ll have to check it out in much more detail though.

BAOL: Thanks. A few years back I launched the #DirectedbyWomen Worldwide Film Viewing Party initiative as a way to help the global film community fall madly in love with films by women directors.

RW: Ambitious. So what have done so far on A Place For Film?

BAOL: I get these ideas sometimes. They arise in my awareness and they just feel like something I should do. They don’t seem practical from an everyday perspective, but they have a lot of juice and I just know I need to do them. I don’t have to know how they’ll unfold. For A Place For Film we’ve invited a core group of regular contributors who are each offering roughly 2 blog posts a month. So far we’ve had interviews, video essays, features, reviews. We’re looking to offer insights into a wide variety of types of film. We’re also going to include work by guest bloggers. It’ll be a good mix. I hope people explore and enjoy.

RW: It’s a good idea. Hope it moves forward.

BAOL: We’re off to an exciting start so far. I really love to work with people to strengthen their creative expression, stretch into new areas, etc. I’ve facilitated a lot of writing in various ways over the years, so this feels like an excellent way to bring my gifts. I also publish interviews on the #DirectedbyWomen website. They’re focused on the work of women directors and on activities related to the Worldwide Film Viewing Party. Over the past few years I’ve been building a list of women who have directed film. And the list is closing in on 10,000 women directors. I hope to reach 10,000 by the end of 2016, if I have time.  If I add 7 or 8 a day, I’ll get there.

RW: So how have you publicized the Directed By Women initiative? What have you and the website achieved in this time? I mean, you know very well I’m on board.

BAOL: Yes. I love that you’re on board. I started the list a few years ago for my own use as part of a process I initiated for myself: A Yearlong Film Viewing Balancing Act. Let’s make sure we talk about what you’ve done to celebrate during the #DirectedbyWomen Worldwide Film Viewing Parties. I want people to know about what you’ve been doing, how you got involved and what it has been like for you. But to answer your question about publicizing. I haven’t really publicized. I’ve floated invitations to participate out via social media – predominantly Twitter and Facebook. I also ran a crowdfunding campaign back in the summer of 2014 to raise a small amount of money and to help get some attention. A few people have generously interviewed me for their blogs and newspapers, etc. Mostly it’s been word of mouth. We use the #DirectedbyWomen hashtag on Twitter and to a lesser extent on Facebook. I find that people who hear about #DirectedbyWomen and feel inspired to engage come up with amazingly interesting ways to celebrate. It’s a way to spark connection and enthusiasm in people who have been longing to do something joyous, appreciative and celebratory in relation to women directors and their work. We form a loose community and watch what arises.

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RW: So you saw the 100 Films Made by Women series we did? And the second 100?

BAOL: Yes. What inspired you to do the 100 Films series?

RW: Well, the female director absence is a big issue in the industry and not many appear to endorse them or even care. I do. And with the various movements and rumble of support for the female directors I hopped on board. I take pride in huge ambitious projects too. I have some great film friends who jumped at the idea to be part of it. Went so well, we did  second one.

BAOL: And tell me more about how you first heard about #DirectedbyWomen Worldwide Film Viewing Party and what you’ve experienced being part of that global celebration.

RW: I guess I scoured the internet for female directed supporters and reference sites – yours came up and provided both. The anthology of indexed films directed by women is an essential guide. Essential! The various lists on MUBI are fantastic. Specialized and rare stuff on there.

BAOL: I want to share something about the impetus behind #DirectedbyWomen and how it differs from a lot of the activity around women directors. #DirectedbyWomen is a project celebrating abundance and inviting people to notice, explore, share, relish and exuberate over the richness of what women directors have created and are creating. I became aware of how many people seemed to firmly believe that there have been and are very few women directors. And my experience was indicating that was a  fallacy. I’m interested in acknowledging and honoring as many women directors as I possibly can. And invite others to join me. I have another list on Letterboxd. Over 4000 films on that list.And themoviedb.org also has thousands. So I have lists of films and a major list of film directors. Always looking to see what I can add.

RW: Everyone should see those. I saw a lot of new films I hadn’t seen made by women, and they are generally a special batch. I saw some gems.

BAOL: The major list of directors includes a growing number of timelines that draw filmography from themoviedb.org and supplements with profile articles, interviews, podcasts, etc. I really LOVE this part of the project and work on it whenever I get a spare moment. Let’s get on a first name basis with Women Film Directors! Women around the globe are creating films. This growing index connects you with resources to help you learn about what women film directors have been manifesting. Both of those lists pull in any films tagged “woman director” on themoviedb.org so anyone can contribute just by editing the TMDb listing. I like that community engagement feel. If people want to help build the timelines on the site they can edit TMDb and send me the link for the film director and I’ll set it up so the information shows up in a timeline for that director.

RW: Awesome.

BAOL: I’m a little obsessive! I think you can see that. Something I also do is build lists on Facebook that I use to redirect my attention from the regular FB newsfeed to focus on what women directors are sharing. Anyone can subscribe to these (free of course) and then follow what women directors are sharing on their own profiles or on their film pages. One has over 3000 women directors FB accounts/pages.

RW: I’ve seen. My FB friends list is about to get bigger.

BAOL: The great thing about the second list is you can just follow along and see what is being posted automatically. The one with the women directors depends on the settings they use. You may need to be friends with them to see everything they share.

RW: Right. And sometimes you can just follow them.

BAOL: As I said when we started this conversation I’m all about authentic creative expression and about shifting perception. Just by moving away from Facebook’s default news feed and focusing attention on women directors and what they are sharing my world shifted. I invite everyone to join me. My idea is to not to try to be thorough on any of those but to help people using those platforms to dive in and explore. Because when you start to see how much work women are directing you no longer feel like you’re in a situation of lack. At least for me I feel like I want a vast community to join me in watching and talking about these film directors and their work. It’s way more than one person could possibly do. And then of course I want women to keep making more and more work and having that work funded, distributed, honored, discussed, etc.

RW: How did this year’s Worldwide Viewing Event in September go?

BAOL: So this past September was the second Worldwide Film Viewing Party. The first was September 1-15, 2015.  This year we took the whole month.

RW: And we have only skimmed the surface.

BAOL: I loved seeing a lot of people diving in again for the second time. In fact I’d never envisioned making it an annual event but so many people wanted to do it again, we did. Online festivals like the one you created! And multi-venue multi-day festivals in Spain, England, USA. There were events in Australia. I lose track of them all.

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RW: I’ll be part of it next time again.

BAOL: Excellent. It’s hard to describe to people. There’s something about just diving in and making something happen that’s amazing. Oh, I wanted to tell you about a vision for 2017.

RW: I was about to ask your plans for 2017.

BAOL: The vision is to identify #DirectedbyWomen Power Spots around the planet – places that honor and celebrate films by women directors. I’m seeing this as something beyond the September global party. Something that is about holding space on the planet for a deepening of appreciation of women created content – with an emphasis on films by women. I think there are many such power spots on the planet already and this could help highlight them. And invite more. There’s a dearth of opportunity currently for women directed content to screen and be explored. I’d like to see that shift. #DirectedbyWomen is really all about helping film lovers become aware of and have access to the work of women directors.

RW: I’m all for that.

BAOL: I’m in the early stages of working on this Power Spots initiative, but I know it’s going to be fun.

RW: Look forward to it.

BAOL: Yeah. Looking forward to engaging with you on this. Cyberspace can have Power Spots as well. Like your site. They don’t all have to be mapped in physical reality! At the moment I’m inviting people to chip in a little money to help me get caught up on expenses and create a little pool of resources for the future.

RW: To finish. What are a few of your favorite films directed by women? Which female film-makers stand out for your? Both the big guns and the newcomers.

BAOL: There are so many. And one of the things I think about a lot is how many I’ve not had a chance to explore yet. I’ll name a few. I love Eliza Hittman’s It Felt Like Love and can’t wait to see her new film. I’m excited by Jennifer Corcoran’s work. Her first film She Sings to the Stars stayed with me in surprising ways and she’s working on another.

RW: I interviewed Susanne Bier this year .That was a thrill!

BAOL: Wonderful. I’ll look for your Susanne Bier interview. Hadn’t seen that one. Jennifer Phang’s Advantageous comes to mind. She’s been working in TV lately, which I’m happy to see. And I look forward to what she can bring to another feature film when the opportunity arises. I want to mention Zeinabu irene Davis. Her film Compensation is a real gem. I saw an early cut of her new documentary Spirits of Rebellion about the LA Rebellion. Haven’t seen the final. Julie Dash and Kelly Reichardt are both coming to IU Cinema in December. That’s going to be a treat. One reason I wanted to do #DirectedbyWomen is that not everyone has the chance to meet filmmakers like I do. I want that for more film lovers. I greatly appreciate the conversation, Robin. And love being on this celebratory journey of film discovery with you.

RW: Me too. Well thanks for talking to me.

BAOL: Thank you.

* * * * *

Here are those Directed by Women Resources

A Place For Film

List of Women Directors on #DirectedbyWomen

List of Films by Women Directors – by Year

List of Films by Women Directors – by Genre

#DirectedbyWomen on Letterboxd

#DirectedbyWomen on Twitter

Women Film Directors on Facebook

FB PAGES: Films DirectedbyWomen

MUBI Lists

Covering Costs for the #DirectedbyWomen Initiative

Interview with Susanne Bier at Write out of L.A.

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