Why some films get a capital "F"

A new feminist rating system for movies aims to draw attention to the prominence of women on both sides of the camera, writes Caroline Delaney

Pitch Perfect 2 is a film that has passed the F-Rating with flying colours.

IF YOU get a large ‘F’ stamped on a school or college test then it’s generally bad news — but now it’s a sign of approval for certain films. Films where women aren’t just props for male heroes, and where women are significantly involved in the film production.

We’ve got PG rated and 12s and 18s movies — and now you can look out for F-Rated films as well. This new film classification aims to shine a light on the work women are doing in film.

Basically, if you can answer yes to one or more of these questions about a film, then it earns the F-Rating stamp of approval.

  • Does it have a female director?
  • Is it written by a woman?
  • Are there complex female on-screen characters who exist in their own rights and aren’t simply there to support the male lead?

The F stands for feminist — the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.

F-Rating founder and Bath Film Festival director, Holly Tarquini, will be at the Cinemagic Festival in Dublin next week to discuss this classification.

She explains that this rating is to support women in film and is not about discriminating against men.

“The majority of films are made by white middle-class men — only 3.3% of big-budget feature films (more than £30million) are directed by women. We want to expand who is telling the stories. It is about asking ‘Do we care that almost all the heroes are men’ and ‘Are we happy with that?’.”

COMPLICATED SITUATION

Tarquini says she certainly isn’t claiming she’ll expose a secret pact between male directors and producers to stamp down female talent.

“It’s more complicated than that — you have studio executives or directors who are male and people typically nurture people who are like them and that’s when the industry becomes exclusive. So then being brilliant isn’t enough.”

And she’s not too concerned that seeing an F-rating stamp of approval on a film will put men off. “Patriarchy has been putting me off things for a long time. So I don’t think I mind about that.”

Some F-Rated films are indeed celebrated in mainstream arenas — Oscar-winning Room which has Brie Larson in the lead role and was written for screen by Ireland’s own Emma Donoghue, who also wrote the original novel, is one such film. But many others don’t get top-billing in commercial cinemas and are more typically found at film festivals and movie clubs.

Professional association, Directors UK, has almost 6,000 members. The association has just this month released a report called ‘Cut Out of the Picture: A Study of Gender Inequality among Directors within the UK Film Industry’.

Tarquini explains: “50.1% of film students (in Britain) are women but Directors UK analysis reveals that by budget only 3.3% of key players are women. The film industry is even worse than law.”

There are some very strong female characters in TV drama series such as Happy Valley and The Killing; so is television beating film in the F-Rating stakes? Happy Valley’s lead character, Catherine Cawood, is in her 50s and takes no nonsense; she mentors a young female colleague and treats women ranging from her alcoholic sister to local prostitutes with respect — and the series was written, created and directed by Sally Wainwright.

“Yes,” confirms Tarquini. “TV does better than film because the ‘risks’ are lower.”

This is mirrored in the recent Directors UK report also: “Once they [women] become directors they struggle to progress to larger budgets (16.1% female directors on low-budget films compared to 3.3% on high-budget films).”

BECHDEL FAILINGS

The F-Rating itself is a step on from the Bechdel Test. This test is based on a 1985 cartoon strip by Alison Bechdel — in this a woman explains to a friend that she only wants to go to a movie if it has at least two women in it; who talk to each other; about something other than a man.

And there is a difference between the two tests because, as Tarquini notes: “The Bikini Carwash Company passes the Bechdel Test because several of the women in this movie talk about a way to earn money.”

In case you couldn’t guess from the title The Bikini Carwash Company is about a group of women who boost sales at a carwash by wearing a lot of suds and not a lot of clothing — so it passes the Bechdel test but isn’t F-Rated. Some films merit double and even triple F-Ratings because they star women and are written and directed by women.

“We’re not saying that these films are only for women, or that they’re necessarily about women’s issues.”

But Tarquini is optimistic that things are only going to improve: “There are lots of campaigners for diversity and they are starting to make a difference. We are on the brink of critical mass. It is crucial that the medium has more storytellers and film studios will look increasingly stupid if they don’t recognise this.”

  • F-Rating founder, Holly Tarquini will be at the Cinemagic festival in Dublin on May 19 to host a discussion event for the next generation of budding filmmakers, before a screening of Suffragette. The festival runs from May 13 to 22. See cinemagic.ie

Other films that pass the F-Rating

  • Pitch Perfect 2 is a triple F-Rated blockbuster. This 2015 American musical comedy’s screenplay is by Kay Cannon and the director is Elizabeth Banks. The film focuses on an all-female a capella singing group and grossed more than $287 million. Pitch Perfect 3 is set to be released in August 2017.

  • Mustang is a 2015 drama film directed by Turkish-French film director Deniz Gamze Ergüven. This film is set in a remote Turkish village and shows the challenges faced by five orphaned sisters in a conservative society.

  • Janis: Little Girl Blue is a documentary on the life of rock and roll legend, Janis Joplin. It’s directed by Amy Berg and narraged by Cat Power and traces Joplin’s evolution into a drug and alcohol-addicted musical star.

  • Despite the Falling Snow is written and directed by Shamim Sarif and stars Rebecca Ferguson. The film is set in Cold War Moscow and focuses on a female spy.

  • Testament of Youth, based on Vera Brittain’s memoir, and stars Alicia Vikander as the strong-minded war nurse.

  • Wild: Reese Witherspoon stars in the true-life adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir.

  • Room: Irish film starring Brie Larson, pictured; based on Emma Donoghue’s novel.


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