WIDC ORIGINS – Carol Whiteman
Excerpted from Whiteman’s Doctoral Thesis
In 1994, the ACTRA BC women’s (WABC) committee began conducting a series of inspirational panel discussions to highlight the career paths of successful women in the screen industry. At the final panel discussion session, the WABC committee asked our audience what they would like us to do next. A simple reductive sorting exercise was undertaken. Key topics were identified. The audience were given three stickers each and asked to place a sticker beside the topics they felt were most important. We then distilled all the votes into super headings that included: more roles for women, leadership training, develop more scripts with better roles for women, reach out globally – make noise.
After performing a simple open coding process, it was clear to us, as we had suspected, that our audience, primarily made up of female performers, wanted more opportunities to be full participants in the screen industry community. They wanted more work opportunities. They wanted to develop professionally. They wanted whatever we offered next to be high profile and practical. They wanted it to be about ‘leveling the playing field’ and they didn’t want it to be negative, not about bashing men.
When the reporting out was completed, and the meeting was wrapping up, then president of Vancouver Women In Film and Video (later renamed Women In Film and Television Vancouver (WIFTV)), Michelle Bjornson came up to me and introduced herself. She suggested that WIFTV would be very interested in collaborating with our WABC committee. Bjornson’s outreach presented a welcomed opportunity, and we kept the lines of communications open, however at that time our committee was focused on the lot of our members: women performers.
Inspired by the feedback and our encouraging experiences with the panel discussions, our committee decided to do another brainstorm around the idea of creating more and better roles for women. “Let’s go straight to the source,” someone suggested. By going to the source of the power behind movie making we deduced that we would be more apt to influence actual change. Who would be on the top of the food chain of power in the screen industry, we asked ourselves. We reasoned that the voice that generates the story certainly held power. From the actor’s perspective we naively thought that the most powerful voice in movie making was that of the screenwriter – the storyteller who creates the characters in the stories told on screen.
What if we brought in a cracker-jack woman screenwriter to do a master class for women? The idea of mentorship came from Daphne Goldrick who had become our group’s elder after Gamley’s departure. Goldrick had been at the vanguard of the women’s movement in Canadian theatre representing Canada and women performers at international conferences through the 1980’s. She proposed the idea in her usual infectiously enthusiastic way. It seemed brilliant! We could workshop scripts with ACTRA actors. To attract the most attention, we would need to aim big. We needed a platform on a world stage. It could be held at Banff Television Festival suggested Goldrick (D. Goldrick, personal communication, April 1995).
Having begun as an intimate gathering of screen industry professionals meeting in the Rocky Mountain retreat town of Banff, Alberta in 1979, by the 1990’s the Banff Television Festival (now known as the Banff World Media Festival (BANFF)) had become a focal point attracting screen industry decision-makers from around the globe (Banff World Media Festival, 2018).
In June 1994, I was sent to attend BANFF as our women’s committee envoy and representing the ACTRA BC council. I was to test the waters and the feasibility of our scheme. I was to poll content creators and decision-makers, in particular women: Is there a problem for women participating in the industry? If so, what is it? What do you think would help? Shortly thereafter, Daphne Goldrick and I drafted a proposal to create a female storyteller master class to be delivered at BANFF. The proposal was circulated to potential collaborators and sponsors, including Bjornson at WIFTV (C. Whiteman, personal field notes, 1995).
Sharing the call: gaining allies
In 1995, the WIFTV board of directors changed and Mary Ungerleider succeeded Michele Bjornson as WIFTV president. In her new role, Ungerleider attended a Women In Film-related symposium in Regina, Saskatchewan where she met Sara Diamond, then Executive Artistic Director of Media and Visual Arts at the Banff Centre for the Arts (Banff Centre). According to Ungerleider and Diamond, during a dynamic encounter at the symposium, that apocryphally included martinis or some form of cocktails, they and several other women were discussing the lack of opportunities for mid-career women directors to advance their skills, their stories and their careers, particularly amid rumblings about the closure of Studio D, the highly successful first of its kind women’s unit at the National Film Board of Canada (NFB). At that gathering, according to her report to me at the time which Diamond later confirmed, Ungerleider spoke about the WABC and our desire to gather together collaborators to support our proposal to mentor women storytellers (M. Ungerleider, personal communication, 1995; S. Diamond, personal communication, 1995).
Seizing the moment at the symposium, Diamond pitched an idea to a representative from a federal governmental funding body, the Human Resources Skills Development Council (HRSDC) who was also present at the symposium. The idea was to provide funding for an initiative that would target master-level training for mid-career women directors while working with professional ACTRA actors (S. Diamond, personal communication, 1995). The HRSDC granted the Banff Centre a few thousand dollars towards delivering such a workshop at the Banff Centre. The collaboration among the Banff Centre, ACTRA and WIFTV was soon hatched and the Women In the Director’s Chair workshop was born.