Reel Good Film Club X The Bechdel Test Fest in conversation with Corrina Antrobus

Helena Bonham Carter in Suffragette

Two women, talking about something other than a man. Alison Bechdel’s 1985 comic strip ‘Dykes to watch out for’ where a character applies this simple rule when choosing what to see at the cinema became ‘The Bechdel Test’, one of the most talk-about cultural tools that so simply reveals the huge gender inequality in film. Here we interview Corrina Antrobus, founder and curator of The Bechdel Test Fest, a year long programme of screenings and events celebrating female presence on and behind our screens.

What made you decide to curate The Bechdel Test Fest and when did it start?

My experience of working in film marketing and as a film critic gave me the gift and the curse of scrutinizing the film industry and my feminism led me to be dismayed at the poor representation of women and people of colour on screen. I also knew many great female-led films that didn’t get the fanfare they deserved upon release and wanted to do something about it. This, combined with a trip to Sweden to research ‘A Rate’ (a film classification used by independent cinemas in Sweden to mark if a film passes the test), inspired me to launch The Bechdel Test Fest. It took a year of research and working at many film fests in-between my day job and then in Feb 2015, we had our first event.

The comic strip that ‘The Bechdel Test’ comes from was published in 1985 and still manages to have such a strong relevance to the gender inequality within the film industry. Do you think things are changing? Not fast enough! However, I’ve felt a positive surge towards change - people aren’t putting up with it anymore. We have audiences demanding more diverse programming and setting up their own film clubs and societies so they can screen what they want.The release of Suffragette is a good excuse to keep up the conversations and ask why it’s taken so darn long to get this story told on screen!

How do you feel as a woman in the film industry?

I feel positive and inspired to have brilliant women around me that are making positive change. We may not be making as many movies as men (yet) but I’m chuffed to see loads of us working behind the scenes as film programmers and industry professionals. This year, I went on an international art house cinema course in Venice and there was an overwhelming amount of talented and empowered females. If this is anything to go by - we’ll soon be taking over cinema!

What’s your experience of organising a volunteer-run and independent project and how have you gone about achieving it?

It’s not been easy and I still have a full time job but I’ve been overwhelmed with how many people have wanted to help out in making this a success. We have over 30 volunteers, most are qualified professionals with different skills from marketing and PR, to just being good at getting the little things done that help the big things happen. We’re a great bunch, all with other 9-5s, and we have fun but work insanely hard.

I love how Bechdel Test Fest is so much more than just screenings. For example, with how you use social media to bring visibility to women working in film with posts such as “Our Girl Friday”. What are your thoughts on the internet as a tool of activism about these issues in film?

Crucial! It’s allowed me to connect with like-minded groups across the world such as Blue Stocking Film Festival and The Bechdel Project - both US collectives hailing Bechdel Test-passing films. It’s also allowed us to connect to directors - Skyping in Gina Prince-Bythewood at our Beyond The Lights screening was a highlight! It’s empowering to know the work we’re doing is connecting and inspiring people worldwide and helps make what we do feel worth all the work.

How do you think your Festival has grown and developed thematically in the past few months?

We’re responsive to the unfolding cinematic landscape and create conversations where conversations need to be had. I knew of Beyond The Lights in 2014 and had vague pipe dreams of screening it, but never imagined hosting the London premiere in response to the film going straight to DVD. After Beyond The Lights and Rocks In My Pockets, I’ve heard people say we’re the festival that ‘saves’ female empowered films from falling through the cracks - I’m cool with that!

What do you think are the nuances of the Test and how do you think they have been explored through the programming you have done? I’m thinking particularly the way you have explored intersectionality.

What’s great about the test is how simple it is yet how widely it can be used. The test, in all simplicity, measures representation in film - with women being the original theme. I love that people have been inspired to create new tests to keep a check on the representation of diverse characters. In the same way feminism has intersectionality, so does the Bechdel Test and I think it’s important to explore as much of it as possible.

Your next screening will be a double-bill of Magic Mike which to a lot of people might come as a surprise. How do you think the Test can be applied to a film that is male-dominated and why do you think it’s important to explore these two films?

In a way, mainstream cinema can be where it matters most as these are the vehicles most frequently contributing to the general attitudes of society. Magic Mike and XXL are excellent films and are so often overlooked as just cheap thrills. XXL has a strong feminist subtext and whose focus is on two female groups so often under-appreciated and misrepresented in cinema - mature women and women of colour. The posters would suggest the male characters are simply over-sexualised air heads, but the films give them emotional agency; they are flawed, complex and explore the relationships they have with one another and it feels genuine and refreshing. I also want to use Magic Mike to discuss the often unhealthy representations of masculinity in Hollywood. It’s not just women that are strained by stereotypes and it’s important to address this.

What’s your advice to young women hoping to work in the film industry?

There is absolutely nothing stopping you. Like most industries, you need to be passionate, personable, hard working and willing to do it for the love not just the money. There are so many creative ways of contributing to better cinema from reviewing films to making them. We’re lucky to have great organisations such as the Independent Cinema Office, Cinema For All and the various Film Hubs that are willing to help or can offer financial support.

Do you hope to continue The Bechdel Test Fest after 2015?

Absolutely! We plan to grow bigger and stretch wider now we have more hands on the ever-growing deck. I’m excited to see how far we can take it!

Forthcoming events:

Bechdel Test Fest are screening Magic Mike double bill with a special guest Q&A discussing ‘Masculinity In The Movies’ at the Prince Charles Cinema London Leicester Sq Thu 22nd Oct. They are also screening a Time Is Now special Q&A event of Suffragette details to be announced and The Horror Harem - a feminist horror film weekender as part of the London Fields Free Film Festival 31st Oct & 1st Nov. Check site & social for details: / Facebook/BechdelTestFest / @BechdlTestFest

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